Monday, October 31, 2005

The Hotan Curse

From Urumqi I took the bus across the infamous Taklmakan Desert to Hotan. The road, which cuts straight through the desert, is an engineering marvel in itself as it is built upon huge tracts of shifting sands. Hotan is famous for its exquisite, and abundant, jade (all you have to do to pick up a piece is head down to the river where every other rock is jade).

But for me the main draw was Hotan's incredible Sunday market. I haven't seen such a mass of seething, jostling, bustling humanity since Carnaval in Rio, but Carnaval is once a year and the market is every week. This was by far the most thriving and exciting market I've seen on all my travels, and I've seen a fair number of them. There were thousands upon thousands of people pushing and shoving to get through the other thousands of people going in the other direction. Everything was on sale: carpets, sheep, thermal underwear, cool Uighur felt hats, cooking utensils, jackets, barber stalls and, of course, lots of jade. Though, typically enough, they didn't have the one thing that I really wanted: leather mitts. But the jade market was surely the most fun: every man and his dog had a little blanket spread in front of them with chunks of jade ranging from the minuscule to the impossible to lift. And plenty more people would sidle surreptitiously up to me showing me their little pebbles, as if they were hard drugs and it should be kept hush hush. How anybody could make a living from selling jade, when there are 1000 other people selling the exact same useless bits of rock, is beyond me. I developed a hilarious game whereby I'd show some interest in somebody's stone, take it of them to have a look, hand them a pen or other random object and then start to walk off. Often the sellers were too bewildered to realise what was happening until I was a fair distance away. I have to amuse myself somehow! My only quibble was that it is Ramadan and so eating in the market was a big no no, so I had to go back to my hotel (I use the term in the loosest possible sense of the term) early to gobble down some nosh in private.

Apropos of food, all the travellers I met in Hotan got ill whilst there, and I was no exception. I've had a really nasty case of the runs today and I've been yo-yoing in and out of the toilet most of the time. The strange thing is that my bowels seem to have a Tardis-like capacity for producing shit. I'm sure I've shat out more than I've eaten in the past 3 days, easily. Where does all that crap come from? Perhaps I've lost some not-so-vital internal organs in the process. Perhaps my appendix? Anyway, that's a little snapshot of the thoughts going through my head today. I think I may have gone slightly peculiar after all this time on the road.

Friday, October 28, 2005

The Middle Of Nowhere

I am now in Urumqi, a place that has been on The List (my mental list of places I want to visit and things I want to do) for perhaps 15 years or more. Why is Urumqi there? does it have a marvelous mosque? ravishing ruins? bustling bazaars? Nope, it has none of those things. But for as long as I can remember I have been an avid collector of useless trivia. The more irrelevant and trivial the piece of information, the more likely I am to remember it (important things, on the other hand, pass through my brain like a sieve). So, as some of you may, or may not, know, Urumqi is the furthest city from the sea (about 2500km). And since I'm a sucker for superlatives I just had to come here. Funnily enough there is no plaque, statue, amusement park or even a fish stall to celebrate the fact; which is quite surprising as the Chinese are very adept at seizing every possible opportunity to make an easy buck (especially from us, put upon, tourists). Although the remotest point is actually several hundred kilometers to the northwest and is 2648km from the sea.

I don't know what I was expecting from this remote metropolis, but it certainly wasn't the throbbing neon lights, loud music and fancy stores that greeted me. It is a thoroughly modern and cosmopolitan city, with an interesting mix of ethnic groups, not just Uighur and Han, but also Hui, Uzbek and Russian. Still, I was given one priceless picture of rurality just a while ago: walking down one of the main roads in the middle of town, blissfully uncaring of the traffic zooming past, was a farmer herding about half a dozen goats. I have no idea how he got there, or where he was going with his little troop, but it was a priceless moment for me.

Urumqi is also the political and administrative centre of Xinjiang (or, to give it its full name, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region), which is also China's largest province by area (if it were a country it would be 17th largest in the world between Libya and Iran). The region, along with Tibet, also has an underground independence movement, although it's Tibet that seems to grab all the headlines (probably because Buddhism is more in fashion and they've got the Dalai Lama as a figurehead) nonetheless nationalist sentiment among the Uighurs runs high. The Chinese government is doing its best to counter this through several means: allowing a certain degree of autonomy (Uighur is an official language within the province and there are newspapers and TV programmes in it); flooding the place with ethnic Han Chinese to dilute the Uighur majority; rewriting history to promote Chinese nationalism; and good old-fashioned totalitarian repression. It is the last two that are the most insidious and I've had a little taste of a subtle form of both of them today. I went to the Xinjiang province museum today and they had a timeline of the history of the region. Not only were there continuous references to the "glorious motherland" and "harmony between the people" but whilst recounting the history the exhibit jumped from the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) to the Qing dynasty(1644-1911), completely skipping the 300 years of the Ming dynasty that lies in between, which, oddly enough, was the time of greatest independence for the Uighur people. I wonder whether the locals notice and what they think of it? The soft repression is happening right now at the cyber cafe. As I'm surfing I'm finding many more websites being blocked here than in the rest of the country, and most of them are very innocuous (honest!).

Tuesday, October 25, 2005


China is a nation of mountains; not just in the west with the awesome Tibetan Plateau, but all the way to the east coast as well. But as well as dizzying heights, there are also sobering lows. The Turfan Depression is the second lowest point on earth (second only to the Dead Sea in Israel), culminating, as it were, at 154m below sea level in a salt-encrusted puddle of mud at Aydingkol lake. The town of Turfan (or Turpan as it's called by the local Uighurs, or Tulufan by the Chinese) sits on the northern branch of the Silk Road and has the distinction of being the hottest place in China, though at this time of year it's quite pleasant. Much closer to my heart (actually just below it in my stomach) are the grapes and raisins for which the area is famous for. The whole area around the town, as well as peoples' gardens, is full of vineyards, although they look quite forlorn at the moment because the harvest is already over. Due to the hot, dry climate the raisins produced in Turpan are the sweetest, most delicious you will ever eat. Needless to say I have been stuffing my face.

Although Turpan and the western province of Xinjiang are politically part of China, ethnically, linguistically and culturally they are closer to the Central Asian "Stans" than the Orient. This is where the Oriental and Caucasian peoples meet and mix, a fact you can see by observing the faces of passers by on the street where the remnants of the Tocharians (a kingdom that existed in the area some 2500 years ago where they spoke a language related to German and Irish) can be seen in the occasional head of brown hair and blue eyes. The relentless march of modernisation is also held in check by the donkey carts that trot along the dusty roads and wizened old ladies sitting in doorways sorting this years raisin harvest.

During the heyday of the Silk Road the area was an important staging post for merchants as is demonstrated by the massive remains of two cities that thrived in the area before being razed by Genghis and his horde as they passed through. Again, the dry conditions have helped preserve the remains of the fragile mud-brick buildings and so you can spend hours getting lost in the labyrinth of crumbling walls and alleyways. The ruins, especially of Jiaohe, would certainly be world renowned if they weren't so inaccessible, or have so much competition from other incredible sights in China.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Doon The Dunes

One good thing about the desert, and some may that it's its defining feature, is that it doesn't rain much. Which is a welcome change to the rest of China where the grey skies hurt my (hack) photographer's sensibilities. Here the wide open spaces, azure skies and stark landscape sent me into a minor photographic frenzy.

The oasis town of Dunhuang, apart from being a cozy little place with a lively market, is well situated close to several worthy sights. Indisputably top of the list are the Mogao Grottoes where, starting more than 1500 years ago, Buddhist artists carved niches and caves containing thousands of statues and religious frescoes into the sedimentary cliffs. As the oldest examples of Buddhist art in China (Buddhism arrived from the Indian subcontinent via the Silk Road) they show an intriguing blend of Chinese and Indian influences that is not found anywhere else. And although you only get to see a handful of the more than 700 grottoes the impression you're left with is still inspiring. And although the caves should be world famous for the statues and paintings alone, they have become notorious for cave number 17, also known as the library cave. About 1000 years ago the monks of the area, fearful for some reason or another, hid away a treasure trove of 50,000 scrolls and books in a secret cave which they then sealed up. The scrolls contained writings in a multitude of languages: Chinese, Tibetan, Persian, Uighur and several that are still unknown. It wasn't until 1900 that a local monk, whilst cleaning the cave, found the sealed up entrance. Such a momentous archaeological find couldn't remain secret for long and soon archaeologists from all over the world were beating a path to Dunhuang. The first to make it were the Brits, followed by the French, the Japanese, the Russians and the Americans. By the time the Yank expedition made it there the entire hoard had already been carted off abroad (apart from a few thousand pieces that the Chinese had managed to keep) and so they had to make do with removing entire chunks of wall paintings instead. Of course there is a case to be made for such actions as it is likely that they actually helped preserve the artifacts and allowed them to be studied. Nevertheless cave 17 has become something of a cause celebre here in China, much like the Elgin Marbles in Greece.

About 100km west of town are the remains of several forts and stretches of the initial, 2000 year-old, Great Wall. Despite being made of mud bricks and straw and abandoned 1000 years ago, the ruins are still in pretty good shape. Their remoteness, or perhaps the fact that they have neither been touched up or restored, makes the ruins feel as if they are removed from time altogether, existing in some sort of time stasis. I was also lucky enough to be accompanied by a Taiwanese guy called Steven who not only had a digital camera, but a laptop as well; a fact I utilised mercilessly by borrowing a great many of his pictures and adding them to my own photo album.

I had met Steven the previous day whilst traipsing around the singing sand dunes close to Dunhuang. There's a little lake hidden away in amongst the dunes and some cheeky little bugger has decided to charge $10 to have a look at it. The fact that fencing off an entire desert is impossible means that it is very easy to slip in for free, although the busloads of local tourists haven't cottoned on to that fact yet. I had a whale of a time clambering to the top of the massive dunes (not at all easy I can tell you) and then bounding down them in great leaps. It was great fun, but next time I wander off into the desert I really ought to take some water as well.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The End Of The Wall As We Know It

Almost immediately upon leaving Xiahe you leave behind Tibet and its people and find yourself amongst the Chinese Muslim minority, the Hui. So you swap one clothing craze for another: namely floppy jackets with sleeves that reach down to your calves (Tibetans) for thin, muslin skull-caps (Hui). It also means plenty of kebabs and sheep brains for me, yummy! As well as the change in people there is also a dramatic change in scenery. Gone are the lofty mountains and high plateaus filled with yak(s?) of Tibet to be replaced by the dusty scrubland that forms the edge of the Gobi Desert. There is a certain advantage to this though: the Tibetan landscape needed to be watched continuously for any exciting changes that may lie around the corner, but the monotony of the desert is predictable so you only need to look up once every 10 minutes or so, which gives me more time to read my book.

At the moment I'm in Jiayuguan, which is in a narrow stretch of land called the Hexi Corridor in Gansu province, which, I think, looks uncannily like a spaceship. The Hexi Corridor is sandwiched between the Tibetan plateau to the south and the Gobi Desert, giving the province a rather odd shape. Despite its strange geography (or rather, because of it) the area was vitally important to China in ancient times as it was the only route that could be taken by the famous Silk Road that linked China to the Middle East and Europe. And in this strategically important region Jiayuguan was the focal point, as it was here that the Great Wall ended, and although the Chinese empire stretched further west, official protection ended here. To mark the entrance to their empire in suitable style the Chinese built an impregnable fortress across the narrow valley with a wall running south (3km) to a sheer river gorge and north (6km) to a chain of mountains that line the Gobi. The starkness of the landscape also adds to the frontier atmosphere (even though the industrial monstrosities directly behind the fort try their best to do the opposite). You really get a feeling of stepping into a different country, with the added bonus of not having to go through the whole visa and border crossing rigmarole.

For those of you back home who are slightly jealous of all my travelling and have a penchant for schadenfreude I've got a little story to warm your hearts. The road from Xiahe to Jiayuguan is a long one and I had to take an overnight bus, though it seems they were scraping the bottom of the barrel when they were kitting out this one: a juddering suspension, a clapped-out engine that made the whole chassis vibrate like something out of Victoria's Secret, and, to top it all, no blankets! Luckily I still had my sleeping bag with me, even though it is just a one season one (and that season definitely ain't Winter), so I was only mildly frozen by the morning. Though the experience has finally made me take the plunge and invest in a rather fetching pair of thermal long-johns (sexy!). On top of all that everybody on the bus was smoking and consequently they all had horrible hacking, smokers' coughs, so I dubbed the journey the Emphysema Express (I even had a little song in my head to the tune of the classic Marrakech Express).

P.S. Although the Jiayuguan fort is advertised as being the end of the Great Wall, and it certainly was during the Ming and Qing dynasties (13th-20th centuries), in an earlier incarnation the Wall (circa 100AD) stretched another 500km to the west, though because this is effectively in the middle of nowhere it is more expedient from the tourism point of view to make Jiayuguan the terminus as the town has its own train station.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Back In Tibet

I'm back in Tibet on my way west to Pakistan, though I'm not going to stay here long as it is getting rather chilly and I only have one jumper. Yesterday it even snowed. Though there is one advantage to the plunging temperatures: I'm having to wear far more clothes than usual (as a general rule two of everything) so my backpack has become considerably lighter.

Travelling in Tibet is not so much fun though. Buses only leave early in the mornings and go from one main town to another, but if you want to go further than one town in one day you're out of luck, as even if you arrive in the late morning you have to stick around until the next day to catch your onward connection. Plus Tibetans don't travel well: most of the men chain-smoke and half the bus is usually throwing up out of the windows (not fun if said people are leaning over you to reach the aforementioned window). At least you get compensated with some amazing views.

So my first proper stop after Jiuzhaigou was the town of Langmusi, which straddles the Sichuan-Gansu border. Here I almost got to witness a Tibetan sky burial, though it was called off for some reason. Sky burials are the traditional way of disposing of bodies in Tibet: the recently deceased are taken to a special place in the mountains and then the body is ceremonially sliced open, scalp to groin, and left for the vultures, who, so it is said, only take 15 minutes to leave just clean-picked bones on the ground. The reason for such a burial rite is the harsh Tibetan topography: the ground is often too hard to bury a body and wood is too scarce a commodity to be used for cremation. Although there was no burial there were plenty of bones and rags scattered about the burial ground. To see some pictures of a sky burial click here (not for the faint-hearted!).

Now I'm in Xiahe, site of one of Gelugpa Buddhism's (the main school of Tibetan Buddhism) holiest 6 lamaseries. Pilgrims come from all over the Tibetan plateau to do the kora (in Tibetan Buddhism a pilgrimage trail around a holy site, which can be a building, stupa, mountain, etc. always done clockwise, and usually three times as well, unless it's a really long kora) round the walls of the lamasery, spinning the thousands of prayer wheels as they go around the walls of the lamasery, which is almost as big as the town itself. It's very easy to get lost amid the many temples, colleges, stupas and monk's quarters; it's actually a little town all to itself. Which is all the more impressive considering that the complex was severely damaged during the Cultural Revolution. Ah yes, I said I would talk about that earlier. Well, in 1966 Chairman Mao, in his infinite wisdom, decided to rid China of the remaining "imperialists", "intellectuals" and "counter-revolutionaries", and throw off the shackles of the old world and replace them with new ones. To reach this end millions of fanatical Red Guards (young students who were completely devoted to Mao) were given the power and authority to liquidate anybody or anything deemed to belong to the old world order (paintings, statues, monasteries, musical instruments, palaces and anything else that one would consider to be of cultural value). Millions died, the country was thrown into turmoil and countless national cultural treasures were irrevocably destroyed. That's why, whilst travelling around China, you often visit sites that "were unique and amazing examples of Ming architecture", put are now little more than a pile of rubble.

But that's enough of the history lesson, I've got something much more important to impart to you dear readers today. Whilst wandering about the lamasery I've discovered that yak butter has a multitude of uses, apart from being used as a novel tea flavouring. You can make nifty candles out of it and, even more spectacular, also sculptures! there's a whole building full of yak butter statues and bas-reliefs. Neat! I also got stopped by a group of young monks, but the language barrier made communication rather difficult. In the end we did manage to find a common denominator though: football. We'd take it in turns to name a footballer and the other would give a big smile and a thumbs up when he finally deciphered who the other meant. Entertaining for a few minutes, but rather tedious after that. The contrast between the monastic life and the modern world is perfectly demonstrated as I'm writing this post in an internet cafe: about a quarter of the surfers are monks, dressed in their crimson robes, chatting away on Yahoo or playing strangely violent online games. Surreal!

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Quantum Tourism

I needed something to pull me out of my urban torpor and get me doing something active, and I had just the ticket. I have been itching to visit Jiuzhaigou national park for some time now, and the park certainly did not disappoint in the scenery department. The park consists of a narrow, Y-shaped valley which rises from about 2000m to 3000m (with the surrounding peaks stretching past 5000m). This is supposedly the best time for visiting JZG as the beginning to shed their leaves, and so the forests are a patchwork of greens, yellows and reds. But, for me, the most captivating aspect of the park was the rivers, lakes and waterfalls. The water in the lakes is of a blue, so vivid and stunning, you almost can't believe it's real. And the clarity is such that you can clearly see the stones and logs on the lakebeds even though the water is over 10m deep. Then you have an incredible phenomenon whereby in some areas there are pockets of fertile soil below the riverbed, allowing a forest to sprout in the middle of a flowing river. My words will never be sufficient to describe the valley adequately, so I'll just add this picture (because pictures paint a thousand words) which itself is nowhere near the reality, but it'll have to do.

I'd love to say that Jiuzhaigou is a natural paradise with beautiful hiking trails, unspoilt views, crystal silence and wildlife aplenty. Unfortunately this is China, and although I know I've had a go at Chinese tourism (and tourists) before, the spectacle I experienced here just made me want to cry, pull out my hair and throttle everybody, all at the same time. Things didn't start well even before entering the park:. Arriving at Jiuzhaigou town is like driving along the Las Vegas Strip: a long row of hotels, one after another, each gaudier than its predecessor (made even more astounding by the impossibly remote location). Then, upon entering the park (entrance fee $25) you see a whole fleet of buses (ticket $11) ready to whisk you all the way to the ends of the valley. Now I'm not against buses per se, in fact it helps keep the trails less crowded and more tranquil, but because the park is such a narrow valley those of us who want to hike (i.e. are too tight to pay the exorbitant bus fare) have to do it either right alongside, or at least very close to, the road. And what with the relentless cavalcade of coaches, and the fact that they keep blaring their horns (who cares if the park is home to some of the last giant pandas in the wild), the hike quickly slips away from the desired rural idyll. Then, when you finally reach a piece of wilderness (the spot in question was called Primeval Forest), a busload of tourists rocks up and its passengers find the greatest pleasure in walking into the middle of the forest (home to the above-mentioned pandas) and screaming at the top of their lungs (nothing clever mind you, just screaming because they can).

Now I'd like to think that I'm an open-minded and tolerant person, but there can be no excuse for such behaviour. It really made me see red. And unfortunately this is the behaviour of the majority here in China; they seem incapable of appreciating nature as it is and feel an incessant need to bend it to their liking. The famous trekker's dictum of "take nothing but photos and leave nothing but footprints" is completely lost on them. So just as in quantum physics, where you cannot observe a particle without fundamentally altering its state, so the Chinese cannot go into a pretty forest without building an enormous hotel complex, complete with helipad, amusement park and nightly fireworks displays, slap-bang in the middle of it. In all the countries I've been to I haven't seen anything comparable, and despite the fact that I try to see the best in people (usually), god help the remaining (few) areas of pristine wilderness here because before long they will either disappear completely or be turned into Disneyland caricatures of what they should be.

Well, that's about enough criticism for one night, but suffice to say that if you ever do plan to visit a natural park in China: be prepared for the worst.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Chengdu Revisited

Mark and I have finally parted ways as he needs to return to his evil capitalist paymasters (only kidding). I'm glad he came and we could travel together for a while and not just because I got to sponge off him and stay at the Sheraton (not something that is ever likely to happen to me again), but I'm also glad to be alone again. It's not that I dislike my brother, indeed we had a lot of fun together, it's just that I get easily distracted, don't get to do everything I had planned and then feel guilty about it. Plus I'm probably quite an obnoxiously opinionated and stubborn travelling partner.

So Mark went back to Beijing to do some souvenir shopping before flying to Hong Kong and then back home, and I headed in the opposite direction to Chengdu. I know I've been here before, and I don't like retracing my steps, but I have my heart set on visiting a national park called Jiuzhaigou, and even though coming to Chengdu is a bit of a detour it is still the best way of getting there. I wasn't planning on spending long here: just enough time to get my visa extended (it runs out tomorrow), get my trousers mended and get a ticket out of here. Unfortunately my plans were thwarted by the PSB (Public Security Bureau i.e. the police, who issue visa extensions) who had decided to take the whole week off. So here I am, waiting and twiddling my thumbs until 9am on Monday morning when I can finally go and get my extension (they had better not even think about slapping on a fine either or I'll get rather annoyed, to say the least). Ah well, at least accommodation is considerably cheaper in this part of the country.

Monday, October 03, 2005


I had hoped to be able to convert my brother to the joys of the spartan backpacking lifestyle, but after 2 weeks we both admitted that he would forever be a pampered bourgeois (he insists on taking taxis, doesn't mind spending more than $2 on a meal and changes his clothes every day). So we checked-in to the Xi'an Sheraton. There are mitigating circumstances though: we arrived in Xi'an 4 days ago and it has barely stopped raining since. I have never in my life seen such depressing weather, and I'm from Scotland! It has therefore been difficult to motivate ourselves to go out and see and do things so we've decided to slob about for a couple of days and wait for the sun (apparently it's meant to be nice tomorrow). Plus it's unlikely that I'll ever stay in a Sheraton hotel so I wanted to do a bit of anthropological studying to see how the other half lives (at least that's how I justified it to myself). Oh yeah, and it's free!

But that said, we have seen Xi'an big tourist drawcard: the terracotta warriors of the first Qin emperor. The army of over 6,000 life-sized clay figures, each one unique and different from its neighbours, were buried over 2,200 years ago to protect the tomb of the first Chinese emperor. And although many of the clay figures are broken, an amazing number are still completely intact looking precisely as they did the day they were made (well, apart from the colours which have oxidised and faded over time). Such is the appeal of the terracotta warriors that nearly every hotel and most shops have their own replicas scattered about their premises, giving the whole city a rather kitsch atmosphere.

Although Xi'an was the capital of the Chinese empire for over 1,000 years (although then it was known as Chang'an), there is very little left to attest to its illustrious past. Apart from two towers in the centre of town (the bell and the drum towers), a few odd pagodas and the (almost complete) city walls the city is entirely new; though fortunately also cleaner than the majority of Chinese cities. Right, that's about it for now. I've really got to go as I've got a packed schedule of watching TV, lounging in the jacuzzi, sleeping and helping myself to the complimentary buffet.

P.S. As I've had a bit more free time lately I have been tinkering about online a bit more than usual and so I have added a couple more links to other blogs. Particularly interesting is Pete's entry of the time he spent in New Orleans about a month ago, when he spent a few nights at the Superdome. Plus I've added a few more photos and hopefully will be adding some more in the next couple of days from my time with Mark.