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.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Silk Road - Day 2 - Tianshui, Maijishan Grottoes, Fuximiao, Foot Massage

Tianshui (Heavenly Water)
We got off the train at about pm3:00, and got handed off from Tour Guide 1: Mr. Jin to Tour Guide 2: Miss I-don't-remember-her-name. Sorry, but we only had her for 1 afternoon, and I forgot to jot down her name, and old age has visited me, okay.

Why the change in tour guides? Well, cos in China where there are 1.2 billion people, they try to give everyone more chances at earning a living. So, tour guides are only licensed to guide in their own provinces. If you step out of your province, even by one little toe, you have to hand over to another guy. Capishe?

And we had in fact left Shaanxi Province (where Xi'an was) and entered Gansu Province. The town is Tianshui (Heavenly Water) and we still had two sites to get to, so it's hurry hurry onwards. No matter that all of us were knackered from the train ride, hurry... hurry...

Maijishan Grottoes
A grotto is defined as a small decorated cave. In China, it's a huge hill filled with man-made caves in which Buddha sculptures and various deities carvings reside. Quite a wonder.

Here's a brief intro courtesy of jqn:

Maijishan Grottoes is located in the mountains 45kms southeast of Tianshui City, Gansu Province.

The Maijishan Grottoes are one of the most famous grottoes in China along with the Longmen Grottoes in Henan, Mogao Grottoes in Gansu and Yungang Grottoes in Shanxi. It has 7,800 Buddhist statues in 194 caves spreading over 1,000 square meters, which reflect the sculpture skills ranking from the fifth to 18th centuries in China.There were additions made from the Sui and the Tang to the Qing dynasty.These Northwest China's gems are looking forward to joining the World Heritage List.

As we eyeballed the hill from below, we thought: wow, it's gorgeous. Around us, our fellow tour members sighed: Stairs.

Yup, lots and lots of them. Somewhere our devil of a tour planner is saying: I'll make mincemeat out of this lot yet. Hit them with the train station first, then complete the masacre with a romp up Maijishan Hill, brouhahahaha!!

Types of Tour Members
Those of you who have joined tours know there are a few types of tour members:

The good students: who follow and listen attentively as the tour guide gives swift and detailed introduction to all the sculptures, views, leaves, dirt trails, history and so on.

The photographers: who are either way out in front, to avoid having members of the pack corrupt their pristine pictures; or way in the back, for the same reason. The 1st being the more impatient type, and the 2nd being the more patient type. K is part of the 1st. And since G follows K, G is also part of the 1st. K actually bought a video-cam for G, probably so that G will keep up with K, and can pretend to have something to do. It's not just tour planners with devilish plots you know.

The laissez faire: who are on the tour to have a good time, and don't really care about history, background, sculptures or views. They wander around on the edge of the pack, and sometimes disappear just to give the tour guides a good hunting lesson.

So K and I clambered up the stairs, way in front of the pack. We were given 1 hour to do the whole hill, so it's the familiar hurry, hurry. We took pics, we looked at sculptures, we climbed stairs, repeat from 1. The exercise was invigorating. The pics beaut, no time to appreciate, keep going.

We arrived back at the courtyard within the hour, with not a fellow tour member in sight. So we looked at our pics, admired the huge Buddha statues (which we didn't have time to appreciate up close), and waited. The rest of the team appeared half-an-hour later. Hmm.

Fuximiao (Fuxi Temple)
After some pointed jokes about KEEPING TIME, we set off to the next site: Fuximiao, or Fuxi Temple. It was edging towards 6pm and night was falling, so what exactly can we see? Still, must keep to the itinerary, which is the word. Hurry, hurry...

Fuximiao was established by the founder of Taichi in the Ming Dynasty. I have to say, I really liked this small temple. It was lovely and quiet in the dusk hours. The doors and window shutters had very intricate carved details. The garden had huge trawling trees that stood in still meditation with ageless patience and resilience. The rush, sketchy irritations and weariness quieted inside me on a sigh of appreciation. Nice.

Foot Massage
After Fuximiao, we had dinner, and practiced the art of polite scrambling for food. Everyone was tired, hungry and resistance was low. Consequently when the tour guide suggested 'foot massage', there was a resounding 'yes!' from most of the group.

Foot massage is ubiquitous in China, every town large or small has establishments for this. And each tour guide has a favorite one that is the best in town of course. The cost for this one in Tianshui: RMB78pp for 70 minutes.

I'm not a fan of massages (shock-horror-gasp!). Yes, it's true. I've done a couple in China and one in Bali, and I was not impressed. They just rubbed me up the wrong way, literally. I felt like a side of pork being marinated for bbq. And then that memorable Chendu masseuse who placed a steaming hot block of stone on my tummy! Yeah, it cooked me up real good.

Despite my skeptical looks and comments, K signed us up for the foot massage.

They don't just massage the feet of course, it's a whole-deal number from head to toe. I was bashed within an inch of my life.

Rating: Mmm... 3/5. My tired, train-and-stairs tortured body did feel better after the massage. And sleep afterwards was deep. The bruises just took a few days to fade.

In Summary
Tianshui: this little town (or the parts we saw of it) has little charm, and sorry to say, is quite dirty. I've never seen so many flies anywhere. And the villages had piles of rubbish dumped right beside them. Is it a mass protest or normal life?

Maijishan Grottoes: well worth the visit and climb. Stand at the feet of the giant Buddhas and gaze serenely out into the lovely valley, if you have time. Don't let the pigeons land on you.

Fuximiao (Fuxi Temple): others may dump on this little temple, but I loved the meditative quietness at dusk.

Foot Massage: at discretion. When your feet are killing you, they might be the saver.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Silk Road - Day 2 - Famen Temple, Baoji, Train

Breakfast for Champion Tour Members
We were excited on Day 2 because it'd be the first time we'd be going on a train in China. When you drive around in a car all the time, sometimes getting on public transport can be exciting. Really.

Anyway, got up early, had a pretty decent West+East breakfast in the hotel. Would have enjoyed it more if we'd had more than half-an-hour to eat, but we still managed to wolf down lots of goodies. The fried rice noodles was good. So was the bacon, but then bacon's always good. What is it about sizzling fat that just gets the appetite going...?

Famen Temple
We got on the tour bus, relieved to see that they'd changed it, and we actually could wriggle our legs around instead of having them jammed up against the front seat, yay! And off we went to our first tour site, Famen Temple.

It's a Buddhist Temple holding Buddha relics. Hundreds of temples in the world claim to have Buddha relics (which could be a finger bone, or bits of bone, or bits of ashes... I'm making this up, don't quote me). But this temple has an amazing story to back it up, along with 'live video footage' of the incredible event: the relic (or the tray it was on, I don't remember which) elevated into the air like a couple of meters. And light came from the heavens and shone on it... And a booming voice started up: I am a TRUE BUDDHA RELIC, go forth and worship me with full trust and belief... Okay, there was no voice, but the elevation and light apparently did happen. I saw the picture.

The relic is stored in an appropriately ancient tower, underground. It's in a little glass box, wrapped up in gold cloths. I had exactly 3 seconds to look at it before I was bumped aside by the crowd.

Incidentally, mid-Sep to mid-Oct is major major peak for Silk Road Tours, mainly because it's the best weather around this time. Lots of people though.

Train Ride
Back on the bus we went, and off to the town of Baoji (Precious Chicken literally). We had lunch there. And the train we were taking would be taking off from there. And that's all I know of Baoji.

The closer we got to train time, the more anxious our tour guide became. Lots of warnings: keep close together, keep up with the group, keep this ticket on you and don't lose it, get on the train quick cos they won't wait for you... He got our hearts pumping and sweat pouring as we got ready for battle!

Why battle? Well, you know how train stations all over the world have stairs, lots of them? Baoji Train Station was no different. And there we were a bunch of tour members on a 13 day Silk Road Tour. 13 days. Everybody had giant bags, some as tall as tall kids, I don't kid you. And 16/19 had hard cases. Heavy hard cases. The owners had to lug them cases up them stairs and into the train, by themselves. K and I were the 2/3 without hard cases, we had a small trolley and a mid-size canvas case, and even we were puffing up them stairs.

Moral: pack light for travels, seriously.

And now a rant about China Train Stations, or this train station at least. Passengers aren't allowed on the platform until the train arrived. We were stuck in lines, long lines. The train was only stopping for like 5 minutes to pick up passengers, and we weren't allowed on the platform until the train arrived? That is seriously... ahem, going to be a problem.

Tiny train doors + oversized bags + lots people = STUCK.

Oh did I mention we weren't the only tour group trying to get on this train? There were 3.

I think we delayed the train by oh 15 minutes or so.

And when we got on, we had to cuddle up to our bags (trains don't have baggage compartments), and rock on for 2 hours.

I actually enjoyed it. Hadn't had exercise in a long time, and this was pretty good.

Silk Road Tour - Day 1

Starting Off on the Left Foot
The 13 day tour started off scratchlessly enough, the plane flew at pm1:50 instead of the usual ungodly hour of 8am (when you'd have to get to the airport 2 hour before, which usually meant waking up at 4.30am... not a good start at all).

Just a couple of minor hitches: we were taking China Airlines, which has had some really bad accidents (knock wood hard) in the last ten years. Still, their airplanes are squeaky new, and had like 5mm extra leg room, so... okay. (Incidentally China Airlines is actually the national carrier for Taiwan, not China. Why is it called 'China' Airlines? Loonnnnggg story...)

The 2nd hitch was, we were transiting in Hong Kong, again! That immediately added 2-3 hours to the whole flying time, or sitting around in boring airports time, or in this case, hanging around in long lines, and doing surplus security checks. Whatever happened to DIRECT FLIGHT to China from Taiwan? When are we going to experience that, WHEN?

Anyway, couldn't fault China Airlines, stewardesses were helpful and friendly, food was ok, lots of pillows and blankets. The second leg on Hong Kong Airlines (which is a small airline mostly flying to China) was... nyeah, not great. Food frankly sucked. Okay, I don't remember what the heck I ate, but I remember it sucked.

Rants aside, we arrived at Xi'an on time at pm7:35 (another nice, respectable hour), got our luggage, met our tour guide, and got on the tour bus, which hands-down had the narrowest leg room I've ever experienced in my life, and that's saying a lot. Did I say 'rants-aside'? I can't stop ranting it seems.

Arrived at our hotel, the scrumptious Xi'an Garden Hotel, great gardens, fantastic lobby, lovely lake with hanging willows, peacocks and ducks... it's 10pm after a late dinner, and we're too tired to appreciate all this... but lovely. Oh but the elevator doesn't work, and we're on the 4th floor. Lovely.

We were leaving Xi'an early the next morning (definitely no lay-ins on organized tours, it's busy busy touring everyday starting off before 8am), but we'd be back at the end of the tour, so I hoped we'd get more impressions of the city then. But for Day 1, we were tired from all the planes and airports and turned in early. No late night rambles on the outside for us.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Silk Road Tour (13 days)

Tour Group or No?
K and I are no fans of tour groups. I've been on 3 and he's been on 2, and we've only been happy with the Tibet tour group, because the guide was very pro, there were only 10 members, and it was a no-shopping tour.

The others were hustle-through-sceneries and linger over shopping points tours that grated on our nerves and made us swear never to join another tour group. Well, 3 years is a long time, and memories fade...

So, for our Silk Road trip, which entailed bumping along on 3000+km of highways and other unmentionable roads, we decided to take a tour group. Will we regret? More to come.