I visited China in 2003 on a three-month trip travelling back to Germany from Hong Kong overland that also brought me to Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Azerbaijan and Georgia before ending in a Mad Dash Home to make it back in time for Christmas.
A word of warning. The quality of my pictures from this trip is bad, I was a bad photographer and I had an early digital 3,3 MP camera. Due to a shortage of memory cards I set the resolution down to 1 MP, what a mistake. Taken as memories from this trip, they are still quite enjoyable.
I had visited China for the first time the previous year. Whereas I was very happy about returning to Hong Kong I felt conflicted about China. On one hand a very interesting place, on the other hand I found it complicated, difficult and annoying. Because of this, I decided to spend little time there and cross quickly to get to Central Asia. I spend six days in Hong Kong and planned to spend the same amount of time to cross China to Kyrgyzstan, a distance, as the crow flies, of more than 4000km. Crazy idea but I was young and inexperienced. The only thing I really wanted to do was a cruise on the Yangtze river. The famous Three Gorges dam was under construction, I travelled in September 2003 and the 1st of June of the same year the flooding of the reservoir had started. The Yangtze would never be as close to its original state as now. To get to the Three Gorges, I first took a train from Hong Kong to Guangzhou (Canton). Walking around town, I get totally lost (pre-smartphone era), I have not the slightest clue where I am and where to go. As it gets night, I take a taxi to bring me back to the centre. I take another train to Wuhan.
I still find it difficult to find people who speak English but things work as long you stay on the tourist trail. Reception staff in tourist-oriented hotels/hostels does speak English and they usually have a travel desk where you can get train ticket, tours and other things. This way, your interaction with the China outside the tourist bubble is limited. Yangtze cruises do not seem to be on the usual circuit for independent travellers and I have some trouble finding the right agents. Eventually, I find one and the girl even speaks some English. We soon have an acceptable deal for a three-day cruise. I pay. I am even promised an English-speaking guide. But the boat doesn’t start from Wuhan, I still have to go a few hours by bus. The girl takes a taxi with me to the bus station, as we arrive, she pays and counting her change complains. The driver gives her some more money, we get out but before the driver leaves, she bangs against the car because he short-changed her again. Unbelievable, trying to cheat someone twice. She puts me on a bus and tells me someone will pick me up at the final destination. As we arrive in Jingzhou it is already dark and no one is there to pick me up. Have I been cheated? Before the last people from my bus disappear, I am asking for help, no one speaks English but I have a dictionary with me. Chinese being a language basically devoid of grammar you just have to pick the words and put them into the right order. They get what I’m looking for but how are they supposed to help? I have nothing, not even a phone number to call. Suddenly a girl comes running, sorry, late. She brings me to a hotel and then they want some extra money. I refuse, they get me on the phone with someone who speaks English, they say I need to pay extra as its single-occupancy of the room. You knew that before, I reply. I end up paying half of what they demand. Did I say I do not really like this country?
Next morning someone picks me up and brings me to the boat with my English-speaking guide. Unfortunately, her English is mostly limited to “hello”, “thank you” and “sorry” but they are smart enough to put me in a cabin with someone who does speak some English. He is travelling with his young daughter. The other man in the cabin proudly tells me that he is an elected village representative, China was experimenting with democracy on the local level at that time.
I am the only foreigner aboard and I am an attraction. When I sit on the deck people come up and just stare at me. That seems to be completely acceptable behaviour and knows no limits. Sometimes it gets funny, I’m sitting there reading a book as someone crouches down in front of me to be able to glance at the book title. I’m sure, I’m appearing on countless photographs. We sometimes stop at temples, or beautiful scenic spots and leave the boat. I’m standing somewhere beautiful; someone stands quite close to me as someone else takes a picture, I try to be nice and move away to not disturb them. Everybody looks disappointed. I move back to get into the frame.
I soon meet Melissa, that is not her real name but all Chinese adopt an English name when they start learning the language. She is about my age, comes from Shanghai, recently quit her job and now wants to explore her country a bit. Her English is okay, we can communicate. I quickly realize that she has an independent spirit and makes up her own mind. Together with the Japanese photographer (no English) we might be the only people travelling alone on the ship. When we get on land I always go with Melissa, I can’t understand the instruction of the guide anyway and she also likes to do her own thing instead of following the tour. It is good to have someone who knows this country, knows how the food is called, can talk with people.
In Jingzhou, the Yangtze is very wide but soon we get to a lock and shortly after that the landscape becomes hilly and the river narrower. After some hours, we approach the locks of the Three Gorges Dam, in four steps we are lifted about 70m up to the current water level, the process takes 3 hours. The landscape becomes more mountainous and soon spectacular. We have reached the three Gorges. The river is very narrow in parts. Time and again, we see the sign indicating 175m above sea level, the future waterline, everything below will be flooded. The environmental impact of the dam is massive, historical monuments have been moved but some will be lost forever, a path cut into the rock snakes along the waterline, in a few years it will be gone. All in all, about 1300 archaeological sites will be flooded. Houses close to the waterline will be lost as well; in many villages you see sets of new houses higher up the valley. People have sometimes not received proper compensation. The Chinese government thinks big, the whole region is being transformed, new roads, new bridges, it is being catapulted into the future, it has no choice. The ground has been prepared for the rising water, trees have been felled (as not to stick out in the end), around towns concrete has been deployed to secure the ground, floating docks that can slide up with the rising water have been built. In Fengdu a whole quarter of town is deserted, being given away to the rising water.
The cruise is over and we take a bus to Chongqing, Melissa travels on to some monastery in the mountains, I’d like to join but I have no time, I have several visas for Central Asia and they are running already, I’ve stayed in China longer than planned, it is time to say goodbye. She buys me a ticket for the train to Ürümqi in Xinjiang province. By now, I have gotten used to China, I see that problems can be overcome and I start enjoying the place.
The train ride takes 55 hours. I am in a compartment with people I cannot speak with, I find that weird, and they find that weird. As the train becomes emptier over time they move to other compartments so at the end I am alone. I bought the wrong instant noodles, supermarkets have a wide selection of them and I just picked some, they taste horrible and it doesn’t change no matter how much water I add. Besides that, the landscape is interesting and becomes dryer the further west we go. Have a look at the map, there are not many places on earth further away from any ocean.
It pains me to write about Xinjiang because it is such a glaring example for what is going wrong on this planet (besides forceful and necessary action against climate change). For me Ürümqi was a normal Chinese city, temples, new buildings of questionable taste, parks and people doing Tai-Chi in them. People on the street looked Han Chinese. In retrospect, I realize that the transformation from an Uighur to a Han Chinese city had already progressed far. In Kashgar, again I wasn’t aware of all that back then, you could see the transformation in full swing. The new city centre with a statue of Mao, old houses being torn down, replaced by buildings that bore no resemblance to the local culture. Today Xinjiang has become a giant prison where the Chinese state shows its worst face. Every thought of Uighur cultural and political autonomy or independence has to be stamped out, the region has to be made as Han-Chinese as possible. I am not denying the existence of Uighur extremists, but China’s reaction is not directed at these extremists only but at Uighurs as a whole. Modern surveillance technology is deployed in an unprecedented way, millions of Muslim Uighurs are interned in re-education camps (work-training camps China-speak) against their will. If you mention Xinjiang on your visa application it will be rejected (although you can still go by applying for a visit to unsuspecting places 😉), reports have surfaced that tourists were forced to install malware on their smartphones if they wanted to visit. What is the world’s reaction? Well, most people just don’t know, Western governments utter criticism sparingly, China is powerful and an important trading partner. The Muslim World is silent, neighbouring Pakistan is hoping for Chinese money to get its economy going, Saudi-Arabia, the self-styled guardian of Islam, is busy keeping its own dirty fingers hidden. A sorry state of affairs is that.
As I arrive in Ürümqi I get another China experience. Leaving the train station plenty of touts are waiting at the exit trying to hand out flyers, but they are not just standing there and hoping I will take some, they are basically jumping on you and trying to attach fliers everywhere they can, I find several somehow stuffed under the cover of my backpack. So weird. The next day, I have my personal train ticket epiphany. I tell another traveller that I need to go to a travel agent to buy the ticket to Kashgar. “Why, do it yourself”, he teaches me the word for my preferred class (hard sleeper) and for tomorrow. If you get the pronunciation roughly correct, they will understand. I just hope there comes no question back. It does not, but I get a ticket.
I am lucky, I am right for Kashgar’s Sunday market when traders come from all around. The next day I am heading to the Karakul Lake on 3.600 meters with a Spanish traveller. It is on the Karakoram Highway leading to Pakistan and at the foot of Muztagh Ata (7.546m) and Kongur Tagh (7.649m). The mountains always stay in the clouds but it is still an experience staying the night with the old Kyrgyz man in his simple hut.
There are two mountain passes from Kashgar to Kyrgyzstan, the Torugart towards Bishkek and the Irkeshtam pass towards Osh. Both are served by local buses but the Torugart has become a victim of its fame. Tourists are not allowed to cross with the bus but have to have their own transport on both sides. This costs at least 200$ per car-load. I suspect this developed only because the Lonely Planet, the only available guidebook for Central Asia, made the Torugart crossing famous. I take the bus over the Irkeshtam pass, it is a sleeper bus with actual beds. As it’s night as we cross, we see little of the scenery.
In the end I have spent two weeks in China instead of the few days I had planned, I got used to the country, enjoyed it but still found it a rough and difficult. I visited again in 2015 and there are worlds between these two experiences. It has become a lot easier to travel, modernization, the internet and more English skills work wonders. I also had the feeling that people have become friendlier. Go visit China.