My trip to Xinjiang China
April 28, 2013
My Company was invited to the city of Karamay in Xinjiang China to demonstrate our robots at a Science Festival. Xinjiang is in the North West corner of China and borders a number of other countries. We had a 5 hour flight from Guangzhou (formerly Cantong) to Urmaqi and then another 1 hour flight to Karamay Where we were met by a lovely lady who's English name was Jenny.
The first thing I noticed that reminded me I was in a different part of the world was the fact that all the signs were in Chinese and Arabic. In Zhongshan the signs are usually in Chinese and English or just Chinese.
On the drive from the local airport to the hotel, because the area is very flat and virtually desert, the roads were like highways but you could only travel at 60Km/h. Where the roads crossed, instead of overpasses or traffic lights they simply had speed bumps before the intersection. It was a bit surreal in some places. Driving through the middle of nowhere on a highway with a slow speed limit and speedbumps.
As we arrived quite late in the afternoon, Jenny gave us a quick tour of the exhibition hall and then taken to the hotel. We had dinner with some of our host and then I had to re-assemble E-Bot for the show. I never had time to finish E-Bot properly but I managed to get it working quite well in both autonomous and RC modes.
At this point I discovered I had forgotten to pack the USB cable used to program the robots and all the shops had closed. Fortunately Jenny came to the rescue and gave us a USB cable from her home.
The local science center was still under construction.
So the festival was held in the local exhibition hall. There was a surprising amount of security and everything had to go through scanners.
The Science Festival seemed to have 3 main sections.
- Robot competitions amonst the local schools.
- Science exibition where there were many displays explaining basic scientific principals.
- Displays from companies producing scientific educational products for kids.
The 1st video shows the robot competition area. At the time they were all tweaking their code and testing their bots in preparation for competition the next day.
The 2nd video shows you many of the robots built by local school children. Most of the robots are built with a Chinese clone of Lego. Unfortunately I missed out on the competitions as I had to maintain our display robots.
The 3rd, 4th and 5th videos shows some of the science displays. By the time I got to them some were no longer working after having hundreds of kids pressing their buttons and twirling their knobs.
The 6th video is from the company display area. At this point, E-Bot had retired after chasing kids around the display area all day. For the most part we left him in autonomous mode. When the kids got to far away he would reach out his arms to them and chase after them. When they got too close he tucked his arms in at his sides and back away. If he wandered too far or the kids had him cornered then we would put him RC mode and steer him back to safety.
Doodle Bot had flat batteries and the Puppy robot had a broken hip servo.
That night we had dinner with all our new friends and some local government officials. The food was great and as there are many Muslims in Xinjiang the main meat was lamb rather than pork.
We made the local papers! We had the Mayor of the city and other government officials watching Doodle Bot write messages in Chinese. If you can read Chinese then click on the photo for a higher resolution image.
The Next day we had a quick tour of the local oil fields and the local landscape which has been shaped by sandstorms over thousands of years. Unfortunately it started raining and continued to rain until our last day. The tour started with the oil fields, the air smelled faintly of rain and diesel.
The land scape was completely barren except for power lines in many places.
In other areas the power lines were surrounded by oil pumps and pipelines. As the temperature can vary greatly here from below freezing to 40°C all the pipe lines had "U" shaped bends every couple of hundred meters to allow for expansion and contraction due to temperature change.
Slowly the landscape changed and we could see hills carved away by thousands of years of wind and sand.
It was interesting to see so much colour in the hills. This was not a quarry, this was done by nature.
The tour took us through these hills.
But unfortunately because of the rain we did not get to ride around in these.
Although XinJiang is currently a Chinese province it has been controlled by other countries in the past and many people in this part of the world live a nomadic lifestyle. Our next stop gave us a peek into the life of these people. I could not understand what was being said on the tour but it was interesting to see the yurts and we got to have a quick lunch and milk tea in one.
Our tour finished with some traditional folksong played on a Dutar This is a traditional Chinese 2 string lute. I think there was also supposed to have been some dancing but it was cancelled due to the rain. The fifth video is one of the songs they played.
The next day we went to what I am told is a famous mountain where men went to learn martial arts. Unfortunately once again we had bad weather that ruined the tour. Most of these photos were actually taken at the end of the tour as we headed back to the bus. When we arrived the mist was so thick we could not see the mountains.
There was supposed to be a boat tour but it had also been cancelled due to the thick mist. You can see the boat docked in this photo.
It was amazing how much the temperature dropped here. When I left the hotel to start the tour it was warm enough for T-shirt and shorts. Even though this mountain was not particularly high the temperature was cold enough that there was still snow along the path. This was not good for me as I was only wearing a light jumper and it was wet from the rain. By the end of the day I had the first signs of a cold.
As I mentioned in the beginning, one thing that told me I was in a new part of the world was that all the signs were in Arabic as well as Chinese. This bus on the mountain tour was one of the few times I saw writing in English as well.
There was an interesting looking place on the way down the mountain but the bus did not stop. Presumably they were also closed because of the weather.
As the weather had been bad we decided to make the last day a shopping day rather than risk any more dissapointment due to the weather. As I was now quite sick I spent most of the day sleeping or watching movies while Jack went shopping.
Naturally, now that we had given up on the tours and I was sick the weather decided to clear up and it was a nice day. This was the view from my hotel room. Note we are now in Urmuqi, not Karamay.
That evening I joined Jack to do a little shopping because I wanted to buy some souvenirs for my wife and son. This region produces a lot of dried fruit and flowers used for tea. The quality and size of the fruit was much better than in Zhongshan and the price was much cheaper.
Buying a souvenir for Li Si was easy as there were lots of stalls with local items of clothing for women but it was a little harder to find something for my son Shi Sen. Finally I found this guy making bikes and other figurines from wire with some long nose pliers and side cutters.
There was a great restaurant in the Hotel but we wanted to try and find some local food. We went to one restaurant and while we were looking at the menu one of the customers started playing music on his Dutar as you can see in the last video. Unfortunately they boiled the meat and we wanted roast lamb or BBQ.
I must admit, their street side BBQ was impresive. They are big and and nicely decorated. We ended up eating BBQ lamb kebabs in a Muslim restaurant.
Finally it was time to go home and we arrived back at the Urmaqi Airport. While we were sitting at the airport I looked out the window and wondered "Is there life on other planets?"
Oh well, time to go home. A least it is good weather to fly home in.
So if you ever get the chance, Xinjiang is definitely an interesting place to vist and April / May is a good time to visit with the temperature being just right for sight seeing (if it's not raining).