Friday, 25 June 2010

Turpan to Kashgar

21st-22nd June 2010
Leaving Turpan for Urumqi seemed like a logical option. The closest station to the depression is 45-mins away in Daheyan and my new English companion Alec, from Oxford had seemed confident we could get a train in Urumqi. But our presumption that we could find a sleeper train for the epic across the Taklamakan desert would soon prove very far of themark. On that same Monday it would transpire that most of China's students were traveling home for holidays and in the process booking up every sleeper berth for the nest 2-days. Indeed the only available option for Kashgar in the next 24-hours, was a hard-seat at 10am the following morning.

Our options seemed limited. Alec had a return flight to the UK on the 29th and I felt increasingly homesick and keen to cross the Chinese border to start my last month traveling in Pakistan. Having discussed out options with a friendly security guard at a local hotel, we found a train leaving that evening. It was going down the same line to a smallish city called Asku, 6-8hours from Kashgar. It wasn't perfect but it would leave us closer and with better options for traveling the following morning onto Kashgar.

Short on cash, we had no option but to find a bank before buying our tickets. An hour later, fate would deal us a second shitty hand as we stood in the queue watching the final 2-hard seats disappear on the screen before our very eyes. These were the facts- we would be on the reserve list, for a hard-seat on the worst standard of train in China and for 18-long hours across a desert. It was going to get worse, but I didn't know it yet!

Alec still nursing a terrible bottle of wine, he had bought in Turpan at some cheap restaurant we heading into a nearby restaurant to pass the 2-hours before our train. The food was terrible- the worst oily, indiscriminate slop I had encountered in China yet! Alec had taken a gamble on a BBQ from the street outside and the chef had laid out before him sheep testicles. It was amusing at the time, but we boarded our train hungry tired and dehydrated.

Alec's gamble didn't pay off!

Steeping onto the train it became clear we were in for an unpleasant time. It was the worst standard of train in China. Some throw back carriage from Russia, maybe 40-years or more old. The seats were hard, red-brown leather. Small fans in the roof provided the "air conditioning" and the toilets were the kind of filthy hole you wince at the prospect of using! Only the poorest section of China's North-West took this ride- forced to take the cheapest option available despite the clearly terrible conditions for an 18-hour journey. Mainly Uighers and other ethnic minorities.

The final card fate would deal arrived at 1am. The sneaking suspicions of this hand had arrived in the restaurant outside the station in Urumqi and finally 3-hours later I found myself hunched over "the worst train toilet in China" throwing my guts up. For the next 8-hours I would become well acquainted with this terrible 4-square feet of mess, vomiting and shitting every last bit of my insides out. I still cant be sure what the problem was. Stumbling back out of the toilets, to my seat I would usually find an Uigher or some other ethnic looking man perched on the terribly uncomfortable 2-feet of seat I had previously occupied. Usually they would give the seat up. But eventually the lines between one persons space and another became blurred, each person searching desperately for some comfortable way to pass the endless hours until Asku. As a group of young Chinese teenagers played aloud some terrible mix of cheesy European pop and even worse Asian equivalents, I curled up amongst the labyrinth of dirty feet on a dusty hard train floor and tried desperately to get a few hours of sleep relief from my sickness.

18-hours later, thrashed and devoid of anything at all human we arrived at Asku. I had actually felt close to death in the morning of that day, but it was now late afternoon and having emptied me of what felt like my soul, the sickness had finally subsided. We booked our tickets for Kashgar leaving the following morning at 5.30am and made our way to a hotel to recover over our short stay. The evening and morning following passed without incident and we finally arrived at the Old Town Youth Hostel in Kashgar at noon on the 22nd June.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010


22nd-24th June
Our arrival in Kashgar was marked by considerable relief. It had been a long and at times harrowing journey. The Old Town Youth Hostel was perfect. Immediately we had immersed ourselves in a community of travelers and the welcoming hosts provided information and maps- it was all too easy!

Kashgar is a dusty, bustling desert metropolis. It's population is largely Muslim Uigher, with other ethnic minorities and traveling tradesmen in the mix. The difference from Eastern China is striking. Kashgar- like much of Xinjiang feels like it belongs Geographically to the 'Stan' regions more than China.
Walking amongst the Old Town the small streets are lined with dusty primitive housing and buildings. The bazaar and the residential area are one, forming a patchwork of residential and trade buildings. The market is a mix of flat bread and bagel stores, kebab houses, dairy and yogurt outlets, lines of hat stores and stockists of traditional musical instruments. Its an exciting and vibrant place and you can lose yourself for hours wondering the many backstreets and alleys.

A traditional tandoor burner for heating water

One of the most striking and saddening sights is the destruction of the Old Town. Large dusty brown plots o land have been cleared, waiting for new Chinese housing and shops to land. It seems nothing in China escapes the Chinese 'communist facelift'. Although it can be said that in some parts the attempt is to replace the old with something more 'authentic' and in keep with the Muslim style, the drab concrete mass infecting the rest of China is still evident. On the whole the vision is more likely wide of the mark and in future its likely, I would estimate, that the Old Town will only remain in a small pocket which will attach a hefty charge for passing through.

The destruction of the old town

Speaking to a few locals it was clear the process was a painful and unpleasant one for the Uighers inhabiting. Many losing businesses and homes, seemingly without any compensation or after thought for the peoples well-being and future.

Wondering through the Old Town and across the river its possible to visit the markets of Kashgar. The experience wasn't quite the explosion of people and vibrant original stands I had expected. Perhaps my vision is more fitting to those found in the North of Africa, such as Morocco or perhaps in more Central Asia parts. But somehow the Markets really didn't excite me, and satire the scene envisioned.

All in Kashgar was a great experience, unique in many ways to anywhere else in China. The culture shock is pleasantly exciting and really I felt more at home here than anywhere in China. If the Old Town can preserve some authenticity and along with it its people some strong tradition, there will be continue to be plenty to offer in Kashgar.

Kashgar Old Town Youth Hostel
Welcoming and informative hosts, with great location for exploring the Old Town.

Thursday, 17 June 2010


16th-17th June 2010

Located in Gansu province, Dunhuang was a major stop on the Silk Road. Located in a rich oasis containing Crescent Lake and Mingsha Shan- a sand dune mountain. Dunhuang is known as the 'City of the Sands'. It was likely established around 104 BCE.

Geographically speaking Dunhuang has strategic importance in both a military and communication regard, although its importance has wained over time. It is is the major crossroads of the ancient Southern Silk Road, leading to Lhasa, Mongolia and Southern Siberia. It is also the entrance to the Hexi Corridor.

After a 5-hour sticky coach journey through the desert, my arrival at the oasis of Dunhuang was a welcomed sight. Having only an outdated Lonely Planet guide, my knowledge of the cheap digs in town were clearly outdated- the first sure sign of this was the bus station had since print, moved all the way across town. But I still had the Chinese in tow and Rachel and Andy soon found a free taxi to the Feitian Binguan. Sadly the hotel was no longer 30Y (no surprises here). But we got a triple room for 180Y. This is still out of my budget, but it was pretty hot and I am feeling tired of late. The prospect of air conditioning and a good shower was too much to turn down!

After the shower I walked most of the major areas in town. As it was dragon boat festival, the river was alive with people. There was some traditional music being played, at the centre of which was a female vocalist. It was a very involved performance, indeed she had the serious look of a professional, but the quality didn't match. Still the locals seemed to be enjoying it! The river, meanwhile was filled with boats.

Wondering through Dunhuang you soon realise its whole industry is geared for tourism. The streets are vibrant and busy. Walking among the back streets its not hard to find the highlight. The night market is rich with handicrafts and an array of dried fruits and fresh vegetables. The smell of BBQ and rich spices, used by the muslim chefs, fills your nostrils. Lamb is the speciality here- its no secret the BBQs regularly have a Lamb skull adorning the hot grill!

Dunhuang does have something about it. Much as the bright neon lights, endemic across the city threaten to push it over the threshold. It stands firm. The quality of the Mogao Caves and the natural beauty and mystery of the sand dunes nearby, balance the Dunhuang equation.

The caves are quite remarkable. Set into the side of a sand dune. The vaults of time stand side by side for a few hundred meters. Each caves numbered and its contents meticulously studied and recorded. Its understood that Buddist Monks arrived in Dunhuang via the Northern Silk Road, which connected eventually with Kashgar. Over centuries the monks collected scriptures from the West and passing pilgrims painted murals inside the Mongao Caves or 'Caves of a Thousand Buddhas'.

The beautifully intricate murals are considered the finest examples of Buddist art, spanning over 1,000-years. Its believed the first caves were excavated in 366 AD as a place for worship and meditation. In total the murals cover 450,000 Sq.ft.

Later in the afternoon, as the summer sun sets below the horizon its possible to visit the dunes- any earlier and the scorching sun and fierce temperatures make movement out of the shades a bind. From Charlie Jongh's Dune Guesthouse you can easily wonder along the fence to its end and enjoy sunset over the dunes with a beer for free. Although distant, its also possible to make out the Cresent Moon lake and its surrounding buildings from a higher vantage point. The dunes are beautiful and well worth a visit.

Charlie Jongh's Dune Guesthouse
Dorm. 30Y
Free internet and good facilities make this a sure fire winner. Its location is a little out of the way. A 20-min steady bike ride or a short bus/ taxi make light of the distance. But its a quite and secluded spot just by the dunes, away from the hustle and bustle and the neon lights of Dunhuang.

Jiayuguan and Yumen

Jiayuguan 15-16th June
Arriving in The Gansu province was an exciting experience. Jiayuguan is a small town at the narrowest point of the Hexi Corridor, forming a pass and the western-most point of the Great Wall of China.

As the comfortable overnight sleeper train rolled into the station, all around as far as the eye could see was desert. To the east the sun was beautifully rising over the Gobi Desert, marking the start of a new day. In the south-west the harsh ranges of the Qilian Mountains rose sharply out of the desert peaking 4000-meters up with a snowy cap. The landscape to the east and west of the train seemed to be clearly different. Towards the mountains of the south-west the landscape was green. I figure the falling snows and the ultimate thaw from the mountains above were the source of this sharply contrasting vista. Off to the east the endless Gobi desert.

Arriving in Jiayuguan I was eager to view the fort in the morning light and coolness. But carry 25-kilos round a steep fort in the middle of a desert just isn't going to be fun. Trouble is Jiayuguan doesn't have a cheap room- anywhere! After an hour searching and finding 80¥ to be the best I was ready to leave my bag at the bus station, purchase a ticket for Dunhuang and make the most of 5-hours in Jiayuguan before the bus left.

From my right a small slight young Chinese girl politely asked "can I help?". Since I have been traveling in China I have met a number of very helpful Chinese people. Who have so much concern for your welfare. Most find the fact I cannot string more than a few words of Chinese together and my unwillingness to spend more than a few ¥ on anything 'unnecessary' to be a sign I could do with some care and attention. Which can be a little embarrassing, but also it's nice and in many ways more polite to allow them to help you in their country.

5-minutes with my new acquaintance, Rachel and I was buying a bus ticket to travel to nearby Yumen with her boyfriend Andy to stay with her parents for the evening. It was a really nice day ahead. I met the parents, made polite conversation with Andy about football. We ate a delicious home cooked meal. They insisted I had a nap and then a couple of hours later we went for a walk.

Turns out Yumen is the location of China's first oil well. We paid a visit to the very first. Set in a deep gorge with a river running through the narrow passage of the arid, crumbling brown earth walls. After dipping our feet in the cold mountain river and wondering for a while we made our way home.

That evening we had another tasty meal, soup noodles and the remains of the afternoon feast. Then we went to look around the town market, bought some beers and crisps and returned to Rachel's to settle in for the evening in front of the world cup. One fine day!

In the morning me and Andy set out for Jiayuguan. Rachel opted to stay with her mother for the morning as she had not been home in some years. Jiayuguan fort is a quite incredible structure. It has all the hallmarks of Chinese history one can hope for. The pass is constructed of three concentric layers: the central area of the inner city, an outer city section and finally a moat. It is 733-meters long and stands an imposing 11-meters high. At each corner of the pass a turret stands to defend the wall.

Walking along the Walls and looking out into the unforgiving desert surrounding, you really get the sense of power and command. The fort had a fearsome reputation as the last outpost of China proper, before the oblivion of the deserts of the far west beyond. The sense of isolation and hopelessness weighing heavily on those exiled- poets, artists and criminals- ordered to leave through the gates of this fort into the lawless lands of the deserted west is really apparent.

The wall was built during the early Ming dynasty around 1372. Legend surrounds the construction and recounts the meticulous planning of the pass. According to legend, when asked to estimate the number of bricks required, the designer gave him an exact number. The official questioned his judgment, so the designer added one brick to his calculations, which was never needed and was placed on the gates after construction was complete. Over the west tower gate a plaque hangs, the characters read "The Greatest Pass under Heaven".

After a couple of hours Rachel joined us. I hoped in a taxi for the overhanging wall and left them. The overhanging wall is around 10-mins and 12¥ East of the the fort. Passing through the Gobi Desert and into the black Hei Shan Mountains. It's certainly worthy of the journey. It is everything you expect the great wall to be. Huge, imposing, incredibly long and very steep in parts. As you trace the line of the wall along the contours of the mountains surrounding it's hard to believe that such a structure was built 5000-years ago- especially when you consider how much more extensive it was in that age. China is a remarkable empire and the great wall is the pinacle!

Monday, 14 June 2010


Tagong 6th-10th June 2010
Immediately when I arrived in Tagong I had the sense that I had finally arrived in an authentic Tibetan town. The look and feel of Tagong is truely Tibetan. Monks and traditionally dressed Tibetans wonder the lively streets. Lined by numerous eateries and cheap clothing/ jewellery stores- it's the perfect place to pick up a Tibetan piece or two.

What Tagong has also got is Angela and her Khampa Arts Cafe. Angela is an American national who has married into a Tibetan family. Quite unique, if not the only American-Tibetan marriage in the land!? And Angela brings a spot of something unique to Tagong. Her cafe- initially setup to distribute and sell Tibetan art works- now functions as a resturant and cafe hang out. Like the Tibetan jewellery and clothing on sale here the menu is authentic. Grab yourself a Yak burger or some Tsampa, a butter tea or a coffee- it's all there!

What Angela is also providing is the chance to experience a taste of a local Tibetan family life. Via her extended family it's possible to take a 1-2 day horse trek into the surrounding hills and stay with Angelas brother or mother in law. I enjoyed staying with Joyga and his family immensely. The house is small, but the Tibetan people have huge welcomming hearts. By western gauges looking around the hut it appears initally that these people have very little. Filth is but yet there life endemic, the children have a healthy layer of grime upon their bonny little faces. But these people are so rich and happy- in reality they have alot. They understand the land and how to live with it harmoniously- a trait largely missing in modern society.

The homestay is a 2-3hr walk up the valley. The accomodation is very basic- be prepaired to sleep on thick blankets on the floor. The horse trek is 5-6 hours eqch day and ia quite exhausting. But your surrounded by Yaks amongst the great plains and hills of Tibet. It's truely wonderful!

Stay- Jya Drolma and Gayla's Guesthouse
Beautifully decorated Tibetan family home. You feel like you hit
jackpot when you walk through the door.
Left off the town square.
20¥ night

Zhongdian > Xiangcheng > Litang

I left Zhongdian at 7.30 for Xiangcheng. The bus was cramped and uncomfortable. Naturally I was perched right at the back, where the going is pretty rough. But its all part of the experience- the magical landscapes that unfolded throughout the day more than make up for it! The mountains that we drove up and down for the next 14-hours were stunning. Rolling hills into mountain peaks, with roads winding there way through, up and around them to over 4,000-meters.

The bus to Xiangcheng arrived around 3pm. But Xiangcheng is not a pretty place. It seems to be a cog in the Chinese Industrial empire and all around there are mines, hydroelectric schemes and locals working materials. Having met the French contingent on the bus, the 5 of us hoped in a taxi with a girl from Hong Kong and a local.

Xiangcheng to Litang is a further 5-6hours. The first 3rd of which was very comfortable. But we stopped in Sang Dui, where our driver deposited us into smaller 4-WD vehicle. We didn't mind so much and after inspecting the locals and likewise being inspected, we left the town and headed north into an epic boulder field.

The boulder field was huge. It must have gone on for 20-30km. Fortunately we got a short stop and it gave me the chance to run around for 10-mins and scramble up a few of the granite pieces laying around. Again the landscape was thrilling throughout. We arrived in Litang a little exhausted, 14-hours of travelling!

We tucked into some local food, consisting of potato and yak dumplings, yak steak, egg fried-rice, Tsampa and naturally some green tea. Although it was dark it was pretty clear that we had moved into more remote regions. The Han-population was barely noted, instead Tibetans populate the one main road running through town.