From Hotan on the Southern silk road around the Takla Makan I took the bus across the desert to the Northern silk road to Kuqa. Kuqa is famous for the Buddhist elements on the silk road, of which I did not see anything. I realized that there would be more possibilities to visit Buddhist caves on my trip and to visit many other places there was no time due to unexpected turns of events.
On the sleeper bus from Hotan to Kuqa, I enjoyed the view from the upper bunk bed near the window onto the snowy desert. For the local people the snow meant extraodinary joy, since the Takla Makan desert ist the driest sand desert on this planet and every drop of water is extremely important for agriculture. For me it was bad that the sky was covered, since that meant only few different colors of the dunes.
It was very interesting to see how the Chinese built a strip of about 50 meters width to the left and the right of the street of small squares from grass. On the outer edge of this squares there was a fence built from larger grass. These measures are supposed to keep the sand from being blown onto the road. We could observe the effectiveness of these stripes with the snow which also effectively was kept from the road. Unfortunately night fell way too early such that I could not see the desert from beginning to end. At least I got to see where the snow ended and only sand was left and we thus had reached the core of the desert.
After a ride of about nine hours we reached Kuqa, where Tim and I started looking for a twin room. This search should be become a real adventure. It all started around 9pm and ended way past midnight. Our goal was to find a hotel room for a reasonable price. This seems to be quite difficult in China, since as soon as a foreigner asks for a hotel room, the prices are automatically higher than for the locals. I was very glad that Tim was with me, since he spoke some Uyghur and thus was able to negotiate with the locals. And he has perfected the art of negotiation. He managed to get a good price with the first hotel, but we wanted to check out a better hotel still. The Chinese receptionist first told us, that the hotel was full. Another Chinese joined her and let us know that there was still a room available in the older building. But this time the price was way beyond our expectations and what was reasonable for the room. The Chinese did not want to lower the price, which is why we left the place. This left the Chinese fellow quite upset.
We thus headed back to the first place and checked in. When we were unpacking our backpacks, the manager came into the room and told that we immediately had to leave his guesthouse, since the police had gotten the information that we were staying in his place and he did not have a license to host foreigners. He brought us to his neighbor, who had a license, but again asked an unreasonable price. We then sat for the third time that night into a taxi, which brought us from hotel to hotel to find a nice room for a reasonable price. The response was either the hotel would be full or that they were not allowed to host foreigners. A third option was as always and extraordinary high price.
After a longer discussion, we decided to head back to the hotel with the two Chinese. Only the receptionist was left and she again argued that the place were full. A young fellow arrived out of nowhere and offered us single rooms with only beds and no additional infrastructure. These rooms were definitively not meant for people staying overnight, but much rather for only spending an hour or two with non-free company. The price was even more exorbitant than before and thus we decided to just sit down in the lobby of the hotel and wait and see what would happen. Tim asked the receptionist to call the police.
Eventually a police car arrived with two nice officers, a woman and a man. They took us again on a tour around the city and inquired for us, whether the hotels had rooms available. It was a great feeling to drive around town around midnight with flashing lights and Rod Stewart’s “I am sailing” from the speakers to find a place to sleep. We ended up at the hotel we were sent to after the first police story, where we finally obtained a room for a little more than half the price than originally offered. Apparently calling the police is a well known strategy in China if none of the hotels is cooperative. Tim had gotten the tip from a Malay who had traveled China before.
On Thursday morning we planned to discover the old town of Kuqa. We headed off on foot from the bus station towards the city center. First we crossed a Chinese market before we arrived at a sort of shopping center. In the pharmacy, Tim bought some medecine against his cough and his asthma. Finally we reached the Uyghur part of town, where we started to discover the bazaar. Tim spotted a shop with traditional Chinese medecine and we walked into the shop to complete his set of medecine with traditional Chinese ingredients.
The shop had a somewhat unreal atmosphere, with all the dried lizzard skins hanging from the ceiling. The owner of the shop, I physician in the fifth generation of his family without any official education, checked up Tim and quickly found the right medecine. Some of them had to be taken immediately and apparently helped quite well. Tim further received some bark from a tree and honey, which had to be prepared with hot water. Since we were at the physician’s place he wanted to do something good to us and offered us some treatment for a better blood circulation. He put a pot with water on his stove and heated some hot packs. First Tim received the treatment for his legs. His lower leg was treated with a smelly liquid and he had to stand on some of the hot packs. I could sit on the couch and had to sit on one of the hot packs, while a second was placed no my lower stomach and to more in the small of my back. Once the hot packs had cooled down, we switched roles. While I was standing in my underwear in the fellows shop on top of the hot packs, his wife brought some Laghman for lunch, which I at standing up. This must have been quite a sight for the few the customers entering the shop.
After our treatment, Tim and I wanted to organize the train tickets to Turpan the next day, but there was a slight misunderstanding. The physician invited us for dinnert, where we actually wanted to go after we had bought the tickets. But he immediately took us to a restaurant along with two of his friends. One of his friends played the dutar which he borrowed from the restaurant. Since I only had had breakfast two hours before and a Laghman one hour earlier, I was not really hungry. But he kept filling up my plate until I stopped eating. He had the rest of the food packed in small plastic bags and we headed off, this time to a photography shop. There he had some group pictures for his memory taken.
Finally we left him with the promise to show up the next day at 10am at his shop. Tim and I started looking for the travel agency, which was supposed to sell train tickets. The only travel agency we found was not willing to sell us any train tickets. For us it was not obvious whether they could not sell us any tickets or whether they did not want to. We ended up taking a shared taxi to the train station. The guys in the taxi asked for double the price what a regular taxi would have cost. Fortunately Tim and I had agreed on what we would be paying and that was what they got.
At the train station we eventually found the ticket counter, which only sported customers but nobody who was serving them. Finally a lady arrived and we could after a few difficulties buy a ticket. One of the challenges was, that I had noted the name of the train station in Mandarin and not the name of the city we were going to. The lady only new the Mandarin name of Turpan, which is Tulufan. The only ticket we could get was a standing ticket on the night train. We were curious how this would end up, since normally it was possible to upgrade a ticket on the train to get a seat or a bed.
After we had managed this mission, I went once again to an Internet Café to update my blog, before I headed back to the hotel via the night market. Tim had decided to head back to the hotel early due to his cold.
In the hotel we were laughing about the events of the last couple of days in Kuqa and asked ourselved, what else we had to expect in the near future.
On Friday we slept in, since the discussion the previous night had ended quite late. Since Tim still did not feel well, we decided to go separate ways and meet in the evening in the hotel.
I was determined to hit the tourist sights on this day. First I headed west to see the Quici Palace. The monarch and owner of the palace was the last king of the Qing dynasty and still alive. The palace consists of a few buildings, one of them a little mosque. The palace was quite nice to visit, but did not offer much more than a few badly lit exhibition rooms. The most inriguing building was the mausoleum. There were only empty tombs in the mausoleum, since it was not built for past generations, but for the current king. Only his name was missing on the tomb.
From the palace I headed back on the main street toward the city center. The street was lined with building of a very distinct architecture, which I had not seen to date. The front sides of the buildings were decorated with wood or had a small covered patio. The street led to the main mosque where the Friday prayer had just finished a little earlier. As already in Kashgar I became a witness of how all the men leaving the mosque immediately flooded the streets and started shopping for whatever they needed on the stands in the streets. Even though the market was indicated to be very impressive by the guide book, I found it to be quite average.
Since the market only involved a part of the old town, I walked up and down the streets to see more of it. I accidentally walked the same street as an old man who had just bought a sheep on the market, which he now led home. As in Kashgar, the old town still very much has the character of an oasis town.
Before 8pm Tim and I met at the hotel to jointly head to the train station. We were already on our way to the platform, which we were stopped at the ticket check. The nice lady had sold us tickets for the day before and thus we had to exchange the tickets. I tried to do this at the ticket counter with the same lady who had sold us the tickets. She did not want to exchange the tickets, but she indicated that I could rip the tickets apart and buy new ones. This was definitely not my intention to pay for the train ride twice and thus I just kept standing at the front of the line until we found a solution. She finally radioed a colleague and then had me proceed to the platform. We had to buy some extra ticket for 1 RMB and then we were allowed on the train.
In car number 10 we even could choose a seat. First of all, we were happy to be on the train to Turpan, but the next troubles were not far. The conductor let us know, that the extra ticket for 1 RMB only allowed us to board the train without a ticket and that we would have to buy a new ticket on the train. This time Tim went with them to discuss the matter and he also did not change his point of view. Finally the told us we could stay on the train to Turpan and that the matters would be sorted out there.
So we sat on the train for 19 hours on a seat in a train which stopped at every platform it found between Kuqa and Turpan. At dawn we saw a lot of mist and impressive mountains, followed by a large plain. There was not much besides rocks. Due to the misty weather it was not even possible to take a nice picture of the environment. Just before 2pm we arrived at the train station of Turpan, which lies about 50 kilometers from the city center. The taxi driver wanted to convince us that there was no bus going to the city, but luckily Tim could get a more appropriate information from an Uyghur fellow. Finally we found the bus to the city center of Turpan where we immediately found a cheap and very nice hotel.