Sunday, July 22, 2007

East to Chengdu.... Trains, Trains, Trains.

Chengdu, China - In the last two weeks we have covered a lot of ground. For a while we were spending more time on trains than we were in hotels. We've traveled from the sand swept deserts of western China to the steamy jungles of southern China. The only consistency seems to be the heat. Whether it's scorching, searing, boiling, blistering, steamy, or sweltry... it's been pretty damn hot. Despite the heat, we've been busy and have seen quite a lot. I'll try to keep it short.

We started our trek east with a 23hr train ride from Kashgar to Daheyan where we caught a bus to Turpan (7/9 to 7/10). We shared a soft sleeper with George and Mitzi, a retired couple from Canada and Japan respectively. Not to dis Canadians, but George was the third know-it-all-Canadian we'd "experienced" in the last month. He pontificated about China, Tibet and Nepal for a good two hours before both Suwei and I passed out in the relative cool of the air-conditioned cabin. For the next 8 hours or so we watched some of the most desolate landscapes on earth roll by. The Chinese must have installed some 30 or so different methods to keep sand off the tracks. My favorite memory of this leg was the "Sterilized" sign that remained glued to the toilet seat cover... no matter how nasty the toilet got.

Since this week was the start of summer break for most students, the already overloaded train system was even more overloaded than usual. We knew we would need to buy our onward tickets as soon as possible. So, before visiting Turpan we needed to stand in a very long line to buy our next ticket to Dunhuang. After almost an hour in line and only 3 people from the window, the ticket lady left to take a lunch break. Instead of another person taking her place and continuing to sell tickets to those who had already been waiting for ages, they opened another window. Suwei quickly jumped in the new line...but not fast enough. A half an hour later she was still waiting in the new line when the ticket lady handling my line came back from lunch. We ended up with two hard sleepers leaving for Dunhuang in two us time to enjoy Turpan.

Turpan is located in the Turpan basin. At 154 meters below sea level it is the second lowest depression in the world (after the Dead Sea). It has long been a stopover on the northern silk road and is now a major tourist desitination for Chinese folks venturing west. There is a standard tour here including the Astana Graves and the Bezeklik Caves which the LP describes as "essentially empty". Then there is the Grape Valley, described as "hardly a must see", and Aydingkul Lake, described as "more of a muddy, salty encrusted flat than a lake." (S - probably like the salt flats in Death Valley. This is the actual spot of the 2nd lowest depression in the world.) Barb and Ted also said the tour was pretty lame. We decided to pass, but that didn't keep the touts at bay. We ended up telling them we had already done the tour.

The town itself was quite nice, a little toasty, but nice. It had clean parks with ponds and fountains where older couples danced at night, pedestrian walkways shielded from the sun by grape vines loaded with sweet-looking green grapes, a huge Bazaar that took over the entire block across from our hotel, and a restaurant that served a tasty chile beef dish with tiny steamed bums. We liked it there.

Still being tourists we decided to take a morning walk 3km out to the Emin Minaret, an Afghan-style mosque surrounded by grape fields. Founded in 1777, it is now a bit touristy being flanked by curio stands selling post cards and cowboy hats. There is a healthy entrance fee and a stainless steel turnstyle to count the guests. It is, however an impressive example of desert architecture in a place where buildings are usually not so pleasing to the eye.

The Emin Minaret

After my now standard afternoon coma, we ventured out again to visit the Jiaohe Ruins. This was an old garrison town perched atop a 40ft high mud island bounded by a deep green valley on either side. Abandoned in the 14th century there really wasn't much left but a few crumbling mud walls. In typical Chinese style the description of the place made it sound much more dull than it was. However, in the evening light as the sun began to set and with a light breeze blowing like a hair dryer set on low, we found it quite pleasant. We stayed until the fake rock speakers announced in Chinese that the park was closing.

The Jiaohe Ruins

The next day we spent interneting next to a chain-smoking 12yr-old pounding away at a first-person shooter game and then caught the night train to Dunhuang (7/12). Being only 13hrs long we opted for a hard sleeper (our first in China). It wasn't bad at all. Instead of a cabin with a door and four bunks, you get six bunks to a space with no door. It's much more crowded and noisy, but the bunks are still comfy and we kind of enjoyed the liveliness of it. In our birth we met Michael and Lina. Michael is Chinese but grew up in southern California. He was going to school in Shanghai where he met his girlfriend Lina. They were taking a speed tour of the west while on break. He spoke Chinese well and helped us sort out some difficulties with our tickets. Two other people showed up in the middle of the night and disappeared before morning. When we woke up, the landscape was just as stark and barren as the night before. It looked as if we hadn't moved.

Things went green just before our arrival in Dunhuang. Another oasis in a barren landscape, Dunhuang is a clean city also overrun by tourists, but in a Napa Valley sort of way. It seems as if Dunhuang is brand new....built in the image of how the Chinese would like their cities to work. It was smaller than Turpan with a lot more tourist dollars pouring in, due to the famous Mogao Caves.

We shared a noisy, fishy smelling three-bed dorm with a Japanese traveler we met on the train. We were seriously jonesing for a shower after two days of profuse sweating, but the shared showers were not open until 6:30 pm. Dirty and smelly we headed out for an evening on the dunes. The "Singing Sands" or "Resonating Dunes" or "Mingsha Shan" (depending on what guidebook you are looking at) are huge piles of sand that look like they are ready to engulf the south edge of town. They are crawling with Chinese tourist in bright orange gaters clammering up, inner tubing down and riding camels, ATV's, & jeeps back and forth. We spotted a tall dune with no one on it and struck out at a good pace in order to reach the top before sunset. We ended up sharing our incredible view of sand and city with a very nice, English-speaking, Chinese college student. Bounding down the steep sand in the dark was a highlight.

The Singing Sands in Dunhuang

We would have taken a shower after that, but we were way too hungry. We ate at a Sichuan place across the street from our hotel with the funniest menu so far. Here are a few of our favorite dishes:
  • Mashed Garlic Elbow Son
  • Red Hair Oil Belly
  • It is Cool to Mix the Cucumber
  • The Sugar Mixs the Tomatoe
  • Braise the Soy Sauce a Round Mass of Food
  • Red Cow (I think they meant Red Bull)
  • Grasp the Mutton
  • The Flower Vegitables Burn the Beef
  • It is Pure to Burn the Belly
We had no idea what the heck we were ordering.

The next day (7/14) we saw the "must see" Mogao Grottos. Dating back to the 3rd century, the caves were built as a place to pray or give thanks to a safe journey along the silk road. There are 735 caves in all now hidden behind fake rock and locked doors to protect what is left of one of the "greatest repositories of Buddhist art in the world." All visitors to the caves are placed in groups of ten or twenty according to what language you speak. Somehow we got placed in a huge group of Spanish tourists and had to endure the dullest facts presented in pigion English and then translated into Spanish:

"What does she mean 'the angels fly with ribbons'? What are these ribbons?"
"Ah.. Ok. Los ángulos volaron con las cintas."

Mostly though it was about dimensions, dates, and dynasties. Out of the 735 caves each tour group may get to see only 10 to 12 caves. There are some more interesting ones that are included on every tour including #17, the library cave, where a secret stash of manuscripts were found in 1900. The manuscripts were subsequently plundered by or sold off to foreigners and now reside in museums all over the world. Or, cave #96 which houses the 3rd tallest Buddha in the world at somewhere between 35 to 41 meters depending on who you care to believe. (However, the 2nd tallest Buddha, at 53m, in the Bamiyan Province of Afghanistan has been mostly blown up by the Taliban.)

Karl & Suwei in Front of Cave #96 (no photos allowed inside)

Being the bad tourists that we are, we felt most of the other caves on the tour were mildly interesting at best and in many cases achingly dull. It was worth the trip out there, but we felt the 180 Yuan (~$25) entry fee was a bit steep.

Boarding the Train to Xian at Dunhuang Station (Still under construction)

The train to Chengdu was fully booked, so we bought a ticket for a hard sleeper to Xian instead (7/15). We left at 9:30 in the morning for another 24hr ride. It wasn't until we dropped into the Hexi Corridor later that afternoon that the barren, dry and rocky landscape began to change. Wedged in between two mountain ranges, the Hexi corridor is a narrow strip of land that used to be the sole western passage in and out of the Middle Kingdom. Then it got dark. We woke up to a landscape of smoke spewing factories seperated by green fields of corn and tree-lined streets. We were back in Xian.

Knowing our way around, we dropped our packs at a near by hostel, returned to the train station and waited in the very long line in front of the foreigner's ticket window (#10) in order to get a ticket on the first available train to Chengdu. We got one leaving at 10:30 that evening (7/17) We used the day to wander around town and shop for a new money belt for Suwei and a combo lock and deodorant for me. The weather was steamy hot with air you could see...we were more than happy to shell out a few yuan for a shower at the hostel before heading out for another 18hr train ride.

Waiting to Board the Night Train to Chengdu

After almost 80hrs total of train time and more buckets of ramen than you care to imagine, we finally arrived in Chengdu. Why the rush? Well, we got distracted by Central Asia and ended up taking more time than expected everywhere else. Added to that was the fact that back in April, five Americans were arrested at the Tibetan side of Mt. Everest for protesting China's "occupation" of Tibet by flying a banner reading "One World, One Dream, Free Tibet 2008." They were referring to the 2008 Olympic slogan and China's plan to run the Olympic torch to the peak of Everest. Due in part to articles like this one:, we felt we needed to get Tibet sorted out and pronto.

As it turns out, the hype is greater than the truth. True, overland routes by road have lept in price and many companies are now refusing to run them. The train was still an option, but most tickets were held by scalpers and hard to obtain without paying inflated prices (S - basically we had to buy the tickets on the black market). That left flying as the last option, which surprisingly was the least expensive way to get to Tibet.'s not that simple. To enter Tibet you need an entry permit. But individual travelers are not allowed to hold an entry permit. You must be part of a tour and the tour guide holds your permit. This can be circumvented in Lhasa as a booking agent can get a permit, buy a plane ticket and get you on your way. You, however, will never see your permit and therefore will not be able to leave the city of Lhasa. In Lhasa, you will have to apply for another permit (called a travel permit) and a tour if you want to go outside of the city. The problem is that back in May, the Chinese government was clamping down on this process and the fear is that at anytime they may send you back where you came from even if you had the proper permits. So, basically, no guarantees.

Suwei Working Out Our Next Move Over a Beer at Sim's Cozy

Suwei and I decided to go for it. We also decided that we didn't have enough time to see the Yunnan province as originally planned. So, we booked a flight to Tibet departing pn July 25th. That gave us one week to see Chengdu and the Sichuan province. So, what do you do with one week in Sichuan? We choose to see the pandas, the Grand Buddha in Leshan, and do a little trekking on the sacred mountain of Emei Shan.

Pandas: Two words...damn cute! We took a tour out to the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base, an impressive facility with ponds and paths lined with bamboo and other botanical wonders. We learned that Pandas only digest about 2% of what they eat, so they eat a lot in a very short period and end up sleeping the rest of the day. At the research center the Pandas are fed at 8am. So there we were quickly hoofing it up to the panda pens with loads and loads of other tourists hoping to catch the pandas before they passed out. The baby panda pen was of course, the most popular to the point of being a little insane.

We were even able to catch an infant panda still in the incubator. It had actually been on TV news the night before. We watched as the infant panda handler did a thorough cleaning of its tiny bits for our viewing pictures please! Panda eyes do not develop until after the first few weeks and the flash can damage them.

Baby Panda. This one was in the museum, where cameras are allowed.

We did not shell out the large amount of yuan required to hug a panda... although after seeing them, it was tempting.

The Grand Buddha in Leshan: I don't think Suwei was too jazzed about this one, but it was on the way to Emei Shan and I felt the need. You see, after seeing the 3rd tallest Buddha in the world in Dunhuang, I felt somewhat unsatisfied. Where was the tallest? 71m tall, the Buddha in Leshan is the world's tallest Buddha. I had to go!

It rocked! Suwei was bored. We took a speed boat out into the river so that we could see the whole thing. Then we walked up to the top and stood in line by it's ear for over an hour so that we could take the path down to it's feet. Suwei..."yawn". I was jazzed. "Can you believe it... the world's tallest. Who would have thunk?"

Emei Shan: Like Hua Shan and Wutai Shan, Emei Shan is one of China's sacred mountains. And like the others, it too is overrun by Chinese tourists. Luckily Emei Shan is much larger. Therefore the tourists generally stick to a few popular areas and are thus easy to avoid if you care to walk a bit. Because of it's size, we chose to take a bus to the road's highest point about an hour's walk from the peak. The Golden Summit (3077m) is packed with Buddhist pilgrams and tourists alike. In the moments when the fog cleared one could see that there was potential for some spectacular views. We spent the next two days walking the 18 or so kilometers to the bottom. Here are my highlights:
  • Warm jackets for rent.
  • Green Tea. A company selling green tea bought up the whole mountain and surround towns. Now every sign on every hotel, restuarant, shop or stand doubles as an add for green tea...which you can buy at super inflated prices on the mountain.
  • Jungle. You see a lot of it.
  • Cheeky Monkeys. They will block the path and hiss at you with a grin that says, "Watch it, I have Rabies!"
  • Watching the Chinese go nuts over the monkeys.
  • Stuffed monkeys. For sale at every curio stand.
  • Porters. They carry everything from stones, generators, rebar, and cement for building trails and temples to toting tired tourists up or down either on their backs or a sort of strecther.
  • Steps. You've got to love'em!
  • Staying in the Majic Peak Monestary and being fed cheap meals by monks.
  • Temples, and bridges, and pavilions covered in moss and obscured by fog & jungle. It was exactly how both Suwei and I imagined mountains being in China.

Emei Shan

In Chengdu proper we spent most of our time shopping, fixing cameras, and eating out. Not much to tell really.

So that's it for this entry. I hope this entry wasn't too dull...I think the humidity makes my brain soft. This one was hard to write.

As usual.. more pictures and comments in the slideshows below.

From Kashgar to Chengdu by Train, China

Chengdu, Leshan & Emei Shan, China

1 comment:

Guru said...

Whoa! Those sand dunes look great.
You guys decide to go to India ?