Friday, 28 June 2013

Across Asia With A Lowlander: Park 2m: Urumqi (I)

world-map urumqi

Greetings!

This week’s offering takes us to Urumqi, the furthest city on earth from the seaside. How sad to be a kid growing up there without any sandcastle-building opportunities! Still, it’s not all that bad: when we were there they were preparing for a festival. After some research I’ve discovered that that celebration was in fact the Qixi Festival which, according to Wikipedia, ‘is a Chinese festival that celebrates the annual meeting of the cowherd and weaver girl in Chinese mythology. It falls on the seventh day of the 7th lunar month. It is sometimes called the Double Seventh Festival, the Chinese Valentine's Day, or the Magpie Festival. This is an important festival, especially for young girls.The festival originated from the romantic legend of two lovers, Zhinü and Niulang, who were the weaver maid and the cowherd. The tale of The Weaver Girl and the Cowherd has been celebrated in the Qixi Festival since the Han Dynasty. The earliest-known reference to this famous myth dates back to over 2600 years ago, which was told in a poem from the Classic of Poetry.’

So, now you know! If nothing else this blog is educational!

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

 Flickr album of this trip

Links to all parts of the travelogue

Book 1: Embarking Upon A New Korea

1a: Toyama to Pusan

1b: Pusan

1c: Seoul

1d: The DMZ

1e: Seoul, Incheon and Across the Yellow Sea

Book 2: Master Potter does Fine China

2a: Qingdao

2b: Beijing (I)

2c: Beijing (II)

2d: Beijing (III)

2e: Yinchuan (I)

2f: Yinchuan (II)

2g: Lanzhou

2h: Bingling-si

2i: Xiahe

2j: Lanzhou and Jiayuguan

2k: Jiayuguan

2l: Dunhuang

2m: Urumqi (I)

2n: Urumqi (II)

2o: Urumqi (III)

Book 3: Steppe to the Left, Steppe to the Right…

3a: Druzhba to Almaty

3b: Shumkent to Tashkent

3c: Tashkent (I) 

3d: Bukhara

3e: Bukhara to Samarkand

3f: Samarkand

3g: Samarkand to Urgench

3h: Khiva

3i: Tashkent (II)

3j: Tashkent to Moscow

3k: Moscow (I)

3l: Moscow (II)

3m: Moscow (III)

3n: Konotop to Varna

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urumqi-map

8th August, 2002 – Urumqi, China

The train pulled into Urumqi, the furthest city in the world from the sea, early that morning, and I saw from my window a sight that I'd been expecting to see all the way through China; a socialist city of heavy industrial plants, dull brick apartment blocks and faceless institutional buildings that doubtless housed the hospitals, schools and bureaucracies necessary to keep the People's Republic on its feet. The picture was not entirely compete in its socialist perfection mind, a swish hoarding-lined highway had followed us for miles leading into the city, but gone were the smooth towers of commerce and other trappings of the affluent Western World, (and increasingly Eastern China too). Perhaps one has to travel to the very furthest reaches of the country to find the grim reality of the Second World painted in many a dark picture by the enlightened peoples of the First. Perhaps.

The railway station was unique from all the others that we'd visited in that it did not possess a grand Stalinist-style terminal building to match the Stalinist city that it served. The reason for that however was a simple one that soon became apparent. The old terminal had just been knocked down and a newer, grander one was being erected in its place. The artist's impressions of the new structure looked impressive, a huge monolith that looked like a cross between a Victorian town hall and a French opera house. It was a building that resonated power, might, achievement and architectural glory. The modernists and post-modernists may not have been impressed, but like Prince Charles, I'm far from over-awed by their pathetic palaces of steel and glass, that might well shout 'design' but do not seem to offer any hope for the future. Once again, in the field of railway station design, the upstart Chinese were far outdoing us Europeans who gave railways to the world.

We decided before all else to try and book our tickets onwards to Almaty first, but negotiating the numerous temporary buildings of the station proved to be more difficult than we'd anticipated. At one when I asked, “How do I get to Almaty?' the lady wrote down in perfect English, 'Turn left. Go 100 miles.' It later turned out that she meant metres. In the end we were directed too a booking desk situated within the railway-owned Yaou Hotel, which was conveniently located right next to what had once been the terminal buildings. Since it was so handy, and the desk was closed, and the room rate reasonable, we decided to kill two birds with one stone as it were, and book in at the swanky-looking establishment. Our room turned out to be on the twelfth floor and like virtually every hotel in China, whilst it looked perfect from a distance, upon closer inspection things were found out to be not so brilliant; rusty windows, faulty sockets, a wall grate that was falling off... Still, we were not kings and therefore did not require a palace, and besides, the place commanded a fine view of the railway station which suited me if not the Lowlander. And thus, thirty minutes later, showered, shaved and all round feeling fresher, we sat by that window that provided that said view, watching the trains chug up and down, drinking tea and playing the five-dice game at which I am pleased to say, I was doing better than the Lowlander.

urumqi01The view from our room

Around tenish we ventured downstairs to the ticket office which was now open and functioning. We purchased what we needed with relative ease, booking ourselves onto the train that left on Monday just before midnight. That done and the day being Thursday, we thus had five days with which to amuse ourselves in Urumqi, starting that very moment! And not being men to hesitate, we there and then hailed a taxi to one of the city's three attractions that were listed in our guidebook, the Renmin Gongyuan, or 'People's Park', delaying our entry into that oasis of proletarian pleasure only to partake in a hefty brunch at an adjacent restaurant.

The People's Park impressed my Lowland-living companion little, but I was satisfied. It turned out to be a rather gaudy town park, complete with pagodas, gardens, boating lakes and a small funfair at the far end. Contrary to what you may be thinking, it was not the gaudiness that did not suit my fellow traveller's taste buds, but instead the lack of maintenance, or the shoddy quality of that which had been undertaken. Now I must say that I hadn't really noticed this, nor was I particularly bothered about it when I did, but it must of course be remembered that as a general rule we English are far less clinical and precise than our near neighbours below sea level. Throughout the trip, countless comments emanated from the mouth of my companion regarding the shabby quality of the buildings, the crappy plastic bathroom fittings that did not well… quite fit, the cracks already appearing in the nearly-new Beijing West Railway Station, the all too inherent lack of maintenance in the Forbidden City and the dreadful state of almost every kitchen that we glanced in. I perhaps did not notice it so much since compared with the Third World or Eastern Europe, China did not really have a problem in this department, but there again, perhaps the real reason is that my own standards are hardly very high? The guy did actually have a point, since whenever he did point it out, I could clearly see that there were innumerable flaws or corners cut, and this is but one of the many factors that prove that whilst she is undoubtedly heading in the right direction, fast, the People's Republic of China does still have a way to go.

Poor plaster and paintwork aside, we enjoyed our time in that park in the mindless, childish kind of ways in which parks are meant to be enjoyed. We rode the big wheel, braved the log flumes, bumped into each other on the bouncy boats and then topped it all off by having our photos taken in the Print Club machine. After that we strolled through the gardens and admired (?) the many colourful floats depicting emperors and monks of times gone by, that were presumably there in honour of some festival or other.

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urumqi08 Enjoying the delights of the People’s Park!

Perhaps it was those floats or perhaps not, but we were reminded of the one thing that that Eden of Enjoyment was lacking, and that was a big fat dollop of culture. And being the culture vultures that we are, we decided that that was precisely what we were missing too, and we should rectify the situation as soon as possible by moving onto Urumqi's second attraction of the day, the Xinjiang Uyghur Zizhign Bowuguan, or in other words, Xinjiang's Provincial Museum. That was a long taxi ride across town, and before you ask, 'And why did you bother?', I shall have to answer that, 'Yes, we are stupid, yes we don't learn the lessons of history,' and yes, you've guessed it, the museum, like those in every other Chinese town it seemed, was shut during the Summer of 2002, and so it was back to the hotel for us, cultureless and unfulfilled.

That evening we decided to go out and taste what Xinjiang is famous for; its Uyghur food. The Uyghurs are the region's native population, (indeed, Xinjiang is officially the Uyghur Autonomous Region), who are quite distinct from the Han Chinese. They are Turkic speaking, Islamic, have more European features and what's more occasionally and unsuccessfully demand independence from the People's Republic. More important for us though, is they also eat different food.

Now its not that we didn't like the Chinese food. Quite the opposite in fact, its actually rather nice, with a galaxy of exotic and tantalising flavours. But everyday? It's the rice that does it you see. I like rice, boiled, fried or perhaps even steamed? I like it so much that I am even prepared to eat it on a weekly basis, hell three times a week doesn't even bother me! But everyday, for every meal... Maybe I don't like rice that much...

But in China what else is there in the staple foods department? Noodles? I go off them quicker than rice. Potatoes? You'd be bloody lucky! And bread? Bread, ahh, bread! In my opinion it's not just a coincidence that bread is what's mentioned in the Lord's Prayer. Bread that's broken on the altar, 'Bread of Heaven' that the Welshmen sing about. Whit crusty loaves, French sticks, granary slices...

But Chinese bread? Trust me, that is something that you would not ask the Lord to give you on a daily basis. Sweet, sickly and more than a bit too chewy. That makes even another serving of rice seem appetising!

We chose a restaurant mentioned in the guidebook, but alas that was either closed or at any rate, unlocatable. Not to worry however, since we did appear to be in the Uyghur part of town and there were plenty of others to choose from, and so we soon stepped inside an inviting-looking establishment, and with considerable difficulty and not a little help from the waiter who phoned up a friend who spoke English, we ordered some native specialties.

To say that that meal was the finest that we enjoyed throughout the entire trip is no exaggeration. Uyghur food is almost Levantine, with fine shashlik kebabs, bread that tastes like bread should, and laghman, a spicy meat soup that left us full and bloated before it was even half finished. What's more, this Uyghur food was exquisitely prepared and on top of all that, very cheap. Such fayre would be delightful at any time. After a month of fried rice though, it was like we'd died and gone to heaven. We had our photos taken to mark the occasion, and mused upon this, our first taste on the journey of a culture based on the Middle and not the Far East. The food, appearance of the people and décor suggested Turkey, not China. We were entering the world of Arabian Nights, and boy, did that feel good!

urumqi10 Dining Uyghur style!

Next part: 2n: Urumqi (II)

Friday, 21 June 2013

Across Asia With A Lowlander: Part 2l: Dunhuang

world-map dunhuang

Greetings!

Another week and another destination, this time Dunhuang in the heart of the Gobi Desert. Not our favourite spot in China this one, but one where we took the best photos (see below). However, with little else to do, why not?

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Flickr album of this trip

Links to all parts of the travelogue

Book 1: Embarking Upon A New Korea

1a: Toyama to Pusan

1b: Pusan

1c: Seoul

1d: The DMZ

1e: Seoul, Incheon and Across the Yellow Sea

Book 2: Master Potter does Fine China

2a: Qingdao

2b: Beijing (I)

2c: Beijing (II)

2d: Beijing (III)

2e: Yinchuan (I)

2f: Yinchuan (II)

2g: Lanzhou

2h: Bingling-si

2i: Xiahe

2j: Lanzhou and Jiayuguan

2k: Jiayuguan

2l: Dunhuang

2m: Urumqi (I)

2n: Urumqi (II)

2o: Urumqi (III)

Book 3: Steppe to the Left, Steppe to the Right…

3a: Druzhba to Almaty

3b: Shumkent to Tashkent

3c: Tashkent (I) 

3d: Bukhara

3e: Bukhara to Samarkand

3f: Samarkand

3g: Samarkand to Urgench

3h: Khiva

3i: Tashkent (II)

3j: Tashkent to Moscow

3k: Moscow (I)

3l: Moscow (II)

3m: Moscow (III)

3n: Konotop to Varna

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map-of-gansu-L

2nd August, 2002 – Jiayuguan, China

We were up early that morning, ready to take the train out of town. Unfortunately though, upon arrival at the station, we discovered that whilst taking a train out of town was not a problem, if we wanted to take one to Dunhuang, our destination of choice, then we needn't have bothered getting up so early. The train was not until almost four o'clock, and it was now just before ten. Hmm... That left us with a problem; how to fill six hours in a town where the few things that there were to do, we'd well and truly done a long time back. In the end we settled for what we'd ended up doing rather too much that trip, a lengthy backgammon session whilst drinking copious quantities of tea in a cafe by the station. And it was a session profitable to the Lowlander, causing me to worry that my by now ten game lead in the competition, was perhaps not so unassailable as I'd thought.

Having learnt the lesson of Yinchuan, we entered the Grand Socialist Waiting Room of Jiayuguan Railway Station, almost an hour before the train's scheduled departure, and then tried to go on further to the platforms so that we may watch the trains go to and fro in the sunshine rather than Chinese people sprawled about on plastic seats in the gloom. We were however, halted in our endeavour by a stern-looking official who informed us that we may only enter the platform area ten minutes before the arrival of our train. Hmm, that didn't sound very good, but using our skill and judgement, we figured out a way around it. Off I went to the ticket window and purchased two large platform tickets, (each with a colourful picture of the Great Wall on the front), for the princely sum of Y1 a piece. We presented these newer and more colourful tickets to the lady in uniform, but alas, what's this? The barrier stayed down!

“But this is a platform ticket!” cried I.

“Yes, for the platform!” added the Lowlander.

“Platform ticket yes. Go platform, no!” retorted the representative of the People’s Republic of China.

“But here no good. Platform good!” quoth I.

“No go platform this ticket!” replied the voice of official wisdom.

“But if this is a platform ticket,” questioned the Lowlander, “and we cannot go onto the platform with it, then what is it for?”

But alas, no answer was forthcoming from the Republic of the People.

To be fair though, it's not just the Chinese. In my experience the Orient in general is full of stupid, pointless, anal little rules that must be obeyed and cannot, under any circumstances, be bent. Whilst in China, going onto railway platforms is intolerably evil, in Japan it's keeping your train ticket as a souvenir. I collect train tickets as a sort of sad little hobby, and everytime I went on a rail journey in that fair country, I asked the guy on the gate if I could keep my ticket. And in two years, how many answers in the positive did I get? Yes, that's right, not bloody one. And what do they do with those oh-so-valuable bits of card that they keep? Do they count them up to see if the books match, or perhaps recycle them so as to preserve the earth's resources? No, not at all, instead they just throw them in the bin. Yes, that's right, straight to the bloody rubbish dump. But can you keep that little ticket that is destined for nowhere else but Trashland? Why of course not! For that would be against the system.

But it's not worth getting angry about, (as I am obviously doing), for that's just their way and you cannot change it anyhow. I would imagine that most Asians would get pretty pissed off with the European tendency to bend the rules to suit the occasion. Where do they stand? Which rules can be flexed (e.g. Serving under-measure beers in the Netherlands and over-measure spirits in Spain is ok), and which are rigid, (e.g. Never touch your mate's beer!). The fact is, in the East they have a system which despite its idiosyncrisities and weaknesses, everybody does stick to, as it is better that way than having no clear system at all. For harmony and order are what matter. And going off the point for a moment, that might also help explain why communism has fared far better out there, than in an opinionated, everyone knows what's best, Europe.

The train, (when we were eventually allowed to see it), turned out to be the longest yet, with twenty large carriages. However, in all those carriages, not one window seat was available, nor were there any soft seats to upgrade to. Now the Chinese hard seat is not nice anywhere, (as we'd discovered on the Qingdao to Beijing train), but the further west one gets, the worse the experience. This one, (being particularly far west), was nothing short of unpleasant, with naked babies, miserable-looking peasants and surly Uyghurs filling the majority of the seats. Besides, my main pleasure in a rail journey is looking out of the window, something difficult to do when there are two large Turkic ladies in the way. Consequently, it wasn't long before we complained, (oh, how bourgeois can one get?!), and were moved to the end of the coach, alongside a burly gent with figures that he checked every so often and a large pile of empty pot noodles that he threw out of the window at the first opportunity.

And from then on, our journey was quite nice. Better than that, it was very nice in fact. The scenery outside was as desolate as one could imagine; just flat and grey-brown with only a power line for company. Every so often we'd pass a deserted station, or a long coal train or Lanzhou-bound express, but that was all. For five hours or so, we rumbled on, the only change being that somewhere near to Liuyuan we passed through an area of interesting-looking black hills whose presence seemed to be a geological mystery.

It was getting dark as we pulled into Liuyuan, the station for Dunhuang, and transferred to a large minibus that was to be our mode of transportation to the Town of the Sand Dunes. The journey was surreal; alone we rumbled along the dead-straight road through the rocky desert. When another vehicle was approaching, you could tell clearly, the lights appearing on the horizon and gradually getting larger and larger, taking a full ten minutes or so before reaching our bus.

And above were the stars, countless millions of them, unobscured by any neon glare. Looking up at them, I was reminded of the time when I first saw so many, sat on some hay bales in a desert in Israel. Strangely enough, I was in a desert once more, and the guy sat next to me was the same one who had suggested gazing at the stars all those years ago.

We got into Dunhuang late and tired. It seemed a larger and livelier place than we'd expected. But we had neither the time nor the energy to hit the town now, and instead booked into the strangely named 'Five Rings Hotel' and sank into our beds for a long, long sleep.


3rd – 7th August, 2002 – Dunhuang, China

I'll start off by saying that it was the Lowlander's idea to come to Dunhuang. Not that I objected to it mind, but it was his idea. More than that, of all the places in China, this was the one that he really wanted to visit. Like me, the real aim of his coming on this expedition was to see some of the Stans, but there was one place in the People’s Republic that he was not going to miss, and that was Dunhuang.

The reason for that was simple. On a CD-Rom that he has at home he'd read that the Gobi Desert is 95% stony and only 5% sand dunes. And those dunes are at Dunhuang, a place that also happens to have a crescent moon shaped lake in amongst those said dunes. Sounds good? Well, for the Lowlander who tends to be a bit of a seeker-out of the world's freaks of nature, it did.

Problem was, that neither his CD-Rom, or the guidebook, had bothered to inform us that not only had we chanced upon a desert paradise, but alas so had the rest of China and quite a few more besides. The eight or so hotels that the book listed could have easily been multiplied by five and the eating establishments likewise.

But that was not really the problem. As I often point out, I'm not the biggest fan of tourist hotspots, but quite frankly, after considerable time in some very Chinese-only environments, I welcomed the chance of some Western food, and too the opportunity to swap some of my finished paperbacks for some new ones. And what's more, the place was not unpleasant, with tree-lined streets and a large colourful market built in a traditional style. No the problem with Dunhuang was that, far from being the fair oasis that we'd anticipated, it was instead a big rip-off and tourist trap.

And the emphasis here should be placed on 'trap'.

The real problem perhaps lay in the fact that we'd screwed up our itinerary in the early days, racing from Qingdao, only two nights in Beijing, and then straight across Eastern China to Yinchuan. At the time we'd not realised that travelling would be so painless and quick and the upshot of it all was that we now had a lot of days to waste until our visas allowed us to visit Kazakhstan on the twelfth of August. Consequently, that meant that we had to spend three or four days at each major stop on the railway line, and that all those places did not really warrant a stop of more than a night or two, since there was very little to at any of them other than eat melons and drink tea.

Dunhuang however, was the exception, and that is perhaps why we'd looked so forward to going there. Apart from the Crescent Moon Lake with its dunes, there were also innumerable Buddha caves, a large film set of an ancient Silk Road city, various outposts and watchtowers of the Great Wall, and a museum.

We tried the museum out first. After arising late in our beds at the Five Rings Hotel, we breakfasted/ lunched heartily on Western fayre, and then wandered through the streets to the home of the region's cultural relics. And as Chinese museums went, it certainly wasn't bad. For a start, unlike virtually all the others that we'd visited, it was actually open, and what's more approximately half the exhibits were labelled in my native tongue, which certainly helped no end. The crowning glory however, was the MIG jet fighter in the complex's forecourt, which apparently is a bit of a local celebrity. The plane, when retired from the People's Air Force, was presented to the town, and it was decided by the wise eldermen to put it on a plinth in the main park. Whilst preparations were made to accommodate this graceful War Chariot of the Skies, the plane was loaned to the museum and placed in the car park. Unfortunately however, whilst it stood there, the long-awaited construction of the complex's new gateway was undertaken. Only problem was, when it came to the time for the MIG to retire to a greener place, it was discovered that the new gateway was a little too narrow for her to fit through. Oops! Thus there she stays to this day, a permanent resident of the forecourt.

dunhuang01 Cleaning up the Chinese military machine

The museum done, the next attraction to tick off our Done in Dunhuang list was of course, the Crescent Moon Lake, which lies only six kilometres to the east of the town. We decided to hire bikes for that and start out about fiveish when the weather had begun to cool a little.

The idea was not a bad one. Cycling in the afternoon sun with the wind on our cheeks was far from unpleasant and the trip was nice. Up ahead of us loomed the dunes, pristine and romantic. They were the dunes that I'd expected to see five years ago in Egypt and Israel, dunes crossed by caravans of camels or Lawrence of Arabia on horseback with his Bedouin warriors, ready to dynamite the German trains en route to Mecca. I'd not seen them where they should be though; there the desert had been disappointingly stony, not sandy. No, instead here they were, far far away, in China.

dunhuang02 Cycling to the dunes…

Impressive from a distance they might have been, but close up there was a problem. Firstly it was the rows and rows of stalls selling stuffed camel soft toys and grinning Buddhas, and then it was a large gate, besides which was a ticket window.

“Y50?” I couldn't believe it. That was over ten euros!

“Yes, Y50.” The book had said Y20, and that was but a year old.

“Does that include a camel ride?”

“No, only go inside.”

Now this was wrong, very wrong, and I was not alone in thinking so. I don't mind paying entrance fees, even the occasional exorbitant one like this, if it's something worth seeing. After all, we'd paid Y45 to see the Forbidden City and not complained. But why? Because the Forbidden City was a world-class historical monument, and historical monuments require a lot of money for a lot of upkeep. Is it not only right that if one visits a place, one should help contribute to preserving it for future generations? Well, in my humble opinion it is anyway. But this was no historical monument, nor did it require any upkeep. It was a natural occurrence or phenomenon, nothing more. The fact is that not a fen of the Y50 would be going on upkeep or indeed anything else worthwhile. It was nothing more than a complete rip off and I do not like being ripped off!

Problem was that we had come here specifically to see it and it would be stupid not to. “Pay it,” said the Lowlander gloomily. So we did.

The Crescent Moon Lake, with its dunes and Buddhist temple was spectacular. The crisp lines of the white sand, the beautiful patterns caused by the sunlight and shadows, the unexpected appearance of pagoda roofs in an Arabian setting, and the pool the shape of a Cheshire Cat's grin were truly sights to savour, and my photos of the place are the ones that have most awed those who've looked through them. Sadly however, the overall experience was lacking. Being put in a bad mood by the entry price, we had to fight through hordes of camels ready to take the coach parties on a saunter, a concrete reservoir, hawkers for shooting ranges, sand surfing and other annoying diversions. And the temple itself, whilst enchanting from outside, was inside a collection of art galleries and teashops. Not a hint of its original purpose remained. Fair enough, a lack of religion is one of the costs of being communist, I accept that, but they could have made some sort of effort to provide an attraction equal to the money that we'd paid. But of course, they did not, and we departed disappointed.

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dunhuang08 The Crescent Moon Lake: stunning but overpriced

And we soon discovered that it was not just the Crescent Moon Lake. In fact the whole of Dunhuang was one big racket. The restaurants and shops were overpriced, and the tourist attractions ridiculously so. A whopping Y50 to see the Buddha Caves at Mogao, and that's after you'd paid a fortune for a bus or taxi to get there. We declined the offer.

Yet the problem was that there was nothing else. Dunhuang, once a caravan town was now wholly geared up to tourism and being in the middle of nowhere, one could not get out of it easily, even the railway station being a three hour drive away. And all the attractions being ten to twenty kilometres out of town, they cost an arm and a leg to get to, as well as to get in. We however, did not fancy getting screwed over again, so instead we mooched gloomily around the streets, lingered in internet cafes and the post office, and played a lot of backgammon in tea houses. The days passed slowly.

We did find one good attraction to visit mind. That was Ancient Dunhuang, which was not too far away and a reasonable Y6 to enter. The reason for that presumably was that it wasn't very popular, since it wasn't actually that good. Although billed as the 'Ancient City of Dunhuang', it was in fact far newer than the concrete metropolis of the modern city. No, it was in fact a film set where many a cheesy kung fu or historical movie had been made. The Lowlander and I minded not though, hell, we'd seen enough genuine old buildings to last a lifetime anyway, and instead it became the highlight of our visit to that remote desert town. We spent several hours roaming the city walls, bars, gaols of this home of the Chinese spaghetti (or should it be 'noodle'?) Western.

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dunhuang15 Flashing Fist 23: The Way of the Western Warriors

A visit to the post office also proved interesting. As I mentioned before, for many years I've been a bit of a (not serious, mind) philatelist, so I figured that getting a few Chinese commemorative stamp sets might be a nice idea. Whilst looking through what they had to offer, I discovered one commemorating the commencement of the construction of the Golmud to Lhasa railway line. This surprised me. Taking an interest in railways, I'd read that such an idea had been mooted for years, but eventually abandoned as unrealistic, the Swiss engineers declaring the necessary tunneling through ice as impossible. Yet here were stamps declaring that it was to be built. Later on, in Urumqi, I looked it up on the internet, checking both pro and anti Chinese sites and yes, it was true, a railway was being built to Tibet, and indeed it was already halfway towards completion. What's more, this line, built to the highest environmental standards on earth was expected to reduce harmful road traffic over the Himalayas and bring untold economic benefits to Tibet. And what did the pro-Tibetan independence people have to say about it all? Why, it was a terrible thing of course! Economic and environmental benefits be damned, it would water down the ethnic population of the province giving their cause less credence. I am sorry to say, but that day they lost my respect.

Having failed to dance the night away at the Space Disco in Jiayuguan, we decided to try again here, and after inquiries at the hotel, we soon located a place in the centre with flashing lights, loud music, a bouncy (?) dance floor and a horde of youngsters. The Lowlander and I entered and as one does in discos, made a beeline straight for the bar, picking up a beer apiece. We then located a table and drank.

It soon became obvious however, that how the Chinese do discos is a very different thing to how we do it in Western Europe. The crowd, who all looked about seventeen, were taking their dancing very seriously, and knew all the moves to make. They would groove vigorously before eventually succumbing to fatigue and heading to the air conditioner which they would stand by and cool down before returning to the dance floor. What got us however, was the fact that we seemed to be the only ones drinking. In Britain, (and according to the Lowlander, in the Netherlands also), clubbing equals drinking, and one wouldn't dream of dancing before being blotto. This lot however, were staying off the ale and on the floor, concentrating on their moves, leaving us feeling like a pair of retarded, sad old drunkards who after two beers slipped away, leaving the party for those cool enough to belong there.

And not long after that we slipped out of the town itself, feeling that we did indeed belong elsewhere. Perhaps Urumqi would be a better bet?

dunhuang16 The road out of Dunhuang

The sun was slowly sinking as we boarded the train for Urumqi, ahead of us another twelve hours in a compartment with six tiny beds. Twelve hours, just think about that; most people don't make a single journey of that length of time on any form of transport in their lives. Twelve hours can take you right across Western Europe by car and across the Eurasian landmass by plane. It's an immense distance, huge. Yet to tell the truth, we were by now becoming used to it and it no longer frightened me as it had done when we landed at Qingdao.

dunhuang17 The Urumqi Express

This journey would be easier than most anyway, since it turned out that we had a travelling companion who spoke English. He was a wizened, bald-headed gent who sipped a bottle of warm beer to help him sleep. His manner was quaint and friendly and his English remarkably good.

"A-ha!" he said, when we congratulated him on it, "and why do you think that is?"

We replied that we knew not.

"I am not Chinese that's why. Well not a Chinese citizen anymore. No, I am a Kiwi!" It turned out that he was a professor of the Chinese language who had been chased out of the country soon after the revolution and had found refuge in New Zealand, where he enjoyed the life although it grieved him greatly that he'd never had any opportunity to follow his chosen specialty, (one imagines that the demand for Mandarin linguistical experts is none too high in Wellington). Now, with the government having relaxed the rules, like the Taiwanese that we'd met at the Great Wall, he was back in his homeland as a tourist, busy exploring the country for so long barred to him.

"I hated the Communists," he said. "Mao Tse Tung was an evil man. I hated them more than anything else on earth."

But now?

"Now things are different, I can see that. I don't hate them anymore. They are moving China forward and I was wrong since I never thought that they'd do that. No, I don't support them of course, but what is important is China and we must all help how we can."

And what an enlightened attitude thought I. How many people in Europe and America still refuse to forgive Germany, Japan, the Soviet Union, Cuba, Vietnam or whatever country they were once taught to hate. Yet here was a man driven out of his motherland by the Communists, now saying that all is forgiven.

That evening we sat for several hours talking to our Kiwi friend. He explained the workings of the complicated Chinese writing system to us.

"It's very logical," said he. "Each letter is made up of one or more parts. Look at this part." He drew a horizontal line crossed by two shorter lines slanting downwards towards each other. "This means 'plant'. Any character that has this in it represents a plant. I thought of the characters that I knew that contained this component. 'Flower', well yes, that's a plant, and 'tea'. Wait a minute, that's a drink. But what's the drink made from? Very clever. "It's very useful," he continued, "since if you see this on a menu, even if you don't know what the character represents, you know that it is some sort of vegetable."

We soon realised that he was more than enthusiastic about his language, and his vast knowledge of it was attracting not only us, but also a sizeable audience of the native population of the carriage who crowded round as he taught them about their own culture. "Do you know what? This year they found out that a certain type of bird in Papua New Guinea is poisonous. They didn't know before, yet if they'd bothered to ask the Chinese they would have done, for its character means 'poison bird'. It's all logic you see, the Chinese alphabet is the most logical on earth and everyone should adopt it."

As someone who has tried to learn it however, I knew only too well that logical or not, it is bloody difficult and its logic is rather uniquely Chinese. Take for example the character for 'man', a combination of 'rice field' and 'power'. For man is the power in the rice field. Very logical indeed, if you are Chinese. For a European or African though, it makes little sense. No, I for one would not recommend it for elsewhere, but diplomatically I kept quiet on the subject and instead asked him what he thought about the simplification of characters, something that is common in modern China.

"Oh, it's terrible!" he exclaimed. "Maybe it's easier at first, but you cannot tell what they mean, so ultimately you cannot be sure of their meaning. The logic is lost! Simpler in the short term, but it complicates things further on." I was glad that he'd said that, as I use exactly the same argument for British over American spellings in English. And besides, he wouldn't have been a true academic if he hadn't favoured the more complicated approach now would he?

dunhuang19 With the Professor on the train to Urumqi

Next part: 2m: Urumqi (I)

Friday, 14 June 2013

Across Asia With A Lowlander: Part 2k: Jiayuguan

world-map jiayuguan

Greetings!

And after our short Turkish interlude we’re back in the Middle Kingdom, or to be more exact, the absolute back sticks of the Middle Kingdom, a small town where there’s very little to do beyond snorting white powder and looking at lingerie.

Not too different from home then.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Flickr album of this trip

Links to all parts of the travelogue

Book 1: Embarking Upon A New Korea

1a: Toyama to Pusan

1b: Pusan

1c: Seoul

1d: The DMZ

1e: Seoul, Incheon and Across the Yellow Sea

Book 2: Master Potter does Fine China

2a: Qingdao

2b: Beijing (I)

2c: Beijing (II)

2d: Beijing (III)

2e: Yinchuan (I)

2f: Yinchuan (II)

2g: Lanzhou

2h: Bingling-si

2i: Xiahe

2j: Lanzhou and Jiayuguan

2k: Jiayuguan

2l: Dunhuang

2m: Urumqi (I)

2n: Urumqi (II)

2o: Urumqi (III)

Book 3: Steppe to the Left, Steppe to the Right…

3a: Druzhba to Almaty

3b: Shumkent to Tashkent

3c: Tashkent (I) 

3d: Bukhara

3e: Bukhara to Samarkand

3f: Samarkand

3g: Samarkand to Urgench

3h: Khiva

3i: Tashkent (II)

3j: Tashkent to Moscow

3k: Moscow (I)

3l: Moscow (II)

3m: Moscow (III)

3n: Konotop to Varna 

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30th July, 2002 – Jiayuguan, China

Having decided to stick around in Jiayuguan for some time, there was no need to rise early that morning, so rise early we certainly did not. It was elevenish before I eventually stumbled out of bed towards the kettle, and little before noon before we made our way down the sweltering street to a pleasant restaurant where we dined and played backgammon, (four nil to Matt, very good). It was only then that we decided to do something, but the question was, what? Jiayuguan's two big attractions, the Great Wall and the Jiayu Pass Fort we had of course, already seen, and it was too late to go far afield. After a quick dive into the guidebook, the answer was soon discovered in the shape of the city's Great Wall Museum, which itself was built in the shape of (what else but...) the Great Wall! 'Perfick' as that jolly man Pop Larkin would say, so we hired out one of the rather cool looking yellow cyclos, (with yellow tasseled canopy), that were circulating the streets, and made our way to the Great Wall-esque Changcheng Bowuguan.

jiayuguan14 Jiayuguan cyclos

I suppose that we should have guessed. After Yinchuan's museum had been closed, and Lanzhou's too being well and truly, not operational in a displaying historical relics capacity, then... But stupid as were eternally are, we were of course surprised to find that the Chinese Communist Party's obvious 'Shut Down the Museums' Drive had got as far as Jiayuguan too. The building stood there, as castellated and fort-like as ever, but instead of being crammed full of the nation's heritage, it was instead now full of mobile phones, its new function apparently as a retail outlet for those handy means of communication. Where were the relics? Housed in a brand new, not yet open museum situated by the Jiayu Pass Fort that we'd visited the day before.

Undeterred, we two intrepid sightseers once more plunged into the pages of the guidebook in true tourist fashion and fished out the locality's last remaining tourist site, Xincheng Weijinmu, as a means of passing the hours of the day. Now this Weijinmu thing was not really ideal, being almost twenty kilometres away from the town which would mean a hefty taxi fare, but it did sound quite interesting. The name, which in English means 'Art Gallery' is somewhat misleading since although a place of paintings, no Louvre was this. What it was in fact, were some tombs and a museum of these tombs, which contained lots of paintings dating from the Wei and Western Jin Periods. And according to the book, the Wei and Western Jin Periods were from approximately AD220 -420 which is really, quite a long time ago. Besides, there was literally nothing else to do, so off we went.

Half the pleasure was of course, the drive out there. Beyond the city limits there was nothing, just a huge flat expanse of stony desert, the infamous Gobi. What surprised me however, is that all the roads out there are not only dead straight, but also tree-lined. Quite why the authorities should plants thousands of trees by the roadsides I couldn't quite figure out, and the Lowlander, who it turns out is quite an expert regarding the world of trees, bushes and flowers, was equally bemused, partially because according to the Zeeland Dweller's Book of Tree Wisdom, just one of those green monsters drinks around one hundred and twenty-five litres of water, daily. And where would one find such quantities of H20 from? Well, whatever the case, they did look rather nice, and one could even imagine that we were driving through provincial France if it had not been for the harsh wasteland beyond the trunks.

And talking of the view beyond those trees, it was on that journey that I saw something that I'd never seen before, and that quite took my breath away. There on the horizon, shimmering in the heat, was a mountain. Except that it wasn't a mountain, as it had been there the day before and next to it was a real mountain. When the two were side by side, the difference was clear; this new mount was in fact a mirage, a real life desert mirage. Wow!

Unfortunately, when we reached the Xincheng Weijinmu, that was far from spectacular. The entry was a hefty Y30 and the relics unspectacular. The tomb was a polystyrene reproduction and the whole place so overgrown that we couldn't resist taking a photo of the 'Keep off the grass' sign, with towering weed garden behind it. Disappointed, we trudged back to the taxi, but to our surprise instead of taking us back to the city, the driver instead took us further out into the desert. Then the light dawned, the museum was just a warm up, and we were now to see the real thing, one of the thousand or so tombs.

jiayuguan06 Xincheng Weijinmu

The museum may have been uninspiring, but the tomb itself was well worth the trip. Down the steps we descended, into the bowels of the earth where the air was cool and pleasant, the thermometer registering twelve degrees celsius, which was far more preferable to the thirty-five or so outside. The tomb itself was fascinating, three arched chambers of mud bricks, each decorated with fabulous tiles, upon which were painted scenes of everyday life from the time of the deceased. Hunters hunted, traders drove camels, wild horses roamed across the desert, bakers baked, cooks cooked and there was even a rabbit and monkey getting in on the act.

On our way back we asked the driver to pull in at what looked like a large green-domed mosque in the middle of the desert. Upon closer inspection however, it turned out to be not a house of worship, but a graveyard for the city's Muslims, the green-domed building being a sort of ornamental tower in the middle. The burial ground itself was still largely empty, perhaps because it has only been legal to be interned in such a place for a decade or so. We wandered around the peaceful resting-place, before returning to our hotel to while away the sunny hours, playing backgammon, reading and eating fresh watermelons.

jiayuguan07

jiayuguan05 The graveyard in the desert: not well-tended

That evening, after the temperature had dropped somewhat, we ventured out with the masses to take a volta, and around the corner from the post office we found out where the action was; a huge square complete with firework illuminations and an enormous fountain. We couldn't believe it, there was water everywhere, all this in one of the driest places on earth! It was like the city authorities were boasting to the Gods that their new atheist and technological regime could procure water wherever, and throw it around in abundance.

We watched the fountain for a while, and all the locals who were playing badminton under the bright lights, before retiring to a nearby bar to enjoy some local beer. The bar was incredibly long, extremely thin and in true Asian fashion, exceedingly cheesy; 'Hello Kitty' and other cartoon characters adorned the walls, whilst the ceiling was covered with sprigs of plastic trees and tinsel. The crowning glory however, was the ultra-violet lights which we used to great effect by pulling out our credit cards and the Lowlander's passport and discovering all the emblems and messages hidden therein, (I recommend that you try this someday). And after finding secret national symbols of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Russia in the visas, the Dutch lion in the passport itself and a large 'M C' on the MasterCard, we were well satisfied and thus a pleasant evening was concluded.


31st July to 1st August, 2002 – Jiayuguan, China

I knew that something was wrong that morning when I arose at ten with a sore head. Not very sore mind, but far worse than it should be after only three beers. The fact was, that I was out of practice dreadfully, the beers with Ryan in Beijing being the last time that we'd seriously touched alcohol, and even then we didn't have a lot. No, it certainly wasn't good enough, and it also meant that that morning I didn't feel inclined to do a lot, which in a way was fine, since we had absolutely nothing to do anyway.

Actually, that wasn't exactly true. We had decided to go on a trip the following day to Jingtieshan, a mountain over five thousand metres high, (Everest is eight thousand something), and only three hours away by train, so after a leisurely hour or four reading in bed and dining at our restaurant, we took a taxi to Jiayuguan's other railway station, Luhua.

But before I tell you about that, I suppose I should mention 'our' restaurant, a fine establishment which went by the name of the 'Ying Guang Dining Room'. After our first, somewhat unsuccessful foray into Jiayuguan's limited world of eating establishments, (remember the two pepper with brown sauce creations), we'd then struck off along a different street and come across the Ying Guang, easily recognisable by the two huge (plastic) elephants flanking the entrance. Quite why the elephants were there we never quite worked out, there was nothing remotely African or Indian about the place, but the food was excellent and thus we decided to make the place our regular haunt. Very regular in fact; twice a day, everyday that we were in Jiayuguan, we made our way down to that be-elephanted home for diners, sat at the same table by the window, and picked a different dish from the menu. The food was excellent, the waitresses friendly and the tea free flowing. What's more, with my basic knowledge of Chinese characters we rarely made any disastrous menu mistakes, although on one occasion, the expensive White -Something-Duck dish that we'd pointed at with relish, turned out to be a plate of steamed duck's feet in a white sauce. Hmm, well, nobody's perfect and at least the kitchen staff got a good free meal that evening.

jiayuguan15 The Ying Guang Dining Room

But back to the station from where our train was to depart. Well, that was the theory anyway, although when we arrived it plainly looked like nothing was going to depart from there in the near future. The place was deserted save for some pieces of wood and tins of paint that had been deposited in the obviously soon-to-be-renovated waiting room. We wandered up the stairs and chanced upon a uniformed gent who may or may not have been the stationmaster. He took us into his room and explained patiently that taking a train to the mountainous south was not an option at present and that we would be far better asking at the bus station.

Considering our last bus experience (Xiahe), and the fact that we weren't that bothered about seeing a five thousand metre high mountain anyway, we decided to leave it, bade the man goodbye, and headed out into the open. We stopped at a local store where we searched in vain for beer snacks that looked edible but came out with naught but some shampoo with a happy healthy-haired Oriental gent on the front.

Apart from the momentous trip to the railway station, quite what we did in Jiayuguan is now a bit of a blur. Needless to say it wasn't a lot. The days consisted of rising late, drinking tea, reading or talking in the hotel room, buying those little essentials, wandering the streets of that nondescript yet pleasant little town and dining at the Ying Guang.

jiayuguan09 Purchasing essentials in Jiayuguan market

One way that the Lowlander found to pass the time, was to head down to the market and buy melons which were large, juicy and ridiculously cheap. These he would take back to the room, and slice with his Swiss Army knife, whereupon we would sit and munch them whilst discussing subjects as diverse as Dutch football, the history of Islam, the philosophy of Ayn Rand, China's One Child Policy and Bill Clinton.

The evenings however, were a different affair. Whilst living for a while in a typical Chinese provincial town, we thought that trying out a bit of the provincial nightlife might be a good idea. Of course we had already 'done' the fountain square and the long thin cheesy bar, but that didn't stop us from repeating the experience every night. However, surely a city of over a hundred thousand souls must have something else to offer? We started with a safe bet, the cinema, thinking that watching a cheesy kung fu movie in Chinese might be quite funny, but alas only love films were on offer and we weren't really in that sort of mood. Next up we tried, (the Lowlander reluctantly, I enthusiastically), what the Chinese call 'Kala OK', and were directed by the hotel reception staff to a certain establishment, which upon arrival turned out to be the long thin cheese bar, and sadly, karaokeless.

So, with no films to be seen and no karaoke to be sung, perhaps the only option left was to dance? Besides, small town discos are the best, playing the chirpiest of tunes and devoid of that class of folk who take it all far too seriously. We pointed at 'disco' in the phrase book and the reception staff nodded enthusiastically. Yes, there was one, and yes it was very good, open nine till dawn and called 'Space Disco'. Sounded good, and so after a few drinks at the long thin cheese bar, we headed out to where the action was.

Or so we thought. Yes, we found the 'Space Disco', yes it was very spacey, (planets and rockets everywhere), and yes, it was open. Well, just about. The place was as quiet as an Old Trafford crowd and the lights just as dim. Instead, the hard core of the city's hardened alcoholics sat around the bar drinking beer and spirits and waiting till morning. Still, they were friendly, and so we settled in amongst them, refused the offers of cigarettes, accepted the sunflower seeds and drank the beer on offer until about two in the morning when we called it a night and left, wandering through the streets back to our hotel, stopping to marvel at an apartment block construction site with scores of workers in full toil and an Internet Cafe jam-packed full of the computer-orientated. So that's what they do at night here! Email friends and build blocks of flats. And if you're really cool, sit in an empty disco and drink warm beer.

And people say that Stoke on Trent is bad!

Actually, the longer that we stayed in Jiayuguan, the stranger we noticed the place to be. Take the hairdressers for example. All day long the hairdresser stayed open, with a customer or two to keep him busy. Yet go past at midnight and the place was packed full of people requiring perms, shaves and trims. Ok, so I know that the place isn't exactly kicking but surely going to the hair salon for your evening's entertainment is a bit much? The Internet Cafes too were always full, whilst the long thin cheese bar, (which appeared to be Jiayuguan's only bar), was normally deserted.

Perhaps because of the strange nature of the place, (or perhaps because we were screwballs anyway), we seemed to get weirder and find more off-the-wall ways to keep ourselves amused. We put the baby milk powder to good use by pouring it all out into a huge mound and taking hilarious coke snorting photos. Or another time we decided to try out all the different breads and sausages from the supermarket, (big mistake, all disgusting). Then there were the trips to the market to pick up items like a GG Little Chickie lunchbox, or spoons with zodiac signs on them, and after that, that the old standby of taking humorous photographs next to lingerie advertisements, and the less common option of capturing on film, the city's grid covers.

jiayuguan11  Bored out of their minds in provincial China, Uncle Travelling Matt and the Lowlander descended into Class A drug use…

jiayuguan13 … and fantasising about girls in underwear ads.

No, this town was seriously starting to affect us, and what's more, we weren't the only ones. The three Chinese guys in the room next-door did nothing but sit in that said room and play cards or watch TV for the whole time that we were there. After they saw the coke incident they decided to invite us in for a chat, (solidarity amongst screwballs I assume), and when we asked if they were there on business, they replied in the negative. “Holiday,” the beaming Chinaman announced. Now that was too much, could you get sadder? Yes indeed. Take the only other foreigners in our hotel for example, a French family. Not only had they chosen Jiayuguan as their dream holiday destination, but they'd bought their dog along with them! This was serious, and that night we decided that we were leaving the next day.

Next part: 2l: Dunhuang

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Taksim Square and Gezi Park

world-map istanbul

Greetings!

Every so often there’s a happening in the news which gets me thinking about some of my travels. It’s not surprising I suppose; after all, the vast majority of news that is interesting comes from exotic and unstable places and most of the trips that I take are to, well… rather and exotic and unstable places. However, for the majority of those trips, there is always a sense of catching up with the past: I went to Bosnia and Kosova to see the scars of war there and to Chernobyl to check out a disaster that happened almost thirty years earlier. This week however, I’ve had a sense of being there before the action.

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Nowhere on earth has been in the media spotlight this week and last more than Gezi Park and Taksim Square in Istanbul, which have been occupied by protesters angry at Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan whom the protesters claim is a dictator.

Now, exciting and dramatic whilst all this may be, it has also been met by a certain degree of confusion by the rest of the world: if Erdogan is a dictator, then how come he was elected, three times. Indeed, he has seen some of the biggest election landslides in recent decades in Turkey and was seen as something of a popular choice. Popular choice PMs however, do not have thousands of people protesting in parks against them. So, what’s the crack?

erdogan

Well, back in 2003 I made my first ever trip to Turkey and began to learn about a fascinating country that faces both East and West and is both secular and religious, modern and backward. Those who are protesting in the park are, by and large, not those who voted for Mr. Erdogan: they are largely young, educated and urban. His constituents tend to be none of the above. Now this is a split which may be found in virtually any society on earth but in secular-Muslim Turkey it is far more pronounced, and nothing demonstrates this better than the time when I met Elif in the restaurant of Haydarpasa Railway Station, just across the Bosporus from where all the trouble is at the moment.

I hope that it sheds some light.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

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istanbul map

Elif, The Most Loved

(an extract from my travelogue ‘Cold Turkey’)

Copyright © Matthew E. Pointon 2003

I had over three hours to kill before my train but decided not to attempt anymore sightseeing for several reasons. Firstly, Ahmed had told me that there was little to do on this side of the Bosporus other than gaze at the other side and although I had time enough to return to Europe, there was a lurking worry at the back of my mind that the weather would worsen and I’d be stranded on a different continent to my departing train. The main reason however, was that in the cold and rain, there was nothing that I fancied doing anyway. Indeed, all I did fancy was staying somewhere warm and dry and, ideally, with caffeine to hand. And where better to stay than the fine, blue-tiled station restaurant, a graceful bastion of imperial elegance with aforementioned caffeine sold at a very reasonable price?

haydarpasa Haydarpasa Restaurant: colonial elegance

And so I stayed put, planning to wile away the hours a la Somerset Maughan, sipping tea and writing books in a setting straight out of the 1920s. All that was missing was a white linen suit and a trilby.

I had not however, counted on meeting Elif. She was a dark-haired lady sat on the next table who, noticing my foreignness, asked in perfect English if I needed any help with menu translation. As it happened I did not since someone had already thoughtfully translated it into my native tongue, but the introduction sufficed and we fell into conversation and were soon sharing the same table.

And thus my epic novel of colonial intrigues with the climatic scene set in Istanbul’s Haydar Paşa Railway Station never got written, but to be honest, I was glad. It would probably have been of doubtful quality anyhow whereas my new table companion provided a conversation of a far higher calibre.

“I like it in here,” she said. “Here in Turkey trains are regarded as communist. All the money goes into roads. That’s why the trains are cheap, though they’re beautiful and the food is good. Trains you see, are communist in Turkey.”

I’d read this before actually, not only in my guidebook, but also in several travelogues about the country. Turkish State Railways are largely an organisation for ferrying government employees about.

“Yes, government employees, communists, poor people and artists or intellectuals,” she continued in her American-accent English. “I always prefer to travel by train though; it’s safer and much cheaper.”

This sounded like a lady after my own heart, but which of the Turkish train-travelling types was she?

“A communist and an artistic intellectual type I suppose.” This definitely was my kind of lady!

And so we talked about the prospects of a US-led war with Iraq, a plan supported by both our governments and unpopular with the majority of both our peoples. That exhausted, we moved onto the topics of minorities and religion.

“Do you know what you should really try to see whilst in Turkey?” said Elif.

“What’s that?”

“One of the Armenian churches. Do you know the choirs they have? They’re beautiful, absolutely unbelievable. I often go on a Sunday to listen; they even asked me to join once but I refused, after all, they’re a minority and it’s not polite to interfere too much.”

This sympathy and admiration for the Armenians surprised me. Was ‘Elif’ not a Muslim name?

“Well, yes it is, although only the Turks name girls ‘Elif’. It’s the name of the first letter of the Arabic alphabet, like Alef in Hebrew, but for the Turks it’s something else as well. Elif was the name of the woman whom Karacaoğlan, one of our most famous poets, loved most.[1] That’s why my mother named me Elif, as I was the most loved. But as for my religion, well, I’m not really Muslim, I’m agnostic.

karacaoğlan Karacaoğlan

Agnostic. I admired her reply. It is a word that one doesn’t hear often, yet we should, for is are not most of the world’s population truly agnostic? The fashionable, who declare themselves ‘atheist’ elicit no sympathy from me. To declare proudly that you know for sure that no God exists is just as arrogant and blinkered as those who state that their particular sect or creed is the one true faith and the followers of all the others are at best misguided and at worse damned for eternity. Agnosticism is an admittance of doubt. We are all a little agnostic I think, deep down. Few of us though, are brave enough to admit it.

Elif was a lawyer, or at least, she had been until Turkey’s recent economic woes had put her out of work in that field and she was now translating instead, a job that paid well but that she detested. “My three years working as an international lawyer were the happiest of my life,” she declared. It turned out that she’d worked for a Turkish firm and had dealt with cases in the Caucasus and Moldova which often required her to travel to those countries. The Caucasus she loved, perhaps due to her being a quarter Armenian in ethnicity. Moldova she said had the most beautiful girls on earth. This picqued by interest even more than her descriptions of the mountains and cultures to be found in between the Black and Caspian seas. Perhaps a visit to Chisinau should be planned one day?

Finally, we got onto the topic of women in Turkey. The Islamic conception of the female is radically different from the Western and it is something that has fascinated me for a long time and so I wanted to see how the situation was here in Turkey, a supposedly modern and secular state that had recently voted in an Islamic party.

“That is a big topic but it is an interesting one. Everyone says that we are a modern state and in law we are, entirely modern. But it’s only on the surface, underneath we are different. That is the problem with us women; we were given things, like the vote, but we were not ready for them. Take sex for example; we can sleep around alright, just like in any modern country, but the girls here don’t see it like the others; they don’t have sex as sex, they say, “Oh well, it was a mistake,” or, “Well, I’m going to marry him anyway.” It’s still not seen as an activity that you can just do. The government lets you do anything you want but there’s still the family at home with all its ethics.

This reminded of the Muslim girls that I’d met in Bulgaria. Perfectly modern in every respect, not even a headscarf in sight, yet sex was still taboo and you wouldn’t dream of marrying a different man than he whom you lost your virginity to.

“And what’s worse, they always blame the men!”

“What do you mean?”

“A guy meets a Turkish girl, say in a bar or something. She starts to be friendly with him and coming on to him. So a little later he says, ‘Shall we go back to my place?’ and she agrees so back they go and of course they go to bed and have sex. Then they go to sleep and yet when he wakes up in the morning, she acts like he’s raped her! Like I said, Turkish women have the freedom; the problem is, we don’t know how to deal with it.”

After Elif left I began to feel the effects of a şiş kebab and several çays on my bladder so I got up to go to the toilet. Standing opposite to the door to the WCs were two young women clad head to toe in graceful black khimars with only their eyes and noses showing. Artistic, intellectual, communist and agnostic Elif who freely admitted sexual relationships with non-mahram men was at one end of the Turkish female spectrum. These two, who stayed in a corner and turned to the wall as I passed so as to be free from prying male eyes, represented the other.

black_ghost1 Conservative Turkish lady in traditional dress

And entering the toilet cubicle I found that although it was spotlessly clean and well-maintained, there was no paper in sight and instead a jug under a tap in which to rinse one’s left hand afterwards.

I understood what Elif had said when she’d described her country as modern on the surface only.

Luckily, I had paper.


[1] Karacaoğlan was a 17th century folk poet who wrote many famous love poems. The story of Elif goes as follows:

‘In his youth, Karacaoğlan was passing through a town. Strumming his saz, he came upon a rose garden. As he grew ecstatic from the vivid colours and the exquisite smell of the roses, suddenly his eyes fell on an indescribably beautiful girl sauntering among the flowerbeds. He stood there, bewitched. He was already feeling in his heart the flames of love - - and, unable to restrain himself, he broke into song. The lovely young woman took a few steps toward him and listened with heart and soul. When the song was over, she started to walk away without uttering a word. Alarmed that he might never lay eyes on her again, the poet implored: “You are the loveliest of all lovely women. Please stay a while. At least tell me your name?” She hesitated. Then, in a barely audible voice, she said, “Elif.”

Karacaoğlan was struck by the symbolic significance of “Elif”, a name common among the Turks for many centuries: It is derived from “aleph”, the first letter of the Arabic alphabet, with the numerical value of l. Elif stood there, the epitome of gracefulness, dainty as a leaf. For the young poet, this slender girl was the beginning of all things.

They exchanged a few polite words. She had heard of the minstrel. After a few sentences, she revealed that she was married and had children. Karacaoğlan was distressed: He had found and lost his beloved in the same instant. He also found out that she came from a well-to-do family and could read and write.

Desperately in love at first sight, the young minstrel began to serenade this exquisite woman. He chanted a poem that has enchanted the Turks for more than three centuries now. The poem celebrates her among the many splendours of nature - - and bemoans the pain inflicted by unrequited love:

With its tender flakes, snow flutters about,
Keeps falling, calling out “Elif… Elif…”
This frenzied heart of mine wanders about
Like minstrels, calling out “Elif… Elif…”

Elif’s robe is embroidered all over;
Her eyes – like a baby goshawk’s – glower.
She smells lovely like a highland flower,
With those scents calling out “Elif… Elif…”

When she frowns, her glance is a dart that goes
Into my heart: I fall into death’s throes.
In her white hand she holds a pen - she knows
What she writes, calling out “Elif… Elif…”

Right in front of her home a trellis stands;
There’s Elif, holding glasses in her hands.
It’s as if a duck whose head has green strands
Gently floats, calling out “Elif… Elif…”

I am the Minstrel: your slave for my part.
There’s no love for other belles in my heart.
Unbuttoning the shirt, I tear apart
The collars, calling out “Elif… Elif…”  

Summary by Prof. Talat S. Halman. Found on http://www.turkishculture.org/literature/literature/poetry/17th-century-karacaoglan-465.htm