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Once Around The Sun

12968 km

URUMQI, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region

When crossing the Mongolian-Chinese border at Bulgan, I advise that you read up on experiences of backpackers previously doing so. The crossing itself is in the middle of nowhere and you can only cross on feet. If you ask me, the border crossing went smooth for us, but the fun started on the other side. Only a few taxis and mini buses waiting around, drivers hauling in the Mongolian traders. We are the only tourists crossing today. I know that for certain. As soon we are on the Chinese side, a driver asks us a question we were hoping for: 'Urumqi?'. 'Yes, please!', we've answered and followed him to his 4 seat sedan. On the way to the car he informed us about the price, 250 CNY per person. That's about £25 for 600km journey. Not bad, we thought, and sat in the car expecting it to move shortly. Wrong! The driver kept saying 15 or 30 minutes for 4 hours. Not much we could do but ask around who else is going to Urumqi. No luck so we have been stuck with this asshole, who informed us after hours of waiting that he needs at least 2 more people, otherwise he's not going anywhere. Who knows me well, knows that I'm a very patient person, that time however I had flashes in my head of the driver choking in the grasp of my hands. It was after 5 hours (!) of waiting when I decided and finally convinced Majka that we should get our backpacks, leave and start making it for the nearest village, where I assumed we would have better chances. Suddenly he realised that with us leaving he would lose all chances of making any money today. He offered to take 2 of us only, for a higher price of course. Desperate, angry and tired we take the unfair deal and arrive in Urumqi 45 minutes after midnight.

The next day, first order of business, was to get our clothes washed from all the Mongolian dust and dirt. Disappointed with the discovery that our Airbnb apartment had no washing machine, we head out to find a laundry service and to get us Chinese Yuans from an ATM. A surprise awaited us, all cash machines informed us that our banks rejected the transactions. We have tried 6 different ones. More surprises came with a discovery that our SIM cards are not working either, meaning no easy way of contacting our banks. Took only about 2 hours of Skype calls while I've explained Raj, then Peter with strong Indian accent and finally Sanjay that what I suspect the problem was. Usually my bank sends me text message alerts with confirmation of any 'suspicious' transactions, which I couldn't get due to roaming troubles on my EE SIM card and the helpful guys on the other end of the support link couldn't wrap their heads around the issue. After all that time Sanjey informed me out of the blue that there is no 'block' on my card and he suggests to go and try an ATM again. With nothing to lose I walk out and give it a go, suddenly everything seems to be working just fine. It must be magic, but I'm suspicious that my bank just didn't admit an error as I've been informing them several times that I will be travelling this part of the world.

Finally with 'fat' pockets we look for a dry cleaner, leave our entire wardrobe and go to see sights. Majka and I had only 3 days in Urumqi, 2 days with our banks wasting the first one. We went to see the Uyghur regional museum first with high hopes of finding any connections to Hungarians. As I mentioned, Urumqi is the capital of Uyghur region and the proportion of Wigers (as Chinese call this ethnic group) is about 25-30% in the city. I could be easily fooled if someone told me they are Turkish, for some of them I would even believe they're European. Tristan, our host, who spent entire our stay with us as ours tour guide, told us that the Wiger minority are Muslims and indeed have extremists among them. Trouble makers, apparently, as there were many terrorist attacks in the recent history of the city. Bomb attacks and targeted assaults as well. Indeed, the security is tight! Backpack screenings, metal detectors, security guards and Military Police with armed vehicles everywhere. We were not allowed to take a bottle of water even on a public bus and have seen soldiers marching with machine guns through parks and streets on many occasions. I don't think we have ever left the sight of security cameras...

Urumqi has a large market called Grand Bazaar! Does that remind you of something? Unlike the Grand Bazaar we have visited last year in Istambul, this one is completely artificial, new built and has no history whatsoever. Not that I could discover... Grand Bazaar in Urumqi is situated on South, South-East part of the city, which is considered to be the Uyghur quarter. Truly, we barely see any Chinese, people around resemble Turkish or sometimes European descent, but I see no Hungarians here either. As you've guessed the relationship between the minority and Chinese is not very warm, although in everyday life there is no visible evidence of this. Except of the ever present big brother of course.

The city itself is very modern and totally up to date, with a road system that would make jealous any metropolis. Flyovers and double decker roads, up to six level junctions, highways and motorways, fast bus service (BRT) and a metro system with first two lines opening later this year and a third line early next year. Some parts of the infrastructure have apparently been built in a month, and Tristan points out a building site of a skyscraper rising to 20-25 stories at the time and informed us that 2 months ago there was nothing. 25 stories in 2 months or a couple of kilometres of highway in 5 weeks?! China is growing at a speed that is unimaginable to anyone who didn't witness with own eyes. Tristan has been a great source of information and we were very lucky that we have visited the city on a public holiday so he didn't mind tour guiding us. He introduced us to his closest friends and we felt that we had experienced Urumqi from first hand.

Minus the stress of the first day, it has been a nice stay with highlights of the Uyghur Regional Museum, Urumqi Grand Bazaar and many local markets selling (to us) exotic fish and other creatures as delicatessens. Tristan also showed us his favourite park in the east of the city, that however, to us was all too plastic and artificial and I can't think of any other westerner than Martin Parr, who would actually like it...

On Monday morning we have made it to Urumqi South Railway Station just in time to go through 3 security screenings (did I mention tight security?!), collect our tickets and get on the train before it started moving at an average speed of 200 km/h towards our next stop...


​© 2022 by JAN ROCKAR

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