At the hostel in Korla I picked up a business card for a hostel in Kuche. I got off the train, hopped in a taxi, and got dropped off at the hostel, only to be informed that this place doesn’t take foreigners. Agh! China! Why must you make this so difficult? It was kind ironic that the girl at this hostel that only deals with Chinese people spoke perfect English, but at the hostel that does take foreigners in Korla, they speak zero English. Hmm. She informed me that I’d have to stay at a hotel, which would cost about $20. I can handle that.
Apparently there is a bit of an oil boom around this place, so big hotels have been popping up in the last few years. I picked the closest one. I know how to book a room just fine in Chinese, but of course the receptionist is plastering me with a million questions. Fortunately translation apps are getting so good now that she could just speak into the phone and it would pop up in English. They wanted my age, occupation, marital status, previous destination, next destination, etc. Who knows why. They like to keep strict tabs on everyone in Xinjiang.
Ok, so the one cool thing to do in Kuche is called the Tianshan Grand Canyon. But it’s like 60 miles outside of town. I read there was a bus, so I stopped at the bus station. No bus. Damn. I guess it’s taxi time. I found a guy to take me there, wait, and take me back for about $40. The drive out there is really interesting, lots of red, jaggedy rock mountains. It was raining when we got there and apparently they weren’t selling tickets right now because it was a flash flood warning or something. Great. It was time to play the waiting game. A little later on the rain was reduced to a drizzle and a chinese guy came in to buy tickets. Soon enough the Chinese guy starts yelling his head off at the ticket selling guy, who is just sitting there with his arms crossed. I’ve seen this a couple times now, but I presume yelling and screaming during an argument is more socially acceptable (and maybe more effective?) in China. In the end he got his tickets 5 minutes later, and I got the go ahead too!
It’s a ten minute walk to get into the canyon and soon enough you’re surrounded by towering orange/brown rock walls on both sides. It was actually a good thing that it had been raining because it created some little waterfalls cascading down the sides. After 40 minutes there was a booth and the guard said I couldn’t go any further, which was kind of a bummer, but what can you do. On the way home we got stopped by the police and I had to get out and they scanned by bag, checked my passport, and asked me a bunch of questions about what I was doing outside of town. I showed them the photos of the canyon. What did they think I was doing out there?
I haven’t touched on this yet, but the police presence in Xinjiang is stronger than I have seen anywhere else in the entire world. It’s pretty nuts. On our trip outside of Turpan we were stopped at police check points about 7 or 8 times. Usually they just check the passports, or sometimes they just let you keep going, but the police checks are everywhere. And the thing is the amount of violence there has been in Xinjiang doesn’t warrant this level of security. There have a been a few small time Uygher terrorist incidents a few years ago, nothing recently, but it appears now they use fighting terrorism as a guise to oppress the Uyghers and keep them on lockdown. In the cities they have built these mini police stations every other block. It’s pretty wild. Shocking that the Chinese government are a bunch of assholes to anyone who isn’t Han Chinese.
But anyway, it’s the Uyghers that make Xinjiang such an interesting travel destination. The Uygher parts of town are about a million times more interesting to walk around than the Han parts of town. They’re much noisier and chaotic with big markets, street side vendors, massive circular nan bread and guys grilling lamb kebabs everywhere, vibrant traditional dress, cool architecture (the wooden doors are always very ornate) and interspersed with the occasional mosque and the policemen with big guns. So that’s exactly where I got dropped off when we got back into town. After traveling so much in the country it’s neat to be in China that doesn’t feel anything like China.
And that was about it for Kuche. Next up was the train to Kashgar, which was supposed to be a 10 hour ride, but it got delayed for 6 hours, making for a very long travel day. My six bed cabin was me and a young Uyghur family with a bunch of young children. The husband and wife looked to be in their early twenties and already had three kids. It wasn’t the best arrangement for sleeping, but they were all very friendly, although the communication was lacking. I’m pretty sure the one girl had never seen a white person before, because when I was sleeping I’d peek my eye open and sure enough, she was still staring at me from the other bunk. A little bit creepy! Train rides in China are always interesting. Finally we made it to the city of Kashgar in the far far southwest corner of the country, which is basically the hub of Uyghur culture, and a spectacular city. That’s next!