Friday, 28 November 2008


Toasted muffins and jam, sugary tea, custard creams and Flog It. Life is indeed, sweet.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Almaty, Kazakhstan

Well I thought it would be my last post but I'm sitting in the Hotel Kazakhstan lobby with blisteringly fast wi-fi so now I can bore you some more.

Our train was leaving at midnight and we we're told to get there at ten so like the obedient English folk we are we arrived on time and were told by some Chinese guards to wait outside the station until we were called, it was probably about -6 degrees. So we joined the gang of Kazakhs with their overstuffed shoppers and oversized tv sets for about 20 minutes until we were all herded into the waiting room.

We boarded the train and had two cabins which slept four each between five of us, even still space was at a premium, let's call it cosy. We set off and I couldn't have been happier; nothing to do for 36 hours except read, chat and sleep — hot water on tap at one end of the carriage and a little section to go and smoke in at the other. Then it got hotter and we realised there was no way to open any windows so the obvious solution was to drink the bottle of orange flavoured vodka that we bought at the Urumqi Carrefour earlier in the day. By midnight we were drunk and sweaty and possibly a touch rowdy but we were happy, especially at the prospect of the first lie-in for about 2 weeks. So we went to bed — and it got hotter. In the middle of the night I dreamt that I was trapped in the back of a Land Cruiser and woke up to find myself feeling the cabin walls trying to get out. I managed to calm myself down and after a trip to the toilet that looked like the electric chair I went straight back to sleep.

At 8am the train guard started banging on the cabin doors. Cheesed off and mighty crumpled I opened the door to find the Chinese border officials demanding our passports which they promptly whisked away in a handbag. After two hours of questions, bag searches and waiting they returned our passports and sent us on our way — about a mile down the track to the Kazak border officials for another two hours of questions, bag searches and waiting. The Kazak customs lady was very cool though, high heels and a pencil skirt. She was concerned about Chinese milk products and new electronic products (God help the TV toting passengers). She told me that my flash drives were "forbidden" but "is OK, next time" and then laughed at my bag of Chinese mushrooms and Snickers bars.

Another mile down the track we turned our watches back two hours and pulled into a station where we had been told by others who have taken the train before that we'd be able to get off for a couple of hours while they changed the gauge. Apparently the window for getting off was about 30 seconds wide and probably involved hurling yourself onto the tracks as there didn't seem to be a platform in sight. Needless to say we missed our opportunity and were shunted another mile down the track where they decoupled the carriages, jacked us up into the air, rolled out the wheels and rolled new ones in. All bloody fascinating but it had been about six hours since the toilet door had last been open and the only thing I was likely to be eating for the next 24 hours would be Snickers and dried mushrooms. With fresh wheels, some more enormous TV sets and a couple of tractor wheels got on and we set off across the Kazak steppe which went from bloody grim and windswept to pretty darn beautiful after an hour or so; mountains, lakes and a great sunset which I just couldn't quite manage to stay awake for.

After a nap Abby gave me her spare pot of spicy beef noodles which went down a treat and we cracked open our meagre beer supply, settling in for our second sweltering and by now almost oxygen free night. The only way to cool down was to go and stand in the 'smoking compartment' and open the door to the next carriage so you could see the track flying by below. The Kazaks were doing much fearless carriage hopping but I didn't fancy it in my hotel slippers. Just as we were beginning to lament not having bought the bottle of apple flavoured vodka too we pulled into a tiny station where the locals had set up stalls of preserved fish, soft drinks, cigarettes and booze, we reckon we could see a Twix. So Alastair lept off and procured us a bottle of ice cold vodka but even with our best efforts we were too tired and hot to finish it.

I slept well the second night despite the heat and at 5am, an hour before we were due to arrive, the guard gave us our wake up call and repossessed our sheets. By now the atmosphere was akin to Mars and because you could only get two drops of water out of the tap at once with one hand I was reeking like a heavyweight boxer. After the customary Nescafe and Snickers breakfast we arrived at Almaty. To get from the train to the station hall you had to lug your bags across a couple of train tracks, I was so glad we didn't have to carry a telly. Then we had to negotiate with a hoard of taxi touts before selecting the two who looked least likely to sell us to their cousins. We got to the hotel and paid the drivers, when I pessimistically asked one of them if he had a receipt he pulled out his wallet and found a bona fide looking blank receipt and told me I could fill in the amount myself, then he shook my hand and kissed me.

It was 7am and the hotel staff said that we couldn't check in until 12 but could have our rooms at 9??? They took our luggage and we overdosed on breakfast. By now none of us could lift our arms up without making ourselves gag so we set off for the local baths. The prospect of seeing your colleagues in the nud was worrying some of our party but not me, I just needed to get clean. 

The baths were fab. There were three sauna rooms, each one hotter than the next but I think I went in the hottest first; you had to leave your flip-flops outside the room and the floor nearly burnt your feet. Then there was a cold plunge pool which really did take your breath away when you first got in but was lovely once you got going and in between each section there were showers with jets that felt as if you were being hit with a big stick. I passed on the opportunity to have a massage, buy a myrtle branch to whip myself with or throw a bucket of cold over my head but "is OK, next time". I had my final hose down to wash away the last of the sand from my ears and helped a lady back into the shower who had soap in her eyes. Then I forgot which locker I'd put my clothes in and had to get the attendant to open half a dozen before I found my steaming heap — I probably could have sniffed them out faster and realised I had missed the chance to go away with a blonde wig and some D&G sparkles. But packed like the holy grail I had clean underwear and a T-shirt but no socks, Abby to the rescue again with a choice of black or pink and white striped. A quick zap under the hair roaster and I was ready to go feeling tickety-boo (a phrase we decided to teach our Chinese colleagues with the assurance that it would come in very handy when they visit London next year).

Hamburgers for lunch and then I cut loose from the group to have a wander on my own. When we came through Almaty on the way out I thought it was a god-forsaken dump but it was Sunday, we were jet-lagged, it was snowing and my room was a Soviet era hole that would be perfect to come to if you wanted to end it all, I felt like Barton Finkovsky. But this time the weather is mild and the sun is out. If you leave the main drag it seems like quite a pleasant, peaceful place and people haven't stared at me as much as they have in the past two weeks. We're staying at the same hotel as before but I've got a brighter room with a great view of the mountains. I'm not sure what we're going to do tomorrow but I'll be sure to let you know, I was going to have a nap but it's taken me all afternoon to write this drivel so I'm off to check out something dubbed on the telly for an hour before we venture out for some cabbagey stodge.

Monday, 24 November 2008


Yay! I've been back at the nice hotel in my original room and they fixed the heating so I had a lovely night but in true Chinese style a couple of things were guaranteed not to work. One was the shower so I'm building up a nice layer of grime for the train to Kazakhstan tonight. The other was the bedside light switch so even though I was in the swishest hotel we've been in by a mile I still had to shuffle around after I'd turned the lights out with my miner's head torch on.

Today was a nice easy day, we went to buy our train tickets which was surprisingly painless, a quick shunt around the bookshop, stocked up at the supermarket, lunch and back to the hotel where we have kept one suite on for the day because we don't have to leave until 10 o'clock tonight. Everyone is sitting around typing emails and Facebook entries with coffee and doughnuts. Very civilised but I wish we'd thought to bring a couple of DVDs to watch.

I think this is the first time that I've had more than an hour or so to relax and catch up, last night I managed to upload a couple of hundred MB to Flickr, apologies for any repeat pics or just general repetitiveness but it' s been hard to keep on top of them all and there was an awful lot of sand out there.

I'm really looking forward to getting home now, I've had an amazing time but I'm feeling pretty whacked and now I can't wait to have a bath that doesn't have Chinese business men's hair in it and a cup of tea that doesn't have a jungle in it. Then I can smell Ed's belly before settling down to watch the episodes of 'Strictly' that I've recorded (I hope).

So I'm off now for a couple of days, I'm not sure there will be any interweb in Almaty so there's a good chance that this might be the last post for this trip. Happy Birthday to Michiko for Thursday, I'm back on Friday morning so if I'm fit enough I'll buy you a beer on Saturday if you're free. Love to you all, Byeeee.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Transription of the Rules for the Hotan Hotel, Khotan

Information for Guest

Please your comply with rules for your comfort and safe during living the Hotel.

1. Guest don't transfer room for other people by self. If don't open formalities at the front counter Guest don't living in the Hotel, pass rent time, you keep live in the room, please open it.

2. Room facility and service facility for Guest, please don't damage, lost or change other uses. If facility damage, you must compensate in cost price. Save on water and electricity. Our hotel equiped with smoke–warning facilty. If fire–warning, you need step in entrance and pass Exit way to down stair.

3. Forbid to bring something with inflammable, exporsion, radionattivity, gun and weapon, animal to hotel.

4. Don't use electric pot and electric soldering iron soron in the room, forbid to set off firecrackers or fire paper, Don't install duplicating machine or telegraph in the room.

5. Valuables must deposit in front office and open formalities. Don't leave valuables in the room. If lost, hotel have not reposablity.

6. Please keep hotel clean and regulation, Don't fighting, excessive drinking and spiting phlegm, smoking in forbiden smoke-area, broking hotel regulation you will be seeked for your reposability.

7. Forbid to prostitution, gambling, drug taking and spray obscene object and other criminal active in the hotel.

8. During guest living the hotel, If guest room facility and object damage, Guest must compensat in cost price.

9. Putrid and roten egg don't put in guest room.

10. When guest leave room please close door and window and shut the light.

11. Check-out time: before 12:00 am Beijing time
Half-day room fee will be charged for check-out during 12:00 am to 18:00. Full-day room fee will be charged for check-out after 18:00.

May you work smoothly, journey pleasant.
Hotan Hotel

Saturday, 22 November 2008


After a 12 hour drive stopping at the Kizil caves and a former Buddhist temple called Subash, we had one more break-down and had to leave a car in Kucha to have its clutch replaced while the rest of us continued on to Korla.

I've had a proper shower head and enough bandwith to get a few pics up. We're leaving in half an hour for a five hour drive through the mountains to Urumqi, the journey here at the beginning of the trip was a bit hairy due to horizontal sleet and icy roads but fortunately we have pretty safe and professional drivers who only sleep at the wheel on the straight roads after a big lunch. I'm skipping a cabbage and gruel breakfast and having a sachet of Nescafe Skinny Latte (stirred with a toothbrush) that I brought from home and some soft peanut brittle that I've sourced somewhere on the way in my room, bliss.

I had internet in our Urumqi hotel before but you can't count on anything here but I hope to post more before the train to Kazakhstan. As long as I'm posting here my pics are failing to upload so I'm off now to get into the seven dirty layers of clothes that I'm going to need for the sub-zero conditions.

Friday, 21 November 2008


First of all I must apologise for having the sorriest travel blog on record. We started the week long journey home this morning driving across the Taklamakan desert from Khotan via a Chinese Milton Keynes (lunch stop, much dog, I'm a vegetarian etc.) to a place called Baicheng so that tomorrow we can go and see the Kizil caves. The hotel here is the the best we've stayed in since Urumqi, it's clean and warm but my next door neighbour has the loudest telly in Xinjiang.

We've been to too many towns and sites to list but if anyone ever finds themselves in these parts, Keriya is my choice. I'm afraid I haven't kept a proper diary but someone else has so when I get the chance I'll have a quick peek and try and fill in the blanks but for now here's a quick summary:

  • Roads, driving, desert, sand
  • Noodles, rice, shish, nan, raw garlic, boiled eggs (excellent eggs)
  • Cars stuck in the sand, long trudges across the desert in the midday sun with an icy wind, severely chapped upper lip, one injured car
  • Beer, fake vodka, paper cups, local firewater, endless toasts ('gambei' – see the bottom (of your glass))
  • 2 dismembered cows, one goat's head, serious sheep massacre on the road (I was asleep)
  • 2 roaches in bathroom (small), one dead body louse (not in my bed)
  • Being stared at (in a friendly manner)
  • Cheap fags, many varieties. My Uighur name is Mura, my Chinese name is something I can't remember right now but they both translate as chimney
  • Petrol stations with outdoor pool tables and chickens
  • Apples, pears and melons cut with filthy knives
  • Camels, deer, sheep, donkeys, chickens, roosters, goats – some alive, some on our dinner plate, two pigeons in a box in the back of one of our cars
  • Mummies
  • More meat
  • Hairdressers (whole photo-series on that)
  • Chairs and stools of the Silk Road (another photo-series)
  • Khotan bazaar (mostly meat and spades)
  • Chinese pop music with epic crescendo, Michael Jackson Olympic bonanza VCD x3 (don't ask), Uighur folk songs (probably odes to meat)
  • Kids who want their photo taken but don't want anything in return
  • Hats of many shapes and sizes
  • Sachets of ready sweetened Nescafe with powdered milk, luke warm Coke, Snickers, biscuits that taste of meat
  • Super abrasive toilet paper and tissues (see chapped lip above)
  • TV remotes wrapped in cling-film
  • People shouting for no apparent reason
  • Solar powered mobile phone masts (aint no place you can't get a signal)
  • People hunting in dried up river banks searching for jade and amber – our drivers included
  • Uighur dancing, meat eating and Chinese drinking (all at the same time)
  • One night in a Uighur guest-house: a stone room with a coal stove (loved it)
  • Ducking behind sand dunes for a wee
  • Great Chinglish
  • Meaty sausages in the mini-bars
There's so much more but it's late now and my neighbour is snoring so loudly that I'm going to have to forage for some earplugs. Although the internet was a welcome surprise it isn't so good that I can upload the few thousand photos yet so bear with me until I reach a city and I'll do my best. I'd love a salad.

Eek, make that 2 small roaches and 1 medium, reckon I'll leave the lights on tonight.

Monday, 17 November 2008

The Kingdom of Khotan

i'm sitting in an internet cafe in khotan, i have to write in lower case because my shift keys are missing, please excuse any other stangeness it's all foreign here. the connection here is painfully slow and the cafe is about to close so i can't tell you much right now except that i'm alive and well, have taken a few hundred photos which i can't post yet and will be in khotan and therefore out of touch for another 3/4 days; after that i'll been in aksu so who knows. bye for now.

Sunday, 9 November 2008


I'm sitting in a very nice but extremely cold hotel room in Urumqi, I woke up with a head cold. Two engineers in red boiler suits are draining black water from a vent in the ceiling in the hope of getting me some heat. It's about -2C degrees outside and snowing but it's not as cold as Kazakhstan, a place which has yet to win me over. We only spent one day there, walking around the park and eating something which called itself pizza in an empty restaurant. I didn't go for the salami version which looked like slices of foot sole but mine had mushrooms, onions and cheese that tasted like Chanel No.5.

We boarded the plane for Urumqi last night and endured the torture of piped versions of the theme from Titanic, something by the Carpenters and 'Auld Lang Syne' on a loop until take off. Dinner was a box of assorted bread rolls and a pocket sized cucumber. After some turbulence we prepared to land and everyone promptly switched on their mobile phones, (the guy next to me had two) the whole cabin lights up like a Christmas tree and sounds like an experimental orchestra. On Chinese flights, the second the wheels hit the runway everyone flings off their safety belts and starts opening the overhead lockers to retrieve their luggage even though the plane is still travelling at around 120mph. Then everyone has to stand in the aisles listening to 'Auld Lang Syne' etc. for about 30 minutes while you wait for the immigration officials to get ready before the cabin crew are allowed to open the doors.

The hotel here is really nice and the staff are lovely, they even made us some food at about 1am last night (beef noodles in soup – delicious). Breakfast was cabbage buns (which are a lot nicer than they sound), hard-boiled eggs and instant coffee accompanied by 'Auld Lang Syne'. I've skipped going to the museum today so I can sit in my pyjamas and parka, chainsmoke and recover from jet lag before we set off on the road tomorrow. We're going to have a forage at the local Carrefore (supermarket) later for Snickers bars and pop but I can probably pick up a humidifier, machete and nylon Chinese New Year pants while I'm there. 

The boiler suits have left now and they haven't made much of a difference so I'm going to have to break out the baby blue blanket that I pinched from the London to Almaty flight. I don't usually steal things but as soon as we landed and I saw the snow banks I couldn't help myself and right now I don't feel any remorse, so I will deal with the credit crunch in my karma bank tomorrow.

Not sure how much internet access I'm going to get over the next few days but I'll save all my meal descriptions, musical musings and karmic expenditures/savings etc. until I can upload. TTFN.