john hassan , the silk road


Travel Writing > Travelogues > The Silk Road (2000)

AN EXTRACT FROM 'The Silk Road' (2000) by JOHN HASSAN


Greetings from China. All has gone well to this point but it was not exactly the most relaxing way to begin this journey. It was twenty four hours in the air and over thirty six hours from when we departed Pittsburgh until we arrived in Beijing. Singapore Airlines, a consensus #1 in the World, does the best possible job to make an arduous trip pass, but thirty six
hours tests anyone's limits.

Your internal clock is surely tested to the limit in those circumstances, but curiously our watch didn't need any adjustment. Beijing, as with all of China,is exactly the same hour as it is back on the East Coast of the USA,
only twelve hours later. When it is one in the afternoon in Pittsburgh, it is one in the morning, the next day in China.

Our hotel in Beijing was right near the airport so that we didn't have to worry about getting into town and then immediately back out the following day to leave for Urumqi. The Capitol Airport Hotel was a remnant of the old Chinese Hotel system that we first encountered back in 1988 when we first visted China. It still had the desk on each floor where someone sat
all day monitoring the comings and goings of residents-though now of course no one sits there anymore.

Now in China one finds that all the hotels are built along the four/five star model and though they have "every amenity", they no longer have the staff indifference, twenty watt light bulbs in the rooms and plumbing fixtures that take a day to figure out. The old hotels certainly allowed you to know you were in "OLD"China.

It has only been a couple of years since we visited Beijing last but everything keeps getting more and more modern. An expressway now runs all the way from the center to the airport and the old airport buildings have
been replaced by a tremendous new facility. These improvements were designed in part to convince the International Olympic Committe to hold the 2004 Games here. That effort failed, the 2004 Games will be in Athens, but the
signs are literally everywhere in Beijing promoting the 2008 Games bid. The Chinese government will do everything it can to secure the games and only "political considerations" will deny them this time around. They would undoubtedly be the most elaborated Olympics ever, the Chinese government would have it no other way.

We are sorry now to report that the Forbidden City Palace in Beijing has been added to the growing list of locations where you can now "enjoy" Starbucks Coffee. An actual Cafe is not been installed but there are vendors carrying large cannisters of coffee on their backs dispensing it to the tour groups. Once again "progress" is changing the visit to China experience-
hope some of you get to see it before it is totally changed in the name of "progress"

Currently we are in Urumqi in the Xinjiang Province in the far Northwest of China. This city, 1.4 million people, is the place on Earth that is farthest from any Ocean. The large billboard in one of the main squares with a western woman in a bathing suit at the beach is rather ironic, but probably effective advertising.

We took Air Xinjiang from Beijing, which was only a four hour flight, to get here. The airline is one of many regional carriers that has sprung up over the last few years as the Chinese government monopoly on air travel was abolished in the new capitalistic China. Using old Russian planes, probably bought at bargain prices, they did offer a rather well run flight. Initial confusion was guranteed by the fact that the seat numbers only appeared on
the back of the seat and those numbers were for the seat in front. This added some time in getting everyone in place, but we departed and arrived on time.

Arriving in Urumqi we once again encountered the unique Chinese experience of finding very few people who spoke English. You also find that virtually all signs are only in Chinese and few people can handle the
western alphabet. Don't worry your cab driver, who turns out to be a Jewish immigrant (or maybe an illegal immigrant)from one of the Central Asian Republics that used to make up part of the Soviet Union, will get on his cell phone to the Israeli consulate to get someone to speak English so he can find his way to our hotel. Not the most direct method but it worked.

All the guide books dismiss Urumqi as only a spot to come so that you can begin the Silk Road trip. They do however recommend visiting the Museum here, but of course when we get there we find that the authorities have decided that since "tourist season" is over it is time to close the museum and do renovations. We have to pass this way later in the trip so wecan hope we'll find it open then. The town is now primarily Chinese though originally it was a Uighur (Central Asian people) city. There is still a quarter of the city with a very lively and friendly Uighur market, but the rest of the town is strongly Chinese. There is much interest in this region of China for independence amongst the Uighurs and other "minority peoples". This has resulted in some tension but for the moment there is no real problem. There is no telling how long though this detente will last.

Tomorrow we are off on a thirty hour train ride to Kashgar and we'll report from there later. Hope all is well with you, as it is with us.....


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