My previous experiences departing from Peking’s new Terminal 3 were atrocious. There was no climate control, the shuttle trains ran every 45 minutes, and water or food was not available for sale anywhere after security. This time, we checked in reasonably smoothly, breezed through security and found ourselves drinking atrocious cappuccinos in a nice chilly café with a view of the apron. This was changed china. I was most impressed. The efficiency of the airport put all of continental Europe to shame.
There was no aircraft at our gate, we descended to Tarmac level and were bussed around to the international side of the terminal. Here we boarded our plane. An American built Boeing 757. Entering the plane was entering 1980’s china. Once we were past the two rows of business class seating, row upon row of tightly packed inscrutable han faces glared at us. The entire plane seemed to be filled with Chinese men wearing flat caps and suits or leather jackets.
“All airlines in China are owned by the government. Some take foreign investment, but they are all controlled by the military” a friendly Chinese guide explained to us. Air China, is the most prestigious of the
Government portfolio. It used to be the only airline in the People’s Republic. A sort of Chinese equivalent of Aeroflot. To this day, the planes are painted identically, with a long blue stripe down the side, only the red flag on the tail is missing. Some air china aircraft can be very comfortable, but this was not one of them. We walked down to the only free row and squeezed into the seats. The legroom was tight and the seat backs not too comfortable. The pilot never spoke to us, as we taxied out and then took off.
“The pilot probably speaks no English” said Chris.
“But surely the international language of air traffic control is English”
“In China?” he asked incredulously.
“But surely the pilot is flying to Kathmandu one day, Singapore the next, and then domestic the day after?”
“Not this one obviously” said Chris.
We climbed to altitude and I went to the loo. I suddenly realised how old the plane was; the toilets were of the chemical type, and the metal soap dispensers were so old, that they were disused. Three of the four TV screens on the roof were broken. These were not LCD
screens, bit old fashioned televisions. I had always thought of the 757 as being a new aircraft, one of the first to have cathode ray tube screens for dials, instead of conventional gauges. An incredibly high performance aircraft that could make money going to Paris from London or crossing the Atlantic. But this one was old, and worn. The air stewardesses by comparison were not, pretty young girls, doted on us, supplying me and Chris with an endless supply of green tea with a smile. The meal was halal for the entire plane. A very edible Chinese style chicken or beef curry. Foolishly, Chris and I chose chicken. But when Cisca could not finish her curry, we pounced on her tray and shared it. On one of the many visits of our friendly stewardess to row 27, the lady in the seat in front asked for something in what seemed to be a less than complimentary manner. The sweet air stewardess, dropped her face, snapped at her, while waving away the complaint or request with a sharp hand movement.
Chris and I looked at each other like naughty schoolboys and resolved to be on our best behaviour for the
rest of the flight.
While not onerous, the flight was tedious. Chris helped to pass it with inane comments, while I tried to write my diary. After four hours, we swept past the tian shan mountain range waggling our wings like a fighter bomber, and curled around a peak to line up on the runway. We descended onto a sea of pollution and lost contact with the ground. We broke through the smog at 1000feet, and made an industrially correct landing. Neither of the pilots had said a word to us in Chinese or English for the entire flight. The air stewardess had told us that it was minus 6’c. We taxied past snow covered fields and docked at an aero bridge. The Chinese streamed off the plane and down to collect their bags.
We caught a cab into the China International Travel Service Office in town. Chris had arranged everything through CITS. This was for him, a journey for work, we were merely passengers on the silk road. Quality control, I liked to think, of CITS products. We were early, and the office was almost empty. Two tall and elegant Uigur girls had been left to staff
the office during lunch. They smiled and told us that Mr Wong, the person concerned with our journey, would be around soon. He duly turned up, and reconfirmed the fact that we would depart at four pm.
Chris suggested lunch, and Mr Wong have us directions to some suggested restaurants. We turned left out of the building, and saw smoke rising from the street. We wandered down the road and found a small kebab house. This was literally a room with tables and a kebab grill out the front. I tried to remember my Turki, and we ordered bread and meat. The Uygurs looked happy enough chatting and stuffing their faces with a dead sheep. Chris pointed and nodded at the clock on the wall. It read 1.30pm. I had forgotten that Sinkiang was on a different time zone to Peking. Urumchi was two hours behind Peking, but for administrative purposes, the entire Peoples Republic was on one time zone. In Xingxiang, everyone, including the Han Chinese lived their lives, according to the sun. The only difference was that the Turki people actually changed their watches, perhaps in quiet poke in the eye at Peking. The clock reminded me
This disabled Turki man would play for the Tourists as they visited the Grottos.
His music is haunting and very similar to the Saz of Turkey.
Yet another illustration of the diversity of the people's republic of China.
that we were on the silk road now, and working our way along it.
Our Guide was called “David” Jiang and he piled us into a Chinese made minibus.
“I hate land cruisers” He said. “I have been bounced around the whole of Tibet in those horrid things” And with that we set off. Mr Wong was driving and we thundered along the silk road. I say thundered because we bounced and rumbled along dual lane Chinese Tarmac. After an hour David announced our first “project”. He always seemed to talk about projects. This turned out to be the world’s largest windfarm. The wind was blowing and we stepped out into sunlight that and wind chill of -35’c. We lasted a few seconds before fleeing into the minibus. David and Mr Wong were mildly perturbed, we had cut short their smoking time.
It was so cold that I put on my thermal underwear while in the van and driving. Not wanting to miss a trick, Chris Stanley snapped a photo of me changing. We arrived in Turfan in darkness, and checked into a renovated communist hotel that was in need of renovation. The grand hotel Turfan had stained
and burned carpets, but the sheets and rooms were clean. David insisted on taking us to a fancy hotpot restaurant, where we boiled our own meat and made soup. The gas rumbled away below our table constantly boiling the water in between us. We made cabbage and beef and lamb. The soup was nice, but the food was not overly inspiring. What was interesting were the numbers of Uygur families sitting and eating at their tables. They chattered away quite happily, not making as much noise as their Han Chinese cousins. We were far from China now, and yet well within it.
David and the driver stayed in the restaurant, killing a bottle of baijou between them. This traditional Chinese spirit had the genuine flavour of paint stripper. We stumbed out into the cold, and Chris decided to get a cab. He had a problem with his foot.
“I had damn foot massage and now its killing me” He grumbled. He flagged a cab down and climbed in. Chris spoke mediocre mandarin and the cabbie spoke excellent Turki. As a result he was taken all over town from hotel to hotel, waiting with grin as to whether this one
was his. Eventually, the cabbie, found someone who could read Chinese and who told him where to go. “The cabbie smiled like and idiot and took me home” Chris related. Chris did not have a soft spot for the Uigurs and called them all thick. This was until they started grilling kebabs for him, and they became his best friends.
Breakfast in the Grand Hotel Turfan was a Chinese affair. It was served just after dawn at 0900hrs. Sinkiang time was definitely in operation. David collected us, and took us to the ruined Buddhist city of Gao Chang. The road was the usual Chinese bouncer. Mr Wang drove carefully through the rock strewn Gobi desert and into a village. Her we dismounted and were ushered into a horse drawn cart. The Turki driver barked a command to the pony and we shot off like a greyhound at the traps. We were the only tourists in the entire white sand stone city. But there was too much to tell, and so David limited this project to a few words. The Turki driver worked out that I was Turkish and started a long conversation, of which I caught about half, but
David would interject in Mandarin and between us, we managed to understand how many children and horses he had. Once we were about to exit, the city, the driver instantly turned into a salesman and sold me a pamphlet on the site. Not forgetting my oriental roots I bargained, stalked off, and had him chase me just as two Japanese potential cart riders arrived. I parted with $1.80 and he probably still got a good deal.
“Our next project is great sand dunes of Gobi Desert” Said David as Mr wang drove us two hours further into the brown. We passed through small Turki villages, with markets, livestock in pens and single story mud and brick block houses. Foolishly none of us thought to ask to stop and get out. Even more foolishly I fell asleep in the back of the van. We did not know that this ride was the project. There was no stop until we arrived in a new oil town who’s name none of us can remember. We stopped at a kebab house, and Chris ordered 25 skewers between the three of us. We ate laghman noodles and lamb with a mixed bag of Han
and Turkis. As we ate, two Uighurs behind us, were knocking back Baijou in shot glasses. They seemed quite sober, and yet they were happily finishing the bottle. “If only Raki could have made it out here” I thought to myself “The Turks would have made a fortune”.
On the way to the oil town, and on the way back, we passed many "nodding donkey" Oil wells. these slow plodding pumps brought up the black gold of Sinkiang, Oil. Sinkiang has had its problems over the past few years. The Uygurs have definately been sidelined in their own province by the Han Chinese. Even discounting the more excessive claims of the Uygurs this is plain to the casual tourist. This discontent has twice blown up into violence. The authorities now claim that the Uygurs are trouble makers, and delinquents. There are of course two sides to every story, and we do not know which we hear. It would be so pleasant if there could be a rapprochement and understanding between the two sides. The world is far too fragile a place for there to be another place of racial conflict.
After finding out that the oil town was
our furthest point out of Turfan, we drove two hours back to town and the Emin Pasha mosque. This was a pure central asian affair with a minaret that looked like half and egg. I had only seen a minaret like this in the city of Khiva in Uzbekistan in 1994. The main body of the mosque had a boxy look to it, that was reminiscent of most medresse that can be found from Cappadocia in Turkey to Central China. I quickly said my prayers while the others walked around. I caught up with them and marvelled at the spectacle of a perfectly working mud and sand stone mosque in China.
Finally we were shown the fantastic well system that brings water from the Tian Shan mountains to the fields of Turfan. Created six hundred years ago, they were still in good order. The sun had set, and it was time to leave Sinkiang for the Hexi Corridor, but, as are many things in china, this was a little more complicated than it might seem.....
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