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A Silk Road Trip, or I Gobbed in the Gobi, China, 1992
In August 1992, my wife Caroline and I arranged a post-Tiananmen trip to China. It was during the days when the London China Tourist Office was in Cambridge Square, opposite the Palace Theater in Charing Cross Road. It took me at least twenty books, a late night Japanese TV series and several months to plan and arrange the trip from our base in Balham, South London at the time. At that time, you can arrange the itinerary through China National Travel Service, and then as long as you report the itinerary in advance, you can travel completely independently. Everything was prepaid, but when we departed, we didn’t have any tickets or confirmed reservations other than tickets in and out of Beijing. As always, I kept a diary of the trip, more than fifty pages long. A few years later, I condensed my experience to the sides of the A4, ignoring the rules of grammar and syntax, to produce the following rambling, perhaps poetic impressions of nearly a month’s travel.
Ex-London, while The Sun dissected Michael Jackson’s nose and praised Boardman’s hornless gold bike. Air China flies to Beijing, where taxi fares are higher than Lonely Planet predicted. A Tim Han from China Travel’s itinerary in Chinese characters, while colleagues drool over televised African-American sprinters at the Olympics. Then to no longer the Forbidden City. Pile of local tourists came to negotiate.
Xinjiang Airlines takes four hours to Urumqi. Signs in Chinese and Russian plus Arabic Uyghur (recent innovation). Overland through Inner Mongolia. Why and how is it so straight? There are many peaks in Urumqi. Heaps of coal, sloppy tall buildings, snowy Bogdashin at the end of the street. Pavement fortune teller, businessman. Food stalls. Women wash morels, skewers of tripe, in a stream. Uyghur towns are now Han Chinese, living in the Shanghai overflow area, more than 2,000 miles from “home”. Second Long March.
Uyghur breakfast. Hot goat’s milk, Chinese tea, tomato flatbread, sugared tomato cucumber, sauerkraut, gruel, goat’s milk butter, two giant sugar cubes. Uighur market. Fruit in the hanging sheep forest. Chinese market. Live vegetables and meat. Vibrant eel tank overflow (price each). Self-knotting pasta.
Woman loses her gold watch in an illegal ‘find the lady’. The police looked on. Tears when loss hits family. Noodles and rocket-fueled chili sauce at People’s Park. Man who slashed bag with ring knife on crowded bus. needs care.
Car to Turpan. rich valley. Barren mountains. Occasional snow. The road was plowed. Kazakh yurt. The half-sunken shady rammed-earth Uighur villages are invisible in the distance except for the smoke from their chimneys. Steep downhill canyons, spectacular rivers, rocky, white water and slate gray hills. Entering the Turpan depression, the snow-covered gray stone pit is more than 100 miles wide from the surrounding area. The bottom is 42 degrees, 200 meters below sea level. The cars ahead left marks on the molten road. The driver took a big sip of water. Gobi means stone. There are many here. Then there is green. An oasis. Huge mirage?
Turpan. Trellis vines for street shading. Hanging raisins with grapes. Random picking is fined 15 yuan. Galvanized barrels of hotel tea. Turkish style dance and music. Genghis Khan sacked the rammed-earth cities of Gaochang and Jiaohe. Painted tombs and brick minarets. Flame Mountain. Karez underground irrigation system. 3000 kilometers of channels. 1500 years old, gravity fed by mountains on the edge of the depression. The greatest feat of Uyghur culture, and in full operation.
Drive to Daheyan. It took two hours over rough rock to reach the edge of the depression. Junkyard in a railway town. Coal piles, box buildings, wasteland. Two women fought in the station forecourt. Hitting the victim’s head on the ground. blood. Onlookers. do nothing. A tense town with a grudge-ridden postman.
500 miles to Liuyuan, Gansu. Plain gray shale. Spectacular and unique. To the north are snow-capped mountains. Empty except for smoking coal towns. Above 40 in summer and below 30 in winter. Overnight by train. Dawn reveals the same massive scene, now brown.
Arrive at Liuyuan. Daheyan wrote similar. 120 miles south through the desert (black at first!), past the remnants of the Great Wall of the Han Dynasty. Camels and sand dunes in Taklamakan, the largest desert in the world. The oasis near Dunhuang is blooming again. Crops and trees popped up from the sand and gravel. Flying Hotel, free toiletries labeled Sham Poo and Foam Poo. Lunch. Fourteen courses. Duck, Fuyong, Cucumber, Cabbage, Pleurotus eryngii Chicken, Coriander Pork, Steamed Bun, Steamed Bun, Rice, Beef Noodle Soup, Pork Green Bean, Pork Bell Pepper, Chicken Pumpkin, White Noodles, Watermelon. Then get the torch which is essential for the cave. The houses are crowded together. Winter lumber stores piled on top. Overlook the rooftops like a scrap heap. A labyrinth of claustrophobic stone tools on the ground.
cave day. Mogao Grottoes – Closed from 12 to 2, probably the most amazing sight on earth takes a full day. There are 400 “caves” (some the size of cathedrals) in the sandstone canyon between AD 400 and AD 1100. Completely dry, always dark, well preserved. Everything is drawn. The Tang Dynasty was complex and colorful. A scene world by torchlight. The Buddhas lie, sit, stand, and act. Figures seated at a height of 30 meters, offering thousands of unsmoked cigarettes and coins on their laps. The reconstruction of caves and Taoist figures in the Qing Dynasty shocked. Brutal features, twisted, with a face in the groin. 40 caves visited that day with archaeologists as personal guides. amazing. Fourteen course dinner.
The desert bus returns to Liuyuan. Always fighting for a seat. Three dusty hours. Take the train to Lanzhou. 800 miles along the Ganqing mountain border. More black deserts, then yellow lands. The Zhaiyaguan Fort on the border of the Ming Empire. Overnight by train. The country has changed. Mountain passes, green rolling hills and terraced fields. The wheat has been harvested. The straw carts are like children at a fair. The house is still rammed earth. Lanzhou is a prosperous industrial city. Thirty hours away. Go to the Yellow River.
The fish in the fish tank of the hotel restaurant were all dead. Lanzhou buses are expensive. 50 points per trip. Radios and knitting were banned. Pegasus and Bronze Warrior of the Han Dynasty. Steamed carp with rapeseed is on the menu. Fish comes first. Take the train to Xi’an via Huangtu Township. Deep trenches and canyons. All flat land is planted. 500 kilometers overnight.
The terracotta warriors and horses face east and guard the tomb of Qin Shihuang. Made into pieces. Assemble in place. Partially excavated, piles of dismembered body parts emerge from the ground. New terracotta warriors for sale at the factory behind the museum. An exact replica of the original. It’s breathless to think that the whole thing is a tourist industry scam.
Xi’an, like all Chinese cities, is a square. The roads are straight and always intersect at right angles. The ancient Zhongzhai was rebuilt in the Ming Dynasty. The old mosque is beautiful. Near Xianyang, there is a seventh-century Qian tomb and another 3,000 Han terracotta warriors in a museum that resembles a football field. Train to Beijing. 800 miles, 26 hours. Houses often caved in on the side of the valley. Later, the land was vast and flat, and corn was everywhere.
Temple of Heaven, Temple of Heaven, and then Peking Opera. Stop for a beer at a roadside stand. Serviced by a part-time trainee stockbroker! Breakfast pickles are amazing, like Camembert in a four year old shotgun. Take your head off. Great Wall. Mucho touristico, but still stunning. It’s like climbing a giant ladder in some places. “I Climbed the Great Wall” T-shirt, the price is getting lower and lower. Must be the Air Tombs dismissed by the guide book. wrong. The stunning barrel-vaulted room is located nine floors below ground. The jade gate, the carved throne, the marble, the marble, is breathtaking. Reminiscent of Renaissance Italy. Eternal bricks are engraved with the maker’s name. £55,000 Souvenir Jade Boat.
Erotic statues in a Tibetan lamasery are draped in white drapes. The same animalistic content in the murals. The 24-meter-high Golden Buddha is fragrant and blurred. No smoking signs are everywhere.
Maoling is the mausoleum of the emperor. Lines for queuing are drawn on the square. With both feet facing north towards Tiananmen Square, Feng Shui is reversed. He was shiny and waxy, with paint on his face. Move the wire file past the sides. There is no pause. Outside, booths display Mao T-shirts, Mao key rings, cuddly toys, postcards and a magic lantern show. Mao Zedong holds cotton candy in his hand. Then there is the Great Hall of the People. The dining room can accommodate 5000 people. Fast food is now provided for tourists. Great Hall chopsticks, cigarettes, T-shirts. Plush toys of the Great Hall of the People.
2500 miles. three and a half weeks. 5 destinations. 50 caves. 6000 terracotta warriors. One each for the Great Wall, Forbidden City, Peking Opera, and Mao Zedong. Hundreds of tombs, temples, pagodas, parks, bendy buses and bicycles. 3 silk shirts from the Silk Road. An amazing trip.
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