A week in Xinjiang

I finally feel somewhat back to normal again, after literally lying in bed the most of the previous 3 days, trying to get over some mysterious bout of mild fever, the runs, and extreme lethargy. Not just me, but Jeff and Joe were afflicted as well… and according to my mum, so were three other members of our 28-strong tour group.

We have just returned from a week in Xinjiang, China with my parents and their friends. For the three of us thankfully, the symptoms only hit when we’d safely arrived back to the familiar comforts of a soft bed and more importantly, clean sitting toilets.

We did though, have a thoroughly enjoyable time whilst in China. It was a refreshingly carefree experience compared to our recent travels – no internet to keep us mind-numbingly tethered to social media, no e-mails to fret over, and since we had chartered our own guide and bus (in Xinjiang), no itinerary to worry over.

Every morning, we just rose with the sun (not particularly early, since although Xinjiang follows Beijing time, it’s far enough west of the capital that the sun rises at 8am), ate breakfast, then boarded the bus to wherever we were headed off to. On bus rides, we were constantly fed snacks carefully carried all the way from Singapore by my mum and her friends. When we arrived at our scenic spot, we alighted and would spend the next few hours happily snapping hundreds of photos before re-boarding the bus to another meal.

A quick photo journey:

3 Hours in Beijing

Jeff, Joe and I flew into China from Chicago, and spent a night in Beijing before we met up with the rest of the group in Xinjiang. We had just about enough time in the morning to squeeze in a quick tour of Tiananmen and the Forbidden City.

From 2013 September Beijing and Xinjiang

Beijing in the depressing haze

From 2013 September Beijing and Xinjiang

We were in line for tickets to the Forbidden City by 745am, but already there were long lines of people. The doors opened at 830am, and we had our tickets in hand by 845am, at which time it started to rain. We had till 1030am before we had to start making our way to the airport.

From 2013 September Beijing and Xinjiang

We managed to avoid the crowds by touring the side courtyards of the Forbidden City

Food in Xinjiang
The three of us were looking forward to the cuisine. I was in particular drooling over the thought of heaping piles of spicy BBQ lamb. Alas, most of our group did not eat lamb nor beef, so our guide arranged for our catered meals to be vegetarian friendly. That meant heaping plates of vegetables, cooked in the same half dozen ways every single meal. To be fair, the dishes were very tasty. But not what I’d been lusting over.

We did have skewers of grilled lamb though, for some meals. Not heaping plates-worth, but tasty enough.

From 2013 September Beijing and Xinjiang

We also got our meat fix the couple nights we stayed in Burkin. There’s a bazaar every evening, and after dinner, we hit the stalls along the bazaar for more lamb skewers. The first evening, we three youngsters ventured out alone and found this gem of a restaurant where we feasted on lamb skewers, fresh hot naan, and a mean plate of fried noodles for just 60 yuan. We returned a second night, this time with my parents and two friends in tow. This time around, my dad ordered three grilled fish – and the total bill came out to a mind-boggling 2,000 yuan. Lesson learnt – fish in inland Xinjiang, not a good idea. At least, the fish was yummy…

From 2013 September Beijing and Xinjiang

Toilets in Xinjiang

Our weeklong journey in the China’s largest province (and which is 1/6 the size of the entire country) brought us on a 2,000km circuitous route of north Xinjiang. We traveled across vast desert landscapes where oftentimes, bathrooms were simply either sides of where we parked the bus – the guys on one side, and the women the other.

It’s all well and good for the guys – they can simply find whichever stubby little brush and let fly. But my dad kindly decided to build a portable toilet, complete with seat and all, and lugged the entire contraption to China!

From 2013 September Beijing and Xinjiang
From 2013 September Beijing and Xinjiang

Where we had one of our bathroom breaks

From 2013 September Beijing and Xinjiang

As much of a fan as I am of peeing in the open, I’m not so keen on the idea of doing it in tandem with a bunch of other people. Still, that is still way more appealing than the actual toilets we had to use. Think dank and wet squatting toilets (thankfully, most of them with doors) with open trash bins overflowing with waste paper.

Xinjiang Attractions

The Ghost City of Karamay was one of our first scenic stops. So named because of the eerie howls made by the winds as they stream their way across this desert landscape of gale-shaped cliffs.

We arrived in the late afternoon, with the intention to stay till sundown so we could capture the golden rays on the ethereal rock formations (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon had whole scenes filmed here). However, most of our group were fazed by the strong winds and after a while, escaped to the warmer confines of the bus, from which they watched the sunset.

From 2013 September Beijing and Xinjiang

Jeff, Joe and I didn’t even realize everyone else had disappeared until one of our two guides came searching for us. But then the setting sun burst through from the clouds, and cast such a dazzling golden glow on the cliffs that we promptly forgot about the rest of the group again and ran about snapping dozens of pictures.

From 2013 September Beijing and Xinjiang
From 2013 September Beijing and Xinjiang

We had another sunset-photo-taking opportunity the next day at Wucaitan (五彩滩), or Rainbow Beach. The wind-worn colorful bands of rock located on the banks of the Irtysh (Ertix) River in northern Xinjiang make for gorgeous sunset photos. To be honest, I’ve never seen such a concentration of high-end DSLR and fancy lenses in any one place before Xinjiang – and they were all owned by mainland Chinese tourists! The banks were lined with enthusiasts and their tripods, all jostling for position as the sun dipped below the horizon… and we were right there with them hehe.

From 2013 September Beijing and Xinjiang
From 2013 September Beijing and Xinjiang
From 2013 September Beijing and Xinjiang
From 2013 September Beijing and Xinjiang

Inserting this random picture of an eagle because I don’t know when I’ll get such a close-up picture of one again. We had the opportunity to pose with the eagle at a bazaar we stopped at for a bathroom break… not sure how much we had to pay for the bathrooms, but these were fantastically clean and modern!

From 2013 September Beijing and Xinjiang

We spent two days hiking around Lake Kanas, a breath-taking national park designated by the Chinese government as a AAAAA scenic area. It’s a massive area, and we wished we had luxury of spending days to better explore the area at our leisure. Some Khazak-nomads still live within the park, and we could see smoke rising from the mongol-styled huts in the middle of fields with grazing cattle.

From 2013 September Beijing and Xinjiang
From 2013 September Beijing and Xinjiang
From 2013 September Beijing and Xinjiang
From 2013 September Beijing and Xinjiang

We also visited Wucaichen (五彩城) aka Rainbow City, another site where Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon was filmed.

From 2013 September Beijing and Xinjiang
From 2013 September Beijing and Xinjiang
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