Xinjiang, China Ürümqi 2002.08.05 - 08.06

Distant Oceans

Ürümqi is the world's most distant city from an ocean. Despite being in the vast Xinjiang desert, Ürümqi is an oasis city with temperate climate and greenery. Furthermore, the city is developed beyond all reasonable expectation relative to other cities in Xinjiang Province. Wide tree-lined boulevards host Chinese-modern rectangular buildings selling everything from French designer clothes to Western food to mobile phones. Be aware, however, that the city has ethnic tension between the increasing number of Han Chinese and the indigenous Uyghurs, many of whom want independence from China.

Our time in Ürümqi was under 24 hours. Arriving from Kashgar at 17:00 on Monday evening, we hoped to find air tickets to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan for the once-weekly Tuesday afternoon flight on Kyrgyzstan Airlines. We rode a taxi from the train station to the Bogeda Binguan Hotel we telephoned in advance from Kashgar. One day earlier, hotel reception claimed to have double rooms for ¥80 but when we tried to check in, the room price was a firm ¥218. On principle, we refused to stay here. Scouting nearby hotels without luck, we felt time pressure to secure air tickets. A telephone call to the Kyrgyzstan Airlines office (0991-231-6333) confirmed that seats were available. Office closing time was 19:00. We had only 40 minutes to find their office at the Yingjisha Hotel. Lugging our packs, we hailed another taxi who, fortunately understood our botched pronunciation of the hotel name. With 5 minutes to spare, we had tickets in hand (US$150 each). Still needing to find accommodation for the night, we viewed the Yingjisha double room. It was the best value room we saw out of 4 hotels in Ürümqi. Lucky.

Paulo Coelho teaches us to recognize omens in The Alchemist. The omens were loud and clear about our direction to Kyrgyzstan. In Bangkok, we converted our website work income to US$. In Dunhuang, we traded our Japanese Mekong Countries guidebook for a Japanese Central Asia guidebook with the intension of going from China to Kazakhstan on a transit visa available at the Kazak Consulate in Ürümqi, later only to realize from reading the guidebook that Kazakhstan is a waste of time to visit. In Turpan, we met a Japanese woman who told us that Japanese no longer need a visa to Kyrgyzstan. In Kashgar, we learned from the Caravan Cafe travel assistance that Americans can get a Kyrgyzstan visa on arrival by air at the Bishkek airport. We also met a Dutch man who just crossed from Kyrgyzstan to China He gave us 3 hours of tips on Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, and let us photocopy sections of his Central Asia Lonely Planet. By chance, we bought our Kashgar-Ürümqi train ticket to depart Sunday night and arrive Monday night, giving a 2-hour window to find Ürümqi-Bishkek air tickets.

In a succession of coincidental meetings, book trades, US$-on-hand, and transport availability, we were perfectly prepared to travel to Kyrgyzstan from which visas for other former Soviet Republics can be applied. To prepare for Central Asia entry in Xinjiang Province is nearly impossible. There are zero English or Japanese bookstores in the Province and no way to get US$ cash. Yet, somehow we were miraculously prepared without having actively or even knowingly doing so. The omens said, "Go to Kyrgyzstan." And that's what we did.

Just as incredible as our readiness for Kyrgyzstan is Hiramasa Japanese Restaurant in Ürümqi. Housed in a hotel with a gaudy facade inappropriate for serious Japanese food, Hiramasa delivers a wide selection of Japanese dishes, even more delicious than the Japanese food we had in Shanghai, at reasonable prices. For ¥60, Hiramasa serves an all-you-can-eat menu of sushi, sashimi, tempura, age-dashi-doufu, sanma-shio-yaki, salad, desert, and a variety of over 20 other dishes. Generally, all-you-can-eat menus are crap. Hiramasa is delicious. Find Hiramasa on the 3rd floor of City Hotel at 119 Hongqi Road.

Ürümqi is the end of the train line from Beijing and Shanghai, about 4000 kilometers distant. By air, Ürümqi is connected to most major Chinese cities. The only international flights are to Bishkek by Kyrgyzstan Airlines on Tuesday afternoon and by Xinjiang Airlines on Friday morning.

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