Friday, August 8, 2008

Aug 6 - 7 Hotan

Originally we thought we had a three star hotel for only $25 US, but the presence of a flyswatter on the table, and the fact that we could not figure out how to get hot water, along with unbussed tables at breakfast, and nothing to drink, led Mike to downgrade it to a two star hotel. On the other hand, Carol was tremendously satisfied with the view out of the window - a huge gilded onion dome a block away, a minaret a block further back, a large statue of Mao and the Uighur peasant, and people exercising in the morning on the square.

We woke up about 8 am, after a half nights sleep. The early morning sky was a repeat of Beijing, except this time it was sand in the air, sand on the pavement, sand everywhere. You could barely see the sun through the haze. Another place where it might have been safe to view an early morning eclipse without safety glasses.

At breakfast, we met an Italian couple, who are doing almost exactly the same trip we are doing. We met them again the next morning for breakfast, and inasmuch as we are following almost the same track, we will probably cross paths again and again on the trip. They considered us courageous for Americans to be doing this trip, but hopelessly bourgoise for paying others occasionally to do our laundry when we could just as easily be doing it in the room.

Our first two tasks were to (1) find the bus station and buy bus tickets to Kashgar for Thursday overnight; (2) find a map of the city with bus routes; and (3) find water in containers larger than 600 ml. We started off walking several blocks, seeing a park of the ancient city walls, crossing a small river, and reaching an intersection. We realized that we had been walking away from everything, so we took the 2 bus back toward downtown, not knowing exactly where it was going. We followed it to the other side of town (east). There we were told that the 5 bus would take us to the bus station. It did not. It took us part of the way and stopped at a bazaar, which we explored.

Hotan is a city of Kodak moments. Even if you took 10,000 photos a day, you could hardly capture its essence. As we were walking through the bazaar, Carol decided to put on her scarf, and Mike decided it was time to buy a Uighur cap - he settled on a white one, with embroidery, for 8 RMB. Instant hajji. He attracted a large crowd. Those who thought it fit thought he was a Turk or a Pakistani. Most thought it incongruous. Carol decided "What the Hey," and took off her scarf when she realized that it was hot, and she is what she is.

The next bus was a 10 bus to the end of the line, which we thought was the Main Bus Station, but was merely the parking spot for several local and regional bus lines, including the 10 line. Carol tried to ask where the main bus station (aptostantsia) was in Uighur. She was immediately surrounded on all sides by 15 men staring intently at her. She panicked. No ticket here, but at least a bathroom.

We started walking up and down this road, and maybe an hour later found the main bus station. We passed a fancy restaurant with large numbers of people nicely dressed entering. As both of us entered the front door, we saw only men. We saw women entering a side door. We finally decided that it was a wedding, or some other nice family occasion. Realizing that they had mistakenly forgotten to invite us, and that unlike the rest, we had no gifts, we walked on.

We finally got to the bus station, bought our tickets on the sleeper bus (lower level - 95 RMB per ticket) at about 2 pm. It was time for lunch, so we walked back to an outdoor restaurant where we had seen the ladies making what we thought were manti (kreplach, small wontons), but which were described as something else. We ordered a serving and 3 skewers of lamb. They brought out a pot of tea and the skewers atop an onion nan bread. After a while, the manti came out as part of a bowl of hot spicy soup, with spinach, lots of garlic slices, and some tomato. Very tasty.

At the conclusion of lunch, we paid 4 RMB, the price quoted, and walked to the nearest bus stop to catch a bus to the Silk Factory. Mike was remarking on how amazingly cheap that meal was, being only 60 cents US. A minute later of of the restaurant ladies came over to us on her motorcycle, asking for an additional 7 RMB, which we gladly paid. Still, 11 RMB ($1.65 US, or 1.05 Euros) was not bad for lunch for two.

The Silk Factory was at the end of the 1 bus line, 3 or 4 km from town. We went over there, were given a short tour of the automated silk weaving machinery. The guide books say that you also get a tour showing how the silk is separated from the cocoons, and how it is processed, but that was missing from our tour. We also were not given the tour through the gift shop. Maybe it takes a tour-bus load of potential consumers to elicit the full monte. The machine rooms were exceedingly noisy, and did not seem to meet OSHA standards for safety. It was nearly 4 pm when we left.

Back to town for several hours at an internet cafe, where we were able to post on our own for the first time in three days.

Then back to the hotel on a different bus. Went out for dinner about 8:45 pm BT (6:45 pm XT). We walked around the corner from the hotel where there were a number of food stalls. A crowd was patronizing a stall with two immense pots. These contained a very thick bright yellow orange soup made from corn, squash, greens, a bit of meat, and seasonings (5 RMB). We split a bowl, and it was delicious, unlike anything else we had eaten.

The next day, we met the Italians at breakfast again. They were going to Kashgar on the daytime express leaving at noon. We got a slow start, with two goals before checkout time at noon. First, go to the central shopping square to find a map of Hotan with bus routes. We stayed on the bus too long and had to walk back, but eventually we found the Xinhua Book Store (shudian in Chinese, kitaphane in Uighur (Carol's guess)). We settled on two nice maps of Hotan at 6 RMB apiece, and made it back to finish all the packing and check out by noon, leaving the luggage in "Left Luggage."

At this point, Mike was at the point of collapse, being down many quarts of water apparently. Carol went out on a liquefying mission with 15 RMB. At the "supermarket" nearby, she bought two containers of Green Tea Drink for Mike, a 1 liter box of carrot juice for herself, and a 1.5 liter bottle of water. This came to exactly 15 RMB, no more and no less. Since we had been paying 1.5 RMB for 600 ml of water, 3 RMB for the 1.5 l bottle was somewhat of a buy.

It was now apx 1 pm, and Mike needed time to drink and revive. Carol went out for maybe an hour and a half, walking around the neighborhood, looking for more of the old city walls. Hotan is an exercise in urban renewal/neighborhood removal. Indeed the Onion Domes and Minaret that we had viewed from the hotel window were actually new construction housing apartments and shopping. We found nothing in this town that was old and historic, except for the city walls, even though the town itself is very old. Bland high-rise apartments effectively hide the old one-story XinJiang housing of the past. Much of this is mud brick construction, which doesn't age gracefully. Inner neighborhoods often have a guard, and the apartments (most of which seemed to be occupied by Han Chinese) are gated and fenced. So Carol had to take a very circuitous route and got a dressing down from two different guards. However, she managed to find public bathrooms on her own.

At 2:30 or so, both of us went out to the Internet Cafe from a day before. We found a bazaar at Nawage Lu (Street) and got some fresh-cracked walnuts, which were fairly green and probably meant for cooking or roasting.

After one hour of internet, we emerged. Mike needed some tea, bananas, and water. Carol had a freshly cooked egg-crepe with green onions, cooked in a sizzling iron pan at least 14 inches across (2 RMB). The place where we sat down for just tea, no food, refused to charge us anything, so we left 2 RMB on the table. We took several long bus rides to kill time and complete our exploration of the town.

For dinner, we arrived at the soup stall at 7 pm, about an hour before the soup was to be ready. So we sat and watched. Finally, the soup was ready and we got our bowl, along with bowls for the other dozen or so people lined up and waiting.

Back to the hotel at 8:30 pm, for a last trip to the bathrooms. Picked up our luggage at 8:45 pm. When Mike picked up Carol's covered backpack, he found that it was sticking to his leg. There was something gluey all over the front of her bag cover, and now one of his pant legs. So we got the hotel staff to scrub the bag cover with soap. The substances was so persistent that it took two staff members armed with toothbrushes to begin to make the cover acceptable. We got it towel dried, by 9:15 pm, caught a taxi to the bus station, in time for the 9:30 pm sleeper bus to Kashgar.

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