Tuesday, August 25, 2009


It's been a while. Due to the long arm of the Chinese government i haven't been able to use the internet for a while as it was shut down in Xinjiang province in western China. But now i'm in Kyrgyzstan.

I left Beijing from the gargantuan Beijing West Train Station (airports are smaller) on a train bound for Langzhou. I had only a seat for the 21 hour journey and the train was full to bursting with hundreds of lunatic people pushing, shoving and shouting to get a bag space and a place to stand. I got sporadic sleep through the night and woke up to see a small girl opposite me shit herself and make the whole carriage stink of baby shit. I got chatting with a friendly man, who bought me two beers, and Ping Mei, who was a student at Langzhou University. As the train rolled through a dry yellow scabby mountain landscape Ping Mei told me that her university had a guesthouse where i could stay for 10 yuen a night (about 1 pound). Unfortunately it was like an underground prison with communal showers (in a completely different building two blocks away), hideous toilets and beds that creaked like old ships at sea. Still, one pound.

Langzhou is an industrial smoggy city with 3.2M people in the middle of a valley and has buildings that seem to want to compete with mountains that surround it on the banks of the Yellow River. I had a proper tourist day avoiding any "funny" sounding museums and instead sticking to cable cars and parks and temples and shops and food. The faces of the people were changing as i came west from Beijing too. There was a huge mosque in the centre of Langzhou which was a taste of things to come. I met an idiot in my dorm who was a Chinese student at the university. We went for some noodles and he asked me what i thought about Taiwan.
"Well...erm...i think it's complicated," i said trying to be diplomatic.
"Yes, me too," he said to my surprise. "If Taiwan want to be independent country...there must be war," he said happily, making it very uncomplicated quite quickly. We argued over hot tomato and egg noodle soup. I would say that it was wrong to erode people's cultures and languages. He would agree. I would point out that China was doing exactly that. But it didn't matter what i said, even if he agreed and contradicted himself he would always end with the same conclusion - he would shrug and say, "But it is China." Tibet. Maccau. Xinjiang. Taiwan. Hong Kong. But it is China. Fuck everybody else. If China wants, China gets.

Xinjiang has been in the news recently. You may have heard about the riots in the city of Urumqi on July 5th. Ten years ago 90% of the population in the huge western province of Xinjiang was Uigher, a predominantly Muslim population who were officially taken over as part of China earlier this century. Now the population is less than 50%. The Chinese government has encouraged people to resettle to Xinjiang giving them financial support to make the Han Chinese population grow and supplant the Muslim Uighers who speak there own language and have there own distinct culture. It has, obviously, caused huge problems. The Koran and the Call to Prayer are banned. Their language is not compulsory in schools. Uighers feel that their culture is being eroded and taken over by the Chinese. It is. So they eventually rioted and burnt buses and businesses and people and generally tore Urumqi up for a day or two. There were revenge riots by Chinese against Uighers. China doesn't do riots. China doesn't do demonstrations. Hell, China doesn't even do strongly worded letters. The internet was shut down throughout the whole province. International phone calls were banned. The army was called in. I knew little of the situation there and bought a sleeper ticket for Turpan, slap in the middle of Xinjiang.

The journey to the old silk road town of Turpan was an uneventful plough through the edge of the Tibetan foothills and through desert lunar landscape for 19 hours. When i got off the train i was shouted at for using a bin that was on the same platform as a slow oncoming goods train. I got passport checked as i left the station. I got my bags x-rayed when i wanted to buy a ticket and was told to take out the nail clippers from my bag. I chucked my bag in a corner and told the fat security woman to piss off. What did she think i was going to do? Start trimming complete stranger's nails without consent instead of buying a train ticket? I'd been in Xinjiang province for five minutes and i felt like lobbing a few Molotov cocktails about myself and i'm an English atheist.

Turpan is the hottest place in China and the third lowest depression in the world. It was also a dull Chinese city. Any historic or cultural aspect of the city from Silk Road trading days were gone and neatly replaced by a one-size-fits-all Chinese architectural uniform that could've been in any city in the east of the country. I hired a taxi for the day with Halik, a nice man who nabbed me at the station, and saw the sites that were left for the benefit of Chinese tour groups from the east bringing money and a superiority complex. There was a wonderful old village called Toyoq covered in dust and history. We went to Jiaohe ruins which, 1600 years ago, held 6500 people in the middle of a desert and when i went it contained a tour group of Chinese policemen who seemed quite content to use the millenia old rocks and decayed buildings as a climbing frame for picture posing. Halik invited me to have some food and drinks with him and his friends that night which is how i came to find myself eating spicy chicken and knocking back shots of Muslim fire water (which isn't something you can do everyday) and i seem to remember throwing up in a hedge before getting a taxi back to a smelly dorm in a cheap hotel.

In the cheap hotel i met a bunch of other travellers who i met up with again in the amazing city of Kashgar where we got shouted at by the police, had guns pointed at us by the army and pictures deleted from our cameras as we crossed the Kyrgyzstan border last night high up in some mountains. But i'll tell you about that in a few days as i've already written way too much.

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