“Holdin’ it in” and practicing Putonghua in Northern Xinjiang during October 2012

“Holdin’ it in” and practicing Putonghua in Northern Xinjiang during October 2012

All pictures here.

Holdin’ what in?
Read on and you will be enlightened. But until then, here’s the story.

Strange departure from the original plan
The original plan called for a trip to Vietnam in October 2012. The group was supposed to consist of 6 of us. That number first went down to 5, then 4, then 3, then eventually … 2. We could have still gone to Vietnam but then came one of our brainwaves. Why not do something MORE adventurous?

Enter Xinjiang in Northwest China. Picture Muslim music playing in the background. Then picture eating some nans (bread). Picture kebab and lamb. Picture thousands of square kilometers of desert and contrasting grasslands and majestic mountains. That’s Xinjiang. It occupies 1/6th of the total land in China. It’s home to several distinct tribes. It’s a mysterious land – a land far, far away geographically, ecologically and, of course, spiritually to Central in Hong Kong!

So, Martijn and I decided to be brave and explore Xinjiang. “Brave” because, of the two of us, only I could speak the best Mandarin. And my Mandarin was unfortunately largely limited to “Wo bu ji dou Potunghua” (I don’t know Mandarin). But then again, both of us could draw! Isn’t sign language the oldest form of communication known to mankind?

Then came the question WHERE in Xinjiang were we going to go to.

Enter Sandy Yiu, our expert Xinjiang consultant who has traveled to 40 different countries and rates Xinjiang as the best place she has ever been to. She spent 17 days there and yet didn’t find it sufficient. We had 7 days!

Sandy gave us a Xinjiang 101 lesson. She told us that the western part of Xinjiang is home to Kashgar (or Ka-Shi as the locals call it) and Karakul lake. The 7000m high mountain Muztagh Ata is also accessible from Kashgar after 1-2 days of road travel through the Gobi desert. The northern part of Xinjiang is home to one of the most beautiful lakes in the world – the Kanas lake. This area, which is quite close to Russia, is also home to some very dense and beautiful forests. Getting lost in one of those forests might result in an inadvertent trip to Russia! In late September, which is autumn, the colors of the tree leaves there change to a beautiful golden orange color. The different shades of red, orange and green give this place a truly majestic touch.

After her presentation, our minds were made up. Northern Xinjiang it was!

Beauty of Northern Xinjiang

Getting to Xinjiang during the “Golden Week”
Hmm.. The first week of October is called the “Golden Week” in China. Not sure why it’s called that (you ain’t gonna find no gold anywhere during that week) but all that really means to travelers is sky-high travel prices! So, to be economical, we booked a flight from Hong Kong to Chongqing on 28th September 2012 and a flight from Chongqing to Urumqi on 29th September 2012. The indirect travel cost us HKD 5,100 against a direct version which would have cost HKD 7,500.

And, here’s what happened!

28th September 2012, Hong Kong to Chongqing
Where’s the alien?
We landed in Chongqing airport at about 8.30pm. Right after landing, we felt happy to be called “aliens” by the Chinese Government. Perhaps the word “foreigner” and the word “alien” are the same in Chinese? I mean, come on! We landed from Hong Kong, not from Mars!

Welcome aliens!

Well, we certainly weren’t aliens, but slow we were! We were THE Hong Kong Trail Runners but certainly not the Hong Kong Immigration Queue Runners. We were the LAST ones to get through immigration.

Chongqing – first impressions
A huge city and its 15 seconds of fame comes from the fact that the River Yangtze flows through it. Not to mention Bo Zilai, the Governmental official who got booked in for corruption, he’s from Chongqing too!

Yangtze River International Hotel- Chongqing

Party, what party?
The hostel we stayed in was quite trendy and it boasted “access to Facebook” which seems to be a commonly available yet technically prohibited facility in China. Soon as we entered the hostel, we were invited to a party by one of the backpackers from Chicago. Eager to join the party, we dumped our luggage in our room, took a quick shower and headed straight for the lobby to join the party Gangnam style. There was only one catch. Everyone was gone! We were too late for the party! And so, we headed for bed at about 1am and had an alarm set for 5am to catch our flight to Urumqi.

29th September 2012, Chongqing to Urumqi
Going blind as a bat
We woke up nice and early at 5am, checked out of the hostel by 5.50am and tried boarding a taxi at 6am. We stood and stood but simply couldn’t quite find a taxi! Then came Plan B. Martijn strategically moved to one side of the road to flag down cabs coming in from the opposite direction while I stayed on the other side. Just in the nick of time, he found one. I ran towards him and BANG. A ridiculous concrete platform in the middle of the road caused me to trip and I landed flat on my face. Luckily, the heavy backpack I was carrying in the front cushioned my fall. I quickly gathered myself, got up in a flash to avoid any oncoming traffic and ran straight towards the taxi. Two minutes after getting on the cab, I realized that I couldn’t quite read any of the road signs. I instinctively knew why. The answer was staring me in the face – or rather in my eyes. I had lost my glasses in the fall!

Off to Urumqi
I didn’t let the little episode with the glasses affect my mood. Instead, I was picturing nans, muslim music and, of course, tall & beautiful Xinjiang girls, as we boarded our flight to Urumqi. The plane seemed to be fly across uninhabited, spooky lands of nothingness until suddenly, we came across what looked like buildings covered in mud. A couple of relatively tall structures soon filled the view from the airplane window. A couple of minutes later, we landed in a lone stretch of concrete runway flanked by what looked like dry desert sand on both sides of the runway. We were in Urumqi.

Landing in Urumqi (pronounced Wu Lu Mu Chi)

Open “Putonghua” Style
While Martijn was getting our bags out of the conveyor belt, I wasted no time in putting my Mandarin to good use in heroic style. I bravely strutted into a room marked “Rent a Car” at the Urumqi airport and found a dandy looking girl inside. My Mandarin immediately sputtered to a start and within a couple of seconds, it abruptly came to a halt. Enter “Google Translate”. The lady at the counter might not have been impressed by my Mandarin skills but my charming looks must have certainly helped as she didn’t shoo me away. I typed and typed in a Google translate window as she “counter-typed” and Google did all the work! It was like our first date! As fascinating as she thought I was, frequent disruptions by real customers meant she had to send me on my way to “Heilong Lu” where she told me we could get a bus to Burqin (pronounced Bu-er-jin).

All roads lead to a bus
As instructed by the patient lady at the airport, we took a cab to Heilongjiang Lu with the hope of being able to rent a share car all the way to Burqin. I called my friend Sophia in Guangzhou to ask her what the word for “rent a car” was in Mandarin. She told me something but I forgot what she had said even before I could hang up. Resorting to Chimpanzee language, I approached the lady by the bus counter and pointed at myself. Then I did some running action and said “Burqin”. I think she told me that I had to take a bus and couldn’t run there! Not reading too much into this minor miscommunication, I enquired further into her response using effective sign language. She then got a paper out, wrote down “2030” on it and said “YES!” I couldn’t quite figure out what “YES” was in response to but all I knew was that a 2030 bus to Burqin was too late for us! We wanted to reach Burqin the same day. So, while Martijn was watching our luggage, I decided to walk outside the bus stop to try my luck with some car drivers outside.

The bus station on Heilongjiang Lu

Russian/Arabic and Chinese on the signboards!

I was walking out and soaking in the Urumqi atmosphere. It seemed like just another huge Chinese city but the difference was in the people and in the languages spoken. I saw many Persian looking guys (they were Kazakhs) wearing caps and speaking with a very distinct accent. Feeling a little insecure in the beginning, I initially ignored them. Then I realized that this insecurity wasn’t going to get us to Burqin. So, I put on my brave face, approached many touters and said “Burqin” to them in a cool, don’t-mess-with-me kind of tone. I wanted them to think that I was an experienced customer who’s been there and done that many times! I also wanted to ensure that they weren’t going to rip us off or worse, drive us to some secluded location and rob us!

One guy responded with “San Ba Kwai ee ge ren” (300 bucks per guy). I was excited at receiving a response but wanted to make sure that I didn’t sound too eager. So, I pretended to walk away. He did too. Soon, both of us realized that he was the one with leverage! The deal was closed.

The van that never seemed to leave
One thing I have realized in China is that life runs at a totally different pace compared to Hong Kong. Unlike the Hong Kong MTR which has to apologize profusely if, God forbid, it is a mere 30 seconds late, transportation in Urumqi is a whole different world. Before accepting our 600 bucks, the touter told me that we would start by 2pm and reach Burqin in 8 hours. There were just a few minor details he chose to omit. First of all, the driver of our van couldn’t leave until it was full and I mean bloomin’ full! Every square inch of the van had to have someone’s butt on it! So, until about 4pm, we barely moved.

Fellow passengers keeping themselves occupied!

And then, with all the money he had just received from us, he decided to give his beloved van a treat! He drove us straight to a garage were the van got some new mirrors, enhanced seats and an overall service. That cost us another two hours or so. By the time we started moving, it was close to 5pm! Then we kept going. And going. And going. There were frequent traffic jams and smokers inside the van who seemed to be going on a relay smoking competition. I tried to press my head firmly against the seat in front of me and tried to get some sleep!

English, English everywhere
Ever seen the movie Rush Hour? In the last scene, Jackie Chan turns to Chris Tucker as both of them are flying to China on an airplane. Chris Tucker surprises Jackie by ordering his food in Mandarin and Jackie looks back at him all astonished and says, “you never told me you can speak Chinese?” Chris turns towards him and replies, “of course I do. You just assumed I didn’t!”

During the first half of this ultra-long car drive, we were struggling to understand the driver’s instructions to us. We turned around hoping to find that one English speaking gwailo in our van but that lead nowhere. Soon, we had another challenge to overcome – ordering food for dinner in one of our brief stops. Then out of nowhere came an outpouring of help from Cindy, our fellow traveler, who not only helped us with our order, but also arranged accommodation for us in Burqin through her husband. She spoke to us in fluent English and told us that she was an English teacher in Urumqi! And so, I looked back at her with a “NOW YOU TELL ME” kind of look on my face! She explained that she was “too shy” to talk to us initially! Then came more surprises. Three college students seated behind us also started speaking to us in English! I was reminded of that last scene in the Rush Hour movie. It was a good lesson – never assume that a fellow traveler can’t speak English!

This discovery of English speakers certainly pleased the driver. He started talking to us via Cindy. We then kept traveling and traveling and traveling and eventually reached Huarei Hotel in Burqin at 5am! 15 hours of sitting in a van left us feeling exhausted!

My posture for most of the travel!

30th September 2012, the beginning of the hike!
Burqin – first impressions
Before checking out at 12pm, I asked the lady at the hotel reception for directions to the bus stop to go to Jiadengyu – our destination for the day. She said something to me in Mandarin. A couple of those words made sense while I had to fill in the blanks on many occasions with my own interpretation of what she may have meant.

We walked along Burqin trying to find this bus stop. The city looked strikingly clean and well planned. It was a welcome contrast from Urumqi. There was no litter anywhere and the roads were wide with beautiful trees on either side. I was impressed.

The streets of Burqin

After walking with our heavy backpacks for about ten minutes, we ended up at a bus stop where we were immediately approached by a car driver who instinctively seemed to know where we were headed. He communicated to us using the few words of English he knew and supplemented it with sufficient sign language.

As per the share cab trend in this part of the world, he waited for 3 more guys for the car to become full and off we went to Jiadengyu at a cost of 80RMB each. The road meandered through forests of pine trees. The golden autumn tree leaves glittered beautifully under the reflection of the strong sun.

We reached Jiadengyu in about 2 hours. The cab driver then said “Chi Ma” (ride horse) and pointed backwards. Then he said “Hemu” (the name of the village where we were headed) while pointing straight ahead and signaled a walking gesture using his forefinger and middle finger. Then he looked at us for a response. I said “Chi Ma” but pointed towards our bags. Then I pointed at ourselves and said “Hemu” while signaling a similar walking gesture using my forefinger and middle finger.

This is Jiadengyu

Calling horseman. Come in horseman

The driver then phoned his friend Yusef, our soon-to-be horseman and guide, (since when do horsemen have cellphones?) and a chubby looking guy soon showed up wearing a big smile on his face. His friend soon joined him and they seemed surprised to see us – two non-Mandarin speaking foreigners. As usual, my Mandarin was hopeless, so we resorted to sign language. The deal was simple, 1 horse for 1 day would cost us 500 bucks but two horses for a day would cost us 600 bucks! Clearly, the horseman wanted us to hire two horses, one for carrying all our luggage and the other one for him to ride on. He sure as hell didn’t want to walk! So, after some failed haggling, we eventually agreed to hire two horses.

Yusuf and our loyal luggage carrying steed

Faster than a horse
Our initial plan was to walk but then the beauty of what we saw immediately sent loads of energy to our legs. It was a spectacular sight. It reminded me of the Windows XP wallpaper called “Autumn Leaves”. The trail went through forests of tall trees covered in beautiful orangish leaves that kept falling to the ground giving the trails a golden touch under the reflection of the sun. It was spectacular.

Jiadengyu to joint of Hemu River and Kanas River

Soon, we found ourselves to be much faster than our horseman, Yusuf. At one stage, we had gone too far and the horseman had to pass on a message to us through a local motorbiker who was driving down that way. This biker looked at me and said something in Mandarin and pointed at a village we had just passed by while running. We then turned around and headed back to the village and found Yusuf waiting for us. By then, Yusuf had found a couple of English speaking Shanghai hikers to be his translators. They told me that the Yusuf wanted us to spend the night in the village and that we would go to Hemu village the next day.

Our 5-star accommodation on the 1st day

Proudly Hoisting the HKTR Tee Shirt in the Middle of Nowhere

The first day of “holdin’ it in!”
Spending a night in the middle of nowhere has its risks. i.e. risks of getting used to my dirty camping secrets. I let Martijn in on a couple of those secrets and found that, much to my shock, he was already subscribing to many of them. (How dirty!) Mind you, these tips are coming from someone who takes at least two showers a day in Hong Kong, brushes his teeth at least twice a day and dumps as many times as necessary to keep the bowels clean as a whistle. But, desperate times call for desperate measures!

Camping, Vince’s way – the dirty secrets!
(a) The rule of brushing: This rule states that while on remote nature trips, one need not brush his/her teeth. Instead, simply rinsing one’s mouth with some water or Pepsi will suffice

(b) The rule of change of clothes: This rule states that while camping in a cold place in the middle of nowhere, there’s absolutely no need to change any clothes. You can keep the dirty clothes on (even underwear) for as long as necessary

(c) The rule of dumping: This is an important rule. It suggests that dumping in a dirty environment or openly defecating in nature is a lot tougher than simply “holdin’ it in”. Frequent peeing, good exercise and clean eating habits will translate into a “holding capacity” of at least 3-4 days for the average human being. For kick ass Trail Runners like ourselves, sky is the limit!

And so, I enlightened Martijn on my rules of camping. I was quite relieved to know that he also abides by rules (b) and (c) but strangely, he seems to go out of his way to brush his teeth, even under very cold weather.

We concluded this first day of “holdin’ it in” by exchanging travel stories with the Shanghai hikers under a star-studded sky and a full moon. Then I looked over at Martijn and said “it looks like it never rains in this part of the world”.

‘Holdin’ it in’ while exchanging stories under a clear night

1st October 2012, the hike to Hemu Village
Askin’ for rain and gettin’ it
I probably displeased the rain Gods with that remark on rain the previous night! It looked like the Gods took offense. We had grand plans for the day – we wanted to get to Hemu Village and then to Hei Hu (Black Lake) from there.

The sun in this part of the world doesn’t rise until 8am and doesn’t set until 8pm. So, by the time we started, it was already close to 10am. The sky looked daunting with black clouds in the horizon but it was largely overcast where we were. We started running by about 11am through picturesque landscapes and grasslands. Our first stop for the day was at Yusuf’s friend’s place. He took us for some high quality (and rather expensive) “Nu Nai” (cow’s milk). It cost 20RMB per person but it was “organic” and extremely fresh milk! Doesn’t get any more fresh than straight from the backyard cow’s udder!

On the way to Hemu Village

Can’t help but run!

Thanks cow for the milk

As we approached Hemu village, it began to drizzle slightly. We saw rows of village huts with smoke emanating from the chimneys. Surrounding these huts were tall snow-capped mountains and a plethora of beautiful autumn trees. A crystal clear river was running through the village. Some mist was dangling beautifully above the huts giving it a slightly spooky feel. It was a majestic sight. But, upon getting closer and closer to Hemu village, this sight eventually blended into a touristy spot with several dozen people trying to take photographs of all and sundry. There was a big pile of garbage, several shops trying to sell everything from common grocery items to skins of dead wild animals.

On the way to Hemu Village

Coming down to Hemu Village

And the tourists

As the drizzle seemed to get stronger, Yusuf took us to one of the village houses and gave us one of his classic sign language explanations. He pointed to the sky and said “yu je li” (rain here), and then turned his head sideways pointing his finger at a mountain further away and continued “suet na li” (snow there). The final message was that we weren’t going anywhere for the day as there was too much snow on Black Lake which was at an altitude of 2300m. Instead, he told us to go walk around Hemu Village on our own.

The Martijn lead forest walk
And so, dressed in raincoats, we went on two separate walks in the afternoon to explore the village of Hemu. The forest trail we took was straight from the Windows XP “Autumn” screensaver. Yellowish orange leaves covered the floor of the forest. Tall trees and their glowing leaves were omnipresent. We saw gigantic mushrooms, anthills almost our size and some wild squirrels. We also went to a vantage point from where we could get one of the best views of Hemu village and its beautiful backdrop. This walk was simply spectacular.

Giant Squirrel

The colorful forest

The multicolored terrain

Overcast view of Hemu Village

King size anthill

Wild mushrooms

Going ‘Gangnam Style’ in Hemu Village

There was just that one problem – it was our second day of “holdin’ it in”. Hemu village might be known for its natural beauty but it certainly isn’t known for its toilets!

Our Sheraton Hotel in Hemu

The little wooden construction is supposed to be a toilet!

2nd October 2012, Hemu Village to Hei Hu (Black Lake, 2300m, 20km 5 hours)
The morning mission
This time, we knew better than to get up early. First, the sun wasn’t going to rise until 8am and second, we learnt that our guide & horseman Yusuf had a leisurely way of doing things. So, we woke up close to 9am and “brushed our teeth” (read: rinsed mouth the Pepsi we bought the previous day in some shop in Hemu village and supplemented that with a peppermint). Fortunately, the sky cleared up and my immediate morning mission was to find a safe spot to pee. I tried a few times but was distracted by people passing by. Then I figured that peeing in public in Hemu village was as normal as drinking vodka in Russia! So, I went ahead and peed in someone’s backyard. (I’m sure he/she will thank me later).

My 30,000 sqft toilet

Civilization in the toilets: Netherlands vs Hemu Village
Brimming with morning wit, Martijn made a clever observation upon waking up. He noticed that the hut in Hemu village where we stayed in boasted a state-of-the-art lavatory. Basically, it begged the assumption that “beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder”. The “beauty” there was rampant and open defecation behind a stylish wooden construction. You could see the heads of people as they were standing up just before embarking on their morning business or just after completing it. Unfortunately, Martijn failed to see the “beauty” there and observed that “The Netherlands (where he’s from) is a lot more civilized”.

From autumn leaves to snow
In his trademark style, our guide Yusuf came in at a relaxed 10.30am and got the horses ready. By the time we set foot outside, it was about 10.45am. The first hour or so involved an uphill climb through a picturesque valley. This valley was as beautiful as it was enormous. It presented a great many photo opportunities. Just as I was about to deem that to be the highlight of the trip, we arrived at a trail which was by far the most beautiful autumn trail I have ever been on. The entire trail was resplendent under the rays of the sun and the glitter of the autumn leaves. The surface of the trail felt as though we were walking on a rich, thick, colorful carpet of leaves.

Picturesque valley that lasted miles and miles

Yusuf and I

After crossing that trail, the landscape started to slowly blend into a beautiful white color. Snow white that is! We could see snow scattered around at a higher elevation in the distance. Not having seen snow in a while, I felt like getting close to it and touching it.

Picturesque valley blending into snow

The man with a mission
As we were slowly climbing and getting closer and closer to the white snow in the horizon, Martijn suddenly felt like relieving himself of the hardship of “holdin’ it in” for 2 days! He decided that he had had enough and started his military style operation by getting his tissue ready, picking up a bottle of water and running behind what he thought was an abandoned house. Unfortunately, his urgent mission was suddenly aborted as he observed people walking by behind the house. Dejected but unbeaten, he came back on the trail and we continued running. (That was probably God’s punishment to him for called The Netherlands more civilized than Hemu Village).

Martijn’s failed mission

Holdin’ it in from a village to a yurt at 2300m
Before we knew it, the landscape completely changed. Gone were the golden leaves of autumn! All we now saw was snow, snow and snow. In the backdrop, stood majestic mountains, a few pine trees and plenty of ski slopes! As we continued climbing, even those few pine trees disappeared, giving way to a land filled with snow and snowcapped mountains. Martijn instinctively took the opportunity to launch a snowball at me (yes, too much suppressed anger) but I behaved in a more mature manner and retaliated only with several smaller snowballs.

Snow, snow and snow!

After close to 5 hours of running/walking from Hemu Village, we could see a small yurt at a distance. In the backdrop of this yurt rose a majestic snowcapped mountain. About 200m in front of this yurt was a stunning lake – The “Black” lake. I have to say – I was so captivated by the beauty of what I saw that I ended up taking multiple pictures of the same scenery! In fact, it demanded multiple pictures. It demanded respect. It demanded a deep appreciation for nature.

Yurt at a distance

Hei Hu Lake (Black Lake)

But, what it certainly didn’t demand (for “dumping” reasons) was another night in a place with no sanitation facilities! This time it was the yurt instead of a village but the effect was the same! Yusuf told us that it was too late for us to go to Kanas and that we had to spend the night in a yurt. We had to “hold it in” for a third straight day!

Anyway, not too deterred at the lack of being able to take a dump, I went to Plan B. Change of clothes, eating as little as needed, plenty of peeing, etc, etc. And, given his failed mission earlier, Martijn was also on the same “stinky” boat.

Our yurt accommodation 2300m above sea-level

A walk to a lake above 2300m in elevation

We were joined by 10 other people in the small yurt. With my newfound Putonghua skills, I was chatting up the girls in the yurt. One of them told us that she was spending 18 days in Northern Xinjiang! I was going to ask her what she did about the “dumping situation” but something told me that that wasn’t probably the best pick up line.

We had dinner in our cold yurt and went to bed at 9pm. I could hear the wind howling outside and felt relieved to know that we were inside a relatively WARM yurt while it was freezing cold outside! And about the “dumping situation”, I promised myself that in the future, the max I would ever “hold it in” is 3 days. All hikes have to end at a proper western toilet after that!

3rd October 2012, Hei Fu to Kannas Lake
Brother gives me a plan
It was quite a noisy and cold night. There was plenty of chatter both inside the yurt and outside! (A group of happy campers decided to pitch their tent just outside the yurt). I am not sure how they survived the cold night stuck in a tent under arctic conditions but they seemed to be in high spirits in the morning. One of them, a guy from Xinjiang called Jim, asked me about our travel plans. I told him that we wanted to go to Baihaba and then to Urumqi. He then proceeded to chide me for such a rubbish plan and with great conviction in his voice, he said, “brother, I am a civil servant and I know Xinjiang well. Go to Beisha Hu and Habahe. Skip Baihaba”. Unable to digest so many similar sounding names of so many different places, I replied, “thanks brother but next time, this time we’re out of time”. He didn’t give up. Like an effective persistent salesman, he almost berated me for not considering Beisha Hu. He had successfully planted the “Beisha Hu” seed in my mind and kept nurturing it.

The yurt crowd

Off to Kanas
Yusuf came in (as usual) close to 10am and said the two words in English he knows best, “Let’s go!” I quickly brushed my teeth (read: had a peppermint) and did my morning business (read: peed in the snow causing a mini stream), and off we went. And, very much like the day before, I was awestruck by the beauty of the terrain. Once again, I was so captivated by the beauty of what I saw that I started clicking away on my camera until it ran out of battery. As we started jogging, the snowy terrain gradually blended into a muddy, slippery terrain. The golden trees of autumn soon started to become omnipresent once again.

Setting off from the yurt under a clear sky

Three horseman we saw on the way were overjoyed to see us and one of them decided to run with us. He couldn’t help but talk to me in a thick Kazakh accent and I couldn’t help but wonder what he was saying. Eventually, we established that a combination of sign language and some elementary Putonghua words was the best way to communicate with me.

Fellow horsemen turned runners

Icy lake

From snow to autumn trees

We covered about 21kms in three hours and saw our first glimpse of Kanas Lake. It was indeed a beautiful sight but looking a little past the lake revealed something we most dreaded – scores of buses and tourists! As we were nearing the end of our 3-day hike from Jiadengyu to Kanas, Yusuf was busy trying to hook us up with someone who claimed that he could drive us to Baihaba. We were told that as foreigners, there was no way we could enter Baihaba without being driven there. After what seemed like a huge conference between Yusuf and a couple of his friends, he eventually came to us shaking his head and proudly used the other English sentence he is most comfortable with. “I am sorry, I am sorry!” he exclaimed. “Baihaba, Xiang Gang ren bu chu (Baihaba, Hong Kong guys can’t go)”, he said multiple times. Apparently, even Hong Kongers and Taiwanese are not allowed to enter Baihaba as it’s a stone’s throw away from Kazakhstan.

First glimpse of Kanas Lake

Burqin or Jiadengyu?
So, after bidding a heartfelt goodbye to Yusuf and the horses, we ended up boarding a crowded shuttle bus to catch a proper touristy glimpse of Kanas Lake. We couldn’t stand being there for more than 1 minute. The lake was indeed a beauty but the scores of tourists there was an eyesore. I actually missed Black Lake (Hei Hu) at that point. Then, we waited in line for a good 1.5 hours and boarded a crowded shuttle bus back to Jiadengyu. Yusuf had earlier arranged a driver to pick us up at Jiadengyu to drive us to Burqin. But given our delay because of the long queue, this driver ended up waiting 3 hours for us and kept calling me to ask me for my whereabouts. My Putonghua was fairly nonexistent without sign language so I quickly gave a classy looking tourist a broad smile and said “hi, do you speak English?” That solved the problem, at least temporarily. This Xiamen tourist explained our predicament to the driver who understood our situation and agreed to wait for us. This tourist also warned us about the lack of accommodation in Burqin as it was the National Holiday week. I then called up Cindy, our samaritan friend from 3 days back, and asked her if she could (once again) help us with a hotel booking in Burqin. Being the kind person that she is, she obliged. Or at least tried. We got a call back from her fifteen minutes later and she told us that every single place in Burqin was booked! Her advice to us was to stay the night in Jiadengyu and she even suggested that she could get one of her friends to help us with a room booking there.

That left us with another puzzle to solve. What would we do with the driver who has already been waiting three hours for us? Our battle plan then was to get off the bus as soon as we reached Jiadengyu, approach the Xiamen tourist again and have him explain our dilemma to the driver! A new problem then emerged. We were seated at the back of the bus while the tourist was seated at the front! When we reached Jiadengyu, the Xiamen tourist quickly got off. I tried keeping an eye on him through the window of the bus but he quickly disappeared into the crowd. Then my phone rang again. It was the driver. I picked up the phone and blabbered something in Putonghua when I heard a “aye aye aye aye”. A young, tall looking chap stood smiling in front of me shaking my hands. It was the driver! Cindy called at the same time as well. I asked her to explain our situation to the driver to which he simply replied that he could find us accommodation in Burqin!

And, at a cost of 300 RMB a night, we stayed in someone’s house which had a proper shower and A TOILET! :)

Close to 4 days of “holdin’ it in” finally (and thankfully) came to an end! The flood gates opened and the body got rid of all its toxins. I said to myself that nothing brings greater relief in life than the good old toilet. (A proper western toilet, that is!)

4th October 2012, Baisha Hu, here we come!
Heeding “brother’s” words
What my “brother” Jim said to me in the yurt the previous day resonated with us. So much so, that we decided to hire the cab guy from the previous day and asked him if he could drive us to Beisha Hu and back. “1500 RMB”, came the reply. (Anything can be done in China with a bit of money). Getting public transportation to Baisha Hu was a nightmare. So, off we went by cab.

We drove along a long stretch of road in the heart of a desert to our first scenic spot for the day. A beautiful river that flows all the way into Kazakstan. On several occasions during the drive, we were only a stone’s throw away from Kazakstan.

Performing ‘Gangnam Style’ on a river that flows into Kazakhstan

Our driver and I

The next stop was sand dunes! It was a stark contrast to 24 hours back when we were freezing our butts off in a yurt surrounded by snow! Not having seen sand and desert in a long time, I felt like a little kid in a playground. So did Martijn. We climbed up sand dunes and then ran straight down on them collected several scoops of dry sand in our shoes.

Sand dunes

Couldn’t help but…

Guess what this is? My pee on a sand dune!

Leaning tower of Martijn

The penultimate stop and the highlight of the day was Beisha Hu. I have to say, my “brother’s” suggestion from the day before was indeed a good one! Although we did see some tourists, it was nowhere near as bad as the crowd we saw in Kanas. The lake was more picturesque than I imagined it to be. It felt like an oasis in the middle of a desert. Tall colorful trees hugged the lake on one side. The trail around the lake was glittering with colorful foliage. In the horizon, on the other side of the lake was Kazakstan!

Beisha Hu (Black Lake)

Those mountains in the backdrop are in Kazakhstan

Transcending international boundaries
Our final stop for the day was the official border between China and Kazakhstan. We weren’t allowed to enter Baihaba as “foreigners” but our HKID cards helped us get into a restricted area which bordered Kazakstan. There seemed to be no fence or manmade obstacle to negotiate before entering Kazakstan. A simple long jump over a ditch could have taken us there! We could have literally stood in China and peed into Kazakhstan! Or vice versa. But with armed Chinese soldiers watching, the latter probably wouldn’t have been such a great idea.

One foot in Kazakhstan and the other in China!

In the evening, we boarded a sleeper bus back to Urumqi from Burqin. I have to say – if you are over 5″7′, it’s bound to be a bit of an uncomfortable journey. The sleeping berths seem to be ideally designed for the likes of thin girls who are less than 5″7 in height. If you’re fat (ok, overly “fit”), then this bus ain’t gonna be the most comfortable mode of transportation.

Boarding Sleeper Bus to Burqin

5th October 2012, back to Urumqi
The cost of a good night’s sleep
Hmmm. There’s one big lesson we learnt after taking a sleeper bus in Xinjiang. Maybe we should have taken the train? A couple of things to note about those sleeper buses:

(a) There are invariably those passengers in the bus who cough like every 20 seconds and shout to their phones in the loudest of voices. They get urgent calls to save the world in the middle of the night so their phone ringers have to be on the highest volume to ensure that they don’t miss a single call

(b) There will invariably be that guy who will “break wind” every now and then. Prepare to withstand the stink. Sometimes the breaking wind action will be accompanied by an appropriate sound effect and sometimes not. In the former case, wear earplugs. Oh yes, a face/mouth mask will always come in handy

(c) The bus can abruptly stop for hours together. If it doesn’t, ensure you are headed for the right destination

(d) Those “unforeseen” traffic jams on the highway.. foresee them! They will be there. Especially when you think you are late

Our journey on the bus began the previous day at 7pm and didn’t end until today at 1pm! 16 hours! I could have finished a 100km Trail Walker by then!

After spending close to 13 hours on a bus

Upon reaching Urumqi, we decided to check our traveling and trail running spirit at the door and turn into proper tourists. We checked into “Bu Er Ta La Hotel” and they were “indebted and honored” for our presence and aimed for “Customer Uppermost Service Supreme”.

Bu Er Ta La Hotel is “indebted for the honor of our presence”

You ain’t gettin’ a job here if you aren’t “Obedient, Rapid and Perfect”

We spend the afternoon at a museum (I know.. a little unmanly but still..) and not having eaten much in the past 24 hours, we treated ourselves to a big pizza at Pizza Hut in Urumqi for dinner! Then came a much deserved 12-hour sleep to conclude the traveling and a week of adventure in Xinjiang.

I learnt in the museum that “Heroes Contend for Hegemony Nationalities Mer”

Restaurants in Urumqi are graded. Pizza Hut got an ‘A’

Finally a pizza!

6th October 2012, From Urumqi to Ningbo
Ningbo, where’s that?
Ok, I’ll confess. I didn’t know that a place called Ningbo existed until we booked our flights to Xinjiang! It turns out that Ningbo is only about 1 hour from Shanghai.

Leaving Urumqi after kick ass week of adventure

We reached Ningbo at 10.30pm after a 4-hour flight from Urumqi. The hostel we stayed in was called Mingtown Youth Hostel. It was located in the middle of nowhere.

Mingtown Youth Hostel

7th October 2012, Back to reality!
From horses and snow to MTRs and Central!
And a week’s worth of kick ass adventure in Xinjiang was concluded after boarding a 7.30am flight back to Hong Kong!

And, the verdict:
Tips for travelers who want to go to Northern Xinjiang:

(a) Remember that the place can be expensive. Not because of ripoff “foreigner” prices but because, outside Urumqi, the place is expensive in general

(b) Be prepared to commute! Xinjiang covers 1/6th of China and a lot of those scenic spots require plenty of travel!

(c) Don’t expect things to run on time (buses/cares/trains/people). Over here, life runs at a slower pace. Get used to it and enjoy it! Make contingency plans and prepare for delays (a LOT of them!)

(d) And, of course, MOST importantly, be prepared to “hold it in” for at least 3 days! Remember, good scenery and good toilets DO NOT coexist. Eat light, exercise plenty and let nature take its own course!

And was it all worth it?
A resounding YES! Verdant forests, lush green grasslands, golden autumn leaves, crystal clear lakes, snow covered terrain, snowcapped mountains, rivers that transcend international boundaries, lakes in the middle of a desert, deserts that stretch miles and miles – we had the pleasure of experiencing a wide spectrum of the beauty nature has to offer! And Xinjiang offers all of this in great abundance! As an added bonus, this place will certainly help improve both your Putonghua speaking skills and sign language skills!

But the question remains, can you “hold it in” long enough to comfortably enjoy more time in the wilderness? Time will decide! (literally…)