Saturday, 29 July 2017

Canada - Summer 2017

Stamping around
Wednesday, 12 July

How it has taken me this long to come to Canada I have no idea!  If it wasn't for super proud Canadian colleagues waxing lyrical about their home towns I may never have witnessed such an awe inspiring, beautiful place.  I am spending two weeks in the lush greenery of British Columbia and Alberta and my hiking boots have never smelt better...
So what's a foodie to do when they touch down in Vancouver early evening?  Go and eat poutine of course!  What's he to do the following morning?  Go and check out some Montreal Smoked Meat! We checked in to Vancouver Guesthouse and set out on foot to explore and seek out Mean Poutine.  Most of Vancouver feels like a leafy suburb from a teeny chick flick where every house has a different shape, size and colour, fresh cut lawns and a warm sea breeze.  Across the bridge to downtown Vancouver sees the buildings get taller and the greens and browns turn into the gay pride rainbow! Entire buildings are painted showing their support with shops, banks and restaurants proudly waving their flag.  It doesn't take you long to feel settled here; People talk to you like they know you and help you like you're family.  The poutine was as expected - It's not like I haven't eaten chips cheese and gravy before!  The curds were squeaky on your teeth, the gravy was meaty and the chips were half crunchy and half soggy; pretty much everything you want in a comfort food.  For breakfast the following day we stumbled across Siegel's Bagels and inhaled a delicious Hot Montreal Smoked Meat Bagel.  The bagel on its own was incredible but when you add layer upon layer of this thinly sliced smoked meat, a light spread of hot mustard and a dill pickle you get taken to a whole other world.  A great start to a long day!

Our first full day was dedicated to Stanley Park, the winner of TripAdvisors best park in the world 2014.  We bought a day pass for the bus for $10 and got the bus to the park edge.  We walked most of the day following the coastal path along sandy beaches and sleepy forest trails deep into the centre to Beaver Lake.  The park is essentially an enormous forest in the middle of the city and I really think it says a lot about Vancouver for not choosing to build on it.  With extra bagels and a pot of flavoured cream cheese for a lakeside picnic it's an easy full days worth of activity admiring the flora and fauna.  Without a doubt the number one thing to do in Vancouver is put on your walking boots and spend a day here.

Cramming all the Canadian food in the first 24 hours I had booked us in to "Salmon n' Bannocks", a restaurant focusing on the aboriginal cuisines of Canada.  America has its Native Indians, Australia has the Aborigines, I never really thought about first nation Canadians.  We ate smoked, candied, pureed and grilled "Sockeye" Salmon with the aboriginal bread called bannock.  Tasty food and nice to experience some history via food.  My favourite kind of history!

After just one full day in Vancouver we flew to Calgary.  Ideally we would have spent a little longer in Vancouver but there was one thing I really did not want to miss - The Calgary Stampede!  We arrived with no expectations simply because we had no idea what to expect.  I knew nothing about it other than it is a big deal in Canada and draws in over a million visitors every year.  I booked tickets for an evening show (again with absolutely no idea of what it was showing!) which included entrance to the park in the day.  Even now I can't really explain what exactly we experienced.  It was a thoroughly entertaining day where we ate a ton of fried food from whole deep fried onions to maple dipped corn dogs.  We petted horses,  listened to big band and country music, watched daredevil motocross stunts and supported a "cutting competition" where the competitors had to separate a cow from a herd on horseback (video below).  It was all very serious with a large sum of money for the winner (in the tens of thousands!).  The entire day opened my eyes to a whole new world that I never experienced before.  We ate competition winning BBQ ribs (pork and beef) for dinner before sitting down for the show I booked.  Why don't we do Beef ribs in England?!  Done well it is the best morsel of meat you could ever put in your mouth.  I went primal and got a whole box of just ribs!  Succulent but not fall off the bone (I hate fall off the bone why do people make out that it's a good thing!? I want to bite and pull the meat off!) The evening show ended up being a waggon racing competition followed by a full on production called "Together" - a show celebrating the relationship between the British, French and Aboriginal communities in Canada.  Everything about the stampede was more than I anticipated.  I may be leaving a stone heavier and with slightly more clogged up arteries but I'd do it again!

Keep calm and play dead
Sunday, 16 July

We picked up a car and drove out of Calgary up into the Rocky Mountains to a village called Field.  We had rented a small log cabin (Stephen Creek Guest Cabin) for two nights and use this as our base to see the area.  It was a beautifully scenic 3 hour drive with a stop off in Banff for groceries. We are in the heart of bear country and so our cabin came with a can of bear spray.  Unlike mozzy spray you don't spray yourself with it!  It's not bear repellent but more like a pepper spray strong enough to take down a 300kg beast.  We had mixed thoughts about having a grizzly encounter but part of me was definitely disappointed not to see one.  Our cabin is 5 minutes drive from the stunning, perfectly named Emerald lake.  The most deliciously bue-green colour draws you in for a swim.  The biting cold glacial water gives you second thoughts.  With canoe hire at $60 for an hour we decided to dip our feet in and take the two hour hike around the lake instead.

Our cabin in Field is cute and the lack of wifi was somewhat liberating.  You could walk from one end of Field to the other in about 10 minutes and so there is pretty much only one place to eat - Truffle Pigs!  Luckily it's a damn good place to eat without ridiculous "you have no choice but to eat here" prices.  My best Caesar was drunk here; Caesar is to Canada as Pimms No.1 is to the UK (or Gin and Tonic?!) accept slightly more adventurous maybe.  It is like a bloody Mary with a superb umami hit.  The main ingredient is "Clamato Juice", a tomato and clam broth mix that you can by anywhere here.  Mixed in with vodka (though the English in me preferred the Gin version!), horse radish, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco sauce and a bunch of unknown spices, finished with a spicy/salty rim and a pickled green bean or asparagus.  I love it, Becky hates it - it's certainly not for everyone!  A hearty meal set us up well for our full day hike the following day.  We picked up a map and information on all the hikes in the area from a very helpful information centre at Emerald Lake.  They recommended the "Twin Falls" 6 hours round hike and gave us advice on staying safe with the bears.  The advice was as follows:

1) "Don't surprise the bear. Play music, talk loudly, walk in big groups so the bear knows you are coming."  If the bear is hungry, however, your noise will only tell it where to find lunch.
2)  "first work out if the bear is in predatory or defensive mode". In other words does the bear want to kill you and eat you or just kill you.
3) "If in predatory mode spray it in the eyes with the bear spray", kick it in the nuts and run away.  The bear spray only lasts 7 seconds until empty so make sure you are close enough to smell its breath and have a good enough aim.
4) "If defensive... play dead." Sorry what?!  You want me to lie on the floor whilst it sniffs me as I question my ability to distinguish between a predatory and defensive bear?

All sound advice but didn't do much in easing our bear fears.  Nonetheless, the hike was divine!  I love a hike where the destination is inaccessible by any other means.  The fact that you can drive to Machu Pichu makes the 4 day hike so much less desirable.  The hike itself, though tough, had wonderful waterfalls, creeks and natural wonders to awe at.  The twin waterfalls at the top of the hike was absolutely breathtaking and a perfect spot to sit on the rocks with your feet in the water and eat your Montreal Smoked Meat from a Banff deli packed lunch.  The hike back down is via a glacial lake and an avalanche devastation zone where the snow is still piled high covering a ton of felled trees.  There was so much snow that we couldn't actually work out where the trail was so we ended up walking back and going the way we came.  After Emerald lake and the hike of a lifetime the actual top tourist attraction in the area, Lake Louise, ended up being a bit underwhelming.  Take away the fluorescent blue water, add a thousand more tourists and double the price of the canoes (over $100!!) and you've got Lake Louise.  The snow capped backdrop is iconic but you will wait hours if you want a photo of it without another person taking a selfie in it.
After Lake Louise, by complete accident from missing our junction, we drove the longer scenic route to Banff through Bow Valley Parkway.  Now it's pretty much impossible to drive anywhere in this region and it not be a "scenic" route but this place was the next level!  We even saw a black bear foraging on the side of the road.  We eventually arrived and checked into Banff International Hostel.  Having spent a few hours roaming along Banff Avenue we took a recommendation and ate at "The Grizzly House" restaurant which specialises in fondue of all kinds.  Not at all Canadian but the area has a strong Swiss influence for some historical snowy mountain based reason that I read all about at Lake Louise and then instantly forgot.  A starter of cheese fondue with crusty bread pieces, a mains of hot oil fondue with steak and chicken and a dessert of chocolate fondue with mixed fruit.  Plain deep fried meat wasn't really to my liking but I could do the cheese and the chocolate again!

Banff is a beautiful little town with a lot to do in the summer but you can clearly see that it is built for the winter.  We spent an evening in the hot springs which really just turned out to be an over crowded uncomfortably warm swimming pool.  In the winter, however, it would be a perfect place to spend your evening surrounded by the snow.  Other activities include using the various ski lifts to get to the top of peaks for the views and hikes.  We took the Banff Gondola which was pretty expensive at $62 each but there were spectacular views at the top and an overly curious Golden-Mantled Ground Squirrel (yes I Googled it!) provided much entertainment as it was adamant that we had food.  A "lunch" of Beaver Tails filled us up before our drive back to Calgary ready for our flight to Vancouver the next morning.  Beaver Tails aren't actual tails from beavers (I'll admit this discovery was slightly disappointing to me) but flattened out deep fried dough drizzled with sweet stuff.  We initially intended to share one but then Becky wanted a whole one to herself... I agreed.  Goodbye to the Rocky Mountains, it has been an absolute pleasure!

Camping with Orca
Tuesday, 25 July

The final leg of our trip is what I was looking forward to the most.  We have booked a 5 day camping adventure with Wildcoast Orca Camp for a kayaking whale watching experience.  It took the best part of a day to get to the remote starting point on Quadra Island from central Vancouver.  A bus, a ferry, a bus and then another ferry later we arrived at April Point Resort; a real treat with our room balcony hanging over a small crystal clear harbour.  We had a family of Orca Whales swimming alongside our ferry over here and so we were super excited about experiencing some nature.  The seals swimming by whilst I enjoyed a Caesar only got us more ecstatic.  We went to bed feeling like it was christmas eve with an immense sunset painting our entire room orange, then pink, then blue, then black.

We were picked up by Wildcoast from the little harbour in the morning and taken two and half hours up the Johnstone Strait by boat.  We really are camping out in the sticks.  The Orca Camp site was the perfect balance between glamp and camp.  As close to zero environmental impact as you can get but still the luxuries of a hot shower and slap up meals.  That's without mentioning the wood fired sauna and hot tub!  That's right, we're camping 2.5 hours from civilisation and we get to sit in a hot tub and watch the sunset on the sea.  Situated just across a narrow creek to an ecological reserve we have 4 days on the doorstep of whale paradise.  This indeed is whale paradise but at a very particular time of year.  This is the bay where the salmon start their annual run back up the rivers to lay their eggs.  The kind you've seen on TV being swatted by bears.  When the salmon arrive they arrive in their thousands and with them bring along all the marine life that love to eat them.  Including 500+ orca whales.  Unfortunately the Salmon arrived just a few days after we left;  I know this because I have been watching the orca live stream set up from the ecological reserve.   As I am writing this right now the water is swarming with salmon jumping out of the water and orca whales just chilling.

Kayaking is by far the best way to feel close to the marine life.  When the weather is right the water is like a polished mirrored floor that we just glided along.  There is no better atmosphere than sitting quietly waiting for a black fin to split through the mercury surface or a blow hole to break the silence.  When the porpoises (like dolphins but apparently not dolphins) turned up it felt like we were sitting right with them - eye to eye!  We saw these on two occasions and both felt magical.  At sunset when I was salmon fishing from the kayak a humpback whale swam by!  It was in the distance but close enough to make the hair on your neck stand.  I pretty much went fishing whenever we had free time and it was so peaceful and chilled.  I would not have cared if I didn't catch a salmon but the fact that I did made it all the better!  I had caught a rock fish and couple of tiddlers that were put back but finally a beautiful pink salmon found its way on to my hook.  One of the guides gutted and cleaned it up within minutes and I asked if I could have a go at preparing some sashimi.  They gave me a knife and a chopping board and that kept me entertained for a good half hour.  It was fresh, lean and everyone agreed that it was delicious.  Evenings were spent in the hot tub and when you got to hot there was always the ice cold creek to dunk in.  We may not have seen orca whales but that only gives us a reason to come back to this brilliant camp.  The food, the socialising, the hot tub, just everything was what you'd hope for.

We had a couple of spare days in Vancouver before and after the camp which we used to see a bit more of the city.  A trip to Capilano Suspension Bridge was expensive but we enjoyed it.  More ideal for families really with lots of activites and treasure hunts prepared for kids.  We did another visit of Stanley Park but this time by tandem bike and had a potter about Granville Island Market.  You have to cycle the Stanley Park sea wall at some point as the views and breeze are awesome whilst cycling.  Bike rentals are right next to the park and not too expensive at all.  Granville Island is perfect if you have some spare time or souvenirs to buy.  Nice little food court there too but any local I spoke to said that it is all over-priced and aimed at tourists.  For our final meal before catching the plane I insisted that we queued for well over an hour to have breakfast at Jam Cafe.  Is it ever worth to queue for that long just for breakfast!?  Turns out yes! Yes it is!  Becky had pulled pork pancakes and I had buttermilk fried chicken and waffles.  What a dream it would be to be able to make my way through the entire menu; the two dishes we ate were incredible.  The perfect end to our time in Canada was an enormous, hearty breakfast.  Few countries do I say that I'd be back and maybe the lack of orca whales this time round influence my thoughts a little but without a doubt I will find myself on Canadian soil at least once more in this life time.  :o)

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.