'The Bad Photographer' - St Etienne
I booked myself into Qini Bagh, a hotel in the former British Consulate. They offered cheap dorm rooms for Y50 (3.70 GBP) a night which were actually normal hotel rooms, of a standard and style one might expect from a Travelodge, with three beds in. Furthermore, I had my room to myself for two of the three nights, which was a bit of a bargain. By the time I had checked in and found somewhere to eat, there wasn't a lot left of the day. The hotel insisted that nowhere in town offered wireless internet, but on principle I refused to pay them to be able to plug my own laptop into their wired network. I later found a cafe across the road with wireless, although the food was pretty expensive so I was probably paying more in the long run.
My first impressions of the city were that it wasn't as friendly as other places I had been, although I dropped this idea by the time I left. Whereas Urumqi was very built up, this was a new cultural experience to me. I think I must learn not to worry when dropped into a new set of environs or to regard them as unfriendly. I cannot expect every new place to be full of the grinning welcomes of Datong.
The next morning I was supposed to meet Valentine and Nora, the two French girls who had been in my room a week earlier in Urumqi. Actually, Nora is half Polish, and the culturally dominant half at that, but for the purposes of this blog they are French. They were sending me text messages arranging a time and place to meet, but they were sending them to the wrong number so I never received them. Luckily though, they found me sitting in the square outside the main mosque reading my guidebook, so it all worked out.
The mosque is the biggest mosque in, erm, something. I forget what. It wasn't the biggest in the world and it was more than just the biggest in the city. Inside, the only thing that was big was the disappointment. Perhaps there were other areas that tourists aren't allowed into or weren't allowed in that day. We walked through a small garden-like area to a building which we were required to take out shoes off to enter. Inside was a moderately-sized room which we were were not allowed to photograph. The decoration ended with the adequate carpet. And that was it. Nora, who is not employed by the diplomatic corps of either of her countries, was particularly unimpressed. "Eet ees bullsheet" she declared in her broad French accent outside the entrance to the holy room as we put our shoes back on. Valentine and I tried to suggest that there were more appropriate times and places to make these views known, but there was no stopping her. "Ees smelly, they let us see nothing...".
We amused ourselves for twenty minutes taking photographs of each other around the modest grounds. As previously reported, I have started to get into the creative possibilities of my camera and Nora, although also a novice, is very keen to photograph everything she can, as artistically as she can. Poor Valentine had had enough of us by the end of the day, not least because she often became our model whether she liked it or not. "I know you're photographing me, I can see you". When I looked at them all at the end of the day, I found that I had to delete about a third of my efforts as they were simply rubbish. I still have some way to go to learn this game.
Afterwards, we were hungry so tried to look for a restaurant called Ashkabah Pakistan from Valentine's guidebook, which was near my hotel. We wandered up and down the street for a while asking various passers-by if they knew where 'Ashkabah' was, and being pointed back and forth in various different directions. In the end, the penny dropped that, in the local Uigher language, this word literally meant 'restaurant', so we had simply been asking for any old place to eat. And there was me getting frustrated when one man kept advising us to eat in his restaurant when I was quite clearly asking him where Ashkabah was!
On the way to our eventual lunch spot, big sirens started to sound from somewhere for several minutes. I noticed that traffic coming away from the sound was about twice that of traffic heading towards it, but possibly it was also like that before when I wasn't observing it and, besides, the locals didn't seem too worried. Valentine was not a local and was worried however, and refused to carry on walking for a while. It seemed to me that if there was trouble up ahead then trouble had more reason to be afraid of Nora than we of it, so as long as we were on her side of the argument, we would be quite safe. We did see a police tank with smoke pouring out of the back of it being wheeled out of a police yard to head out somewhere, but we knew not where.
After lunch we went to the Akakh Koja tomb, the aforementioned gentleman being a popular local ruler of old. He and perhaps fifty of his relatives are kept here in coffins covered in cloths. They were all in one big building and many other more-conventional tombs sat over the wall outside. We spent a couple of hours wandering around the grounds looking for good photo oppportunities and having a pleasant time of it.
Back in town I endured the girls popping into different clothes shops as we strolled around the more modern area. When finding yourself in a country where you don't know the language, it is vital to be able to think on your feet with some simple mimes when required. I remember earlier in my trip finding that the hardest thing to mime politely was when trying to find out where the toilet was. During my language lessons, I discovered that the Chinese word for WC translates literally as wash-hands-room. So, if you need the loo, you need only rub your hands together in the manner of Fagin as he contemplated his latest scheme to exploit Oliver Twist. Valentine however was unaware of this as she attempted to ask a man outside a shop where she might find the toilet she so desperately needed. He didn't understand her question so, in the middle of a fairly busy street, she squatted down to mimic someone using a Chinese hole-in-the-floor loo! He understood though, so I suppose I shouldn't be too critical.
As we looked for somewhere for dinner, we stopped at a street vendor who was selling a bright-orange fruit with nodules all over it (see the photo). Intrigued, we brought some and ate them. Inside were bright-red gooey pips to be eaten. Not nearly a tasty as they were beautiful, but an interesting experience nonetheless. In our restaurant, Nora got to grips with the menu for us. China has long been a passion of hers and she is pretty good at handling the language. One of the dishes we ordered was expected to be vegetarian but turned up with meat in it. She informed the waitress and emphasised the point by telling her that meat made me ill so they had to replace it. The waitress went back to the kitchen but initially left the erroneous plate behind. Fearing that we might not get the replacement we desired or that they might just pick the meat out, Nora waited until her return and imformed her that I would die if I ate any meat and that the dish had to go!
As we left, Nora had become increasingly unwell and spent a few minutes in the toilet throwing up her food. I didn't feel great either and felt pretty grim lying in bed back at the hotel. My stomach had been bad since shortly after I left Urumqi, but I questioned whether it might have been something we all ate so decided to throw away the spare orange fruit I was carrying in my bag.
As we parted ways that night before the girls flew to Beijing en route to Paris the next morning, we found an old man on an open, paved area who had a three-foot stick with a calligraphy brush at one end. The stick contained water much like a pen allowing him to paint Chinese characters and calligraphy on the ground while a small group of people gathered around to watch. Everything he produced had dried up and disappeared ten minutes after he drew it.. Nora, ever the Sinophile, gave a very moving monologue about how nothing he laid down was lasting but that he was here doing it for culture's sake and how this was the real China and real traditions that she loved and that made her want to come here. Sadly, she wouldn't say it all again when Valentine produced a microphone to record it, but I suppose you cannot deliver that sort of speech to order.
In my hotel when I returned was an old Korean man, but he seemed nice enough and an adventurous sort of chap although we didn't speak at great length. I had a phone call to make so he was asleep by the time I came back to the room and I felt ill the next morning so slept in until after he had checked out. After lunch I walked into town and found the bus to the station to buy my ticket to Urumqi for the next day. I'm not sure why the train station is so far, seven miles, out of town. Did the people who built the line give up or run out of steel before they could complete the final stretch of track? It's not as if there is much between the station and the town that would have prevented them building it any closer or as if the line then heads on to another town and this was as close as they could practically bend the track as it passed by.
Ticket bought, I got off the bus early on the way back and walked a couple of miles to the hotel taking in the Sunday market and the old town. The Sunday market is actually open every day including this Friday, albeit with not nearly so many people. The old town is full of character but it's difficult to know whether photographing it falls into the category of naff poverty tourism. I found myself heading into the very heart of it at one point but they want you to pay an entrance fee for that I chose not to. Then it was back to my hotel room for a nap as I tried to recuperate as best I could. By the end of the night, I was in the cafe that offered wireless internet, trying to keep up with the opening day's play in the Ryder Cup. The waiter wanted to chat to me in a friendly way and eventually found himself on the subject of Mr Bean, someone he found so funny that he couldn't stop himself from falling around laughing everytime his name was mentioned. "Oh, he is a very interesting man, that Mr Bean" he said during a brief moment when he could regain suficient composure to speak. It takes all sorts, I suppose.