33 Million people are living in the municipality of Chongqing. That is an awful lot of people. No wonder that this place is – by some – considered as being the biggest city in the world (at least population wise). Being achieved by a paper transaction that simply extends the municipality of Chongqing to include other cities nearby, this claim seems to me a bit dubious. In fact, visiting this mega-polis does not really feel like being in a very large city. Mexico City, Sao Paulo or even New York seem to be much more crowded and bigger. “Chongqing has the largest population of any organism called a city in the stretches far beyond any reasonable definition of a metropolitan area and has a land area similar to that of Austria.” (source)
Urumqi was a surprisingly nice stay, given the fact that the only reason to come here was an administrative stop for extending my Chinese visa. The town has a lot of markets – both Chinese and Uyghur. Nevertheless, a lot of these sites have become very touristic and it takes time to look beyond the purpose-built places to see some authenticity in the narrow alleys next to the main squares. I stayed in a perfect place, a new hostel downtown.
However, the staff’s lack of interest in their guests was mind blowing. In fact, guests would start to exchange hints and tips about the city among themselves. Relying on the staff was simply not an option, because they’d share only outdated information. They weren’t even interested in updating false information. Urumqi grows very fast and it is of no surprise that most printed matter is wrong when it comes to addresses. Either street names change, places move or new facilities are being opened. This is happening at a pace, that both the Rough Guide and the Lonely Planet are virtually worthless in this town.
So there was the “Olympic Torch Relay” in Urumqi on June 17th. And I was waiting for the processing of my Chinese visa extension and hanging around the place anyway. Obviously, this Olympic event would be a welcome change from the usual sightseeing. So I was decided to join the local crowd and cheer in tune for the upcoming 2008 games in Beijing.
Traveling towards China’s Wild West along the silk road, there is a major oasis in the desert – called Turpan. Here we stopped to see various archaeological sites and stunning sceneries. In China – as elsewhere on the world – you need to pay for access to all the attractions. But the Chinese sometimes go a step further. So they do with the beautiful “Flaming mountains” (red sandstone hills in the Tian Shan mountains who have eroded over time). They are visible from almost everywhere along the highway around Turpan and we got plenty of scenic shots while visiting other sites nearby.
Visiting the most western point of the Chinese Wall was somewhat interesting. Located five to nine kilometers outside the city of Jiayuguan, the historic sites of interest are easily accessible by bicycle. Although the ride was very refreshing and the overall temperatures were nice, we soon discovered that this region suffers from heavy sand storms. One part of the problem cycling through a sand storm is the fact that your eyes are constantly crying out the dirt, the other problem is the sheer force of the wind which – Murphy’s law at its best – is blowing all the time against the general direction of the journey.
Dunhuang, located in the Hexi corridor, greeted Thomas and me with a beautiful sunrise upon arriving at the train station. This railway line is actually very new and not in any of the guidebooks. It is one of the many infrastructure improvements I have encountered so far in China. The station building is located about 4km from the town center, a minibus runs irregularly to downtown Dunhuang for about 3 Yuan. Nevertheless, we opted to share a taxi which dropped us in front of a hotel. A twin room (“standard room”) was advertised for about 280 Yuan and we managed to bring that price down to 80 Yuan. This is quite amazing, since the per person cost was the same as the price for a bed in a dormitory room in a major city.
Lanzhou is a major hub for journeys going from East to West of China, or from South to North. The city’s station is also connected to the modern Lhasa express train line which features a separate waiting room for travelers to Tibet. Although most backpackers choose to stay in this city solely to stock up on food and wait for their visas to be sorted out, there are some nice areas that make such a stop a very pleasant one.
Arriving in Tianshui was a complete contrast to the Chinese cities I’ve encountered so far. Tianshui consists of two towns linked together by a highway: Qincheng and Beidao. Trains arrive in the latter one, where traffic and people are quite busy. Although this is certainly not the nicest area of Tianshui, people are very friendly and they made my decision to stay there easy. Also, my hotel, near the train station, seemed to be a good strategic move as there was a good infrastructure for food, Internet and bars.