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Central Asian travel diary -- Part 1

 

May 9, 2005
iranian.com

First part of my travel diary to Xinjiang (Chinese Turkistan) and Central Asia >>> See photos

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3
Tuesday April 5

The flight from Shanghai to Urumqi takes about 6 hours. It's probably one of the longest domestic flights in China, from the Chinese Pacific Coast to the westernmost provincial capital. The China Southern crew are pleasant and constantly at the service of the passengers. The food, however, is not very good. They have chicken and pork, and by the time it gets to me, all the birds have flown away and I'm stuck with the flesh of the swine.

The plane is almost full and the passengers are by and large Hun Chinese. I saw a couple of Turkish-looking chaps at the gate also.

Urumqi is the capital of the Xinjiang Province. Xinjiang meaning "New Frontier" in Mandarin. The indigenous population of this region are the Uyghurs, who are a Moslem, Turkic people. This area was annexed by the Chinese in the late 1700's and its official name now is "Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region".

The Uyghurs are a fiercely independent people and resent Chinese domination. Their attempts to regain their independence have been harshly quelled by successive Chinese governments including the communists.

The Hun Chinese have been settling in Xinjiang by the hundreds of thousands in an effort to tip the demographic scale in their own favor. This has been successful in Urumqi where the Hun are now in the majority. But in other cities like Kashgar and Turfan, the Uyghurs still hold their demographic dominance.

We land in Urumqi at around 6:00 PM. Even though this city is three time zones away from Shanghai, the Shanghai time setting still works because China doesn't recognize time zones and the whole nation goes by Beijing time. The poor Moslems here do their noon prayers at 3:00 PM.

The domestic airport is pretty decent. Busses are used to transport passengers from the planes to the terminal and vice versa.

I take a taxi to my hotel. I try to use a couple of Turkish words to communicate with the driver but he doesn't understand. He is a Hui, another Chinese Moslem minority with features indistinguishable from the Hun. Some say the Hui are the descendants of Arab and Persian immigrants to China who eventually assimilated.

After passing through some rundown neighborhoods in the outskirts of the city, we get to Urumqi proper which looks like any other Chinese metropolis, with newly built high-rises and swarms of people and cars in the streets. The faces are mostly Chinese. The Uyghur men and women stand out in the crowd with their special caps and headdresses. But their numbers are scant.

It is the beginning of April but Urumqi is very cold. At night it gets below freezing and the forecast calls for snow tomorrow. So much for my sightseeing!

I stay at the Xinjiang Hotel on Xinhua Road. It's a 4-star hotel with great accommodations for 420 Yuans ($50) a night. The girl at the reception desk gives me a warm, rolled up towel, like the ones you sometimes get on planes.

After unpacking, I hit the street in search of food. Xinhua Road is a wide street with a lot of traffic but there are no restaurants to be found. As the sun sets around 9:00 PM, the temperature drops dramatically and now I am beginning to shiver.

The signs in the streets are both in Chinese and Uyghur. The Uyghurs use the Arabic alphabet but I have a hard time reading the signs. It looks more like Urdu writing than Farsi or Arabic. There are also letters that I don't recognize. One sign reads "dookhtoor khaneh si". It's a doctor's office!

I end up eating at the hotel buffet and head back to my room. The TV has three Uyghur channels. Their Turkish is very different from what we Iranians are used to hearing. Even though I don't understand a thing, I prefer that to watching the Chinese channels, or even CNN. Every program starts with "assalaamo aleikom" and the news program is called "akhbaaraat". Their music is very pleasing and reminds me of home.

The Uyghur were heavily influenced by the Persians during the hay-day of the Silk Road. The Persian merchants not only brought their goods though this area, but also their customs, culture, and language. Noruz is celebrated throughout Central Asia and Xinjiang. Most Uyghurs have Persian names without really knowing it. Days of the week are "yek-shanbeh, do-shanbeh," etc.

Wednesday April 6
A blanket of snow is covering the whole city. From my hotel window I look at the people in streets going about in the snow with a minimum of clothing. I guess the cold weather is unexpected this time of year.

I go to the lobby for breakfast and ask the bell captain to help me make contact with the Tajik Air representative, Mr Erken. I have his phone number but he doesn't speak Tajik or English. The bell captain gets his address and writes it in Mandarin for me. I catch a cab and head to Mr Erken.

His office is in a hotel room in the Russian part of town. (I didn't know there was a Russian part to this town.) Now I'm in a square where all the store signs are in Russian. Russian tourists, used to all this snow and ice, are nonchalantly strolling in the streets and I'm desperately looking for Mr Erken. I finally find him in the lobby of his hotel or I guess he finds me. Off to his office and with the help of his Chinese assistant who speaks a little English, they issue me a one-way ticket to Dushanbe for $225. The Tajik Air flight takes off tomorrow at 2:00 PM.

As I come out of the hotel, I pause at the covered entrance steps, contemplating my next move before walking straight into the snow and sleet. A large group of Uyghur money exchangers crowd near the hotel flashing their dollars, rubles, yuans, and euros. They take me to be Russian and speak Russian to me. I say to one of them in broken Turkish that I am Iranian and Moslem. The word gets around among the crowd. "musulmaan, musulmaan" I hear them say. One of them starts reciting Arabic verses "Ash hado an la ilaaha illallaah".. Another one who is a chauffeur, gives me his card. His name is Farhaat. I tell him that's a Persian name (Farhad). It's news to him.

I decide to brave the inclement weather and do some sightseeing. I take a cab to the famous Moslem Street (the bell captain had given me that address too). It's a newly built mosque next to a covered bazaar. Not much to write home about. Some handicrafts, musical instruments, and local clothing. People here are mostly Uyghurs with a few tourists among them. Because of the cold, not much is happening. I go to the 2nd floor food court but can't find anything I like. So I head out.

Attracted by the sight of the rudimentary barbecue grill outside and the familiar aroma of burning flesh, I end up in an Uyghur café nearby. I have a hell of a time ordering food. The young waiter speaks Chinese and Uyghur only. Thanks to the words "gosht" , "kebab", and "naan", I manage to place an order.

The young waiter notices me scribbling Farsi in my notebook and is dumbfounded. I tell him where I'm from and now he is beside himself with astonishment. I ask him to write his name in my notebook. His name is "Ept Khan". He asks me to write my name for him on a piece of paper too. He then carefully looks at the Farsi letters, folds the paper and puts it in his pocket. Even though we can't communicate worth of crap, he keeps standing next to my table exchanging smiles with me. I'm sure he's going to go home tonight and tell everybody about the strange creature he saw today. He even asks me for my cell phone number. I give it to him.

There's no more sightseeing to be done today as the snowfall intensifies. I get back to the hotel and go to my room.

The telephone rings around 3:00 and there's a Chinese girl on the other side. I can only understand the words "American" and "boyfriend". The rest is in Chinese. Now I know why they have condoms in the bathroom. The conversation gets nowhere and we hang up.

A couple of hours later my cell phone rings, and wouldn't you know it, it's Ept Khan, the young waiter. He speaks a mixture of Chinese and Uyghur and I don't understand a thing. I finally tell him "men panj-shanbeh Tajikistan getdim!" He seems to understand and the conversation ends.

In the evening I go down to the bar in the lobby. Almost immediately after I take a seat, two girls come and sit next to me. One is Chinese and the other Uyghur. The Uyghur one is called Arzu Gol. Both are young and pretty but neither speaks any English. Using face and hand gestures and my ten words of Turkish and five words of Chinese, we shoot the breeze for a while. They constantly giggle. Soon a Chinese guy joins us. He seems to be 'in charge' of the girls and wants to strike a deal with me. I make it clear that I'm not interested and after a while, the three of them leave.

Thursday April 7
I wake up late and after breakfast, start packing. The snow has let up but it's still overcast and cold. I check out of the hotel and head to the airport. The cab driver lets me off at the domestic terminal and I struggle to find the international one. It happens to be in an entirely different building quite a distance away. So I drag myself and my luggage there and am comforted by the sight of Tajik and Uzbek passengers waiting at the terminal. The Tajik Air flight seems to be the only one this afternoon.

The terminal is nothing like the domestic one. It's old and somewhat decrepit. I guess not too many tourists use Urumqi for international departure and arrival.

We line up for processing and soon an Iranian-looking gentleman joins our ranks. These Iranians are everywhere, man! I thought I was the only one here. He is a middle-aged industrialist on his way from Shanghai to Dushanbe to set up a factory there. He buys a bottle of Black Label at the duty free shop, probably for his Tajik hosts. We hook up and spend the waiting time together.

The Tajik and Uzbek passenger are buying a lot of bananas at the airport. There must be a shortage in Central Asia. My Iranian friend, Mr S, tells me that since Urumqi is a border city, Central Asians and Russians come here to shop for food items, electronics, etc. That explains the Russian Quarter in the middle of Urumqi.

The Tajik Air flight takes off at 3:30. We are aboard an old, Russian-made, Topolov plane. Mr S and I are in the same row with an empty seat between us. It's refreshing to hear the crew talking Tajik over the speaker. For 'ladies and gentlemen' they say 'khaanomhaa va jenaabaan'!

Heading west, we exit Chinese air space after 20 minutes. The snow-covered Pamir Mountains are to our right as we begin to cross the length of Tajikistan. >>> Part 2
Part 1 Part 2 Part 3
>>> See photos

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