20. Islam, the Silk Road and the great money swindle.

October 17th, 2010

(written 10/10/10)

Arriving in Bukhara, Uzbekistan, I was ready for a fight for the taxi to the town centre. As typical for most Central Asian towns, the main train station was 16km out of town so I was expecting taxi drivers to ask for double the 5000 Som (£1.60) it should cost. I wasn’t disappointed but I managed to get one guy down from 10k to 7k but then as I waited he got two more people in the taxi. I stormed out because basically they do this as the locals, taxi drivers and even government believe that the tourist should pay for most of the journey (similarly tourist prices for museums are about 10 times the locals price). Although we are talking about pennies there is a principle at stake here. If they were to visit London, if they got a taxi from Heathrow airport for £40 would you just jump in the back and pay £2 for the journey simply saying, “well you’re a tourist and your going anyway!" So I said I’d only go for 5K which he had to agree otherwise he’d lose his fare but he was still getting more off me than he should as a share taxi should have been 2.5K each. The two locals paid about 1K and 500 respectively which I looked at him and said “so I did pay for them then!” I think he was surprised a tourist had argued with him and he turned away. When I got out he then asked for more money as he’d actually got less money than he would have if he’d just taken me. I grabbed my bag out of the back and just said “don’t push it” and walked off.

Bukhara, Uzbekistan

Bukhara is a very nice picturesque place but is really hard to describe what it’s like. It’s slightly schizophrenic. It’s clearly very old with lovely old mosques, medressas (Islamic schools) covered with blue green orange tiles, forts and old towns all covered in layers of grey sandy dust, but at the same time it’s amazing touristy, disappointingly so. Although that in itself is funny, I’ve only met French, German and Kiwi tourists here, people say to me that I’m the only guy from Britain in Central Asia and I’m starting to believe it! You will have to see the pictures to see how pretty the place is (when I find time to put them on) but regarding the rip off touristyness, none of the restaurants in the town have a menu as they just serve the local traditional foods and they won’t tell you the price until the end of your meal so they just completely overcharge you. I had soup, bread and 4 shish and it cost 15K (£5) locals would barely pay 6K.

Bukhara, Uzbekistan

The next day, myself and a German guy at the guesthouse just bought fruit and veg from the market and cooked for ourselves and had a massive meal for 2K each. Then there was the lady at the bazaar who wanted to sell me a locally made 100% silk scarf for $20. When I picked it up, there was a tag on which said “made in China, 100% polyester.” She then picked up another one which had the tag cut off and said “no, this one 70% silk.” I said “no it’s not, it’s polyester.” She replied “OK, 50% silk.”I couldn’t believe it, she was even bartering the silk content..... and she was being genuine! The only thing that was in that shop!

Bukhara, Uzbekistan

Anyway, before being told that I’m being tight with money regarding the cost of things here I should explain one important thing about the police state that is Uzbekistan. It’s not so much the price of things that are the problem but the problem of access to money. Basically you can’t access your bank so you have to make sure you don’t run out of what money you have. As such you really don’t want to overspend as it gets very complicated having to wire money through. Even if you could use your cash card there’s basically no cash machines in the country anyway as the biggest note in circulation is the 1000 Som. This is equivalent to 30 pence and although things are cheap here, they are not that cheap. As such, if you were to get £20 equivalent out of a cash machine then that would be 62,000 Som so a minimum of 62 bank notes so the cash machine would be empty in no time. They say the dictator here refuses to allow a bigger bank note as it would be admission that there has been rampant inflation so you have the bizarre situation where when I bought a train ticket for 25K I handed over a bundle of 50 X 500 notes (£8) tied with a rubber band and the lady had to use a special machine to count it all. The lady in front of me bought 4 tickets to Moscow totalling about $250, when she opened her hand bag it looked like she’d done a bank heist with bundles of 1000’s, 500’s, 200’s (you have to pay in local cash for the trains).

Tashkent, Uzbekistan

They also have an extreme lack of smaller notes so where you’re in a shop and the bill comes to 750 Som, you would get 200 back and a piece of chewing gum as change if you hand over a 1000. Added to this is the official bank rate. If you change at the official places, you get 2,400 Som per £1. On the black-market you get 3,200 Som (the real rate) so you have to find somewhere off the main street to change money as if the police find you doing it, you’re in serious trouble. But then you have to make sure you change some money at an official place at least once so that your customs form is stamped with an exchange sticker! The government is very crafty though and uses the black market rate if you want to change Som back into Dollars as if it didn’t then if you were to change Dollars to Som in the street and then take the Som to the bank and change back to Dollars you would make a 30% profit each time. It’s all a big game!

Bukhara, Uzbekistan

Leaving Bukhara I hopped on a kneecap crushing bus journey to Samarkand another major and more famous Silk-Road town. I just had one bizarre experience on this journey, the guy next to me who was taking a Finance Degree at the University of Tashkent wanted to practice his English so I humoured him. “Where are you from”, “England” I replied. “Oh, .........” There was a big pause while he was clearly thinking about what to say next. “Errr, you know Curell,” “Erm, sorry, pardon” I asked, “Currell........ erm....... Currell erm......” He stuttered, and then started counting on his fingers and after another pause of about 30 seconds said “Arhhh,..... Curell Voraham”. I questioned looking very puzzled, “you mean Carol Vorderman?” He said “yes, Carol Vorderman, very good, very nice”. I said to myself through gritted teeth and a stained smile “What the hell are you talking about!” I’m on a clapped out 1970’s German coach with seats that are all stuck in the reclined position, in the middle of the Central Asian Steppe (barren desert) and the epicentre of one of the world’s last remaining police states and he knows who Carol Vorderman is! Then suddenly it all made sense to me. This guy was doing finance, the country is in a financial mess, this was all because the financial system and teaching of finance was done by watching Channel 4’s Countdown! The Country’s screwed!

Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Samarkand has sadly been completely over redeveloped by the government and the old town no longer surrounds the mosques, medressas and mausoleums here. It is undeniably a very pretty place but now very sterile with next to no atmosphere. The tiles which coat the 14th to 18th century buildings make them look like little more than oversized Victorian urinals having lost their soul and purpose. They don’t seem to realise here that it’s OK for things to look old. I was even missing the ladies selling “100%” silk although there was a guy who tried to sell me a wolf’s tooth and when I said “no” he went on to say “what about a Wolf Penis?” “What would I want with a Wolf Cock” I said. He said it was good luck, I responded “not for the wolf!” and moved on. I was also not convinced that the tooth wasn’t human as all over this region they all do something that looks quite horrific. When they can afford it they have their teeth taken out, even on occasion the good ones, and have them replaced by gold ones. It looks horrific. Many of the older women have a full set of gold teeth and the young women pretty much have half a set. It makes attractive young women look extremely ugly almost like a female version of Jaws out of the James Bond films. But I guess it would be safe to stand next to these guys in a lightning storm as any bolt should hit them first!

Samarkand, Uzbekistan

There’s another strange thing happening in this (the more rural) part of the world since the soviets departed; it’s the rediscovery of Islam. Most mosques and medressas were turned into factories, used for storage, knocked down or even turned into atheist museums but now people are trying to create a new identity for themselves which separates them from the Russians and the old soviet regime. The identity is Islam. However, the interpretation here is so twisted they don’t seem to get it and they just seem to be picking those bits which suit them. Like the towns there’s a schizophrenic feel to it. The best example of this is what you are expected to wear, not only in Mosques, but also in the street. A man wearing shorts will result in people looking at you in shock while with a short sleeved shirt you will have some disapproval. Women pretty much have to be completely covered and if the clothing is tight fitting, well you will get comments comparing you to a prostitute. This is all very Islamic but in complete contrast, a man who prays even on a Friday in a mosque in this town and Bukhara, will go straight out to a local food and drink stall and drink half a bottle of Vodka! It just seems stupid that it’s not acceptable to wear shorts but you can get drunk but that’s what happens here. Unfortunately, rediscovery of faith has coincided with the troubles in the bordering counties of Afghanistan and Pakistan so there is a level of alcohol induced fundamentalism which has resulted in a number of bombings in this country in the past few years.

Then you get the rather irritating part of religion here, that of blind faith. There is a famous scholar here in Samarkand who is meant to have been given a holy relic by the Prophet Mohammed, face to face. Everyone believes this and it is an important part of the story of Islam in Uzbekistan. However, nobody questions the fact that the Prophet Mohammed died 500 years before the scholar was born and when I asked I was simply told that “these things did happen” and I was not allowed to question further. At this point I was also told off for saying “Mohammed “as that is extremely rude, you must say the full term “The Prophet Mohammed”. I should have asked whether he wanted to discuss the laws and principles of Islam further over a bottle of vodka!

Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Then just I was relaxing in Samarkand my Bulgarian food poisoning came back. I had been expecting it as I recognised the symptoms from one of my previous trips. Cyclical, every three/four weeks, it was a parasite so this was the third time and should be the last as I’d made sure this time I’d forced myself to each through the discomfort and taken natural mineral replacements to kill it (rather than the cacogenic tablets I prefer not to). The little buggers usually get bored after 2 to 3 months and I can put up with two/three days of discomfort at a time as long as I have an en-suit room! Anyway, back to Tashkent to apply for the dreaded and difficult to get Chinese visa!

21. Re-entry.... And final Exit.....

October 21st, 2010

I couldn’t believe it. In Tashkent, Uzbekistan there was no longer a speedy service for visas at the Chinese Embassy. I had to wait 5 days to see whether they would allow me in. This concerned me more as the fight details I gave for my entry to China were now not valid as the plane left before I arrived in Almaty for my supposed plane (which of course I had no intension of getting as it was just something they needed to “see” to process the visa). After spending 5 whole days in Tashkent where there is really nothing to do (I pretty much ate slept and acted as a shoulder to cry on for two round the world cyclists whose friendship ended because of not being able to finish their trip to Pakistan because of the new visa rules! I was upset about it myself but come on!).

Tashkent, Uzbekistan

I nervously headed to the Chinese Embassy. The Russian guy on security let me in ahead of the crowd pretty much because I’m pink, but considering the locals usually push tourists to the back I was happy to take the advantage for a change. Inside the lady who went to get my passport said $60. My heart sank slightly as when I applied in the UK they charged me the same amount which is less than the actual visa price. This is usually the “admin fee”. I said thank you and headed out daring not to look at the passort..... Outside I looked through the passport and found nothing, but then, right on the 45th and final page was the visa! I couldn’t believe it. After the problems in the UK I’d got it! Only 20 days though which could be a problem but it could be enough for this bit of the journey if I rushed through some places and resigned myself to coming back to the others at another point in time. So I headed straight back to the guesthouse said my goodbyes as after spending a total of two weeks there I’d become a family member! picked up my bag and got a taxi straight to the border.

I can’t really describe how nervous I was about re-entering Kazakhstan because I’m not sure myself! Although I think I was apprehensive I was pretty much resigned to fate and me being me, which is quite stubborn, was always going to come back this way anyway not just to “to prove a point” but more importantly not let the bullies win. For me I had to mentally close the loop so to speak, otherwise they would have won and I didn’t like the thought of that. I’d had the image of the guard with gold teeth and the fat guy laughing at me as they tried to get my money. This time I had already decided that I would just sit and wait if there was any trouble and if I was still not going anywhere I had the British Embassy number on speed dial! I couldn’t help wondering though if the same guys would be there looking out for me and whether they would carry out their threat!


Passing through the Uzbekistan boarder was no problem at all. It amazed me as the guide books say it’s scary and dangerous but the guys were really helpful, the boss guy who could not speak any real English just knew one phrase and kept shouting, “hey, Johnny English...., come here Mr Smith.” Then he would laugh hysterically over the whispers of the rest of the crowd who would be saying to each other “he’s English.....” Then as I walked across no mans l soon passed under the flag topped archway into Kazakhstan; gone was the ordered border system in Uzbekistan and the laughter of the guards, in came the ramshackle bribe taking chaos of the Kazaks.

As I walked inside the building two guards walked up to me who both somehow managed to make themselves look homeless and destitute even though they were wearing the standard old soviet uniform with the massively oversized peak cap. The first guy said “have you got any dollars”, I said no. “Have you Euro”, no I said, “I just have Uzbek Som.” I was lying of course but I’d learned from my previous exit that these guys were not customs, they were just policemen on the take and would try the same trick which nearly resulted in me loosing $50 last time. Then the other guard asked me to come over and sit with him on a bench while he looked at my passport. Although he was not meant to do this, I stayed calm and went along with it. He said, “dollars, yes”, I said “dollars no”. He nodded in acceptance and then just went through the passport asking me where all the visa’s were from. I then had to lie as he said, “you like Kazakhstan”, I said “yes, very beautiful, Turkistan is a wonderful town!” He then said, “Uzbekistan like?” I lied again and said “no, terrible place, corrupt police at the border keep asking for dollars, horrible.” He smiled and agreed as Kazaks really don’t like Uzbeks but the idiot hadn’t seen the irony of what I’d said, which I suppose was lucky.


Then came the proper passport check, I handed the passport over and smiled for the photo (most ex soviet states take your picture on entry and exit apart from, rather ironically, Russia!). He then found the cancelled visa, he flicked between that one and the new one looking puzzled. I just thought to myself, here goes, and did the thing we all try to do at borders and tried not to look suspicious. This usually just results in you actually looking suspicious. He stood up and opened the door behind him. I suddenly got that lightheaded, chill feeling that comes when something happens which makes you think you’re in trouble. What made the chill come, well, the guy on the other side of the door was the English speaking guy who tried to extract money from my previous exit and the guy I think damaged my passport. I just stood there and pretended not to notice him however I think he did notice me. But when he saw that the previous visa had been cancelled and signed by the top guy from the Kazakhstan consul in Tashkent he just put his head down and waved me on. Stamp! and in...... A one all draw I believe, that will do me.

Shymkent

So apart from having to completely empty my bag for the customs guys and explain why I don’t use aftershave (the weirdest question I’ve ever been asked at customs!), who to be fair to Kazakhstan have been nice and honest, I rushed through the border grabbed a taxi to Shymkent. I hoped to get the night bus directly from there to Almaty as Shymkent really is a hole! The Lonely Planet didn’t disappoint me again, all of the info on where the busses depart from was two years out of date but I managed to get a taxi driver to understand me and he took me to the bus yard. Sadly in this part of the world private bus companies don’t use the central bus stations as they cost money to use so they use random places. Good if you’re a local, a nightmare if not. So after a painful overnight bus journey and still less than 24 hours after leaving the Chinese Embassy I was in Almaty. However, I was in Almaty swearing at the Lonely Planet guide book again as the first two hotels I tried to find have been knocked down!

Almaty, Kazakhstan

I decided to spend just one night in Almaty as I didn’t really want to spend any more of my money in this country. It’s a shame because most of the people I’d met here were more friendly than anywhere else in this region but that one border issue has focused my mind on this place and also emphasises what I have always said about travelling. “Travelling narrows the mind.” It does not broaden it as the saying goes. One bad day in one country could make you hate the place and you go on to tell other people, another person could have had a completely different experience and love it. Who’s right? Answer.... neither of them and both of them! The important thing travelling does teach you is how little we all know about the world and how little we know about our own countries, if anything it does not broaden your knowledge but highlights your lack of it. It may be why I still go backpacking after all these years, trying to fill these gaps, but with each trip they get bigger! Actually that probably does explain why I can’t give it up.

Oops, better get back to the blog and not waffle.

Almaty, Kazakhstan

So the next day I left Almaty at 7am on a sleeper bus for Urumqi in China. I should say that Almaty is a very nice city with beautiful mountains surrounding it. It may have been nice to spend more time but naaaaaa although it did have a Pizza Hut (these things are important when you’ve been living off kebabs for the last 2 months!) Anyway, the sleeper busses are great, I’ve never been on one before but you basically have bunk beds down each the side of the bus and you can easily lay flat, even I could, amazing for a Chinese bus. And I could sleep without pain and being Chinese it was amazingly clean.

Almaty, Kazakhstan

Just after midday we arrived at the Chinese border a little over 48 hours and 1500km after leaving the embassy. I was more apprehensive now as I’d done something quite naughty. In Kazakhstan you have to register with the police within 5 days after entry. I’d done this on my last visit which cost me one days travel due to the time it took to register making me miss trains. I’d decided not to bother with registration in Almaty as why should I spend more time in Kazakhstan than I wanted just to register, surely they want you to leave quicker! I was also going to argue that I also had three days left to register if there was a problem at the border so I hadn’t done anything illegal yet!

I could see that the border guard in front was being very officious with everyone which was concerning me slightly but he was being so officious that a guy opened a door and led a group of us through to the other side to an ”overflow” section. I couldn’t believe my luck.... a female border guard. Sounds funny, but I have never come across a corrupt female border guard and I wasn’t disappointed. She asked me if I stopped in Almaty, and to be fair I didn’t lie I just said “just transit” which she took to mean I didn’t stop and to be fair, it would usually take a minimum of 3 days to make the journey I had but due to good connections and me not wanting to pee about, with 2 days you wouldn’t usually be able to stop in Almaty so I must have been transit! Stamp... and out. Kazaks 1, me 2!

The Chinese border was amazingly simple. They searched my bags for Chinese guide books as they usually confiscate these if there is no mention of Taiwan being Chinese in them but luckily I don’t have a Chinese guide book. So it’s lucky I know the place like the back of my hand and am fluent in Mandarin! Or maybe not. So there I was stood in Mainland China, the first time since 1998. And you know what the first thing I noticed was???? No Ladas! Since entering Estonia every country I’ve visited (12 with the exception of Turkey and Romania) has been an ex-soviet state and over the past three months the squeaky bearings, rattling engines and uniquely unmistakable Lada smell of unburnt fuel was now gone. I remember a bizarre discussion with a Russian in St Petersburg who did say that “Ladas are the most popular car in the world, you see them everywhere.” I said to him, “no, they are not the most popular car, you’re getting confused with the term ‘most abundant’ it’s not as if people had many other choices of car under soviet rule.” “That maybe so” he said, but they could have said no.” Russian logic! I’ll miss it!

Now in front of me were not Ladas but just hundreds of three wheeled bubble car taxis waiting to take me somewhere I didn’t want to go. But hey, after my one month long “two week” trip across Central Asia, it has to be better right?

22. A little bit of interference....

October 28th, 2010

Cheers........

Due to a little bit of "interference" on the internet in China I'll be sending my blogs out later (not even allowed to use my e-mail or facebook!) . The blogs won't be that exciting anyway! In the mean time I've uploaded some picures on my journey up to the border with China. These can be found at:

http://www.dazman.info/photos/index.php?cat=3

Cheers........

23. Divide and Conquer

November 1st, 2010

(written 20/10/10)

We arrived in Urumqi, China at the ridiculous time of 7am which probably doesn’t sound too bad but that’s Beijing time. The whole of the country operates to it but as I’m in the far west of the country it didn’t start to get light until about 9am. Because of the difference between official time and “the real time” shops and businesses open here at 10am at the earliest. I started walking north to find my hostel making the massive assumption that the Lonely Planet map I’d copied from someone was correct and I’d been dropped off at the international bus station. After about an hour of simply aiming for the highest buildings (assuming that would be where the centre was) I remembered that I had a GPS and China map on my phone which I switched on. Right, I’d been dropped off at a random Bus station 3km away from the centre. But at least now I could go directly to the hostel, or so I thought. The government appears to pointlessly scramble the GPS signal here and it flicks randomly 500 meters in any direction so it took a bit of time guessing where I should be.

Urumqi, China

Walking through the backstreets and parks of a Chinese city can be quite nice in the morning. It’s a period of relative calm and quiet before the mayhem of the Chinese day begins. On the route I walked through one of the main parks in town and was met by some of the typical sights of this country. Chinese parks are always beautifully set out with pagodas, streams and ponds but what makes these places come alive are the people. There were groups doing Tai Chi, both with fans and swords, others were ballroom dancing, men with men and women with women. Others played the single stringed Chinese instrument whose name eludes me but it makes a whining noise not too dissimilar to the sound of the guy singing along to it! People would be grouped around to hear his tonal tunes while others walked around clapping and chanting for reasons I don’t know. It is a wonderful introduction to a country, but having visited China before I knew this could not last as experience tells me that it can be a chaotic, noisy and maddening place full of contradictions.

Urumqi, China

The most important thing to say about Urumqi is that I shouldn’t really be here! The main reason for me being refused my first Chinese visa was because I mentioned that I was going to visit this city so on my recent application I stated that I was going to Beijing, where I am officially now! What is the reason they don’t really want people here I hear you ask? Well, about two years ago there was an uprising by the native Uighur in Xinjiang Provence (surprisingly like many provinces in China it is an autonomous region) against the mass influx of Han Chinese into the region. Since 1949 there has been an increasing number of ethnic Han Chinese, more recently an average of one quarter of a million per year, moved to the area which even for a population of 1.5 Billion is still a significant number. It is the equivalent of 10,000 English being relocated to Scotland each year and trust me they wouldn’t stand for that! In the 1940’s Uighur made up about 90% of the region and in a period of a little over 60 years, they are now the minority. During the last uprising many Han were reported killed and so in response the government has come down on the region and the Uighur extremely hard.

At first glance the city is clean, peaceful and does not display the outward signs of past troubles. It does however lack the charm of the Silk Road cities I’ve passed on my route as all of the historic buildings have been knocked down in the rush for progress and almost as a side thought a fake “silk road” mosque, medressa and bazaar has been built to please the Chinese tourists. But wandering around you quickly observe the problems here. In the centre of the city where the old town used to be there is practically a ghetto maybe 1 to 2 square miles where the ethnic Uighur live (the Uighur look similar to Kazaks). In this ghetto most shop signs and posters are written in Arabic and you may be fooled into thinking that this is Uighur Arabic. However, the Chinese only allow Arabic to be written phonetically, that is to say that if you read the Arabic, you are actually speaking Chinese Mandarin. It’s the same as writing “ni-hao” in Latin English, it means nothing in English but means “Hello” in Mandarin. Education in the Uighur language is also not allowed, nor is its use in official business meaning many Uighur cannot find work and so have to resort to begging.

Urumqi, China

Bizarrely, even in a communist country where “everyone” should be found a job, as they were under Soviet Communism, these people are left jobless. Further to this, although you have mosques dotted everywhere around town, it is illegal to teach the Koran which makes prayer almost impossible as a large part of Islamic prayer is reciting the Koran. Looking down from the pagoda on top of the hill in Hongshan Park you can see the result of mass Chinese immigration. The old town made up of small decaying concrete and the few remaining mud brick buildings is surrounded by an ever expanding Han populated new town of gleaming tower bocks. Each time an old town building decays to the point of being replaced, it is pulled down and a new tower block built, the new town slowly enveloping the old. With the massive police presence the old town looks nothing more than like a prison surrounded by the walls of the new town with its watchtower skyscrapers.

The police and army presence is massive here. Seemingly on every street in the “ghetto” you see two policemen walking with a guard of up to eight heavily armed soldiers. When the police would randomly check someone’s ID the soldiers would form a circular armed guard around the police all facing outwards looking out for any trouble. Then there was possibly the most disturbing thing; a government sponsored local militia. The Hui who are ethnically and religiously very similar to the Uighur are more allied to the Han Chinese and help make up the militia. These guys constantly march around the roads that circle the Ghetto in combat gear and carry 2 to 3 foot long, heavy wooden clubs to beat those who look like causing trouble.

Guys with big sticks

So the Chinese have managed to set one minority against another using the good old technique of divide and conquer. As more Han arrive the situation for the Uighur can only get worse as they are further marginalised and their culture destroyed. The Han genuinely seem to believe that the “Chinafication” of the region will lead to a better understanding and peace between people but all it is doing is driving a wedge. With almost an extreme sense of irony you can even see this wedge in the currency which for me mimics the situation. On the streets the poor non-Mandarin speaking Uighur beg for money, the notes for which they beg are the smallest denomination 1 to 5 Jiao (1 to 5 pence). Unlike the higher denomination Yuan which have Chairman Mao on them, these notes display the proud faces of the Chinese minorities, including the Uighur and the Tibetans. The Han give these small notes to the beggars almost as if the Uighur image on them asserts their use as begging money for the Uighur; the people and culture as insignificant and worthless as the value of the note; minority money.

Maybe I over analyse these things and should blog more about “the journey” and the tourist sites for which I apologise if it bores, but for me, I’ve always been more interested in what happens behind the facades, when you stop just seeing things but actually start observing. You see the Arabic letters but you observe that it’s not actually Arabic. I think China is going to throw up a few more revelations with facades to be broken down particularly as I aim to head towards Tibet and Lhasa. So I can’t say that I will be unhappy to move on to another city where I’m not constantly watched nor feel helpless at the situation the people find themselves in, but will it be better anywhere else?

24. From Tank Tops to Topshop

November 5th, 2010

Written (23/10/10)

There were three goals that I wanted to achieve on this trip, first, to go to India via the Karakorum Highway and Pakistan, Second, visit Tibet and in particular Lhasa and finally, reach Sheffield, New Zealand by any means but flying. Sadly by a mixture of bureaucracy, terrorism and flooding the first was not possible as the Pakistan Government no longer grants visas if requested in third countries. However, I got into thinking that maybe I could combine part of goals one and two, that is go to India via Tibet. I headed to Xining as I’d been told that this was a good place to arrange Tibet permits. It was a bit of a pain getting here as unlike most of the world where you can buy a ticket between two points with numerous trains involved, here you can only book tickets to places the train station you’re at directly serves (without changes).

So at Lanzhou I have 28 minutes to change train and buy a new ticket. Sounds simple? Not here! Although you arrive at a station they make you exit then re-enter to go to the ticket office. Sounds simple, nope. To enter a ticket off in the east of China (because of the problems) you need to have your bags x-rayed and you go through an airport style metal detector. This is irritating as I’d been through one to get on the previous train so it would have been easier and more logical to have a route for those in transit, and I always have to open my bag as I have knives and electronics in them and other stuff they may want for themselves, oops sorry I mean confiscate. Then you have to buy the ticket. Simple? Apart from the amazingly long queues, my Mandarin isn’t great although I’ve now learnt some key words and can write some key symbols for the type of ticket I want which is just as complicated as the UK when it comes to the many different price combinations. As if this wasn’t all bad enough, after buying the ticket you have to exit the ticket office and then re-enter the main train station via another x-ray machine and metal detector..... and bag search.... before trying to find the right waiting room for your train. Also not simple as quite rightly nothing is in English, but Pinyin (Mandarin Written in Latin) would have been nice. So as a result I just made the train with a couple of minutes to spare.

As I sat down a guy who had been in the same cabin as me on the last train just jumped on as we were about to set off. We both looked at each other as if to say, yep, we’re good while wondering whether we were the only two that made it! Although I couldn’t communicate directly with the guy, this is where modern technology comes in really useful, I’d downloaded a translator on my ipod and through using certain phases and augmenting them with other words we managed to have quite a conversation without either of us being able to speak each other’s language. Amazing when you think about it really, a simple phrase book wouldn’t have been the same. When I came back to my seat after visiting the very aromatic (not in a good way!) toilet they guy had actually bought me lunch and a coffee, which although only about £1.50, for him it would have been quite a bit. This is one of the many confusing faces of China, the young people in China are generally, and amazingly, hospitable, but with one hand they can offer me food and with the other take books and a language away from the Uighur.  It leaves you confused, you should be angry but you can you be angry and ungrateful when you have been shown no hatred.  It’s difficult, but I had to sit there and argue in my own head that although this guy was part of a system that persecutes, the system has also drilled into his head from a young age that the “Party” is always doing the best for them and not to question it.  He probably believes that what is happening in Urumqi is best for the Uighur, just as quite a few Americans believe their government was right to invade various places.  So what to do, I concluded that my job here was to draw people’s attention to a different interpretation to what they may believe.  The first would be doing what all guide books say not to do and talk about Tibet as if it were a separate country! (which it is of course!)

Xining, China

Within seconds of arriving in Xining I was jumped on by a tout who I took complete advantage of! I got him to get me a taxi to a hostel at the local rate (which is quite difficult to get as a tourist at a train station), he also jumped in to try to sell me a tour which would have been at a vastly inflated price to get his commission. However, at the hostel I left him outside the building where he waited for me while I booked in, it turned out he waited for at least two hours! However, I’d left via the emergency exit and went to the travel Agency someone recommended when I was in Urumqi. Always feels good to get one up on the touts, but sadly overall they always tend to win but with me they will have to work hard at it! You can’t kid a kidder and all that! Amazingly the travel agency could sort out the permits I needed to enter Tibet in less than two days, completely unheard of although this would be at a cost as I’m travelling solo. But this was lucky as time was running out on my visa so I headed to the train station to book a ticket to Lhasa.

Things have definitely changed since my last time in China in 1998. People have obviously been to queuing school. Before there was always a mad rush for tickets, now orderly queues! I don’t know what’s happened but lots of subtle things have changed but they make a massive difference to the traveller. People also spit a lot less; yes you still hear someone behind you retching up phlegm in the back of their throats followed quickly by the sound of the phlegm being spat out of their mouths and the splat sound of it hitting the pavement, but not as much. You only disturbing thing is, when you turn around to see who did it, it invariably is a young girl! But one thing has not changed that much, people still clack and slurp when they eat.... and with their mouths open which is my biggest pet hate. Luckily I have an I-pod which is a godsend while sitting near Chinese people eating, although this does not protect you from the smell of the constant belching they appear to do while eating. Finally the fashions have changed. Even in Beijing in 1998 all the men no matter what age wore mismatching suit jacket and trousers with very odd looking tank tops. I took loads of pictures at the time to prove it, but now it’s all pretty much western fashion; from “tank tops to Topshop.”

So leaving Xining after just one full day there, luckily there was nothing much to do anyway, I headed out to the train station for the Train to Lhasa. After having to go into a little room with a policeman so he could check my permit I entered the waiting room. Wow! It was amazing, this was little Tibet. The place was full of Tibetans all in their traditional dress with the accompanying smell of yak butter which is a major and important part in Tibetan culture! Practically everyone stared at me as I walked in but then would smile as our eyes met. These guys clearly didn't see westerners that often. It may sound weird, but although it was merely a train station waiting room, this was the first place in Asia so far that I have felt that I have actually travelled a long way, the first peoples with a culture that is completely different to those which are practiced in the UK and the West. Just at this moment a Chinese guy decided to befriend me and wouldn't take hints! He made me stand up and rush to the train saying that "These people just push, and very rude." These people eh! Luckily he was not on my carriage and I quickly lost him. There were a few other western tourists on the train which I was glad to see as these were pretty much the first I’d seen since Tashkent 9 days ago so I was glad to be able to have conversations which resulted in me not trying to explain why I was "sooo ooold, not marrrrry, why?" Having said that, I think I bored them to death with scientific talk and my opinionated interpretations of the different places I'd been. They said not but I think they were just being nice!

Tibet

Unlike the other journeys this one seemed to fly by as I think we talked most of the way but we didn't forget to look out of the window at the amazing scenery while at the same time trying to comprehend the major feat of engineering which had put us on a train 5,072 meters above sea level, 3.2 miles for those who can't convert, the highest in the world. It's the highest I've ever been on land and higher than most European flight paths. At this altitude they actually pump oxygen into the train to prevent altitude sickness otherwise many would pass out, although the oxygen doesn't smell 100% pure, I think a dog farted in the room where it was collected! In typical Chinese defiance or some may say stupidity, many men kept heading to the back of the carriage to smoke although the place is covered in no smoking stickers with constant announcements about not smoking as oxygen is pumped into the train. Basic science tell most of us that pure oxygen plus fire equals big bang and I would assume that pure oxygen plus dog fart would be a hell of a lot worse!

Tibet

Meeting my "too cool for school" guide with his cowboy shoes, expensive outdoor jacket, Ray Ban sunglasses and baseball cap we headed into central Lhasa to find a Tibetan run hotel and decided on the plan for the next three days.  I'd manged to get a Tibetan Guide (who has to be with me everyday!) and hoped at least with a little prompting he would be able to take me to places I would otherwise not be able to go.  But it did soon become clear that he was in real fear of speaking out and was concerned that information I write in this blog could implicate him, so nothing too controversial will be posted here for his safety, however, there are other means!  After taking this on board I headed into the centre on my own to get a feel for the place and I have to be honest, my feelings are confused. The police and Army presence here is massive, constant and intimidating, even more so that Urumqi, although the police don't seem to be as fearful of the locals here as they do there.

Lhasa, Tibet

Lhasa, TibetLhasa, Tibet

Amongst this intimidating show of Chinese force was the Jokhang Temple and a sight which actually did leave me speechless. As many people know I'm not one for religion and have always found it amazing that people go to India and come back having found a new religion, spending the rest of their lives running down Oxford Street in orange robes shouting Gouranga. But I think this is the first place I've been to where I shed a tear at the sight of pure devotion but it may not be simply that but also because this devotion was performed while surrounded by and in the presence of such intimidation by China. You can't really describe the feeling of the place and I won't even try, but seeing people prostrating themselves in devoted worship is nothing I've ever seen before. It's hard to describe what they do but simply they throw themselves forward on the floor, using some protection on their hands, stretch-out and slide both hands across the floor until their bodies are completely flat on the floor, then move back to the kneeling position while clapping their hands back together in prayer. Some do this from Xining, practically 2000km way, taking three steps then prostrating and repeating it. This takes 6 to 8 months and we actually saw people halfway through their journey on the way here. Others make their pilgrimage by prostrating their way clockwise around the Jokhang Temple while thousands of others simply walk..... 108 times!

Lhasa, Tibet

My first impression of Tibet and Lhasa, even given the massive military and police presence, was that this is definitely not China.