The night train to Xi'an to Beijing was an interesting experience. Our tour leader, Mark, scared us with stories about the Chinese train boarding skills - as everyone crams on all at once with a lot of pushing and shoving. But the fears were relatively unfounded as we boarded without any dramas. The hard sleeper carriages were divided into six bunk compartments without a door way (so everyone that wanders past stares at the bizarre foriengers). The bunks were narrow and certainly lived up to their hard sleeper status. But other than that the trip was relatively comfortable.
Xi'an is China's ancient capital and home to the Terracotta warriers. The scale of the army is certainly impressive - most of the army remains uncovered until a time when they can prevent the oxidisation destroying all the colours. Sarah and I spent the rest of our time in Xi'an exploring the old city walls, the small goose pagoda, the museum and the stele museum. In the evenings, just outside the South gate the locals gather to dance and sing. Music and dance randomly sparks up somewhere, and everyone can join in (including the strange foreign tourists who display no
sense of rhythm). I doubt any western male would be caught dead dancing with a pink sparkly umbrella. Xi'an marks the start of the silk road and from here we headed further west with a 17 hour train ride to Jiayaugan.
Jiayuguan is where the Great Wall ends. The repaired sections of the wall are in a completely different style to the eastern sections of the wall. Old and unaltered sections of the wall can been seen at the site of the first beacon tower. There were also little gecko and weta like creatures scurrying about in the sand - keeping me most amused. Dinner was had at the local night market - selling numerous varieties of meat on stick and noodly things, which was great fun for us with the locals. The food in China is another experience. The food we've been served is much nicer than the Chinese food served at home. Street food is great and normally cheap - we were served an entire chicken, head and feat included at one restaurant.
From Jiayuguan we continued through the Gobi desert to Dunhuang. Dunhuang is an Oasis town and the sudden constrast of desert then green
town, is a bit bizarre. At 5.30 the following day, we were all up bright and early to watch the sun rise and change the colour of the sand dunes (think dunes like those in Lawerence Arabia). Once the sun was finally up, it was time to explore the desert on the back of a camel. Camels, I can report are much more comfortable than horses, although the three part getting up and down bit (front legs, then back legs, then the rest of the body) was rather awkward and cause numerous shreaks.
The following day we explored the UNESCO lisited Magao caves. The caves have ancient (from the 5th century onwards) buddist paintings. The paintings are incredibly well preserved due to the hot dry climate and are an excellant record of Buddism entering China over the Silk road. When the trade over the Silk road died, so did the knowledge of the caves. They were rediscovered in the 1900's, most of the thousand scrolls found within them are now in the possession of the British and Parisian Museums. The highlight for me had to be the 36m Budda carved into the rock.
From Dunhuang it was another
overnight train to Turpan. Turpan is situated in the world's second deepest inland depression and is also the hottest place in China - reaching 42 degrees during the day while we were there. By this time we had crossed into the autonomous region of Xinjiang (similar status to Tibet) and dominated by the Uighur people (Chinnese muslims) and this meant head scarves, and covered elbows and knees for us females (yes, in the 40 degree heat!). The sheer heat did make touring difficult, but the change in culture and the history and nature of the town made it a really fascinating place. We explored the Uighur villages, the ruins of an anicent Buddist city of Jiaohe and the Karez irrigation system (a feat as impressive as the great wall).
For a break from the cities, we spent two nights in the mountains north of Urumqi staying in Yurts with the Kazak people. The place was called Heavenly Lake. Unfortunately Chinnese tourism is beginning to creep in and the fake tree stumps, strange statues, manicured paths and the mine up the northern end of the lake do ruin the atmosphere a bit. But the mountain air seemed to give me
We were running back to the bus about a minute after this photo was taken
a strange source of energy and I was up at 6am bouncing up the hills, dodging the evil cows with murderous intent (honestly - there was this evil cow with black mask eyes that wouldn't let me across the bridge, stamping it's hoaves and threatening to charge).
The following three days were occupied by long drives through the Taklamakan desert. Stopping for evenings in Korla, Minfeng before eventually ending up in Hotan. The three days were not without their dramas. With Dust devils (mini tornado like sand things), forked lightning and sand storms. Midway through the desert, the buses brakes failed, so the remaining 5 hours were spent relying on the gears and the handbrake to stop. Thank god deserts are flat! By the time we reached Hotan, I had a nasty stomach bug and was struggling to hold down water. Our organised activity in Hotan was a tour of local cottage industries, including taperisties, bread, flour, wooden bowls and silk making with donkey rides from place to place. No hard sells at any of the places - so I was quite impressed.
From Hotan it was another bus ride to our final destination - Kashgar. As much
as a I hate to admit it - dinner that night was spent at China's version of Macas, in the hope the my stomach could handle western food (which didn work). The Sunday market which Kashgar is famous for was a bit of a disappointment - selling mainly touristy junk and random hardware. Mark, Sarah and I walked back from the market to the town square skirting around the old town. This proved to be much more entertaining as we ambled through mud brick houses with locals selling fruit, veges and other wares to other locals.
All up it was an awesome trip - an eye opening experience. Thanks to Mark (our leader) for all the organising and for his hard work which really pulled the trip together.
Sarah and I currently crashed out at Anna's in Zurich enjoying the pleasures of the Western world (yay for toilet paper and hand towels in public toilets).
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