China Diary:
West on the Silk Road

[North to the Ancient Capitals] [West on the Silk Road] [South to Tibet and the Tropics]

July 6: Hohhot – Pork and rice give way to mutton, breads, and dairy including cheese and yogurt. These are the lands where Mongols led by Genghis Khan ("tribal chief") burst forth to create the largest country the world has ever seen. When Kublai Khan conquered southern China in 1279, it was the first time China was ruled in its entirety by foreigners. He improved roads, canals, and trade which attracted Marco Polo (if he ever really visited China). I check into a hotel in this provincial capital at four a.m. (no charge!) and sleep late. After Mongol mutton for lunch, I go to the post office and ship home a box full of souvenirs and surplus shirts and books to lighten by load. I go back to my hotel room and arrange a tour to the grasslands, then nap. In the evening, I go to the university area and have dinner at a Moslem restaurant run by a Hui family.

July 7: The Grasslands – In the morning, I dump my luggage at the hotel taking only my day pack and a small carry-on. A car picks me up for a private tour. We head north, arriving at Xilamulun ninety kilometers away in time for lunch – huge mutton chunks you tear by hand or cut with a dagger, and down with milk brick tea sprinkled with cheese and grass seeds. I dump my stuff in my yurt anchored to a round concrete slab with a tiled floor, and containing a raised sleeping platform and light bulb hanging in the center. (At least the privy is primitive.) I go horseback riding all afternoon across grasses teeming with flocks of grazing sheep and goats, the local guide leading me to a small lake. We return to a show of wrestling and a horse race (which my tour guide wins). There is a huge dinner, mostly mutton again. A Korean tour group is there along with one Japanese and a woman from Beijing whose eighteenth birthday we celebrate around a campfire, complete with fireworks, cake, and champagne before retreating to the dining "yurt" for drinking and singing with the locals. Everyone gets to sing one song a cappella, and I am the last one. I ask for requests and they respond "Beatles!" in unison so I oblige with "I Wanna Hold Your Hand." No one sings again so I do my oft-repeated rendition of "Country Roads." We then wander around gazing at the bright stars filling up the clear sky.

July 8: Gobi Desert – After breakfast, we head back through Hohhot and continue west across the Yellow River. We stop for lunch, then go on to check in at a hotel in Da La Te Qi ("high land"). Its only redeeming feature is it is slightly better than the yurt. We head for the desert, where yellow dust blows in spite of local flooding. Xiang (resonant) Sha (sand) Wan (gorge) is where a dry bed separates the edge of the desert from the mountain. I climb the sand mountain and take a camel ride across the dunes to a high ridge and back. I get back down by "skiing" a four-hundred foot vertical sand mountain.

July 9: Hohhot Return – In the morning, I head back to Hohhot and the hotel for basic maintenance: develop several rolls of film, get some money, check my e-mail, pick up some souvenirs, do laundry, and even sew some. Dinner at a Mongolian hotpot includes camel hump.

July 10-11: Yinchuan – I follow the Yellow River with the afternoon train into Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. The Hui are Chinese Moslems and are throughout this part of the Silk Road. This train ride is brutal, over-packed and smoky. I get off at its capital, Yin (silver) Chuan (river) after midnight. This is Jade’s hometown, so next morning I call her parents to say hello. I then have lunch at a Moslem fast food restaurant. I do the local tour: walk by the drum tower and Yuhuang Pavilion, visit the Nanguan Mosque, and roam the Ningxia Museum.

July 12: Around Yinchuan – I hire a taxi for the day. We follow the Helan Range thirty-five miles north to the Sha (sand) Hu (lake) summer resort. Rarely visited by Westerners, I oblige a local guy there who asks me to mug with his son. Next, I follow the range to remnants of the Great Wall at Zhenbeibu, the village where "Red Sorghum" and dozens of other movies were filmed. Then, we drive the dirt road into the mountains a week after flooding has strewn large rocks all around. We visit Yan (rock) Hua (painting) etched by the Western Xia a thousand years ago. This was their capital, and they arguably had the biggest impact on the Silk Road. Last stop is their mausoleum, where the imperial tombs are scattered on the plain like little pyramids. Of Tibetan stock, this empire was obliterated by Genghis Khan in 1226. Back in town, the driver decides to raise his price but I just leave my money on his seat and walk away. After dinner I go to the train station, only to find out the ticket I bought yesterday for today is now one day old (lazy, inattentive, and indifferent clerk no doubt) so I buy another ticket. On the train I upgrade to a soft sleeper by pushing and shoving with the best of them. My reward is some quiet time to read and a decent night’s sleep.

July 13: Xiahe – The train continues up the Yellow River into Gansu Province, one of China’s poorest regions. China is trying to divert the river to irrigate the desert. I arrive at the capital, Lanzhou (Lan Chou), in the morning and immediately take a bus into the arid but lush mountains, reminiscent of the more tropical Yunnan and Sichuan provinces. On the edge of the Tibetan Plateau 9,500 feet up, Xiahe is the home of one of China’s most enchanting places. But first I do my laundry and other errands. I return at eleven p.m. after a late dinner to discover the hot water flows 9:30p.m.-11:00 p.m., so I resort to the thermos and plastic tub bathing method.

July 14: Biking Around Xiahe – After banana pancakes and coffee for breakfast, I rent a bicycle only to discover it has no brakes (I immediately exchange it). I ride to the picturesque Tibetan Labrang Monastery which is also the most important outside Tibet. It is headed by Jiemuyang, the sixth reincarnation of the founder who is third in line behind the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama (and kept in Lanzhou). I then bike the nine miles up a gradual incline to the Sangke Grasslands as yaks graze lazily along the way. Officials arrive when I do, so I get to see a Tibetan show for a while as I eat my mutton dumplings. Returning to town, I go on a shopping spree then take all my goodies to the post office which boxes and ships it for me.

July 15: Qinghai – I get on the seven a.m. bus in the rain and return to Lanzhou where I transfer to the Xining bus. Twelve hours of following the Yellow River, I am in the capital of Qinghai, a huge, empty wilderness and source of both the Yellow and Yangtzi rivers. It is also the home of labor camps and political prisoners. Xining sits at 7,000 feet and is surrounded by mountains. It is also poor which means the accommodations are inexpensive. It stops raining when I arrive so I wander around a bit, but there is nothing momentous happening around here.

July 16: Qinghai Lake – I get on the six a.m. tour bus and am the only Westerner on board. We drive several hours in the rain through a high plateau which is the site of the first Chinese nuclear test. The rain clears up as we stop briefly at the Riyue Pass. We continue on a dirt road, and an hour later reach the edge of Qinghai Hu (lake), China’s biggest. At 10,500 feet up its water is cold and salty. We drive along the south shore for another hour, and my window is mud-splattered. Late lunch consists of various fish dishes, then we finally reach Bird Island at the far western end for some bird watching. It is cold! We continue back along the north shore of the lake. Along the way, as night falls everyone but me falls into spontaneous karaoke. For once, I pass. We get back just before eleven p.m. and I opt for dinner instead of a hot shower.

July 17: Hexi Corridor – I am up for the 7:30 a.m. bus. It is packed and almost everyone is smoking. Forty-five minutes late we finally leave. A few miles later we stop for engine repair. We begin again and a short distance later stop for gas where most get off to go to the bathroom. We have more engine repair a few miles later. We drive for one-and-one-half hours until two tires blow within seconds of each other. This time everyone piles out to watch and relieve themselves, while the driver lets the engine run as he replaces both tires. Nearly an hour later we are again packed in and on the road, heading over the mountain pass to the Hexi Corridor, a narrow path in Gansu sandwiched between the foothills of the Tibetan Plateau with its glacier-topped mountains bordering Qinghai and the desert reaching glacier-topped mountains bordering Inner Mongolia.We follow China’s historical Silk Road, its rolling grassland containing sheep, yak, cows, and horses giving way to the flat empty desert. By six p.m., we approach Zhangye, one of the oasis towns along the old caravan route. I climb the roof of the bus to retrieve my luggage then negotiate with alternative transportation drivers. By seven p.m. I am on the train to Jiayu Guan (pass), which of course is packed so I make my way to the meal car for dinner. I am in a hotel room by 11:30 p.m., so there is plenty of time for laundry. The maid comes in while I am stark naked to lock the door for me.

July 18: Jiayuguan – Next morning, another maid enters with a hot water thermos while I am still in bed. I hire a taxi for the afternoon. First stop is the Overhanging Great Wall, where it connects Jiayuguan Fort to Hei (black) Shan (mountain). Next, we go to the fort which guards the pass between Qilian Shan with glacier-topped Black Mountain. (Along the way, we pick up a Russian who turns out to have studied English at my home institution twenty years ago when I first arrived there.) Dubbed "Strategic Pass Under Heaven" this is where everyone had to pass including China’s exiles. The fort is considered the corridor’s outstanding site. From its walls I watch a forming sand storm. After it clears, I head off to the First Beacon Tower which marks the end of the Great Wall, petering out in the Gobi Desert at the foot of the Qilian Mountains with the Beida River cutting a canyon far below. The final stop is the Underground Art Gallery in ancient tombs depicting daily life painted on bricks over 1,500 years ago. When our four-hour-ride returns seven hours later, the driver asks for the amount we agreed to earlier that day. I give him a slight tip, and he is happy. And I still have some time for the local Internet cafe.

July 19: Dunhuang – I am on the eleven a.m. minibus which has a blowout on the outskirts of town. We continue west through flat desert broken only by dunes. I arrive at Dunhuang by 7:30 p.m. It is a large oasis in one of China’s most arid regions. All caravans had to pass through this mouth of the Hexi Corridor, making Dunhuang a flourishing center of Buddhism culture on the Silk Road. It was alternatively controlled by Tibetans, Uighurs, and the Xi Xia until the Qing Emperor took over. In spite of being scorching hot (but it is a dry heat!), it has become one of China’s leading travel destinations. I find a hotel, wander the street market, and get dinner in the outdoor food market. The check is higher than I think it should be. Waitress: "The price is set by the government." Customer: "In a market economy the customer helps set the price." I compromise and give her more than I think it is worth but less than the bill. A bit of animated conversation ensues, so I just leave my money on the table and walk away. I am weary of constantly being ripped off.

July 20: Magao Ku (Caves) – I finally replace my trusty old Eastpak day pack with a top Chinese brand, then go on the day’s tour. The caves were begun in 366 by a Buddhist monk with a "vision." Spanning one-thousand years, they were sealed and abandoned about 600 years ago and re-discovered early this century. They are now one of the great sites in East Asia, incorporating artistic influences from India, Persia, and the West. Controversially, much of the art and manuscripts are in foreign museums today, including the "Diamond Sutra" of 868, the oldest printed book in the world (sorry, Gutenberg). In spite of foreign plundering, they remain the largest, most extensive, least damaged, best preserved, and simply spectacular examples of Buddhist cave art in China. Among the statues, frescoes, and murals I see the two largest Buddha statues (one is 112 feet tall) and a giant reclining Buddha. In the early evening I go to Ming (singing) Sha (sand) Shan (mountains), with dunes as high as one-thousand feet and the tallest rising to 5,600 feet. Amazingly, the oasis of Yue (crescent) Ya (moon) Quan (lake) at the base remains unchanged in spite of the sands shifting over time. I climb a peak to watch the sun set. Back in the hotel, I sew the torn stitches on my new Chinese day pack.

July 21: The Road to Turpan – The Silk Road forks at Dunhuang and I take the north route. I am on the 2:30 p.m. minibus to Liuyuan and arrive three hours later. The train west leaves another three hours later but there is no sleeper available, so I get some dinner and supplies for the long night ride. I enter Xin (new) Jiang (territories) Uighur Autonomous Region, China’s largest province (one-sixth its total land mass, larger than Alaska or Western Europe). The entire country is on one big time zone, so this westernmost province is on Beijing time although it is several zones away. Also, with over a dozen ethnic minorities, it is the least "Chinese" with a large Uighur population (Moslems descended from Turkic peoples). The harsh terrain is China’s least hospitable with its mountains separating several large basins which link the Gobi and Taklamakan deserts. It is also the site for nuclear tests and might contain vast amounts of petroleum. On the train, I strike up a conversation with a group of college students from Chengdu heading for Urumqi. I get off along the way.

July 22: Turpan – I arrive at Daheyan at 6:30 a.m. and take a minibus to Turpan (Tulufan to the Chinese). This ancient city is in a basin which drops more than five-hundred feet below sea level (second only to the Dead Sea), making it the country’s hottest part (reaching 118 in the summer but it is a dry heat!). In ancient times it was called Huo (fire) Zhou (land). I look for a hotel room with air conditioner but must wait for noon check-in, so I grab a light lunch and have my new Chinese day pack re-stitched by a guy in the street. In the hotel room, I sleep most of the afternoon as just about everyone else here does. Then, the usual routine: laundry, develop film, wander the bazaar, fend off beggars, etc. At night I watch a local show of Central Asian music and belly dancing (not very Chinese) then wander the night market.

July 23: Around Turpan – I hire a cab for the day along with a Swiss guy and Chinese woman from Hunan. We first stop at the Emin Minaret, which is a tower and mosque. We then head to Flaming Mountain, which cuts a sixty-mile-long, five-mile-wide swath through the middle of Turpan Basin. It rises to 2,800 feet, totally barren of plants with summer temperatures reaching 176. Next we go to the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves (or Grottoes), but most of its statues were stolen or destroyed. Then, we are off to the Astana Graves which contain tombs from Gaochang and a couple of corpses under glass. We then go to the Gaochang Ruins which was the Uighur capital when they moved here from Mongolia. Lunch is in lush Grape Valley in the middle of the desert. We eat under the trellises and I buy a bottle of local wine. Then it is off to the Jiao (confluence) He (rivers) Ruins, once a garrison but destroyed by Genghis Khan. The last stop is the Karez (wells) Underground Irrigation Channels, which collects glacier water from wells then brings it via underground ditches which prevent evaporation. This ancient public works project is on the same scale as the Great Wall (locals refer to it as the Underground Great Wall) and Grand Canal. Back at seven p.m., drenched and drained, I take advantage of the mountain water slightly heated in the hotel’s shower. At dinner, I open my bottle of wine.

July 24: Urumqi – After some morning shopping, I get the 2:30 minibus for the three-hour ride to Urumqi (Wulumuqi, or "Beautiful Pastures"). Climbing to the provincial capital at three-thousand feet, we pass a large reservoir in the desert and a windmill farm. In spite of being 1,250 miles from any sea (and known for being the farthest city in the world from an ocean), China officially decreed this industrial outpost a "port" in 1992. I do some evening shopping in the bazaars, and ship another box home.

July 25: Tian (Heavenly) Chi (Lake) – The 8:30 a.m. bus heads seventy miles from downtown and 6,500 feet up into the shadows of 18,000 foot snow-capped Bogda Feng. This "Little Switzerland" is Canada’s Lake Louise for the masses. I walk the roads, snap some shots, fend off the aggressive sales pitches, and am back in the evening pretty wasted. I finish my bottle of wine. The Silk Road continues far beyond here, stretching a third of the way around the world through Central Asia to Persia and Syria, eventually reaching Greece, Rome, and the rest of the Mediterranean. But this is the end of this road for me.

[North to the Ancient Capitals] [West on the Silk Road] [South to Tibet and the Tropics]


Copyright 1999 Paul Miesing. All rights reserved. Please do not use without permission unless in the People’s Republic of China which does not enforce intellectual property rights. Revised on January 17, 2001.