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A Silk Road Trip, or I Gobbed in the Gobi, China, 1992
In August 1992, myself and my wife, Caroline, organized a trip to post-Tiananmen China. This was when the London China Travel office was in Cambridge Circus, opposite the Palace Theater on Charing Cross Road. It took me at least twenty books, a late-night Japanese TV series and several months to plan and organize the trip from what was then our base in Balham, south London. At that time, you could arrange the tour through China Travel and then, as long as the itinerary was filed in advance, you could travel completely independently. Everything was prepaid, but initially we had no tickets or confirmed reservations other than our plane tickets to and from Beijing. As always, I kept a diary of the trip, which was over fifty pages. A few years later, I condensed the two-sided experience of A4, ignoring rules of grammar and syntax, and produced the following rambling, a perhaps poetic impression of almost a month’s journey .
Ex-London while the Sun dissected Michael Jackson’s nose and praised Boardman’s sirenless gold-medal bicycle. Air China in Beijing, where taxis cost more than Lonely Planet predicts. An itinerary in Chinese characters from a certain Tim Han of China Travel while colleagues drink in front of the televised agile African-American sprinters at the Olympics. Then direction the Forbidden City which is no more. Loads of local tourists to negotiate.
Four hours from Xinjiang Airlines to Urumqi. Signs in Chinese and Russian plus Uyghur written in Arabic characters (a recent innovation). Land lines through Inner Mongolia. Why and how so right? Urumqi has many peaks. Piles of coal, scruffy skyscrapers, snow-capped Bogda Shen at the end of the street. Pavement fortune tellers, traders. Food stalls. Women washing sheep’s stomachs in a stream, skewers of tripe. Uigur town now Han Chinese, populated by Shanghai overflow, more than 2000 miles from “home”. The second long walk.
Uyghur breakfast. Hot sheep’s milk, Chinese tea, tomato flatbread, candied tomato and cucumber, pickled cabbage, fine congee, sheep’s butter, two giant sugar cubes. Uyghur market. Fruits in the middle of a forest of hanging lambs. Chinese market. Live meats and vegetables. Reservoir overflow with energy eels (unit price). Self-tying spaghetti.
Woman losing her gold watch during an illegal ‘find the lady’ operation. Policeman watching. Tears when loss hits home. Renmin Park for noodles and rocket fuel chili sauce. Bag slashers with ring knives in a crowded bus. Necessary care.
Drive to Turfan. Fertile valleys. Arid mountains. Occasional snow. Plowed road. Kazakh yurts. Uyghur villages half-buried in beaten earth, invisible from afar except for the smoke from the chimneys. Steep gorges, spectacular river, rocks, whitewater and slate gray hills. In the Turfan Depression, snowy distance surrounding a gray stone pit 100 miles in diameter. 42 degrees at its base, 200 meters below sea level. Car ahead leaving traces on the molten road. A big bite from the driver irrigates. Gobi means stones. Lots here. And then green. An oasis. A giant mirage?
Tourfan. Trellis vines for street shade. Hanging raisins. 15 yuan fine for occasional picking. Hotel tea in galvanized buckets. Turkish dance and music. The adobe towns of Goachang and Jiaohe were sacked by Genghiz. Painted tombs and brick minarets. Flaming mountains. Karez underground irrigation system. 3000 kilometers of canals. 1500 years old, gravity fed from the mountains at the edge of the depression. The greatest feat of Uigur culture, and in perfect working order.
Bus to Daheyan. Two hours on bumpy stones to the edge of the depression. Discharge of a railway town. Coal heaps, box buildings, wasteland. Two women at war on the station forecourt. Crush the victim’s head on the ground. Blood. Spectators. Inaction. A tense city of resentful posts.
500 miles to Liuyuan in Gansu. Flat gray shale stone without relief. Spectacularly unique. Snowy mountains to the north. Completely empty except for the smoldering coal towns. 40 above in summer, 30 below in winter. Night by train. Dawn reveals the same massive scene, now in brown.
Arrival Liuyuan. Daheyan short similar. 120 miles south through the desert (dark at first!), past the remaining ramparts of the Han Dynasty Great Wall. Camels and dunes of Taklimakan, the largest sand desert in the world. Near Dunhuang, the oasis is blooming again. Sand and scree suddenly reframing and tree structure. Feitian Hotel, with free toiletries labeled Sham Poo and Foam Poo. Lunch. Fourteen dishes. Duck, foo-yong, cucumber, cabbage, chicken with oyster mushrooms, pork with coriander, steamed buns, steamed bread, rice, beef broth and noodles, pork and green beans, pork and sweet pepper, chicken and squash, plain noodles, watermelon. Then to recover the essential torch for the caves. The houses are piled up against each other. Stores of wood for the winter heaped on it. View across the rooftops like a pile of junk. Claustrophobic sandstone maze at ground level.
Cave day. Mogao Buddhist Caves – closed 12pm-2am, full day needed for perhaps the most amazing sight on earth. 400 “caves” (some cathedral size) in a sandstone gorge, between 400 and 1100 AD. Totally dry, always dark, perfectly preserved. All painted. Complex and colorful Tang period. A world of torchlight scenes. Reclining, sitting, standing, posing Buddhas. A seated figure thirty feet away with thousands of unsmoked cigarettes and coins on his knees as offerings. Clash of the renovated Qing cave with Taoist figures. Grim, twisted features and a face in the groin. 40 caves seen during the day, archaeologist as personal guide. Stunning. Fourteen dishes for dinner.
Return by desert bus to Liuyuan. Always a fight for seats. Three dusty hours. Train to Lanzhou. 800 miles along the mountainous Gansu-Qinghai border. More black desert, then yellow earth. Fort Jaiyaguan on the edge of the Ming Empire. Night by train. The country has changed. Mountain pass, green hills and stepped fields. Wheat harvest. Carts of straw like children at the assembly. Houses still in adobe. Lanzhou a prosperous industrial city. Thirty hours of travel. Promenade along the Yellow River.
Fish in the hotel restaurant tank all dead. Expensive Lanzhou bus. 50 fen per trip. Radios and knitting prohibited. Han dynasty flying horse and bronze warriors. Steamed carp with rapeseed on the menu. The fish comes first. Train to Xian through the land of yellow loess. Deep furrows and gorges. All cropped flat terrain. 500 miles overnight.
Terracotta warriors facing east to guard Qin Shihuang’s tomb. Made in pieces. Assembled on site. Partly excavated section where piles of dismembered limbs emerge from the ground. New Terracotta Warriors for sale from the factory behind the museum. Exact replicas of the originals. A wheeze at the idea that all this is a sham for the tourist trade.
Xian, like all Chinese cities, a place. Straight roads, always intersecting at right angles. Old fortified center, Ming rebuilt. Exquisite old mosque. Nearby Xianyang, with 7th-century Qian tombs, a museum with another 3,000 Han terracottas like a crowd of footballers. Train to Beijing. 800 miles, 26 hours. Often troglodyte houses on the side of the valley. Later huge flat land, corn everywhere.
Temple of Heaven, Tiantan, then Beijing Opera. Break for beer at the roadside stall. Served by a black trainee stockbroker! Amazing pickle breakfast, like a four year old Camembert straight out of a shotgun. Take off the head. Great Wall. Mucho touristico, but still beautiful. Like climbing a giant ladder in places. “I climbed the Great Wall” t-shirts, prices go down the higher you go. It must be the air. Ming tombs ruled out by guide. Bad. Incredible barrel-vaulted chambers nine stories below ground. Jade gates, carved thrones, marble, marble, marvel. Reminiscent of Renaissance Italy. Eternal bricks engraved with the names of their makers. Souvenir jade boat for 55,000 pounds.
White curtains on erotic statues in the Tibetan Lama Temple. Same beastly content in the murals. 24-meter golden Buddha through the incense-blur. No smoking sign anywhere.
Mao’s Maosoleum tomb of an emperor. Lines for queues painted in the square. Feet pointing north towards Tiananmen Gate, upside down feng shui. It is shiny, waxy and painted on the face. Moving lines scroll on either side. No break. Outside, stands of Mao T-shirts, Mao key rings, stuffed animals, postcards, magic lantern shows. Mao Zedong’s cotton candy in full swing. Then Great Hall of the People. Dining for 5000. Now fast food for tourists. Great Hall chopsticks, cigarettes, T-shirts. Great Hall of the People stuffed animals.
2500 miles. Three and a half weeks. 5 destinations. 50 caves. 6000 terracotta warriors. 1 each Great Wall, Forbidden City, Peking Opera, Mao Zedong. Hundreds of tombs, temples, pagodas, parks, bendi-buses and bicycles. 3 silk shirts on the silk road. An incredible journey.
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