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19–20 April (Fri–Sat)
Well, Urumqi is certain worth a couple of days - I had about 36 hours arriving on Friday morning and departed the next evening.
Urumqi is the provincial capital for Xinjiang, which is very large geographically, with lots of glass and steel buildings with Chinese characteristics.
My experience booking a hotel, months ago, was symbolic of what would follow. I used standard travel books in selecting hotels and made reservations online that were accepted only to be told later that they could not accept foreigners. Finally, the Aksaray Hotel, which seemed to cater to Russians, confirmed my reservation request. So foreign activity appears to be regulated. Locals are also regulated, as every single shop and entrance-way has a metal detector and there were a significant number of monitoring camera in public areas. I was told that Uyghurs once engaged in bomb attacks within the city but not recently. This is the state-of-affairs when one ethic group occupies another, although the Chinese have been ruling this region for centuries.
The other observation is that this place is truly a melting pot. Often signs are writing in Chinese, Arabic and Russian and occasionally English - see picture.
On-the-ground, I have never seen a city that has so much jay-walking. No one waits for a red light - these people put Australia to shame. I even saw an entire family (with young children) waiting to cross a busy four-lane highway - no stop light here - and if they succeeded then they had two guard-rails to climb over and another four-lane highway going in the opposite direction. Hope they are still alive.
First up, Gloria's (my good colleague) note, written in Chinese, was effective in securing my train ticket to Almaty Kazakhstan, booked for the following evening. Did that upon arrival.
Seems that I could not get an Internet connection at my hotel unless I had a local mob (cell) number - the hotel was useless in getting me connected. So, I went out looking for WIFI but place-after-place would not let me on without a Chinese mob number. Finally, that evening I got connected (I don't know why) at a 5-star hotel where I had dinner - beef and veg and not to spicy.
Typical first day - walking around my new neighbourhood. Enjoyed a lamb and rice dish for lunch, found a couple of inviting parks and the local university on this sunny-cool day. Got a great picture of a woman selling bread and a picture of the local mosque.
I was coming-down with what turned out to be a mild cold and so I did not stay out late - looked for some live music but found none.
The next morning a family of three sat at my table for hotel breakfast, but they had little English. They were pleasant and they let me take their picture.
Reports indicated that the local museum was worth seeing and these sources were correct. Brilliantly presented history of this region including the city's involvement with the Silk Road - sometimes in English.
Two couples - perhaps on a double-date - approached me and wanted my picture at the museum. Of course, I agreed. I'm a novelty in this obscure part of the world. Hard to say if I was the only foreigner, as there were a lot of Russians, but I did not see another Western tourist - not even at the museum.
I had been told that my train to Kazakhstan had no food so stocked up mostly on bread, fruit and water.
My hotel ordered a departure taxi and the guy wanted twice the price of what I paid when I arrived. I negotiated him down to the train station exit price (note neither of us share a common language). Then he took me to the wrong train station although I was pretty sure that my hotel had been clear on my destination. This resulted in a re-negotiation and I ended up paying twice as much as my exit price that I paid upon arrival.
I was so irritated that I paid the taxi driver and left at the front gate of the train station where the police stop cars to randomly check identification (and for bombs, apparently). The police probably stopped us because I am a foreigner. I could see the station but actually getting into the station was not easy as there were barriers and officials saying MAO - no - at every attempt. Finally, I worked my way out of that maze. I should have let the taxi driver take me to the departure level, as symbolically expressing my dissatisfaction caused me a lot of trouble.