My China videos

Now that I’m going to be staying in one place for a bit, it’s time to get back to the blog back-fill. I’ll get to the Philippines soon, but I’ve had these China videos kicking around for a bit now so I thought I might as well post them. I did two because for me Xinjiang was SO different from the rest of China that it felt like another country altogether. And it’s just one of my most favorite places. 🙂

Hope you enjoy! 🙂

Xinjiang

China

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Xinjiang travel notes

Tour company and other links

We arranged our tour with Abdul Wahab Tours and I can definitely recommend them. I found out about them from the Far West China site but they’re also listed in the latest Lonely Planet. We went for a featured discount package, which was excellent value for money. Other packages were more expensive but if you can afford it I think it’s a fair exchange for the experience.

Coordinating the trip from Hong Kong, everyone we were in contact with was responsive, professional, helpful. We met Abdul himself a few times while we were in Kashgar and he was really great – friendly, helpful, enthusiastic, although a bit harried as it was still high season and he had lots of tours coming through.

I’ve written a bit more about the experience of traveling with a tour guide here.  For me personally, I was grateful to be able to show up and just focus on the experience given the limited amount of time we had in the province. I think we could have managed to arrange a good amount of the stops from the tour ourselves, but it would have taken a good deal of time and effort. Traveling with AWT, we were able to get so much more out of that one week.

For a bit more background and color about Xinjiang:
http://www.farwestchina.com/
http://www.thenewdominion.net/
http://compound-eye.org/rogc/xinjiang/xj-music-pro/comps/mffts-vol1/

Accommodation overview

Xinjiang was our first stop in mainland China. After the plush comforts and modernity of Hong Kong, we knew to brace ourselves, and coming in with the right expectations definitely helped on the accommodation front.

We stayed at hotels in Kashgar, Tashkurgan and Urumqi. All three were expensive based on what we’d gotten used to paying throughout Southeast Asia. What would have gotten us a modern, clean, relatively luxurious room in most places we’ve been so far paid for rooms that were hard-used and in desperate need of a good scrubbing.

Rusting bathroom fixtures, mildew darkened shower curtains, falling-apart furniture, carpets that looked like they’d absorbed about half a century’s worth of grime, unfinished paint jobs, smoky hallways, broken tiles, dark rooms… Xinjiang hotels are POOR value for money, but there doesn’t seem to be all that much to choose from so I was just got grateful that the linens were clean and got back to loving everything outside the hotel doors. 🙂

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Our tastefully (?) decorated room in Kashgar

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Bathroom in Tashkurgan

Where we stayed

Seman Binguan Hotel in Kashgar
Kitsch is the word! RMB 240/night (around USD 38)

Pamir Hotel in Tashkurgan
Dark and charmless but could have been worse. I think it was around RMB 260/night (around USD 40)

Yilisha Hotel in Urumqi
The best of the three but still very “worn”, in a decent location though. RMB 290/night. (around USD 45)

Food

I’m afraid I don’t know the names of any of the local places we ate at. I have to say, unlike the cuisine of many of the places we’ve visited, Uyghur food didn’t thrill me. I loved the bread and the wonderful local pomegranates. If you’re heavy into lamb and mutton though, Xinjiang is the place for you.

Two western food places I can recommend:

Karakorum Café in Kashgar
The food isn’t amazing but it’s decent, there’s free wifi, the staff are friendly, the vibe is chill. Lonely Planet claims theirs is the cleanest bathroom in all of Xinjiang. I didn’t visit enough WCs to be able to substantiate or repudiate this assertion, but it was certainly the cleanest, nicest, best smelling bathroom I saw in the province by far, and boy did it make for a nice change! 😉

Texas Café in Urumqi
Also in Lonely Planet, if you don’t walk in expecting real TexMex food then you’ll be fine. They do a decent job with the ingredients they can get, it’s cute, friendly and cozy and again comes with wifi. And I was overjoyed to have rice and beans again for the first time in aaages!

Some last thoughts on Xinjiang

I can’t believe our time in China is about to end! As of today we’ve been here for eight whole weeks. Tomorrow we fly to Taiwan, where we’ll be visiting a high school friend of mine who I haven’t seen in ages. So excited!

You may have noticed that during these past two months the majority of my posts have concerned the ONE week we spent in Xinjiang. I will be posting plenty about the rest of our time in China but if it’s not already obvious, I totally fell for Xinjiang.

Looking back, I realize I am heavily predisposed to like the place. We’ve been traveling in Asia for a long time now. Xinjiang is not eastern or southeastern Asia; it’s central Asia and being there I could feel its long reaching roots stretching out across the expanse to touch the edges of eastern Europe. This is probably just a flight of fancy, but it made me feel closer to Europe than I have in ages and given how much I love my second home, this made me happy. 🙂

This also might be just me, but I did feel some echos of Eastern Europe and gypsy culture in some of the details of the place. Thanks to Roman (who is half Serbian) I am a huge Kusturica and Bregovic fan, and for some reason something about gypsy style has appealed to me for as long as I can remember. Many people we passed on the streets looked like they could have just stepped out of a Kusturica film; the way women dressed (especially in Tashkurgan) – stripy stockings, glittery heels, ruffles, layers, red, red, red – was like something out of a fantastical fairy tale. For the aesthetics alone I love Xinjiang.

I also have a big affinity for Muslim cultures. My first two Muslim friends in my life, Yasmin and Kumayl, introduced me to the beauty of this religion (thank you both!) and so the presence of this religion is another thing that produces an automatic happy response in me. I also love unlikely cultural mixes, and Xinjiang is about as mongrel as you can get, and fascinating for it. I mean, how many places can you visit where the signs will be in Chinese, Arabic, Roman and Cyrillic characters?? Awesome.

Then there is the landscape. For sheer drama and beauty, I’m hard pressed to think of a place we’ve been on this trip whose nature can compete with that of Xinjiang. And we’ve been to some incredibly beautiful places. Small caveat though – I am a mountain girl at heart. I grew up with my mother’s stories of idyllic childhood in Liechtenstein, I was weaned on Heidi and my vacations as a girl nearly all involved the alps. So mountains automatically make me happy too – and boy were those Xinjiang mountains friggin’ amazing. It makes me sad to think of the mining projects that are and probably will take place there, of the scars that will be inflicted on all that beauty.

Lastly, I am a big sucker for underdogs. There is a lot I don’t know about the situation in Xinjiang, and I don’t want to discount the point of view of the Han Chinese living and working there. But all the literature I could find out about the place cast the Uyghur and other ethnic minorities of the province as the being clearly on the losing side of the equation as progress and development comes to Xinjiang. Certainly the Uyghurs we talked to echoed this sentiment.

One woman explained how controlled their movements were. Where other people in China pay RMB 200 (around USD 30) for a passport, Uyghurs have to pay nearly 1000 times that price, something few people can afford. For her, travel outside of China is a distant dream.

Another man talked about the difficulties of running his business. He was friends with many Chinese in the area but he said that once a Chinese person started to make real money they would change; no longer consulting with others and doing what ever they wanted in their adopted homeland. The success of his business was bounded by the whims of the Chinese government and businesses in the area. “Like Tibetans, we are free to breathe the air…” He trailed off here, implying with a resigned shrug all that is not free to the minorities.

Our guide seemed to harbor strong feelings on the subject; he nervously refused to translate at one point when I wanted to ask locals their views on the increasing presence of Chinese farmers in the area, but at other times his own opinions would come through. I remember him poetically observing at one point “(Spoken) Chinese always sounds like someone arguing and the letters look like broken houses”…

These are just a few small vignettes; I realize that after a week and a bit of Internet research I still have a lot to learn about Xinjiang. But three months ago I’d never even heard of it and I’m so happy that I discovered this place at all!

So thanks for indulging these numerous posts on the topic. Although we had one more stop within the province – Urumqi – I’m going to skip over this and push on to the rest of our trip in China. (Suffice to say, it’s no Kashgar.) I will do one more post though with general travel notes for anyone who might want to do their own trip to this incredible place.

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Thank you Xinjiang!

Silk Road Tour days four and five

The first parts of our tour were so full and so spectacular, it felt like we’d already been traveling for a couple of weeks when we woke up that next morning, rather than only a few days. Our last night on the tour promised to be a good one though, so we wrenched ourselves out of bed and bundled ourselves and our gear into the VW one more time: We were heading to the desert!

The Taklamakan Desert, bounded at its northern and southern borders by two branches of the ancient Silk Road, is the second largest shifting sand desert. Located farther from the ocean than almost any other place on Earth, it is China’s largest and driest desert and was a hazardous place to travel for those brave souls traversing the Silk Road back in the day. (Thanks Wikipedia and eoearth.org)

From Wikipedia: “The name is probably an Uyghur borrowing of Arabic tark, “to leave alone/out/behind, relinquish, abandon” + makan, “place”. Another plausible explanation is that it is derived from Turki taqlar makan, which means “the place of ruins”. Either way, it’s all terribly romantic and intriguing!

But I think the poor Taklamakan got a raw deal. I’d already left my heart back in the mountainous landscape along the Karakorum highway. The weather there was over-cast and damp and our time was very limited; we couldn’t travel all that far into it at all. For me there was no way it could compete with the those massive, awe-inspiring mountains glimmering in that clean, crisp, sun-filled air. I think we’ll have to visit it again in more favorable conditions!

Still, spending the night camping in the desert was pretty cool, I loved getting a bit more familiar with camels – cute with attitude! – and we made a few fun stops on the way there and back. Here are some of the highlights from day four and five of the tour.

Tombs and furry friends

We made a stop at one point at a simple road-side farm. Yusef knew of some traditional Uighur tombs close by that he wanted to show us. Simple, long, clay tombs covered an entire hillside behind the farmstead. Yusef told us that Uighurs prefer to keep their final resting place simple, opting instead to spend money on decorating their earthly homes (as opposed to Tajiks, who apparently keep their homes simple but have elaborately decorated tombs).

Just as interesting to me was seeing the farm-house we had to walk around, made of the same sand-colored mud bricks. We also met a young, inquisitive donkey and its mother while poking around. Super cute! 🙂

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Scenes from Yarkand

We took a small detour to the city of Yarkand, where we stopped for lunch and visited the mausoleum of Ammanisahan, an Uighur queen who is renowned for collecting the “muqam” (more about muqam on Wikipedia). The mausoleum was lovely and peaceful, but what I really enjoyed was the sights of every day life around town.

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The bike seat covers that looked like mini-carpets were everywhere and I got such a kick out of them! Someone in Yarkand mixed things up though with the faux zebra skin! 😉

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Outside Altun Mosque

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Ironmonger/blacksmith shop in the old town

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Yarn for sale

Taklamakan nights

The endless sand dunes were cloaked under thick clouds when we arrived at the desert’s edge. I can only imagine how cool it must be when the skies are clear! We had a team of three camels and two camel drivers – two young men who are cotton farmers in the area, but who work the camel treks part-time for extra income. Abled and Iziz spoke only a bit of English, but with Yusef’s interpretation, we got to learn a bit about their lives and they about ours. They were soft-spoken but inquisitive and kind and it was lovely to get to know them at least a little bit.

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The night out on the dunes was cold but peaceful. I loved toasting myself by the fire in the otherwise pitch black night before it was time to turn in. We all woke early in the hopes of seeing a desert sunrise, but things were still overcast unfortunately. We had another surprise though. After breaking camp and heading back to town, Yusef let us know that Abled had invited us to stop by his home, which was nearby, for breakfast before we headed back to Kashgar.

Abled lives in a traditional Uighur farmhouse – simple but spacious and decorated with richly covered carpets everywhere. He invited us to make ourselves comfortable in the main room and served us tea and bread. We got to meet his father too, who was sweet and gracious.

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Our camel guide, Abled

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Bags of cotton inside Abled’s home

The main crop in the area seems to be cotton, which Abled also farms. We saw many massive trucks, full to bursting with the white, fluffy stuff, along the road to the desert and the next day, when it was time to return to Kashgar and for our whirlwind-intro-to-Xinjiang tour to come to an end…

Sightseeing in Kashgar

Just a quick post about the places we managed to visit during our short time in Kashgar.

The Sunday Market

Unlike the livestock market, which really only takes place on Sundays, the confusingly names Sunday Market is actually open all week long. Hundreds of stalls are crammed next to each other in this large hall, selling everything from spices and teas to dramatic fur hats, from gauzy, colorful women’s scarves to carpets. It’s a bit of a tourist trap, but we saw plenty of locals perusing the scene as well when we were there, and it’s fun just to go see what’s on offer. 🙂

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Tea for sale at the market

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A carpet salesman sits among his wares

The Abakh Hoja Tomb

An ornate and beautiful tomb within a peaceful compound, the stately building is the resting place of Abakh Hoja, an important ruler of Kashgar, and allegedly also of his granddaughter Ikparhan, also knowns as Xiang Fei, who ended up as a favored concubine to Emporor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty. More info here if you are interested.

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I couldn’t find anything to substantiate this, but Yusef was telling us that the buildings had once also been used by Sufis in the area – a branch of Islam that he had very strong (negative) opinions about…

It was a lovely place to wander around and I really enjoyed the architectural details like the beautifully carved columns and the tile work.

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Awesome tiles

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Column detail

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Id Kah Mosque

Apparently the largest mosque in all of China, I loved visiting the peaceful Id Kah Mosque. Tourists are allowed to visit when services are not being held, so it was peaceful for us at least – apparently to mosque can and does fit thousands and thousands of worshippers on its busier days. It was built in 1442 and is an important symbol and seat for the Muslim population in Kashgar and beyond. A bit more info here.

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…to prayer

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Entrance to the mosque

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An excerpt from the tourist info posted in the mosque. We all get along… really!

Silk Road Tour day three

Getting back to magical Xinjiang…

Wanna buy a… sheep?

We’d awoken in the cold, dark of pre-dawn back in Tashkurgan in order to make it back to Kashgar in time for the Sunday livestock market. Driver put the pedal to the metal and we raced along, retracing our route along the spectacular Karakorum Highway as the night melted gently into day. The hours slipped by easily and before we knew it, we were driving into Kashgar.

We didn’t want to miss the action at the market, which starts wrapping up mid-afternoon, so we headed straight there. See my earlier post for plenty of photos. Suffice to say it was incredible! We’ve visited tons of food and goods markets while traveling in Asia, plenty with handfuls of live animals for sale, but this was our first opportunity to see an honest-to-God livestock market.

The market takes place in a huge open space that was packed to the gills by the time we arrived with thousands of animals and maybe as many farmers, traders and shoppers. It was apparently wedding season in Xinjiang, and no Uighur wedding celebration is complete without plenty of roast sheep and goat to feed the hundreds of guests, so it was prime time shopping season!

It was fascinating to wander cautiously through the narrow lanes separating the groups of livestock, observing the heated negotiations between buyers and sellers while attempting not to step in (too much) fresh goat/sheep/cow poo. 😉 I’m not sure if we just got lucky but there were hardly any other tourists there and it really felt like entering a completely different world and I just loved it. (Click here for the photos)

Incredible Kashgar!

After the market, Yusef kept us moving. I’ll do a separate post about the tourist/historic sites we visited. I enjoyed them but for me the real highlight of the day was Kashgar’s old town. Lonely Planet writes this about the city:

“Modernity has swept in like a sandstorm. The highways and railroads that connect it to the rest of China have brought waves of Han migrant workers… and much of the old city is being bulldozed in the name of ‘progress’. Yet, in the face of these changes, the spirit of Kashgar lives on. The great-grandsons of craftsmen and artisans still hammer and chisel away in side alleys; everything sellable is hawked and haggled over boisterously; and not a few donkey carts still trundle their way through the crowds…”

Indeed, there was a stark contrast between the modern part of town, where we saw as many, if not more than, Han faces as Uighur, the streets were broad and the buildings boxy, modern, anonymous, and the warren of narrow roads that made up the original and entirely enchanting old town.

Too cramped for cars to easily navigate, the streets are none-the-less busy. Skooters, bikes, donkey carts, push karts and pedestrians make their way through patches of fragrant smoke from the plentiful kebab stands that line every road. The buildings are low, only a few stories at most, crumbling and in the traditional Uighur architecture. Men with wrinkle-etched faces in traditional caps and women in incredibly colorful layers of clothes and headscarves, small open-air shops of nuts and fruit and meat and breads, beautiful arched doorways leading to squashed, intriguing back alleys – there was just too much to look at and all of it was fascinating! 🙂

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Fanning kebabs on the narrow grill

We luckily had an extra day in Kashgar after our tour was complete so we had a bit more time to enjoy the city on our own. The photos below are from both days.

Bits and pieces

Just a few things I want to remember about Kashgar:

We saw tons of wedding parties on the move while we were in the city. This involves a truck with a group of traditional musicians sitting in back, playing awesome music on drums and other instruments as it cruises through the city, announcing the wedding party to any interested onlookers. (More on Uighur music) The truck was usually followed by another vehicle with a guy and a camcorder sticking out the window, filming the procession. After this comes any number of cars all decorated with colorful ribbons and cloth – the wedding party. I loved seeing these processions! 🙂

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A car decked out in wedding gear (this was actually in Tashkurgan)

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If this sounds like your cup of tea, this guy can perform and film YOUR wedding for you! Just call 152….

I also got a kick out of how agrarian the city is despite it’s being, well, a city. Donkeys are everywhere, even in our hotel which was outside the old town we woke up to the crow of roosters and I even saw one woman feeding her goat by walking it along the grassy median dividing the sidewalk and one of the main streets.

If I haven’t mentioned it before, I really loved they way the local women dressed in Xinjiang. I’m not sure if there’s an official name for their style but I’m calling it gypsy chic. 🙂 These are women who are not afraid to wear a bit of color! Check out the shoes, the rhinestone, the sequence, the attitude!

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Yusef took us to an incredible tea house (incidentally also a film-location for Kite Runner). We made ourselves comfortable on the balcony and he ordered what I believe is the only thing on the non-existent menu. Incredibly delicious saffron tea and some of the traditional bread. I was the only woman in the whole building; Roman and I were the only non-locals. Everyone else on the balcony with us were Uighur men in their caps, sipping tea, watching the progress of life on the streets below and putting the world right in their drawn out discussions. Loved it!

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Delicate, sweet saffron tea – good to the last drop

Photo impressions from Kashgar

Dried peppers for sale

Garlic!

Street-side barber. Love the tan line! 🙂

No idea what this guys is selling, in fact I’m not sure I want to know…

Outdoor bakery. The traditional breads are cooked in an oven that is not too different from a tandoor.

Kashgar’s livestock market

Squeezing in one more post before we leave the laptop behind and head off to hike Tiger Leaping Gorge. Fingers crossed that we’ll have good weather! 🙂

Kashgar’s weekly livestock market is simply tremendous; it was definitely worth the well-before-the-crack-of-dawn departure from Tashkurgan in order to make it back in time for the main action.

More about Kashgar to come after we’ve visited the Gorge, but in the mean time here are some photo impressions from the market.

The outdoor market takes place every Sunday, where farmers and other locals gather from around the area to buy and sell thousands of animals.

There are different sections for sheep, goats, cows and horses.

Sheep branded with paint

Watching the action in the cow section. (It was a rainy morning so many men had plastic over their traditional caps to keep them dry.)

It’s a deal! Lots of haggling with lots of body language. 🙂

Polka dots. Two women watch from above the crowds.

A reluctant purchase. A husband and wife try to convince their newly purchased sheep to move.

Food stalls lined the edge of the market.

As well as butcher’s stands.

Gone to see a man about a horse…

Shearing sheep

Shoeing donkeys

Silk Road Tour day two: Part two

We arrived, after our adventures, in time for a late lunch in Tashkurgan.

It was surreal coming across a proper town after all that wild, wide-open nature. Paved, tree-lined roads, street lamps, shops, infrastructure, even a museum, scraped together and placed on this rugged landscape.

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Traffic circle in Tashkurgan. The eagle is apparently a symbol of the Tajik people.

We had less than 24 hours to spend here. After checking in at the hotel, Yusef took us to see the Stone City, a small but beautiful ruin that looks over pasture lands and the ring of mountain ranges that circle Tashkurgan’s horizons. From Lonely Planet: “(it) has a murky past but is believed to be a 1400-year-old fort built by a Tajik king.. (and) was one of the filming locations for the movie Kite Runner.”

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View of the fort from below

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And a view from atop the fort

After wandering around the quiet, golden rocks, we headed down to the pasture, where a windy boardwalk had apparently recently been constructed by the Chinese government for the benefit of tourists. The local kids seemed to enjoy the extra space to play and it didn’t appear to hamper the movement of the animals across the grazing area, but it did look and feel pretty out of place.

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The brand new boardwalk and stage…

The rest of the afternoon was spent with relaxed exploration through the town. We were leaving before dawn the next morning in order to make it back to Kashgar for the Sunday livestock market, so it was an early night for the four of us!

A few more photos from our wander through Tashkurgan

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Walking the cow home

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Local kids

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Ladies’ hats at a shop selling traditional clothing

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We’d seen loads of bikes in Xinjiang with the “rug” style seat cover, but furs as an accessory was a new one!

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Rakes for sale

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Lovely flowers along street

Musical side note

One feature of our road trip with Yusef and Driver was the music. Most of the time they were playing local popular music in the car and I loved it. I’ve been looking online to see if I could find anything like it and I wasn’t having any luck until I came across this:

http://compound-eye.org/rogc/xinjiang/xj-music-pro/comps/mffts-vol1/

It’s a free, downloadable compilation of Uighur pop hits! Click and have a listen!  🙂

Apparently this person made it a project to document sights and sounds from Xinjiang while living there. To quote the website: “My hope is that at least some of the elements in this section – what I like to think of as ‘artifacts’ will have some worldly value for a region, people and tradition that I myself can see changing by the day…and In many respects, simply slipping into history.”

More info, sound bites and photos can be found from the main page: http://compound-eye.org/rogc/xinjiang/