Prepaid GSM
Getting around

Part 3: Urumqi, Kashgar, Karakul lake, Khunjerab pass, Tashkurgan

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

4.10:   Urumqi -> Kashgar
Hotel Xiangdu, Kashgar. 360 yuan for a luxurious and very big double, actually a suite with a first room with a sofa, TV, table etc. and a big bedroom. I actually don't need so much luxury and would prefer a room with Internet access (which this place is lacking). Nice and friendly Chinese lady in the reception, whose daughter studies German in Xian.
Weather: fresh for the whole day in Urumqi, also due to the thin coulds layer which blocks the sunlight. No rain. Fresh but not cold (can walk around in a T-shirt even at night) in Kashgar.

This time I sleep better and wake up shortly after 9am. I stay in the room until 10:20am, mainly checking my messages and travelling information. Dunhuang sounds interesting because of the big sand dunes, but there are also sand dunes in Jarkand near Kashgar, in the Taklaman desert. I post a message in the Lonely Planet's Thorntree message board, asking for information about Jarkand. If the sand dunes are nice and big enough there, it's not necessary to make the stop in Dunhuang. Dunhuang has an airport with direct flights from Urumqi (very early morning however), but to get to Chongqing from Dunhuang you have to transit across Lanzhou (again an early morning flight from Dunhuang).

At 10:20am I rush down for the breakfast. This morning the breakfast is less impressive than yesterday. This may be a five star hotel, but it is not an international class five star hotel like the Hilton or Marriott hotel for instance.

After the (short) breakfast, at about 10:40am I go to the business centre in the hotel and enquire about flights to Kashgar. The 7:05pm China Southern flight is available and costs 700 yuan. But I have to pay cash. I get back to the room and check the price on the website of China Southern airlines. There they quote 1230 yuan - quite a difference! So I pack my things and at 11:45am I check out, leaving the luggage temporarily with the concierge.

Shortly before 12pm I'm back in the business centre and ask to buy the ticket. Not sure what goes wrong, but I'm there for almost 45 minutes and the lady is still unable to issue the ticket (something wrong with the printer). I start to get impatient, because now I have less than five hours to do some sightseeing in Urumqi (will have to be back in the hotel by 5pm, in order to be on time at the airport). With the help of the receptionist I tell the lady to finish the ticket for me, and I'll get it when I'm back at 5pm. I also ask the receptionist for some advice as to what to see in Urumqi. She suggests to have a look at the grand bazaar (guoji da baza).

Finally at 12:45pm I get out of the hotel and fetch a taxi to the bazaar (starting fee is 6 yuan). Before getting to the bazaar I get out of the taxi near an interesting building. From there I slowly walk towards the bazaar, arriving there at 1:20pm. I spot a KFC restaurant where I have some fast&greasy food.

Next to the bazaar there is a mosque. The bazaar itself is relatively modern, actually more of a shopping complex than a bazaar. Outside on the public square there is lots of activity, kind of a fun fair for children. So far I'm not too impressed of Urumqi. Lots of modern buildings, no historic core. But the city here has a middle eastern / central Asian flair, i.e. you can see the Muslim, Turkish and Chinese influences.

Today there are lots of people on the streets, lots of activity and lots of noise everywhere. At 2pm I'm about to go into overload, so I take a taxi and head towards the next place - Zhongshan road, which is supposed to be a shopping area and business/financial centre.

The taxi arrives there in a few minutes. The road itself looks kind of interesting, but again it's very crowded. I'm there for half an hour, then at 2:40pm I've had enough and take a taxi to the next spot, Renmin Gongyuan (people's park). There is an entrance fee of 5 yuan which is surprising, given that public parks in Europe are free, but sufficient to deter the crowds from entering there. The park is quite nice, an oasis of tranquillity in this busy metropolis. There is a nice Chinese temple, but I'd guess that it probably is not too old. The park contains also a fun fair at the southern end.

After half an hour in the park, at 3:35pm I get out of the southern exit and take a taxi to the train station (just out of curiosity). The train station building is quite modern and clean. I try to get in and have a look at what trains there are for Turpan or other destinations. You are only allowed into the train station if you have a ticket and the ticket office is on the left side. Inside everything is written in Chinese characters...

At 4pm I take a taxi back to the hotel. Before getting there I go to the Bank of China near the hotel which I spotted today. There I try to withdraw cash with my ATM card (Citibank Maestro/Cirrus), but although the ATM supposedly supports Cirrus cards, I'm unable to withdraw cash. Apparently the max. withdrawal is a meager 1000 yuan and you must use a credit card. But I would have to transfer some money to the credit card, otherwise there is a fee of 20 Euro per withdrawal - a lot, if each individual withdrawal is just 100 Euro (= 1000 yuan). Even with some money on the card, there still is a 7.50 Euro withdrawal fee.

So basically here in Xinjiang I have a cash problem, as I can't get cash from the ATMs, but people everywhere require cash (!). Even the travel agency this morning asked for cash, and I payed for the hotel with cash, even if the hotel takes credit cards (the travel agents insisted that they wanted to have cash).

So I decide to stay in a hotel in Kashgar which takes credit cards. I get back to the hotel, fetch the plane ticket paying cash for it, and since it's only 4:25pm I go to the restaurant of the Silver Star hotel and order some food. It turns out that this was no good idea, because the club sandwich I ordered is disgusting - contains some fried bacon and some weird fried ham, no salad etc., essentially uneatable.

I pay by credit card. The lady is a bit puzzled and asks me to give her my PIN code. I wonder why on earth she is asking for my PIN code, when a signature on the credit card slip is sufficient. Even her male colleague asks me for the PIN code, and I tell them again to run the card through the machine and let me sign the slip. Then they ask for my room number (but I already checked out) and they get back to the reception of the hotel.

At the reception a group of five people discusses for several minutes what to do. Pretty weird that in a five star hotel they have such problems to accept a credit card payment. In the end they finally get back with a slip, which I sign.

After that I go to the airport by taxi (30 yuan this time, looks like the first transfer from the airport to the hotel was overpriced by 20 yuan). At the airport again the guy at the China Southern check-in counter complains that my luggage is overweight (24 Kg, max. 20 allowed). I explain that there is a long queue and there is no time to do again the queue. He gets rude and throws my ticket on the ground, then points to an overweight counter.

With any other airline an excess weight of 4Kg would have been no problem, but China Southern insists that you must not exceed the 20Kg limit in the economy class. This is annoying because they make you lose time. The 10% more you have to pay is not a problem, given that the ticket is not too expensive.

Never mind, I get the boarding pass and head to the gate. The airport is full of travellers today, but the plane leaves on time (actually even a few minutes early). The plane is quite full, lots of people apparently flying to Kashgar. Next to me an idiot (probably an Uighur because what he says doesn't sound like Chinese) who 10 minutes before landing switches on his mobile phone in the middle of a turbulence and tries to make a call. He finally manages to make the call when the plane is close to touching the ground. Mobile phones contain powerful radio transmitters which can affect the electronics of the plane.

We land in Kashgar at 8:45pm. Surprisingly it's still bright (in Shenzhen it gets dark at 6pm). There is no hotel reservation counter at the airport, so I take a taxi and ask the driver to bring me to a hotel. The driver tells me that the drive from Kashgar to the Karakul lake takes four hours, from Kashgar to Tashkurgan it's six hours. He would charge 1000 yuan for the trip from Kashgar to Tashkurgan and back. Hmmm...

At the hotel they take no credit cards. I say 'thanks, but no thanks', and ask the driver for a hotel where you can pay by credit card. The driver asks the reception lady (very friendly lady by the way, but why is she so obsessed with cash?) if she knows a hotel which accepts credit cards. She makes a couple of phone calls, long discussion, apparently there is no hotel available which takes credit cards. Cash only. But there is a bank of China where I should be able to get a credit card cash advance.

Fine, so I stay in this place and tomorrow I'll go to the bank of China to get a cash advance. Hopefully this will work out (have never tried it before), otherwise I really have a problem, because from what I hear, also the travel agencies take only cash and I still need to buy the plane tickets to get out of Kashgar.

It seems that the Sunday market in Kashgar is not to be missed. I might stay in Kashgar until Sunday, then fly on Sunday to Urumqi and from Urumqi the next day to Dunhuang, and from there to Chongqing via Lanzhou, thereby delaying my arrival in Chongqing by two days. In the evening I sleep after 1am.

5.10:   Kashgar
Hotel Xiangdu, Kashgar.
Weather: clouded sky in the morning

Again I couldn't fall asleep until 4am last night. This morning I wake up at 10am. The first thing to do today will be to secure a cash advance from the Bank of China. After that I'll go to John's cafe to get some information and make contact with some other travellers in order to share the cost of a trip to Tashkurgan.

The Uighurs seem a pretty mixed race. So far most Uighurs I've seen look a bit like Chinese and only few of them have typically Caucasian faces. Probably they've mixed a lot through intermarriages with the Chinese over the past centuries. Kashgar makes a good impression - a cozy, quiet desert town after so big and busy cities such as Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Urumqi.

I get out of the hotel at 12:30pm and walk to the Bank of China to get a cash advance. There they tell me that I have to go to the main branch of the bank of China. I take a taxi and am there at 12:45pm. The withdrawal procedure runs smooth. After some queueing up, they process my request and spend approx. five minutes checking my passport and credit card. Then I get the 6000 yuan I requested. Lots of cash actually, but it has to last until Monday at least, as I will be out of town over the next two days and only back in the weekend when the banks are closed. I also need to buy the plane ticket to Dunhuang.

At 1:20pm I'm out of the bank and start the sightseeing of Kashgar. I only walk around for 15 minutes, then fetch a taxi to John's cafe, where I'm planning to have a lunch, get some information and meet other travellers.

Everything goes according to the plan. At John's cafe I meet Henning, a German who works in Shanghai and speaks fluent Chinese, Kuan Li (let's call him like this for privacy reasons), a Singaporean who shoots photos for magazines and a Korean guy. They are all more or less planning to do a two days trip to the Karakul lake. We discuss the thing then split and I exchange mobile phone numbers with Henning.

At 3pm I take a taxi to the Id Kah mosque. Very unimpressive, at least if compared with the other mosques I've seen. Near the mosque is some kind of bazaar, where I buy some raisins (several different raisin types are available here). The Uighur seller initially charges 20 yuan for a small bag (100 grams or so), which seems expensive even by German standards. When I complain he asks how much I'm willing to pay. It appears that if the seller is an Uighur you have to negotiate the price, which is usually not the case if the seller is a Chinese. Later in the evening I buy a bagel and the Uighur boy initially asks for 5 yuan, which however soon after the other sellers correct to 1 yuan, after I complain. In Germany such a bagel would cost the equivalent of 2-3 yuan and here we are in China.

I then look for the old town but can't find it initially. After exploring a bit the area, I realise that the old town is actually nothing special and quite small. No particularly interesting architecture, not much ancient stuff left. It looks like the whole of Kashgar is not that special, as there are no interesting sights. Nothing or almost nothing of historical or cultural value. The whole town seems quite new and modern. Kashgar is overrated.

At 5pm I'm back at John's cafe. There are actually two John's cafes in Kashgar, one in the Seman hotel and one in the Qinibagh hotel. I have a drink and a small thing and buy a plane ticket to Dunhuang (leaving Kashgar on Sunday for Urumqi and Urumqi on Monday morning for Dunhuang). I then get back into town and check my emails in an Internet cafe. Surprisingly this time they ask for my passport. This has so far never happened to me in an Internet cafe in Asia. In fact it is annoying and when later in the evening when I'm back in the Internet cafe they again ask for the passport I simply walk out and check my emails in an Internet cafe which does not ask for my passport.

At 9:15pm I'm back in John's cafe where I have some dinner and meet Henning, Kuan Li and the other travellers. Long discussion about changed plans, with Kuan Li who wants to see an arch and canyon near Kashgar. In the end we settle on a two days trip to Tashkurgan in a Volkswagen Santana, leaving tomorrow at 9am. We'l leave the big luggage in the hotel and only carry a small bag with us. In the evening packing takes forever and I sleep at 2:30am, after I realize at 2am that I forgot to backup some photos.

6.10:   Kashgar -> Karakul lake -> Tashkurgan
Hotel Jiao Tong, Tashkurgan, 0998-3421192. 120 yuan for a simple double room with a basic toilet with a water heater unit to provide the hot water. The room has some furniture, a TV, a phone but no heating, which would be very important considering that it is freezing cold.
Weather: great weather today, sunshine the whole day, blue sky, just some very small clouds every now and then. Windy, but warm enough at the lake.

The alarm clock wakes me up at 8:20am. I rush to get ready and at 9am I check out in the lobby. At 9:10am the car is still not there, so I call Henning. They are also waiting for the driver. The car finally arrives after 9:30am and we leave Kashgar around 9:50am after shopping for some groceries.

The car proceeds fast on the smooth and wide Karakoram highway towards the Karakul lake. We stop every now and then when there is a photo opportunity. At 10:50am we stop in a village, where Simon and the Korean guy have some food, while I buy some fruits.

We then continue driving and arrive after several stops at the Karakul lake at 2:30pm (at 1:35pm we stop at the lake in front of the Shashan mountain). The scenery so far has been breathtaking. Dry mountain scenery with canyon-like slopes of different colours, the white peaks of the Tianshan mountains in the background, glaciers, peaks, rivers and every now and then some camels and yaks.

We stay at the lake until 5pm, taking a horse ride for 20 yuan around the lake (beautiful turquoise waters, with the snow capped Muztagh Ata mountain in the background). Around the lake there are a few yurts (real ones, made of cloth) and many yurts made of stone. As I'm told the local people are a Kirghis minority who lives there.

At 5:10pm we continue driving towards Tashkurgan. The scenery now becomes less impressive, as it's a dry plateau, a vast and empty plane. I now realise that it would have made more sense to spend only one day here and do the stone arch the next day.

We arrive in Tashkurgan at 6:55pm and check in at the hotel. After that the driver brings us to the ruins of the Tashkurgan fortress. In the evening we have a dinner in a Chinese restaurant.

7.10:   Tashkurgan -> Khunjerab pass -> Kashgar
Hotel Xiangdu, Kashgar. Home, sweet home. Again you have to let the water run for over 30 minutes to get hot water in the bathroom.
Weather: great weather today, sunshine the whole day, spotless blue sky. Freezing cold in the morning in Tashkurgan, then it gets warmer, as the sun comes out. Cold at the Khunjerab pass, but the sun is shining. Fresh in the evening in Kashgar (need a light sweater).

After a good night of sleep (my first since I've arrived to China), I wake up at 9am and am ready at 9:30am. The shower in the hotel is very basic.

After some discussion with the others (the Korean guy ran out of cash and can't proceed to Pakistan, so has to go back to Kashgar and stay there until Monday when the banks in Korea reopen) we reach an agreement on the plan for the day. We'll go to Khunjerab pass, approx. 5000m high and the border to Pakistan. The driver offered to do so for 200 yuan, go and come back.

At 11am we leave the hotel and head again to the fort, because Kuan Li yesterday could not visit the fort because he wasn't feeling well. We spend about 15 minutes at the fort, then start the drive to Khunjerab pass. But first we get a permit at the customs control point, necessary for proceeding until the border. The permit costs 10 yuan per person. It's a piece of paper on which the car licence plate is noted and the number of travellers.

At 11:40am we finally leave Tashkurgan and reach Khunjerab pass after a few photo stops at 1:25pm. Beatiful scenery in the last half an hour before reaching the pass. We pass through one checkpoint which lies shortly before the border. Very cool to be at 5000m height at the border to Pakistan.

We stay at the pass until 1:50pm, then leave. At 3:30pm we are back in Tashkurgan and have a meal at the same restaurant where we had dinner yesterday. Then, after a brief stop in town, we leave Tashkurgan at 4:25pm. This time the driver drives very fast and we pass by Karakul lake at  5:37pm. After a few stops in between we are back in Kashgar at 8:15pm.

It took us just 6:25 hours to get from the Khunjerab pass to Kashgar, including the breaks. Actually the Karakoram highway is in a very good state on the Chinese side (while the Pakistani part doesn't look good), almost like a motorway, allowing you to proceed very fast. Along the way, we pass by several 4WD vehicles with tourists. Actually a simple car is sufficient to get from Kashgar to the Khunjerab pass, because the road is very good.

In the evening we finally split after a common dinner at the Qinibagh hotel. Tomorrow we'll probably meet at the Sunday market, then at 5pm I'll fly to Urumqi. I sleep at 12:30am.

8.10:    Kashgar -> Urumqi
Hotel Silver Star. This time the room costs 540 yuan, because I'm unable to book the room at the airport. By the way, painfully slow Internet connection in the room, which makes me lose a lot of time.
Weather: in Kashgar fresh in the morning, it takes the sun until noon to warm up the air. Sunny day with a cloudless blue sky, but in the morning in Kashgar there is sort of a light fog cover over the city. Well, not really fog, but the sky is white-blue and only becomes blue around noon. Fresh in the evening in Urumqi; thin layer of dirty air surrounding the city.

For the second night in a row I sleep well, with no problems falling asleep. Looks like I finally adapted to the local time. After getting up at 9:40am I manage to get ready to leave the room by 11am. I leave the luggage in the hotel lobby then take a taxi to the Sunday market. Actually not to the Sunday market itself, but to the cattle market which is held every Sunday, after Henning told me on the phone that they are all there.

So at 11:30am I'm at the cattle market, where I meet the others. The cattle market is big, very messy and dusty. Good luck changing a camera lens here. Today they are selling bulls, calves, sheep and horses. No camels, as I'm told that the camel market takes place only once per year. Overall it's a huge number of people with their animals tightly bound with ropes. Outside the market encirclement (the marketplace is an open walled space) some animal bodies hang on hooks and are being slaughtered. This market is actually less impressive that I had imagined it. Lots of tourists by the way.

Around 1pm the Korean guy and I fetch a taxi to the main Sunday market. This is a combination of a big bazaar building with lots of vendors selling mainly clothes and some handicrafts, and an outdoor market where people sell fruits and vegetables. Lots of people and lots of motorbikes, cars and trucks trying to get through the crowd. At 1:50pm I've had enough of it and in fact I'm really hungry as this morning I only had some small cakes (sort of mini-muffins) for breakfast. So I walk out of the market, fetch a taxi and go to John's cafe in the Qinibagh hotel, where I relax for a while and have lunch. In the TV they are showing the Formula 1 race in Suzuka (Japan), which Alonso wins (Michal Schumacher isn't even running - apparently he didn't qualify).

Shortly before 3pm I take a taxi back to the Xiangdu hotel. Before fetching my luggage I buy some apples and drinks. Then around 3:10pm I take a taxi to the airport, arriving there at 3:30pm (15 yuan for the trip). The check-in procedure is fast and painless, and this time the employee at the check-in counter does not complain about the 4.5 Kg excess luggage weight.

The plane takes off at 5pm, even earlier than the official 5:05pm departure time. The aircraft is very full. Perhaps these are Chinese tourists heading back home from the holiday week which ends today (the so-called Chinese Golden week).

The plane lands early at 6:30pm in Urumqi. The luggage retrieval is also quite fast, but then I lose time when I try to book a hotel room at the airport. All these counters with ladies handing out maps apparently are not hotel booking counters. In fact in the Urumqi airport there is no hotel booking counter. I wonder how I was able to book a room when I arrived here the first time. In any case, the Silver Star hotel, in which I stayed before, now wants 540 yuan for the same room for which I paid 480 yuan before. Long discussion, a couple of phone calls, and after a while I give up and take the room at the Silver Star hotel.

Outside of the airport I take a taxi (at 7:15pm) and surprise, surprise the (Chinese) taxi driver refuses to use the meter and insists on getting 50 yuan (by meter it would be 30 yuan). Since I've already lost too much time and I'm already in the taxi and am not in the mode to queue up again for a taxi, I accept the request of this cheater. First time since I have been to China that a taxi driver cheats.

We arrive at the hotel at 7:40pm (the taxi did the trip in 25 minutes). After checking in, I get out at 8pm and take a taxi into town to the big bazaar. There I take some photos of the mosque and the square at night. Suddenly a compact group of Chinese police and special forces armed with machine guns arrive on the square. Quite scary, are we in the middle of a revolution?

Never mind, after taking the photos (the Chinese police ignore me), I look for a restaurant and end up in the KFC, because I can't find anything suitable quickly. I'm back in the hotel around 10pm. Once in the room I'm unable to download the emails from my molon.de mailboxes.

Copyright 2006 Alfred Molon