South Xinjiang Tour Singapore: The tour starts from Urumqi, pronounced as 'Wulumuchi', and then we proceed by road for the next 1700kms over the next 9 days.
We will be following the ancient caravan trail from the heavenly mountains (Wulumuchi) through the flaming mountains (Kurpan) and into the Gobi desert (Korla) and into the Talakiman desert (Kusan and Aksu) and finally reach Kashgar in the Himalayas also known as Kashi.
From Kashgar, we will be returning by train to Urumqi and then flying back to Singapore.
The flight to China was as at 2 am on the 22nd and all six of us met up at Mr. Shashi’s house for dinner, a sumptuous meal of fish, chicken and lamb curry prepared by Siti. Paul was appointed as the official photographer with a Canon SLR camera. The flight to Chengdu in China was uneventful and from there we caught a connecting flight to Urumqi the capital city of Xinjiang. We were met by Miss Aysha a 30 year old, attractive 'Uyghur' girl, whose appearance pepped up the guys who were pleased that she would be accompanying us throughout our journey as the local guide. The uyghur are a tribe from turkey who follow Islam and have been the local residents of Xinjiang Province. The Chinese took over the Province 250 years ago and since then the uyghur have been fighting for more autonomy. We had a 14 seater van exclusively for ourselves with an ex army driver, who was good but knew only mandarin and uyghur, so only Ah Chung and Francis could speak to him and the rest of us just smiled.
Urumqi is a large city teeming with people and cars and modern buildings. Being the capital of the Province or state, it had all the government buildings, malls and branded shops. After checking in at a mediocre hotel we went walking round the block to all the street side shops and picked up pistachio and almonds and walnuts and raisins by the kilo for the journey ahead. We ate at a road side restaurant and had no problem ordering as most of my fellow travelers were fluent in Chinese and made sure that beef and pork were not served. Unlike our common belief, in this part of China, dogs and rabbits are not eaten at all. As a matter of fact, Wulumuchi did not feel like the China we imagine. The people are Muslim and Chinese. Any way the people are friendly and cannot understand a word of English, sign language works.
The sun sets at 10:30 pm and we came back only at 10 and then had a fruit party! Since Desserts that we would like is not served in the restaurants we buy fresh fruits like melon, banana, and apricot, peach and water melon and cut it and all 6 of us indulge. All these fruits are grown in this region.
The Chinese restaurant we went to for dinner served us in individual rooms which were quiet convenient.The food was good and not like the Chinese food in Singapore or India.
The next day we went to the heavenly lake, on the mountains next to Urumqi, also called heavenly mountains and which are a part of the Himalayan range. The drive was by our van then a government bus and then a smaller van to reach a lovely lake and presto we could see snow capped mountains in the back ground! We went for a boat ride after forcing Jerry who said he was scared of water! It was a very nice place. From the lake we attended a cultural program, in Wulumuchi, by the uyghur consisting of Dances and songs including belly dancing where the lead dancer had a snake around her. In the morning we visited the museum which was informative. All the cities have Indian like names but due to passage of time Kashi became Kashgar; Kushan became Kuqa.
We checked out and went to the International market, the name is a misnomer as the items sold there are only from the Xinjiang Province but sold by Turks, Kazak and Uzbek people. There were knives, swords, furs, pelts, handicrafts and dried fruits while strolling around, I noticed suddenly that my back pocket was empty. I turned round, bond style, and caught a man holding my purse red handed. I held my hand out and the guy handed it back saying something in Chinese/ yurug. Phew, it was a close call. That was the most exiting thing about the international market. From Urumqi we drove east to the oasis city of Turpan, on the way we had lunch at a family grape garden restaurant and the food was good.We drove through the dessert for the first time and it was awesome. Sand, sand and red sand mountains. Now this place,
Turpan is HOT, it is in a valley with red sand mountains all around. The elevation surprisingly is 135 a below sea level, though the sea is two thousand miles away. There is a Murtuk river that flows down the Himalayas though Turpan and that is why the caravan route passed through this city. The drive was only 2.5 hours and 180 kms, from Urumqi but the climate was entirely different. The temp was 43C when we reached at 4:00 pm. The mountains around Turpan are called the 'flaming mountains' as it is unbelievably red in color and the climate is also hot giving an impression that there is a ring of fire around the city. We visited the Emin minaret which appears to be a Buddhist temple converted to a mosque, build 250 years back.It was more like the Gompas in Shillong (India). From here on every time we crossed a red colored mountain range, Jerry would ask Aysha if it was the flaming mountains and after a while, that is a few hundred kilometers and 20 questions later, she was frustrated and said that it is not the 'flaming mountains' but the 'heavenly mountains'. Jerry kept asking anyway. The hotel we checked into was the finest in China!
We then went to see the ancient ruins of Jiaohe city. About 3800 years ago on an island on the river Murtuk, there was a settlement of humans in caves dug out of the flaming mountains. The island is made of soft sand stone and is a mile long and half a mile wide. Quiet small and we could walk the length and breath in an hour and a half. As the river flowed around the island the land was cultivated and the civilization prospered for the next 3600 years with better clay buildings being built and with the advent of Buddhists, Gompas were built with clay and wood and then the Islamist came 200 years back and killed every body and the entire city was left in ruins. These ruins are a world heritage structure and being in an oasis with the flaming mountains around the site is a must see.We then had a foot massage at a local parlor which gave us all sprains from which it took two days to recover! A no no to Chinese foot massage please! (We had a good massage in Kashgar) We had dinner at a local yurug place and after our fruit party in room 503, we slept like logs.
The next day we drove into the dessert and past huge red mountains and canyons to reach the Buddha gretto at Bezilik. There is a river that flows into the dessert and this has created deep canyons 20 stories high. All around there are only sand mountains and in the ravine there is water and greenery of course only 10 feet on either side of the water way. The river itself is 5 feet wide and flows from the north to south and the caravan route goes from east to west, traversing the water ways. On the side of these cliffs, the Buddhist monks dug out caves and painted stories of the Buddha and installed statues too. The Muslims raided the caves and disfigured all the faces. In 1906, a German explorer removed the remaining paintings and took them to Germany. Now only the empty caves are there with a few disfigured paintings on the roof and walls done with vegetable colors and depicting stories from the Jataka tales.
From the caves, we drove to the under water irrigation system used in Turpan called the Karez. As the water from the melting snow evaporated in the dessert, the people, about 2000 years back, dug out an under ground drainage system to get the water from the mountains to the city. The tunnel is about 18 feet under the surface of the ground and three feet in diameter and runs for 50 to 60 and sometimes 100 kms. These karezs make an oasis in the dessert. We visited one of the 375 karezes in XInjiang that is near Turpan. We left Turpan and drove to another city in the dessert, called Korla. The drive was a good three and a half hours over 350 kms through hot and arid dessert lands. The scenery was spectacular with the heavenly mountains of sand stone and black stones in between. The peacock river runs through korla which is fairly large city that has tall buildings and a lot of industries. It is surprising to find such a city in the dessert, connected only with this one road. The people are mostly Mongols here. We checked the hotel which was as good as the one in Turpan.We went out for a walk for fruits and had our fruit party in Jerry's room using Paul's pen knife to slice the melon
The next day we checked out at 9am and went to see the Iron gate pass on the silk route. The caravans had to pass through a narrow gorge near the city. The place is maintained just as it was and we were thrilled to walk on the old pathway as was done centuries ago. There was a hillock too from where a couple of lovers jumped to death, for the usual reason. The climb was about 1300 steps and was very tedious the view was good as I could see the dessert all around and the city in the middle. We then dove to our next destination on the route, Kushan or Kuqa. This city was another 350 kms away and in the dessert by the Kusa river. We reached by 3:30pm, had lunch, checked in and got dropped at the local market. It was here that we saw nans being made in the ovens, the people were all yurugs and truks and poor farmers wearing local clothes. They make a lot of ice cream in motor churned machines. Did try it out with Paul. They also sell dried snake and frog. We bought fresh hot large Nan's and headed back after a visit to the local supermarket for fruits. Had dinner and the fruit party as usual.
In the Morning we checked out and headed out on our western journey to our next destination, Aksu a dessert city 400 kms away, enroute to our final destination Kashgar. On the way we deviated to see the red canyon called Kizil Grand Canyon. The landscape here is unbelievable; there are hillocks all in different hues of red and brown just like a painting. In the middle of this there is a pathway, of about two kms through the barren red mountain rocks, which is like a dried up rivulet. We felt like being in the movie Mackenna’s Gold. The color of red and the size of the rocks besides us were fascinating. We felt so small as compared to the giant vertical rock cliffs on either side. There was the Buddhist temple above the rocks which was damaged by an earthquake recently and was not accessible.From the red canyon we drove for an hour to another dessert oasis, this time a set of 340 caves dug out from the cliff caused by the river Mozart. On the sides of these cliffs, about 1000 years ago, Buddhist carved out caves under the leadership of the King Kumara Jiva who propagated Buddhism in Xinjian. The caves were plundered by the Muslims and robbed by the Germans. The location of the oasis and the sheer cliffs on which the caves were cut out is worth the visit. We were sent a separate government guide. A Chinese girl who knew English, to take us to the caves and she explained the few remaining paintings that were there on the ceiling telling of stories of rebirth and the earlier lives of Sakyamuni one of the disciples of Buddha. We reached the garrison city of Aksu at 8:00 went round the main square and retired for the night in a hotel that was nice and comfortable, though not like the one at Turpan. This city was modern and not agricultural cities like the earlier ones
The next morning we started on the final lap of 500 kms of our westward journey to Kashgar. This is the most important city at the western end of china. We are to drive past the Hindukush Mountains and into the Kharakhoram range right on the border with Kazakhstan, Pakistan and Turkmenistan. This was the focal point of the silk route and all the persons who had to go to central Asia had to pass thought this city. The drive from Aksu was long and tedious. For the entire stretch of 500 kms there was no city, town or even village. Lady Aysha took us for lunch in a way side shack where we all had to use the open dessert as toilets! The food was local uyghur food made by a fat uyghur lady who made noodles by hand in our presence. Aysha got a sudden urge to entertain us, 6 middle aged men, to sing songs! She started by singing a very melodious Uyghur song. And then the guys sang nursery rhymes and Christmas carols, that was as far as we got with our singing. I am sure Aysha regretted her proposal. And then we slept, enjoying the air condition in the van. The rest of the journey was uneventful and we, as usual had our walnut time and almond time between our naps in the van. We reached Kashgar at 4:30 pm and went directly to the Idkha mosque at the heart of the city. It was built in the 1700's and had wooden pillars and a little carving. Looked more like tribal work. The sun was hot and harsh and shops made ice creams are sold every where. The sun sets here at 10:30pm and we had the evening to ourselves to walk about town and watch the show put up by the local tourism board for the delegates of some international conference where the public were relegated to the back. The police thought we were invitees and seated is in the front row! Paul made the best of the opportunity to take snaps of the dances which were traditional and good.
The next Morning we went sight seeing locally, to the old city area and saw the houses made of mud and wood which were all more than 500 years old. They had fallen down in an earthquake in April and most of the dwellings were unoccupied The good ones were run as shops selling carpets and other stuff. We then walked to the local market area called the handicraft market which was oay. Had lunch at a decent restaurant where the fish was bad. The restaurant was next to the old British diplomatic house, which is now being converted into a hotel. The Russians also had a residence in Kashgar which is now demolished. Kashgar was ruled by the Indians then Tibetans, the Russians, various tribal and finally the Chinese. The invaders have erased all traces of the previous settlers and only Islamic relics remain. We did have a go at a local ice cream shop and enjoyed fruit flavored hand made ice cream648. The sun was hot and burning all the time. One has to wear a lot of sun block and keep in the shade. We had a long walk to the modern new side of Kashgar and saw the malls and shopping centers. The city is just at the foot hills of the Himalayas which the locals call Tian Shan Mountains, and is surrounded by gigantic snow coved peaks. We can see the snow but feel hot and get sun burnt.
The following morning we drove on the spectacular Karakoram highway that goes to turkey via Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. The road is well paved and within 30 minutes of leaving Kashgar we were climbing towards Karakul Lake, situated at an elevation of 3600 meters (about 11,000 feet). The van climbed the mountain roads effortlessly and at first reached a beautiful lake as still as a mirror with dessert sand all around and snow at the higher level. The combination is simply wonderful. We were wonder struck by the beautiful sight. The locals call the lake bundelskar meaning Dessert lake. There are a few Khargis people living around the lake in Shacks selling stones and chains they were all badly sun burned and had red freckled。 We continued till we reached the equally beautiful Karakul lake on the Karakoram mountains. The lake has a huge mountain peak in the back ground called the Muktar Azar, which was covered in snow. There are glaziers all around and we felt HOT. It was very funny to be in the midst of snow and ice and feel hot and sun burnt. After lunch at the only Chinese restaurant there and taking a photograph of the signboard at the entrance, Jerry and I went for a long walk beside the lake and Paul and Shashi went on a horse back ride。We came back with pleasant memories of the peaceful scenery. We visited the tomb of the fragrant concubine on our return.
The following day we visited the Sunday market which is the famous bazaar in Kashgar where I bought the Khargaz hat.We checked-out at noon and reached the railway station to take the Train to Urumqi. The journey was to last 27 hours and we packed bread, cake, chips and juices to last us through. We were all skeptical about the toilets and the thought of it smelling, made us doubt our decision to take the train instead of flying. At the station we were informed that the train was delayed by more than 6 hours. We took a vote and the majority opted to cancel the train ticket and fly so we came back to the hotel and got ourselves air tickets while Aysha spent 4 hours in the queue to get the refund! So we rested at last without any program and went for massages. We were told that there was an earthquake near Wulumuchi and the trains were therefore delayed. The traffic sense in Kashgar is zero. The roads are wide and there are signals and bi cycle lanes on all roads but the people are grossly ignorant of every rule. They drive like crazy into each other and the electric two wheelers, nick named cockroaches, zip on the pavements! Nobody keeps to any side of the road. It was exiting to watch the near misses and the 3 accidents during our brief stay while crossing the road we have to look in both directions on both sides of the road.
The next day we got to the Kashghar airport and are awaiting our boarding call for the flight back to Wulumuchi. We reached 4 hours before the flight as there was an attempted hijacking of a plane the earlier day of a plane that was going to Wulumuchi and hence enhanced security and frisking. We reached safely checked into a 5 star hotel, mirage, and went for dinner hosted by out tour agency, at a posh Chinese restaurant called “The ancient route of tea and horses”. The ambiance was great and the food good. The tour agency, CITIC international, was very efficient. All the reservations were done promptly and in accordance with our requests. The tour guide, Aysha was very efficient and took good care of us going beyond her call of duty to make us comfortable. The van was comfortable and the driver good. The tour program was well planned out and we were not pressed for time nor did we miss out on any attraction that was on our itinerary. We slept in peace with pleasant thoughts of getting back home the next day. We caught the flight from Wulumuchi to Beijing a 3.5 hour journey and then from Beijing to Singapore a 6 hour journey, with a frantic 2 hour transit in between. This was the end of a wonderful trip.