Hohhot-Yinchuan, China (overnight sleeper bus) | 18 July, 2006 | $17.92 (bus fare)
Getting to Lanzhou from Hohhot proved to be difficult. I believe I was on an indirect train line and, even then, the trains were sold out and only ran every other day. I ended up booking an overnight sleeper bus from Hohhot to Yinchuan. I didn’t plan to go to Yinchuan and didn’t have guidebook pages with a map of the city with me. Luckily, my limited Chinese was able to get me across town in a taxi at 5am?just in time to catch the daily train to Lanzhou. The picture above shows the sleeper bus I slept on in-between Hohhot and Yinchuan.
This bus ride was typical, mostly middle-aged Chinese men with horrible mobile ringtones. I wrote about one of them in my me-go mix. I can usually squeeze my Western frame into small bus seats, but squeezing my hips in-between the bars of these narrow beds left me pinned in one place all night.
Hohhot, China | 16 July, 2006 | $4.94
I stayed in this hotel three nights, this is the view from the other side of the room. I can usually find something fun to watch on Chinese TV?either a warrior drama or CCTV news in English. It took me three weeks to travel across the Silk Road to Kyrgyzstan but much less time to learn the English news schedule on Chinese TV. Some of these hotel rooms are really depressing which is why I suggest investing in little things that make you happy. The bright green laptop sleeve was a bit more expensive than a black one but every time I pulled it out of my bag it made me smile and brightened my day.
Hohhot, China | 15 July, 2006 | $4.94
I arrived in Hohhot after 10pm and, when searching for the hotel I chose out of my guidebook, discovered that an entire block had been torn down. There weren’t a lot of obvious options so I followed a woman through some lively alleys and up 6 flights of stairs to find a typical Chinese hotel with strangers shouting at each other from behind closed doors.
Covered in sweat and exhausted after a 26-hour train ride I headed down to the street to find another hotel. I ended up at a typical Chinese hotel with views of a neon sign and a little tv of my own. The owners seemed a big apprehensive to give me the room because of the shared bathroom. It was quite horrible, just a giant community-style tile room with urine-soaked floors. Thankfully I was able to lock the door and use the hotel-supplied flip flops.
No food is included in this type of room but now that I was in China cheap dumplings were easy to come by on the street. Although rooms like this may seem boring, I find the way my bag explodes all over the room fascinating. It also tells me a lot about the place… Coke is much easier to find than Pepsi (whereas you can only find Pepsi in India) and it was obviously a laundry day judging by the clothes hanging around the window bars.
Backtracking again, I took the fast train (25 hours) from Kashgar to Urumqi and found it just as nice as the first time. Maybe it was because the national holiday just ended, but I have never seen a Chinese train so empty—none of the hard sleeper compartments had more than two people in them. My roommate was a middle-aged Chinese woman who spoke no English. Of course this didn’t stop her from feeding me grapes, oranges and pears and forcing me to take a nap during the day. She even covered me up with a blanket when she thought I was asleep. I must have kept her up during the night with my cough because in the morning she forced me to take some dubious-looking medicine and insisted I keep an entire package of throat drops.
My next door neighbor was a 21-year old girl who spoke basic English. Her language skills were better than most “English speaking” Chinese I meet although she apologized throughout the hours we spent talking. Everyone I meet asks me what I like about China and what I think about it. It’s hard to say, the third time around I’ve decided that it seems to be getting a little cleaner and a little more organized. This change of tune may be influenced by the bureaucracy of Central Asia and may be due to the Muslim influence on hygiene in Xinjiang. I did say that the main thing that I don’t like about China is that it’s dirty. The next morning she came back to tell me that, when discussing what I said with her grandfather, he told her it’s not just a social problem but an economic problem. Maybe, but there are a lot of rich people in China these days.
Even though Urumqi, China isn’t a huge tourist destination I really enjoyed my four nights here. Just like the eight days I spent waiting for my Kyrgyz visa two months ago, I spent my time getting massages, buying DVDs and eating some KFC. The longer I travel the more I appreciate these little Western luxuries.
My second time in Urumqi was better than the first, mostly due to the fact that David was in town this time. Most people make fun of me for my internet addiction but many good things come of it. I have met quite a few travelers through my site and David is one of them. He’s been living in Urumqi for a few years now and opened his apartment (and wireless internet!) up to me while I was in town. Although we first met through our mutual blogs (check his out here) we met in person in Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia during the Naadam festival back in July.
Because I was in a comfy apartment with internet access and good company I stayed two extra days in Urumqi. I have to admit, I think I’ve been fooling some of you out there who don’t know me well. While I’ve been writing about the madressas of Uzbekistan and driving around remote Tajikistan I’ve been preoccupied with something other than my surroundings—the new fall TV season. It’s true, I miss my shows. There’s a few that left off on a cliffhanger, Supernatural and The Office come to mind, and I just had to know what happened.
So while I had the opportunity I downloaded some TV, like the first new episode of The Office, off of iTunes. It wasn’t that easy—to download the episode I first had to download the newest version of iTunes and to play the episode I had to download the newest Quicktime. All of this takes a lot of time on a Chinese internet connection and m y old G3 computer. To add insult to injury, once I downloaded everything I discovered that my five-year old computer’s processor isn’t fast enough to play anything on the new Quicktime.
After all of that time I’ve only managed to listen to the new Office, but even that made me feel a little better. It’s okay, besides, I spent a bit of my time in Dushanbe, Tajikistan reading up on spoilers for all of my shows anyway. That goes to show that as far away form “the real world” I get I’ll always find a way to keep up on the little things that remind me of home.
Besides getting my TV fix I took care of other pressing matters, like getting a massage. My first night in town David and I went out for dinner and massage. I didn’t know that you could get an actual massage at a massage parlor until 2am. His friend met us and we opted for the foot wash, which turned out to be a foot soak in Chinese medicine and a leg and back massage lasting 90 minutes. Not bad. We went back for another massage a few days later, this time with one of his roommates and her two sisters. We all got the 90 minute massage, which was unlike any massage I’ve had before. Because “I’m not too thin” I was given the massage almost completely by foot. The young girl stood above me balancing on metal bars attached to the ceiling. It was great because a lot of pressure was applied without the squeezing that always leaves me a little sore. She even did a little twisting and pulling, much like thai massage. At the end she used hot sandbags on my back while scratching it and then cradled me on the front of her legs, rocking me back and forth on the hot bag.
Staying near the University and Uigur district I enjoyed a lot of restaurants and city life I would otherwise not seen. It was especially interesting to spend time with his two Uigur roommates who were more Western than many of the Chinese girls I meet. I even think I managed to get one hooked on Supernatural after she professed her love of Buffy. We also met up for a game of ultimate frisbee with some of David’s local friends and expats who are either in town teaching English or studying at the University. I didn’t think I would do very well with a frisbee, let alone in the rain on asphalt but I didn’t sabotage our team too much. Overall my time in Urumqi recharged me after being worn down by the bad roads, the bad internet and the bad governments of Central Asia.
After sitting around in Osh, Daniel (the Australian thrid of Team America—the name they made up for our three-person travel group in Tajikistan), flew into town and in a whirlwind I was on a bus to Kashgar. Because there was an actual bus we were pretty sure that the border was open. We never got a confirmation on the border re-opening date but we were on schedule to cross into China on the 9th.
Around 8pm, when the bus was supposed to leave, we began to get on board. Another passenger who was late tried to make me move to the back of the bus, where five beds were laid out, but I refused. I was not about to spend the night squished between four smelly Kyrgyz, Uzbek or Chinese men. You’d be surprised what shrugging your shoulders and shaking your head can do when traveling—it’s gotten me out of some uncomfortable situations.
Around 9:30, after negotiating the sell of the remaining beds and filling up with gas, we set off toward Sary Tash and the Chinese border. Neither of us slept much at all because the road is only technically paved and it’s pretty bumpy in most places.
Somewhere around 3am we stopped and I peed in a frozen ditch on top up a mountain pass surrounded by snow and illuminated by a nearly full moon.
At 4am the lights were suddenly flipped on and everyone arround me began to furiously devor loafs of bread and bottles of Fanta—fasting for Ramadan was about to begin. A little while later a bit of music was played to signify sun-up. I was glad Daniel suggested one Snickers was not enough, encouraging me to buy more. One Snickers is never enough in Central Asia.
Although every long-distance bus I take stops all the time, this one barely stopped at all. We didn’t stop to eat (because everyone else was fasting) and we didn’t have many toilet stops because the fasting even includes water. By 7:30am when we arrived at the first Kyrgyz border checkpoint I knew I should go to the bathroom but didn’t think a militray zone was the best place to go off along the road. We were stopped for an hour while the bus driver delieverd a huge stack of passports, each filled with a 500com bribe. Daniel and I refused to put a bribe in our passports. We waited.
The drive to the Kyrgyz border was only thirty more minutes and I was excited to get there so early. I nievely assumed that because we got to the border when it opened we would get through both borders before lunch. While we waited I ran off into the shanty town near the border to deliver photos of the local kids I had taken exactly two month earlier. People in Central Asia rarely have photos of themselves and family photos are cherised. But the town was nearly deserted and the trailer of the little girl who stars in my photos was padlocked. I found a woman nearby who seemed to agree to deliver the photos—the family had gone to Osh for the winter.
The border gate opened and we drove inside, only to be ushered into a shed to wait for passport control. A bus full of people can take a long time to cross a border and we waited for everyone to be checked. There is about 10km of “no-man’s land” before reaching the Chinese border where we were stopped at a Chinese checkpoint. Usually you just show your passport and are logged into a book but we were all required to get off the bus.
Looking back toward Kyrgyzstan, a Chinese tower with a bright red flag billowed in front of a panorama of white mountaintops. All of the passengers were lined up in single file and told to put their luggage in front of them. I joked to the man next to me that it looked like they were going to shoot us but he was busy taking all of the contents of his bag out and spreading them onto the pavement. Apparently we had been instructed to take everything out for inspection but I decided to play the foreigner card and leave my bag closed. Besides, I prefer not to advertise how many expensive things I carry with me.
The Chinese military guards moved down the line looking at everything. The man next to me had what looked like a jar of mayonaise. He has to take a tast of it for the guard. Another man to my right sat while the guard took everything apart, reading personal letters and even then notes from medicine packaging. When he came to me I opened the main compartment of my day bag and pointed to a few things and opened the lid of my camera bag. He pointed to my big backpack and I made a bid deal out of opening it up for him, like he was really requiring a lot of me. He looked at the bag at the top (my toiletries) and let me go. It was all for appearances.
We pulled up at the Chinese border around 11:30 local time (1:30 Beijing time) and filled out the required forms, proclaiming not to have SARS. Daniel got as far as passport control but as the officer began to lower the stamp to his passport he stopped and declared that the border was closed for the next two and a half hours. I tried to explain to the English-speaking offical that we were tired and hungry and that he should let us go. With that everyone in the building cleared out, leaving us sitting on our bags. Four Swiss bicyclists rode up and had to wait was well, jeapardizing their plans to make it 50k into China that day.
The time passed quickly. I wrote in my journal, tried to get the muslim women to eat grapes (aka contraband plant matter in China) and didn’t use the public toilet. When the time came to line up everyone pushed to the front and I was suddenly at the end of the line. I was a little worried that I would pass the temperature test because I had a bit of a cold lingering from Tajikistan. But when I looked into the 6 foot tall scanner my temperature was well under the required 38 degrees.
It took a while to x-ray and then load up everyone massive luggage and we waited in the sun to finally leave to Kashgar. It turned out that over half of the bus passengers decided to take taxis from the border to Kashgar, saving themselves an hour or so. It amazes me that these people decided to take the bus but then were able to afford guard bribes and Chinese taxis.
The rest of the ride to Kashgar was uneventful, aside from a Japanese man being repremanded for peeing on the side of the road in front of a Chinese border control post. Good thing I held out! The bus ride was expensive ($50) and quite a hassle. If I ever find myself crossing that border again I’m taking a taxi.
Could it be? There’s new maps up! Okay, the Mongolian flag sucks and there’s no data for NW China or Kyrgyz but it’s something. If it makes you feel any better, I took a ton of souvenir and sketchbook photos for the relevent sections but haven’t gotten around to writing the code and resizing the images yet. It’s coming eventually.
There are two passes through the mountains separating Western China and Kyrgyzstan. After a lot of research I decided to take the Southern route from Kashgar, China to Sary Tash (and eventually Osh), Kyrgyzstan. This route gave me the opportunity to see the Southern, less Russian, part of Kyrgyzstan. (more…)
Kashgar is an interesting place, but like most interesting places in China I have stayed far too long. I have been in town for five days (at least two days too long) and am ready to move on to Central Asia. The Monday bus to Osh, Kyrgyzstan was sold out and I have gotten no bites from my postings for a taxi share around town. I ended up paying far too much to join two German women tomorrow morning. Because they booked the taxi through a cafe here it is about three times the price it should be. But I paid it and am no longer complaining.
Tomorrow at 5am we leave to cross the border to the Kyrgyz Republic. The two women are only going as far as Sary Tash (about 3 hours from teh border) where they will meet a truck taking them to Tajikistan. So, after we arrive, I have to either find a place to stay for the night or a ride on to Osh. Hey, maybe I’ll be lucky and find a big group sharig a ride to Osh at the border… but I’m not counting on it.
Luckily, I met a German man to hang out with at the Sunday Bazaar and spent part of the last two days bumming around with a Canadian woman and her son. We took the bus out to an intersting Uiger graveyard and met the nice of a friend of hers for shopping today. I did’t buy any of the hats I wanted because I should be coming back through here in October if things go to plan.
As I sit here and type we are getting our first rain storm. Of course, I did laundry a few hours ago and all of my clothes are outside getting soaked right now. Lets all hope I have better luck in the next country!
I’ve added a Kashgar gallery so take a look when you can in the usual place.
Today is my third day in Kashgar and it’s gotten pretty hot. The old town is amazing with winding streets with mud houses and interesting residents. An old man invited me into his house for tea and I sat there for an hour with his wife and mother drinking tea and showing them my family photos. The insides of the houses are very interesting with a tiny courtyard. The wife even let me roam around the upstairs and showed me the front room where all of the family heirlooms are kept.
I also made friends with some local kids in front of the mosque and compared drawings with a little girl who was carrying a sketch board. I will never get used to Chinese tourists standing two inches behind me, breathing on my neck while I’m drawing.
Today was the Sunday market and I really hate to say I was underwhelmed. I went to the animal and main markets and it wasn’t very busy and there were very few nationalities. I’ve spent a few days trying to get a bus ticket to Osh (sold out) or a share taxi (no one’s interested) so it’s been pretty frustrating. Let’s hope I get to Kyrgyzstan soon!
EDIT July, 2009 If you’re looking for the embassy make sure to read the comments on this post for other reader’s tips. Here’s a first-hand account from June 29, 2009 from Wendy:
The prices I was quoted were 455RMB for processing in five business days (meaning if you hand it in on Monday then you pick it up the next Monday) or 735RMB for 3 business days. They don?t give receipts, which is a bit scary, but so far all has gone well.
You?ll need a photo, a photocopy of your passport (you can get one at the Central Asian hotel), and they?ll give you a blank piece of paper to write your story of why you want to come to Kyrgyzstan. The entrance to the consulate is just to the left of the main entrance of the hotel (there is a small metal sign).
I had a hard time figuring out where the consulate to The Kyrgyz Republic (Kyrgyzstan) was located in Urumqi since no maps or guides include it. Here’s some information to consider if you’re looking for it’s new location at The Central Asia Hotel (no longer next to the Kazak consulate).
Because I had such a hard time, based on information from message boards, I took a taxi from the railway station to the Hua Ling Binguan, which most drivers should know, for 13 yuan. It’s a fancy, large hotel Northwest of Hongshan Park. I went inside and asked at the front desk where the Kyrgyz Consulate was and the woman took me outside and pointed me in the right direction. It’s located in The Central Asian hotel, a 6- ish story mustard yellow building at the crossroads of the two large highways. Because it’s basically on the highway frontage roads it seems hard to get to but you can follow the main road South from the hotel, keeping on the hotel-side of the street, and follow the frontage road that wraps around until it reaches the hotel. The road is small and filled with welders and shops selling tubing and sheet metal.
Alternately, you could take the 109 bus. I can not advise on any of the other buses, because I didn’t ride them and the routes aren’t evident on maps. From the train station I took the #2 until it’s running North and the stops match up with the #109. I switched and the bus heads North and turns quite a bit before getting on the expressway. When it turns East to head onto the expressway you can see the consulate behind you. The bus turns back and exits the roundabout onto the frontage road right in front of The Central Asian Hotel. There is no bus stop here and I’m not sure if buses will stop if you ask. The bus turns into a small bus depot where it ends and you can get off. From here you need to go out, turn left and hike 5-10 minutes back to reach the consulate.
I was told that the consulate is open Monday through Friday from 11:30–1:30 (Beijing time) for applications with pickup at 1pm. A 3-day turnaround costs $112 and 5-day turnaround costs $56. Weekend days don’t count, however, when I applied on a Thursday he told me he would give me the visa on Friday if I paid the higher fee. Because I only paid $56 (in RMB) I had to wait the whole weekend and the full 5 business days.
Please note any changes or information you might have that would help in the comments.