'I Heard it Through the Grapevine' - Marvin Gaye
As best I could tell, the only difference between first class and second class on the train out of Kashgar was that our 1st class compartments had doors whereas the 2nd class did not. The difference in price was only about forty pounds versus twenty five so I don't feel financially ripped off or anything, but I do feel that more needs to be done to allow a better standard of gentleman such as myself to lord it over the less well-bred members of whatever society I may be travelling through.
Upon arrival at Urumqi I had formed a new plan and wanted to go straight to Turpan that day, even though it would have been easier had I decided beforehand and left the train at an earlier stop. Making use of my short time in Urumqi, I (got lost as I) walked to the foreign languages bookstore to buy a couple of English/Chinese dictionaries to help me in my limited translations. Some words in English may have two or more utterly unrelated meanings (EG: tears), but I hadn't realised until I poured over my new purchases that the same scenario exists tenfold in Chinese. Or, at least, in Pinyin. I was trying to translate some simple text that someone on the train had written in my notebook for me. For each Pinyin word, I had to find its dozen-or-more entries in the dictionary and then carefully compare them to the handwritten Chinese symbols I had also been provided with against those in the dictionary until I found my best guess at what the intended word might be. Even then, I had to revisit it again at dinner that night to try and fill in the words I had been unable to figure out first time around.
My hotel, very much like my residence in Kashgar, was a hotel with a good impression of itself that also had 'dormitory' rooms that were actually normal rooms with three beds in. In this case, the dorm rooms were in the basement and possibly hadn't been cleaned since Mao's day. There was evidence of one other person already staying in the room, who turned out to be a Japanese girl who didn't get back from her day out until one am. Although I was asleep when she came in, we chatted until four which was fine for me as I had no plans for the next day and was happy to be lazy and get over the last of my illness, but I fear I didn't give her day a good start as a result. She had been to a sand dune and had rolled around on it ("You just have to, don't you?" - "Er, do you?"). Her clothes were full of sand which meant her bed became full of sand which she had to keep brushing onto the floor. I must have walked on it and picked it up on my feet because the next night my bed was full of it.
When I finally rose, I took a stroll around town. The principle highlight of the town centre and its very-wide streets was the long boulevard that stretches all the way down to my hotel which is covered on the sides and across the top with grapevines. Possibly this is seasonal, but at the moment they are all bearing much fruit and looking very attractive indeed. All services at the hotel are laughably expensive but fortunately, they are all also provided by the information cafe situated around the back - also covered by the ubiquitous grapevines. This includes food, laundry and internet. As I sat there that night reading and typing over dinner, I couldn't help but be amused by the chat from the English group at the next table. My ears were first pricked when I heard them talking about how they didn't believe that all these Muslims could really go through their lives without ever drinking. Conversation was headed by one fifty-something man who sounded as if mystified that anyone, let alone an entire society, could exist without life's fundamentals of oxygen, water and alcohol. His similarly-aged travelling companion assured him that all Muslims drink really, they just pretend they don't, "except perhaps these ones you see on telly who go and do that suicide bombing". Later, when plates of chips arrived for all of them to eat, I noted a quiet doleful frustration that they found themselves in a place of the world that didn't even have HP sauce. And so the conversation went on. I had them down for a tour party who had flown in for a guided look around China that they had read about in a brochure, but talking to the two aforementioned protagonists later when the others had retired to bed, they told me how they had travelled through both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to get here, so they cannot have been entirely fish out of water.
This reminds me of a Welsh couple I overheard in the hostel bar in Beijing one night. They were explaining to a pair of Americans how the UK was in the middle of breaking up and wouldn't exist in a few years. First off, they told how Scottish independence was all but a done deal, then said that Welsh independence was getting there "slowly but surely". I sort of felt the urge to lean over and put them right before they continued on with "Of course, the next big thing coming is that Cornwall wants independence which will leave the UK even smaller". By chance, I had been talking to a Cornish guy in the bar earlier that very same day and we had been looking at the official website for the Cornish independence movement and having a chuckle together at these minority loonies, and here I was now listening to two poor Americans being told about it as if it were gospel truth. I looked out for them over the coming days to try and explain the truth, but the opportunity never arose.
By morning, I had assiged this day to be bike hire day. The information cafe had five on offer. Unfortunately, one was a child-sized mountain bike and the other four were old boneshakers with ladies saddles. I agonised over my options for ages, including jacking the whole idea in or looking elsewhere, before plumping for the little mountain bike. I headed west out of town for a few miles, trying not to look silly, in search of the Jiaohe Ruins. After racing some kids riding home from school (whilst pretending not to race them) I spied hundreds of uninhabited sand-coloured buildings on the distant hillside that looked likely so left the main road to go after them. They turned out to be housing grapes for reasons that you would probably know to be an important part of the grape-growing process if you were a grape farmer. Which I am not. I made my way through them on the sandy hillside with not a soul in sight for a while before they suddenly gave way to tombs, at least some of which were recent.
By now, I could see a new location on the next hill over which I decided was my ruins, so was heading towards it. I turned a corner and, completely unexpectedly, I found myself overlooking a steep slope down to a wide river heading towards a dam. A majestic view it was too. I remember before I came on my travels, receiving some sage words of advice from ol' Babs Kuhr. She told me that when I found myself in some remote spot miles from the next human being, never to be so deluded as to kid myself that I was the first traveller to come this way. Be realistic and understand that thousands, if not more, tourists come this way all the time. Nonetheless, the solitude of the afternoon made the view that little bit more special.
I dragged my bike down the slope, or rather, we dragged each other, and then rode across the open flat where the river had split into many streams before reforming further out. As I took my hired bike across thick mud, over bumps and through water, it developed a nasty screaching noise and the wheels stopped turning as freely as one comes to expect from a working bicycle, By the time I dragged it up to the main road, I was beginning to wonder what they would make of this back at the cafe and was consoling myself that I had only paid Y100 deposit. A mile down the road and most of the mud had fallen off and perhaps it had dried because the screaching finally stopped as well.
By which time I had found myself in the car park for the elusive ruins. They were built on a large isle where the river naturally splits into two canyons for a little over a mile before rejoining as one again. This made for natural defences which meant the city had had no walls. The other point of interest was that all of the buildings and roads had been constructed by digging down into the rock rather than building walls and roofs upwards from materials such as bricks. I had only come here as an off chance to fill some time in the day and to give my bike a direction and purpose whilst I pedalled it, but this can't have been far off being one of the wonders of the world in its day. Protecting the site means that you sadly can't clamber or walk around wherever you like and must instead keep yourself to the man-made walkways, but it was a glorious place to walk around for a couple of hours.
They didn't seem to notice or check the bike when I took it back so the next day I hired it again and set out to try to find Grape Valley, which my guidebook assured me was spectacular in September. According to available maps, I had to head north on any road in town until I hit the main 312 highway which I needed to follow east for a few kilometres before turning left for the valley. Every effort to head north towards the 312 was thwarted by dead ends or other grape plantations. After each one I kept trying to go back, head further east and try the next turning north again. In the end, this policy had me heading due south out of town and I never did find the actual valley. Fortunately, the area is riddled with grapes being farmed so I found myself riding through local farming districts and across fields for a couple of hours, which I like to tell myself was just as good and maybe a bit more authentic that the Y40-entry fee Grape Valley.
That night, I dined under the vines in the cafe behind the hotel, as I had every other night. The man who ran it engaged me in a conversation about chairs while he was closing up. He explained to me about the relative prices, quantities and quality of chairs here and in the Kashgar branch of the cafe. His English was no better than my Mandarin so I didn't really understand him, but the general jist seemed to be that it was not a good situation. He then disappeared off and returned with a bottle Baijo, Chinese rice wine akin to vodka, and invited me to first have a glass and then finish the bottle with him. Two and a half hours of poor translations later, the bottle was indeed finished along with our sobriety and the goodwill of my stomach. I took a picture of the two of us and our bottle before I left, where I look considerably perkier than I felt and, to be fair, he looks worse than he seemed. His wife found it very funny when we showed he the next morning though.