Thursday, December 4, 2008

Silk Road - Day 8 - Ming Sha Sand Dunes, Crescent Moon Lake

Day 8

In the very early hours of Day 8 (we’re talking 06:30 in the a.m.), we were rolling gently on a camel headed towards the Ming Sha Sand Dunes. And you’d have thought we were in Egypt with all the desert sand around.

The sand is very smooth and fine, lovely to play with. Might have been fun to roll around in it, but definitely not a good idea. It sticks like snow, but doesn’t melt! We had to wear these orange shoes protective sacks to keep the sand out.

We were on our way to catch the sunrise, which would be gorgeous against the undulating sand dunes. First the camel ride, then a trek up a vertical 150m slope, then hopefully, sunrise!

To Time Zone or No

Ah, isn’t that a little late, you may ask. Well, let’s talk a little about China time zones. Namely, there isn’t any.

Yup, China may span 5000km from East to West, but there’s only uno time zone: the Beijing Time Zone. So what if it means getting up in the pitch dark and going to bed in the light when you’re out West? There are no confusing ‘what time is it now?’ questions, no fiddling with watches, no messing about with who gets New Year first. It’s all the same, UNIFIED.

Even so, I think they should have different time zones. It’s kinda hard on the body waking up in the dark and going to sleep with the sun still shining. But that’s just me.

China did have time zones in the past, see below from Wikipedia:
In 1912, the Central Observatory of the Republic of China in Peking (now romanised as Beijing) divided the country into five time zones, namely Kunlun Time Zone (GMT+5.5), Sinkiang-Tibet Time Zone (GMT+6), Kansu-Szechuan Time Zone (GMT+7), Chungyuan Standard Time Zone (GMT+8), and Changpai Time Zone (GMT+8.5). These time zones were ratified in 1939 in the standard time conference of the Ministry of Interior of the Executive Yuan.

These time zones were no longer in effective use after 1949, when the PRC was established on mainland China, as the new government had its own policies regarding the time zones on mainland China.

Camel Riding

One of the great things about this trip (which definitely had its ups and downs moments), is getting to ride various beasties of burden. Tried horses the other day (verdict: bumpy!). And now, hopping on a camel.

Well, you don’t hop. The camel obligingly kneels down and you climb up onto a well padded seat between the humps. The ride is quite comfortable, a gentle rolling motion in slow speed. And we didn’t get to do any gamboling since we were tethered 5 to a team. The only jolts were when the camel stands up and kneels down with you on the back. It’s like going down a waterfall and hitting rocks on the way, kinda rattles the teeth.

Otherwise, camels are the RIDE. Very comfy indeed. I now understand why silk traders of yore used camels instead of horses. Of course, they didn’t actually ride the camels, thems are mullah earning animals baby. The traders can walk, thank you very much.

I wonder, is it the bigger the animal, the comfier the ride? Would elephants beat camels in my estimation of comfiest beasty of burden? Will have to go Thailand next and get proof!

Ming Sha Sand Dunes

Here’s a little intro of the sand dunes, courtesy of chinahighlights:
Dunhuang has a spectacular natural scene: Mingsha (Sighing/Echoing) Sand Dune. The dune, a sand crusted hill of dozens of meters high, is 40km east to west, and 20km south to north. In fine days, sand roars like thunder which can be heard in the city, hence the name. when visitors climb up to the dunes and slide downward from the summit, the sand can collapse with them and give out a pearl of loud sound.

How the Mingsha Sand Dunes were formed and what has brought about the phenomenon singing sand? So far, no body has provided a satisfactory answer. According to some Japanese experts, there are probably ancient palaces under the duns while the Russians deem that quartz content in the sand is the main reason. Chinese scientists have carried out the study on the cause of the singing of sand for years and they believe that it is a phenomenon of resonance.

What can I say, it’s beautiful; no, it’s utterly gorgeous. Definitely the highlight of this trip.

And K told me why we had to go there at the ungodly dawn hours. It’s all about shadows baby. See those lines on the edges of the dunes, they’d look flat and uninteresting without the slanted light of dawn or sunset. With shadows however, the sand dunes were accentuated into beautiful lines and curves.

Ooohhhh… I see. Sometimes it’s a real hoot being married to a photographer, you never know what you’re gonna learn.

Hey, we walked up there

We huffed and we puffed up the sand dune. I mean, I’ve done some hill-top trekking, I’ve walked up 1000m slopes. But this 150m one was tough! Maybe we’d been eating too well in the trip. And it was so early in the morning. And, the sand! It sucks you down and makes you lose 1 step for every 2 you take. Phew.

But the view, well, it was worth it.

Crescent Moon Lake or Crescent Spring

Once we caught our breaths back, we could take a good look at the Crescent Moon Lake down below. Here’s an intro, courtesy of travelchinaguide:

Just as oil and water don't mix, so do springs and deserts. But Crescent Spring is an exception. About 6 kilometers (3.73 miles) south of Dunhuang city, and surrounded by the Echoing-Sand Mountain, Crescent Spring can be called a natural wonder in the Gobi Desert. Some say it reminds them of the eye of a beautiful woman, lucid, beautiful and amorous. Some say it looks like the mysterious, gentle and seductive lips of a pretty woman, or a slice of lush, sweet and crystal cantaloupe. Actually, it resembles a crescent fallen down into this desert. Having been lying among these sand dunes for thousands of years, although given many surprise attacks by sandstorms, Crescent Spring still gurgles clear, and still remains worthy as the first spring in the desert.

Mysterious, gentle and seductive lips of a pretty woman? Er, no, it didn’t look like that. The lake/spring has sorta extended its boundaries, and now looks more like an… extended thumb. It’s beautifully clear though, reflects the sky and clouds like a mirror.

Next: Hami, Xinjiang and Balikun Grassland

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Silk Road Day 7 – Mogao Caves, Dunhuang Night Market, Acrobatic Show

We interrupt our regular program for a Mid-Way Recap…
Okay, let’s just go back and recap a little of where we had been and where we were going, since we’d hit about mid-way of the trip, and frankly, who isn't lost?

Here’s a map of the Silk Road courtesy of ChinaTravelGuide:

We started off in Xi’an (which on this map looks like the eastern point of China, but Xi’an is actually near the middle) – on to Tianshui (memorable train trip, phew) – next to Lanzhou (a largish city) – then to Xining (watch out for the direct sellers!) – to Qinghai Lake and Zhangye (in a looonngg bumpy trip) – on to Jiayuguan (rich, rich town) – then to Jiuquan (nice place, but not on the map) – and to Dunhuang (where we were on Day 7).

It’s a mouthful even to say it, but imagine sitting on a jolting bus, traveling 400-500km a day, everyday. By Day 7, we had covered about 2000km. It’s actually more than that, because we took a lot of side-roads to see the sites. Difficult to grasp in the head, but believe you me, my butt felt it.

So, back to the regular program...

Mogao Caves

There are 492 caves in Mogao, but of course, you can’t see all of them. Actually, you can only see 8 caves, and 2 big buddhas. They try to limit the number of people going in, because the wall paintings are not in a good state, and all the carbon dioxide and pollutants that hordes of visitors bring in are just making things worse.

The caves are kept dark, no light at all. When you go in, you have to follow a guide, who will explain interesting features of the wall art while illuminating them briefly with a torch.

Which means, you can’t see much really. But listening to the guide is very interesting. The 1000 year history of the place is incredible. Knowing that hundreds of people from various centuries and countries have come here to meditate, pray and study is truly awe-inspiring.

And you can buy a DVD home to watch, and see the caves at the height of their beauty (before the art were looted, destroyed, or faded). And think what a pity it is that they are no longer serving their original purpose, as a site for religious introspection and study.

They are going to digitize all the wall paintings and put them up somewhere so everyone can appreciate them. I guess that’s the best that can be done for Mogao to preserve its history and beauty.

A couple of interesting items:
Back playing sitar player: The sitar is hung on the player’s back, and somehow his arms reach back to pluck the strings. A true depiction of sitar players past?

Feitian (Flying Apsaras): Probably one of the most famous depictions of Dunhuang art – the flying goddess, with body arched gracefully in the air, while silk ribbons flow in long trails behind her. The actual thing in the grotto, is tiny. It’s probably just the size of my hand. *laugh* It has inspired lots of bigger art though.

Lost Tang Dynasty Art: There used to be a lot of Tang Dynasty art on the walls, depicting its people, dress and customs. Then some Ching Dynasty people came around and painted over a lot of the stuff. The guide said that Tang Dynasty art is more life-like, emotion invoking and interesting; while Ching Dynasty art can be quite dead. Pity.

Dunhuang Night Market

After Mogao, we went back to Dunhuang for dinner, then had a walk around Dunhuang’s famous night market. K immediately latched onto a stall selling nuts of all kinds. He is a nuts and berries man, lurves the raisins. I swear he was a hamster in his past life. I am of course the quintessential lazy cat. Wonder how the two of us hooked up?

Acrobatic Show
Our tireless tour guide started selling a Dunhuang Show, which he says is the best in the town. Well, we gotto see that!

I erroneously thought it would be a thousand-hand-kwanyin show, which is really famous and based on Dunhuang scenery. I had always wanted to see it, and thought where better than the place of its origin? Well, it wasn't that show.

It was in fact an acrobatic show. You know, where performers bend themselves into pretzel-like shapes that no amount of Yoga will ever make me capable of? Balancing of plates on sticks, people stacking up on each other, flying around on metal wires.

Now, I have to say, this was a good acrobatic show. The costumes were excellent, they did some interesting twists with the acrobatics that I’d never seen before, and the show had requisite climaxes and soft moments.

But… I didn’t enjoy it that much. I guess after years and years (and I’m talking since childhood here) of watching acrobatics on TV, I’ve stopped being interested in it. It’s too much a known factor. The highlight for me was the Arabian Nights skit, rather than the acrobatics.

We asked the other tour members whether they liked it, and they were of the same opinion. Man, we pesky tourists are hard to please. The locals seemed to love the show though.

Next: the sand dunes of Ming Sha and entering Xinjiang.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Silk Road - Day 7 - Dunhuang, Mogao Caves

Day 7
Day 7 came along, and we were getting a little disoriented.

K: Where are we going today?
G: Dunhuang…I think.
K: Where were we yesterday?
G: …uhm… Xining?
K: What day is today? Wednesday?
G: …er… no idea.

With so many cities, towns, sites and days stuffed into one trip, I guess disorientation is normal. Everything was all mixed up together.

But we were in fact headed for Dunhuang, to see the uber famous Mogao Caves!

Dunhuang, Mogao Caves
Intro from wikipedia

The Mogao Caves, or Mogao Grottoes (also known as the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas and Dunhuang Caves) form a system of 492 temples 25km (15.5 miles) southeast of the center of Dunhuang. The caves contain some of the finest examples of Buddhist art spanning a period of 1,000 years. Construction of the Buddhist cave shrines began in 366 CE as places to store scriptures and art. The Mogao Caves are the best known of the Chinese Buddhist grottoes and, along with Longmen Grottoes and Yungang Grottoes, are one of the three famous ancient sculptural sites of China. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

More detailed intro (if you’re interested), see:

History of Looting
The caves are locked up tighter than a bank vault, to stop looters from extending their abominable, thieving, destroying-priceless-artifacts hands in. Unfortunately, most of the looting had already been done in the 1900’s as described in iht:

A century ago, a Taoist abbot named Wang Yuanlu (Grand Priceless National Treasures Auctioneer) stumbled into a secret storeroom in a manmade cave in northwest China that he used for meditation. Hidden behind a rock, he discovered a cache of more than 50,000 books, scrolls, sutras, silk paintings and temple banners, all dating to before 1004.

Wang's discovery was to prove priceless. Books and manuscripts secreted in the chamber — written in Chinese, Tibetan and various Central Asian languages — offered invaluable information about the monks who had carved out the cave, along with hundreds of neighboring grottoes, beginning in 366. Among them was the world's oldest dated printed book — the Diamond Sutra — the record of a debate between Buddha and a disciple over the sentience of all living things.

China was near chaos at the time of his discovery, the Ching Dynasty government watching impotently as foreigners carved up its territory and feasted on the spoils of the once proud empire. Though news of the long-buried cache spread, the government was too preoccupied to act.

So, when the British archaeologist and explorer Aurel Stein (High Priest of Looting # 1) reached the area in 1907, he was able to convince the guileless Wang to sell him enough priceless manuscripts, paintings, embroideries and other artworks to fill 29 large crates — all in exchange for "four horseshoes of silver" worth about £130.

A year later, the French sinologist Paul Pelliot (High Priest of Looting # 2) arrived and purchased thousands more manuscripts and artworks, also for a pittance. Japanese and Russian explorers followed, picking from among the leftovers. When Langdon Warner (Grand Art Destroyer), an American from Harvard University, showed up in 1924, so little was left that he actually removed frescoes from the walls of the caves and transported them back to Boston.

By the time Wang's garage sale was over, close to 80 percent of the paintings, books and manuscripts he had discovered had been removed from China. The Diamond Sutra is in the holdings of the British Museum — 13,300 catalogued items from Dunhuang are in Britain — and the Book of Heaven is in the French National Library in Paris, where approximately 6,000 catalogued items from the grottoes are kept.

It’s so sad. But at least the artifacts are well kept in the museums, even though they should rightfully be returned to China. There’s on-going debate about whether national treasures and artifacts should be returned to the countries of their origin. Like all the Egyptian mummies, Greek sculptures, all the Ming china, and various artifacts from ancient civilizations. I think they should. Why go to England to see Egyptian mummies, when you can go to Egypt and also immerse in the culture and people?

Even Worse Looting
A worse story of looting is that of Bezeklik in Turfan, Xinjiang:

The Hermitage Museum in Russia could have sections of the frescoes removed from the Bezeklik temple site at the beginning of the 1900s by German archaeologist Albert Von Le Coq (Highest Priest of Looting). Von Le Coq rediscovered these caves near Turfan in Xinjiang province and took 24 tons of their contents back to Europe in three trips. Later, British archaeologist Aural Stein (remember, High Priest of Looting #1) also removed antiquities from Bezelik, these treasures are now in the stores of National Museum in Delhi, leaving almost nothing at the site.

24 TONS of artifacts taken back to Germany! They sawed and carved off murals and paintings from the walls of the caves, packed them up into crates and shipped them off. And do you know what happened to the artifacts in Germany? They were housed in a museum that was bombed in World War II! Nothing survived except for 1 piece that was taken to Russia.

Artifacts that had survived for 1000 years peacefully and solemnly in their desert home. And all that’s left of them now are… pictures.

History can be kinda depressing.

More on Mogao Caves next.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Silk Road Day 6 – Giant Buddha Temple, Jiayuguan, Great Wall Museum, Jiuquan

Day 6 arrived, another day, a fresh start. After a bad breakfast (so much for fresh starts) we rode off to the one and only site in Zhangye.

The Great Buddhist Temple / Giant Buddha Temple
Intro courtesy of travelchinatour:
The Great Buddhist Temple is located in the southeast part of Zhangye City. It was built in 1098 in Xixia. Its original name was Jiayerulaipian Temple, and it is the largest temple in Gansu Province. Now there are three great buildings tourists can visit. They are the Great Buddhist Temple, Cangjing Hall and Tuta Tower. The great Buddhist Temple is 33 meters high. A Buddha which is made up of wood, soil and plastic lies in the temple. Its body is 34.5 meters long, the shoulder is 7.5 meters wide and its ears are over 2 meters long. This Buddha is said to be the largest reclining Buddha in China.

34.5 meters, I mused as I stared at the giant reclining statue. A building story is about 3-4 meters high, so this Buddha is about 10 stories tall. Now that is big. The eyes were elongated and managed to convey utter serenity and peace. Om.

Jiayuguan (City)
We left Zhangye behind and trundled on to Jiayuguan, the city not the pass. They’re both called the exact same name, which causes some confusion, at least for me. So if you go to Jiayuguan (the city), you will in fact see a city, and not sections of the Great Wall.

Jiayuguan is one of the richest cities in China actually, because the highly prosperous Jiuquan Iron and Steel Company reside here. And it earns lots and lots of moolah per year. Remember all that steel it took to build the Bird’s Nest and Water Cube for the Beijing Olympics? Well, some of it came from here. Other steel sources: all over the world. The Beijing Olympics really single-handedly increased world steel prices by 50% or more.

Since it’s so rich, our tour guide espoused, you can see more Beemers and Benzes here than any other city in China. And he was right. It’s a nice place, new, clean, with lots of steel sculptures. Figures.

We had a nice lunch and went off to Jiayuguan (the pass).

Jiayuguan (Pass)
Intro courtesy of travelchinaguide:
Located about six kilometers (four miles) southwest of Jiangyuguan City, the Jiayuguan Pass represents the western starting point of a section of the Great Wall constructed during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The pass covers an area of 33,500 square meters (eight acres) and lies at the base of a narrow valley, and takes its name from one of the surrounding hills, the Jiayu. Commonly referred to as the finest example of its kind on earth, the pass is the best preserved of the Great Wall's ancient military fortresses.

Yup, in Ming days, if you’re south of the wall, you’re safe; venture northwards or westwards, and you’d be prime beef for Xiongnus, barbarians and all kinds of atrocities.

The pass looks… new. It’s all very renovated, to keep it from falling to pieces of course. Ming emperors of yore would probably have seen such a clean, buffed-up fa├žade when they came around on spot checks.

Messenger: General, Supreme Ming Emperor Yadda Yadda the Sixteenth is coming for a spot inspection!

General: What?! I’m in the middle of a war here, darn it! Oh fine, get 1000 workers and clean up those blood and bodies near the wall. Patch up the cannon ball holes, and make sure his supremeness doesn’t go to the west side!

There are many sections and layers, places where you could separate and trap the enemy, before killing them off one by one. Very efficient actually.

Great Wall Museum
Museums can be ho-hum places but this one isn’t. My favorite: the weapons! Especially a 1.5m knife (nearly as tall as me!) with an edge that still looked lethally sharp. One swing, and bodies would be sliced in two, blood and entrails spurting all over. No civilized long distance bullets here, it’s blood thirsty face-to-face combat that tests endurance, skill and pure muscle. Oh yeah.

Well, if long distance combat is your thing, there are bows and arrows as well.

Grand Canyon ala China
Yes, China also has a Grand Canyon! Now, I don’t know what Grand Canyon (US) actually looks like, because we went there one November, it snowed, and we couldn’t see a thing. But GC (China) looks like a smaller version of it. At least the color’s pretty similar.

It’s a site-filled day today so onwards we went to Jiuquan (another city), intro courtesy of chinatour:
Jiuquan, or “Wine Spring,” is a major stopover on the "Silk Road" northwestwards from Lanzhou, capital of Gansu Province. From the second century B.C., commissioners and high-ranking officers were dispatched by the rulers of Western Han Dynasty (306 B.C.- 34 A.D.) to develop the region. As the traffic along the "Silk Road" became busier and more important, the prefecture of Jiuquan was established more than 1,600 years ago to protect this vital artery. On a triumphant expedition, as legend has it, Huo Qubing, a celebrated commander of the Western Han army, visited the town with his troops. Emperor Wudi had decreed that they feast on wine, but there was not enough to go round. General Huo then poured his cup of wine into a spring so that it could be shared with his soldiers. That was how the city got its name.

It is also home to the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, which recently launched a rocket carrying two astronauts to circle the earth. The base is actually somewhere in the desert, and top-top secret. Only top clearance people can go there, and not us lowly tourists. Oh well, maybe next time.

Jiuquan Park
We went to Jiuquan Park, which is built around the actual spring that General Huo Qu Bing poured his wine into. Who is General Huo? Please read above intro of Jiuquan by chinatour.

K is a big fan of this guy. At the tender age of 16, he was already a great general, and led his men to victorious battles against the Xiongnus in the West. He was a great military commander and very brave, rushing headlong into enemy ranks and spurring his men onwards to victory despite terrible odds.

The Xiongnus got their back at him though. They threw rotting animal bodies into the water sources to spread diseases amongst the Han soldiers. There was no other water source around since it is the Gobi Desert. General Huo drank the contaminated water, got sick and died at age 24.

Moonlight Cups
Shopping again, this time for moonlight cups. There’s a famous Chinese poem about grape wine and moonlight cups and how they’re the perfect match.

Moonlight cups are made of some kind of jade stone. Sorry, can’t seem to find a good English intro on it. The facets and veins on the stone surface reminded K of Chinese ink paintings. They cost RMB50/pair, which seemed quite reasonable, so we bought 3 pairs. They’d probably just cost RMB20/pair in the street markets, but we’d spent quite some time picking the pairs, so we were happy with them.

There were a LOT of sites on Day 6, but they were all interesting and good places to visit.

Jiayuguan (Pass): stand at the top and try to see the difference between ‘in’wall and ‘out’wall.
Great Wall Museum: definitely check out the ancient weapons, they’re lethal!
Jiuquan Park: the statue of General Huo is quite a moving piece.
Moonlight cups: get a pair and toast the moon with some fine red wine.
Great Buddha Temple in Zhangye: the temple is pretty ancient, and who can resist giant buddhas?

Monday, October 27, 2008

Silk Road - Day 5 - Qinghai Lake, Zhangye

Qinghai Lake
Day 5 started with lots of expectation, because it'd be the first time in my life that I'd be riding on a horse, a real live one. I've always wanted to do it, and missed a few chances. But this time, I was really gonna do it. So excited!

We set off to Qinghai lake, intro courtesy of chinatravel again:

Qinghai means green lake in Chinese and this is the largest inland saltwater lake in China. Lying in the northeast of Qinghai Province, approximately 150km (193 miles) from Xining at 3,200 meters (10,500ft) above sea level, the lake stretches endlessly into the horizon. It has an area of 4,635 sq km and is more than 360km (220 miles) in circumference.

Horse Riding
There's a recreational facility near the lake, and that was where we went first. No lake in sight yet, it would take a half-hour on horseback to get to the actual lakeside. Half and hour on horseback! Not an on-an-off inside a small ring led by handler situation, real horse riding!

Okay, we still got led by a handler, but we were solo on the horses. Mine was called Little Plum, who was pregnant and sometimes seemed reluctant to go forward. K's was called Golden Yellow, a really lovely light brown mare. The handler, who was wrapped up from head to toe because it was so cold (2 degrees C) and had a nasty cold, told us they were named by her children. Cute.

So, how is horse riding you may ask? Mmm, it's okay. As with most things in life, the fantasy was better than the reality. It was rocky, but not as uncomfortable as I'd imagined. I stopped hypering over being on a horse and started appreciating the view. It was a little difficult taking pictures from the horse though.

We reached the lake, which was huge, and really looked like an ocean. The wind was up and it was very cold. We took a couple of pics and got back on the horse to head back.

I got to ride Golden Yellow on the way back, and the handler jumped on behind me. She got the horses moving faster but we never actually reached galloping speeds. Of course, horse riding can be dangerous. Christopher Reeve got injured in a horse-riding accident, and it paralyzed him for life. Thrills are best taken with a dose of caution.

We got back to the recreational facility and had lunch. The rec fac is actually owned by a Taiwanese, we'd seen a documentary on him before. He's an interesting guy, witness his opening a shop virtually in the middle of nowhere. The horses were his, and he also rented out sand cars.

Arduous Journey
After lunch, we set off on the most arduous journey of the trip. A seven-hour drive through rough roads, high altitude, snow and sun; where we'd experience the four seasons all in one day. We were ready, having layered up into Eskimo resembling mountains: T-shirt, long-sleeved shirt, sweater, down-jacket, gore-tex jacket, gloves, hat; in that order. Fully prepared.

The road was winding, narrow, and had long untarred stretches. It was really, really bumpy, much worse than being on a horse, let me tell you. We had a brief moment to play in the snow, then back on the road. We also had brief loo stops.

Zero to Five Star Toilets...
With regards to loo stops, well, I'm going for the long story here, so bear with me. My first trip to China was to Beijing, and I'd heard some horror stories about the toilets in China, that were kinda scary. The whole thought of 'doorless' toilets struck me as... horrifying. *sigh* What a greenhorn I was.

As we went to tour site after tour site in Beijing, the toilets all had doors. Some of them were pretty dirty, but the trick is 'don't look down'. And I was beginning to think the whole horror toilet thing was a hoax.

It wasn't until we went to the hutongs that I had my first experience of a 'public' toilet. No doors. Just 10 'holes' with 10cm of cement partitions between them.

I went in, saw one old woman right at the back with a newspaper, did my biz quickly and went out. Heart pumped a bit, but okay.

The next one wasn't so lucky. All the 'holes' except the one near the door were occupied. Young and old squatted and chatted with each other. It was like a social gathering! Disconcerted, I averted my eyes, did my biz and got out of there as quick as I could!

After that though, no toilet ever fazed me again. I've done it over paint buckets covered with bin bags, two planks of wood over cliff, behind bushes, in the wilds... with women beside me, in front of me, behind me... didn't matter. This is China, it just isn't a big deal here.

Which brings me back to the long bumpy trip. There were no toilets, so we had to do it in the open. Men on the left, women on the right. Like I said, no big deal.

We started taking off layers of clothes and reached Zhangye in our T-shirts. Worn out, bones rattled loose, we crawled off the bus for dinner then went to the hotel, where we encountered another fact of life.

Bad things always happen when you're exhausted and feel like you don't have a drop of energy left to deal with it.

The hotel was a dump. Our room reeked of tobacco smoke and the carpet still had dirt on it (definitely un-vacuumed). The towels were wet and the bathroom... well, enough said. K and the other tour members went on a rampage, demanding a change of hotel. The tour guide and hotel manager said it was impossible, due to some festival at the local temple, all the hotels were booked solid.

We then demanded a change of room. It took 2 hours, but we finally got changed into a bigger room that was cleaner. *sigh* Ah the pendulum of highs and lows in travelling...

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Silk Road - Day 4 - Xining, Ta'er Temple

Ta'er Monastery
Day 4's itinerary entailed traveling from Lanzhou to Xining, a city on the eastern edge of Qinghai province, about 300km away. After a quickie breakfast, we climbed onto the bus, and settled down for the drive. It took about 4 hours.

We went straight to the Ta'er Monastery, which is a Tibetan monastery. More info on this site courtesy of chinatrekking:

Lying about 25km southeast from Xining, Ta'er Si , known as Kumbum Monastery in Tibetan, is acknowledged to be one of the six most important monasteries along with the Ganden, Sera and Drepung monasteries in Lhasa, the Tashilhunpo Monastery in Shigatse and the Labrang Monastery in Xiahe. Although not nearly as attractive as Labrang, and rather swamped by local tourists, Ta'er Si is nevertheless a good introduction for outsiders to Tibetan culture. Both as the birthplace of Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Yellow Hat Sect , and as the former home of the current Dalai Lama, the monastery attracts droves of pilgrims from Tibet, Qinghai and Mongolia, who present a startling picture with their rugged features, huge embroidered coats and chunky jewellery.

We've been to Tibet, so it all looked very familiar. The colorful monasteries and pagodas, the dimly lit interiors perfumed with yak oil lamps, the long elaborate silk tapestries (thangkas), and the monks in safron robes. There was more of a Chinese influence in the buildings though, some of the monastery roofs had distinct Chinese features.

Jade Shopping
After that, back on the bus for the next leg of our journey: shopping! *groan-moan-no* We were told in advance that there would be 4 shopping points in the tour, and apparently this was the first one.

Those of you who've been to China on arranged tours know that there are usually a few typical shopping points: chinese medicine, jade, silk and pearls. Oh and tea, don't forget tea. This was a jade one.

K and I had absolutely no interest in jade-shopping. I mean, we like that jade's pretty and green, and we enjoy looking at elaborate pieces in museums, but that's where it ends. We had no interest in buying any.

Direct Selling
We trooped into the shop, given 'VIP' badges, showed into the 'VIP' room, and offered cups of tea that were filled to 1/3 (they must have run out of tea with all the customers they'd fleec... ahem, entertained).

A guy came in with a tray of 6 jade pieces, and proceeded to give us an intro on 'good' jade vs 'not-so-good' jade. Several loud yawns from the audience. The guy summed us up real quick. He tucked the tray aside, and courteously said, "Oh there's no need to buy anything, have some tea, and our boss would just like a minute to chat with you."

In comes the boss, a young man in his mid to late twenties, who claimed he was a Burmese Chinese, his father was a Kuomintang member, his family had a jade mine in Burma, he'd been to Taiwan many times, he really likes it and yadda yadda. Man, he was good! He put everyone at ease just chatting about Taiwan-related stuff. He also established that he was an expert on jade.

Anyway, I won't bore you with too many details. Suffice to say, the 'boss' managed to get on friendly terms with several members of our tour group. And ca-ching! One lady bought something ~big~ and even left her personal number and address to him.

I have to say, these Chinese shops have really got the tourists' numbers. The method they used for our Taiwanese tour group was very specific and effective. Wonder what methods they'd use for other nationalities...

We lavishly applauded the shoppers in our midst, because with their generous contribution, we were finally let out of the shop. Phew.

We first entered Xining to go to the shopping point, and my first impression of the city was: it's kinda rundown. Shops were small and dirty. Roads were narrow and cracked. It was dusty and unkempt. There were a lot of Tibetans around, mixing with the Hans and Uighurs.

Our bus also took us round and round a residential area of empty houses. And our tour guide actually tried talking us into investing in a house there! Huh? I'm not sure whether the round-and-round thing was to try and dizzy us up before the shopping trip, or the house-selling was actually serious.

At the time, I was not impressed with Xining and couldn't wait to get out of there.

But the next morning, we left the city via another way, and what a difference! Clean, nice parks, tall buildings, large roads... Why the heck didn't we stay around here instead of the dingy side of town!

Friday, October 17, 2008

Silk Road - Day 3 - Lanzhou

Day 3
Day 3 arrived and we set off early on a medium haul journey to Lanzhou, ~400km from Tianshui, which would take about 5 hours. It would be the first of many hauls.

We also got our 'real' guide for Gansu, Mr. Fu, who had crossed half of China to take the helm.

Mr. Fu, in his quest to raise team spirit or something, is fond of loud. He tries to get us to do a rah-rah call in Tibetan: Ya shio, ya shio, ya ya shio!!! The good students at the front of the bus gave good response. We were at the back trying to sleep, not happy with having our eardrums rattled, and plotting ways of destroying his loudspeaker.

The passing scenery wasn't over-inspiring. Lots of dried-up tiered fields, planting mostly corn from what I saw. Not wheat, corn. We hadn't eaten any corn so far but there was surely a big supply of it.

It's hard to associate this drive on the highway with the Silk Road of yore: that wondrous, treacherous, magical link between East and West. Where the dirt roads were filled with arrays of horses, camels, caravans and camps. And you had to hire fighters to protect you from the hordes of robbers all along the road.

Now it's just endless tarmac stretching to the horizon...

We arrived at Lanzhou, a large metropolitan city, smack-dab in the middle of China. Here's a brief intro, courtesy of travelchina:

On a map of China with a scale of 1:260,000,000, draw a circle at a radius of 90 mm (3.54inches) to include all China in it, and you will find that the center of this circle is Lanzhou, the capital city of northwest Gansu Province. Lanzhou is not only the geometrical center of China but also a center in the northwest in terms of transportation and telecommunication. Lanzhou is home to a population of 3.14 million, including Han, Hui, Bao’an, Dongxiang, Tibetan, Yugu, Sala and more. Lanzhou used to be a key point connecting central China and the western region as well as a vital city on the Silk Road.

Get it, it's central, CENTRAL. Probably a major trade point on the old silk road, with people from east and west meeting up to barter silks, golds, camels, and the odd wife or two.

Lanzhou Noodles
We got down for lunch and had the famous Lanzhou Noodles, freshly pulled by expert chefs. There were broad ones called 'belt noodles' (as wide as belts), there were narrow ones, medium ones, round ones and flat ones. Served in soups, chili oil and spring onion sauces. That was one heck of a lot of noodles in one meal!

They were... ok. Don't know why they're supposed to be famous. Maybe in a noodle-staple diet like this North-Central part of China, they can be very particular about the quality, taste, texture and springiness of noodles. It's like wine-tasting, only with dough.

We also had rice, mantou (flour buns), various meats and vegetables. It's odd that they serve three staples at the same meal: rice, buns and noodles. But it's supposed to be normal here.

City Tour
After lunch, we were taken off on a whirlwind city tour.

First up: Yellow River. Specifically, first bridge on the Yellow River built by the Germans. Yellow River is the 2nd longest river in China, and 6th longest in world.

Next: Water Wheel Park, a man-made park that featured water-wheels churned by the Yellow River right next to it. An interesting thing about the park were the flotation devices made of sheepskin, which were traditionally used by Yellow River rafts.

Then: Mother Child Sculpture. A sculpture of mother and child. Try to guess the gender of the child, asked our jolly guide. 2/3 of the group went for male, the others went for female (cos the child sculpture did have a masculine look to it). The answer: due to controversies on choosing a gender for the child sculpture which lasted 2 years and involved various proponents having bloody battles with paper (hey, paper cuts hurt!), it was decided to place the child in on its belly, so nobody could see what gender it was. Smart eh.

Lastly, dinner and loosed to wander Lanzhou on our own. No takers for foot massage push.

And that was the end of Day 3, which we all agreed was a filler day with nothing much happening and nothing much to see. We were getting the point of the Silk Road tour now, it's covering the distance, and being on the road; not necessarily seeing awesome sights everyday. Okay... adjust attitude and move on.