Turpan, Dunhuang and the Great Wall

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October 14th 2010
Published: March 14th 2012
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We got to Turpan after four dirty days bush-camping, itching (literally) for a shower. "Turpan is a legendary oasis; its various settlements have long been a stopover on the northern route of the silk road" says lonely planet. I really have to stop hoping for little desert towns, because small & picturesque as that sounds, Turpan's still a big, modern and concrete. It is pretty- the small road from our hotel, next to a school with tons of energetic and cheeky teenagers, was covered by a lattice of grape vines all along its length. People cycle everywhere, and there's a cool night market (I'll get to that). But there's still a 'best food burger' joint just outside the hotel, and neon lights shining bright through the town.

Day one was spent at the Jiaohe Ruins, a huge sand coloured town, amazingly preserved, sitting beside a canyon, which mainly just made me wonder why it had been deserted- it didn't seem to make sense that it had just been left there, why it hadn't it either been taken over if it had been attacked, or hadn't grown and developed into a new town over time? It was interesting, but I didn't feel like I got that great a grasp of the history of the place, so though interesting to see, in a lot of ways it just felt like a lot of broken down sandy houses... We did have fun riding the Donkey Carts you have to catch to get there though.

We had a look round a small pretty Vinyard, before which we stopped at the most touristy part of the Karez- an astonishing irrigation system, a 5000km set of underground tunnels, built by hand 2000 years ago, to bring water from the mountains to places like Turpan, with a series of vertical wells dug every 20-30 metres, that from above look like big bolts along the landscape. I'd have liked to have gone to a smaller example, rather than the ultra touristy one outside Turpan. It's hard to stand and wonder at man's strength and ingenuity all those years ago when you've got fifty Chinese tourists pushing past you lead by a woman holding a flag & shouting down a loud speaker, trying to avoid being blinded by the ever changing UV lights that lit up the underground caves...

All of which would have been tough on their own, but were truly painful with a hangover, gained the night before over a pretty marathon poker match that lasted till 2am. At about half twelve it was just John & I left in, I had a pile of notes in front of me, he had just brought back in, and had one measly yuan (like, 10p) left. "Let's double the blind!" says Thomas, and just like that, John wins it all back. Doh. But it was a super fun night, and I'm pretty sure we learnt a load more about Chinese culture... If the whisky hasn't erased everything John told us... Toilet trips were also eventful (stay with me here) - the bathroom was only about 300 yards across the asphalt, but for ease & speed we were provided with a bathroom bike to make getting there and back faster- which got progressively shakier & more comical as the night wore on. I for one decided I was wonder woman on wheels, it's kind of a miracle I woke up the next day with just a headache.

The following evening, the four of us went off into town to hit the night market for dinner (which, I'm afraid, had such a great vibe, I decided to put my camera away and just soak of the atmosphere). Though surrounded by neon lights, and interrupted by the big water display in the fountain beside it, it was a nice reminder of the traditional part of China. Lots of little brightly lit up stalls dotted around, with rows of metal tables behind, mostly filled with people slurping down noodles & chewing on fatty kebabs. Along one side next to a hedge were a few big ovens with rotating golden brown glowing chickens inside. The stalls had kebabs roasting over hot coals, pink fatty meat & deep dark pieces of liver & kidneys, or bowls of noodley soup with chicken legs & wings balanced on top. Here & there were the odd goat head or pink, plucked, lifeless chicken. The nicest part was seeing the stall holders making their feasts, especially the children, like a little boy of maybe three or four helping to very slowly roll out the dumpling pastry, and the little girls running around from their stall to another, borrowing an ingredient or a cooking instrument- there was a wonderful communal feel to it all. In the end we picked a bowl of noodles as well as a bowl of dumplings, and it was great just to sit in the middle of it all & chat & joke all together, for one of the last times...

Nigel had decided a few days before that, that he'd be going home once we reached Dunhuang. As I said in the last update, one of the greatest parts of travelling is, of course, the people you meet along the road. It's so unlike normal relationships, at no other time are you thrown together with someone you'll be living with day in day out, eating, drinking & sleeping together, experiencing a totally new world, a bonding experience even with people you already know. It so quickly becomes a family, so even after just two weeks, it felt like we were losing a really close friend.

We all liked Dunhuang as soon as we got there, there was something subtly quieter & more traditional about it- more pagoda style building, less noise, less burger joints. It was just nice. I also really liked the hotel; they served delicious donkey meat noodles- they have a lovely rich, gamey flavour, yum. Plus they
Old MusicianOld MusicianOld Musician

Sitting outside the Caves
had a super awesome friendly dog who was fun to hang out with.

We went to the Magou caves early the next day, which could be awesome if you weren't lead around the place like school kids by a deadpan woman who looks like a lost air hostess, with speaker sets that don't
work & seem somewhat unnecessary when the rooms are an average 3 metres square, and all details and history of each room are dictated to you in a carefully memorised monotone description ending with "an thas da cave". That's probably unfair- I'm sure it's just what she's told to say, but Nigel, in particular, and Thomas & I (Thomas was also in a state of disorientated panic due to being unable to take in his camera) all found the whole organised tour thing pretty frustrating, & I get pretty sick of this 'on the tour bus, off the tour bus' mentality (and it does make the truck feel like a tour bus), I've never been a big fan, unfortunately there's just not a lot of choice in the matter when you're in communist China.

But the caves were beautiful, they're ancient Buddhist caves, the Walls and ceilings often covered with thousands of identical seated Buddha's (hence the name: Thousand Buddha caves) as well as beautiful
paintings of life at the time, and of course, big statues of various Buddha's, it was impressive. My favourite was a cave where the Buddha's were painted in a darker, less intricate way- their faces
dark with white stripes to mark their eyes & noses. The ceiling had hunting scenes with boar, horses & ox, that reminded me very much of the early story board sketches from Disney cartoons, they looked
almost modern, and very cool. I wish I could tell you much more about it, but being slightly ADD, my attention span is pretty short at the best of times & unfortunately I totally zoned out of what air hostess lady was saying.

The rest of the day was free, and we decided to use our few hours to cycle to half crescent lake, about fourty minutes away. We hopped on our rented bikes & began our journey to the lake, it was a pleasant ride, the roads had separate lanes with trees on either side for cyclists, so it was easy, though Julia was more thorough when picking her bike... I just got on & went, & then found it to be rusty, stiff & squeaky and went 'tuk tuk tuk' as the front wheel went around.

The lake, in picture, was a beautiful emerald green/blue half crescent shape, sitting in the middle of wild sand dunes, with a picturesque pagoda looking over it. This was mainly true, but it was more of a
grey puddle, and stacked with Chinese tourists trudging around in massive bright orange sand boots over their shoes, totally covered up from the sun with umbrellas and such. But the pagoda's were lovely, and touristy though it was, it looked really fun if you gave into it- archery, sand-sledding down the huge dunes, strings of camels & horses to ride around, and more temptingly, quad bikes & paragliders. But, short on time, we just spent time wandering around the Pagoda, which was pretty, really lovely actually, we were glad we'd got to see it, and it was lovely to cycle down the sunny Chinese streets with the other locals.

We left Dunhuang late that afternoon, and drove on (& on) towards the great wall. We camped in Jiayuguan, right next to what is allegedly the most westerly part of the wall. It was a nice spot, with a large man made circular pond where people were wading in to fish with their big nets, next to which were a load of geese & chickens, a black & white guard dog & her little pup, and a super friendly funny little pug dog who constantly stayed with the truck (and the food) that we named, what else? Nigel.

The next day we drove a short while away to get to a part of the wall with more turrets & towers & a museum, that you pay to get into. It was... Ok... Of course it's impressive but it was very heavily restored and with bus loads of tourists left right & centre... I don't have much to say about it. It was much better when we got back and just walked up high up on the free open part for beautiful views over the surrounding hills & countryside, and so impressive to see how it climbed up hills & through valleys for miles and miles, it really is an amazing piece of engineering, thinking how so many worked for so long, so many that died to build something so huge- even bodies, the bodies of the slaves and workers who expired through heat, cold and exhaustion building it, were tossed onto the stone mud and sand, and used as a building materials themselves, you can't help but feel humbled. I could hardly believe I was standing on the Great Wall of China- it seems so foreign & exotic almost, like meeting a childhood hero or a celebrity you admire, you've heard so much about them, you've seen so many pictures, and you're so in awe- you can hardly believe they really exist. It was cool to duck your head up the tiny tunnels of stairs to the top of the guard towers, where they'd light the warning flames all those years ago, so much history right under your feet.

That night, a few of us decided to sleep on the wall, at the top of the highest guard tower. Now I've already described how cold it was in a tent, and you could only take up sleeping bags. Adam and Ant had a ball telling us we'd be back in ten minutes or freeze solid overnight, but armed with extra
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Looking super sexy camping on the Great Wall
sleeping bags, ground mats, and, crucially, beer, Thomas, Michelle, James, Julia (she just came up for a beer & some star watching before returning to her tent) and I, made the long walk up to the top of the most westerly part of the Great Wall of China to sleep under the stars, and I was warmer, & slept more soundly than I had in days. We dozed off after spotting shooting stars, laughing and chatting for a while, and laughing at Michelle, who'd consumed a bottle of wine & was a bit pissed, & kept belching loudly following by "ACH! PARDON!" in his French accent, this happened about every three minutes, along with "hmm I sink mebbe I'm dronk...".

I hadn't set an alarm to be sure to be back in time to cook breakfast at 7.15, just assuming I'd wake up freezing every hour, so when I woke up at seven with the sun coming up, I couldn't believe it. We packed up quickly, took a few photo's of the sun rising behind the smog of the factory chimneys a few miles away, and climbed back down to camp to boast to the others about what a
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Near our campsite in Jiayuguan
great night we'd had on the Great Wall.

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