(Alternative title: Fukang the Polis)
Much of the rest of Ürümqi was just as I remembered, including the BRT (Bus Rapid Transit), although weirdly they’re more relaxed now than before (they don’t confiscate water any more). I rather enjoyed the gentle familiarity of it as we drove into the city proper.
We managed to maze our way through the extensive underpasses to our hostel. Set on a single floor a few storeys above the street, Maitian YH comprised of a well-equipped lobby which led onto the main corridor, every spare surface of wall along which was crammed with scrawled messages and mementos from previous guests. I spotted several from PT volunteers! The loos left something to be desired, with everyone sharing the communal men’s as the women’s were out of order. They were already bad enough but the extra traffic can’t have helped. Men and aim, that’s all I’m saying.
The rooms were spartan and the beds typically Xinjiang: extremely hard – no mattress. We were soon joined by two Americans from a larger group, Matt and Tyler, both travelling 11 countries in as many months as part of a Christian volunteering initiative. I remember meeting a similar group in Kashgar two years ago, almost to the day.
They joined us for lunch – polo, what else – which soon turned into an hardcore discussion of religion and politics. It was mostly amicable but Matt, an ultimate American Dad, was intense in his quotation of scripture as proof of his points and seemed to have an unassailable supply of historically questionable (read: incorrect) factoids. He alone told me I would go to Hell (in a relatively nicer way than that, but still) when I told him I was an Atheist – and only because I was asked directly, mind.
Spiritual belief is intensely personal; I strongly disliked his aggressive evangelising, as though I had not considered my stance. He also spoke in praise of his president (‘Imagine that,’ Evie mused later, ‘a straight white man is doing well under Donald Trump,’) but seemed to miss the collective wince from across the table. Once he turned to British politics, the ball was in our court. Tyler was polite, reasonable and friendly throughout. We like Tyler.
After a rest, we visited Hongshan Park just by the hostel. I’ve technically stayed in Ürümqi before, but never to properly visit. This was one of three things on Lonely Planet about the city. We took photos at the top of the steep red-rocked hill (hence the name: Red Mountain) and ventured into a Confucian temple also situated there. It was feeding time in the garden – automated mist-sprinklers kept activating, dampening the plants and dousing everyone in obscuring fog. Perfect for atmospheric photos.
The evening ended in disappointment. A ban-mian shop (Xinjiang dish; thick noodles in a delicious sauce) was out of the mian (noodles), and since it was late we had to settle for noodle soup (different noodles; available everywhere in China). As we turned to leave a Chinese man walked in and ordered ban-mian. Fuming doesn’t cover it.
We got up early-ish the next day but I’d forgotten how long it takes to get to Tianshan Tianchi (Heavenly Lake) – first, a bus to the bus station, then another bus to Fukang, and a minivan to the ticket office (and then you’re at the foot of the mountain). We left Ürümqi before eleven since security at the station was pain free; apparently the UK is deemed non-suspicious, because whenever they ask where I’m from and I say that, they wave us through.
The Fukang checkpoint was a new affair. Where before I could expect my passport to be read (upside down) and passed down the line of officials before being waved through, now we were taken to a side room to wait. They took scans of everything, plus photos of us, and our details. I couldn’t tell if the main guy was nice or not: he smiled at us a lot, but also laughed at us a lot too, and said, ‘they can’t understand,’ to his friends as he did so. Is that irony? I think it is.
To his credit he went out to make sure the bus driver waited. I felt guilty walking back on ten minutes later – but, not my fault. We soon arrived at Fukang’s
town centre brand new bus station in the middle of bloody nowhere. Had to get a bus into town so we could get Polo from Calum’s favourite place.
My emotional response to returning to Calum’s project was… not what you might expect. I felt sad for him. Suspicion was aimed at us like nothing else, from all sides. Fukang is expanding rapidly and its three main roads no longer contain most of its measure; yet that was always its charm for me: compactness. The empty shell of its old bus station, at the main crossroads, exemplified this perfectly; it gazed forlornly at us as we waited for a bus to take us the five miles back to its replacement.
At the Tianchi ticket office the two factions of security played a little game of tennis with us. Bag check told us we needed to register with the police not twenty metres away, and returned our bags (already placed on the scanner conveyer belt). The police took our passports and returned serve, but the bag check were ready with a backhand – we needed a stamped slip of paper to prove our registration (bags returned to us again). This caught the police off guard, but another return trip (bags given back; this time a security lady came with us) got us the slip, and we were through. Phew.
There was no student discount, so entry was hefty. After the first bus up the mountain, I steamed through the ridiculous mock-up Kazakh traditional village they make everyone stop at to the second bus, and a short walk after that we reached Tianchi. Stunning, as ever. The queue to take a photo next to some rock (artificial, sporting the lake’s name in red) was larger than the crowd actually photographing the lake, as ever. We wandered around on boardwalks to the temple of the Lake’s Mother Goddess and back, photographing the water, the eagles, each other… everything. So good to get away from the city.
The bus to Fukang was a faff and a fellow passenger was insistent that there wouldn’t be space for us, until there was and he could only grin sheepishly at us (we suspect he was trying to guarantee himself a seat at our expense. Nice try). The last Ürümqi bus was waiting outside as we pulled up, and we successfully found ban-mian once safely back in the capital (the Ürümqi checkpoint was painless as hoped).
The next day’s train to Karamay was late enough that we had time to sightsee first. We focused on the Grand Bazaar (apparently now even more touristy than before), but the buses took so long that we calculated we would get approximately 10 minutes there before having to leave. We crossed the road to the opposite bus stop.
Lunch – fruit, heavenly fruit; and local naan bread, round and flat, very hard with a thick ring of crust – was obtained, and we missed our bus by seconds, but had allowed enough time that the second got us there. Finding our way into the station was an ask, because while the entire place has been built, it’s not exactly open for business either. We went through some underground (empty) shopping mall to reach the three layers of identical security. At the second, they took issue at Evie’s aerosol deodorant, and she had to sign a form as it was taken off.
Ürümqi’s new station has been made in the style of every other modern high-speed station, with ‘gates’ on either side of the upstairs waiting room that you pass through, down the stairs, to your platform. Up to this point I had barely considered my excitement at returning to my old home, but after Fukang, I was having serious doubts.