Silk Road Travelogue by Ali Karim: (1) Shanghai, Urumqi and Turpan
Intrepid travellers Ali (right) and Dilshad enjoy a snack of noodles and tea at a local café in Urumqi during their “trip of a lifetime” to portions of the ancient Silk Road. Photo: Ali Karim. Copyright.
Introduction to Our Recent Trip to Western China, Xinjiang and Hunza
BY ALI KARIM
My wife Dilshad and I had been dreaming about travelling along the Silk Road in China and Pakistan for years, and so when we had an Expo we needed to attend in Shanghai, and since the season was right, we decided to make this trip happen in May/June of this year. Since Western China, Xinjiang and Hunza are remote and non-touristy places, we had to spend several months researching and planning the trip; what to see and what to do.
The red line on the map denotes the 3 cities that Ali and Dilshad Karim visited during their first few days in the People’s Republic of China – Shanghai, China’s largest city, Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, and Turpan, a historical city on the ancient Silk Road. Our first instalment of the special series on the Silk Road prepared by Ali Karim covers these 3 cities.
The three-and-a-half-week trip was absolutely worth it and we highly recommend that everyone do this trip if they can. I hope you enjoy my trip blog and pictures which will be serialized over the coming few weeks on this blog. Please feel free to write to me by contacting the editor of this blog at Simerg@aol.com or by becoming my Facebook friend at https://www.facebook.com/ali.karim.10485.
Shanghai, Internet in China, Flight Delays and Celebrating Dilshad’s Birthday with Strangers
Dilshad’s birthday was celebrated with complete strangers and no English speakers. Photo: Ali Karim. Copyright.
We began our trip in Shanghai, the country’s biggest city and a global financial hub. During our few days in Shanghai we attended a Beauty and Skin Care Show. Then for our next and most important phase of our journey, we took a high-speed traffic-weaving taxi ride to Pudong airport.
Well, in the age of global interchanges via email and the social media I have to note, before proceeding further, that I was completely lost without Google as it is my default search engine. Google, Facebook, YouTube and other sites are blocked as the government sees fit. So I could not only not use the Google search engine, but I could also not use any related google products like Gmail. Imagine no emails! I did subscribe to a VPN (Virtual Private Network) service to tunnel through to servers outside China, but the service was slow, and not always reliable. I would think that China’s internet gateways figure out VPN services and block them also, hence the low reliability. I ended up using Yahoo as my default search engine in China. Emails (Gmail) suffered, though, due to unpredictable VPN access.
We had booked a China Southern Airlines flight from Pudong Airport in Shanghai to Urumqi (pronounced Urumuchee) in Xinjiang province. Check-in was a 40 minute lineup, which we later realized we could have avoided by trying their few self serve kiosks, especially helpful on internal flight within China.
After a delay of several hours, we were anxious to board this China Southern Airlines plane for the 5 hour flight to Urumqi. Despite the size of the country, China officially has only 1 time zone. However Xinjiang province has its own unofficial time zone which is 2 hours behind Beijing time. Photo: Ali Karim. Copyright.
We waited close to the departure gate and became worried when we noticed about half an hour before the flight, that the departure gate was still empty. We asked the staff there, who spoke very little English, when the flight would be boarded and were informed that the incoming plane had been diverted to Xian, a large city approximately 1,000 kms away, due to fog in Shanghai area. They had no idea when the incoming plane would arrive, and were told we were being accommodated in a hotel nearby. There was one other passenger who was with us, so all three of us were taken to another area outside airport, where the rest of the passengers had gathered earlier, waiting for the buses to the hotel. We boarded a bus, and after a long announcement in Chinese, which was translated into English for us, we were informed that we would get dinner at the hotel, a room, and we should be ready for the flight’s departure at 2 a.m.
After a 30 minute drive, the shuttle buses dropped us off at the Xiang Teng Yuan Hotel. Our passports and boarding passes were taken away in exchange for a room key, and we went for dinner which was a typical Chinese buffet.
Dilshad’s birthday dinner was with a group of other Chinese stranded passengers, none of whom spoke English. Happy Birthday Dilshad! The hotel room was not bad. It was like a 2.5 – 3 star hotel; we had booked in a 5 star Sheraton hotel in Urumqi that was waiting for us! We went to sleep at around 8:30 p.m. and were told we would be woken up for the shuttle. The bed was hard, but we slept well!
Long Flight, Competing Time Zones and Urumqi
A stunning view of the Tian Shan mountains just before our arrival at Urumqi early morning. Photo: Ali Karim. Copyright.
At midnight, we were woken with loud knocking on the door for our drive back to the Shanghai’s Pudong airport. After clearing security once again, we were bused to the plane from the terminal. The China Southern Airline flight took off at 2 a.m. and we were served a midnight snack/breakfast at 3 a.m.
The flight was about 5 hours long, and you quickly figure out that China is a huge country. We landed in Urumqi at 7 a.m. Despite its size China officially has only a single time zone for the whole country. However, Xinjiang province, where the indigenous people are the Uyghur Muslim majority, prefers to have its own local (unofficial) time zone which is 2 hours behind Beijing time. Interesting to live in a place that has 2 competing time zones!
(The Uyghur’s are a Turkic people that is a mix of people that traded up and down the Silk Road. They are a mix of Turkic, Persian, Mongols, and central “stans” all mixed up (Tajiks, Kazaks, Khyrgiz, Uzbeks); they used to be Buddhists after conversion by some Kashmiri royalty who had married Uyghur princesses; and then later converted to Islam).
Dilshad with the family that gave us a ride from the airport to our hotel in Urumqi. Photo: Ali Karim. Copyright.
At the airport, the shuttle service to the hotel was still not open at 7 a.m. We looked lost and a Chinese family who spoke some English asked if we needed help. We showed them where we needed to go, and they very kindly offered to give us a ride in their car to the hotel where we had booked for the previous night. How nice of them!
At the Sheraton hotel, we explained the reason for our delayed check-in, and requested them to accommodate us until later that evening when we would be taking the train to Turpan. They were very accommodating, and also gave us a complimentary breakfast.
Dilshad outside the beautiful Xinjiang Region Museum which showcases the history of all the peoples of the region including the Ismailis – see next image. This is a must visit museum if you are in Urumqi. Photos: Ali Karim. Copyright.
Explanatory poster about the Tajik nationality in Xinjiang, which mentions the Ismailis (referred as “Ismay” in the write-up). Photo: Ali Karim. Copyright.
After breakfast, we went to the the Xinjiang Region Museum. This is actually an excellent museum. It captures and showcases the history of all the people of Xinjiang, their cultures, clothing, customs, religion, population etc. (Uighurs, Mongols, Hui, Tajiks; Uzbeks, Kazaks, Tartars, Kirgiz, and of course, Chinese Han). A section about the Tajik ethnic group that lives in Xinjiang had a semi-clear reference to their Ismaili religious affiliation.
The museum, I must say, is very impressive and not to be missed if you are in this area.
We then took off to the old Uyghur town area (bazaar), which was very lively with lots of Uyghur families out and about; food stands, restaurants, and shops. We spent the afternoon at the bazaar, sampled all the local Uyghur food dishes, and plenty of fruit. There were all kinds of melons.
Local crepes with vegetables and hot sauce. Photo: Ali Karim. Copyright.
There were plenty of dried fruits and nuts in the entire region. Photo: Ali Karim. Copyright.
Freshly prepared Naan. Photo: Ali Karim. Copyright.
A little girl enjoying the ubiquitous watermelon. Different varieties of melons were everywhere in the region. Photo: Ali Karim. Copyright.
Fruit walla. Photo: Ali Karim. Copyright.
Another delightful baby. Photo: Ali Karim. Copyright.
An egg based dish. Photo: Ali Karim. Copyright.
Dilshad with the locals at a stand where handmade ice cream is prepared. Photo: Ali Karim. Copyright.
Family time. Photo: Ali Karim. Copyright.
Social get together, snacks and business, all at the same time. Photo: Ali Karim. Copyright.
Families out and about. Photo: Ali Karim. Copyright.
Uyghur families out for a Sunday stroll in the old town. Photo: Ali Karim. Copyright.
Style! Photo: Ali Karim. Copyright.
A young boy enjoys his noodles. Photo: Ali Karim. Copyright.
The Hui mosque was closed, unfortunately. It is only open at prayer time. Photo: Ali Karim. Copyright.
We wanted to visit the nice mosques in this area, but they were all closed as they are open only at prayer times. We later learned that there is a law that prevents the mosque from being used for anything other than prayers, and the imams in the mosques are appointed by the government.
High Speed Train to Turpan, Visit to a Lively Night Market, and a Beautiful Birthday Party for a 6-year-old Girl
This high speed train travelling at speeds of over 200 km/hr provided first class comfort for $10.00 per passenger for our trip from Urumqi to Turpan which took only 1 hour. Photo: Ali Karim. Copyright.
The train station in Urumqi was very busy with hundreds of travelers using trains. The train to Turpan was a high speed train, and was punctual. At $10 per passenger for a first class seat, the smooth train provided very comfortable seating, and reached speeds of over 200 kph. The landscape from Urumqi to Turpan was absolutely bleak brown desert, with not a single blade of grass except in oasis areas or where the land was irrigated. There must have been thousands of windmills installed on the fields on this route, providing plenty of ‘Smart’ green energy. Turpan was one of the major stops of Silk Road caravans in China and well worth a visit.
A bleak barren landscape along the entire train ride from Urumqi to Turpan, with not a single blade of grass visible. Photo: Ali Karim. Copyright.
We arrived in Turpan, in less than an hour, and took a local taxi with a young Uyghur named Kaiser. We reached our hotel after an initial mixup, which involved making a few phone calls to verify the hotel’s whereabouts. At the hotel we were met by Raziya, the owner. Once checked in, Kaiser then dropped us off at the busy bazaar with lots of stores selling clothes, bags, food, and fruits. He also highly recommended a restaurant for us to go to.
Melons galore at the Turpan Bazaar! Photo: Ali Karim. Copyright.
Stacks of clothing at the Turpan Bazaar. Photo: Ali Karim. Copyright.
Turpan’s evening market scene, with people of all ages, and local transportation. Photo: Ali Karim. Copyright.
Local transportation at Turpan’s buoyant evening market, with people of all ages. Photo: Ali Karim. Copyright.
After enjoying the night-time market, we took a taxi back to the hotel. On our way, we ran into the Uyghur restaurant that Kaiser had recommended earlier. The restaurant was very busy and packed, with lots of very elegantly dressed women and families. So we thought we’d try it out.
Elegantly dressed women at an Uighur restaurant in Turpan. Photo: Ali Karim. Copyright.
I asked for a table for 2, but the host quickly whisked us off to a large table with several men, and one of them spoke English. He welcomed us and explained that this was the banquet facility for the restaurant. A private event for a young girl’s 6th birthday party was underway, but the group insisted we stay and eat and party with them. This was a very kind and generous gesture on their part.
The men were all sitting with other men, and the women, who were beautifully dressed and dolled up, were sitting in the same room, but with other women and children. Apparently, in Uyghur culture, boys get circumcised when they reach 6-7 years of age and families will throw a big party. Girls also get a big party at age 6, so as not to be left out!
Children at a 6 year old girl’s birthday party. In Uyghur culture, boys get circumcised when they reach 6-7 years of age, and families throw a big party. So as not to be left out, girls also get a big party when they reach 6. Photo: Ali Karim. Copyright.
In this hall, there were at least 300 people, and they had live Uyghur music. First, the children all got entertained with dancing and games, loot bags and presents. Then the adult dancing started. I was surprised to see that men danced with men, and women danced with women, all on the same dance floor. It was a joyful event and some of the the dancing is captured in the following short video that is worth watching.
VIDEO: WATCH SCINTILLATING DANCING AT YOUNG GIRL’S BIRTHDAY PARTY
Several of the women (in pairs) were dressed in the same clothes; apparently, it is quite common for sisters or close friends to wear the same outfits to parties. Most women I know would die if there was someone else wearing the same dress at a party!
All this entertaining and dancing took place while appetizers – dates, dried fruits and may different nuts – were served. The dinner that followed included lamb, whole masala fish, chicken, pilau, fresh vegetables, pickles, noodles, vegetables and lots more!
Lots of food at the party. Photo: Ali Karim. Copyright.
The men at our table were all very nice and explained about their life, culture, and business. After dinner at 11 p.m., we left and the party was slowing down, as it was a school/work day the next day.
It was a splendid evening, and we looked forward to the following day for sightseeing around the old Silk Road, around Turpan.
COPYRIGHT: This post is copyright by Ali Karim. Reproduction of material and photographs presented here without his prior written consent is strictly prohibited.
NEXT NSTALLMENT: MORE TURPAN AND ONWARD TO KASHGAR.
Date posted: Friday, October 28, 2016.
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