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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 trip to post-Tiananmen China. It was in the days when the London China Travel office was on 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 arrange the trip from what was then our base in Balham, south London. In those days, you could arrange the visit through China Travel and then, as long as the itinerary was settled in advance, you could travel absolutely independently. Everything was pre-paid, but when we set off, we had no tickets or confirmed reservations other than our flight tickets in and out of Beijing. As always, I kept a journal of the trip, which ran to over fifty pages. A few years later, I condensed the experience onto two sides of A4, ignoring rules of grammar and syntax, and produced the following rambling, perhaps a poetic impression of almost a month of travel.
Ex-London during the Sun dissected Michael Jackson’s nose and praised Boardman’s silent gold medal bike. Air China to Beijing, where taxis cost more than Lonely Planet predicts. A China-character itinerary by one Tim Han of China Travel as co-workers drool over televised animated African-American sprinters at the Olympics. Then to the no longer Forbidden City. Crowds of local tourists to negotiate.
Four hours from Xinjiang Airlines to Urumqi. Characters in Chinese and Russian plus Uyghur written in Arabic script (recent innovation). Land lines through Inner Mongolia. Why and how so directly? Urumchi multi-pointed. Piles of coal, dirty tall, snow-covered Bogda Shen at the end of the street. Sidewalk fortune tellers, merchants. Food stalls Women washing sheep’s stomachs in a stream, tripe kebabs. Uighur city now Han Chinese, populated by Shanghai overflow, more than 2000 miles from “home”. The second long march.
Uyghur breakfast. Hot sheep’s milk, Chinese tea, flat tomato bread, candied tomato and cucumber, pickled cabbage, thin congee, sheep’s milk butter, two giant sugar balls. Uyghur market. Fruits in the middle of a forest of hanging lamb. chinese market Live vegetables and meats. Tank overflows with energetic eels (first price). Self-knot spaghetti.
A woman losing her gold watch at an illegal “find the lady”. Policeman watching. Tears when the loss hits home. Renmin Park for noodles and rocket fuel chili sauce. Bag cutters with finger ring cutters on a crowded bus. Care needed.
Car to Turfan. Fertile valleys. Desert mountains. Occasional snow. Road plowed. Case yurts. Half-sunken shadow-making ramis-terrain Uyghur villages, invisible in the distance except for chimney smoke. A steep sloping gorge, spectacular river, rocks, white water and slate gray hills. Into Turfan depression, a snow-covered distance surrounding a gray stone pit 100 miles across. 42 degrees at its base, 200 meters below sea level. Car ahead leaving tracks on melted road. A strong gob of the driver irrigates. Gobi means stones. A lot here. And then green. Oasis. A giant mirage?
Turf Lattice vines for street shade. Hanging raisins. 15 yuan fine for random picking. Hotel tea in galvanized buckets. Turkish style dancing and music. Genghis discount ramis land cities of Goachang and Jiaohe. Painted tombs and brick minarets. Flaming mountains. Karez underground irrigation system. 3000 kilometers of canals. 1500 years old, gravity-fed by mountains on the edge of the depression. The greatest feat of Uighur culture, and in full operation.
Bus to Daheyan. Two hours over empty rocks to depression edge. Railroad town dump. Coal piles, box buildings, wasteland. Two women at war on a station forecourt. Rowing a victim’s head to the ground. blood Onlookers Inaction A tense city of resentful descendants.
500 miles to Liuyuan in Gansu. Featureless flat gray shale stone. Visually unique. Snowy mountains in the north. Completely empty, except for smoking coal towns. 40 up in summer, 30 down in winter. Overnight by train. Dawn reveals the same massive scene, now in brown.
Arrive Liuyuan. Daheyan written similar. 120 miles south across the desert (black at first!), past remnant ramparts of the Great Great Wall of the Han Dynasty. Camels and dunes of Taklimakan, the largest sand desert in the world. Near Dunhuang oasis is blooming again. Sand and screed suddenly harvest and tree. Feitian Hotel, with complimentary toiletries labeled Sham Poo and Foam Poo. lunch Fourteen dishes. Duck, foo-yong, cucumber, cabbage, oyster mushroom chicken, coriander pork, steamed buns, steamed bread, rice, beef broth and noodles, pork and green beans, pork and sweet chili, chicken and pumpkin, plain noodles, watermelon. Then get the essential torch for the caves. Houses huddled together. Wood stores for winter were piled up above. A view across the roofs like a pile of rubbish. Ground level claustrophobic sandstone maze.
Cave day. Buddhist caves of Mogao – closed from 12 to 2, a full day required for perhaps the most amazing sight on earth. 400 “caves” (some cathedral size) in a sandstone gorge, between 400 AD to 1100 AD Completely dry, always dark, perfectly preserved. All painted. Tang period complex and colorful. A world of scenes by torchlight. Buddhas lying, sitting, standing, posing. A thirty meter seated figure with thousands of unsmoked cigarettes and coins on his knees as offerings. Shock of a Qing-renovated cave with Taoist figures. Ghoulish features, twisted, and a face in the groin. 40 caves seen in the day, archaeologist as personal guide. amazing Fourteen dishes for dinner.
Desert bus back to Liuyuan. Always a fight for seats. Three dusty hours. Train to Lanzhou. 800 miles along the Gansu-Qinghai mountain border. More black desert, then yellow earth. Jaiyaguan fortress on the border of the Ming empire. Overnight by train. Country has changed. Mountain pass, green rolling hills and grazed fields. Wheat harvest in. Straw dolls like children at an assembly. Houses still made of rammed earth. Lanzhou is a prosperous industrial city. Thirty hours of travel. A walk by the Yellow River.
Fish in hotel restaurant tank all dead. Lanzhou bus expensive. 50 fen per trip. Radios and knitting prohibited. Han dynasty flying horse and bronze warriors. Steamed carp with rape on the menu. The fish comes first. Train to Xian through yellow loess country. Deep furrows and gouges. All flat earth cut. 500 miles overnight.
Terracotta warriors facing east to guard the tomb of Qin Shihuang. Made in pieces. Assembled on site. A partially excavated section where masses of dismembered limbs emerge from the ground. New terracotta warriors for sale from the factory behind the museum. Exact copies of originals. Hiss at the thought of the whole thing as a scam for the tourist trade.
Xian, like all Chinese cities, a square. Straight roads, always intersecting at right angles. Ancient center walled, Ming rebuilt. Old mosque exquisite. Xianyang nearby, with seventh-century Qian tombs, a museum with another 3000 Han terracottas like a football crowd. Train to Beijing. 800 miles, 26 hours. Houses often caves in a valley side. Then a huge flat land, corn everywhere.
Temple of Heaven, Tiantan, and then Peking Opera. A roadside beer break. Served by a moonlighting trainee trader! Breakfast mincemeat amazing, like a four-year-old camembert from a shotgun. Takes off the head. Great Wall Very touristy, but still amazing. Like climbing a giant staircase in some places. “I climbed the Great Wall” T-shirts, prices drop the further you climb. Must be the air. Ming tombs discarded from guidebook. Wrong. Amazing barrel vaulted rooms nine stories underground. Jade doors, carved thrones, marble, marble, wonder. Reminiscent of Renaissance Italy. Eternal bricks engraved with the names of their creators. Souvenir jade boat for 55000 pounds.
White drapes over erotic statues in a Tibetan Lama Temple. Same animal content in murals. 24 meters golden Buddha through the incense blur. No-smoking signs everywhere.
Mausoleum tomb of an emperor. Lines for rows painted across the square. Feet pointing north to Tiananmen Gate, upside down feng shui. He is shiny, waxy and painted around the face. Moving lines file past on both sides. No pause. Outside, stalls with Mao T-shirts, Mao key rings, cuddly toys, postcards, magic lantern shows. Mao Zedong sugar rope by the armful. Then Great Hall of the People. Dining room for 5000. Now fast food for tourists. Big Hall sticks, cigarettes, T-shirts. Great Hall of the People sweet toys.
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, bandi buses and bicycles. 3 silk shirts on the Silk Road. One amazing trip.
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