Friday, December 18, 2009

Ryan Pyle Blog: The Unpredictable Xinjiang Winter


A few weeks back I was heading to Kashgar for a very special event in the Muslim religious calendar. It was a moment that I felt would compliment my continued documentation of Chinese Turkistan, or the region of Xinjiang, China.

So I planned my trip and decided that even though the festival lasted only one day, I would arrive about 3 days early and shoot the build up and stay a day or two afterwards to continue documenting the rebuilding of Kashgar’s old town, a topic which I’ve blogged about several times.

Everything started off well enough. I packed my bags, organized all my black and white Kodak TriX film and arrived at the airport on time, so far so good. The flight from Shanghai to Urumqi left on time and the first five hours of the trip went swimmingly. At just around the time we were supposed to descend to the Urumqi airport a stewardess approached me and said that the Urumqi airport was covered in heavy fog and that our flight would landing in Korle, an oil town about 700 km to the south. An interesting detour, but safety first.

Upon landing in Korle the flight attendants couldn’t really tell us if we were going to get off the plane or stay on the plane. The natives were getting restless. When we finally got off the plane we were ushered in to the main terminal building, which was a vast glass, and steel structure that personifies Chinese development in Xinjiang province. The terminal building was attractive, and seemingly well built; and it stood out like a sore thumb amongst the farming fields surrounding the air stripe. Much to my surprise the military was sharing the airport and continued with their regular flights even though their terminal building was filled with around 800 people, as other flights from various parts of China were now stranded in Korle as well. So as military jets screamed off in the background, angered Chinese and Uygurs peppered questions to ground staff about when we would be departing for Urumqi and what the weather condidtions were at the Urumqi airport. The ground staff had little information to convey but were quick to provide instant noodles and bottles of water as the dry winter air had us all feeling a bit parched.

As the hours wore on I had finished my book “Mr. China” by Tim Clissold and my Economist magazine. With all of Xinjiang still cut off from the outside world because of international phone call bans and no Internet access, my options for entertainment were getting bleaker by the moment. I had another book in my check-in luggage but it didn’t seem like I was going to get a hold of that anytime soon. And so I sat.

After sitting on the ground in an airport terminal on the edge of the vast Taklamakan Desert for about six hours the passengers were all told that our flight was officially cancelled. We would have to spend the night in Korle. My trip was becoming in jeopardy. I didn’t know what was going to happen. We were shipped out by bus to a local hotel in the city of Korle were we spent the night on the airlines dime. We were told to be ready to go back to the airport at 1130am the next morning. Why so late I asked one of the airport staff? If I could leave at 7am I would much prefer getting out earlier, as I could still make it to Kashgar and have an afternoon worth of work. But the reason was so that they could maintain their same landing slot from the previous day, fair enough. I asked the same woman again if this happened often. She replied in the winter it happens several times a month.

The essential problem is that Urumqi is basically a horrible place to have an airport. Mountains to the south and west cause a buildup of fog and cloud that surrounds the harsh provincial capital. The geographic conditions cause incredible wind speeds in the summer and often-intense fog and cloud in the dark and depressing winter. This wasn’t entirely a surprise to me. I’d been to Xinjiang in the winter before and noticed the fog and the harsh weather conditions, but it had never impeded travel before; I was less lucky this time. I was mid-way through a bit of a nightmare journey.

So after a night in Korle’s finest 1-star hotel we all loaded back up on the airport bus and headed back to the airport where we sat for another three hours. Then finally there was action and movement. We boarded our plane and headed for Urumqi. We were all saved. I’d make it Kashgar only one day late and still get a chance to shoot. But things got significantly stickier upon landing in Urumqi.

The flight from Korle to Urumqi is one of my all time favorite flights in China as the one-hour flight takes you straight over a fairly meaty section of the Tian Shan mountain range. Glued to the window for the entire flight I was memorized, as I often am, by the jagged peaks and harsh landscapes. In 2001 I had traveled by bus from Urumqi to Korle on the old mountain road that was cut straight through the Tian Shan range. As we winded our way to Korle on that fourteen-hour journey the stunning landscape and the un-believable amount of switchbacks along the route enchanted me; it was truly one of China’s great road journeys. I promised myself if I ever owned a motorcycle I would revisit that route. Nowadays the government has since built a suave new four-lane expressway that goes around the mountains and south to Korle cutting the travel time to about 7-8hrs. Sadly the mountain road is rarely used anymore.

After a dangerously bumpy landing in Urumqi, the fog was no joke; I collected my checked baggage and ran upstairs to check on my flight to Kashgar. The woman at the China Southern desk looked at my hopelessly. My flight was delayed but more importantly that there were about 8 planes worth of people that needed to get to Kashgar before me. So even if the weather were perfectly clear, I wouldn’t get a chance to fly until the following day. But the weather was horrible and after my flight landed from Korle they cancelled the rest of the flights for the day. Fuck!

The Urumqi airport was a complete mess. At the entrance to the airport and the surrounding check in areas there were people sitting, sleeping and camping out. Instant noodle containers were adrift everywhere. I was in the middle of what was a sea of stranded people. I couldn’t manage to stay there much longer and needed some space to think. I hailed a cab and headed in to town where I knew some people who might be able to help. Not knowing how long the fog would last I talked to a train ticket agent I knew from a previous trip. I asked if he had a and sleeper births available to Kashgar, he laughed so hard on his end of the phone I had to pull the phone away from my hear in much the same way you do when you accidentally dial someone’s fax number. Clearly the 24hr train journey from Urumqi to Kashgar wouldn’t be an option, tickets had disappeared. My next call was to a driver that I’d used a few times in the past, was he available and how long was the drive to Kashgar? He turned out to be in Korle, a few Chinese oil men had hired him to drive them from Urumqi to Korle the day before and he wouldn’t be back until tomorrow, and he said the drive to Kashgar in this weather would take about 18-20 hours. Fuck! Fuck!

So I checked in to a hotel in Urumqi and found a bit to eat. By this time my nerves were shattered. I’d been traveling for two days straight. I hadn’t eaten well and it was looking more and more like I wasn’t going to make it to Kashgar. My mood was bitter. With no Internet in the region I was bored out of my skull. I tried to write but my mind was too frayed. I tried to read but I couldn’t focus. Instead I watched six straight hours of Entourage, the entire season 6, that I had on disk with me. A savior. It was exactly what I needed, a few cheap laughs and a good nights rest.

I was up at 630am the next morning. I had rebooked a flight that was supposed to be leaving at 9am and I called the airport and they told me that flights were leaving, but not on time. Okay, we had small progress. After a breakfast of Congee and fried bread sticks I was back at the airport. It was clear after passing through the airport doors at 730am that several hundred people had spent the night there on the floor. People were still passed out all over the cheap marble floor and the chaos from the previous day had seemed to intensify. Now there were flights leaving but who would be allowed to go first, the masses made their claims via several shooting matches. Made me thank god I wasn’t an airline staffer, I’d have lost my nerve and slapped someone.

Since I had canceled my flight from the previous day I was able to re-book and check in rather smoothly. My flight was delayed 4 hours but flights were leaving. It appeared that all I required was a bit of patience. And my patience paid off. Sure enough my flight left 4 hours late and I was in the air, bound for Kashgar. A small dose of victory in an ocean of chaos, but I had lost 48 hours of shooting time.

My fixer picked me up at the airport and got me over to my hotel. Within 10 minutes of checking in I was out in the town shooting. I needed to make up for lost time. It was the day before the big festival and everyone was selling sheep, which would be slaughtered the following day, in the streets. The scenes were fantastic. It was as though the famous Sunday animal market had moved right in to the city center. Tradesmen who bargain for a living pushed each other back and forth, shaking of the hands seals the deal. I managed to get close to several sheep sellers and watch them ply their trade; echoing mannerisms and skill of their forefathers, the generations of Silk Road traders and herdsmen who had come before. The atmosphere was electric.

My first half-day on the ground was positive. The TriX was moving fast and furious and that night I was giddy with anticipation of what might transpire the following day for the festival. My first good nights sleep in days yielded some quality rest. The next day would be long and intense.

Being up and out of the hotel before 930am, before the sun had risen, was not too big a problem, less the bitter cold. It was winter and while Kashgar is an oasis and at a lower altitude than Urumqi, it was still chilly; and the smell of burnt coal hung in the air from a night of staying warm in the mud brick homes of the old town and the surrounding farming communities. But fighting the bitter cold would be well worth it. For at 930am the action started has hundreds of people began filling in to the Id Kah Square, in front of the main mosque, for Morning Prayer. The scene was set alight by a rising sun from 10am to 1030am. Needless to say it was a Kodak moment.
Following Morning Prayer I headed in to the old town to watch the traditional process of slaughtering sheep in the small laneways of the old town, a majestic scene by any account. The rest of the day was followed by bouncing back and forth between the old town for the slaughtering of the sheep and the Id Kah Square for traditional music and singing and dancing. The morning cold had passed giving way to clear blue skies and a glaring sun that left this photographer fairy sunburned. Day two and day three were much the same as the festival tapered off and I focused back on speaking with old town residents and shooting portraits and architecture.

And in the blink of an eye I was back in Urumqi, fogged in waiting for my flight to Shanghai. I’d eaten something funky during the festival and was feeling most uncomfortable. My flight was delayed and I had come full circle. My six-day trip, only three days of shooing, and three days of being stranded and traveling, had taken their toll. I curled up on a few seats at the Urumqi Airport trying not to wretch.

Some trips take more out of you than others. After being stranded, delayed, knee deep in sheep blood and then delayed again I was a broken man. The food poisonings was a bonus. When I finally strolled in to my home in Shanghai at 2am my wife looked at me with the classic “WTF look”. Is it worth all this trouble she asks? Absolutely, I just prayed my pictures did the festival justice. But that wasn’t the right time for professional reflection; it was the moment for stomach medicine and a good 16 hours in bed. I would live to fight another day; hell, I was leaving for Lhasa in just five days. I needed to sort this out in a hurry. The journey continues.

Ryan Pyle


  1. Wow what flight story!! Now am really looking forward to seeing the developed TriX photos, even more. Let us know when they are posted.

    PS All the best for 2010.

  2. Greetings,

    I've just run on to your web site and have enjoyed reading about your exciting career as a photographer and journalist. I still enjoy film and it is such a nice surprise to know someone still appreciates its many attributes. I'm also an old Canon user and in fact purchased a 1V last spring. Wonderful cameras certainly the last of an era of great innovations.

    Thanks for your time and the opportunity to talk to you on your blog.



This is Ryan Pyle. I appreciate you adding a comment to my blog and I hope that this space has offered you something useful and interesting. I look forward to staying in touch and I'm glad you took the time to comment.

Ryan Pyle