Prepaid GSM
Getting around

Part 2: Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Urumqi, Turpan

29.9-30.9: Munich -> Bangkok -> Guangzhou
1.10: Guangzhou -> Shenzhen
2.10: Shenzhen -> Urumqi
3.10: Urumqi -> Turpan -> Xiaohe -> Urumqi
4.10: Urumqi -> Kashgar
5.10: Kashgar
6.10: Kashgar -> Karakul lake -> Tashkurgan
7.10: Tashkurgan -> Khunjerab pass -> Kashgar
8.10: Kashgar -> Urumqi
9.10: Urumqi -> Dunhuang

10.10: Dunhuang
11.10: Dunhuang -> Chongqing
12.10: Chongqing -> Wanzhou
13.10: Wanzhou -> Yichang

14.10: Yichang -> Shanghai

15.10: Shanghai -> Hangzhou
16.10: Hangzhou
17.10: Hangzhou -> Qingdao
18.10: Qingdao -> Dalian
19.10: Dalian -> Beijing
20.10: Beijing
21.10: Beijing -> Bangkok
22.10: Bangkok -> Munich

29.9-30.9:  Munich -> Bangkok -> Guangzhou
Hotel Wu Fu, 501 San Yuan Li road, Tel. +86-20-62691888. 210 yuan for a nice room with A/C (remote control, adjustable.), bathroom+shower, TV, fridge, telephone and a not so fast Internet connection. Good value. In the hotel there is a restuarant in the lobby and a small shop. Only problem is that the location is so-so (far away from downtown Guangzhou, but close to the bus terminal). Difficult to get a taxi outside the hotel. Overall recommended. Hotel rate in the lobby is 400 Yuan, but when I leave they hand me over a business card with an offer for a room for 168 Yuan.
Weather: in Munich sunny and warm, no clouds, an ideal Oktoberfest weather. Overcast sky in and around Bangkok with a more or less thick clouds layer, which gets thinner and thinner the more we travel towards Guangzhou. Warm and humid in Guangzhou.

We manage to queue up at the check-in counter of the airport shortly after 7pm. The airport is quite full of people, a mix of business people probably heading home after a week of work and tourists visiting the Oktoberfest. Lots of people are queueing up at the Star Alliance counters, but luckily this time there are enough open counters.

We finish the check-in process at 7:45pm, then proceed to the Burger King restaurant for some fast greasy junk food. Around 8:10pm we head towards the security check and passport control counters. Alissia no longer looks as in the passport photo, because the photo was taken when she was a few months old. Around 8:40pm we head to the gate. It appears that the flight is delayed by 20 minutes, leaving at 9:30pm instead of 9:10pm.

The flight to Bangkok is surprisingly smooth, with the 12 hours passing without effort. For the first time Alissia manages to sleep for most of the night, essentially falling asleep at 1am CET and sleeping until we wake her up before the landing a bit after 7am CET (=12pm Thai time).

The plane lands in the new Suvarnabhumi airport, which lies 25km south of Bangkok, at 1:43pm - one hour too late. A bus picks us up and brings us to the gate. By the time we are there it's 2pm. Then we start looking for the transfer counter to get the new boarding passes. It takes some time to find this counter, as there are no street signs indicating the way. Then there is a queue and by the time we finish getting the boarding passes it's 2:30pm, meaning that not much time is left to explore the new airport.

The Suvarnabhumi airport is shiny and new and not yet 100% completed, as there are some works ongoing internally. Also, many shops have not opened yet. To get to the shops you have to go one level higher (on the arrivals floor there aren't many). Most shops on the higher level sell or are owned by western brands. Not too many Asian products for sale, which is quite interesting.

The airport is quite big, and it takes some time to make it to the gate C6 where the Thai flight TG678 to Guangzhou leaves (I'm there at 3pm). By the way, the A/C does not work everywhere in the airport. In some areas it's very hot.

Also the plane has no A/C when I get in - inside it's quite hot. It doesn't help that the flight is delayed by 20 minutes. Finally, around 3:45pm, the plane takes off and some time later the A/C works. The plane is almost empty.

The plane lands with a minimal delay at 7:20pm in the Bayun airport in Guangzhou. After that things go very fast: I pass through the health check, immigration, retrieve my luggage, customs and head to the exit. Right in front of the exit there is a Citibank ATM - what an incredible luck. I have a Citibank card and there are no fixed fees on withdrawals, except that the rate is 0.7% worse than the interbank rate . I withdraw 6000 Yuan, just to have some cash available. Next to the ATM there is the hotel reservation counter, where lots of girls are waiting for me and all speak English. By the time I finish everything and get into the taxi - disembarkment, luggage retrieval, immigration, cash withdrawal and hotel booking - it's 8:05pm. 45 minutes for everything, this is a very efficient airport.

The taxi  takes 40 minutes to get to the hotel (cost is 105 Yuan including the motorway toll - outside the airport a Chinese guy had offered to do the trip for 200 Yuan). I spend the evening calling home to Europe, trying to call Malaysia (Skype) and downloading my emails.

1.10:  Guangzhou -> Shenzhen
Hotel Xiangmantian hotel, Tel. 0755-82344448, near the train station. 180 Yuan for a small room with a very small bath, TV, A/C, small cupboard, telephone and Internet connection. A/C with remote control, adjustable. Compared to the hotel in Guangzhou, not good value.
Weather: overcast sky in the morning in Guangzhou, windy. Overcast in Shenzhen, warm but not hot.

I get up at 7:15am and get ready for the day. At 9:40am I have a late breakfast/lunch in the restaurant of the hotel (have to wait 20 minutes, a bit long for what I'm used to). At 10:15am I check out and start looking for a taxi. It's a long wait, as all taxis are full.

Finally at 10:50am I manage to get a taxi and we drive to the bus station, which we reach five minutes later. Then everything happens surprisingly fast: despite lots of people queueing up at the ticket counters I only spend a few minutes waiting and shortly after 11am I have a bus ticket to Shenzhen (62 Yuan). I walk towards the buses and within a minute or two I'm in the right bus and have a seat. The bus leaves at 11:10am - almost no time lost since I reached the bus station.

The bus needs some time to get out of Guangzhou and reach the motorway. After that it's a speedy trip along the motorway, with no traffic jams worth mentioning, despite the national day. There are a few accidents along the way, with several cars bumped into each other.

We reach the outskirts of Shenzhen 1:30 h later, but then it takes another hour, with a few intermediate stops to finally arrive in downtown Shenzhen at the train station. So the trip takes 2:30 h in total. Later I learn that I could have taken a train leaving every 10 minutes from Guangzhou and doing the trip in 1:15 h.

At the train station, which by the way is huge, as everything in China, while I walk around trying to find a taxi, I get adopted by a local tout who offers to bring me to a hotel. Travel rule Nr. 1 is to never follow a tout to a hotel, but it's almost 2pm and I have no hotel booking (would have to look for a hotel in the Lonely Planet China), so since I'm just spending one night here, I just follow this guy. After all, he is promising a room with an Internet connection for 180 Yuan which seems ok.

Well, the first room he shows me is a tiny hole with no windows, which I immediately reject. Then he brings to another hotel in the same skyscraper, where there is a substantially better room (bigger, has windows with a view and an Internet connection) for the same price. How is it possible that two rooms with widely different standards cost the same? Never mind. By the way, at 180 Yuan this room offers much less than the room in Guangzhou, so either the hotels in Shenzhen are more expensive than the ones in Guangzhou, or I got a good deal in Guangzhou or this guy is pocketing a substantial commission. He claims only to get 15 Yuan, but who knows.

Anyway, this guy's name is "John" and he offers to be my guide in Guangzhou until the evening for 100 Yuan. This is actually not a bad idea, as I have no clue as to what to see in Shenzhen, my time is limited and I need to get a number of things done today, first and most important of which is to secure a plane ticket to Urumqi. So I agree and around 2:30pm the sightseeing of Shenzhen finally starts. Later I realise that it was the best decision I took today, because John is a friendly and efficient guy who knows everything about Shenzhen and helps me save a lot of time.

We first head to a travel agency (in or near the train station building). There I purchase a ticket to Urumqi for 2140 Yuan. It's the China Southern 3:40pm flight, which would have cost 2840 Yuan, had I bought it through the China Southern website.

We spend the afternoon seeing a number of places in Shenzhen. First I go on the top of a skyscraper (60 Yuan, the "tourist building"), from which there is a nice view of Shenzhen. Then we head to a newly built square (which opened today) in front of the new city council building, opposite the Sheraton hotel and a new trade fair. We then head to a couple of theme parks, full of Chinese tourists and are back in central Shenzhen after 6pm. It's getting dark and after shooting some night photos of Shenzhen and visiting the Dongmen shopping area (where I buy a SIM card for 120 yuan with 96 Yuan of airtime on it), the day ends with a dinner in a Chinese restaurant. I'm back in the hotel around 9pm.

Shenzhen is a new city with no historic sights. Despite the high degree of commercial activity, the centre of Shenzhen is pleasant enough to walk around. It essentially consists of new buildings and skyscrapers. Shenzhen is well suited for shopping or relaxing in a cafe or restaurant.

2.10:   Shenzhen -> Urumqi
Hotel Silver Star, Urumqi. Five star hotel, 480 Yuan for a luxurious single room with breakfast and everything, including an Internet connection. I don't need  so much luxury, but this is what I was able to book at 10:40pm at the airport in Urumqi (I asked for a 4-5 star hotel with Internet in the room).
Weather: overcast sky in the morning in Shenzhen, slightly foggy, again no rain, hot and steamy.

At 9am I wake up for the first time, then I sleep again until 10am, when the alarm clock wakes me up. Then I check my mails and surf a bit the Internet, checking among others information about Urumqi. It seems that the Karakoram highway up to the Khunjerab pass is very interesting. I guess I'll do that from Kashgar. Staying in Turpan for the night could be an option, but I don't want to change hotels every day.

I get ready and at 12:15pm I check out, leaving my bags in the hotel. I get out, pass by the same lady and guy who since yesterday are offering a girl for some massage and head towards the shopping complex I saw yesterday, where I have some food. In a drugstore I buy a LED torchlight (eight white LEDs) for 10 Yuan - ridicolously low price of just one Euro, if compared to what such items cost in Europe.

Then at 1pm I get back to the hotel, take my bags and go down. This time getting a taxi is faster, I only have to wait a few minutes and leave for the airport at 1:15pm. The drive to the airport is smooth and fast, taking about 40 minutes. At the airport I initially head to the e-business counter of China Southern, but the lady tells me to go straight to the check-in counter, even if I have just an e-ticket. When I check in my suitcase the lady says it's 6kg overweight, which translates into a 213 Yuan overweight charge.

The plane to Urumqi is surprisingly almost full. I wonder if these people all fly to Urumqi, or if perhaps most will get out in Changsha, an intermediate stop along the route. By the way, the plane is an ancient stone age Boeing 757, with in-cabin labels in both English and Spanish. Perhaps some US airline dumped their old machines to China Southern. Let's hope this plane does not break apart into pieces and lands safely in Urumqi.

The plane lands in Changsha at 5:15pm for a 40 minutes stop. All passengers have to get out of the plane while the plane gets cleaned. Around 5:50pm the plane continues the flight to Urumqi. There are fewer people than before, but still enough to make me wonder if it will be easy to find a hotel in Urumqi. By the way, the more I read about Xinjang, the more interesting it sounds and the longer I'm planning to stay in the region. It seems that Xinjiang offers a unique combination of breathtaking scenery, clean blue skies culture and history. I'll probably stay in Xinjiang longer than the week I originally planned.

The plane lands punctually in Urumqi at 10:15pm. After that everything goes quite fast - the luggage is unloaded quickly, so quickly in fact that before I finish negotiating with the hotel booking counter some service guy already brings my luggage to the lost luggage counter. I end up booking a night in a relatively pricey five star hotel.

The trip from the airport to the hotel takes around 20 minutes and costs 50 yuan. During the trip the driver tries to sell me a drive to Turpan for 1000 yuan initially, then for 800 yuan. But as I remember I paid 400 yuan/day for a car+driver in Yunnan, so I don't accept this offer.

3.10:   Urumqi -> Turpan -> Xiaohe -> Urumqi
Hotel Silver Star, Urumqi. Nice comfortable bath with a good shower. The breakfast is buffet-style, not bad but not on the same level as in other five star hotels where I've been.
Weather: finally a nice (light) blue sky for the whole day, with some thin clouds every now and then. The air is cleaner than elsewhere in China, but still quite dusty, especially in Urumqi. This is probably due to the lack of rain, which would otherwise clean the air. Quite fresh in the morning (I have to wear a thin sweater), warm at noon.

Due to the jet lag I couldn't fall asleep last night and this morning the alarm clock wakes me up at 9am. I rush to get ready for breakfast (manage to be there by 9:50am), then around 10:30am I leave the hotel.

The first thing to do is to secure the transportation to Turpan (Turufan or Tulufan in Chinese). I don't have to wait a long time. A taxi shows up within a minute or so and we start discussing the trip to Turpan. We settle on 500 Yuan, which later become 600 Yuan because there are 100 Yuan toll road fees. Did I pay too much? Maybe I could have negotiated down the price by 100 Yuan, but it's more or less in line with the 400 Yuan/day daily car+driver rent fee to which I'm used in China.

The driver obviously speaks only Chinese, but this is good, because I'm forced to practice the language. When it gets too complicated, I pull out the Palm organiser which has a Chinese interpreter and character recognition software and ask the driver to write the word on it. With this simple solution I'm able to understand even complex terms, such as high speed road toll etc.

The drive first heads to a car mechanic and has his tires checked/fixed for the long trip (over 200km as I later learn). We finally leave Urumqi shortly after 11am. After spending about 10 minutes negotiating its way out of Urumqi, the driver reaches the new motorway.

Quite a good road - smooth, large enough, almost no curves. On a motorway like this there would be no speed limits. After about half an hour we pass by a huge wind generator farm, consisting of a huge number of individual wind generation towers. Quite an impressive sight.

I was thinking of doing some stops in interesting spots along the road between Urumqi and Turpan, but it turns out that the entire area between these two cities is unremarkable. It's a flat, empty and dry stone desert, with nothing to see except some dry hills in the background.

Around 12:20pm we pass by some mountains, the valley becomes narrow and the motorway starts winding a bit. We finally reach the outskirts of Turpan at 1:35pm, two and a half hours after we left Urumqi. The driver looks immediately for a petrol station, because the engine is coughing. His car is using liquefied gas and apparently there is not enough of it left. We then drive to the old city (not so old actually) and stop in front of the Bank of China building.

It turns out that it was not such a great idea to take a taxi to Turpan in Urumqi, because this driver is not familiar at all with Turpan and does not know where the tourist attractions are.  It takes a while for instance to find this famous minaret in Turpan. Also, I hear that you can also get from Urumqi to Turpan by train. So basically it would have been better to get to Turpan by train or bus and hire a local taxi driver there.

Never mind, at 2:45pm we reach the minaret, which, well, is not too impressive. I also visit the nearby king's palace, equally unimpressive. The bazaar near the Bank of China is interesting, but so far I have to say that Turpan looks pretty unimpressive.

It's 4:20pm when we are back in town (the minaret is slightly out of the town centre) and I need some lunch. Since I can't find anything suitable in a short time, I head to the Chinese fast food restaurant, which looks like a copy of a KFC restaurant. The Chicken burger is different from the KFC burgers and actually much better. Less greasy, (almost) no mayonnaise, the chicken meat is not fried in bread crumbs which take up the fat.

20 minutes later I'm back and look for the driver. He is currently not there so I have to wait a few minutes. We then head towards the ruins of the ancient city of Jiaohe, briefly stopping at the reconstruction of a traditional Uighur village before arriving at 5:30pm.

Jiaohe, a UNESCO world heritage site, is kind of interesting although not much is left of the buildings. Almost the entire town is razed to the ground, and what is left has badly suffered from the erosion, as the buildings are made of dried mud bricks. The city is quite big and it takes a while to explore it. I'm back at the driver's car over an hour later, at 6:40pm.

Now it's a matter of rushing back to Urumqi, because it's a long drive and it will be dark in one and a half hours. In the car I browse through the map of Turpan, which the driver bought. It seems I missed a great sight - the sand dunes in Kumutag, near Turpan. But there simply is no time left for a new detour. Either I'll get back to Turpan or try to get to some sand dunes from Kashgar.

The driver first goes to a car mechanic, then refuels the car and slightly after 7pm starts driving back to Urumqi. We reach the hotel at 9:30pm. I buy some food in a shop, then head back to the room. I sleep at 2am, because I'm busy doing a lot of things.

Copyright 2006 Alfred Molon