Urumqi / Wulumuqi
The guidebook says that the city of Urumqi is very spread out and so one must travel by bus and taxi to get around. In immediate practical terms, this meant my hostel was perhaps three miles from the train station. The sandy views from the train for the last twenty four hours had suggested a baking heat outside, but to be fair it was not at all prohibitive when I arrived. Possibly motivated by a sense that explaining my desired destination to a taxi driver would be complicated, I decided to try and walk it with my big bag. The whole thing was remarkably smooth both from the point of view of navigation and from physical exertion. The hostel was in a small side street next to a big department store. The toilets were a bit stinky, but the ones in the department store were better so I mostly used them instead.
That night at dinner I found a restaurant and used my bad language skills to pick through the dishes before selecting one. I had nearly finished eating it when they brought me one of the other ones as well. I tried to ask if this was really for me and they insisted it was. I wasn't sure if I had ordered this additionally by mistake, but I really didn't think so even though it had been one of the dishes up for consideration. Eventually, they came to take it away. A woman on the next table who spoke English came and joined in to explain that it was meant for someone else and they had given it to me by accident. I got talking to her and her husband who invited me to join them at her table. He was an Australian who may or may not have been called Robert, depending upon how well my memory is working. She was indigenous to the area but had lived for many years in Australia where they had married and had their two young daughters who were with them. They were now living in China for a few years. 'Robert' was something of an expert in the peoples of the world and their history and gave me a very detailed 20-minute talk on it all, ending in a thorough run through of the fall of the western Roman empire. They recommended a coffee place over the road which I went to the next night. I was expecting a cafe-style arrangement, but it turned out to be a posh French restaurant with bridges over phoney rivers. I ordered the pizza which was OK, but I'm not sure when celery became a topping to be added in large quantities.
From my arrival on Friday morning, I spent all of my time at the hostel working on the blog. The exception was Sunday. An American called Christopher had played chess with me on Friday and Saturday nights. He asked if I wanted to join him on a trip to a glacier. The plan was for us to catch a bus for two hours to some place. From there we could apparently take a taxi to the foot of the glacier and walk 3km up and then back down again. Then, we needed to find a family to let us stay in their yurt/ger for the night before hitching a lift from a lorry back into town the next day.
We set off in the morning and faffed around until we finally found the bus station and caught the midday bus. As we walked around the park from the hostel, I trod on a manhole cover and was shocked when it flipped like a revolving door and my leg plunged down into the chasm below, fortunately not dragging the rest of me with so much force that I couldn't stop myself from doing any worse than ending up on my knees on the pavement.
As we rode along the country roads out of town, our driver suddenly saw a similar bus parked by the roadside and came to a screeching halt in front of it. He and his conductress leapt out and and began shouting furiously at the other bus while two busloads of passengers looked on. The conductress from the other bus came out and screamed back and they all prodded each other in the chest with angry fingers. Then the women broke out into a fight and had to be separated. Then the driver demanded the other driver come out and he duly obliged and they started a fight which had to be broken up. By now a third bus had stopped and people from all three buses were out trying to pull people apart as the two women went at it again in vicious style. All of which took ten minutes to resolve until we were on our way again.
The mountains drew nearer and we spent half an hour on very precarious roads along the edge of a long, winding valley with a gushing river below. We emerged and came past an increasing number of building sites as workmen worked on the road and the river. We came towards a tiny town nestled in the hills which had a mine and a belching power station in the middle. I was just thinking how much I hoped this wasn't our stop when Christopher leaned over and said "This is our stop". I don't know if anything was there beforehand but now, at least, the settlement existed entirely for the mine. To house and feed etc the people who worked there and their families.
We found somewhere to eat, paying over the odds, but Christopher was not feeling well and the cold was eating into him more than it should have done. We decided to walk around to see if he got any better before going on with the plan, but it was to no avail. We walked down the road for ten minutes and took a look at the river, but on the way back he threw up his lunch so it was game over for him. A bus suddenly appeared going to Urumqi, so he got on board. I was actually having a great time so I decided to stick around for a while. I walked back to the centre and bought some cakes for sustenance. Outside, there was Christopher again; the bus had come into the centre also but was waiting ten minutes before going onwards. People on the bus told me that it went at four but when I tried to ask if there was another one at five, they said 'no'. I agonised over what to do but eventually decided to stay off the bus and take my chances on thenm being wrong. Apparently Christopher got even worse whilst riding back and had to ask to borrow someone's sleeping bag to keep warm.
I walked along the road for an hour and then walked along the river, hopping over rocks and streams for an hour and a half. About the time I was thinking that I was tired and that the last bus might be going, I saw a woman and child waiting by the roadside for a bus to Urumqi so joined them. After fifteen minutes, a lorry pulled over and asked if I wanted a lift. Despite the fact that the bus was due any minute, I decided that I should enter into the spirit of the occasion so accepted the offer. His truck was the biggest of all the many trucks coming away from the mine and therefore the slowest vehicle on the road. We constantly pulled over on the slow, winding valley-wall road to let other traffic go past us, including my bus after barely a mile. Two hours later, 7km from the city centre, he dropped me at a motorway junction before taking his lorry off in another direction. Within a minute, a car had pulled over to offer to drive me and a Chinese man into town. 4km later, they pulled over and told me I needed to pay. I wasn't clear if this was because they had gone as close to the city as they were going to or if they wanted to make sure I paid up before they took me the rest of the way. I didn't mind chipping in a bit but their initial call of Y50 just made me laugh. They then told me I should pay Y10. This was still a bad price to fleece me. I probably would have paid it had it been their first offer, but not now. I asked the other hitcher if HE was going to pay Y10, which he obviously wasn't. Eventually he told me I should just get out of the car. There were many ways to interprete this and where his sympathies might lie, but I guessed that he was suggesting that this was the simplest solution to a difficult situation. Either way, the two in the front didn't argue with him. I guessed my way back into the city centre by foot for another hour and managed to find somewhere to eat before before everything shut.
On Wednesday, I took an wander into town for a general look around. On the way, I accomplished my objective for the day of booking myself onto a 4-day trip to Lake Kanas, in the north of the province. I wouldn't normally take an organised coach trip but this company was recommended in the guide book, the price was reasonable and it was probably the easiest way to get up there. As luck would have it, the next one commenced the next morning so there was no more waiting around in the city.
That night Christopher arranged for a few of us to go out to dinner in the Pakistani area of town. It was us, two French girls from my room and a Chinese guy from Christopher's room. I didn't catch his name but he had come to town to see a girl. She had been giving him the runaround for several weeks whilst he treated her to 5-star hotels and the likes all across China. Arriving in her home town, he finally discovered that she had been living with her boyfriend for two years and that he wasn't the first bit on the side to be strung along. We all felt very sorry for him as he indignatly told us this story of how his heart had been broken, but I couldn't help but feel that he had allowed himself to be played and that there were plenty of warning signs there along the way.
We followed dinner with a jolly walk around the lively area and bought some nibbles from the late-night stalls. It was culturally a world away from even the Han Chinese-influenced end of town that we were staying in and easy to forget that these places exist in China also. Back at the hostel, I had a throbbing headache so retired to be ready for my early start the next day.