As our driver pulled into the parking lot at the Buddha caves an hour outside of Turpan,there were at least twelve huge tour buses in a single line collecting or dispersing the huge groups of mostly Chinese tourists. Each group had a different color baseball cap and held a Chinese flag. Obedience and safety are two very important concepts posted on billboards and instilled in the minds of the Chinese population. As we squeezed by these large groups of silent people, it appeared that the indoctrination was successful.
All of the recommended sights on our day tour were controlled by the government with barriers, X-ray machines, and an abundance of men in police uniforms. As we approached the typical village that we were allowed to visit,we passed through 2 police controls. Then we were lead to the only restaurant open in the town and served two small bowls, one a rice mixture, the second noodles with small bits of asparagus. This typical town was just the opposite. Almost deserted, it looked and felt like the movie set of a Navajo village. I decided to pass on the last two destinations and went back into town.
The day before I had spent a few hours searching for the old Uyghur neighborhoods but many had been torn down by the government. In their place,off the main roads, were one story small brick structures,exactly the same on both sides of the street with a sidewalk separating them. The houses were behind a wall,accessed by large wood or metal garage like doors, some with colorful designs painted on them. There were courtyards behind the doors so there was little life on the street. The main roads had crosswalks and lights but it seemed as if we were always dodging motorcycles,bicycles or small motorized wagons.
Turpan was created for tourism because the railway station close to town was fairly new and at night, neon lite up the town like Las Vegas withoutcasinos. The friends I am traveling with stumbled across a delicious restaurant as they wandered around the city so I finally enjoyed a meal. After our first two clear days in Beijing, the air quality has gone from not so good to very bad.
The hostel we stayed at was full of travelers,mainly Chinese and Europeans. I had started a conversation with a young Israeli girl who had recently finished her military service. We first talked about our trips, she had been on the road since last September and was heading to Kashgar and then to Kazakhstan. I thought I had subtlety proached the subject of Israeli politics, we both agreed we didn’t like Netanyahu. When I asked her if she had ever been to Gaza or the Palestinian towns in the West Bank, she seemed shocked and responded why would she go there. Since we were in China, the cultural revolution and Mao came up and this time I was surprised. She never heard of the cultural revolution or Mao so I asked what was taught in history in high school. She said a lot of time was focused on the Holacaust. Israel and the U.S., have done a great job of editing their own histories to create an illusion of democracy.
I asked the Chinese girl who spoke English and was helping manage the hostel,how she felt about all the security measures, her response was it was to protect everyone. Each time we walked in or out of the hostel, we walked through an X-ray machine,
After two disappointing days in Turpan,our only conversations with a few of the other travelers at the hostel, we planned our departure. I was also tiring of the shared bathroom senario.
The train for Kuqa, our next stop before our final destination Kashgar,left at 12:43 from the station in the forgotten town 54 km away. We chose the day train so we could see the countryside. Entering the station, we lost track of the number of security checks we had to pass before we boarded the train. Since this was an 8 hour trip, we picked the soft bed vs the hard bed or hard seat.There were two middle aged Uyghur women in my compartment,one slept, the other paced and ate. The landscape through the filthy train window was a mirage of grey mist and desert. As we approached Korla, a polluted factory town, one of the women got off. Another five more hours, we reached Kuqa,warning of unhealthy air quality on my weather app. After a train ride, there is always a long,long walk out of the station to the street where the taxis are waiting. Get your quads in shape carrying bags up and down stairs, across check points and finally the police allow you to exit.
Another new Chinese industrial town,Kuqa or Kuche, depending on who was speaking, was alight with neon after dark. Using the English version of ctrip.com, Louise had booked rooms, reluctantly, at the Park Hyatt boutique hotel. Marble, crystal like chandeliers and leather couches, this was definitely seventies Italian mafia style. But a deluxe room for $35, with a marble bathroom,fresh fruit each night in our rooms and comfortable beds,made it hard for me to complain. As we walked the crowded streets of Kuche, we passed large tracks of land that had been bulldozed into rubble. These were the Uyghur neighborhoods, and new high risers were already surrounding this destruction.
We were told a large Muslim neighborhood still existed on the west side of the dried up riverbed, so we taxied across town to explore. There was a huge police prescience with barriers and checkpoints but we were able to walk around. As we wandered into the maze of silent narrow cobblestone streets, I passed two little boys playing outside their walled house. At that moment, a woman opened the large doors, greeted me and invited me in..I motioned to Jan and Louise,following the grandmother into a large carpeted room with cushions on the floor,a typical Turkish home. As per the Middle Eastern hospitality, we sat down and all kinds of bread and cookies were laid out before us. Instead of tea, the custom in this part of China,is to serve hot water,quite good for digestion. Hard to believe but tea is very expensive here. A young girl appeared and led us down an alley to another family home. Behind the walls was a huge courtyard and several houses shared by an extended family. We declined food and drink but tried to communicate with the son using itranslate on the iPhone and Jan’s central Asian dictionary. One of the grandmothers gave me a silk scarf as a gift, ignoring my protests.
Always in search of good coffee, we were surprised the first time in Xian to stumble on an espresso bar in the old town. As I watched the young girl begin to make a cappuccino, it was obvious that she needed help. With her cell phone translate program, I explained that I would teach her the correct way use the machine. She was a great pupil and that was the beginning of my espresso instruction in China. A day after we arrived in Kuqa, we stumbled on a Chinese bakery serving espresso coffee. The cafe was upstairs but I waited while they began to make our coffee. They did not know how to use the espressomachine correctly so I tried to show them how to clean the machine,make an espresso and steam the milk. The girls working in the bakery were not receptive to my teaching but since the price of a cappuccino was 28 yuan, a hefty $4.50, I expected a decent coffee even if I had to be pushy and make it myself. The next day I went behind the counter again and made 2 Americanos for my friends,and a cappuccino for myself. A French tourist came in,assuming I worked there,and ordered a doppio (double espresso) from me and unknowingly complimented me, he thought I was German.
As we walked the streets of Kucha, there were so many police blockades, we couldn’t tell who was being protected from who. The Han Chinese from the Uyghurs or as the police explained, we are protecting everyone.