Traveling on Trains – KL to Moscow in 5 Weeks (Part Three)

written by Carolyn Chon September 30, 2014

Part Three takes place still in The Motherland. This time I’ll bring you from Chengdu, right to the little border town in the West known as Yining.

Chengdu : Panda City

Ahh, Chengdu. Smog city. It’s the provincial capital of the Sichuan province. Apparently, Chengdu is the fourth most populous city in China. We both kinda fell in like with this city, Chengdu somewhat felt different and a lot cleaner than Kunming. Something about their tall buildings, their slight posh areas and their not-so posh areas. We stayed in Chengdu, the longest in the entirety of our China trip, I think we were there for about three nights, we would’ve got out sooner had we been able to get our train tickets towards our next destination. We stayed at this really awesome hostel called Flip Flop. Everyday, they would have an activity for its guests. There were days where you could learn how to cook some Chinese dish as well! We signed up for a free bicycle tour round the city. We were greeted by the owner, Mix who was the one that would be taking us for the tour. Mix, is a super, super funny and nice guy, an avid traveler and photographer as well. You’ll see all his prints all over the common area. He speaks really good English, so I’d definitely recommend going on this bike tour because he brought to see things we wouldn’t even know about had it not been a local that brought us around. I have to say though, that when you get to Tianfu Square and with all that smog around, you’d probably imagine yourself to be in North Korea for a bit. Heh.

I think it was quite daunting at first having to cycle in a city like Chengdu, in fact daunting to be cycling in any city in China I reckon. We survived anyhow. I’m not going into details about a city, sorry. I guess the highlight of Chengdu was of course seeing those black and white fur balls. All they do is eat, sleep and roll around with one another. Dammit. I want that life too.

This is Mix, one of the most fun host I’ve met!

A panoramic view of  one bit of the city centre.

Having a bit of a Yum Cha session after our bike ride back at the hostel with proper Chinese Tea!

Having a bit of a Yum Cha session after our bike ride back at the hostel with proper Chinese Tea!

Yum cha anyone?

Yum cha anyone?

Pandamonium Time!

This is how Pandas are really made.

This is how Pandas are really made.

Right. Of course.

Moving on to serious Panda business, we got the hostel to bring us to the highlight of Chengdu where we got to see Pandas! We went to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding and as luck would have it, it was raining when we got there. Thankfully, it rained only for a short while and our transport brought enough brollies.

Dangling Panda, Sleeping Panda.

Dangling Panda, Sleeping Panda.

Hanging Panda, Sleeping Panda.

Hanging Panda, Sleeping Panda.

Bustling Chengdu to Deserted Turpan

Our next main point of destination was Turpan, Xinjiang Province. We took another train ride and this time up North, before we headed West. So, from Chengdu to Lanzhou which covers a distance of approximately 1100km, it took us about 20 plus hours on the train. I can’t remember now if we had bunks or we just sat through the whole ride, but I think we may have sat the soft-seater option for this one. Was it killer? Well, not all that bad I must say. At least we did get to experience both the sleeping bunks and the seater option. Lanzhou was just a pit-stop for us, before we took the next train out the next morning. This part of China was perhaps where the more Islamic parts began. After checking into a hotel right outside the train station, we immediately looked for food and stocked on some snack for next day’s ride.

Next day’s ride took us from Lanzhou to Turpan. This was another 1800km covered, and this was possibly one of the more scenic routes for me. I say scenic because I’ve not seen so much dry land in my life. Traveling on trains is really something you should give a real go at! Turpan’s train station somehow made me feel like I was in a place completely unrelated to China. It could be the way the people look, the way the buildings stood, the dirt and gravel road and the different kinds of smell the air was filled with.

We checked into a somewhat unique yet bizarre looking hotel, for perhaps reasons of practicality it’s called Turpan Hotel. It’s a very, basic hotel but it served the purpose. Turpan is so dry and hot that we took this opportunity to wash some of our clothes and it would be dry within a few hours! The driveway into the hotel was really nice, as it was shaded and covered with grapevine. Turpan is famous for its grapes and most of it are used to make raisins.

the-exterior

Photo from tripadvisor

Photo from tripadvisor

Photo from tripadvisor

Turpan, is one of the lowest depression in the world apparently. It’s like a friggin’ desert! There’s a large population of Muslims there, and it’s home to a large population of Uyghur peeps. We were there during the eve and first day of the Muslim new year, somehow the atmosphere there and back home, were completely different. People didn’t seem to make a big deal out of it. It is a quaint little town though. We ate at a night market nearby the hotel, and both times we somehow caused the vendors to argue because they had assigned tables which we didn’t know about. Mandarin here is more a second language by the way.

Night time food stalls

Night time food stalls

Friendly local with whom I struggled communicating with. His local Mandarin accent was just too hard to understand.

Friendly local with whom I struggled communicating with. His local Mandarin accent was just too hard to understand.

Another side of town's food stalls.

Another side of town’s food stalls.

Goat head anyone?

Goat head anyone?

During our short two nights there, we only managed to squeeze in two places to visit. We went to the ruins of Gaochang and had a look at the Flaming Mountain aka Fire Mountain. Gaochang was was epic. Unfortunately, it was too far out to cycle, or rather too friggin’ hot for us to cycle to. But, if you’re ever going to visit an ancient city, Turpan’s few ancient cities are definitely highly recommended. 

Gaochang is huge!! Super, super huge!

Gaochang is huge!! Super, super huge!

Ruins.

Ruins.

If you're there during summer like I was, good luck.

If you’re there during summer like I was, good luck.

Flaming Mountain

Flaming Mountain

A slightly closer look.

A slightly closer look.

Turpan out, Yining In.

After Turpan, we took a bus out to Urumqi, the capital city of the Xinjiang Province and hoped to purchase train tickets from Urumqi itself into Almaty, Kazakhstan. Unfortunately for us, we arrived at the ticketing station an hour after it closed.

Since we missed out on the train tickets, we decided to head to Yining as soon as possible. We stayed in Urumqi just for the night, after all we had enough of big city in China when we stayed longer than expected in Chengdu. Our ETA in Yining was 9pm, unfortunately somewhere along the tracks there was a flood and we were held back for four hours. Four hours is okay, but it wasn’t okay when we discovered that outside the train station, there wasn’t anything else in sight let alone hotels. So we had to take a taxi and get into town at 1am in the morning, in a heavily Muslim populated area on second day of the Muslim New Year. Ugh. This particular night, turned out to be one of the most memorable bit of our entire trip, which I’ll share at the end of the post.

In the mean time, here are some photos of the very, very pretty and quaint town that is Yining.

Quaint housing area.

Quaint housing area.

Screen Shot 2014-09-12 at 12.07.07 PM

Screen Shot 2014-09-12 at 12.06.44 PM

Sneaking a peek!

Sneaking a peek!

Screen Shot 2014-09-12 at 12.07.31 PM

Yining is definitely is on the top of my to revisit list! We just didn’t have enough for time this lovely, lovely little town. I highly recommend Yining to those who want a different side of China, a side where you don’t so much of hustle and bustle.

Urumqi to Almaty Tickets Quickie Info

Learning from our misfortune, although on hindsight I’d say it was a good thing we couldn’t find the ticketing station at first, seeing we ended up in Yining. So, right next to the Urumqi train station is a hotel in which the ticketing station actually is. They DO NOT sell tickets from Urumqi to Almaty from the train station itself, somehow this route’s tickets can only be purchased in a little counter inside the hotel. If I’m not mistaken, there’s about two or three departures a week. So research if you’ve got a schedule to keep to. That said, you can always get to Almaty the way we did – via Yining!

A Memorable Night In Yining

As mentioned earlier, we arrived Yining via train, 4 hours later than ETA due to a flood somewhere. By the time we arrived, it was 1am. Like before, we didn’t make any bookings for any hotels because it had been pretty easy over the last few places we went to. And at all the train stops we arrived at, hotels were everywhere…unfortunately not here. No hotel, or any other building besides the station was in sight. Great! We couldn’t walk to a hotel.

We haggled with the first taxi driver and decided he wasn’t too keen or friendly, so we walked away until a young boy approached us with a better price. A little doe-eyed, I felt comfortable and decided we should just go with him, after all it was well past midnight. Long story, not so short…

It was the second day of the Muslim new year and all the hotels were fully booked, well all the four stars and above hotels anyway. No, we’re not princesses! Anything three stars and below, foreigners are not allowed. Great news. Our taxi driver, God bless his soul for having drive us around for a good 3 hours plus, checking with each and every hotel for a vacancy for these lost girls, but to no avail. In the end, we slept in his taxi, it was about 4am then. He even made the effort to give us assurance that we would be safe and unharmed, and parked right next to a police booth.

He is also one of the reasons why I want to go back to Yining. We couldn’t afford then to give him all that much, but gave him pretty much most of our RMB. So, if you ever plan to go to Yining, please do use his services! After all, I still have his contact and will definitely look him up when I return.

Ah Sui is the nice, sweet boy on the left.

Ah Sui is the nice, sweet boy on the left.

Two more countries to go!

Till the next post… Please do try traveling on trains if you haven’t already!

You may also like