Side-street of Uighur district
Perhaps, many will agree with me that the first thing China strikes with is its ‘scaleness’ inherent in everything. For example, the building of Alashankou Railway Station: the really main gate of the country which is not a shame to show to the visitors. The feeling of solemnity was intensified by Chinese frontier guards saluting to the sounds of impressive march to meet the train.
The topographical maps we brought in were immediately ignored after we have said that their scale was 5 km to 1 cm. Nobody looks at food, the expected total search does not take place, as well as taking the temperature in any form. Everything ends up rather quickly, only one moment is not clear enough – passports are taken out (as it turned out, it is a popular practice in China, when for some pretty long time you stay without documents identifying your personality while these documents are being checked and enriched by necessary stamps). Passportless we are walking along the platform, absorbing the first impressions of being in the strange country.
‘Urumqi is the first trade city in the Western Region. It exports goods to Kuldja, Chuguchak and Chinese Turkestan via Komul. There are many capitalists in it, who buy up herds of goods and sell them’, wrote Valikhanov long ago. Urumqi is still the same, but one should not try to confine its role to that of a huge bazaar as it often happens.
Actually, Urumqi makes one ponder over how rapidly a city can develop. But when Kazakhstani and Russian people get here, they usually see but a great market Bianjiang and the district of the same name, which are intended only for Russian speaking public, whose aim is buying up various goods. And very often when I hear such people relate stories about the city that reveal only one side of the reality, I tend to compare them with the fantastic tales of medieval pilgrims (surely in present-day context) who described dreadful sea-dragons and other nonsense due to their ignorance. But, Urumqi is not only Bianjiang. It is green parks, the most beautiful of which is Hongshan, the park on the Red Mountain (though there is an opinion that Urumqi is an absolutely grey city deprived of any green plantations), and the Uighur district where life still goes according to old traditions; and ultramodern center with its skyscrapers, each of them having its own distinguishing features of Chinese or Muslim style. Here you can meet a girl wearing an orange robe of a roadman, her face almost completely covered with a veil, but her hands holding a mobile phone. In my opinion, this picture strongly reflects the connection between to- and yester-days, which makes Urumqi so remarkable.
Some hotels where we ventured to show in order to know the price, turned out so expensive that we began doubt whether it was China. However, the Chance came to our help, as usual. A guy in the street addressed to us in English, and from a conversation we knew that he was a tourist guide and therefore knew the city well, where we could stop and was able to help us. He wrote names of several hotels with the prices which suited to us according to him, and showed approximate way. We walked for a long time; then we decided to take a taxi to get to the first hotel in the list (this was not a bad idea, considering that taxi-drivers could read Chinese, and the hieroglyphs written by our helper were not just a set of signs for them in contrast to us). It is nice that taxi is rather cheap in China, very cheap I would say. But when I was getting into the car I did not know how much they will take from me. Sanya with his bicycle had to stay at the crossroad where we were to meet after I settle down in the hotel and heap all our stuff there.
The interesting situation turns out with the keys in Chinese hotels. In Urumqi as well as in any other place we stayed later on (excluding Kashgar), nobody would hand us keys. On leaving you just shut the door; when you come back you go to open it with the attendant who is the keeper of the huge jingling bunch of keys. The price of accommodation in China struck me in spite of its cheapness (probably because of unbelievably cheap Nepal where I traveled two years ago). A double room with TV, bathroom, toilet and inevitable flask with boiling water cost us from 50 to 100 yuans (which is $6-12). Though they say that there are places with lower prices, we did not succeed in finding them.
Street life in Urumqi does not stop until 3 or 4 at night. The most interesting fact is that this does not happen due to the tourists looking for entertainment. To the contrary, the citizens of Urumqi themselves begin to visit beauty parlors and drugstores; they occupy numerous cafes and street stands. Actually, they live not a special night life but quite normal everyday one.
The point which astonished us greatly in Urumqi and surprised us later on is that in Western China it is often quite difficult to find usual for us Chinese goods. In vain tried we to find gas for a gas-jet which we did not even think to take with us considering it will be equal to taking Chinese noodles or checkered polypropylene bags. But there was not any gas and we had to look for ‘alternative energy resources’ later on. Nor did we find Chinese tinned stew in Urumqi, that is so popular among Kazakhstani people since the early 90-s. By the end of the journey we have understood (though we supposed that before) that to get acquainted with China we should go easterly – to Beijing or Shanghai. But this was absolutely another country, Turkestan in a word.
I should say that Sanya arrived in China with his own bicycle (by the way, his antipathy to Kharkov Bicycle Plant grew stronger with every kilometer of our way), so his having passed such a long way can be deservedly called a feat. As for me, I did not have a bike and was planning to buy it in Urumqi. Pottering around the city on our first day in it, we ran against a shop which turned out a dream of a bike-lover and a bicycle club in a way. We could quickly find common language with few guys who perfectly knew what a cyclist needs, regardless the fact that only one of them spoke English and his English was not a good one. The next day we came there with money and went out or, to be more precise, rode out on a bicycle Merida Warrior, which helped me get in Kashgar and to which I now entertain the warmest feelings.
Communication with the Chinese, contrary to the general opinion, is quite possible, and not only with the gestures as it was in the bicycle shop. The phrases taken from the phrase-book are also understandable. And, the Turkic part of the city’s population (Uighurs, Kazakhs, Uzbeks and so on) was a boon for us: possessing basic knowledge of the Kazakh language one can speak to them fairly good.
There was also another man who wished us to have a good trip, Mr. Chen who hailed us in Russian when we were cycling out Urumqi to leave for our long traveling. Over a cup of tea in an Uighur cafe where this hospitable and inquisitive Chinese invited us, we knew that he mastered Russian when working in Chinese Embassy in Kyrgyzstan. Besides, he traveled in Russia much. We shared our plans with him, exchanged contacts and got his farewell, as well as the proposal to call him up if we need his help.