Taipei – Beijing (A333 - Air China) The Great Wall from the sky in French here in English there Beijing – Urumqi (B752 - China Southern) Beijing by night in French here in English there Urumqi – Kashgar (E190 - China Southern) Invalid boarding pass in French there YOU ARE HERE Hotan – Urumqi (B738 - Air China) Crossing the Taklamakan in French here in English there Urumqi – Dunhuang (E190 - China Southern) Winglet story in the desert in French ) here in English there Dunhuang – Urumqi (E190 - China Southern) Two days after the storm in French there in English there Urumqi – Shanghai (A320 - Juneyao Airlines) Single aisle across China in French here in English there Shanghai – Taipei (A343 - Air China) 675 km in a 343 in French there in English there
Three days before the flight, I received this e-mail:
Dear MARATHON FRANCOIS
Your flight has been changed. Your new flight, Wulumuqi (Terminal 3 of Urumqi International Airport) to Kashi, flight CZ6811, departs at 19:25, and arrives at 20:55, May 27. Please arrive 1.5 hours prior to departure for check in.
Departure a quarter of an hour later, and arrival only five minutes later. On the other hand, arrive at the airport and hour and a half before the flight seemed somewhat excessive (check-in of Chinese domestic flights usually closes at ETD-30' or 40'), but it was to be a very wise piece of advice. (Note by the way the Chinese transcription of Urumqi and Kashgar, which are Uighur names).
Departure by taxi to Urumqi international airport, indicated by this bilingual Uyghur – Chinese sign.
We leave the expressway
And reach the airport, as a CZ 737 takes off.
URC is a hub of CZ, which is the exclusive user of Terminal 3. All the other airlines use Terminals 1 and 2, here in the distance.
This is Terminal 3, devoted to CZ:
A radar with a mountain backdrop in front of T3
Lower, the T3 VIP access. No, I had no access to it, and I wished that time that I had.
Entry in the terminal, with a security check and explosive detection with a cotton swab, which is also done in SHA.
There are self service check-in automata, but they can only read Chinese ID cards.
Checking in is no problem, but my wife's suitcase is deemed too big and must be brought to the oversize luggage counter. Ok, it is big, but it is the very first time that it is rated as oversize after countless airports worldwide.
A view from landside: not very interesting because the lighting is wrong and the aircraft are solely CZ.
The landside toilets are clean, and being cleaned, while the water tank of a cleaning machine is being refilled.
Boarding pass check, and there trouble arises. My wife goes through without any problem, but my passport and boarding pass are rejected. I am actually not the only one. I admit that I did not quite understand what the policewoman told me, and I wasted time, until I asked a CZ staff at the CZ Elite check in counter, to whom I explain as I could the problem, in Mandarin since of course nobody speaks English anywhere in URC. This is obviously new to her; she will go through the entire terminal with me and back on her high heels, asking at three different police counters, until one of them scanned my passport and boarding pass and told me that it should be OK.
Yes, the boarding pass is indeed scanned OK, but the security check is serious business in Xinjiang where there has been murderous riots in July 2009, and episodic terrorists attacks. Remove my shoes, remove the laptop from its case, my belt. Then they keep looking for a lighter in my belt pouch that only exists in their X-rays' imagination. Meanwhile, the clock ticks mercilessly, and my wife who speaks no Chinese and does not have a cell phone worries, then triggers her red alert alarm and is shifting to panic mode when I arrive at last at gate 33, as the last passengers board and the airport staff asks her in survival English : Now then, are you boarding or not?.
In such circumstances, I only have a single picture of Urumqi's airside zone, snapped while walking at a brisk pace.
Sure, I could have taken this E-190 from the other side. If I had had time…
But the essential is that we are together in this E-190, whose door is locked just behind us
The safety card is an unusual trilingual Uyghur – Chinese – English model
The cabin has two rows in J in 1+2 layout, and the rest is in 2+2.
Pushback, and off we are for a comprehensive taxiing visit of URC
..guided by a a Follow me car
Only CZ aircraft at Terminal 3, as you should have understood by now
Terminal 3 is U-shaped: this is the airside bottom of the U
In the background, a China United Airlines 737, an airline which gave me an memorable experience. If you missed it, refer to my FR CTU-NAY.
A number of CZ E-190 are parked here.
Several small Tianjin Airlines aircraft, with two different tail decorations (I am not taking risk on the actual types :)
An aircraft of Sprint Airlines, a low cost airline based in Shanghai.
A lost A320 MU
The CZ maintenance hall, at the far end of the airport
Last, an aircraft to be identified by the plane spotting professionals
It is the fire department training model (that is what is written on it). I suppose they want to be ready to fight an Airbus 380 tail fire, from the size of this one.
Take-off: there is nothing very interesting in the plain on the north side
But we'll quickly fly above the high mountains bordering the Taklamakan desert.
Snow covered mountains are a sure sell on FR.
The flight attendants pass for drinks (always the same choice); my wife asks for and receives two. This is the add on the side of the trolley (they was the same on the PEK-URC flight).
Then, distribution of this sandwich containing a half sausage (sliced in two lengthwise), rather sweet. I assumed it did not contain pork, but I saw nothing on that.
One more pass for drinks. The coffee is with milk and is too diluted, but not downright bad.
We then fly above the north-west of the Taklamakan, one of the most hostile deserts of China, as large as two thirds of France. The trail that we see here is the only human trace seen during an hour of flight: Xinjiang has only two million inhabitants on the surface three times larger than France, mostly desert.
There is a winglet on the left side too.
A flight attendant came to us to inform the two foreigners on board that the temperature at KHG was 18°C, and that landing was expected at 21:05. This special attention to these to FB Elite travelers is all the more notable that she shortly afterwards made the standard descent announcement in Mandarin and in English, including these two pieces of information.
Going through the clouds during the descent.
The Taklamakan desert is completely surrounded with high mountains, which explains the presence of vegetation at the periphery, and even of dams for irrigation purposes, like this one.
The mountains themselves are very dry: the water rushes down at each storm, digging the slopes.
Landing on time in Kashgar
The windows of the corridor were completely covered with sand blown by the last storm; this is the picture of another E-190 from the only place where I could take a decent picture.
There is only one luggage delivery chute here, and few pieces of luggage, considering the number of passengers waiting for them. KHG may be officially an international airport, there are presently only flights to and from URC.
Exit of the airport
We have landed in Kashgar, the Chinese airport which is furthest west, furthest from Bejing which is 3,400 km away, furthest from Taipei which is 4,500 km away. For my wife, a hypothetical CDG-KHG flight would have been half the distance of her CDG-PEK-URC-KHG routing. Kashgar is not really China: all faces have a distinct Central Asian look, and you seldom hear Mandarin Chinese, even if all can understand it. Would this picture taken in the center of Kashgar evoke China to you?
Kirghizistan and Tadjikistan are 100 km away, Pakistan 300 km away, and the Pamir finger, this long and narrow band of Afghan territory meant to cut the route of Russia to the south at the time of the Big Game, is 200 km away.
The vicinity of these countries of dubious stability is not the cause of the reinforced surveillance here, it is the restlessness of the Uyghur population in Xinjiang itself. It is not a severe as in Tibet, which is under a military occupation regime that few foreigners realize, but it is difficult two spend more than a couple hours in Kashgar without coming in the way of one of these heavily equipped patrols. You understand the situation when you come across half a dozen of these guys with assault rifles in the lobby of your hotel or at breakfast.
Apart from the military, the faces are Central Asian, but the Islamic veil is everywhere for women. A long scarf, rather, as part of the uniform of the staff of this small supermarket:
But a non negligible proportion of female faces are invisible, because there are behind veils whicha re as rigorous (albeit different in style) as that of nearby Afghanistan.
On the other hand, in Tashkurgan, the last small Chinese town on the Karakorum Highway, the population is entirely Tadjik, and the clothes are completely different from those of the Uighurs.
The women wear an elegant embroidered cap, sometimes with a super-thin veil; men and women salute each other by kissing the inside of their hand. I chose not to mask this woman's face.
Our goal was precisely the Karakoram Highway, a mythical segment of the Silk Road linking China to Pakistan.
1,838 km away from Urumqi, … and 44 km from Pakistan
The Karakoram Highway is vertiginous on the Pakistani side, but the Pamir Mountains are no less spectacular on the Chinese side.
Khunjerab Pass, one of the highest paved border post in the world at nearly 4,700m elevation is two kilometers from here in the center of the picture, taken from the last point in China that you can reach today without a Pakistani visa.
Ürümqi - URC
Kashgar - KHG
I reduced the punctuality rating slightly due to the minor schedule change. Whether the airline is Chinese or Taiwanese changes nothing to the comfort of 2+2 seating in the E-190, which is much better than that of any bigger single aisle jet. I gave bonus points for the staff at the airport who did her best to get me out a tricky situation, and for the personalized information on board the aircraft. On the other hand, the meal was substandard, by Chinese domestic flight standards. OK, I did catch my plane, but this invalid BP raised my stress to high levels, and that of my wife to an all-time high, so I slashed URC's security/immigration rating.
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