Urbanization in Urumqi

The last day of my Xinjiang trip was spent in Urumqi, the region’s capital. Once a major hub on the Silk Road, Urumqi has seen large amounts of economic and infrastructure development to become the largest city in Western China. Highway development is evident everywhere in the city — overpasses and viaducts run straight through the center of the city and bus routes often go on and off highways between stops.

I started the morning in the People’s Park, which like most sites in Urumqi, required me to pass through a metal detector and have my bag screened. The park was a hub of activity in the early morning, with people playing badminton, exercising, running, and kicking jianzi — a Chinese hacky sack. I have never seen so many people exercising in the same area all at once.

Then I went to the International Grand Bazaar, which is what you would expect. And yes, there was a carpet town.

Lunch consisted of beef noodles, where you had to put all the pieces together into the bowl.

The largest museum in Xinjiang is, logically, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Museum. It had a lot of great artifacts to help narrate the history of the region and its people — many of whom were portrayed in or around yurt-like dwellings.

The final site I visited in Urumqi was Hongshan Park. While the park itself was free, you had to pay for any attractions inside the park and the pavilion from which you could see a panoramic view of the city. And yes, I took the ferris wheel.

As I finish this post, the sun is beginning to set in Urumqi, marking the end of my short Xinjiang trip. As China begins to construct a global trade network with the Belt and Road Initiative, Xinjiang will most definitely be affected and Urumqi has already seen immense urbanization and population growth. It’s hard to say what will happen to the Uyghur culture and overall Silk Road feel of this place. There’s still so much for me to explore in Xinjiang, but I guess that will have to wait until another time.

Special thanks to Josh Summers at FarWestChina for his amazing Xinjiang travel guide. I’m flying to Beijing tomorrow for a final day before leaving China for the summer. It’s been an amazing journey and I hope you have enjoyed following along for these past few days. Until next time!

Turpan: Heat and History

Today’s Silk Road travels bring us to Turpan, a small city and former oasis on the Silk Road. With the construction of the new high-speed railway in 2015, this city is now only an hour by train from Urumqi.

The train was scheduled to leave Urumqi at 9:07 a.m., so I figured that waking up at 7 would leave me with plenty of time. At 7:17, I woke up with a dead phone, realizing that the car I had booked for 7 had already left and I may miss my train. I ran out the door and sped to the train station. After passing a minimum of three metal detectors, I had entered Urumqi’s modern station with time to spare.

The train passed through the sand dunes and flatlands of Xinjiang before reaching Turpan. After arriving in Turpan, I was met with more security checks, as a policeman with a rifle around his neck takes a picture of me and my passport with his phone. (This picture, as I later found out, was uploaded to a central system, tracking my movements around the region.) The first stop on my quick tour of Turpan were the ancient ruins of Jiaohe City. Spanning over 20,000 square meters, this city has over 2,500 years of history. While I usually am not one to take tourists shuttle buses, a walk of over 6 kilometers made the bus well worth it. Turpan is also located in the heart of the Turpan Depression, which is the second-lowest depression in the world and the hottest spot in China. Temperatures in the summer will often go well above 104ºF.

A group of Chinese tourists came along for the ride. They insisted I take a picture with the women in the group.

After climbing onto the rocks via a flight of stairs, you could see the Jiaohe ruins on one side and sand dunes on the other. There was a large canyon in between.

The next stop on the tour was the ancient city itself. The tour group on the bus with me hired a guide, so I joined their group for the tour. The ruins themselves were quite impressive.

I then hailed a Didi (China’s version of Uber) to take me back to the center of town for lunch. He recommended a traditional Uyghur restaurant, where I had a plate of tomato noodles.

After lunch, I happened to hail the same driver again. Turpan’s Didi network must be very small! He took me to the Emin Minaret, a mosque, minaret and Uyghur cemetery.

I then went to the Turpan Museum, which had a large collection of artifacts and historical information.

The final stop before the train station was dinner at Herembag restaurant, a traditional Uyghur restaurant. One of their specialties was 抓饭, literally “pulled rice,” which was basically a rice pilaf with beef. Their lamb buns, or samsas, were very good too. The restaurant had great views of the park nearby.

Then it was back to the train station for a 7:30 train. Security in Xinjiang is very strict, with police stations at almost every street corner and residents are required to scan their IDs and pass through a metal detector when entering tourist sites, shops, restaurants and hotels. Even something as simple as buying gas requires the car to be screened before entering the gas station and the driver to scan his or her ID before pumping gas. Policemen with helmets and 安全员 (security officers) are present at most shops. Barbed wire is also a common sight around parks and other sites.

Turpan is famous for its grapes, and while I did not have time to visit the Grape Valley, I bought a bunch of sweet grapes near the train station.

I’m now back in Urumqi for one more day in the region’s capital. Until next time!

On the Silk Road: Kashgar

Greetings, Off the Silk Road readers!

I write to you with some very exciting news. For the first time, Off the Silk Road is actually on the Silk Road!

For the next five days, I will be embarking on an expedition to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Xinjiang (新疆), meaning “new frontier” in Chinese, is China’s largest administrative region and is home to the Uyghur people, a Muslim ethnic minority who look more like people of Central Asia than Chinese. Upon arriving in the XUAR last night and crossing over Urumqi, the region’s capital, it was evident that this is unlike any China I have seen before. Uyghurs speak a different language and use a script like that of Arabic, where hello sounds like assaalaamualaykom. While Mandarin Chinese is spoken, it is sometimes hard to understand. Although the region is now 50% Han (up from around 10% in the 1950s), Uyghurs stand out based on their appearance and funnily enough, look a little like me (probably given my Middle Eastern ancestry). Here’s a map of where I will travel this week.

The first stop on my Silk Road trip is Kashgar (喀什) a city of 400,000 people that is further west than New Delhi, India. Because China officially only uses one time zone and it spans an area closer to five, the sun rises at around 8:30 and does not set until after 10. While locals sometimes use a time zone that is two hours behind Beijing time, it is always important to check what time people use when making plans.

For centuries, Kashgar has been an important trading stop along the Silk Road, situated under 150 kilometers from the border with Kyrgyzstan. While much of the old Silk Road has now been replaced with global flows of trade (most recently the “One Belt, One Road” initiative), the Sunday Livestock Market is still an attraction, located just outside the city. Upon hearing about this market, I thought it would be similar in feel to Tsukiji fish market in Japan, where people arrive early to begin auctioning. This was not the case. Upon arriving at the market at 9 a.m., I was surprised to see only a handful of cows and goats being unloaded off trucks. It wasn’t until around 11 or 12 that the market really started to kick off.

I sat down for some breakfast at the one food stall that was open. The chefs were starting to pull noodles and served these noodles with bagel-looking bread.

One of the chefs enjoyed reading the Uyghur language section out of another foreigner’s Lonely planet book.

After breakfast, which was provided for free, truck after truck started to arrive with mostly goats and cows.

Some goats chose to arrive by other methods of transportation.

While the goats easily jumped off the trucks, the cows needed some extra force.

Once the animals were on the selling grounds, the negotiations started. A cow could go for as much as 20,000 RMB (2,931 USD). Uyghurs are very friendly and negotiations would often start with a large handshake.

By the end of the day, all of the animals that were brought in will have been sold.

In addition to goats, cows and horses, there were also melons and other edible items on the outskirts of the market.

After spending the morning at the Livestock Market, I headed to the Grand Bazaar. While open every day, this market is busiest on Sundays.

The Grand Bazaar was similar in style to a Turkish bazaar and featured carpets, handicrafts and dried fruits.

Other sites in Kashgar included the People’s Square, which had a giant statue of Mao on the front.

The Old Town has been mostly torn down but was still worth the visit.

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Dinner consisted of a few lamb skewers on naan bread.

I then took the ferris wheel, which offered a decent view of the city.

There was also a night market, which featured items such as pomegranate juice and naan.

Another site I visited was the Id Kah Mosque, which is the largest mosque in China by land area at 16,800 square meters.

Although my time in Kashgar was short, I was able to discover the magic of this Silk Road trading post and its recent developments. As with many cities in the region, security is tight, with many hotels and shopping areas requiring people to scan their ID and pass through a metal detector to enter. I’ve now traveled to Urumqi, the capital of the region, where I will spend the next few days.

Thanks for reading this update! Until next time.

Expedition 16: An Introduction

 

I can’t believe I’m doing this again! Next week, I will be in China on my 16th trip to the Middle Kingdom. Like most trips, this trip will have a few phases and purposes.

  1. Return to the Capital: Beijing
  2. Bai the Lakeside: Dali with the Middlebury School of the Environment
  3. Urban Environmental Analysis: Kunming
  4. Expedition Phase (to be announced at a later date)
  5. The Journey Home

Hopefully time will allow for a few blog posts during this summer, so stay tuned. First stop, Beijing!

“I now walk into the wild.” — Christopher Mccandless

一路顺风 (may the wind be at your back)!

Benjy

Featured photo: Kunming, July 2015

Top 10: Must-Download Apps for China Travelers

Long time no post! Happy 2018! 新年快乐!

It’s that time of year again — as January passes, the spring semester is upon us and many college students will begin new adventures studying abroad in China. I often get questions along the lines of apps students and travelers must download before going to China. So, in traditional Off the Silk Road list fashion, I present this Top 10 list of apps travelers should consider downloading prior to their arrival in the Middle Kingdom. The links provided for each app will direct you to the Apple App Store, but I’m sure you can find some of these apps in the Google Play store as well

10. Takeout (外卖)

As cliché as it sounds, Chinese takeout is a recent and popular phenomenon in China. Deliverymen on motorcycles weave through city streets, delivering food from local restaurants to residents and workplaces. While their are many apps out there, I recommend Jinshisong (in English but has a limited amount of restaurants in Beijing and Shanghai so far) and 百度外卖 (in Chinese but has more restaurants than you could ever want). Happy ordering!

9. Taobao (淘宝)

Taobao is the Amazon of China, featuring products that can even offer same-day delivery. While they also have a website where you can shop to your heart’s content, the Taobao app is great to have on your phone when you need…anything.

8. Baidu (手机百度)

Baidu is the Chinese version of Google and, due to current internet restrictions, is the best search engine in China. Like Taobao, it also has a website, but the app is worth downloading as well.

7. Baidu Maps (百度地图)

Baidu has also developed an map app, similar to Google Maps. The app features public transportation integration, spoken directions and advanced route planning technology, and is a must for traveling to China. You can also download portions of the map for offline use.

6. Air Quality China

There are many apps in the App Store that show China’s air quality, but I found this one a while ago and have been using it since. You can add your favorite cities and monitor the air quality levels over the past 24 hours and past 30 days.

5. ExpressVPN

A VPN (or virtual private network) is necessary for those in China desiring access to sites such as Facebook, Youtube and Google, among others. (I’d prefer not to go into the details of how it works right now, so just believe me that through some marvel of modern technology, it just works.) While there are many options, ExpressVPN has shown consistent reliability for a small monthly fee. You can download the app on your computer and phone, and it is reconnemnded to test your VPN before you leave for China.

4. Bikes (I want to ride my bicycle, I want to ride my bike…)

A recent phenomenon in China has been the influx of rental bikes in China’s major cities. With a subscription, travelers can unlock millions of bikes for short-term use. While many companies exist, Mobike and Ofo are two of the largest ones, and both have apps.

3. Didi (滴滴出行)

For the times that a bike is not sufficient for travel, Didi is China’s Uber. The app has recently released an English version, allowing users to request a car  in most major cities in China.

2. Trip.com (formerly Ctrip)

Trip.com is a very useful website that I use when booking flights, trains and hotels in China (they also have vacation packages). Since much of the train system is in Chinese, it is great to have a website where you can book your train tickets in English (albeit for around a small 30 RMB service fee), without the stress of waiting in a poorly formed line at a Chinese train station with angry customers. Once you book your train ticket and pay (Western credit cards such as Visa and MasterCard are accepted), the website will give you a reservation number, which you show a ticketing agent at a train station to pick up your ticket. With each train reservation, you can choose to get a hotel credit for your next hotel booking. The flight booking portion of the website is also very easy to use. The website is in English, and so is the app.

1. WeChat

WeChat is more than just a communication tool in China. For those advanced users, it can also function as a wallet, step counter, bike unlocker, train ticket booker and so much more. This app is not only recommended, but it is a must-have before traveling to China. It is easy to set up an account and WeChat can search your phone’s contacts for friends.


And there you have it — 10 apps that allow you to stay connected, informed and equipped while traveling in China. Suggestions? Comments? Let me know through the “Contact” page. I’m looking forward to posting more in 2018, so stay tuned! Until next time.

Cover photo: Boarding a train in Yichang, Hubei Province, Summer 2017.

Old Friends, New Friends

Day: 3

Current Location: Kunming (昆明)

Miles traveled: 1518

Hello from Kunming, the City of Eternal Spring. After taking a car to Lijiang airport where the driver proceeded to shave himself during the trip and flying on a plane where the safety demonstration was still playing as the wheels lifted off the ground, I arrived in Kunming on Monday morning. The day was packed with meetings with old and new friends, and finished with a barbecue stop at 10 p.m. While I’m currently too tired to tell all the stories, I’ll let some of the pictures speak for themselves. Thank you to the people of Kunming for welcoming me for the day and hosting me over the years! Hopefully, next time I’ll come back for longer.

I leave the City of Eternal Spring for the hot pot of Chongqing (pun intended), where I will board a Yangtze River cruise tomorrow night. While it is unclear what the internet situation will be on board the boat, I will try to at least send a post with text tomorrow night, and no pictures. I’ll be back in a city on Thursday night.

Next stop: Chongqing. ETA: Tuesday morning China time.

Enjoy the photos from today below!

Until tomorrow,

Benjy

(Again, special thanks to Ella for all her support today!)

Returning to a Rural Home

Day: 2

Current Location: Lijiang (丽江)

Miles traveled: 1318 (approximately)

When we travel, we sometimes form strong relationships with the people of our host country. So when the opportunity came for me to return to the Nan Yao village (南尧村), where I stayed in a homestay two years ago, I immediately made sure I would do everything to make it possible.

Waking up in Lijiang’s Old Town, I quickly grabbed some traditional Naxi Baba bread for breakfast and headed to the Zhongyi Market, where I bought some peaches and cookies for homestay family gifts. The bus from the Old Town to the village took about an hour, and included a stop for gas in between.

Arriving in the village, it is amazing how one’s sense of direction can be rekindled in the most remote of places. Although each little street in the village is not on a map, it was easy for me to find all of the “landmarks” in the village, even though the last time I visited was a year ago. First stop on the village tour was the homestay family of a fellow student, who had left the village just one week ago. Through the marvels of modern technology, I was able to bring her in the U.S. together with the family in the village, was was a very cool moment. After dropping off a bag of peaches, I headed to my homestay family. I was greeted by my now 95-year-old grandpa, who although has trouble seeing, seemed to remember who I was. Through his thick accent, I was able to make out some of the questions he tried to ask me: “How long are you here? Are you traveling?”

My homestay mother and her two-year-old granddaughter shortly followed (for those of you who remember, the granddaughter celebrated her one month birthday the night I arrived for my homestay — you can read that story here). The hospitality and friendliness of the village has left a profound impact on me ever since I left. Within minutes, I was served a warm cup of tea and a bowl of fried rice, and proceeded to eat with the granddaughter. Returning to this village has become a sort of yearly routine for me, so it was great to be back and see the changes on a local level.

After saying goodbye to my homestay family, I headed up to the village elder’s house. While he was not there at the moment, tea was promptly served by his daughter and I was instructed to wait until he came back from the fields with his wife. They were surprised to see me in their house, as I had not told them I was coming. Again, lunch was promptly served and we talked about the recent student groups who have visited. I feel that we owe an immense amount of gratitude to this village for opening up their homes for students, and no amount of cookies can express our appreciation for them. I hope we can continue coming to Nan Yao for years to come, as I always feel welcome there every year I return.

I left the village elder’s house and went on a short hike to the village’s water source, a waterfall in the mountains. We did a trash pickup service project there two years ago, and I was pleased to see that there was less waste around the area.

I did one final was through the village and walked to the bus stop at the bottom of the hill. According to the village elder, there are only 3 buses that run the hour-long route each way, so one must wait up to 40 minutes for the bus. I asked a tour guide who was leading a horse tour group if he knew when the bus would come. “马上!” “Immediately!” he responded. It turns out his “马上” would be another 16 minutes, but I appreciated the time to catch a glimpse of the slow pace of life in the village. After arriving in Lijiang, I took a walk around the Old Town, had dinner, and bought some specialty rose cakes.

Today was a historic day for me. It was the day I returned back to my village home in rural China and strengthened my connections with the local people. I can’t wait until I have another opportunity to return to Nan Yao.

I leave Lijiang early tomorrow for a day in Kunming, where I will be meeting with old friends and hopefully making some new ones.

Next stop: Kunming. ETA: Sunday morning China time.

Enjoy the photos from today below!

Until tomorrow,

Benjy

(Special thanks to Ella for all her support today!)

Lijiang: New Year, Old Town

Day: 1

Current Location: Lijiang (丽江)

Miles traveled: 1318 (approximately)

Hello from the Mama’s Naxi Guesthouse in Lijiang’s Old Town! The real journey began today, as I left the comfort of and excellent city view from my Beijing apartment for my home on the road for the next week. After picking up my last set of egg tarts, I moved my large suitcase across town in preparation for my return to Beijing. The morning was spent picking up money for the adventure, snacks for the road, and water to offset the state of perpetual sweat all Beijingers feel.

I arrived at the airport around midday, after zooming away from the city on Beijing’s Airport Express. Checking in was interesting — since I’m traveling with only carry-on baggage on this trip, it was strange not to check in anything! After lunch, it was time for the flight to Lijiang. Surprisingly, the flight landed early (if you know anything about traveling by air in China, you usually have a 0.01% chance of landing on time). I left the airport and took the airport bus to the Old Town.

Trundling my suitcase through the uneven alleyways, I keep forgetting how many tourists descend upon this town every day. Every corner is full of shops selling music (with women playing drums and texting at the same time), mango juice concoctions and rose cakes (鲜花饼 — a Lijiang specialty). I checked in to the Mama’s Naxi Guesthouse, my home for the next two nights. The check in process essentially consisted of the owner taking a photo of my passport with her phone and showing me to a room upstairs. Dinner was eaten at a local Naxi restaurant with six other strangers I met in the restaurant, which gave me the perfect opportunity to try as many dishes as possible.

The guesthouse has a very homey atmosphere to it, as people are currently playing cards downstairs in the courtyard. As much as I would love to join them, I would like to get some sleep for tomorrow’s activity. Tomorrow, I will taking a bus to nearby Nanyao Village, visiting my old homestay family and seeing students at the local school. Then it’s back to Lijiang for the evening and another night here before the next stage of the journey.

Next stop: Nanyao Village. ETA: Sunday morning China time.

Enjoy the photos from today below!

Until tomorrow,

Benjy

The Real Adventure Begins…Going South of the Clouds!

Day: T-1

Current Location: Beijing (北京)

Hello friends!

It’s been 30 days since I arrived in Beijing and I have written 0 blog posts. My days have been filled with work, learning and exploration.

With the Beijing part of the trip behind me, I now turn to the second part: the epic 3,212 mile journey across China. In the next six days, I will be taking a series of planes, trains and boats through Yunnan and Hubei Provinces, finishing back in Beijing next Friday, August 4. The itinerary leaves no room for error; with only a night in each place (for the most part), it is imperative that I make each plane, train and boat. Cities I will visit in the next few days will include:

  • Lijiang
  • Kunming
  • Chongqing
  • Yichang
  • Wuhan

For those of you who like maps, here is a visual representation of the journey.

As I was packing tonight, I wanted to think of some goals I had for this expedition. While I am sure more will emerge as the trip progresses, here is what I have so far:

  1. Reconnect with friends and local contacts in Kunming and Lijiang in order to strengthen my relationships with the Chinese people.
  2. Make a return to the Nanyao Village, the village I stayed in two summers ago and visited last summer.
  3. Interact with Chinese tourists and locals on the Yangtze River passenger boat.
  4. Make every single plane, train and boat (with time to spare )to avoid a complicated mess of rebooking.
  5. Write a blog post every night reflecting on the day’s events.
  6. Maintain the highest standards of safety, security and health throughout the trip.

So there you have it. 3,212 miles is a lot to cover in six days, but I am glad I have chosen to take this trip. It will be great to reconnect with old friends in Yunnan and have some new experiences as well. I am happy that you, as readers, will also join me along this journey. Please feel free to comment with any questions or suggestions you may have.

As I said in goal 5, I will attempt to write a blog post every night reflecting on the day’s events. Most of the time, it will include pictures, depending on the internet connection. Although I will be traveling to somewhat remote places, wifi access seems to be reasonably abundant, so I’m hoping I can keep the blog going over the next week. Stay tuned!

Next stop: Lijiang. ETA: Saturday night China time.

The photo above is the view from my apartment in eastern Beijing. While I’ll miss the view and egg tarts downstairs for breakfast, I know there will be many more exciting adventures and rich experiences ahead.

Until tomorrow,

Benjy

China Summer 2017!

Long time, no update!

I’m heading to China Thursday for 6 weeks. Itinerary and updates to come, so stay tuned. First stop, Beijing!

“I now walk into the wild.” — Christopher Mccandless

一路顺风 (may the wind be at your back)!

Benjy