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January Travels – Part 1

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Monday 18th January 2016, ~5:30pm

I have been travelling for a whole week now, and man, is it tiring.

I find myself on yet another train in China (this time, a nice high-speed one) bound for Guilin.

I left Shanghai last Sunday morning on a flight to Beijing, where I met Nafeesah who made her way up from Nanjing. We spent the afternoon wandering around the area we called home about three years ago, when we studied abroad at Beijing Normal University. Though there were some differences, it was a strange feeling walking around knowing where I was going in a place so far away from home and familiarity. I happily discovered one of the local jianbing makers was still there, and satisfied my craving for one of those eggy, crunchy, tasty snacks, but the day was miserably grey, gloomy and dull, giving me the feeling that the university was a ghost town. The whole afternoon was, overall, rather unpleasant, and confused me slightly as to what I had missed this place for!

Delicious Beijing jianbing!

Delicious Beijing jianbing!

Luckily, I met an old friend for dinner, which was lovely, brightening my evening and pretty much redeeming the day that had thus far been pretty miserable.

The next day was the Great Wall. I felt unsatisfied by my first visit three years ago to the most popular section of the Wall, Badaling, and wanted to visit a different section, bringing us to Mutianyu, a ~2hour journey from Beijing. In total contrast to the previous day, we got a bright sun and beautiful blue skies – a rarity for Beijing with its usually high pollution levels. The temperature remained below 0°C though.
Despite being semi-scammed on our way there, I was amused by our taxi-driver, whose response to the pollution problem was “Oh that’s nothing to worry about, the government is sorting that out right away!” – showing his innocent faith in the government.
Surprisingly, it was less cold once we were actually up on the Wall, but nevertheless, still cold, and very steep. Due to the time of year, there was little greenery, and even fewer visitors. This emptiness atop the Wall gave us some excellent picture opportunities, and luckily it was a wonderfully clear day, so visibility was high 🙂

My Wall

My Wall

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On Tuesday we visited Jingshan Park and Beihai Park, both very central, where we enjoyed scenic romantic walks through the parks, past pagodas, frozen lakes and over bridges. I also witnessed possibly my first real proper sunset in China.

View of the Forbidden City obscured somewhat by the trees...

View of the Forbidden City obscured somewhat by the trees…

Middle of Beijing

Middle of Beijing

 

Having fun in the cold

Having fun in the cold

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Frozen lakes: ice skating and sleighs

Frozen lakes: ice skating and sleighs

My first beautiful sunset in China

Catching some sun in below freezing temperatures :p

On Wednesday morning we left Beijing (and left China), on a flight to Macau. (Macau is not part of Mainland China).

Departing for Macau

Departing for Macau

To be continued…

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A Nanjing Getaway – Part 2

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Sunday 22nd November, 22:45

It’s been on my mind that I still never finished the Nanjing trip, specifically the museum and memorial of the Nanjing Massacre. It definitely impacted me, and if you’re ever in/around Nanjing, it is highly worth a visit.

In 1948 when the Japanese army invaded Nanjing, they destroyed and left chaos in the city. The severity of the war crimes were shocking to me, and actually left me sick to my stomach. Statistics state that 340,000 people were killed in a 6-week period, though the figure used ubiquitously throughout the museum is 300,000. Obviously I’m in no position to say that the data is 100% accurate, however the figure is staggering regardless, and the evidence and primary accounts were far more than enough to make anyone objective believe that it is historically true.

The following pictures were taken after entering the compound, as you walk through to get to the actual museum. The text is in the captions, for easier reading, and just describe what is being depicted in each case.

My dear mother in the eighties; Hurry up! Run away from the devils bloodbath!

My dear mother in the eighties,
Hurry up! Run away from the devils bloodbath!

 

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Frigidity and horror have frozen this crying baby! Poor thing, not knowing mum has been killed. Blood, milk and tears, have frozen, never melting.

They set fire

They rob and rape; they set fire and bury people alive; they even kill my three-month-old grandson.

 

The inhumanity was shocking: innocent civilians, men, women, the elderly, and children were shot dead, executed, buried alive, hanged, decapitated… Girls and women were raped without a trace of humanity; many died from being over-raped! And many more were killed in a number of other ways. Those who somehow survived were left hollow and broken, psychologically and mentally, if not physically too.

As cruel and horrifying and awful and brutal as all the mass killings were, it was the section of the museum on the rapings that sickened me the most. I read the following figure, which I doubt I will ever forget: an average ordinary girl would be raped 20 times a night. A younger, prettier girl would be raped 40 times a night. In one night! I can’t think of any words appropriate in response. Savage and inhumane come to mind.

There were worse stories still which I cannot even bring myself to repeat here.

A historical summary, just inside the entrance to the museum

A historical summary, just inside the entrance to the museum

 

 

At the end of the museum, you come into a large room with a wall of bookshelves that climb up the height of two floors. It’s the archives of the names of the victims.

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Taken from ground floor

 

Taken

Taken from the second floor walkway

 

Names, names and names

Names, names and names – of somebody’s grandparents, somebody’s parents, siblings, children, grandchildren, friends, neighbours, teachers…

 

As far as museums go, the setup, the interior, and even the exterior were all perfectly apt: grey and solemn in appearance and seemingly contributing to the gloomy, grey atmosphere. The inside was dark and there was even a skeleton pit, as the memorial had been built on the site of a previous graveyard (I believe).

The gloomy day contributed to the mood

The gloomy day contributed to the mood

There were many points I wanted to stop reading, but I felt it was important to afford these historical atrocities that much of my attention, as refraining from educating myself about it would be similar to trying to ignore it. So no matter how disgusted and horrified I was, I forced myself to keep going.

The sadness and horror though when I fully realised that all of this is still ongoing in today’s world… it was too horrifying to contemplate, yet necessary to acknowledge at the same time. Pray for the world.

A Nanjing Getaway – Part 1

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Sunday 8th November, ~5pm

I’m on a Chinese train on the way back to Shanghai, hopefully arriving in about 40 minutes. It’s been 3 hours so far on the train, where we played a game of Cluedo – which I won (it was Miss. Scarlett in the lounge with the revolver), and thereafter attempted to nap. Before the Cluedo game, a saleswoman was promoting some cucumber-slicing tool, by going around the carriage with a cucumber and peeling/slicing instrument, explaining how to use it and what benefits cucumber has on your skin. (Answer: it whitens it — skin-whitening is a huge thing in China). I guess she got excited when she came to our booth and found not 1, not 2, not 3, not 4, but 5 foreigners; and so when I asked her what exactly it was she was selling, she responded by slicing me a thin ‘layer’ of cucumber, putting it on the back of my hand, and saying “it will make your skin white!”. (Yes! There is hope for me yet!)
She then proceeded to cut some for all of us, while I responded: “but I kinda like my current skin, I don’t wanna make it white…”, to which she chuckled, already halfway down the carriage, and won me turned heads and curious stares from about half of the carriage.

The de-browning process

The de-browning process

 

On Thursday, I arrived in Nanjing, capital of Jiangsu province, on a high-speed/bullet train from Shanghai, which took under 90minutes and reached speeds of about 300kmh.

Bullet trains - 300kmh

Bullet trains – 300kmh

I met up with Nafeesah, we didn’t do much sightseeing that day, until nighttime, when we went in search of a night market with a famous reputation online, only to find out after arriving at the location that it had closed down a few years ago. Oops.

Friday, however, was a beautiful, hot day; we visited the famous Purple Mountain Scenic Area (紫金山). The first stop was a shuttle to get to Sun Yat-Sen’s Mausoleum, where we climbed and climbed to reach a not-incredibly-interesting statue of Sun Yat-Sen, but a pretty view, albeit a rather foggy one. The pictures make it look foggier than the reality, though.

Starting point

Starting point

 

First glimpses

First glimpses

 

Halfway up

Halfway up

 

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From the top, looking down

 

There were ladybirds EVERYWHERE; on our backs, arms, faces, heads, shoulders, bags, everywhere. Black with red spots, red with black spots, orange with black spots, all the colours.

Count the ladybirds

After going back down, we bought tickets for the cable car, met a Chinese guy whose English name was ‘Relax’, and who was also visiting the site, so we headed to the cable car area together. After walking through the trees for about 20 minutes, he declared that it was another couple of kilometres, and wasn’t really walkable, so we got in a taxi, made it to the cable car boarding spot and man – it was a scenic ride.
The leaves on the tress were in full Autumn colours: reds, oranges and greens that I thought I wouldn’t be seeing this year!

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We reached the observatory spot, but didn’t realise we were just meant to lift up the metal bar ourselves and let ourselves off, so we continued up to the top of the line, disembarked to admire the view and be attacked by ladybirds left, right and centre, and all of the other 16 directions. We tried to walk up the hill that claimed to lead to the peak, but ended up at a green gate, for military personnel only…. Seems dodgy.

On the cable car down, we jumped off ourselves this time at the only other stop, to visit the Zijinshan Astronomical Observatory (Purple Mountain Observatory). There we saw samples of rocks that had been found around China, as well as other countries, that had come from space. Apparently. I must admit, I wasn’t entirely convinced by most of them, but I guess I wouldn’t know what a piece of the moon looks like up close. I just didn’t expect it to look like a marble tile like this:

On display as a piece of the moon...

A piece of the moon on display…

It was made more ‘believable’ by the prices of some other rock pendants that were on sale for only 50RMB per gram…

Convincing

Astronomical pendants

 

We saw some interesting astronomical instruments, enjoyed the truly beautiful view from the rooftop and decided to ditch the cable car, and walk back down.

This is an armillary sphere. It was used for determining the positions of celestial bodies in ancient China. Don't ask  me how.

This is an armillary sphere. It was used for determining the positions of celestial bodies in ancient China. Don’t ask  me how.

 

And this is a 'gnomon', or so the sign said.

And this is a ‘gnomon’, or so the sign said. The shadows produced supposedly indicate when it’s the solstice.

 

View from the top of the Observatory

View from the top of the Observatory

 

Incredible autumnal colours

Incredible autumnal colours

 

By the time we got down, it was getting dark and we found a bus going back to the city, went to meet a friend at the railway station who was joining for the weekend, grabbed some dinner and headed back to the hostel after an exhausting day.

 

On Saturday morning the weather surprised us; the 12⁰C cold was far from the 25⁰ we’d experienced the previous day, but we continued with our plan to visit Xuanwu Lake, which I absolutely loved. It was so quiet and peaceful inside the park, a welcome break from the bustle and noise of city life.

Xuanwu Lake/Park

Xuanwu Lake/Park

 

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A little bonsai collection

A little bonsai collection

 

Inside the park we saw a man practising Taiqi to his own little music player, and the whole scene just made me feel so peaceful. It was the kind of thing you might imagine China to be like from inaccurate movies etc, which depict everyday life in China as being tea-drinking, Taiqi-practising, country life in beautiful green surroundings.

People's wishes, dreams and prayers hanging on red strips

People’s wishes, dreams and prayers hanging on red strips

Someone representing!

Someone representing!

If it had not been cold and wet, we would probably have gone on those huge hanging swing rides 😀

The lake/park area and the Purple Mountain are places I wouldn’t mind coming back to. After lunch, we went to the Presidential Palace, which was nice enough, but not exactly riveting in my opinion, as I feel like it’s very similar to all other such places I’ve seen before. We had planned to visit the Confucius Temple after the Palace, followed by the famous night market around it, but by the time we were done at the Palace, daylight hours were almost up, so instead we headed straight to dinner and then the night market.

You can never evade the Chinglish

You can never evade the Chinglish

 

Inside the Presidential Palace

Inside the Presidential Palace

 

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Not so secret anymore...

Not so secret anymore…

 

Night market things

Night market things

 

5:45pm – I think we’re almost there so Part 2 will follow soon!

Scholarship perks

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Scholarship perks

Saturday 19th September 2015, 22:00

Today was so good. And to make it even better, it was all free. (What can I say, I’m brown, #reinforcingstereotypes)
I was not expecting so much.

We boarded an air-conditioned coach at around 11:30 to head to Pudong (Shanghai’s “downtown” – aka skyscraper central), for our first stop: the Science and Technology Museum. We first enjoyed a movie about the Amazon Rainforest in the huge domed IMAX theatre, the ones with reclined seats, so you feel like you’re actually in the rainforest. After that, we roamed the museum, visiting the Robot Exhibition, the Animal World, the Spider Section and more, before reuniting to board the coach headed to Lujiazui (the financial district).

Shanghai Science and Technology Museum

Shanghai Science and Technology Museum

 

The roof from the inside - luckily it was a nice day :)

The roof from the inside – luckily it was a nice day 🙂

 

Rubik’s Robot

 

Animal Kingdom

Animal Kingdom

 

This fish was just fun to look at

This fish was just fun to look at

 

Usually I'm average height in China though

Crushing my dreams of being average height in China…

 

The escalator kinda ruins it..

Camouflage game too good.

 

We were each given 30RMB for dinner (not really enough to cover a meal given the area, but welcome nonetheless), and got off the coach across the river from the Bund to find somewhere to eat, and enjoy the views.

We found a halaal Xinjiang restaurant that had a really interesting menu, looked authentic, and was decently priced, but would require waiting at least half an hour before we could be seated, so instead we had a vegetarian pizza with potatoes on it…

I have every intention of returning to the Xinjiang restaurant though.

 

The evening was by far the best part of the day. We ascended to the 97th floor of the second tallest building in Shanghai, the Global Financial Centre, also known to some of us as ‘the bottle opener’, as the picture clearly explains. We then climbed the 199 steps up to the 100th floor, because there were way too many people queuing for the lift.

Far left: bottle opener

Far left: bottle opener

 

From the bottom. The Global Financial Centre is the one on the left

From the bottom. The Global Financial Centre is the one on the left

 

They even numbered the steps for us

They even numbered the steps for us

 

The view from the top was pretty incredible, and we took many pictures, most of them terrible though, because the nighttime cityscape outside was too bright and the windows not conducive for flash usage. We were approximately 475metres up: Shanghai’s tallest building – the Shanghai tower, was right next door, the Oriental Pearl Tower was lit up beautifully, and it was a world away from the environment around where the university is.

I hope we have trips like this often 😀

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WORLD’S HIGHEST! Proof I was there 🙂

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Xinjiang: Urumqi, Day 2

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As I’m currently busy with upcoming exams, I have not been dedicating any time to my blog, and probably will not do so until my exams are over. I thought, therefore, that I might as well (finally) publish Day 2 of Xinjiang. (You can find Day 1 here). I actually wrote this the old fashioned way – by hand – while actually in Xinjiang, and since typing it up approximately last July, it has been sitting in my drafts. I just couldn’t bring myself to publish it after such a prolonged delay, but alas, the time has come. Ahem.

Even though I cringed slightly while rereading, I’ve left the post mostly as it was, for reasons of authenticity, so without further ado, here it is:

 

The Heavenly Lake –  天池 

I think pictures will do most of the talking for today, and even they don’t capture the beauty of this place. Getting to the Heavenly Lake required us to get on a bus from Urumqi’s main bus station to a place called Fukang, costing 15 kuai, and then a second bus costing 5 kuai to take us to the Heavenly Lake itself.

When you get to the site, there is one place selling food, and it was super expensive compared to the prices we were used to, but I suppose that was to be expected.

Lunch: 凉菜 - liang cai - "cold noodles", very spicy!!

Lunch: 凉菜 – liang cai – “cold noodles”, very spicy!!

 

The admission ticket costs 170 kuai, and involves the scenic bus ride to the top of the mountain, where the lake itself is.

The view on the coach drive upwards

The view on the coach drive upwards

The road we came up

The road we came up

One of our first views of the lake. Check out the fading mountains in the distance, merging with the clouds/skies and the snowy peak at the centre

One of our first views of the lake. Check out the fading mountains in the distance, merging with the clouds/skies and the snowy peak at the centre

We tried on some traditional Kazakh colourful dresses and took a few pictures with this absolutely stunning backdrop; there were also lots of people eager to take our photos… Beth said she wouldn’t be surprised if pictures of some foreign girls in Kazakh dresses appear on Weibo tonight. (Weibo is a Chinese social networking site)

 

Words can’t even describe the beauty we saw today, we were left speechless. So many times we opened our mouths to express wonder, only to find our breath catch, turning the corner to see yet another fairytale scene. Beth summed it up at one point: “I can only make sounds now”. There were literally no more words.

What colour is the lake??

What colour is the lake??

Part of one of the waterfalls

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A random fallen big tree. It was begging to be photographed.

A random fallen big tree. It was begging to be photographed.

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Dazzling sun through the trees 🙂

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Clear blue skies, lakes the colour of jade, green mountainous valleys, and a clear waterfall, by the side of which was a rainbow.

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“Flying dragon’s pool”

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This is totally a desktop background. Except I was actually standing in position to take this picture. Don’t be jealous.

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More evidence of the beautiful colour of the lake – deal with it. Because I like it. And it’s my blog.

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In case you weren’t sick of it already…

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Spot the rainbow…

 

The Chinese characters on the bridge read "Rainbow Bridge"

The Chinese characters on the bridge read “Rainbow Bridge”

Somebody clearly deep in thought... sshhh

Somebody clearly deep in thought…

Wooo!

Wooo!

We went to try and get ourselves a yurt to stay in for the night, an episode which ended up almost getting us in trouble….
The helpful Kazakh woman who drove us up the hill to where the yurts were, and with whom we had agreed a good price, showed us to a yurt which was much bigger than we had expected, and said that the two of us would have it to ourselves. It was huge! Inside it was furnished (if you can call it that for a yurt) with thick rugs, a low but large center table, some more Kazakh dresses hanging on the walls, a stereo (to play Kazakh music from?!), and a mini fridge. Or maybe we were mistaken about having seen a mini fridge, as we were only stood in the doorway of the yurt for all of 30 seconds before she asked to see our passports…. Oops. We hadn’t brought them with us. She wasn’t sure if she could accept our student cards as appropriate ID when we asked if they would do, so she took us down to the on-site police station to ask. That really wasn’t the best idea! The senior officer there told us that STATE LAW in China requires foreigners to always carry their passports on their person. It may sound obvious, but no one had mentioned this to us, let alone stressed its importance. He paused for a few seconds and then looked at us pointedly, saying: “You know, if I see foreigners without their passports, I’m supposed to arrest them…” I quickly understood that he was offering us a warning, much earlier than Beth did, who was still trying to confirm with him whether our not having our passports on us was the reason we weren’t allowed to stay the night in the yurt. I quickly managed an “oh oh ok, we’ll go home then!” before taking Beth’s arm and backing out of the office.

That was a close encounter.

On the way out, the Kazakh woman apologised to us, gave us her mobile number and told us to contact her for next time!

After finally making it back in to the city, and finding some dinner, we took a taxi back to the hotel. Beth comments: It’s nice to be able to afford a taxi.

It’s been a long but surreal day. I just asked Beth if she has anything to add about today, and she’s replied “How am I supposed to describe that? I had no words at the time, how would I have some now?” But after a minute’s pause, she says “We met some really nice people today: The bus driver, the Yurt lady, the policeman *laughs* and the Kazakh man who showed us how we should pose when we put the dresses on!”

I couldn’t agree more.

The start of the Summer holidays

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And so it begins…

The Summer holidays. With which comes the end of my year abroad.

Okay, not quite yet, but the end is in sight!!

My exams (which started on Wednesday) finished on Thursday, bringing me to the end of my academic year abroad. I’m basically finished! Our visas don’t run out until the end of June however, and as mentioned previously, I will be flying to Xinjiang on Tuesday and spend a bit of time travelling in the region. The plan is to spend a few days in the capital city, Urumqi, then take a 2.5hour train to Turpan, a city famous for its grapes, where we’ll stay a couple of days, and finally a 6hour train to Hami, famous for its melons. (‘Hami’ 哈密 is actually the same as the name for honeydew melons – hami gua 哈密瓜). Fruit seems to be a recurring theme, yes. Although we’ve booked hostels, we’ve yet to book our train tickets, because of the system in China, which means that you can only buy your train tickets 10 days before the date. And we didn’t have the time for that before exams.

Xinjiang: Locations of Urumqi, Turpan, and Hami

We’ve also been spending a fair bit of time trying to properly research and plan out our trip. In Urumqi’s vicinity are the Tianshan Mountains, and the Heavenly Lake, which does look rather heavenly in pictures we’ve seen online, but hopefully I’ll be putting up some of my own pictures soon! This is supposedly the ideal place where you can get a break from the stifling heat, with its clean and cool air, refreshing water and…. I can’t concentrate, this just sounds so HEAVENLY compared to the greyish yellowish whitish scene I could see out of my window for the whole day today. And for the last three days. It looks like a sheet has been hung over the outside of the window, for all the visibility out there.
Anyway, back to the Heavenly Lake at the Tianshan Mountains, you can also spend a night out there in a traditional Kazakh yurt. When am I ever going to be able to do that?! I really hope we can make this happen!

Plus! This time next week, I will be able to say (hopefully, fingers crossed, touch wood, etc etc) that I have been at the CENTRE OF ASIA. The very middle of the enormous continent that is Asia. It sounds much better in Chinese: 亚洲之心 (yazhou zhi xin) which translates to “The Heart of Asia”. Wow. I was impressed. And if you’re not impressed, it’s only because you must be jealous! In all fairness, there’s nothing actually there, except for a very..fanciful…marker, which probably tells you that you’re standing in the centre of Asia (now doesn’t that sound cool?!), and there’s probably nothing to do but take a picture, and then…well, leave. But either way, I’m excited for it!!

More in Urumqi includes the Food Night Market (Hell, yeah!!) and the Tianshan Grand Canyon.

According to Lonely Planet’s guide book, Turpan is the Death Valley of China. Now, I’ve been to the real Death Valley, and boy, that was hot! I guess it’s lucky that there’ll be no shortage of juicy grapes in Turpan to keep us cool and hydrated…? >_<
In Turpan, apart from the Grape Valleys, we can ride camels along the Flaming Mountains (this all sounds so surreal!), and see ancient cities of pre-Islamic civilisations.

Hami is going to be even more scenic, we can go to another part of the Tianshan Mountains again, if our visit there from Urumqi was so amazing that we want more, ride horses around what I expect to be another beautiful lake, we can go to the Grand White Rock (what a name…), as well as eat lots of melons and absorb a completely different kind of culture than the standard Han Chinese one that we’ve become accustomed to all year.

I didn’t mean to write so much about this trip that hasn’t happened yet… I expect I’ll be repeating a lot of this when it actually happens, but well, I got carried away….

From Hami, we’ll get a 27 hour sleeper train back to Beijing – I already know this is most likely going to be extremely unpleasant, but whatever – I’m all for ‘experiences’! I’ll be spending my final week in Beijing, packing up this one year of my life here, before returning to the UK, with my mother who will have come out pretty much as soon as I return to Beijing. It’s all gonna happen so fast!!

In the meantime, I wish I could say I’ve been truly making the absolute most of these few free days in Beijing, and regale you with exciting stories of final Beijing experiences, but in all honesty, there’s been a fair bit to do! Chilling has been on the list too, I won’t lie (some things can’t be helped), but researching for this trip has been and still is an arduous task. It’s not as ‘out there’ on the internet yet in terms of tourist destinations as a lot of well-known places are. We can’t find out everything before we go, so I’m certain a lot of it will be made up on the go, but that’s all gonna be part of the fun!

Not to mention, the weather here has been absolutely appalling lately. The smog/pollution is the worst I think I’ve seen it all year. A friend of mine has a theory that goes a bit like this… Because the government will want to ensure glorious weather for the national holiday next week (the Dragonboat Festival, which falls between the 10th and the 12th of June this year), they have to temporarily pause whatever weather/pollution controls and measures that are in place, for a few days prior, so that they will be more effective when they bring them out again for the national holiday. This, according to a friend, is why the pollution has been worse over the last few days. I guess we’ll see if there’s any truth to this when I look out of the window on Monday morning…

Tomorrow is our Leaving Ceremony at uni, and if the Opening Ceremony was anything to go by, it’s going to be an extremely boring couple of hours of speeches. Lots of SOASians aren’t going, but I figure I might as well. I’m only gonna have one Leaving Ceremony in China, so, why not? Boring as it might be, I won’t know if I don’t go 🙂 My class is also planning on going out for lunch after, and it’s the last time I’ll see most of them ever again!

Finally, I’d like to share something that I’ve found, which actually stemmed from a real conversation I was having with Beth about all the delicious food there’s gonna be in Xinjiang, including kebabs, nang (the Chinese word for what we call ‘naan’, because it’s not actually a Chinese food, but has come from Central Asia, and is found around China in the Muslim restaurants only), yogurt, and some good old pilau rice. I was saying that we should make a map of China using foods to represent areas, so Xinjiang could start out as a whole big nang, and we’d add in other foods at different cities in it, Beijing could be…well, the obvious choice would be roast duck, but I/we wanted it to be personal, something we’d experienced for ourselves and could relate to. Beth pointed out that this probably already existed (breaking my heart in the process), and sure enough…

Amazing grilled lamb kebabs, you say?! I’m so there.

This isn’t exactly what I had in mind though (but nice enough anyhow), so maybe I’ll still make my own one after all, but it’s a taster 🙂
Hmm, I’ll be tasting some o’ those kebabs pretty soon….
*mouth waters*

Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region

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Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region
شىنجاڭ ئۇيغۇر ئاپتونوم رايونى
新疆维吾尔自治区

In the Northwest of China is a province largely populated by ethnically Muslim minorities, who are culturally more Central Asian than they are Chinese. This region is Xinjiang, 新疆, which translates literally to “new frontier”, and borders no less than eight different countries: Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

Check out those borders!

Xinjiang is approximately one sixth of China’s total area

The first inhabitants of Xinjiang were Muslims of Central Asian origin, as well as descendants of traders from Arabia and Persia, because of the Silk Road passing through Xinjiang. These people are the Uyghurs, and have been a majority in Xinjiang for much of China’s history, though there are also Tajik, Kyrgyz and Kazakh groups, among others. Throughout the dynasties, the Han Chinese and the Muslims of Xinjiang, previously referred to as East Turkestan (because at one point they succeeded in forming an independent state, although it didn’t last very long) lived in relative peace. This was until the Qing Dynasty, the final dynasty and most brutal one for the Muslims.

Flag of the First East Turkestan Republic – a short-lived attempt at independence of the lands around Kashgar

Map of the Silk Road entering China through Xinjiang in the West

With the founding of the Republic of China in 1912, the Communists made promises to the people of Xinjiang, that they would help them form an autonomous Muslim state. However, promises such as “self-determination for the different racial and cultural groups” were largely just attempts at pacifying all the various minority groups in China, including Tibetans, Outer Mongolians, as well as the Muslims of Xinjiang.

Under the People’s Republic of China (PRC, 1949~), the government have been resettling many Han Chinese people in Xinjiang. It is worth mentioning here that Xinjiang has vast mineral deposits and more recently discovered oil reserves. The government claims their policies towards Xinjiang are grounded on bringing economic development, and not demographic change. However, with each influx of Han Chinese into Xinjiang, the native Uyghurs become more resentful, with increasing limits on resources such as water. Moreover, they believe the government is attempting to destroy their long-standing cultural history. I can see where they’re coming from; there are plans to destroy the oldest part of the ancient city of Kasghar, the reason given for this is protection against earthquakes. Somewhat transparent, if you ask me. How has the city survived so long upto now? Their building materials and methods have evolved to protect against earthquakes in a zone prone to them.

Anyway, although Xinjiang gained autonomy in 1955 (kinda similar to devolution in the UK), it’s been a region of tension in recent years. While the tension between the natives and the Han people rises, the government continue to make life harder for them through repressing religious expression by, for example, denying them the right to observe Ramadhan (month of fasting for Muslims).
Not surprising then, is it, that the resentment towards the government only increases? These issues have sparked riots across Xinjiang: in Urumqi, the capital city, as well as in Kashgar, a city in the south of the region, close to the border with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. In 1940, Xinjiang’s population was comprised of only 6% Han, with 80% of the population being Uyghur. In 2012, the Han made up 50% of Xinjiang’s population. Urumqi specifically is now only 13% Uyghur, with 75% of Urumqi’s current population Han. Unlike much of Xinjiang, the population of Urumqi is predominantly Han Chinese.

As mentioned in a previous post, my travels for June included going to Kashgar. With riots in Kashgar being as recent as April of this year, my travel partner was thoroughly put off going when a teacher apparently very animatedly told her that going to Kashgar was a very bad idea, because, and I quote said teacher, “although I’d say it’s 95% going to be completely fine, just in case there is some altercation, I think it could be big”. Well, yeah. I think that applies anywhere. But that’s besides the point. Although Kashgar would have been an amazing trip, an experience of a lifetime, literally going out into the middle of a desert, living in a still largely medieval city, totally cut off from today’s modern lifestyle, there is just as much to see in the northern part of the province, and the provincial capital: Urumqi. And, well, the bottom line: better safe than sorry, right?

For this reason, we changed our tickets and are now flying to Urumqi…. but not flying back! The plan is to get the train from there to Turpan, and then to Hami. And then from Hami, possibly to Zhangye to see those awesome colourful mountains, depending on time constraints, or straight back to Beijing. That train journey will be about 24hours. It’s going to be hell absolutely awesome. What an experience.

Map of Xinjiang showing the locations of Kashgar, Urumqi, Turpan and Hami

I’ve already mentioned what we’ll miss out on in Kashgar, but to be honest, there’s so many places I still want to see in China, and I would have been happy going anywhere. The trip to Urumqi+ is going to be just as good, if not better, and here are a few reasons why:

  1. As mentioned, while Kashgar’s population is still almost completely Uyghur, Urumqi’s population is now predominantly Han, meaning that we will be able to get around speaking Mandarin
  2. It’s still in Xinjiang! So we still do get to see a totally different side to China, what with the culture of the native Uyghurs and all (I hope the traditional culture does still show through…!), while still having some familiarity in terms of language and Chinese culture (isn’t this ironic… I’m referring to Chinese culture as familiar?? Even more so, considering my own background, given that Xinjiang is a MUSLIM area?! Hehehe..)
  3. While my previous plan was to fly from Beijing into Kashgar, and from Kashgar straight back to Beijing, meaning that I wouldn’t get to see much of the rest of Xinjiang (it’s huge, almost the same in size to Iran), this way means that our travel plans are much more flexible, allowing me to see more of Xinjiang, given the limited time I have.

Before I end this, there’s one interesting thing I read about while researching for this trip (researching aka avoiding writing my project. Writing this post is another avoidance tactic…)
Although the whole of China geographically spans four time zones, with Xinjiang itself spanning two zones, the official line is that Xinjiang is on the same time zone as the rest of China (GMT+8). There used to be five time zones within China, but in 1949 the Communist Party, in an attempt to make the country appear more unified, standardised the time across the country.

The five time zones of China, now all one. Sinkiang was the old romanized spelling for what is now Xinjiang

For reasons of practicality, a lot of residents follow an unofficial Xinjiang time (GMT+6), but some see this as a way of expressing their resistance against the central government, especially because the division tends to follow ethnic lines: Han vs. Uyghur. I don’t blame them, though! The agricultural working lifestyle that is prevalent in the far western provinces of Xinjiang for example (3.5hours behind Beijing), has to be done while the sun is out, regardless of what numerical time it is. And can you imagine how long the days are in Summer, with the sun still being out when it’s ‘midnight’? Or sunrise being at 10AM in Winter!

P.S. – I apologise for there being a lot of maps in this post, but I figured that if I were reading this before I came to China, I’d have no idea about all the places, or be able to visualise any of it. Having said that, I’m not assuming that everyone is as ignorant as I was/am, but I hope it helps someone anyway!

P.P.S – All the information in this post is from reliable sources. Reliable meaning not solely Wikipedia. Just kidding… Reliable meaning that I’m using them for this project of mine that I’ve been complaining about. My project is actually regarding the topic of Islam in China, so all I have to do now is replicate the number of words in this post (~1400) in my essay!

Bet you didn’t know that China had such a rich Islamic history, eh?
Or maybe you did, in which case, it was just me… (Again with the ignorance)
Personally, I think it’s fascinating, and I hope somebody out there learns at least one thing from this! 🙂