Four and half months was enough!
I ended up staying a little bit longer than I expected due to some poker related reasons, but I finally had a nice little upswing and booked a ticket to Bangkok. I can’t even remember how many times I’ve been to Bangkok, but it’s always perfect for a short stop. I’ve done pretty much all the touristy things there are to do in Bangkok, but I still like picking random neighborhoods just to wander around in. And taking a boat up and down the river is always a good, relaxing way to the see the city and it costs less than a dollar. Then you’ve got the food, the thai massages, rooftop bars, craft beers, the nightlife, hookah cafes, etc. It’s hard to not like Bangkok!
I always manage to spend too much money in Bangkok though, so I only stayed for two nights and then flew to Urumqi, in western China, via Kunming. What I’ve noticed is the biggest problem booking Chinese airlines that connect somewhere else in China is that they make it very difficult to transfer to your connecting flight if you don’t have a lot time. Upon arrival they gave me the boarding pass for the connecting flight, but I still had to go through immigration, then security, and then get all the way to the other end of the airport. I had to cut in the security line and then jog through the airport and I made it three minutes before the gate closed. Whew! After missing my connection between Beijing and Shanghai on the first part of this trip, I wasn’t letting that happen again!
After a few hours of a very scenic flight, I was in China’s far west, the Xinjiang province. Fortunately I have a friend who lives in Urumqi named Mila, who I traveled with about 5 years ago in southwest China. She was able to take some time off work and pick me up from the airport and take me out to lunch. We had some Xinjiang noodles (lagman) which are spaghetti like noodles topped with a semi spicy, kind of oily, tomato based sauce, full of meat, pepper and onions. In fact they say that Marco Polo got the idea for spaghetti from visiting this region of the world and brought it back to Italy. That’s what I read somewhere at least. The dish is very tasty though.
Afterwards she made sure I could find my hotel and helped check me in. Although she thinks I can’t do anything for myself when I’m in China, which isn’t totally true! But I can’t understate how nice it is having a Chinese friend. For example I can’t get a SIM card in Xinjiang because I’m a foreigner so she was able to buy one for me. And if I ever get in a situation (usually in a taxi) where I can’t make it clear where I want to go, I can just call her up and put her on the phone. And then there’s Chinese hospitality. The first night her and her sisters took me out to a nice Uygher restaurant, the second night we made dumplings together, and the third night she took me out to an outdoor Chinese restaurant. And I couldn’t pay a single dime, no matter how hard I tried. Just wasn’t gonna happen. Seriously though, Chinese people are way too good to their guests.
Mila worked during the day, so I had that time to explore a bit around the city myself. Urumqi isn’t the most exciting place, it’s your usual big, crowded, mostly ugly Chinese city. The thing that makes it more unique than the usual Han Chinese city is that is has a large population of Uyghers, which are the Turkish Muslim minority. They’re the reason the cuisine is so diverse here, and it’s kind of cool seeing mosques and bit of muslim flair in a Chinese city. Sadly they have become somewhat of a marginalized group and their relationship with the Chinese government is not very good. Their hopes for independence have been almost completely quashed. In Urumqi they mostly live segregated in the poorer southern part of the city. They have a big market that is one of the more interesting things for tourists to do.
Other than that market I went to the museum and did a small hike up a rocky outcropping called red mountain. And that was about it! Oh, and lots of eating. I had to find restaurants with photos on the menus otherwise I’d have to do the point and hope to get lucky method (which normally doesn’t turn out very favorably). After three days I’d had enough and it was time to head a few hours outside Urumqi to a desert town and old silk road destination named Turpan. More on that place next time!