#4 China, September 12, 2002

Dear Everybody,

It took seven hours on a bus to go from Jiayuguan to Dunhuang, and it was only 320 km (200 miles). The road was pretty wavy and the shock absorbers on this bus were a thing of the past, so we kind of galloped all the way to Dunhuang. A couple of times it seemed like we were going to be airborne, but we finally made it.

Most of the landscape was abject dessert—some pebbley gray, some beige sand and some eroded sandstone columns. As we got close to Dunhuang (oasis) it became lush green with cotton being the major crop. All these towns are oases in the Gobi Dessert, either spring fed or snow melt fed.

In the middle of nowhere we came upon 16 big, white modern windmills (shades of Livermore, CA). There is certainly wind on this dessert to make them go. In fact, the sky was quite yellowish with blowing sand.

My first day in Dunhuang was kind of laid back because it was misty, rainy, and so the walk that I had planned slightly out of town to a ‘sight’ didn’t seem like the thing to do. I did visit the local museum, which was very nice. I’m finally learning some of the dynasties and when they ruled. (Thanks for the list, Val)

This is fruit country and the streets and vegetable markets are full of luscious fruit. I have bought sweet, small, green seedless grapes and a funny melon, like honeydew. On the airplane I smuggled my tiny Swiss army knife (to cut fruit) in my leadlined pouch for film. It makes one a little nervous to realize that they don’t seem to check the leadlined film pouches. While one morning I did have an omelet at Jack’s Information Café, I often just have fruit in my room, especially before an early bus.

I wrote five postcards to the grandkids. They only sell packets of postcards related to tourist sights—there are no general ones of Chinese scenes, so the kids got reproductions of the tomb paintings on bricks! I took them to the Post Office and pantomimed to the lady that she should write the Chinese characters for USA, pronounced meiguo (may’-gu-oh) on each card. She caught on right away and did so. Then she sold me 15 stamps for the five cards ($2) and I went over to the gluepot to stick them on as the stamps have no stickum on them. So hopefully, these cards will come in handy for ‘show and tell.’

It’s interesting to me that in these parts the babies and toddlers don’t wear diapers. Their little pantaloons are open at the crotch from stem to stern. I’m not sure what happens when they’re sitting on somebody’s lap and nature takes its course. Anyway, I suppose it’s much better for the environment if not for the lap. I’ve also spent some time modifying my itinerary. I see that it’s not taking me as many days as I planned initially, so now I can include two more important places. Besides I need to be in one place before Oct. 1st as this is a National Holiday and all buses, hotels and facilities are terribly crowded. And I wanted that place to be Kashgar because I’m expecting that to be the most interesting place on the whole Silk Road.

The sky turned blue late that afternoon so I got a motor rickshaw to go and see the White Horse Pagoda. Remember Kumarajiwa from 5th century Wuwei? Well, his white horse died here on the way to Wuwei so he had a pagoda built to honor it.

My visit to the Mogao Caves was the highlight of Dunhuang and the main reason for lots of tourism here. Because the Silk Road was a perilous place, merchants began having Buddhist Caves carved starting in 366 AD, with beautiful paintings and sculpture to show gratitude for a safe trip or hope for a coming one. This lead to about nine centuries of this tradition and over 700 caves. About 200 were destroyed in an earthquake so 492 remain. They are just wonderful. The colors are still so vivid and beautiful because they used very good and expensive pigments—lapis, malachite, vermillion, etc. The flying apsaras (angels) are a hallmark of these paintings—ethereal beings floating in the air. Of course the Silk Road was the vehicle by which Buddhism spread from India to China, starting in about the first century BC. (The Buddha lived in India in the 6th century BC.)

I joined a group of about nine others for an English-speaking guided tour. One couple was a young man from New Zealand, and his girlfriend, from France. We had a pleasant chat while waiting for the other seven to show up. In the group, one old British fart kept criticizing the young Chinese woman guide. He kept saying that he didn’t think that she “had it right” and that “she couldn’t explain why they had painted it like that” and “you can’t ask her the ‘Why’ questions, can you?” And usually he would ask a question that had just been answered in detail.

It was really too much to look at in a short time. We saw 10 caves in two hours but each one had a thousand things begging for our attention. I don’t think I’ve seen many things more interesting or beautiful. If any of you ever get to Western China, don’t miss the Mogao Caves at Dunhuang.

Is the Gobi Dessert ever sandy! I hired a taxi to take me out to Yuman Pass and Yang Pass or Yumanguan and Yangguan. These were about an hour and an hour and a half’s ride from Dunhuang into the Gobi Desert. They were set up in the Han Dynasty (2000 years ago) so that all caravans coming in or going out to the north of the Taklamakan Desert had to go through Yumanguan, and all coming or going south of the Taklamakan Desert had to go though Yangguan. After the 6th century, they were no longer used because of too much warring going on here, so there isn’t much left of them. Yangguan had a series of beacon towers, remnants of which can still be seen. They used burning reeds for lights that are displayed in the museums. But the historical sense was vivid. Standing at those gates looking out into the desert and thinking about setting off on a dangerous but exciting journey—well, naturally, that would speak to me.

Closer into town were the Western Thousand Buddha Caves—a poor cousin of the Mogao Caves. They were in a beautiful setting, dug into the banks of a river. There were only 16 caves, ten open to the public, but the caretaker would only show me five. I guess it was too close to lunchtime. Still it was certainly worth a look.

Next day it was on to Hami—a 6 ½ hour bus ride. The scenery was beautiful and varied—rugged mountains, flat desert, eroded sandstone formations, a few oases, and some snow-capped mountains in the distance. I noticed that the driver shifted into neutral on the downhills, to save gas, I guess.

Nobody goes to Hami, either, so I was the object of much curiosity and staring. I got a taxi to take me to a ‘binguan’ (hotel)—no special one as this city isn’t in the Lonely Planet guide and so I didn’t have the name of any particular hotel. The first hotel was full, so I got another taxi to take me to another one. After much bargaining, the deal was done. After putting my pack in my room, I went out to get a taxi to go to the museum. On my way, I realized that I didn’t know the name of my hotel, and I had neglected to pick up a card. I asked the driver to write the name of the hotel where he picked me up (sign language and phrase book) and he did so.

After seeing the museum (nice) and some other tombs of Hami kings, I asked another taxi driver to take me to the hotel written on the paper. He nodded confidently and took me to a DIFFERENT hotel! I tried to explain but was getting nowhere, so I paid off that cab and got another. I tried to explain to him, also, but he, too, thought I wanted to be taken to a hotel. Finally he took me to the first hotel that I had seen, which was full, and got an English speaker, who at least got him to understand that I already had a hotel where my backpack was and that I needed to find it.

By now I was getting a little nervous as Hami is not huge, but too big to look at every street for this hotel. There was no English name anywhere outside or inside that hotel. All I remembered was that we went through a little arch and the hotel was ‘back there.’ Not only was my pack in the hotel, but they hadn’t returned my passport either, and that was there too. The cabbie took me to a couple more (not it) and then I finally remembered that I had my room key with me. It had Chinese characters on the fob, but unfortunately not the name of the hotel. (What on earth do you suppose it said if not the name of the hotel?!) We went back to a hotel where we had already been and he showed the desk clerks the key. They examined it, discussed it for awhile, then made a call and found my hotel!! What a relief! And what a frustrating and unnerving two hours. As Debby Olson used to say, “Gee Mom, nobody’s perfect!” I guess in the future I should pay less attention to the bargaining and more attention to the name of the hotel!

After that I needed a beer and some food. Street food was available so I ate four small shish kebabs with a beer, and then a bowl of jaodsi (pot stickers) which were served in a very good broth. Well, all’s well that ends well and with my tummy full, all was well!

The next morning I took another bus ride, this time to Turpan (5 ½ hours). The time went fast as the scenery, as usual, was outstanding. Mainly we went between two mountain ranges, but for awhile went over the foothills that were so rugged, colorful and beautiful. I saw my first wild camels on this journey, which are double humped and quite furry. I saw about four groups composed of from three to 15. I’ll bet their ancestors walked the Silk Road!

The buses are certainly no prize winners—I suppose they keep the new, nice ones for Beijing and Shanghai and ship the older ones out to the wild west. The traffic is not heavy but the drivers don’t obey road rules very well. On this particular ride we almost came to grief when an oncoming big truck was passing an oncoming big bus and we all three met with barely any room to spare! All three vehicles were honking and blinking lights as though that would help if there weren’t enough room.

It got warmer and warmer as we approached Turpan. Their record temp is 121 degrees F, but now I think it probably was 90-95. Turpan, itself, is well below sea level and a lake a few miles from here is the second lowest point on earth next to the Dead Sea.

I walked around to several hotels with my pack, but I mostly walked in shade as many of the smaller streets are shaded by grape arbors. This is grape country (the oasis) and they are especially known for their sultanas (raisins, but from green grapes). In one of the hotels, I again encountered the New Zealander and the French girl (from the Mogao Caves), but they were just leaving. They had enjoyed Turpan and hoped that I would too.

After I got settled in a hotel, I went to the Muslim market for some baosi, which are mutton filled dumplings. I didn’t know the name until my bus ride from Dunhuang, when a man was eating one on the bus and I, using my phrase book, asked him the name and to write it on my paper. Later I found it in my phrasebook. I’m happy about that because I had wanted to eat them ever since the Tibetan picnic—they were so good! So I did find some in the Muslim market. I bought a few cookies and sultanas for dessert (thanks to Jackie, I now think I have dessert and desert straight!)

 

 

 

 

 

After I left Dunhuang to go to Hami, I began seeing road signs in Arabic as well as Chinese, as there is a very large Muslim population in Western Xinjiang (this province). They had been mostly Buddhist until the 14th century when they were forcibly converted to Islam by some lieutenant of Tamerlane. I’m surprised about the Arabic, though, as these people are Urghurs and never spoke Arabic. At least the language on the signs looks like Arabic—who knows?

 

 

This morning I took a tour of all, and I do mean ALL, of the sights around Turpan. I was in a minibus with four older Chinese women from Beijing, a young Polish couple (Rafael and Marta) who were both getting their phDs in physics, and guess who else turned up? The young Japanese boy who was almost my roommate in the three bed room in Jiahuguan. His name was Yoshihiro.

We went to eight places which included the ruins of two old, important Silk Road cities, three Tang dynasty tombs (6-9th C) with two corpses in one, beautiful paintings of birds in one, and paintings of people in the other, the Bezeklik Caves—a very poor third cousin of the Mogao Caves but in a gorgeous setting, an 18th C. mosque, and the Karez Museum, which showed how miles and miles of channels and wells provide Turpan and surrounds with water from the snow melt from nearby mountains.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The best of all was sitting over lunch in the Grape Gorge where many little restaurants are covered with grape arbors that are currently bearing grapes. The Poles and Yoshihiro and I sat at table under the grapes which hung down almost to our heads and we had a wonderful lunch. It was accompanied by a bottle of Turpan white wine (drinkable but no prize winner in spite of what Marco Polo said), some local beer and Hami gua (melon), watermelon, and of course, grapes. I had a chunk of barbequed lamb and the others had noodle dishes with veggies and lamb. It was all just delicious, and all were great company, too.

It was quite an exhausting day, starting at 8:30 AM and getting home at 7 PM. Before 8:30, I ran across the street to the Muslim market to eat some baozi and drink some tea for breakfast. They served the tea in a bowl. I was so proud because I ordered it all without having to point to the Chinese characters and they understood me!

Chinese tourism (for Chinese) is just getting underway in a big way, I think. Many of the sights today had great merit on their own as to beauty, history, art, etc. But several of the sights were lined with buses of Chinese tourists and they were very interested in getting their picture taken on the camel, with the Urghur dancers in spangly costumes, and buying cheap souvenirs. Three of the four Chinese women in our minibus climbed the ladder to get on the camel for a photo! Anyway, I think it’s great that the Chinese are starting to have the money and the opportunity to see their own huge, varied and beautiful country.

Well, I’m going to hang out in Turpan one more day, and then push on to Urumqi.

Carol

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