Page last updated at 23:33 GMT, Saturday, 2 August 2008 00:33 UK

Freedom to travel in China

By Hugh Sykes
BBC News, China

As international journalists jet in to Beijing for the start of the Olympic Games, Hugh Sykes takes a rather slower route on the overnight train from the west of China.

The Olympic torch travels through Urumqi
The Beijing Olympics begin on 8 August

"What time is it?"

"Twelve o'clock."

"Beijing time or Xinjiang time?"

You hear that a lot in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in the far west of China, near Pakistan and Afghanistan and Kazakhstan.

A long way west, in other words, but officially, it is the same time zone as Beijing in the far east, near North Korea.

Imagine the US having the same time zone right across the country, from Miami to Los Angeles.

But in hotels and offices in Xinjiang there are sometimes two clocks, because Xinjiang does have its own unofficial time zone, two hours behind Beijing.

This makes sense, it means it gets dark at 2030 not 2230 at this time of year, and light at 0600 not 0800.

But it is confusing.

"What time is the flight to Urumqi?"

"One o'clock."

Hugh Sykes' view from the streets of Urumqi

"Beijing time or Xinjiang time?"

"Beijing time, of course. Planes and trains stick to Beijing time but buses run on Xinjiang time."

"What time do you start school in the morning?

"Eight o'clock."

"Beijing time or Xinjiang time?"

"That depends. If it is a Han Chinese school, it is 0800 Beijing time. If it is a Uighur school, it is 0800 Xinjiang time, which is two hours later. And if it is a mixed school, they stick to Beijing time."


This was all related to me with much grinning and laughter as I set off to explore the Old Town in Kashgar on the ancient Silk Road.

Fruit sellers in Kashgar
The real China is infinitely varied and complex

There are mosques and traditional tea houses and narrow lanes and old brick homes with blue tile work and elegant wooden balconies, and more melon sellers than I have seen anywhere.

One street is full of shops selling musical instruments, mostly the two-stringed dotar, which is like a lute but with a much longer neck.

In one shop, Mohammed Imin, a man in his 30s with a genial, round face, sat and played a dotar for me, rapidly plucking the two strings with his right hand while his left flew up and down the neck using the 16 frets to generate complex chords and a tune to go with a love song.

The Uighur language is Turkic and some of the words are the same as in modern Turkish: One, two, three, four, five, for instance, is bir, iki, uech, dort, besh, in both languages.

Hello is yakshimesiz. Thank you is rakhmat.

And a foreigner simply learning those words and using them in shops, tea houses or in the street has a magical effect. Stony faces break into glorious smiles and children giggle, in a place which is already full of warmth and kindness.

Travelling 'hard class'

I was free to roam Kashgar unescorted. Also free to decide when and how to leave.

I left for Urumqi by air, and then on by train - "hard class".

Sunday Bazaar
Locals love it if foreigners try out the language

It is not hard at all. There are six bunks per cubicle instead of four in "soft", but you still get pillows and an immaculately clean white duvet.

The other difference is that there are no doors from the compartments to the corridor in hard class. So no privacy but much more fun. People talk to each other, share food, wander up and down, play cards.

Miao Miao started talking to me the moment I heaved my bags on to the top bunk of my compartment. A lovely face under rich, dark hair popped out from the middle bunk next door and said hello in English. She is a 19-year-old music student.

Our journey took 21 hours from Urumqi, near the Kazakhstan border, to Lanzhou which is the geographical dead-centre of China.

Most of the trip was taken up crossing the forbidding wastes of the western section of the Gobi Desert.

And as a deep orange sunset darkened into night, Miao Miao entertained the carriage with songs. She sang an aria from Mozart's Marriage Of Figaro, in Italian.

Twenty, 30 faces leaned out of their bunks and watched and listened. And everybody clapped.

And then she chose a traditional Chinese song, Jasmine Flower. And along the corridor on either side, as Miao Miao sang, others gently joined in.


China promised journalists freedom to travel the country during the Olympic period and to interview anybody they liked, so long as they agreed to be interviewed.

Not a very taxing condition, and I have experienced and enjoyed that freedom to travel and report.

Yes, a few websites are blocked in the Olympic press centre but that will not stop anyone reporting the Olympic sporting events.

And real China is not in the press centre.

The real China is infinitely varied and complex. And full of love and happiness, and generosity and tolerance, and strong family values, and moderate prosperity and astonishing economic progress, as well as human rights abuses.

Map of China

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 2 August, 2008 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

In pictures: Life in Urumqi
16 Jun 08 |  In Pictures
Torch passed to Silk Road oasis
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