Sunday, 9 April 2017

XinJiang, China - Summer 2017

Living in two timezones
Monday, 3 April

As I sit on the plane I open the BBC news app on my phone to read a front page article about the exact place I am flying to.  It is fair to say that XinJiang is not at the top of anybody's travel list at the best of times and right now things are very sensitive.  Land that has, for decades, been pulled back and forth between being independent "East Turkistan" and Chinese owned "XinJiang".  The local Uyghur people try to hold on tightly to their culture and dream of a land that was once their's, the shipped in Han Chinese people see it as an opportunity to make money with fewer people and less competition. The contrast between the two could not be greater as two very different cultures try to coexist rather than intermingle. How long XinJiang has been owned by China is down to who you speak to. Some would say thousands of years, others would say since 1949.  Our Uighur guide said... "no comment".

The whole of China runs on the same time - Beijing time. That makes my flight from Beijing the furthest you could possibly fly longitude and still remain in the same time zone.  Turns out that this is not entirely true.  Ask a Uyghur for the time and you will get "local time", a time two hours earlier, more fitting for the surrounding countries.  Ask a Han Chinese for the time and you will get the official Beijing time. Schools start at 10am and rush hours at 7pm.  We learnt quickly that our guide is working on local time and so when he told us to meet him at 5pm in the hotel lobby we weren't two hours early. I have local time on my phone and Beijing time on my watch and pick and choose which one to follow how I fancy.  It's great going to bed on Beijing time and waking up on local time!

And so here I am writing a blog post that I feel needs to be worded delicately but truthfully.  My experience so far has been breath-taking with no comparison to anything or anywhere that I have been before.  Military presence is strong here and we arrive at our hotel guarded 24/7 by a number of army men and a heavily armoured vehicle.  Our guide warned us about taking photos of any military (but clearly one of us enjoyed the risk - not me!) and gave us the general pep talk on staying safe.  With this we used our first evening roaming around the fascinating old town of Kashgar.  A refreshing look at age old traditions still standing strong that have not been taken over by modern day conveniences.  Where pottery, hat making, wood carving and blacksmithing are real skilled and respected professions done by hand.  Where family run bakeries and butchers sit on every street and food vendors have just one item that they make and make well and seem to have made their whole life.  It is like stepping back in time before machines and technology took over and every direction you look makes you smile.  

Everyone we interacted with were very friendly and utterly amused to have us sampling their butter icing ice cream or buying their samsas fresh from the tandoor or sharing Uyghur bread on the street.  With so many new sites, sounds and smells in one place we could not help ourselves but buy, sample and taste absolutely everything!  From a bag of the most delicious raisins I have ever eaten to a stomach sac filled with offal, Kashgar is overloaded with the weird and wonderful.  We sat among old cheery Uyghur men and drank tea in a 100 year old tea house and we shared an enormous mixed grilled meat platter for dinner at Eden Cafe - Apparently the most popular restaurant chain in XinJiang.  It was great and we vowed to return before the end of the holiday.  We all agreed that Kashgar was completely unique and utterly fascinating.  I couldn't feel further away from China!

Yesterday was the Sunday livestock market which again took us back in time where farmers from all over Kashgar brought their livestock to sell.  Anyone and everyone was welcome from the big farmers bringing trucks of camels and cows to little old white-bearded men bringing their 2 or 3 hand reared sheep ready for the slaughter (the J-Lo of the sheep species may I add with seemingly human buttock implants!).  Yes, you feel a little heartache for them but when you think of the bigger picture you could guarantee that these animals lived a much fuller life than the western mass reared intensively farmed animals.  No doubt about it!  It is still not for the faint hearted; animals are slaughtered there and then and little shacks along the sides will cook up the freshest meat you could ever eat.  I never would have thought that the tastiest grilled lamb skewers would have nothing more than a bit of salt on them.  Smokey and juicy with the odd crunch of charred fat is a taste sensation that could never be replicated outside of this market.  Uyghur "Laghman Noodles" are hand stretched, thick and have a nice bouncy chew to them; delicious tossed up in a meaty broth with a heap of vegetables.  The Sunday livestock market is without a doubt my number one thing to do in Kashgar.  All human senses are overwhelmed in the first 10 minutes.  It's busy, its smelly, its loud and you have to be on constant alert for the stray hoof of a cow, butt of a sheep, spit of a camel and trample from a horse.  All of which we nearly experienced in some way or other.  Not to mention the highly probable odds of being defecated on by any of the aforementioned animals.  

Long live the Chinese-Pakistan friendship!
Wednesday, 5 April

Over time I have started to witness the Chinese influence here and the difficulties that the local Uyghurs face.  We visited mud built towns that will soon be knocked down taking old local traditions along with it.  When we went to the Id Kah Mosque our guide told us that he doesn't pray there anymore since Chinese law has enforced the requirement of an ID card to enter.  He says he worries what else the ID cards are really used for.  Other rules include no Korans to be seen in public and no traditional call to prayer from the mosque speakers.  Even the typical greeting of "As-salamu alaykum" between Uyghurs is hushed and discreet.  I purposely shaved my beard right down to avoid potential problems but had to keep some beard to still look like my passport photo for the regular passport security checks.  I was still singled out by the Chinese military as "not English" and questioned about my religion.  Instead of the call to prayer waking you up in the mornings you have big TV screens and radio towers placed in busy areas blurting out Chinese propaganda instead.

On Monday we drove 7 hours to get to Tashkurgan - a town that borders closely with Tajikistan and Afghanistan.  It's a good 7 hour drive but the scenery along the way is incredible and Karakul Lake (above) looked beautiful with the mountainous backdrop.  At an altitude of over 3000m the landscape and atmosphere is drastically different to Kashgar.  Tashkurgan is one of those places where you walk around and thank the lord that you grew up somewhere else.  It manages to have the stunning surroundings of snow capped peaks and yet still feel a bit tired, dingy and small with very little to do; I dread to think what the winters are like.  It's also my first experience of being at altitude which may contribute to the general sense of dullness.  At 3200m it kind of feels like the times you say, "I'm not hungover but I can definitely tell that I have had a drink"; a little spaced and the overwhelming desire to just sit and do nothing.  With a large population of Tajiks and some shipped in Chinese it's another interesting dynamic where the two rarely exchange pleasantries.  When we arrived, we had a bit of a walk around the quiet, somewhat eerie town centre and a dinner of spicy lamb skewers and noodles.  I think I have probably had at least one lamb skewer a day so far and they're still amazing.  Even when you're in the middle of the absolute armpit of nowhere.

We were woken up by the radio towers booming out their routine propaganda at 7am before we started our drive to the Khunjerab Pass which is the border to Pakistan.  The journey was beautiful in the snow but the end product is essentially a box tick of the "highest border in the world".  In the snow, their really was not much to see.  As mentioned earlier there are a tonne of police checks and passport checks and they like to single me out as "not English" or "他不是英国人" thinking I don't understand.  I happened to mindlessly snap a photo at one of these checks which resulted in a police officer going through all of my pictures and deleting anything he didn't like. Annoying but I was warned to be careful with my camera by the guide and I accepted the punishment!  More annoying was the fact that the same officer proceeded to ask if he could have a selfie with us all...  Another difficult police check, heading back from the Khunjerab Pass, was not resolved so easily.  So much so that we were escorted to a police compound, asked a load of questions and ultimately got the car impounded.  Something along the lines of tourists not being allowed in this particular car.  This took several hours into the evening and refusing to allow our guide to takes us they decided to call us a taxi to drive us the 7 hours down the mountain back to Kashgar.  We decided that we would rather not go down the snowy mountain in the dark and instead spend one more night in the lovely, happy town that is Tashkurgan.

With more snow overnight and not our usual car with snow ready tires our journey down the mountain was dicey to say the least.  There is no exaggeration when I say I think we almost died! Before we even started our descent we slid uncontrollably on flat road and ended up head on with the side of the mountain.  We all got out, pushed the car out of the ditch and got back on our way.  A little shaken but all OK... and then we actually started our descent.  No road to be seen, just compacted ice and snow on a 20% gradient slope.  The view down over the tight corners of the road were truly horrifying and having already slid and crashed on the straight and flat roads none of us held much hope.  "Let's just get out a walk down" I nervously muttered but then decided that, as a way to depart from this world, being hit by a sliding car or freezing to death probably isn't preferable over flying off a cliff.  With a slow, cold shiver down the spine, sweaty palms and one hand on my belt buckle I was ready to jump out of that car if necessary.  At one point my buckle was undone as we held our breath and slid in slow motion towards an un-bollarded corner.  Our driver was more confident as he told us not to jump out of the car as we gradually came to a stop on the edge.  No reading, no listening to music and absolutely not relaxing was had on that journey.  Just a dead silence in the car as we all stared out the front windscreen, through the snow, passing other crashed cars and gripping the seats.
Never had I thought it would feel this great to be back in Kashgur.  We walked around the old town like it was a well-loved old village that we grew up in.  It almost felt nostalgic.  We ate fried fish off the street and consumed an innumerable amount of chapatis with curry in a small Pakistani restaurant.  All of this went down extremely well.  Oh Kashi how we missed you!

Meat and bread
Saturday, 8 April

I'm still not sick of it.  We've eaten some seriously tasty food in Kashgar many of which our fusions of Chinese and Uyghur cuisines.  The best example of this is the incredibly moreish Da Pan Ji (大盘鸡) which literally translates to big plate of chicken but I can assure you that it is much more than that!  Full of mild chillies fried into the sauce with vegetables and bony chicken it is a deliciously spicy dish.  Also made with lamb or Oxtail it is perfectly accompanied by the dry, hard Uyghur bread that just sits in the sauce ready to be slurped up at the end.

I feel like I may have mentioned lamb kebabs at some point already on this blog post but it really is the backbone to XinJiang cuisine.  The old town is completely taken over by a thick meaty smoke in the evenings as every butcher that was selling their meat in the day have now turned to barbecuing their leftovers.  The city seems to evolve around barbecued lamb.  You will see truck loads (literally!) of lamb carcasses and you may even be lucky enough to witness a street side slaughter.  The smokiness is key to the flavour which is caused by throwing a few pieces of the butt fat mentioned earlier into the burning coals.  It makes the pollution worse than Beijing every evening but totally worth it!

Yesterday we sought out a popular breakfast called Polo which is a lamb rice pilaf which does not seem to differ in recipe no matter where you are in XinJiang.  Carrot, onion, big chunks of lamb and a substantial amount of lamb grease.  A comforting bowl of sweet and savoury stodge that fixed us up well for our hike to the biggest natural arch in the world!
There was no mention of snow and any pictures we Googled of Shipton's Arch looked warm!  With one of us in shorts, most of us in trainers and our guide in a 3-piece suit I don't think any of us expected snow.  Completely ill-equipped we spent the best part of 3 hours hiking in the snow to reach Shipton's Arch and the chances of it being worth it seemed enormously slim.  Everyone slipped at least once and sometimes it was just easier to slide down on your backside.  It really was 100% totally worth it.  The trek was actually a lot of fun in itself but the final view at the top was genuinely stunning.  You instantly recognise a view that you have never witnessed before and will probably never witness again.  This was one of those views.

Our final day was spent in a bazaar off-season theme park come desert that barely filled the criteria of either.  Other than break my life long vow of never riding a camel again we didn't do much here. We saw out our final meal with one more enormous meat feast at Eden Cafe and talked over our completely mad holiday in far west China.  None of us have ever had a holiday like it!  Fascinating culture? Check! Tasty food? Check! Beautiful scenery? Check! Chilled out relaxing atmosphere? Ch...not so much.  It is probably the closest I have come to dying, being arrested and being pooped on by a cow all in one trip...  You should go I recommend it!  Jokes aside I genuinely do recommend it.  It is one of the few trips that I would call a once in a life time experience.  It's not for everyone but if you're a fanatic foodie, culture vulture or just simply fancy something different you really must check out XinJiang.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Lombok, Indonesia - Spring 2017

Sweet and sore ribs...
Thursday, 26 January

Indonesia to me marks the country that got me hooked on travelling.  It was my first real backpacking trip where parents were left worried sick at home whilst me and some friends learnt how incredible and surprisingly unscary the world was.  You couldn't ask for a more perfect introduction to travelling than Indonesia.  A lot has changed since I wrote my first blog on this country and it's almost a little embarrassing looking back at my ignorance to cruel wildlife tourism, fashion and general spelling and grammar!  I remember my first ever snorkeling experience blowing my mind in Padang Bai and not being able to stop myself eating everything and anything new that I saw with zero care or knowledge for hygiene, health and safety.  How life has changed since being young, inexperienced and poor.

Saturday felt like the longest journey I have ever done!  I just assumed Beijing to Lombok wouldn't be so bad but when you factor in a 6 hour change over and a budget airline it's not the best.  It's a damn good job that the destination was Lombok - a small tropical island across the water from Bali that has yet to be ruined by the unstoppable tourist train.  Giant building sites and extravagant adverts for new hotels assures you that the train is coming but I definitely feel like I have made it just before its arrival.  We met with Di, a contact a made on facebook for surfing lessons, at the airport and he looked after us throughout our time in Kuta.  We arrived late but with enough time to drink a Bintang at our hotel (Puri Rinjani Bungalows) bar and eat a Nasi Goreng (National Dish number 1) whilst looking out over Kuta beach.  After a long 2 weeks back at work after our 3 week Christmas break I have been looking forward to this... :o)

A beach bum holiday isn't usually my kind of thing but it was decided that after our last trip to Mongolia a bit of sun and relaxation wouldn't be so bad.  To break up the potential build up of boredom I have managed to add a few exciting days to our itinerary of which the first was surfing lessons.  I did leave one free day to find our feet first though and so we chilled by our pool and wandered into the slightly busier area around the corner.  Kuta is clearly built for tourism but on such a small scale that Lombok life still shines through.  We are here during the off-peak season which I am sure contributes to this feeling but it all still feels very chilled and natural with locals outnumbering tourists on the beach and in the restaurants.

I have tried to surf once in my life on a school trip to Newquay and my claim to have stood up is pitifully shameful.  This time I was going to do it properly with lessons and everything.  It cost 800k IDR (around £50 in the current awful brexchange rate) for the day including all rentals and pick ups for the two of us.  Di picked us up and drove us to his home town Gerupuk where we met Barry, our surfing coach.  All surfers around the world; British, Australian or Indonesian all look like surfers.  Barry was no exception with his long bleach died hair, sun kissed face and absence of any body fat.  He made us practise the "pop up" on Di's front porch and explained how this was the start of a life long love for surfing.  We took a boat out to a "point break" which was far out at sea rather than on the beach and though this did mean the waves lasted much longer to attempt to stand up it also meant that we had to paddle the entire length to get back to where we started.  Luckily for me standing up wasn't something in my skill set just yet.  After day one of surfing I stood up maybe once for a short amount of time spurred on and motivated by Barry's comments of "Your girlfriend is very good...".

Day two of surfing lessons got cancelled due to some major sunburn on the back of the legs and half cheeks of Becky.  We noticed a possible error in our ways when all other white girls had long sleeves and swim trousers on whilst surfing.  I'd bet a lot of money that once upon a time they had all made the same mistake of thinking suncream will do.  I can tell you now, no matter how many times you reapply, suncream will not do.  The sun is a little more forgiving on my skin and I still had some peelage.  The following day, when the thought of sitting on a surfboard didn't feel like sitting on Tobasco covered razorblades we went back out for day two.  My tired arms, aching back and bruised ribs secretly appreciated the days rest.  This time Di ensured that Becky was suited head to toe and even I donned a t-shirt.  Barry took us out to the same spot where Becky advanced to the next class learning how to turn whilst I was held back a year still learning the basics.  There's nothing more disheartening than constantly failing to "pop up" when it takes soooooo much time and effort to paddle back to the starting position whilst being pounded by waves that take you further and further away each time they swallow you.  Each failure came with a new piece of advice from Barry and by the end I was consistently standing up and surfing the whole way whilst everyone cheered around me (I think everyone was cheering or I just built it up and heard it in my head!?).  It felt great and by the time Barry signalled "One more wave!" my sore ribs smiled and my body was well and truly done for the day.

You will never have a better meal than the one you eat straight after surfing.  It's like the fish and chip shop that was outside my local swimming baths when growing up.  They served the best food I had ever eaten and I only ever went there after swimming.  Water sports makes you ravenous!  We went to the same beach front cafe after both days of surfing and feasted contently.  I ordered a Gado-Gado which is best described as a steamed vegetable salad with a peanut sauce dressing, though that description does not sell it very well.  To be fair, without the peanut sauce it would be the most dire dish ever but Indonesian Sate sauce could turn a bowl of overcooked mashed up brussel sprouts into a delicious sweet nutty delight.  It came with Tempe which was something new - soya beans somehow fermented into a cake and then sliced.  It felt like the kind of dish that could turn a Vegans life around but wouldn't do much for most people.  Gerupuk, the village we surfed from, is also home to Lombok's lobster farm in which our cafe over looked in the sea.  With no lobster on the menu Di assured that they would happily buy some and prepare it "Spicy Lombok style" for the following day.  For 500k (approx £30 or 250rmb which sounds so much better!) we shared a kilogram of grilled lobster with vegetable sides and the most incredible spicy sambal, the Indonesian's take on chilli sauce, to drizzle on top.  Post surfing lobster possibly beats post swimming fish and chips... but only just.

For the ultimate send off Di insisted that we ate grilled fish with him at his house before he drove us to Senggigi.  We paid him 100k to buy the fish from the market and his wife prepared them in two ways: grilled Ikan Bakar over coconut husks and curried Masak Kuning.  Ikan Bakar means burnt fish and it is this sweet, smokey flavour in the crispy yet sticky skin of the fish that makes it so tasty.  The Masak Kuning was flavoured heavily with garlic, galingal and lemon grass giving two very different but equally tasty preparations of the same fish.  I think I ended up eating 3 whole fish! Our time in Kuta was made brilliant by Di who suggested the best things for us to do in or spare time (Ashtari Cafe), beaches to hang out at (Tanjung Aan) and places to eat (our lobster meal!).  He was completely honest with his prices and suggested cheaper options too.  The shuttle bus to Senggigi would have cost us 100K each but we chose the convenience to go door to door with Di at 400k.  If you find yourself in Kuta, Lombok - Contact Di!

Cooking up a storm

Sunday, 29 January

We are staying at The Chandi Boutique and Spa Resort which is just outside of Senggigi.  This was the posh part of our holiday where we planned to do very little.  Sit on hammocks, laze in the pool, have a few massages and drink cocktails.  As we are here during rainy season its the perfect place to be whilst it's pouring! Seeing through a tropical lightning storm whilst drinking lychee mojitos is pretty sweet.  A short walk down the beach took us to a well known seafood restaurant called "Warung Menega" where a seafood platter came with 4 different types of sambal; I have decided that Indonesia does condiments extremely well.  Even their table sauce "Kecap Manis" is awesome with a thick sticky treacle like consistency and taste.  There are well over a dozen types of sambal but I have seen 4 that seem to be the most common.  With our fish platter we had sambal matah (fresh, raw and colourful with sliced lemongrass, chillies and shallots) and sambal terasi (also raw with mashed up chilies, tomatoes, shallots and terasi - a dried shrimp paste).  The following day we did a cooking course and made sambal bajak (fried sambal with shallots, chillies and tamarind making it sweet, sour and spicy) and sambal kecap (chopped chillies and shallots mixed with lime juice and the Indonesian favourite sweet soy sauce Kecap Manis).

The cooking course(Pondok Anggrek Putih Cooking Class) was outstanding as we were guided by a brilliant chef called Linda and assisted by Chris and Monica - the owners of Pondok Anggrek Putih.  We each had our own dish that we were in charge of and I had the job of preparing the fish and the sambals; the two things I really, really wanted to learn.  Becky was in charge of chicken sate (her favourite dish and National Dish number 2!) and others prepared Soto Ayam (National Dish number 3!), a local curry and Corn Fritters.  It all tasted amazing; I knew that I was a good cook but I didn't realise I was this good!  Chris replaced Di as our new amazing local to know and helped us with all sorts.  If we had more time we would have definitely stayed here for a few nights and taken one of their tours.

A few more massages, a few more cocktails and an attempt to go fishing like a local saw out the rest of our time in Senggigi.  Renting all the fishing equipment from a fisherman for 50k for a couple of hours was money well spent!  I didn't catch a thing but thoroughly enjoyed it.  We ate at Linda's (the chef from the cooking course!) restaurant called Papa Besar Cafe which we agreed was our best meal so far.  The calamari was perfect and the spicy Prawn Balado was absolutely delicious.  We happened to bump into Chris there too who offered to drive us to the port the following day to get to the Gilis.  He warned us that it's not the easiest at the port with "The Mafia" (the horse and carts vs the taxis!) that try and fight over you and rip you off.  He sorted it all out and we had zero issues.  Gili Air here we come!

This island life
Friday, 3 February

There are 3 main Gili's and according to Chris they are all rubbish.  He recommended Gili Layar and other smaller, lesser known Gili's.  Had we known we definitely would have taken him up on his advice but we had Scuba plans and Gili Air would just have to do.  His main gripes were with Gili Trawangan but we already knew that Gili.T was not for us.  We read that Gili.T was the loud, party island, Gili Meno was the quiet honeymoon island and Gili Air was somewhere in the middle.  I can now concur that Gili Air has the perfect balance.  With no motorised vehicles but plenty of bars and restaurants it's the right amount of peaceful.  Our plan for the first full day was to hire bikes and cycle around the entire island... it took 20 minutes.  A new plan for the day saw us renting snorkels and fins and cycling to the spots on the island that looked perfect for snorkeling.  Rumours of turtles arriving every evening like clockwork got us excited but choppy waters and almost no visibility foiled that plan too.  The idea of cycling around a tropical island and stopping off every now and then at crystal blue waters to snorkel was nice... Sitting and reading in a beachfront bar was equally lovely. 

We had friends join us on the island and our afternoons together tended to evolve around the sea and the evenings around the food.  The rest of the time was reading, sleeping and generally staying out of the rain.  900k got us a private boat with all the kit for a full day of snorkeling.  Having seen absolutely nothing the previous day on our own snorkel expedition I was a little apprehensive but it was easily the best 900k we had spent.  Turtles were absolutely everywhere and the visibility was crystal!  We had 4 different locations which took us around all 3 Gilis including a lunch stop on Gili Meno - this also reaffirmed our choice to stay on Gili Air.  The following day we went Scuba diving with Manta Dive to get up close and personal with the turtles whilst also catching site of mantis shrimp and massive, beautiful shoals of snapper.  No sharks or mantas but I was not even a little bit disappointed.  The turtles, the size of me, on their own made up for it.  The hunt for lazy beach bars and awesome food was always successful in the evenings where we chowed down on giant prawns and grilled fish every night and turned down mushroom shakes and Marijuana.  Yes the waterfront restaurants are built for tourists but great local food was easy to find.  Even the local street vendors had a place to sell their Bakso (spicy meatball noodle soup), Urap (spicy salad with grated coconut served on a giant cracker) and Sate.  The percentage of meat in the Bakso meatballs is questionable but if you are on a budget you will have no problem filling your belly.  

Why don't you get Indonesian restaurants?!  I don't think I have ever come across one outside of Indonesia.  General rule of thumb; if a country has more restaurants of its own cuisine than any other cuisines then there must be a reason for it.  Case in point; England certainly has less "English" restaurants than any other kind.  Indonesia, however, you will be hard pushed to find anything but Indonesian restaurants.  It is just as diverse as Thai food and you get Thai restaurants everywhere!  Our last night was spent in Mataram with the idea that we just wanted to make our trip to the airport nice and easy the next morning.  In my head the holiday had finished when we left the Gilis but Indonesia had one last surprise for us - the actual best meal of the holiday.  We ate at Roemah Langko which on arrival was a clear favourite of the locals.  Located in the courtyard of a great big Dutch colonial building it offers the most incredible Indonesian food for the lowest prices we've paid all holiday.  I finally got to eat the spicy grilled chicken taliwang and we ordered a lot of our favourites discovered over our two weeks.  The combination of spices on the taliwang were completely unrecognisable to me (though tasted a bit like Goan sausage!) but I could eat it again and again.  A sweet rose water and condensed milk Indonesian "Soda Gembira" washed it all down and saw the actual end of the holiday.  I only now realise how lucky I was that Indonesia happened to be my first venture into travelling.  The warm people, hot food and scorching sun is enough to convince anyone into a love for travel.