Silk Road: Lanzhou to Dunhuang

China's flag
Asia » China » Gansu » Dunhuang
March 30th 2013
Published: March 30th 2013
Edit Blog Post

The Silk Road has always fascinated me. A few years back I attended the Smithsonian's Folklife festival on the Washington Mall which featured the Silk Road cultures, mostly food, dance, and story telling, for each country along the Silk Road from Turkey to China. It was inspirational!

It is difficult to date when long distance trade between the early civilizations of Mesopotamia, India and China began, but we can identify some of the conditions. The merchants had to be exceptional entrepreneurs, their merchandize had to be light and very much more valuable in distant lands, and there had to be sources of fresh water along the routes between markets. These entrepreneurs were less like Leiws and Clark who traveled across the North American continent with sufficient resources all around them; and more like Columbus without access to fresh water for unknown distances.

Although the road is known for silk, many other light weight, highly prized items such as spices and lapis lazuli moved along the road. We know that the road was in place during the Roman Empire as the wives of nobles wore silk gowns, which caused a scandle as Chinese silk is diaphonous.

The Silk Road was not a road per se, like Roman roads or the Persian Royal Road which were constructed linking the civilizations west of the Pamir Massif. The Silk Road for most of its length was not constructed, but was trails following the geography...along rivers and between oasis formed by rivers flowing out of the high mountians. The road has many branches. We were taking the northern branch as far as Urumqi, and then flying to Uzbekistan where most braches through the Pamirs joined once again.

Following the death of Qin Shi Huangdi, the first emperor and his brief dynasty, the Han dynasty arose (206 BC to 220 AD) with exceptional emperors. In 138 BC Emperor Wi Di sent his imperial envoy, Zhang Qian, to discover what lands lay to the west. The main purpose was to estabish military alliances, but his epic journey was the first recorded crossing of the Tian Shan mountains of the Pamir Massif into present day Uzbekistan. There he was particularly impressed by the "heavenly horses" of the Fergana Valley, which became a staple of future trade. Trade along this route eventually was replaced by new ocean routes opened by European explorers such as Vasco de Gama in the 14th and 15th centuries.

The eastern end of the road is Xian, the Chinese capital. The western ends included Istanbul, Turkey and Aleppo, Syria. I had traveled the Xian - Lanzhou segment in 2009 as recounted in my blog at Our drive to Minxian and night train to Xian. So now my journey would continue west from Lanzhou to Dunhuang.

29 March 2013 Friday. The overnight soft sleeper train from Lanzhou to Dunhuang was rough. The tracks needed maintenance as the train rocked jerkily back and forth. Fortunately, we had a great travel companion, Liyi, a Chinese woman who could speak English as she was the manager of a 4 or 5 star hotel in Dunhuang. So it was nice talking to her and finding out what to see in Dunhuang. After a sleepless night we arrived in Dunhuang at 7:50 am and were met by the driver from the hotel. It's nice to see your name and a friendly face occasionally so you can ignore all the taxi touts. Then it was a short drive to the hotel made longer by the driver going 20 mph...I looked for speed limit signs as a clue, but there weren't any. Our hotel, the Silk
Bob having successfully mounted his camelBob having successfully mounted his camelBob having successfully mounted his camel

with the camel driver fitting the stirrups
Road Dunhuang, is gorgeous...the architecture is in the Chinese caravanserai style. Obviously, this was low season as we are about the only occupants.

After checking in we sacked out as we didn't get much sleep on the train. Will was also feeling worse after feeling ok yesterday. By 11:30 am he asked me to get him a pizza...I got the wrong kind...not sure there was a right he gave it a pass. By 1:30 pm he asked for spagetti bolognese. It looked and smelled original, but he was still too ill to eat.

By 2 pm Will had enough of being ill and wanted to go to the hospital. The manager, Linda, rather than calling for a taxi, sent us with the driver and the hotel minivan to the hospital. At the hospital, we paid $.67 (that's point 67) to use the emergency room. Then the driver went in search of a nurse or doctor who could speak English. He sooon found a nurse. What English she didn't know, like medical terms, she used her smart phone to do the translation. Our first stop was to see her doctor. He pushed into every spot on Will's stomach
Bob ready to rollBob ready to rollBob ready to roll

Shane, this picture is for you!
asking when it hurt...everything hurt. He ordered blood tests and an ultrasound of Will's abdoment. We then went to pay $20 for these tests, and then waited for them. Next was the analysis of the high white blood cell count which was good, but there appeared to be a cyst in his abdoment. This called for some consultation between the original doctor, the head of his department, the head of internal medicine, the head of the hospital, a young doctor who was a recent graduate of Tianjian University, the best in China, and several others who were probably just curious. While we were in the doctor's office where every dctor and nurse had their smart phones out communicating with who knows who else, other patients came in to observe, and were helped by one or more of the doctors. There was no sense of patient confidentiality. Anyway, Will was prescribed a whole bunch of Traditional Chinese Medicine, some in the IV and some as pills.

About 4 pm Linda arrived at the hospital to see if everything was going ok, and whether we neded her to translate. We were very grateful for her concern and helpfulness. We went to pay for the medicine ($5) and pick up the pills. Will was then hooked up to an IV. Soon they decided he needed a second bottle and apoligetically told me that I needed to pay for that bottle. So back to the cashier whare I was charged 1.2 Yuan ($.20). I told the nurse that there wasn't any medicine in the States that cost $.20. Once Will was on IV it was only a matter of time...drip, drip, drip. Linda and the driver left at this time...about 6 pm. I left about 7 pm. Will got back to the hotel about 9 pm. The total cost of the hospital visit was less than $30...try that at any emergency room in the States! I know...for all you other readers in the developed world you would have paid nothing.

While I was waiting for Will back at the hotel I met a young American couple in the corridor outside my room. I invited them in to talk as they hadn't talked to an American in months. David was from Stanford University working on his PhD involving the early spread of Buddhism. Mercedes taught English to the hotel staff. They were provided free room and board on weekends in return for teaching the staff English. We must have talked for over an hour about their life here and my reasons for coming to China.

Upon his arrival back, Will declared he was feeling much better. We turned in for the night.

30 March 2013 Saturday. We woke up about 8:00 am, both feeling much better. So this would be our touring day.

Following breakfast where Will only ate cold cereal, we caught a taxi to the Cresent Lake and sand dunes where the camels awaited our arrival. Bactrian camels have two humps, which makes riding much easier than the one humped camels at the Egyptian pyramids. Bactrian camels are also more docile...they don't complain alot like their Egyptian counterparts. After getting in the saddle, the most exciting part was getting up...the forward thrust almost throws on off the saddle. After that it was easy cruising...until I had to get off at the rest stop near the top of a dune. The sand was very soft so I couldn't get my footing, or the boot leg off from the other side...soon I was sprawled in the sand. The Chinese
Will checcking out the camels during the rest stop.Will checcking out the camels during the rest stop.Will checcking out the camels during the rest stop.

My camel is the gentle one in the foreground
are very nice; again they helped me up. After the rest stop we returned down the dumes to Cresent Lake and disembarked. We caught a golf cart back to the entrance, but still had to walk a kilometer to where the public bus was.

Will wasn't hungry, so I had a sandwich for lunch, and then rested until our 1:15 pm pickup which would take us to the Mungao Caves. These caves contain the largest and best preserved Buddhist statues and frescos in China. However, some of the statues and most of the manuscripts were pillaged by early European archeologists. The earliest caves were commissioned during the the Northern Wei from 386 AD to 535 AD. The most beautiful artistry was during the Tang Dynasty.

Our 2:15 pm English tour included Will and I and at least a dozen Philippinos. Having already walked a couple kilometers that morning and another one just to get from the parking lot to the entrance to the caves, my leg was worse for the wear. Nevertheless I made a go of it, and completed the tour. Gratefully we only visited about a dozen of the over 492 caves there. I was most impressed with the 35 meter high Buddha which had been carved within a large cave in the hillside.

We returned to our hotel about 4:45 pm and headed right to the roof top cafe for cold drinks and eventually supper. Will and I shared spagetti bolognese and french fries. After supper I laid down to rest my legs and then completed this blog.

Tomorrow we are off to Jiayuguan, the western end of the Great Wall and then soft sleeper to Turpan. Oh, and I brought a couple chocolate Easter bunnies to commemorate Easter Sunday. Linda had an Easter egg basket at hotel reception. I asked her whether she knew what Easter meant. She said she did. To confirm I asked "When Christ rose from the dead?" She said yes. Happy Easter everyone!

Additional photos below
Photos: 14, Displayed: 14


Bob at the entrance to the Mungao CavesBob at the entrance to the Mungao Caves
Bob at the entrance to the Mungao Caves

No cameras were allowed inside so if you want to see what is there go to Google images.
Bob typing this blog in the hotel lobbyBob typing this blog in the hotel lobby
Bob typing this blog in the hotel lobby

We finally were reconnected to the internet!

30th March 2013

Simply amazing! You and Tyrell are really having an experience of a lifetime. Hope both of your health holds out so you can enjoy the rest of your trip. Love, Kathy and Buz
30th March 2013

So much for the health information protection and portability act. (HIPPA)
Bob, glad to hear Will is feeling much better. Did they give you a final diagnosis? You don't need to answer. I'm glad the treatment plan worked. Wow, $30. Unbelievable. I'm glad you were able to meet the people from Stanford and chat. I'm sure they appreciated being around some Americans. Love the photos on the camels.
30th March 2013

Who would have thought that Will would be the one in the hospital and not you with your weak leg. I don't know how you are doing this.....and since when do people eat sandwiches and spagetti in China! I guess spaghetti halfway was invented there. Happy Easter!
31st March 2013
We Two Kings of Orient Are

Lucky you!
I've ridden many camels, but never a Bactrian. Knowing that they are easier to ride and possess a better temperament than the Arabian camel (dromedary) has only increased my dream to journey atop a Bactrian camel even more.
3rd April 2013
We Two Kings of Orient Are

Bactrians are definitely the way to go!
I think you will find your personalities compatible. You will have to do Central Asia, though. Then you can change your profile picture to show an adorable Bactrian camel!
31st March 2013

Hope Will's recovery is speedy!
Great to see the photos, great progress!
1st April 2013

During our California TB gathering, this blog was mentioned and we all hope that Will continues to feel better and that your leg builds up strength by the end of this trip so you can take your boot off! The Bactrian camels also look cuter than their Egyptian counterparts -- I think it's the fuzz.
2nd April 2013

Thanks for following us...
and your concerns. I went without my boot for the first time yesterday and will leave it off. Will is still weak but no more gastro problems. We are leaving Tyrpan today and then flying from AUrumqi to Tashkent. I hope to have better internet i"m using the hotel's oofice computer.
3rd April 2013

Happy Easter
Have enjoyed, but also worried a little, about your travels. Hope all is well from now on! P.S. You didn't miss much with the marble boat...
3rd April 2013

We are well...
We arrived in Tashkent this morning and are about to go to the old town. The internet has been awefully slow or non-existent since I posted my last blog, but will try to bring my trip up to date this evening. Thanks so much for your concerns!
4th April 2013

I don't know about all this camel business
As a Dutch person I prefer cows, they produce better milk as well! Although I tried camel chocolates ones, they weren't half bad. Funny about that your tour group at the Mugao caves consisted mainly of Philipinos, when I did my tour it was the same. I wonder if Mugao is a big destination for them?
8th April 2013

These Philippinos were Buddhists...
4th May 2013
Crescent Lake...not more than a mud puddle

Magic shot this one. I was away camping when you did this part of your trip so only shared it in patches so glad to take time to enjoy it now. Dunhuang and Mogao Grottoes have always been on our wish list. I've been to 4 of the Top 5 Grotto sites in China and Mogao is said to be amazing. Tell me...were you able to take photos in the grottoes...or if forbidden did others do so? At Maiji Shan in Gansu it was forbidden but I noticed the Chinese tourists did so anyway without penalty. I was paranoid my camera would be confiscated so only took pics surreptitiously!
4th May 2013

For some unknown reason I can't reply to comments by clicking on reply, so here's a new comment in response to yours. I was not able to take pictures of the Mungao Caves...they made me check in my camera at the entrance so I couldn't even take pictures surreptitiously. Those with smaller cameras might have been able to sneak a camera in, but pictures in the caves would have required a flash, which the guides would have noticed right away. I didn't see anyone taking pictures, but you can buy pictures at the gift shop. I don't think TB permits scanning and posting post cards, but that seems to be the only solution if you want pictures in your blog.
14th April 2015
Crescent Lake...not more than a mud puddle

What an incredible looking place with those dramatic dunes as a backdrop!
15th April 2015
Crescent Lake...not more than a mud puddle

That's where we rode the Bactrian camels...
I was hoping to inspire you as I have yet to see you riding a camel...and Bactrian camels are the easiest to ride.

Tot: 0.426s; Tpl: 0.053s; cc: 23; qc: 27; dbt: 0.0114s; 1; m:saturn w:www (; sld: 1; ; mem: 1.5mb