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Long route home Our trip all the way home, trying to catch no planes and stay on the ground like civilised people. It's taking us via India all the way to Europe from Japan, the furthest of the Far East...

Lost a room key in Urumqi

CHINA | Sunday, 7 November 2010 | Views [482]

Enjoyable Urumqui

After our Nanning experience (anonymous town we killed a day in), we didn't dare hope for too much in Urumqi, especially as it's another "difficult" part of China, with heavy army presence and instructions all over the hostel not to take pictures of the police or soldiers. (As with Tibet, the Chinese are sensitive about pictures of their military presence.) The police were even more forceful than Lhasa, violently shoving people standing in the wrong place at the train station, grabbing people's bags out of their hands to shove them into the X-ray.

Difficult and Muslim is a bad combiniation, but despite reports of riots in 2009 and continued tension, our two days there were thouroughly enjoyable. In fact, the Muslim/Uzbeq influence meant wonderful bread and kebabs! Its major selling point is being the major city that is furthest from the sea in the world. It isn't a city of big sights and long lists of things to do, rather a place for simple pleasure and relaxing in a place where things worked, bringing back memories of our time in Japan.

We joined families, couples and friends in climbing up to the red temple, enjoying the crisp winter day. We happily posed for pictures with a family and a bunch of students with a flag who bombarded us with questions. We looked out over the city, enjoying the hazy views and marvelling at the people using the outdoor swimming pool below. We braved the mud in an anonymous park near our hostel, enjoying the outdoor sculptures. We walked through the People's Park at nght and enjoyed the fact that it was open, well lit (with lots of funky colours) and well used - even at 10pm there were joggers, dog walkers and romantic strollers.

We wandered through floor upon floor of big bazaars near the mosque, rows of unnamable powders and potions, teas, lavender and whole forests worth of stuffed dear, wolves and other animals. There was plenty of traditional clothing, jewelry, jade and the usual collection of swords. Oli resisted another large sharp-edged purchase, though he did get some sharp new glasses made at an equally enjoyable, though less ethnic, shopping centre filled with teenagers buying bright colours and crazy jeans.

We ate well, from huge portios of bread and meat, and wonderful pies to the best Tex-Mex food we've had in months at the Texas Bar. We ventured to an ex-pat bar and revelled in being in a warm wooden bar, sheltered from the cold outside.

The traffic flows freely, but with no road-side parking, the wide pavements are used as parking spaces. This leads to several problems: firstly the cars believe they have right of way, even on the pavement. Second, the trees/rubbish bins/lamp posts often prevent them driving back onto the road, so they have to reverse along
There is often someone whose job appears to be directing parking traffic, who assists in the avoidance of walls, other cars and pedestrians, but the whole palava takes ages. We watched one car leave forwards from our restaurant window, only to re-appear five minutes later, reversing back along the pavement.

Getting train tickets in China has been much easier than made out, simply find the right queue, stand in it, pay cash and voila. The only catch is that they have no central reservation system, so each city only sells tickets that leave from that city - you can't buy your Urumqi tickets in advance from Xi'an or Lhasa, you have to wait until you arrive in Urumqi or pay a large fee to book through a travel agents on the net. Great if you live in one place, not so great if you're moving through on a tight schedule and the train you want only leaves once a week. Even less great if you arrive on Sunday and the Kazakhstan ticket booth is shut, forcing you to buy your ticket on the day of departure. Luckily, they have space and after a last minute race around to find an foreign-card-friendly ATM, we get our tickets.

We arrived at the station for our midnight train with hours to spare (we'd thought the left luggage department would shut), and had plenty of time to watch our co-passengers congregate. They had even more bags than we'd seen on our train journeys in India, where the baggage flled the aisles, and we worried about the amount of space there'd be for people on the train itself. There were several gates to pass through, one to get into the station which didn't open till 10.30, then one to the waiting room, then finally one to get onto the train. At each leg, the people had to make 3/4 laiden trips back and forth because they couldn't carry everything in one go! The fierce pushing and shoving made us think there might be a benefit to being at the front of the queue/being the first to nab precious space in the carraige, but it turned out to be unfounded: we had a 4 person cabin with tons of bag space all to ourselves, and settled in for a peaceful journey towards the border.


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