I travelled with Exodus Travels and my good friend Richard Pratt.
After a flight of ten and half hours, arrived in smog bound Beijing. I had awoken a couple of hours earlier, to be greeted by the sight of the brown hills of Mongolia and the city of Ulaanbaatar, some 800 miles north west of Beijing...quite a view over which to enjoy breakfast!
Beijing's relatively new airport is a treat. The acoustics are amazing; it's a place where you can literally hear yourself think, despite the throng of hundreds of passengers walking with you off the plane.
Passport control was effortless, with four buttons to hit dependent on how you rated the entry experience! Given we only had hand baggage we were off the plane and through to the exit in about 20 minutes...my kind of travel!
So, into Beijing, a city of over 16 million people (about double the size of London), occupying an area the size of Belgium. It seems to be mainly low rise buildings until you reach the northeastern outskirts of the city, where the financial and luxury hotel sector seems to be. Some very impressive modern architecture seen here, no expense spared, along with the hordes of luxury German cars now on the streets.
On the way in, we had crossed the six, yes six, ring roads concentric to the city centre - the scale of this place is awe-inspiring. Interestingly, there are no trucks at all on the road, and as I write, in the early hours of the following day, I still haven't seen a truck anywhere...?
But first impressions very good, clean streets, no signs of the abject poverty seen in other parts of Asia, and a general sense of patient order everywhere. And attended public loos at every turn.
We arrived in the three star Hotel Dongfang, situated just south west of the city centre, but within walking distance of Tiananmen Square.
We hired a couple of ancient bicycles from the hotel (so ancient, we had admiring looks from the locals as we took them into the city later), and spent an enjoyable afternoon getting our bearings in this interesting and feature filled city. We quickly became 'locals' on our bike, going the wrong way up some cycleways, jumping traffic lights and fearlessly crossing some very busy intersections.
|Stumpy bikes Beijing!|
We went directly north from the hotel to access the gates to the south of Tiananmen Square, the world's largest public square, passing Chairman Mao's Mausoleum and then passing the Gate of Heavenly Peace, still emblazoned with a giant image of Mao.
Continuing northwards, we turned into to the Meridian Gate to the south of the Forbidden City, so called because it was off limits for 500 years as home to two dynasties of emperors, the Ming and the Qing. Circumnavigating the walls of the Forbidden City to the west, we followed the moat northwards to reach the tree lined boulevards adjacent to Beihai Park, before entering our first hutong, one of the many narrow alleyways that cross east-west throughout Beijing, a legacy of the Mongol invasion after Genghis Khan's army had reduced the city to rubble.
The hutongs are a characterful blend of old and new buildings, hidden temples and shrines, and small courtyards where groups of locals sit playing cards, Ma-Jong, dominoes and chess...a very chilled community in this enormous city.
We got a bit lost further north, the temperature and humidity addling our brains, but it was enjoyable finding our way back around the Houhai Lake, eventually finding the imposing Bell and Drum Towers.
We'd also planned to ride through some other hutongs on the way back, but were thwarted by developments that seem to have wiped history from the map. Hey ho, that's progress for you. So we sped south along the wide roads to the west of Beihei Park, and area with many military barracks adjacent to the area of the city where the politicos hang out.
Our reward awaited at the hotel...a few bottles of the excellent Tsingtao beer.
Later we were to meet our guide for the next seven days, 'Robin' Wong, and another member of the Exodus group we were to travel across China with. Dinner in a local restaurant with Peking Duck and more beer, this time locally brewed Yanjing Beer, a lighter style than Tsingtao. All in all, a very good first day.
|Night view of central Beijing from our hotel|
A walking tour of Beijing, starting at 0730! Shortly after leaving the hotel we were into the local hutongs, watching ordinary city folk start their Saturday. I now realise why there are so many public toilets in Beijing...many of the properties in the hutong districts do not have their own sanitation, so these service all the local community. Interesting to walk through though, everyone out enjoying the relatively cool morning air and gulping down their breakfasts...a lot of fried wheat rolls being prepared in earnest by street vendors.
Then we reached Tiananmen Square and the number of Chinese tourists was instantly overwhelming...if you don't like crowds, don't visit this iconic spot at weekends in the summer! Through the most cursory of security checks we were on to the square, observing an enormous queue forming for the Mao Mausoleum and the frenetic efforts of the many local guides attempting to keep their groups together. The noise was cacophonic. We also found ourselves as a tourist attraction, with a number of Chinese visitors asking to have their photograph taken with us!
|Gate of Heavenly Peace, from Tiananmen Square, Beijing|
Through the gate, passing under the Duan Gate to reach the Inner City, beyond which is the Forbidden City, now known as the Palace Museum. It's a huge area, filled with wave after wave of tour groups, and seemed to be never ending as we passed from one courtyard to another, the many grand buildings and open spaces variously used for imperial proclamations, coronations, ceremonials, imperial and court residences and one building where concubines were tested out by the Emperor! And, to think this imperial era only finished in 1911 when the 'Last Emperor,' a young man, was deposed.
|Forbidden City, Beijing|
|Looking south to the Forbidden City, Beijing|
We took a public bus, air conditioned with TV screens and a digital signboard announcing where the bus had reached in both Mandarin and English, and eased our way back into the south of the city to visit the iconic Temple of Heaven Park. In a nutshell, it was created during the Ming dynasty, has a Confucian temple within, and it the site where the Emperors would come to make sacrifices to the gods in order to garner support for a successful harvest and then give thanks afterwards. The 38m high Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests is an amazing wooden structure, constructed without nails or cement.
I, by now, was starting to get sightseeing overload, not helped by the oppressive humidity and throngs of noisy tour groups, so it was a relief to jump in a taxi to head back to our hotel for a much-needed rest.
|Wall menu in Beijing!|
Up very early to reach the Great Wall before the big crowds arrive from Beijing, one of the more spectacular sections just under two hours north east of the city. We reached the Mutianyu section of the Wall, initially accessed by cable car, about 900m above sea level. It was still quite hazy, although this was to clear a little later, but the first sight of this amazing construction, started in the second century CE and expanded between 1400 and 1700, is really a goose-bump moment when you first see it. Absolutely amazing, threading it's way along the narrow ridges of this region of heavily forested mountains, interspersed with towers and various fortifications to keep out the invaders from Turkestan and Mongolia.
We didn't quite have the wall to ourselves but we did have times of quiet enjoyment, walking this stunning brick roller coaster, which, at its largest extent, reached 10,000km in length. The mere thought of the survey work, the engineering, the physical toil, but above all the message it sent the outside world, is beyond ordinary comprehension.
|The Great Wall at Mutianyu|
|The Great Wall at Mutianyu, getting busier!|
A lunch of noodles in a small local restaurant before we hit the freeway back into the north of the city, fuelling us for a quick visit to the Olympic zone and the stunning 'Bird's Nest' stadium, and, at my insistence, a tour of the most important Tibetan Buddhist site outside of Tibet itself (or at least that's what the guidebooks say), Yonghegong Lama Temple, converted from a early imperial palace to a Buddhist monastery in 1744.
Due to its earlier design as a palace it was quite unlike any other Buddhist monastery I've ever visited, with a series of chapels in quick succession before we could access the final chapel containing an 26m high statue of the Maitreya (Future) Buddha carved from a single log of sandalwood imported from Nepal.
Other chapels featured Tsong Kapa, founder of the Gelugpa sect (Yellow Hats), images of Sakyamuni and Medicine Buddha, Green and White Taras, and numerous esoteric Buddhas. Impressive buildings, prostrating disciples, massive incense burners, and not enough time for me to have a proper look, but it was definitely worth a visit, and I agree with the Lonely Planet guide...if you see one temple in Beijing, this has to be the one.
In need of a shower before boarding the sleeper train to Xi'an for an 11 hour journey, we went and had a foot massage in a very professional massage parlour (no innuendo intended!) near to the hotel. Then off to Beiing West railway station, a huge structure and thronged with people returning home from a weekend in Beijing, a quick supper and into our 'Soft Class' sleeper compartment, four to a room in bunk beds, complete with air conditioning and individual TVs (don't get too carried away though...only Chinese TV available).
And on into the night for our little group, now swelled to five with the delayed arrival of a couple who had been stymied by a flight cancellation ex Manchester. So far so good...
|'Soft Class' to Xi'an|
We had entered Shaanxi Province and were soon upon the outskirts of Xi'an, a city of some 6 million people and a past capital city of China. The station was an indication of what our stay in the city was to be like, frenetic and very humid!
This is a more compact city than Beijing, and driving styles are more aggressive with more recourse to the horn, but somehow the vast numbers of cars and people all seem to make progress without fisticuffs.
Our hotel was, again, very centrally located, the Skytel, equidistant from the Bell Tower and the Southern Gate of the City Walls. We checked in, had a quick breakfast and headed straight out to view the 12m high City Wall, originating from the 14th century Ming dynasty and reconstructed after it had been destroyed by Japanese bombers in the Second World War. It's 14km in length, and afforded good views of the more traditional city inside and the modern high rise sprawl beyond.
We hired bikes and spent 90 minutes circumnavigating the city. A good way to see the city, with some interesting sights along the way, particularly the very fine Guangren Temple in the north west corner, but the ride got more tedious further east with a rougher stone surface to ride over and rather depressed cityscape to the east.
|Cycling the City Wall around Xi'an|
Excitement over, we managed to get a couple of cabs to take us south west beyond the city gates to visit the famous Big Goose Pagoda, Da Yan Ta, built by Emperor Gaozong in 652 for an intrepid Buddhist monk called Xuan Zang who had travelled to India to acquire original Sanskrit texts of the Buddhist sutras in order to get them translated into Chinese upon his return.
|Big Goose Pagoda, Xi'an|
Had a little trouble getting cabs back into the city, some taxi drivers preferring to ignore foreigners in preference for locals, but we did get back in time to visit the Bell and Drum towers, and the Grand Mosque, another institution built in Chinese architectural style despite it's Islamic purpose. Founded in 742, this is the central place of worship for the Muslim minority living in Xi'an, and stands in four courtyards of ancient trees, ornate arches and stone steles. A very peaceful spot, with many of the original features intact.
|Grand Mosque, Xi'an|
|Food stall in Xi'an's Muslim quarter|
Excited this morning as about to go the what some parties now call the 'Eighth Wonder of the World', the Terracotta Army, about 36km east of Xi'an. We stopped en route at a state run factory permitted to create reproductions of the warrior statues in the original clay type, extracted from the nearby Wei mountains. Interesting stuff, although resisted the temptation to purchase more articles to collect dust on shelves at home...
Passing fields of maize and orchards of pomegranate and persimmon, we arrived at the main site, now developed into a truly international tourist attraction on a massive scale. The infrastructure is impressive, suitable for the world stage, and capable of handling enormous visitor numbers on a daily basis. They handled 217,000 visitors during their last big national holiday week last October. Today the visitor numbers were said to be 'average' - plenty of tour groups but not so overwhelming that you would have to fight to see the exhibits.
On entering the first excavation pit, you can immediately see why this is such an essential place to visit. The warriors, over 1,000 excavated so far, and with an estimated 5-6,000 more to go in this pit alone, are lined up in serried ranks below you and it's a truly amazing spectacle.
|The truly amazing spectacle of theTerracotta army, near Xi'an|
Pit Two contains many archers, but excavation has only just started, and the smaller Pit Three was found to contain a command centre with 69 warriors and 4 horses. All of the figures are full size and very lifelike, each with individual features.
Actually, the pits are part of a much larger mausoleum that Qin Shihuangdi built for himself, the actual tomb located 1500m away under a 80m high tumulus. Truly epic megalomania!
The pits are now covered by large, nicely designed buildings, and there are good visitor facilities. We all purchased a guidebook of the site and had it signed by one of the original farmers who had discovered the pits...now salaried and signing books in perpetuity! The visit concluded with a tea tasting, very well done, and resulting in the purchase of some rather fine lychee black tea from southern China.
Lunch at a silk emporium, and we were shown how silk thread is extracted from the cocoon of a single silk worm and how strong silk webbing results from a cocoon containing two silk worms (and then stretched for quilt inners). Very interesting.
Back into a very hot Xi'an before an excellent dinner in a very basic local's restaurant, for all of us the best so far, but you would have been appalled at the squalor of our surroundings! No food hygiene regulations here!!
Our train for Jiayuguan, 1350 km to the north west, departed at 2255...a journey of 17 hours stretching ahead of us!
A fair night's kip in a similar carriage to the one used earlier in the week, just a little noisier as we were next to the loo and dining car. We passed through the polluted industrial city of Langzhou early in the morning, spotting the Yellow River which passes through the city, but we were quickly into more interesting country, viewed from the dining car where we had a Chinese breakfast of rice congee (like porridge), picked vegetables, a doughy roll and a boiled egg, all washed down with cold milky coffee from a can. Nice.
The scenery to the south is mainly small peaks of multi-coloured sandstones, to the north a little more verdant, but you can sense the increasing aridity of the countryside as we progress westwards through Gansu Province, along what is known as the Hexi Corridor, the start of the Silk Road out of Xi'an. The Hexi Corridor runs for 1200km and is between 15 and 125km wide, following the Zhuanglang River, the height of the surrounding mountains rising progressively as we venture further north and west, with the Qilian Mountains appearing to the south and the rolling hills towards Inner Mongolia stretching to the north. Barren, inhospitable country.
Maize, sunflowers, wheat in irrigated valley plains around Wuwei, where farmsteads now have low flat roofed buildings constructed of mud. Further west again, through large towns processing local mineral resources such as nickel and copper, unremitting aridity, some flocks of sheep seen, but tarmac roads have all but disappeared in most places.
The altitude of our journey has also been increasing, rising at one point to 2100m over one pass.
Finally, we arrived at Jiayaguan, a steel town in the middle of the desert at about 1500m, and sporting wide boulevards in a grid pattern and low rise, almost Soviet style buildings. Very quiet on the streets, and it's clear that this is a town which sees very few foreign tourists, judging by the inquisitive looks we got from the friendly locals. More Muslim presence here, with a mosque, and more Islamic dress on the women serving food in the local market street. So, why on earth are we here? Well, it's the last post of the Ming constructed Great Wall, and site of the Jiayuguan Fortress, built to protect the last frontier of the Ming Empire.
We arrived late afternoon, ferried to the modern convention hotel, Tian Dong, by a driver who clearly didn't know where the hotel was...ermm!
Dinner in the newly constructed 'Market Street', a pedestrian zone of bars and restaurants, well supported by lots of local families enjoying the much cooler night air here. Good food again, this time featuring goat ribs prepared with peppers and spices, and believe it or not pig's ears. Yum.
Awoken by loud horns, from trains shunting in the local industrial quarter, clearly viewed from my hotel window. Blue skies beckon today, as long as we're not downwind of the steel plant!
Today's visit is to the Jiayuguan Pass (fort), situated just to the north of this large industrial city. Oddly enough, the city seemed deserted in the early morning rush hour...the roads are so wide and the whole city infrastructure has clearly been geared to some immense growth plan for the future.
The fort is just 15 minutes from the town centre and is immediately impressive, albeit swamped today by school parties. As usual, the Chinese have put in an impressive infrastructure to cope with large visitor numbers, and the buildings and walls are in good condition, although the morning 'show' of drumming, military tactics and acrobatics made it feel like a theme park at times.
The Han originally established an outpost here, but it wasn't until 1372 during the Ming dynasty that the fortress was built under the revered General Feng Sheng, after he had driven the last of the Yuan armies out of the Hexi Corridor. He created the westernmost extension of the Ming Great Wall here to keep the Mongol armies out.The fortress walls are imposing at almost 11m in height, and there are three high gate towers adorned with flying eaves. From the ramparts you can see the rammed earth Great Wall extend southwards to it's final terminus at the Taolai River.
|The westernmost section of the Great Wall, Jiayuguan|
|The 'Hanging Wall' near Jiayuguan|
Joined by a new guide, 'Jan' (Ling Mi) for the westerly segment of our trip, we bid farewell to our guide 'Robin' Wong, nicknamed by the group 'Dy-San' after his formidable appetite for all things food, and his prodigious ability to hoover up noodles!
Dinner in the Market Street again, this time enjoying Donbai food from N.E. China around Harbin. Less spicy, but flavoursome.
Early to Jiayuguan's bus station to catch a public inter city bus to Dunhuang, passing China's first oilfield at Yumen on the way. A cloudier day today, with showers forecast.
Desert scenery almost immediately appeared as we left Jiayuguan, but signs of development much of the way, from the foundations of new pipelines to wind farms on an enormous scale.
The bus driving was erratic, to say the least. Like hopeless overtaking manoeuvres in an underpowered vehicle, like entering a toll station the wrong way and then waiting 30 minutes before being forced to reverse into the queue and go the right way, and ignoring any requests from our Chinese tour leader for any update on the new ETA...but worst of all were the bus station toilets during a short break 3 hours out from Jiayuguan. The place is Gua Zhou Bus Station, indescribably filthy. You have been warned.
Along the way, you pass through numerous oases, with maize, cotton and sunflowers in abundance, then you're back into the gobi - blank infinite desertscapes to the north and some sandstone hills and bluffs to the south. Fairly murky viewing today, light rain in paces and we crossed the tail end of a sandstorm at one point too.
The Dunhuang Fei Tian Hotel wasn't ready for our mid afternoon arrival, after five and a half hours on the bus. Rooms not available and those that were, not yet cleaned. Some stubbornness in Reception soon sorted that out, and clean rooms found, albeit not air conditioned. Feels like a warm summer at home in mine. Fawlty Towers comes to mind and the shower's drainage in the bathroom seems to end up on the floor. Don't think I'll be recommending this hotel!
Late snack and beer in hotel grounds, and discovered free and fast wifi, so first real contact with all things West since I left over a week ago. Wish I hadn't bothered...
In the evening we walked into the market area of Dunhuang. 'Market area' is a bit of a misnomer. Unlike the scruffy bus station we arrived at, the scramble to get a taxi, and the calamities on arrival at the hotel, we found a vibrant and cosmopolitan town, with bustling retail, entertainment and cultural interest. A bit like another Las Vegas, with modern buildings, bright neon lights, and streets thronged with tourists out for a good night's entertainment.
Dinner was still Han Chinese in style, as we're not quite in Muslim country yet, although there was no pork on the menu served here as it transpired that the owner was Hui (Chinese Muslim)... still managed to get a beer though.
Early to bed tonight, re-reading the excellent 'Foreign Devils on the Silk Road' by Peter Hopkirk, which tells the story of how various archeologists from England, France and Germany 'procured' many priceless artefacts from various points along the Silk Road, a notable example being the Mogao Caves to be visited tomorrow.
Our objective today is to visit China's richest treasure house of Buddhist iconography, the Mogao Caves, which honeycomb the cliff face of the Mingsha Hills 25km to the south east of Dunhuang.
And what an experience, from start to finish a truly excellent example of how to manage an iconic landmark destination. A newly built approach road with new airport, an amazing new railway station (but under-employed due to the global financial crisis), and great visitor entrance facilities.
We were allocated a specialist guide for English speaking tour groups, so were joined by a few Aussies and a couple of UK independent travellers. Then into the caves, situated in the sandstone/conglomerate cliffs.
But these are not caves as you would know them. I was expecting a few dark and dingy holes in the cliff with a few badly eroded frescoes, but what we found were large Buddhas, up to 37m in height, carved out of the rock, some surrounded by carved or sculpted bodhisattvas, disciples and guardian deities. Each contained within caves painted with frescoes of Buddhist sutras, stories of the Chinese dynasty in which the cave had been created, and, inevitably, images of thousands of Buddhas in their multiple manifestations.
Some caves were more minimalist, others more damaged by erosion or vandalism, but the restoration work that successive generations of Chinese have done on the caves is truly impressive.
A little history to put all this into perspective. Dunhuang (historically Tun-huang) was the westernmost point of China before travellers took their life into their own hands and started across the desert country of the Gashun Gobi, and, further to the west, the infamous Taklamakan (translated from the Turki, 'go in and you won't come out' ; Chinese: Liu Sha = moving sands). It's just before the division of the Silk Road into the northern or southern routes, and became hugely important as a stop-off point for traders and pilgrims alike.
|Meditation caves at Mogao, near Dunhuang|
|Mogao Caves, an excellent example of sympathetic preservation|
Successive dynasties took it upon themselves to preserve and restore these caves, although the ravages of wind and sand erosion, wild birds and animals, and abuse by fleeing Tsarists after the Russian Revolution took their toll.
Many pieces of ancient history now reside in the UK, Berlin, Paris and The Hermitage in St. Petersburg, and for once, I can share in the Chinese indignation about the true home for their ancient legacy.
The tour of the caves was superb, even visiting a cave, No. 85, that has only been opened for three days since its restoration in 1987. Of course, one of the highlights was to visit the infamous cave No. 17, the 'Library Cave', the small area bricked up for 1,000 years and then emptied by the wily Aurel Stein in a matter of months.
Back into Dunhuang after four hours. It was pleasantly cool this morning due to high cloud which kept the heat down nicely.
Then into the more traditional market area, close to the city centre, where we ate some street food with a beer or two. A good day out followed by a rest in the afternoon and dinner in town later, this time managing to find cosy little bar/coffee shop selling locally produced red wine, a Pinot Noir. Quite a good wine, something akin to a middle ranking Cotes du Rhone.
Today we are heading to the massive sand dunes in the desert just south of Dunhuang, the renowned 'Rumbling Sands', named by Marco Polo because of the noise of thunder or a drum roll the dunes make when the wind rolls over them.
We had the choice of climbing the 250m high Mingsha dune, or alternatively travelling by camel to a high point in the dunes and then on to the Crescent Lake, a local outcropping of a dwindling water table which facilitates a small oasis and an opportunity for the locals to charge for more access to things. Having paid the entry to the dunes, then for the camel, and then access to a wooden stairway up on to the ridge of the higher dunes, we felt we had properly contributed to the local economy! Camel it was, an effortless ride on a twin humped Bactrian Camel, avoiding the laborious climb up very soft sand. Yet, as we descended from the Crescent Lake, the heavens opened and we got somewhat soggy in a very rare rain shower. It was the first time our local guide had ever seen rain in the desert around Dunhuang.
|Stumpy on Bactrian Camel on the Mingsha Dunes near Dunhuang|
|Crescent Lake, near Dunhuang|
Actually, our next adventure started there and then...the driver, who had underwhelmed us already by smoking in the bus before we stepped into it, had not filled up with diesel and was then somewhat surprised, after driving round and round Dunhuang for 45 minutes, that there was actually no diesel to be bought in the town, a bit embarrassing for him and a bit disconcerting for us as we had a train to catch some 130km to the north east of the city. Eventually he set off across the gobi, first leaving the cotton fields and vineyards of the Dunhuang oasis before getting into a massive expanse of more barren country, empty of anything except vast views, to the west the sun slowly dying in the sky, and to the east vast areas of wind farms, with windmills in their hundreds highlighted in the evening sun.
Although it was unclear whether we would have enough fuel to get us there in time for our 2220 sleeper train to Turpan, we did eventually reach the outskirts of two filthy little towns, the first called Hongliuyuan, and the second, the one with our station in it, Liuyuan.
We had passed through what appeared to be a zone of black lava flows just before the town boundaries, and in rapidly failing light the grim reality of these towns, here in the middle of absolutely nowhere, could be discerned. Horrible, industrial, almost post apocalyptic, it felt like you were entering your own little nightmare. The station was reached without drama, and we left the hapless driver wondering whether he could get any diesel for his pick-ups the following day...this area seemed to have no diesel either.
The station wasn't bad, typical by Chinese standards and busy with commuting migrant workers, and I tried a couple of pre-packaged snack foods from the shop there, tiny pickled eggs (somewhat chewy but OK), a sausage (turned out to be a tube of luncheon meat) and a chicken drumstick (the aspic outside was unnecessary!).
The train arrived on time, and in the ensuing chaos we found that our guide had inadvertently booked us into 'hard class'. This means that you share a compartment with five others, the bunks are narrower and three high, and there's no privacy curtain or door to separate you from the corridor. Somehow I was allocated the top bunk, so a bit of mountaineering was required to get into bed (!), and I then spent the night readjusting my ear plugs to drown out the snores of a rather large Chinese gentlemen in the top bunk facing me. Worst of all was the group of locals who decided to have a chat and some pot noodles in the early hours. Ho hum, that's adventure travel for you, but I still managed to get 4-5 hours kip.
Eight and a half hours later we arrived in Turpan (Turfan), situated in a desert oasis south east of Urumchi, and reputed to be the second lowest point on earth, the Turfan Depression, at it's lowest point 155m below sea level. The early morning air at the station was refreshing, but with the clear sky we knew that temperatures would soon soar to 40 degrees later in the day.
The station, in Daheyan (Tulufan on schedules), is about 50 minutes north of the town and you slowly descend about 500m to reach the city, featuring pleasant boulevards with tree lined pedestrian and cycle ways, and populated with about a quarter of a million people, 70% of them Uygurs, very much central Asian in appearance and Muslim in their beliefs. Turpan city is between 50m above and 80m below sea level (dependent on which guide/guide book you choose to believe).
The Turpan Hotel (also known as Tulufan Binguan) has an imposing building design in and out, and we had a quick breakfast here ('western style' which included fried fish pieces and some really good chips..!) before heading off for the 15 minute drive west to the ancient city of Jiaohe.
This was a treat in the early morning light. Perched on top of 30m cliffs, the city is at the confluence of two rivers that flow either side. Once the capital of the State of South Cheshi in the Han dynasty, it was an effective fortress, although in later years it was to be occupied by Tibetans, and then Uygars in the 9th century, before being destroyed by the Mongols and finally abandoned.
It's an impressive site (UNESCO status applied for) and affords good views to the mountains of the Bogda Shan to the north, snow capped and rising to 5445m, the water source for the ancient irrigation systems we were to visit later. Nearer to this Tang dynasty city, there are good views of the many grape drying towers around the town (Turpan's primary agriculture is fruit, including grapes for export to inner China and raisins produced from them). The ancient city itself contains watchtowers and a large Buddhist monastery complex, and extends about a mile from one end to the other. Once we left the noisy Chinese tour groups behind, there were great views and a very peaceful atmosphere. Recommended.
|View from the ancient city of Jiaohe|
The locally pressed water melon juice was good!
Finally, with temperatures soaring, we visited the Emin Minaret (also called the Sung Ho Minaret after the son of Emin Khoja, Suleman, who, in 1778, completed the task his father had started). The minaret is 37m high with geometric patterns in brick, simple but attractive, adjacent to a simple mosque, now largely used for cultural education rather than worship.
|Emin minaret, Turpan|
Before returning to the hotel to escape the heat, the group enjoyed beef noodles and lamb with pilau rice, washed down with a cloudy local honey beer.
Much needed R&R for the afternoon. Like the hotel in Dunhuang, there is a cafe in the grounds called 'John's Cafe', providing western snacks and fast wifi. Sister branches are also to be found in Kashgar and Lhasa. The afternoon heat has to be felt to be believed...it's like being in an oven. Awesome, dry heat here in the summer, but can fall to -20 degrees in the winter - classic continental climate.
I like this place, everything very chilled and the local Uygurs friendly. The town is a delight, with walkways trellised with grapes and small mosques abound. Local Uygars, men with small caps, and women with colourful headscarves, favour two wheeled over four wheeled transport. By decree, work stops if the daytime temperature exceeds 45 degrees! When travelling around the town you can see where most locals spend their nights in summer - beds are outside the front door or on the roof space, to exploit the fresh night air, made easier by the absence of mosquitoes due to the extreme aridity.
Dinner at a restaurant by a man-made lake in the city centre, local noodles again, followed by a donkey cart ride back to the hotel and a final beer.
Today's excursions took us first to the ancient city of Gaochang, also known as Kharakhoja, 47km south east of Turpan. Our route took us out across the desert again, spotting the wells sunk to facilitate the digging of the Karez irrigation system, now under pressure due to depleting snow on the Tien Shan and increasing demand from the Turpan prefecture.
Gaochang is a huge site, once a garrison town in the 2nd century, and ultimately capital of the Kingdom of Gaochang during the Han period, when it was the dominant force over 21 other towns. Famed for its early adoption of Buddhism, playing host to one of the earliest Chinese scholars, the monk Xuan Zang, when he was en route to India to procure Buddhist sutras for translation in China, it subsequently permitted Manicheanism and Nestorianism to be worshipped, before destruction of the city in the wars of the 14th century.
|Local musician at Gaochang|
Moving on to the nearby Astana Tombs, we passed through Uygar villages, beds airing outside the front doors, men baking nan breads, and grapes being loaded into the ventilated towers for drying into raisins.
|Raisin towers near Turpan|
Reminded again of one's own mortality (!), we then headed north to visit the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves, hidden within the Flaming Mountains (Huozhou Shan) which offer stunning red sandstone scenery above the gorge of the Murtuk River. Awesome viewing, and when we arrived at the cave complex the vista opened to reveal the snow topped peaks of the Bogda Shan rising to over 5000m to our north. The Flaming Mountains are so called because they are said to look like tongues of fire in the early afternoon sun. Well, they do, kind of...
|Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves|
Rest in the afternoon back at the hotel, with internet time in John's Cafe before dinner in a newly opened and quite upmarket local Han restaurant. Excellent grub, yet again.
Small coach to Urumqi, about three hours on new highway, initially across the gebi desert, passing the largest wind farm in Asia, with literally thousands of giant windmills and still being expanded. Then a slow climb of about 500-600m through dramatic rocky mountain scenery, a spur of the Tien Shan range and rich in nickel deposits.
Approaching Urumqi, past the huge salt lake of Dabancheng, a new high-speed railway construction project (Urumqi to Lanzhou, due for completion in 2012), and another giant wind farm, this one producing peak time energy for Urumqi.
|Huge wind farms approaching Urumqi|
A quick visit to a state operated silk carpet and jade emporium before lunch in a Chinese Muslin (Hui) restaurant. Good, new flavours once again, with excellent dumplings and rice cake, washed down with cherry juice and Wusu beer.
|Great food throughout the trip|
Turning east, our next destination is Heaven Lake, Tien Chi, 110 km out of the city. This is set in the foothills of the Tien Shan and is a major tourist attraction for the Chinese, with a 35-40 minute shuttle bus service running from an imposing entrance station. One of our number counted 60 33-seater buses driving up the hill during our 35 minute descent ride the following day, so, conservatively, we estimated 3-4,000 clients every hour (and probably 6,000 at peak capacity), all dropped off at a busy hub 15 minutes walk from the lake itself.
|Yurt camp above Tien Chi|
Richard and I went off for a walk, first clambering up an old path which rose very steeply up a gully to reach a pagoda at about approx. 2200m, a climb of 250m which took us 30 minutes. The path had collapsed in places and much of it was covered by stone fall, so care was required in places, and it's clear that the locals have left it like this because it's a high maintenance route that will not be used by many. The reward was a fabulous 360 degree view, west to the desert up from Urumqi, east to the snow capped peaks of Bogda Shan, and the lake stretching out beneath us.
|View from the pagoda above Tien Chi|
|The only way is down!|
|Tao temple above Tien Chi|
|Storm clouds over Tien Chi|
Up early, a poor breakfast, then off for another walk before the hordes arrive. The yurt experience is not recommended. The Kazakhs who hosted us couldn't give a stuff about service standards, and the food was a rip off. According to the guidebooks there is a hotel at Tien Chi, but right now it's not open. Better still, find a better spot in the higher reaches of the valley and camp yourself. Horses and guides can be hired to take you into glaciated country further up, and a three day expedition to climb Bogda Shan is possible from there.
|Tien Chi: the sign says it all...|
Then, back to the shuttle bus station, in time to see thousands of people arriving, and grabbed some freshly baked nan and a small lamb pastie before our descent.
It's a bit of a shock to get back down the valley and disembark into a temperature that's probably at least 10 degrees higher, and we returned swiftly to Urumqi for lunch and then a visit to the Xinjiang Autonomous Region Museum.
This was very good indeed, with displays of artefacts found along the Silk Road (notably from Loulan, Niya, Jiaohe and Kizil), a section showcasing the many different minority groups that populate Xinjiang, and a display of mummified bodies excavated from around the Taklamakan Desert, the features and clothing preserved due to the extreme aridity. The famed 'Loulan Beauty', the mummified remains of a tall woman of Indo-European origin, was not on display at the time of our visit, as it was being exhibited elsewhere in China. Worth a good couple of hours and getting an expert English-speaking guide to walk you through the mummies section on the upper floor.
Checked into the very centrally located City Hotel. Adequate for one night, but dodgy drainage and inefficient air con.
Dinner in the city, with views through the many skyscrapers to the snowy peaks of the Tien Shan to the north and east.
I'm not keen on Urumqi. Firstly it's an extremely busy city, overwhelmed with traffic and an overloaded public transport system, it's hot and muggy, and the people are brusque. Queue jumping, rude service in shops, I don't need to go on...
Off early to catch the train to Kashgar, this time with a new guide, 'Rick', for this final leg of our journey. The train is said to take 23 hours to cross the northern perimeter of the the Taklamakan Desert, but can be subject to huge delays, most recently a 4.8 magnitude earthquake that disrupted 20km of track (fixed within three days!), and occasionally by big sandstorms called buran (in the Uygar language 'black wind'), which pick up sand and gravel with such ferocity that windows get broken and, on one occasion, carriages blown over. One journey is reputed to have taken 50 hours!
Having negotiated our way through heavy rush hour traffic we were led into the enormous railway station, through security and up to the Soft Class lounge, almost devoid of people and with comfortable leather sofas to sit on.
|Crossing through the Tien Shan from Urumqi to Kashgar|
|Yurts in the Tien Shan valleys|
|Desert scenery to the north of the Taklamakan|
It seemed to take ages to get to Korla, about 9.5 hours in fact, although the night stage along the northern fringe of the Taklamakan was faster, if a little bumpier...this was the section, near Kucha, that was damaged less than two weeks ago by an earthquake.
We left Korla, just as it was getting dark, a relatively verdant spot due to it's proximity to the large Bostan Lake, fed by rivers draining south from the Tien Shan. But it was no surprise to wake up as the sun rose and to see nothing but unremitting sandy desert to our south, and the arid slopes of the continuing barrier of the Tien Shan to the north.
The northern perimeter of the Tarim Basin is quite fertile in places and as we awoke the scenery alternated between oases where maize, grapes, apricots and dates grew in abundance, and vast expanses of rock desert or salt pan. More multi-coloured outcrops of rock as it spilled on to the flat expanse of the Tarim Basin, and the contrasting dark monotony of salt flats seemingly stretching to eternity. A huge variety of views before we pulled into the large railway station at Kashgar about 1140 on a bustling Saturday morning.
|Spice stall in Kashgar|
On the way to our first destination we passed through a streets of low mud brick homes, although many are now being demolished by the Chinese authorities and the people re-housed in more modern accommodation on the pretext that it's safer for them in this very earthquake prone area.
We first visited the holiest place for Sufis in Xinjiang, Abakh Khoja's tomb. Built in 1640 for this powerful ruler of the Kashgar region and also leader of the White Hat Sect of Islam, it is also the resting place of his granddaughter, known as the 'Fragrant Concubine', the favourite of Emperor Qianlong. A nice, peaceful spot and fine marble exterior.
|Abakh Khoja's Tomb, Kashgar|
After a quick lunch in a local Uygar restaurant, noodles and pilau rice with lamb, we walked through parts of the old town, watching locals plying their trade, selling freshly baked nan from their tandoors, butchering lamb, selling locally grown apricots, peaches and figs, and local craftsmen metal working and carving wood. Very atmospheric and quite unlike China, we really felt we were in central Asia.
|Selling figs in Kashgar|
The Idkah Mosque is, in fact, the largest mosque in China, and was thronged with men completing their devotions as we walked through. Built in 1442, it dominates the town's central square, and once again, a security presence was seen here, with soldiers standing under Red Bull umbrella canopies, not quite what the drink-maker's marketing team had envisaged methinks!
Then back to the hotel for a beer (not available in the restaurant earlier as it was an Islamic business), then some chill time before dinner in a local Han Chinese restaurant. Actually, not just any old Han restaurant, as this one, just behind the hotel, is in the original British Consulate, and many of the rooms still had the original decor. I bet the building will not be standing for too much longer though!
It's Sunday, so off to the main market event of the week in Kashgar, the animal market - plenty of local colour here!
|Kashgar's Sunday Market|
Then back to the main road, through chaotic traffic, to pick up our 4WD for the afternoon.
I had arranged an additional trip for the rest of the day, a journey into the mountains to the NW of Kashgar to see the impressive Shipton's Arch, first discovered by the mountaineer Eric Shipton during WW2 when he was the Consul-General in Kashgar.
It's the largest naturally formed arch in the world, about 500m in height, and is known locally as Tushak Tash ('pierced rock' in Uygar). Located on the eastern fringe of the Pamir Range, it took until 2000 for westerners to locate the arch again, this time by a National Geographic sponsored expedition, and still receives only a few visitors due to it's remoteness.
After about an hour on tarmac, route number 308, we turned off on to gravel, following an initially wide river bed, finally narrowing into a dead end gorge after about 40 minutes. Here we decamped, and followed a narrowing water course until we reached a series of metal and some wooden ladders which took us through some narrow gaps in the rock, almost certainly waterfalls in the spring melt season. After about half an hour our first sighting of the arch was made, and from a distance looked like just another rock arch.
How wrong we were. The final approach up a steeper series of zigzags reveals one of the wonders of the world. The arch is truly massive, and drops away below your feet for hundreds of metres. A fantastic spectacle, with views to the southern deserts through this marvellous structure.
|Explorers reach Shipton's Arch!|
Of course, like all things in this country, the sense of adventure in getting to a remote spot like this will soon be gone, as they are starting to build a road into the canyon to make it easier for the mass market to visit. Go now, if you want some solitude!
Before getting our flights back to Beijing via Urumqi, we visited a traditional village outside of Kashgar, about 45km south along the Karakoram Highway. En route we passed through an enormous area being developed as a new town just south of Kashgar, as, once again, the government has big expansion plans for this area. Further south we passed through a town mainly given over to servicing local military bases, and we had to pass through a police checkpoint to access the town of Shufu.
Passing across a fertile plain of agricultural land, with rice, maize, water melon and apricots growing on land protected by newly planted poplars, we were excited to see some massive snow-capped mountains rearing up from the flat plains to our west. In the early morning haze we were looking at the Keng Tau, an eastern range forming part of the Pamirs, and rising to 6760m in the south (Karabekter Tag), with the summit of Budunsel Tau 6220m immediately in front of us.
|Local Uygar ladies disembark a horse drawn taxi|
|View west to the Pamir mountains from above Upal|
We arrived in the big village of Upal just as the market was being set up by the traders, and herds of animals were being walked into the bazaar, as well as piled up on the backs of donkey drawn or small petrol propelled transports.
The bazaar has different sectors for clothing, food, sweets, etc. and occasionally you would spot the odd Tajik or Kyrgyz man amongst the throngs of local Uygar people, the women brightly dressed and well turned out as usual. By the way, Uygar is pronounced 'weegur'.
A quick lunch, then back to Kashgar for our first flight of the day, to Urumqi.
Kashgar airport turned out to be very new and not very busy, and it was not long before we were off to Urumqi with China Eastern Airlines in a very new A320, arriving one and a half hours later after a fascinating flight over the northern rim of the Tarim Basin and its interminable desert landscapes to the south, and the mighty snow covered peaks of the Tien Shan to the north.
|View back to the valleys we travelled by train from Urumqi to Kashgar|
After a short hotel stop in Beijing, BA back to London. Allow extra time for queuing into the airport security!
Travelling the breadth of the country gives a unique insight into the pace of development in China - from the sophistication of Beijing, its confident architecture, the frequency of Audis and BMWs spotted on the well constructed highways, and its cosmopolitan atmosphere, to the new frontiers in the west - audacious building, energy and infrastructure projects in the barren wastes of the Xinjiang deserts and mountain ranges of the Tien Shan. This is a nation that knows where it's going, it has a plan, and nothing is going to get in its way.
There is still a close juxtaposition of the old and the new in China: one view, of horseman herding sheep in Dabancheng valley approaching Urumqi, against the background of a large salt lake and Tien Shan beyond, contrasting with a giant mass of wind farms and the ongoing construction of a new high speed rail link in the near distance, rather says it all.
The scale of the place and the impact man is having on it is unnerving.
I have enjoyed the friendliness of the people. A smile works wonders, and a response in their own tongue, either in Mandarin or Uygar even better. Everywhere, even in Beijing, western visitors are still regarded with friendly curiosity. And we were a rare breed indeed as we travelled west from Xi'an.
I've also enjoyed great food everywhere, the Sichuan style especially.
But a few cautionary notes: internal tourism is now huge: the upsides from this are superb infrastructures around iconic spots and increasingly strenuous preservation efforts. The downsides are overwhelming concentrations of visitors, and rampant commercialisation around some of the sights. The advance of the domestic tourist is now unstoppable.
You can also see the increasing homogenisation of the country - KFC is ubiquitous, Gant, Versace and Prada in the smarter districts. Everywhere, teenage fashionistas, usually wearing clothes emblazoned with western slogans.
It's clear that minorities like the Uygar and Hui will become increasingly marginalised as the government relocates millions of Cantonese to the west. More trouble ahead here methinks.
Some bad habits recur. Noisy clearing of the nasal passage (fortunately without spitting, following a state purge on this foul behaviour), loud conversations in a fairly guttural dialect are unpleasant to listen to, and public and some restaurant toilets require a strong stomach.
But the message is 'get to China soon', before increasing wealth and globalisation turn it into another gigantic theme park.
© Colin Stump
Footnote: estimated land distance travelled = 5700km