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A Silk Road Trip, or I Gobbed in the Gobi, China, 1992
In August 1992, my wife Caroline and I organized a trip to post-Tiananmen China. It was back in the days 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 television series, and several months to plan and organize the trip from what was then our base in Balham, South London. In those days, you could arrange your visit through China Travel and then, as long as you presented your itinerary in advance, you could travel completely independently. Everything was prepaid, but when we left we had no confirmed tickets or reservations other than plane tickets in and out of Beijing. As always, I kept a journal of the trip, which was over fifty pages long. A few years later, I condensed the experience onto two A4 faces, ignoring the rules of grammar and syntax, and produced the following ride, a perhaps poetic print of nearly a month’s travel.
Ex-London as the Sun dissected Michael Jackson’s nose and praised the sirenless bike that won Boardman’s gold medal. Air China to Beijing, where taxis cost more than Lonely Planet predicts. An itinerary in Chinese characters by one Tim Han of China Travel as his coworkers drool over lithe televised African-American sprinters at the Olympics. Then to what is no longer the Forbidden City. Lots of local tourists to bargain with.
Four hours from Xinjiang Airlines to Urumqi. Signs in Chinese and Russian plus Uyghur written in Arabic script (a recent innovation). Fixed lines in Inner Mongolia. Why and how so straight? Urumqi multi-peaked. Piles of coal, dilapidated skyscraper, snow-covered Bogda Shen at the end of the street. Pavement diviners, merchants. Food stalls. Women washing sheep stomachs in a stream, skewers of tripe. Uyghur city now Han Chinese, populated by the Shanghai Overflow, more than 2000 miles from ‘home’. The second long march.
Uyghur breakfast. Hot sheep’s milk, Chinese tea, tomato flatbread, sugared tomato and cucumber, pickled cabbage, thin congee, sheep’s milk butter, two giant sugar cubes. Uighur market. Fruits in the middle of a forest of hanging lambs. chinese market. Live meats and vegetables. Overflowing tank of energy eels (unit price). Self-knotting spaghetti.
Woman loses her gold watch in an illegal ‘find the lady’. Police watching. Tears when the loss comes home. Renmin Park for rocket noodles and chutney. Cut bags with ring knives in a crowded bus. Necessary care.
Car to Turfan. fertile valleys. barren mountains. occasional snow. Plowed road. Kazakh yurts. Half-sunken rammed-earth Uyghur villages casting shadows, invisible in the distance except for the smoke from the chimney. Steep gorge downhill, spectacular river, rocks, white water and slate gray hills. In the Turfan Depression, a snow-covered distance surrounding a 100-mile-wide gray stone pit. 42 degrees at its base, 200 meters below sea level. Car ahead leaving traces on the molten road. A strong drop of the conductor irrigates. Gobi means stones. a lot here. And then green. an oasis. A giant mirage?
Turfan. Trellised vines for shade on the street. Hanging raisins. Fine of 15 yuan for casual collection. Hotel tea in galvanized buckets. Dancing and music in the Turkish style. The rammed earth cities 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 on the edge of the depression. The greatest feat of Uyghur culture, and fully operational.
Bus to Daheyan. Two hours over rutted stones to the edge of the depression. Landfill of a railway city. Coal heaps, box buildings, vacant land. Two women at war on the station concourse. Hitting the victim’s head against the ground. Blood. Spectators. In action. A tense town of resentful posts.
500 miles to Liuyuan in Gansu. Featureless flat gray shale stone. Spectacularly unique. Snowy mountains to the north. Completely empty, except for smoldering coal towns. 40 up in summer, 30 down in winter. Night by train. Dawn reveals the same massive scene, now in brown.
Arrival in Liuyuan. Daheyan wrote something similar. 120 miles south through desert (black at first!), past the remnant ramparts of the Han Dynasty Great Wall. Camels and dunes of Taklimakan, the world’s largest sand desert. Nearby the Dunhuang oasis blooms again. Sand and stony suddenly harvest and tree. Feitian Hotel, with complimentary toiletries labeled Sham Poo and Foam Poo. Lunch. Fourteen dishes. Duck, Foo-yong, Cucumber, Cabbage, Chicken with Oyster Mushrooms, Pork with Cilantro, Steamed Buns, Steamed Bread, Rice, Beef Broth and Noodles, Pork and Green Beans, Pork and Sweet Chili, Chicken and Pumpkin, Noodles simple, watermelon Then to look for the essential torch for the caves. Houses crowded together. Wooden warehouses for the winter stacked on top. See through the roofs like a junk heap. Claustrophobic stoneware maze at ground level.
Cave day. Mogao Buddhist Caves – Closed from 12 to 2, it takes a full day to enjoy perhaps the most impressive sight in the world. 400 ‘caves’ (some the size of a cathedral) in a sandstone gorge, between AD 400 and AD 1100 Completely dry, always dark, perfectly preserved. All painted. Complex and colorful Tang period. A world of scenes by torchlight. Buddhas reclining, sitting, standing, posing. A hundred-foot seated figure with thousands of unsmoked cigarettes and coins on her lap as offerings. Clash of the Qing-renovated cave with Taoist figures. Ghoulish, contorted features, and a face in the groin. 40 caves seen in the day, archaeologist as personal guide. Awesome. Fourteen courses for dinner.
Desert bus back to Liuyuan. Always a fight for seats. Three dusty hours. Train to Lanzhou. 800 miles along the Gansu-Qinghai mountainous border. More black desert, then yellow dirt. Jaiyaguan fort on the edge of the Ming empire. Night by train. Country changed. Mountain pass, green hills and stepped fields. Wheat harvest. Straw carts like children in assembly. Houses still made of rammed earth. Lanzhou a prosperous industrial city. Thirty hours of travel. Walk along the Yellow River.
Fish in the hotel restaurant tank all dead. Lanzhou bus expensive. 50 fen per trip. Spokes and fabric prohibited. Han dynasty flying horse and bronze warriors. Steamed carp with rapeseed on the menu. The fish comes first. Train to Xian through the yellow loess country. Deep grooves and gorges. All cultivated flat land. 500 miles overnight.
Terracotta Warriors facing east to guard Qin Shihuang’s tomb. Made in pieces. Assembled on site. Partially excavated section where mounds of dismembered limbs emerge from the ground. New terracotta warriors for sale in the factory behind the museum. Exact replicas of the originals. He gasps at the thought of the whole thing being a sham for the tourist trade.
Xian, like all Chinese cities, a square. Straight paths, which always intersect at right angles. Old walled center, reconstructed Ming. Exquisite old mosque. Near Xianyang, with 7th century Qian tombs, museum with another 3000 Han terracottas like a football crowd. Train to Beijing. 800 miles, 26 hours. Houses often collapse on the valley side. Then immense flat land, corn everywhere.
Temple of Heaven, Tiantan and then Beijing Opera. Pause for beer at the roadside stall. Served by a trainee stockbroker! Amazing breakfast pickle, like a four year old camembert straight out of a shotgun. Head off. Big Wall. Much touristy, but still impressive. Like climbing a giant ladder in some 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. Wrong. Incredible barrel-vaulted rooms nine stories below ground. Jade gates, carved thrones, marble, marble, marvel. Reminiscent of Renaissance Italy. Eternal bricks engraved with the names of their creators. Jade souvenir boat for £55,000.
White drapes over erotic statues in the Tibetan Lama Temple. Same bestial content in wall paintings. 24-meter golden Buddha through the incense stain. No smoking signs everywhere.
Mao’s maosoleum the tomb of an emperor. Lines for tails painted in the square. Feet pointing north towards Tiananmen Gate, feng shui in reverse. It’s shiny, waxy, and painted on the face. The moving lines go through both sides. No breaks. Outside, stalls with Mao T-shirts, Mao key chains, stuffed animals, postcards, magic lantern shows. Mao Zedong’s cotton candy by armfuls. Then Great Hall of the People. Dining for 5000. Now fast food for tourists. Great Hall chopsticks, cigarettes, T-shirts. Stuffed Animals Great Hall of the People.
2500 miles Three and a half weeks. 5 destinations. 50 caves. 6000 Terracotta Warriors. 1 of each Great Wall, Forbidden City, Beijing 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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