Silk Road, Buddhas, Camels, Uyghurs and Hami Melons
A solar eclipse of 2008 was to end in northwestern China over the ancient Silk Road. Well as to turns out past the end of the Great Wall too. Tropical Sails Corp a Surprise, AZ travel agency organized the tour up without any offerings in Beijing.
Beijing. I arrived late evening at the Qianmen Jianguo Hotel in Beijing. Getting to the hotel was an adventure for me. I had the directions in English and Chinese with a map. The first cab driver took me to a hotel with a similar name. The concierge put me in another cab to the correct hotel.
I have a late night cocktail with my host Mr. Tony Deng of China Kindness Tours. We discuss a little business and he apologizes for the “state of the hotel.” They were repainting parts of the lobby. “China is one big construction site.” Cocktails ran about $7 US. The lobby was very nice. The hotel was wonderful. I had free wi-fi internet from the newspaper across the street.
In the morning we met a few of the clients and ate our first Chinese breakfast. Dum sum, congee, vegetables, rice, eggs and undercooked bacon. Overall I liked the Qianmen Jianguo Hotel.
We had prearranged a trip to the Great Wall with some of the guests. Here is a picture of Robert, Tristina, Ian and Dan on the Wall. We had a small van and a delightful guide. They took us to the Jade factory for lunch. I was not much interested in buying any of the stuff you can buy in Juarez, Mexico for a fraction of the price. The factory assures us their jade in genuine and has the correct sound when tapped with metal.
In the morning we met our group for breakfast at the Qianmen Jianguo Hotel, the take flight from Beijing to Lanzhou.
Lanzhou. We met the local guide and visited White Pagoda Hill, the mountain stands at the northern bank of the Yellow River and has its name after the white pagoda on top of it, the White Pagoda Hill Park is a large and nice place for strolling. The park was alive with green forests, scattered pavilions, tea-houses and, from its heights, some good views of both the churning river and the city beyond.
The Pagoda Hill Park was a hit with a very long zip-line down the hill. Also they had a small water park used by the locals.The nearby bridge, Zhongshan Bridge, was the old crossing point for travelers and merchants who were then to head north on the Silk Road. This evening we watched as the noodle maker tossed, pulled and somehow split flour and water into very long noodles. We had Lanzhou beef noodle soup and several other dishes.
We visited the Sand Dunes where Dunhuang has a spectacular natural scene called Mingsha (Sighing) Sand Dune. The dune, a sand crusted hill of dozens of meters high, is 40km east to west, and 20km south to north. On some days, sand roars like thunder which can be heard in the city, hence the name. When visitors climb up to the dunes and slide downward from the summit, the sand can collapse with them and give out a pearl of loud sound. Several of us rented camels for the ride to the top of the sand. Orange “moon boots” to keep the sand out of our shoes were an extra part of the rental fee. You could just rent moon boots and a sled and try to ride down the sand.
Crescent-Moon Spring, the spring lies at the foot of the Mingsha Sand Dune and is named for its shape. It is about 100m long and 25m wide, and has fish and water weeds that are said to be good for the health. The area is often hit by windstorm, which drives up sand to shut out sun-light. Interestingly enough, however, for hundreds of years people have never seen the spring filled up with or covered by sand.
That evening, Tony Deng took me out to a Chinese Bar. The bartenders had cocktail recipe books and were anxious to learn how to make cocktails for tourists. The bathroom was strictly eastern with a hole in floor. I stuck to low alcohol beer and they were long on liquor but short on mixers. American liquor is expensive in China
We board our bus after breakfast to visit the Mogao Grottoes, commonly named Thousand-Buddha Caves located nearby in Dunhaung County. These are the most famous grottoes in China carved out of the sandstone cliffs of Mingsha Mountain. The Wall Street Journal published an article about the site shortly before our visit. They are known as “a glittering pearl that adorns the Silk Road,” part of the mountains extending some 1600m from south to north. Constructed in 10 dynasties from the fourth to the 14th century, its 45000 square meters of mural paintings and more than 2000 color statues are regarded as the greatest treasure-house of Buddhist art existing in the world. We walk along the cliffs looking into each home with its’ Buddha.
Hami. Now we board our bus onto “Hami. Hami. Oh don’t you mean Hami Melons?” We had some for breakfast. Turns out that there are some huge number of varieties of what we call a cantaloupe in the USA. Melon Man Mike was in his heyday. Not having enough for breakfast, he bought melons at every stop on the way to Hami. Slicing them up on the bus giving the bus a new aroma as the juices dripped on the seats and carpet. Mike earned his nickname because of his obsession with Hami Melons.
On the way we repeatedly had rest stops. When a Chinese bus leave as toll station, their ticket is time stamped. If you arrive at the next toll station too early (you were speeding!) now we have to wait until the toll taker lets you go. Thus at each stop we could buy Chinese junk food or ice-cream. Or you could admire the construction as they are building an interstate Shanghai to the “Stans.”
We arrive in Hami. Our three star hotel next to a Chinese strip club is just fine. We knew we would be there three nights, so we did laundry. I, Daniel Oppliger, being the leader was greeted by a harem of Chinese ladies. They were so happy to have us and went out of there way to make us happy. They made us an American breakfast. Somehow they knew Americans like their bacon crisp and eggs cooked. They also had toast, pancakes and Mike’s favorite, Hami melon.
We had a late start after yesterday’s long ride in a Hami Melon stinking bus, thanks to Mike.
We went shopping at a six story mall. Every mall in China is as big or bigger than Mall of America, so what is the fuss? I bought a tripod. All the prices are negotiable. I told everyone to buy what you need to be happy for the solar eclipse. I found some sweet Chinese sparkling wine. I knew I would need that after the eclipse. It is tradition after all. They would not sell us any throw rugs. They are “Muslim prayer rugs, not throw rugs” they told us.
After lunch with another Lazy Susan and too many green vegetables. We are awaiting the horse or donkey meat this region serves. Never happened. We did have plenty of mutton. We did not have a lazy Susan at dinner. Plenty of Uyghur music and dancing that evening.
Today we visited the Hami King Mausoleum (built 16th century with combination of Chinese Uyghur architectural style building complex), followed by the Hami Museum. We had a local Uighur meal at a dance hall where Uyghur people present singing and dancing with an authentic band, also visited Hami Uighur classic embroidery family.
Our guide Rana was a very charming young lady. I found out later that she is a Christian. Many on the tour promised to return for a Uyghur wedding. Well she is living in Paris now.
Rana takes us to Karatoruk county through the Tianshan mountain and enjoy its gorgeous scenery, drive pass ancient beacon tower ruin. We take a nice hike in the hot sun around a prayer tower. We visit the White Stone scenic area, dipping irrigation system, Natural salt lake, Tang Dynasty military garrison camps ruins.
Below are Uyghur women at our lunch spot. A Uyghur home/museum near Hami, China. The Uyghur people look less Chinese and more white. The Chinese are obsessed with ethnic minorities and very proud that they are part of greater China.
A special day was the Silk Road Solar Eclipse. That is why we were in a three star hotel in Hami. The Chinese had everything organized. There were policemen every half mile or so on the road to Yiwu. The terrain changes as we went over a pass. The grassy lands on the edge of Mongolia gave way to dry desert. We had lunch in a village of Yurts (Mongolian tents) and along with many more busses headed to the designated site for the solar eclipse. Mission accomplished. Champagne followed. We passed by a lovey lake resort in the hills and returned to Hami after dark.
Turpan depression 154m below sea level, second lowest place in the world after the dead sea in Jordan. (That is what they told us, I don’t know how deep Death Valley is) It was also very hot. August is not a good time to travel here. Turpan was a very important cultural and historical town in Xinjiang China, on the way visit Bezeklik caves(4th century), Astana tombs ( ancient burial ground for the nobles –aristocrat , for more than 400 tombs excavated with best preserved artifacts, so named ‘underground museum’ by the world scholars). We walked from the extreme heat above ground into the tombs underground. Air conditioning at its finest. Many of us had seen these sites on the History or Discovery Channel shows.
In the afternoon visit Grape Gorge which is a long valley 5km at the foot of the flaming mountain. They had many varieties of grapes and raisins to sample and buy. We toured the Kariz under ground irrigation system ( one of the three man made ancient project of China ). This is something you would see on “What the Ancients Knew” television show. We visit the Emin minaret ( 1777 years built, mosque complex building, for commemorate the religious head of Turpan ) This is the Uyghur part of China. Most of the people are Muslim and have Caucasian and eastern features in their appearance.
Urumqi. We arrive in this city of four million and are astounded. We stay in a 40 story hotel rated 4 or 5 star depending on what guidebook you use. We have a private room for dinner, complete with toasts and speeches. Afterwards we find the night market, but most opt for ice cream at the convenience stores.
This China Silk Road Tour was organized by China Kindness Tours and marketed by Tropical Sails Corp in the USA.