Saturday, October 31, 2009

Yardangs and Buddhist temples, Post 4

Yardangs and Buddhist temples at Dunhuang
20 October 2009 - The windscreen was frozen up in the morning and we were glad to have our cold-weather gear; we crossed the main street to have breakfast in a cafe opposite. There was a solid-fuel stove inside which kept us warm and kept the rice soup boiling. Menu highlights were the crispy-fried doughnuts accompanied by boiled eggs, all eaten with chopsticks.
Our route took us northwest through the mountains. We reached 3,670 m altitude. The desert area of Lop Nor and the Wild Camel reserve lay to our east and the snow-clad 20,000ft Altun mountains lay to our south. It was a rewarding drive with fine-ridged dunes telling tales of whispering winds... We saw camels, ptarmigan (the Chinese call them 'snow chickens') and several mounted nomads herding large flocks of sheep across brown, barren upland valleys.
We reached Dunhuang, a great historic trading post on the Silk Road where traders were faced with two risky decisions - to proceed north around the Taklamakan Desert, a route described by Ghengis Khan as 'hostile and ghostly', or the southerly route from where we had just travelled. Both were full of dangers, not to mention bandits, and many traders and their beasts perished to the unkown demands of this hostile desert. Dunhuang is now a well presented and colourful town, sunny and warm after our mountain journey. We had a spicy Sichuan dinner to celebrate our arrrival.
21 October 2009 - We travelled to the Mogao Caves nearby to visit one of the great centres of early Buddhism. Nothing prepares us for the size, variety and quality of the 800 - 1,000 year old temples. They are all hewn out of solid rock and most are high up on the cliff-face where we need to ascend steps to reach them. Sculpture and paintings reside on a backdrop of carefully worked design in an endless series of symmetrically configured caves. We saw big Buddhas and giant Buddhas, some with their bodhisattva attendants and all defended by fearsome demons. The whole cliff-face is hollowed out into caves, some huge. It is an amazing site and was so important to the old silk traders making their offerings before venturing out into the desert beyond.
22 October 2009 - We visited Charley Jhong's Cafe in the town and were served a welcome fried-egg breakfast and toast. Then we drove to the historic 'Jade Gate', and important 1,700 year old fort on the silk road where traders would be charged a fee in return for safe conduct. We examined the ancient section of the Great Wall which marked territorial boundaries while giving protection against invaders. We visited the garrison storehouse too, and great building on the river which provided for the needs of the fort.
A short way beyond we arrive at the 'desert yardangs', a curious and enticing geological formation. Neat rows of rock march abreast across the sands.They are the result of age-old erosion leaving corridors of sand separated by walls of hard bed-rock. Some fomations have developed into rock islands, but all rmain firmy aligned with their rocky neigbours.
24th Octoer 2009 - Some of the bigest dunes in China occur in the Gashun Gobi at Dunhuang, and we drove a few miles to this awesome formation. Philippa, Suzi and I hired a camel each and were led up to the crest of a 600ft dune. From here we looked down on a rolling sand-sea stretching off across the desert, a formidable barrier to both man and beast.
Afterwards we walked to a dune-locked lake nearby with a small island on it, a Llama's retreat from times past. Emotive, timeless and beautiful.
24th Octoer 2009 - We drove all morning to a long forgotten gorge on the Yulin river. Here we came suddenly upon a honeycomb of Buddhist temples, all carved high into the canyon walls. A small entrance led into a narrow passage which connected the caves together. Each cave is big, spacious and filled with modelled and polychromed sculptures and carvings. The walls are richly decorated too and most date from around 1000AD. We are the only visitors.The site matches the Mogao caves for general style and quality, and exceeds them for the greater variety of images. In one central cavern stands an immense Buddha nearly 80ft tall, and we looked in awe at the might and majesty of this engaging image.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Desert picnic on the Silk Road, Blog post 3

Desert and mountain, picnic on the Silk Road 
17th October 2009 - We left Hotan and made good time driving east along the Silk Road. After a very desolate stretch where the mountains loomed in the morning mist, we reached several oases served by rivers running off the Tibetan plateau.
Maize is grown here, and dates. There are a few cattle and some goats and sheep. Soon we see our first camels too, Bactrian double-humpers being herded by cameleers on motor cycles. The road is unsurfaced and the terrain sandy. It is hot, dusty, bumpy and slow. Eventually we reach the small but nicely laid out town of Minfeng where we stop.
18th October 2009 - It is noticeably colder now and we rug up for the next section. Rivers flowing out of the Altun Mountains are diverted into irrigation systems before being swallowed up in the desert. We pass a very large melon plantation with uncountable melons being loaded onto 30 ton trucks for transporting to city markets far away.
We branched onto a desert section of the old silk road, a wide highway newly resurfaced in black tarmac. We stopped for lunch and laid out our picnic on the main road, just in front of the car. Jian-Hu didn't pull off to one side, he just stopped the car on the highway. Cars and trucks passed occasionally in each direction. We watched anxiously and winced occasionally... but this is the Chinese way, and it worked for us too.
Our Chinese guide, Jian-Hu, is a star performer and has proved himself worthy of his fine reputation. He is capable, charming, effective, enthusiastic and humorous. He negotiates prices for us, chooses our menus, introduces us to locals, makes us laugh, researches our route and chooses our campsites and hotels. He makes friends wherever he goes, we get waved through check points, get priority service in stores and are given private rooms in restaurants. He can draw a smile from the most sombre bureaucrats and has doubled the enjoyment and success of our expedition. And best of all, he is enjoying every minute of it too.
19th October Ruoquing - Today started badly... and got worse.After we left the town we were stopped for reasons which were not fully explained and compelled to join a growing traffic queue. Our early start ebbed into a late start. Eventually we were waved on to find our newly built road had been closed and we were compelled to divert onto the old dusty, wornout desert piste.
Three hours later Jian-Hu remembered he'd left his wallet under pillow back in the hotel. We turned around promptly and hastened back to Ruoquing, thankfully retireving the lost wallet, and then we retraced our steps. By lunchtine we had only advanced a third of our way.
We reached the 2nd C Tibetan ruins of Miran, now just a pillar of stones in the desert, and were greeted by a surly warden and his scowling missus. The entrance fee was an unbelievable £250.00 for the four of us. Much negotiation followed, all without a breakthrough; even the ever charming Jian-Hu was floored. So we made our feelings known and moved on - we still had a long way to go. Miran fort was never a major objective so we didn't mind too much, and once back on the main piste were were able to climb a dune and view the ruins from the top.
Now we were on the old Silk Road again and entered a strategic mountain pass - countless traders would have trod this historic ground trough the ages, and we treasured the experience. We reached a high upland valley where the piste was badly deteriorated. We thundered on through billowing sand and suffocating dust, circling the deepest dust bowls and breaking new ground through the scrub, the rocks and the dried river beds.We were being thrown around in the car and were now over 8,000ft, and still climbing. Jian-Hu did a skilful job negotiating this hellish section. It was getting late and we didn't want to camp in this high, desolate, uninhabited place with only bandits and wolves for company.
Whisky hour came and went as the sun sank lower and disappeared behing the mountainous rim of our high valley.  The girls, Philippa and Suzi, never once complained, stalwart to the last. Raymond took GPS fixes and plotted them on his many maps, and I took fleeting photographs of soaring eagles, crags and the rocky sunset.  Jian-Hu kept up a running commentary and drove with verve and determination. At over 10,500 ft we passed through China's big asbestos mine - we closed all windows and tried not to breathe too deeply.
After 14 hours on the road we reached Huatuguo, a small mountain town, at 10.30pm and found a very welcome hotel for £16.00 per night. A gourmet meal appeared soon after. Our night's rest was never so well appreciated or so hard won.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

China travels Blogsite, post 2

Silk spinners on the Silk Road 16th October 2009
Nearing the jade centre of Hotan we stopped to visit a traditional silk mill. Silk-fledged cocoons bobbed about in a pan of warm water and the spinner attached a thread to the string of silk running onto the bobbin. Her spinning partner wound the spinning wheel by hand. Raw silk is coarse and joins on contact, but the process requires keen concentration and a practiced hand. When the cocoon was unwound it was discarded and another connected swiftly, without a pause or a break. The process is mesmerising and fascinating.
Suzi bought a nice silk carpet in the shop and we lunched in the shade of a grapevine before driving into town. This is a Uyghar moslem town and there is a grand minaret, but no mosque... just by the hotel. We walked down to a restaurant in a pedestrian area and had an excellent dinner. Jian-Hu chose many different dishes of meat and vegetable for us, and the bill came to under 10 Pounds UK for all five of us.
We visited the main museum of Hotan and saw an excellent presentation of archeological artefacts excavated from provinces on the Silk Road.These included prehistoric axe heads made from the very hard local jade, carved wood and bone figures revealing Buddhist and Indian influence, and a 1,000 year old mummified Chinese princess complete with her splendid, ornate wood coffin. Outside we saw local youths scouring the drying river bed for 'river jade'.
We visited a jade-cutting factory and saw craftsmen at work. Diamond-tipped drills are used to work this hard stone. Philippa bought a jade camel and Raymond bought two jade elephants. Later we joined throngs of Uyghars in the covered shopping alleys where everything from silk, jade and domestic goods were on sale.
The Uyghar ladies dress elegantly with colourful head-scarves and long flowing dresses. Most of them ride a motor scooter, and most carry a friend riding side-saddle on the pillion seat. The Uyghar men wear a flat, embroidered pork-pie hat, dress usually in black and ride light motor cycles. Their passenger will be their wife, sister or cousin, usually carrying a babe-in-arms. All look cheerful and none wear helmets. Everyone drives very slowly and none observe traffic signs or lane discipline.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Kashgar is an ancient trading city ... and is cradled in the converging arms of the ancient Silk Road. Travellers of old would circumnavigate the waterless wastes of the Taklamakan desert and trade their goods and livestock at Kashgar. We arrived here after a 38 hour journey on 4 aeroplanes, crossing 8 times zones and covering nearly 10,000 kilometers.

Kashgar lies north of Kashmir and lies in that great central Asian basin bordered by Mongolia in the north, the Gobi desert in the East and Tibet in the south. It is now 7.00 am but won't be light for another two hours. Kashgar is on Beijing time (GMT+8) but so far in the west that we have crossed three time zones to get here.

Today we prepare our provisions for our camping trip across the desert. We assess our supply points with the help of our experienced Chinese guide, Jian-Hu. Our navigator is Ray Bird and we are accompanied by Philippa Treadwell and Suzie Rae, all of whom have travelled with Jian-Hu previously. We had a good trip to Kashgar's main square and viewed the enormous statue of Chairman Mao. The square was manned by soldiers in sandbagged machine gun posts and we were aware of the recent clashes between the Uyghar and Han people. The atmosphere in public areas was tense. We visited to old mosque too, set in a charming plantation of it's own.

We left Kashgar and had a long and interesting drive east. We bordered the Tien Shan foothills and to the south lay the fertile and productive land of Mao's many 'collective farms'. We passed through at least eight en-route, each covering many thousands of acres. Cotton was being harvested here, mainly by womenfolk, and one mother or father would look after a creche of children at the edge of a cotton field.

After many twists and turns through lakes, rivers and irrigation canals we arrived at Aral and checked into a hotel. We saw herons and comorants en-route and passed a falconer flyng a sizeable eagle; hunting rabbit, we were told. We refuelled at Aral and drove south across the desert on a well-surfaced desert road. We wanted to visit an old Tibetan fort but it lay 5 miles off across the river Hotan. Could we get there, we asked ... Local research in the resthouse revealed that the river was low at this time and crossable - but it needed a Land Rover (Kit's words) and we had just a road-going Honda 4x4.

Jian-Hu set off cautiously on a very sandy piste. We got mildly stuck several times and walked most of the way to lighten the load. We reached the dried river bed, over half a mile wide at this point and drove onto the hard mud. Bar a few wet patches and some soft sand, we drove across and then down-river until we reached the foot of a great rocky cliff. On top were the ruins of an important Tibetan fort dating from the 1st century BC. Tomorrow we shall climb up to it.

We made camp on a sandy bank at the foot of the promontary, collected driftwood and laid a fire. Ray Bird was the first to get his tent up and Philippa Treadwell was the first to get the whisky out. Suzi Rae and I have to run to keep up with these great, redoubtable octogenarians ! We met some Chinese geologists who were doing a land survey and we invited them to join us later.

Jian-Hu then prepared us an excellent dinner of hot noodles, chicken quarters and beef slices. And then, to my complete surprise and delight, a grand birthday cake for me, complete with candles and a singing chime. Birthday wishes followed. The geologists arrived and we had a grand desert party around the camp fire. The sun sank behind the old fort and the first stars appeared. The party went on until all the Chinese 'Great Wall' wine was finished. A birthday feast in the desert, what a unique and happy event it was!

In the night our campsite was visited by a lone jackal whose wild, plaintive call echoed emotively across the starlit river bed. Paw-prints near my tent indicated he was after a tempting row of socks which were hanging out to dry on my guy ropes. He didn't risk it, however, and the socks were still there at dawn.

October 15th 2009
Visit to Mazartag Fort
The old fort was reached after a long climb over rock and loose sand. It was sited in a commanding position on a great bluff of red rock marking a bend in the river. It was constructed of successive layers of stout timbers, bound in place by sun-baked mud over 2000 years ago. Nearby were two wood pens surrounding burial sites of ages past. Every detail of the fort was examined closely and we imagined this distant Tibetan outpost guarding their colonial interests long ago.

We spent more time on our dry sandy bank before striking camp and setting off up-river again. We found, with some dificulty, the steep climb back onto the bank. We dismounted and pointed the heavily laden Honda at an angled approach. Exhorting Jian-Hu to 'make big speed' the car reared up the bank, slithering sideways and scrambled to the top.It was a hazardous obstacle, the front wheel lifted fully clear of the ground and only the momentum stopped the car from rolling.

After that we powered our way through much soft sand and arrived back at the desert road. We handed back the sand-shovel we had borrowed from the rest house, refuelled and set off again.