31 March 2013 Sunday. Our driver was waiting for us at 9 am and drove us to the Dunhuang’s new train station, in time to catch the 9:45 am train to Jiayuguan, which arrived there at 2:45 pm. This leg of the trip was backtracking to the northern Silk Road, but we didn’t want to miss Dunhuang, which was probably our favorite stop along the road.
Jiayuguan was an important stop on the Silk Road…the end of the Ming Dynasty Great Wall and the final outpost, beyond which was the barbarian lands of empty desert. The fortress there was built in 1372 and expanded in 1539. Those exiled by the emperor for some infraction were taken to the gate facing west, and then kicked out of China. Exiles would toss a stone against the Wall to find out whether they would ever return…if it bounced back it was a good sign.
In planning trips I try to visualize every step, so that I am prepared for as much as possible. I had not pictured my day in Jaiyuguan. I didn’t know whether there was a baggage room at the train station, and if not, what I would do with
our bags while we were touring the fortress. Plan B was to find a hotel where I could leave them, but since we were not spending the night there, I wasn’t sure whether a hotel would be amenable to that. Anyway, there was a baggage room (10 Yuan per bag). As usual, and despite having learned some of the taxi tout’s tricks, we took a metered taxi which ended up costing twice what the trip to the fortress should have cost. We paid our 10 Yuan entrance fee and then walked around the fortress, visiting the general’s quarters and climbing up the wall.
Will was starving, a good sign, so we didn’t tarry long. We caught a good taxi back to town and looked for a restaurant. The Chinese rate their restaurants with A, B, and C. Will had gotten ill eating at a C, so he was looking for an A. I tried to convince him that he would be lucky to find a B in this small town. The taxi took us to a restaurant street. We strolled along it, and finally Will picked what turned out to be a hot pot restaurant, but with the hot
pot replaced by a frying pan. This involved selecting meats and vegetables which we would cook ourselves. I selected chicken, fish, and beef, or what I thought was beef. When I went to eat it, I gagged and rushed out to throw up in the garden. Will, however, enjoyed his selection so that’s all that mattered.
Following lupper, we headed back to the train station to await the 7 pm train to Turpan. Upon boarding we found that we were sharing a compartment with a grandmother, mother, and baby. I pictured a trip to Hell with the baby crying all night. Actually it turned out all right…just a few whimpers.
1 April 2013 Monday. We arrived at the train station serving Turpan about 5:30 am. A guide book told us how much to pay a taxi for the 55 kilometer drive to Turpan, so I wouldn’t budge on price. It’s amazing that people are allowed to drive taxis when they don’t know where anything is, and can’t read a map. Once in Turpan our driver had to stop numerous times to ask directions. Apparently he couldn't even to that! We finally found our five room boutique hotel, the
Silk Road Lodges (Vines) about 7 am. This is the first time we experienced the difference between Beijing time which officially applies to all of China, and unofficial time as determined by when the sun rises. At 7 am Beijing time, it was really 5 am as far as the sun and the people living here were concerned. We were able to wake someone who gave us a room key, where we sacked out until breakfast at 9:30 am (Beijing time).
The hotel is located among vineyards, so is quiet and restful. Will took a turn for the worse, so we decided to rest all day. We did have one break...the lady who owned the hotel took us into town to find an ATM and have lunch. We were tired of Chinese food. She told us she would take us to a KFC. Although we avoid fast food in the States, we thought we had died and gone to heaven. Well, the KFC turned out to be a local fast food chain; but we still had fried chicken, hamburgers, French fries, and ice cream floats. We asked the hotel owner where she learned English and got the idea of
building her boutique hotel. She had learned English in New Zealand, where she made many friends. She returned to New Zealand a few years later to live for several years, and got the idea of the hotel then. We returned to the hotel to rest (mostly reading) for the remainder of the day. We ate granola bars for dinner rather than venturing out again.
2 April 2013 Tuesday. We began this very long day with the hotels excellent breakfast. We then relaxed the rest of the morning. Will was feeling much better.
We had arranged to hire a car to take us to the various tourist sights in the area before dropping us off at the distant train station. Our first stop was the brick Emin Khojah mosque and 44 meter tall minaret, both built in 1777. Our next stop was Grape Valley, representative of the grape industry of the area. We saw grape drying sheds used to make raisins. The Moslem population doesn’t drink wine so only a couple Chinese companies use the grapes to make wine.
We then toured the ancient Silk Road city of Jiaohe, the best preserved ancient town in Xinjiang. It is
located on a bluff between two streams, and was built during the Han Dynasty in the 2nd
century BC as the administrative center for the region. This city was abandoned in the 14th
century. I walked as far as the Buddhist Monastery, which was still a long way, with my foot doing ok, although without much exercize for the last eight weeks I was huffing. I wondered whether altitude was a factor. Then I remembered that Turpan lies in the second lowest deppression on earth (after the Dead Sea) and I was 500 feet below sea level...I must have been saturated with oxygen! This was my first day without using the black boot.
Our final stop of the tour was to see an example of the karez irrigation system first invented in Persia. A karez is an underground tunnel from the mountains where snow runoff is collected to the plains, where the water is used. Keeping the water in the karez tunnels minimizes evaporation. It seemed to me that the Roman aqueducts were easier to build, and they served the same purpose. The Turpan area had many of these karezes, and the total length in the region was 5,000
kilometers. Such karezes also made the Silk Road possible; providing water where there were no springs.
We went directly to the train station, arriving about 4:15 pm…much too soon for our 6:21 pm train to Urumqi. The driver was able to trade our tickets in for a 5 pm train. Somehow we ended up in the hard seat section. There were many more people than seats…fortunately, we had a seat number which we claimed. At least the trip was only two hours. I noticed that the sky was becoming dark with the wind kicking up…having learned in Lanzhou that this meant a sand storm. Well, it was rain. When we got off in Urumqi, we found it was snow. I can’t win. We hurriedly put on our winter jackets.
Catching a taxi, while avoiding the taxi mafia, was a challenge. We lined up as we were supposed to, but no one else did. Soon it was us and a mother with two children trying to catch a taxi. A business man tried to take the taxi from the mother who was first in line, so I put my arm out and physically prevented him from taking the taxi
from her. I guess I had enough of line crashing by now! Anyway, we caught the next taxi to the airport paying the meter price of 60 Yuan instead of the 200 Yuan demanded by the touts. We would have a long night there waiting for our 4:15 am departure. I could never get a good answer as to why an airline would schedule a 4:15 am flight. We discovered a real KFC in the lower level of the new terminal and had a good final meal in China. Our next stop…Uzbekistan!
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