Preface – Traveling in Xinjiang in 1988

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From September 1987 to August 1988 I spent a year in China as a foreign student. I was 21 at that time and was studying Chinese at Shanghai’s Fudan University. During that year I had the opportunity to travel all around the country, from Shanghai to Kashgar, from Xiamen to Dali, from Hongkong to Beijing, and to many more destinations as well.

In May 1988, I was traveling to Xinjiang in the far West, on the border to Pakistan and Afghanistan, together with another German student from Fudan. We took the train from Shanghai to Turfan – this was a four-day trip in the „hard sleeper“ open six-bunk compartment class. From Turfan, we took the public bus to Korla, Aksu, and on to Kashgar. From there we headed back to Korla, from where we took the train to Dunhuang.

The slides I took during the time in Xinjiang may have almost „historic“ value today, more than 20 years later. I am quite sure that some of landscapes and buildings I was able to see then have now given way to a more „modern“ and supposedly better way of life. This is why I decided to have them digitized and to post some of them, with the date they were taken and the little background information I can still find in my diary from that time. I decided to post in English to reach a larger audience.

Before you expect too much: you will not find any really spectacular photographs – I never was a skilled photographer, and I was taking the pictures with a simple 35 mm rangefinder camera. Also, do not expect too much background information. I am not an expert on Xinjiang or Uighur culture. Also, the diary entries have been translated without a lot of editing. They are the sometimes rather naive notes of a largely uncritical 21-year-old.

I hope you will enjoy the pictures anyway, and I am looking forward to comments.

P.S. Here are some corrections and observations by a Uyghur colleague of mine:

1. Correct Uyghur Names: (in the order of appearance in Diary text)

Uyghur (more widely accepted and used than „Uighur“), Xinjiang (Official full name: Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region), Kashgar, Artush (Artux), Turpan (Turfan, Tufan), Aksana grave (Astane), Gaochang (Gaocheng), Sugong Pagoda or Imin Minaret (Imin Pagoda, Imin Masque are not correct), Qinibagh (Qinibahe Hotel), Heytkah Mosque (Idkah Mosque), Kawap (Kebab), Piter Nun or Bread (Pita bread), Apak Khoja (Abakh Hodja), Tokaq Bread (or Bagel-style bread)

2. Background of Sama Dance:

People, aged as young as seven-year-old and as old as seventy but only man, would begin dancing the Sama Dance in the Heytkah Square (in front of Heytkah Mesqit) after finishing the Heyt Prayer and usually dance for hours until they get really sweaty. The Sama Dance is only held on early mornings of the Ramadan Festival and Haj Festival day during the whole year. (your chance to witness it is 2/365=0.534% less than 1%)!

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May 3 – 6, 1988 – On the Train from Shanghai to Turfan

The Shanghai-Ürümqi Express

May 3, 1988

We board the express train to Ürümqi („Wulumuqi“) in Shanghai. Although there are many Xinjiang natives on the train, there are only Han Chinese in our compartment.* We share the compartment with a senior manager of Shanghai’s „Department Store Number One“.

May 4, 1988

Our two „friends“** from „Department Store Number One got off in Baoji“. It is a bit more quiet now, but more boring as well. That’s the way it is on train rides lasting for several days …

May 5, 1988

It has become quite cold, and the train engine has in the meantime been replaced by an old steam engine. We are travelling through the desert-like landscapes of Gansu province. It has started to rain – maybe this is the long sought-after rain in Gansu, after years of drought.

May 6, 1988

We are passing through the desert. It is cold and cloudy, and the train is at least 1.5 hours late. Isn’t it strange that the first time I am travelling in the desert, it is raining?

* In the 1980s this kind of „segregation“ was a common policy on Chinese Railways
** In the official terminology of the time, foreigners were adressed as 外国朋友 i.e. „foreign friends“

May 6, 1988 – Daheyan, Turfan

We arrive at Daheyan at around 16:45 – cold and rainy. At the bus station we buy a ticket to Turfan for 18:00.

Daheyan in the Rain

The trip to Turfan takes about one hour, and the bus is packed with people and baggage. It is raining through the top of the bus, and the fellow Uighur travellers have started disassembling my Lonely Planet travel guide.

We take a room in the Turfan Binguan for 7 Kuai (外汇券/FEC*).

* In the 1980s there was a special currency for foreigners, the so-called „Foreign Exchange Certificates“. There was, of course, a black market for FEC, as imported goods could only be purchased with FEC, and at one time you could get up to 160 Kuai „peoples‘ currency“ for 100 Kuai FEC. I remember that near Fudan University there was a private foto shop where you would bring your FEC hidden in one of the little film roll plastic containers, and they would give you a container in exchange, with the respective amount of Chinese currency in small notes …

May 7, 1988 – Turfan

We take a half Chinese, half Western breakfast, with some really awful coffee. Later that morning we take a mini truck, together with two English guys and a Dane, to the ruins of Gaocheng an the Aksana graves. It is unbelievably cold on the way, but finally the sky clears up a bit.

Views of Gaocheng



We are not able to see Bezeklik, as the two English guys have to take the bus back to Ürümqi at 2 in the afternoon, but we see the famous „flaming mountains“ instead, on the way back.

The Flaming Mountains

This is when one of the truck’s tires goes flat, and the replacement tire turns out to have a hole, too. Only after several pumping stops we arrive at Tufan. The English guys have missed their bus to Ürümqi, though …

An Involuntary Stop

In the afternoon we go to see the „Imin pagoda“, together with the Danish guy and a Québecois. Slowly, it is getting hot outside.

Views of the Imin Mosque



We finish the day by talking with a mildly eccentric Brit, and a walk through the town.

May 8, 1988 – Turfan

We go to the Bazaar where we buy some souvenirs.




Then we buy the bus ticket to Kashgar for 38 Kuai. We have lunch at a tiny Chinese restaurant. The owner asks us to translate the Chinese menu to English, for a free dinner that night.

In the afternoon, we sit in the shade of grapevines in the courtyard of the hotel, together with backpackers from Norway, Switzerland, England, Israel an other countries, sharing our China experiences. Later, my travel companion and I take along walk to the outskirts of the Tufan oasis.





So, in the evening we cash in on our „menu translation for free dinner“ promise. This is probably the first* time in my life where I could make any serious use of my Chinese …

* and only?

May 9. 1988 – Turfan


Lazing in the hot weather, writing and mailing some picture postcards. A walk in the town and to the bazaar. Chatting with all sorts of people. There’s an Irish guy I have met before on the ship from Hongkong to Shanghai. At dinner, I give some more hints to the restaurant owner about how to better serve those strange, picky Westerners.

May 10, 1988 – Turfan to Kashgar

We arrive at the bus station early and have to wait for two hours. At 11, the bus finally leaves Turfan. The trip leads us through breathtaking desert and mountain landscapes.


After two bus breakdowns and several stops (with toilets defying description) it starts to rain again.


At about 10 at night we stop for the night – the accommodation is ok, and the food is actually quite good!

May 11, 1988 – Turfan to Kashgar

At 8 in the morning (Beijing time, although we are almost 4,000 km to the West!) we continue our journey. How strange to be travelling at the rim or the Taklamakan desert where you can find the highest temperatures on Earth, wearing two thick sweaters and long underwear …

The Korla Bus Station

In Korla, the heavy rain has turned the streets into a river. Snowy mountain tops can be seen on the horizon. We then have a long, involuntary stop at Kuqa – the bus is broken again.

The Kuqa Bus Station

As the driver wanted to reach Aksu at any cost that night, we continue the trip until half past midnight. At the bus stop hotel they did not want to give us regular rooms, but expensive ones „for foreigners“ instead, so we have to stage a little sit-in until we finally get regular accommodation …

May 12, 1988 – Turfan to Kashgar

We were supposed to leave Aksu at 8 in the morning, but the bus, once again, is not moving. But now we are really going through the desert!

Stopping in a Small Town on the Way

Waiting for Customers


At some point we pass Artux, and arrive in Kashgar at around 20:30. We take a room in a terrible hotel – together with the Swiss-Israeli couple we befriended in Turfan. We will look for a nicer place tomorrow, but for now the only thing we crave is a hot shower!

May 13, 1988 – Kashgar

We move to what was supposed to be the former British counsulate in Kashgar – simple but clean accommodation.

„Qinibahe Hotel“


Kashgar! Finally the „Xinjiang Experience“! The Idkah mosque, carpet dealers, bazaars – and hardly any Han-Chinese! There are lots of Pakistanis who come over the nearby border to trade goods.

The Idkah Mosque

Resting in the Shade

Street Views of Kashgar






In the evening I take a stroll all by myself through the old town.