HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO NORTHERN XINJIANG PART I [WARNING: Mom you might not like this one]

I could really get used to this schedule: 2 weeks of classes then 2 weeks of break. Unfortunately, don’t think there’s another break for a while. Luckily this one was awesome.

RICKY IS HERE!!! He finally got his visa! Unfortunately, the university couldn’t process it in time to get him a residence permit so he had to stay in Shihezi for the break. That means it was just me and Tony (poor kid) for a week and a half of travel and fun!

We had originally planned to go south to the Taklamakan Desert and Kashgar, but the University put a quick kibosh on that plan. They claimed it was for safety reasons, but we have some other ideas…Anyways, instead we decided to check out the northern part of Xinjiang. I am so glad we did.

The province of Xinjiang is huge, the largest in China, about the size of Iran. Looking at the map its so easy to forget how far apart everything is. It is also still very much in the developing phase, so getting from point A to point B takes a lot longer than the map might make it appear. The province is not only massive, but the environment is also incredibly diverse. Besides the major deserts there are mountains, fields, trees, lakes, rivers, forests, fertile farmlands, etc. It is actually quite amazing. And not only is the environment diverse, but so are the people. There are Han Chinese, Hui (Muslim Chinese), Uighurs, Kazakhs, Mongols, and others. In summary, this place is pretty interesting. Hopefully after reading this blog you’ll get a little taste of this…

If we had a motto for this trip it probably would’ve been, “we’ll figure it out as we go.” Seriously, we did very little planning. But that was ok. We read the 4 pages about Northern Xinjiang in the Lonely Planet China book and an online itinerary guide to Xinjiang, but besides that we just played everything by ear and took fellow travelers suggestions as we went.

Note to Court and Reese — it IS possible for me to travel without a guidebook. Gasp.

We decided we wanted to go up to the northern tip of China to Kanas Lake and that we wanted to go to the Yili region in the western part of Xinjiang, along the border with Kazakhstan. But besides that, we had no definite plans.

Stars by our 2 destinations. Shihezi is kind of in the middle of the two.

So, knowing our 2 major destinations, we set off! On Saturday, we caught an overnight train from Shihezi to Beitun (北屯). 11 hours. Turns out we had sitting tickets. At least we weren’t stuck standing, but these were some of the smallest, most uncomfortable seats ever. Plus they didn’t turn the lights out. Somehow, some people managed to sleep. In some pretty interesting positions may I add:

This dude’s sleeping on the floor! A TRAIN floor. So many diseases I can’t even.
Beauty Pose. Lucky bugger got 2 seats to himself.

We could NOT get over the guy sleeping on the floor under the seats. I mean, I can’t even imagine the last time that floor was cleaned. If ever.

Tony and I were like the exotic animals on the train. Everyone wanted to watch us or talk to us at any and all hours of the train ride.

When I finally managed to fall asleep for a few minutes maybe around 3am, I was awoken by a high school Chinese girl yanking my “yellow hair.” She had apparently never seen hair that color. She also told me my nose was SO big that it looked fake. “Is it real?” Thanks dear.

Around 4:30am, one of the workers started chatting with us about anything and everything — marriage, salaries, religion — you know all of the good stuff. Maybe we should have paid the extra $10 to get a bed. But you know, anything for the blog…

Pro Travel Tip #1: You can’t bring any kind of knives on trains in China, or at least in Xinjiang.

Tony and I learned this the hard way. We were planning to do some camping (if only we had looked at the weather forecast!) and brought our Swiss Army Knives with us — they’re super handy for traveling. Unfortunately we got in trouble when we went through security at the Shihezi train station and our knives got confiscated. SOMEHOW, we still don’t understand how, we got the knives back as we exited the train in Beitun. A security guard (in plainclothes?) found us and gave us a lecture with our knives. Ok, no more trains this trip.

We took a bus about 2 hours to Buerjin (布尔津) arriving around 10am. We were so exhausted from our popularity on the train that we decided to find a hotel, sleep and spend the day exploring the city before continuing on to Kanas.

Pro Travel Tip #2: Only certain hotels accept foreigners, and often at higher prices.

The first hotel turned us away because we were foreigners. This happened countless times during our travels. We still aren’t really sure why this happens but we think it might have something to do with security or appearances. Or maybe its a business move. No one can really give us a clear answer. It just makes finding a place to stay a little more challenging.

Oh well, we found a hotel that would take us and crashed for like 4 hours. We spent the afternoon exploring the city.

Buerjin city center.

Buerjin is a very interesting city. It is super diverse with a lot of Mongols and Kazakhs. And aesthetically it looks almost more Russian than Chinese. I mean it is definitely Chinese, but there is a strong Russian influence with the colors and styles of buildings.

We saw some pretty cool markets including a fish market and chicken market. All I’m going to say is I’m so glad I wrote my thesis about pandemics — pretty sure I saw where the next avian influenza is going to start. Yum.

The southern part of the city is beautiful. It lies on the Irtysh River — the only river in China that leads to the Arctic Ocean. This should tell you how far north we were.

~Pano~

We ended up meeting a nice couple who is currently studying business in Seattle. The wife is originally from Buerjin so they were back here for vacation.

Pro Travel Tip #3: Chinese people love 外国人 (foreigners)

They had a chicken. Live or dead? unclear

This became a common theme for the trip: Chinese people being extraordinarily nice to us 外国人 . This couple invited us over to their house for chuar (meet skewers — lamb of course) and kvass (Russian fermented honey drink — super sweet!). They just wanted to welcome us to Xinjiang. Super nice.

Sunset over the Irtysh
New Friend in the night market

We watched the sunset over the river and made a new Chinese friend from Xi’an. She was overly friendly and told us all about her travels. For a long time. She ended up giving me one of her stone bracelets (for who knows what reason) despite my protests that it was way too nice of her.

We finished the night by going to the night market where we met a large Chinese family who was, as usual, fascinated by us 外国人.

The next day we decided to head up north to Kanas Lake. There had apparently been a lot of snow so people kept telling us we might not be able to go. We had also been told there would be a bus from Buerjin to Kanas at 8am. Who knows what happened to the bus. The 8am departure time became 10am, then it became 4pm, then people said they didn’t know. Apparently there was no schedule? We were so confused. Luckily the old Chinese couple with the suitcase in front of us in line (yes! There was a LINE!!!) became our unofficial guardians. They adopted us and helped us maneuver the sea of taxi drivers badgering us to ride with them to Kanas. Seriously, we were surrounded on all sides by a relentless group of drivers shouting, pushing, and pulling people to try to get passengers.

Meet 大胖子 — rude, pushy, aggressive, temperamental and an all-around great dude.

The couple with the suitcase ended up cutting a deal with one Kazakh driver, who became known as 大胖子(big fatty), to drive 13 of us to Kanas. Note: this was not our nickname for the driver — someone else came up with it and it kind of stuck.

大胖子 had been one of the most aggressive drivers badgering us to drive with him, physically pulling us into his van. His driving style was no less aggressive. He was fast, careless and entitled. It was great. Well until he got his taxi license confiscated by the police when he tried to pass a traffic jam on a mountain ledge by passing in the oncoming traffic lane. But besides that, the drive was pretty pleasant.

It was about a 4 hour drive from Buerjin to Kanas through beautiful landscapes: from flat plains and farmland to mountains and snow-covered valleys. We had to stop multiple times for cows and sheep to cross the road with their herders. We also saw horses and even camels. Check out this picture:

Camels in the snow.

Unreal, right? But I promise it’s 100% real. Definitely one of my favorite pictures of the trip.

When we got to Kanas, we had to buy a ticket for the Park. Prox still coming in handy got us a 100 kuai student discount. Tony and I were pretty pleased with ourselves. After another ~30min bus ride into the mountains we finally arrived at the entrance to the park. Our handy old couple with the suitcase (their unofficial names) and fellow taxi passengers bargained for a room for us all in the Tuvan village:

The Tuvan village.

They promised there would be a bathroom:

Loose definition of a bathroom right there.
Boys room. I spy 3 sleepy Kazakhs.

The cabin had 2 rooms — one for the boys and one for us girls. Our group had 7 girls and 5 boys. Around midnight an older Kazakh lady came in to sleep in our room. Lady sleep-talked in Kazakh the whole night. Not quite sure what she was dreaming but there was a lot of screaming involved. It was unreal. Around 3am the boys got a surprise visit as well when 3 big Kazakh dudes decided to sleep in their room. They were apparently pretty rowdy.

Ok enough of my rambling. Here’s what you really want to see. This place is awesome:

Kanas Lake
Meet our crew with some homemade 大盘鸡 (big plate chicken).
Not TTT but still a pretty fun partner in crime.

Pro Travel Tip #4: Northern Xinjiang is bloody cold in the fall/winter/spring (and probably even summer).

I’m pretty sure my toothbrush froze when I brushed my teeth outside. At one point I was wearing 2 longsleeved shirts, a fleece and my North Face. All I can say is I’ve gotten soft since going to school in New Jersey…

I took a ton of pictures. I’m sure you’re surprised (quantity over quality, or something like that). I’ve only posted a couple here because I’ve heard less is more.

We just spent one night in Kanas. It was pretty expensive (especially for China standards), but totally with it. Even with the 17 hour travel time (11 hour train, 2 hour bus, 4 hour car ride), I’m super glad we made a point to come here. Random fact: this is definitely the closest I’ve ever been to Kazakhstan, Russia, and Mongolia. We were within 10 miles from Kazakhstan, 25 miles from Russia, and 30 miles from Russia. Maybe that gives you a better idea about where in the world I am…

The old couple with the suitcase. I think they liked us.

Anyways, after about 24 hours of exploring Kanas we headed back to Buerjin to figure out how to get down to our second destination, Yili. Our Kanas travel buddies might have been the best (or the worst) influences on us. They gave us travel suggestions as well as transportation advice. “You HAVE to hitchhike,” they told us. At least 4 of our new friends (incl. 60 year old Uncle) said this was the best way to travel. One kid had hitchhiked from Sichuan province all the way to Tibet. This was the way to go they assured us. When in China, why not? And so began the second phase of our trip…

Poplar forest.

Based on our new friends’ suggestions we headed to Wuerhe (乌尔禾) to see the poplar forest and the Ghost Town. This was on the way back down south (near Karamay if you look on the map posted above) so it made a logical stop.

Our friends raved about this forest. I mean it was really pretty and it reminded me of the Midwest in fall time (getting nostaligic for pumpkins and the Dexter Cider Mill), but it wasn’t the most incredible tourist destination. It was a nice addition to our trip scenery though — mountains, valleys, rivers, lakes and now forests. This province has it all.

As we were exploring the forest we made our first Mongol friends! We found three older ladies sitting near a field and decided to chat with them. They were picking corn. I’m not sure who’s Chinese was more 差. They could speak 4 languages — Mongol, Kazakh, Uighur, and a little Chinese. It was fun to try to communicate with them though. They gave us some mealy apples. To be polite I ate a few bites. As I was stressing over not washing off the weird pesticides, Tony was eating the whole apple — core and all. He’s turning Chinese right in front of my eyes. These old ladies were super nice and called their friend to drive us to the Ghost Town.

Welcome to Moguecheng!

Instead of paying the entrance fee to take some sort of tourist bus through the rocky/sand formations, we decided to hike around the Ghost Town ourselves. Formations were super cool. It’s called the Ghost Town (Moguecheng) because it apparently gets pretty windy (especially at night) and it sounds like there are ghosts. We didn’t see any ghosts, but we did find oil refineries! Yum.

Check out that view. Whoot@!

After about a 2 hour hike and a picnic of dried bananas, sugar covered peanuts, peanut butter and cookies we figured it was time to continue south:

Hitchhike #1 in the books. Check out that form.

And so began our love affair with hitchhiking.

Pro Travel Trip #3 REPEATED: Chinese people LOVE 外国人(foreigners)

Not going to lie, we might have gotten overly lucky on our first day of hitchhiking, but this travel tip still holds. Chinese people are overly friendly and helpful to us 外国人. I think we waited on the side of the highway maybe 5 minutes before somebody picked us up and drove us back to Wuerhe. He was a material transporter (whatever that means).

We got a quick lunch/dinner/5pm snack of noodles in Wuerhe and then decided to see how far south we could get that night. We started walking towards the highway to find people headed south towards Karamay/Beitun. As we were walking a police car with 2 policemen drove up alongside us.

Uh oh.

They asked where we were from and where we were going. Tony answered we were walking to the highway so we could find someone to drive us to Karamay since there were no more buses that night. I held my breath as Tony told them this. Is hitchhiking technically allowed in China? Are we about to get in big trouble?

“Hop on in, we’ll give you a ride to the highway,” they responded.

I couldn’t believe it. Hitchhike #2 was due to the boredom/goodheartedness of the Wuerhe police force. They were super friendly although when Tony asked if we could take a picture of them they said no. So I just took this picture as they were driving away. Not my best work, but you know you take what you can get. I’m still pretty pleased we got a free ride from the police.

Again, within 5 minutes we got picked up by a group of 3 friends heading south to Karamay. Still not entirely sure what their relationship was, but we really appreciated the ride. Based on our understanding the driver was a wild animal photographer. The woman in the front seat was also a photographer studying with this master (the driver). The joyful man in the backseat with us owned a store that sells precious rocks? (he also owns a silver teapot that’s worth more than our monthly salaries). Anyways they were returning from a photo shoot/rock collecting mission and thought it would be great fun to pick up 2 Westerners on their drive back to Karamay.

Hitchhikers in Downtown Karamay. Left to Right: Female photographer, Me!, Driver/photo master, Tony

I’d say hitchhike #3 was a success. They were super friendly. We talked for almost the whole 2 hours it took to drive to Karamay. We decided to spend the night in Karamay. All we knew was that it was an incredibly wealthy oil town. According to Wikipedia, Karamay has the highest GDP per capita in China. Why not check it out?

Our drivers not only drove us to Karamay, they also found us a cheap hotel (where I don’t think foreigners were technically allowed to stay , but they found a way — see Pro Tip #2) in the center of town. As if that wasn’t enough, they also took us out to a big dinner. They really went above and beyond. We had a huge meal with some of Xinjiang’s special foods like 汤饭(tang fan soup),串儿(meat skewers),and Tony’s favorite spicy chicken dish. After dinner we walked around the downtown area. Tony and I have agreed that Karamay looks like China’s idea for a perfect town. Almost all of the Karamay citizens we met boasted that the town was clean, 文明(civilized), beautiful, safe.

Movie screening on the fountains in the manmade river. Woah.

The Chinese love that phrase: 文明(civilized), but we’re still not really sure what it means. Both Karamay and Shihezi are supposed to be 文明 cities. We think it means the cities have a lot of money…

You should have seen the city lit up at night. We’ve realized the Chinese LOVE neon lights. If you know me, you know I love my neon, but this is a whole other level. Ever surface is covered with a fluorescent light. The city also built itself its own river down the middle. Super natural. I think this is supposed to make it more beautiful. Natural beauty at its finest. Just funny to think about because the city is located in a desert. There are tons of trees in the city, but probably not anywhere within 50–100 miles of the city.

Neon. Neon. Neon.

Downtown Karamay reminded us of Beijing’s Sanlitun — very modern with lots of Western stores in a shopping mall orientation.

This is clearly a very new town with a lot of money. This has its perks — nicest pubic restroom yet (ask Tony, he’s still raving about it. Pretty sure that’s how he’s going to remember Karamay). But at the same time it feels kind of artificial. I’m glad we stopped here though. Very interesting.

I think this is a good place to end this first installment. It was National Day-Eve and about halfway through our travels. Plus, this blog post is long enough. Stay tuned for Part II.

xx

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