July 5th and 6th
I refused to rouse myself from the cozy cool environs of John’s Cafe as Turpan’s torpid heat envelops me. Jorg and Birdy are not to be deterred and go to a nearby mosque, on cycles no less. I glug a can of Diet Coke, and allow myself to wilt in the heat. There are grape vines all over, burdened with the green grapes that promise luscious sweetness. It’s just a promise, not to be fulfilled. We help ourselves to some grapes, using Birdy’s Swiss knife, but the grapes taste awful. Not like the ones we helped ourselves to in Tuyoq. Ah well, they were free at least, we console ourselves.
The train to Korla leaves in the evening. Korla – where we promise ourselves that we will camp in the desert. Like the grapes, our promises too are just that. Promises not destined to be fulfilled. The journey was smooth – not many people speak to us, it is after all Xinjiang. We reach Korla, a pretty little oasis town early in the morning. The Han influence is already apparent here – it looks like just another Chinese city, faceless and disintegrating into one facade after another. But…there are still remnants of charm in this city. It’s a pity that I would never see this charm, explore it, savor it. The first hotel listed in our guidebook, a large, stupendous hotel that we think to ourselves is beyond our reach, tells us that they cannot accept foreigners. “Can’t accept foreigners?” we ask. Why would the guidebook list them then, we wonder. Trudge to another hotel. Another. The same response. They point us to one hotel across the street. THAT hotel accepts foreigners. For a price of Yuan259. That was steep. Way too steep for backpacking budgets. And they don’t have a triple room, which then doubles the cost of the room. We decline. Try to find if there is a dorm. A helpful woman, Han again, shows the way to a dorm. Set in a maze, we would never have found it if not for her. But again, foreigners are not allowed. The owner is apologetic, explaining that he doesn’t have a problem with foreigners, but if the police come to know, he would be in trouble. It’s now well past 10AM. We are unwashed, carrying the stench of the train, and hungry. There is no time for breakfast though. Plans must be made. If there are no rooms for foreigners, we need to see if we can camp in the desert. We go back to the hotel that takes foreigners for a price, and find a travel desk there. The girls there are helpful, we dump our exhausted backpacks there. I rush to the restroom to just brush, while Jorg and Birdy go across to another travel agency they had spotted. We have identical news to report when we come back – they all offer day trips to the Taklamakan Desert. And that is not what we want. It’s cheap at just Yuan 120, but with no lodging, it was imperative that we at least sleep on sand. :-). Eventually, frustrated, we decide to just go to Kashgar. Or Kashi, as it is called in Chinese. There is an afternoon bus leaving, a sleeper bus that promises to reach Kashgar early the next morning. Just enough time to go have lunch at Korla’s famous food street. Err, rather, food basement. Underground parking lots that have been converted into restaurants. It takes a bit of a walk to reach there, and we are a bit puzzled. Surely, it’s a car parking lot! How can there be a food street? There is. It seems just enough Chinese – where else can you enjoy food while car fumes choke you, and the light of the outside world is just a memory? And where else can I get the best dumplings but here in this basement?
Away after that to the bus station, where we board the bus. It’s not the best bus I have been on in China. Some of the seats are stained, and they reek of the stench of many a journey and the humans who occupied these seats again and again. The bus is almost all Uighyurs. Jorg and Birdy’s berths are behind me. It’s Jorg first ever sleeper bus, and he is amused. They provide thick quilts, which I promptly use as a headrest. And then I sleep. As do the rest of us. I find it difficult to do anything else anyway. There is a man just below my berth (we choose the upper ones), who keeps looking at me. Moustachied, wearing a sleeveless sports T-shirt, he looks very un-Han Chinese. And of course, he is’t. His staring unnerves me. I am used to being stared at in China – much of it though is harmless. Despite China’s rapid pace of growth, many people have never seen a foreigner in their lives, and it’s just open curiousity that prompts them to stare. Here, the stare is fixed. Eventually, irritated, I ask him in Chinese, what’s the matter. His only response to that is to press his fingers to his lips, as if he is a teaching ssshing his student to silence. I look away, trying not to be angry. The bus stops now, at a non descript place. We hurry out, trying to find a washroom. Jorg goes out as well to buy his usual stash of junk food and meets a woman who sells him iced tea. The woman, he says, he would marry. Except of course, he has a girlfriend back in Germany. It’s here that the bus waits for more than 2 hours. I ignore the staring Mr Ssssh. Jorg meanwhile, finds him pretty nice. Mr Sssh offers him a biscuit, and talks to him. Birdy also talks to him. I try…maybe he is just an ignorant fool. But Mr Ssssh’s Chinese is worse than ours, and conversation stops after finding out which country we are from. Back on the bus, the TV is showing Karaoke songs. And an old Hindi favorite, Jimmmy Jimmy, aaaja aaaja, is a raging hit here.
It’s a bit unnerving to hear Hindi songs. But then, Xinjiang shares a border with India and Pakistan, and it should not really be a surprise. What is not a welcome surprise is that Xinjiang gives me the same uncomfortable feeling as being in India. Especially as Mr Sssh resumes his staring, and the rest of the passengers ignore us. The road is in patches in places. Bump bump goes the bus, and Jorg roars in laughter. Xinjiang is one of China’s least developed provinces, and it’s here at last that I find roads I can truly say are closer to home. It’s just for a short while though – the bus is not taking the expressway – but even these roads smoothen out. The journey though, doesn’t. After a long break for dinner, Mr Sssh casually slips an elbow across to slap in the back of my head while I make my way across to my berth. “Oh! Sorry,” he immediately says in Chinese, but I know that sorry is tainted with a lie. He did it deliberately, waiting till I was just past him. I am furious. And I let him know exactly what I think of him in my broken Chinese and then in English. I have traveled 1000s of miles in China. It’s here and only among these people who love Hindi songs, whose language has smattering of Hindi in it, whose culture is more Indian than Chinese. It’s here that for the first time, someone dares to do this. Not a Han Chinese. I rest my case. As Birdy says “The Indian border is close. And it shows.”