'Go' - Moby
After my thumping headache from the night before, I'd decided that getting what small amount of broken sleep I could was the top priority, so I forewent a shower in the morning in favour of an extra few minutes in bed. Nonetheless, this still meant the alarm going off at half-past six so I could could be checked out and flagging down a taxi fifteen minutes later. The taxi driver himself clearly saw me as an opportunity to make some extra cash, not switching on the meter until I reminded him and quickly switching it off when we arrived in the hope that I would believe him when he kept insisting that it said Y10 instead of the Y6 it really did.
The man at the agency had put a dot on my map although I had no idea what I was actually looking for beyond the fact that a bus would be involved at some point. After walking both sides of the street I duly found it, but was half an hour before the allotted time so I had no idea if this was right until a driver wandered over to open the door. I sort of expected a mimi-bus with a group in single figures, but this was a full coach load of forty. We left shortly after the alloted start time of 07:30 and picked up some more people from other locations across the city during the next hour as dawn finally broke.
The road soon gave way to the sort of sparse shrub that covered most of the trip's driving, possibly a desert by definition but never the golden dunes that that word brings to mind. More made up of gravel and stones than fine sand. Our guide soon got up to speak on the microphone for most of the morning. I've no idea what it was about but it must have covered more than where the fire exit on the bus was (assuming that I'm not being naive by suggesting that it had a fire exit). Many other buses from many other agencies were making the same pilgramage so each time we stopped to use the toilet or eat, perhaps half a dozen other buses would pull up at the same time. It's hard to believe that they all had drivers as determined as ours, but I guess they must have done to have met us at each stopping point. Normally, it is buses that get overtaken by cars but we swung out into oncoming traffic to fight our way past everything, beeping at them if they didn't make way for us and beeping even if they did, just in case.
Late afternoon brought us to Rainbow Beach, a series of colourful and bouncily-shaped rock formations overlooking a river. We wandered around the network of walkways for nearly two hours, allowing ourselves an opportunity to take photographs as the sun set on the horizon. A couple who I had had shared a table with for lunch were constantly on the look-out for me to make sure I knew where to go. They did this throughout the trip so I wonder if at some point the guide had asked them to keep an eye on me in case I did the wrong thing, didn't hear a call etc.
Afterwards, it was back in the bus to ride a couple of miles back into Buerjin for the night. Time was short now so we were rushed into our rooms and then back onto the bus to go for dinner. My room had only half the electricity working, a shower that effectively didn't work, water that struggled in vain to achieve lukewarm status, a toilet that I coaxed into flushing once before it stopped being friendly and an odd smell coming from the window that I thought it wise not to investigate. In fairness, when I left the room in the morning it was shown to me that I just hadn't understood where all the light switches were and how to turn the hot water or the shower on. Anyway, I slept in the bed like a log, so it can't have been all bad.
The coach rode down the high street before stopping near a restaurant where everyone began disembarking. I got up to join them but was prodded back down again by the guide. Generally, everyone else would get long, detailed instructions from her of what to do that translated into English as a barked "Chris, go!" accompanied by a finger pointing in some direction or other. Occasionally it would be one of a fixed number of variations such as "Chris, eat!", "Chris, WC!", "Chris, wait!" or the dreaded "Chris, money!". Everyone on the trip had learnt these catchphrases by the end of the four days. After a while, every time I heard my name shouted, I would shout back whichever one of the options I guessed was about to be applied. Alternatively, I would either salute her or say "Shi mama" ("yes mother") depending upon whether my instructions had leaned more towards the authoritarian or the patronising.
In this instance, it transpired that she and the driver were taking me to somewhere else, much smaller, where they thought it more likely I could eat vegetarian. Six others of the group, including the pair billetted to look out for me who also declared themselves vegetarian, joined us. We went to a small 1st-floor cafe where the others had clumps of meat that I would have thought twice about before my veggie days. I observe that the fatty bits of the meat that the British carefully cut around and avoid are regarded here as not only part of the meal but a delicacy to be savoured.
I had been told when I booked this trip that the price was all-inclusive except meals and the entry and special bus for Kanas Lake itself. Maybe I am new to coach tours so just didn't realise fair assumptions, but both Rainbow Beach and the national park we walked around on the third day required hefty extra payments to get in. It was tempting to draft an email of complaint to the tour company but, after lunch on the first day, every single one of my meals was mysteriously paid for by the tour company's expense account, even if this meant I was taken to eat with the staff rather than with any of the rest of the tour group. Also, two of the nights accommodation were in a hotel with twin rooms. There was an odd number of people in our party and on both occasions I found myself the lucky individual with a room to himself.
Day two started with an unholy departure time of 06:30. The whole of China operates to a single time zone, that of the capital Beijing. Over here in the far-west of the country, many people and places operate unofficially to the more-realistic time of two hours behind. So, depending upon which way you look at it, the coach actually departed at 04:30!
Two minutes down the road we stopped for half an hour at another hotel serving a breakfast buffet. Chinese food is generally very good but the breakfasts are always a bit naff, being just a poor version of every other meal. I spent my time with a handful of other unimpressed souls in the car park stretching our limbs. When everyone had reboarded the coach for departure, the guide asked if I had eaten, which I hadn't. She scurried back inside and returned a minute later to give me a bag containing two fresh bread rolls and two still-warm hard-boiled eggs. "Eat!" she commanded, so I did.
Three hours later we were at Kanas Lake national park, not that I realised it until after we had gone inside and had left my food etc on the bus assuming that this was another short stop. First we went to the lake where I partook in a boat ride up and back. Then it was a buffet lunch after which the party split for reasons that would probably have been clear if I understood Chinese or if I hadn't wandered off to look at a couple of cows while everyone else was talking about it. The guide took a smaller group of five of us to where some of the indiginous locals lived. We were taken into a house full of stuffed animals and pelts on the wall. There was a selection of nibbles and drinks on tables for us to try, very similar to what I had encountered in Mongolia. A woman came in to talk to everyone about it and then introduced another woman, in full regional dress, who sang an ethnic song to us. I wasn't paying much attention to the next bit of talking as the guide was using the translator on her phone to explain the pelts to me. But, suddenly, everyone else was pointing at me and a decision had been taken that I had to stand up and sing a song back to the woman in the costume. I think this represented some kind of custom or tradition where songs are exchanged. Now, anyone who's seen me even two drinks in knows that they have a job on their hand to stop me singing, but after lunch when everyone is pointing expectantly like this is another matter altogether. However, it didn't seem appropriate to refuse either. I considered doing American Pie, but if I'd taken them all the way from "A long, long time ago..." through to "...they caught the last train to the coast", we'd probably all still be there now. So, I instead explained that a week previous I had been walking around in the mountains so would sing a song that I sang then, before putting as much enthusiasm as I could into The Grand Old Duke Of York. I know it's not a good choice, but if you were there, what would you have sung that was so great? Well? Well?
It got a loud round of applause from the audience, but the woman I had had to sing it to revealed the disrespect I had shown to a thousand years of tradition in her eyes as she fought to push the pained look from her otherwise expressionless face. A man then came in wearing his full outfit and entertained us with some more songs and instruments before we were ushered up to join in the woman's dancing. Afterwards, his outfit was brought over to me to put on and be photographed in. Thankfully, this time three of the ladies were afterwards given outfits too, although the final guy in our group bottled it. We horsed around and tried to mimic the dancing from before in front of the camera for pictures to regret afterwards. The other three were all Chinese so looked pretty authentic but my pale skin and ginger hair just made me look like a tourist making an arse of himself.
Following that we took a long walk back towards the entrance through some spectacular scenery where we all ran off a hundred or more photos. Take a look for a better idea of it all. I think my photography is getting better as the trip goes on. For those that don't know, I've only ever owned a cheap 2nd-hand camera as a young child so buying one for the trip is a new thing for me. I've more or less finally got used to holding the camera still so the results aren't blurred from the shaking. But these four days were a good chance to nail down some improvements in my compositions. Whereas before it was all about point & click and trying to make sure everything fitted into the shot, now I'm giving loads of thought to the angle, how I can use the light for or against me and how to position foreground and background in different areas of the shot to compliment each other. Sometimes I am lying down on my stomach to get the right picture, sometimes I am climbing up trees, other times I am sitting waiting for five or even ten minutes until the moment is right to press the button.
Accommodation that night was at a nearby tourist complex of hotels and cheap restaurants that was big but only half-built. We had five people in each room and I initially found myself in a room of smokers before my lookout came in and suggested I swap with someone from his room where no one smoked. What a nice man, yet again. The hotel was billed as having no shower, which meant three days without a wash for me, but I found a bad one the next morning so was very happy to at least be able to take care of my face and hair. We had the luxury on day three of a lie-in until 7am before riding to another park of spectacular scenery with hills, forests and rivers. Again, see photos for details. In the afternoon, the coach took us three hours back to the hotel in Buerjin. As everyone collected their keys and I waited for mine, it became apparent that this hotel was not 'supposed' (make your own guess of the details) to hold foreigners. Therefore, I was not allowed the leave my room until morning, although they did offer to bring some food up to me, or I ran the risk of being picked up by the police and taken away. I basically refused and said I would go to a different hotel that was allowed to have me, but this was no good either even if I paid for it myself. They then told me that it would be OK if I waited until after sunset. I was trying to get them to tell me when sunset might be, but they then all relented, or at least the guide said she would be willing to run the risk of being in trouble herself by taking me back to the same cafe two nights before with three others. Everything was OK, but I couldn't help but look side to side for police for an hour or so until the sun was firmly out of sight.
The final day was another six-thirty start. I ran onto the coach as the last person to board and was greeted by gasps and laughter from everyone, shocked to see that my two week-old beard had been shaved away. From there, it was just whistlestop breaks for meals, toilets and a tourist-trap shops as we came back to Urumqi. I began the long job that night of sorting through and uploading four hundred photographs taken. I had swapped a few email addresses with people, some of who didn't speak any English, so hopeully will get a few more containing me sent through in due course. Altogether, a good little trip, even if the words "Chris, go!" will be reverberating around my head for a long time yet.