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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. In those days the London China Travel Office was at Cambridge Circus opposite the Palace Theater on Charing Cross Road. It took me months to plan and organize at least twenty books, late-night Japanese television series, and trips from our base in Balham, South London. In those days, you could arrange a visit through China Travel and then, as long as the itinerary was booked in advance, you could travel completely independently. Everything was pre-paid, but upon departure, we had no tickets or fixed reservations except for our air tickets in and out of Beijing. As usual, I kept a journal of the trip, which was over fifty pages long. A few years later, I ignored the rules of grammar and syntax, compressed the experience onto two sides of A4 and produced the following ramble, perhaps a poetic impression of almost a month’s journey.
Surya dissected Michael Jackson’s nose while a former Londoner and admired Boardman’s Hootersless gold medal cycle. Air China to Beijing, where taxis cost more than Lonely Planet estimates. A Chinese-character travel show by China Travel’s Tim Hahn looks at the Olympics as fellow workers lean on African-American runners on television. Then onwards to the Forbidden City. Heaps of local tourists to negotiate.
Four hours to Urumqi by Xinjiang Airlines. Chinese and Russian characters plus Uyghur written in Arabic script (a recent innovation). Land lines across Inner Mongolia. Why and how so straightforward? Urumqi Multi-Peak. Coal piles, glittering high places, snow-covered tunnel Shane at the end of the road. Sidewalk fortune tellers, traders. Food stalls. Women washing sheep’s bellies in the drain, tripe kebabs. A Uyghur city now populated by Han Chinese, Shanghai overspill, 2000 miles from ‘home’. Second Long March.
Uyghur breakfast. Hot sheep’s milk, Chinese tea, tomato flat bread, candied tomatoes and cucumbers, pickled cabbage, thin konje, sheep’s milk butter, two large lumps of sugar. Uyghur market. Fruits in the forest of hanging lamb. Chinese market. Live vegetables and meat. Over-spilling the tank with energetic eels (unit cost). Self-knotted Spaghetti.
Woman who loses her gold watch at illegal ‘Find the Lady’ The police are watching. Tears when the loss comes home. Renmin Park for noodles and rocket-fuel chili sauce. A bag slasher with a finger ring knife on a crowded bus. Care needed.
Drive to Turfan. fertile valleys. barren mountains Occasional snow. The road was plowed. Kazakh yurts. A Uighur village forming a semi-submerged shadow, invisible in the far distance from the chimney smoke. Steep gorges, spectacular rivers, cliffs, white water and slate-grey hills. In the Turfan Depression, a snow-covered gap surrounds a gray stone crater 100 miles across. 42 degrees at its base, 200 meters below sea level. The car left the track on the melted road. A strong gob irrigates from the driver. Gobi means stone. Plenty here. And then green. An oasis. A giant mirage?
Turfan. Netted vines for shade on the road. Raisin grapes are hanging. 15 yuan fine for casual picking. Hotel tea in galvanized buckets. Turkish style dance and music. The earthly cities of Gochang and Jiaohe that were destroyed by Genghis. Painted tombs and brick minarets. Flaming Mountain. Karez Underground Irrigation System. 3000 km of channels. 1500 years old, gravity fed from the mountains on the edge of the depression. The greatest feat of Uyghur culture, and in full working order.
Bus to Daheyan. Two hours of depression-edge on rough stones. Garbage of a railway town. Coal piles, box buildings, waste land. Two women at war in front of the station. The victim’s head was bent on the ground. blood audience. Inactivity. A tense city of angry posties.
500 miles to Liuyan in Gansu. Featureless flat gray shale stone. Spectacularly unique. Snowy mountains to the north. Save for the completely empty, smoking coal towns. 40’s in the summer, 30’s in the winter. By overnight train. Don now reveals the same magnificent view in brown.
Arrival of Liuyuan. Daheyan writes similarly. 120 miles south across the desert (first black!), the ruins of the Han Dynasty’s Great Wall behind the Great Wall. The camels and dunes of Taklimakan, the world’s largest sand desert. Bloomed again near Dunhuang Oasis. Sand and scree suddenly crop and tree. A Fijian hotel, with toiletries called sham poo and foam poo. Lunch. Fourteen items. Duck, fu-yong, cucumber, cabbage, oyster mushroom chicken, coriander pork, steamed buns, steamed bread, rice, beef broth and noodles, pork and green beans, pork and sweet pepper, chicken and squash, plain noodles, Water melon. Then to get the torch needed for the caves. Houses gathered together. Wood stores are piled up for the winter. Look through the roof like a pile of rubble. Ground level claustrophobic stoneware maze.
cave day Mogao Buddhist Caves – Closed from 12 to 2, a full day is required for perhaps the most amazing sight on earth. 400 ‘caves’ (some cathedral shaped) in sandstone gorges, between 400 AD and 1100 AD. Completely dry, always dark, well preserved. Everything painted. Tang period complex and colorful. A World of Views by Torchlight. Buddha resting, sitting, standing, standing. A thirty meter seated figure with thousands of cigarettes and coins on his lap as offerings. Shocking Qing-renovated cave with Taoist figures. Abominable features, disfigured form and groin face. Visited 40 caves during the day, with an archaeologist as a personal guide. tremendous Fourteen dishes for dinner.
Return to the desert bus Liuyuan. There is always a fight for seats. Three dusty hours. Train to Lanzo. 800 miles along the Gansu-Qinghai mountain border. More black desert, then yellow earth. Jaiguan Fort in the Ming Empire. By overnight train. The country changed. Mountain passes, green hills and terraced fields. Wheat harvest inside. Dolly straw like children in a meeting. Houses still rammed earth. Lanzhou is a thriving industrial city. A thirty hour journey. Walk along the Yellow River.
All the fish in the hotel restaurant tank died. Lanzo bus is expensive. 50 fen per trip. Ban on radio and knitting. Han Dynasty Flying Horse and Bronze Warrior. Steamed carp with rape on the menu. Fish comes first. Train to Xi’an through the yellow loess country. Deep valleys and gorges. All the flat land was cultivated. 500 miles overnight.
A terra cotta warrior facing east to guard Qin Shihuang’s tomb. cut into pieces Gathered on the spot. A partially excavated section where piles of scattered organs emerge from the earth. New terra cotta warriors for sale from the factory behind the museum. An exact replica of the original. Wheeze thinking of the whole thing as a hoax for the tourist trade.
Xian, like all Chinese cities, a square. Roads are straight, always intersecting at right angles. The fortifications of the ancient center, rebuilt by the Ming. The old mosque is beautiful. Near Xianyang, a museum with another 3000 han terra cotta shaped like a football crowd, including the seventh-century Qian tombs. Train to Beijing. 800 miles, 26 hours. Houses often cave into valley sides. Ahead is vast flat land, corn everywhere.
Temple of Heaven, Tiantan and then Beijing Opera. Stop for a beer at a roadside stall. Moonlighting Trainee Stockbroker Served! Breakfast pickles are amazing, like four-year-old Camembert coming out of a gun. Takes off the head. The Great Wall. Very touristy, but still awesome. Like climbing a giant ladder in places. “I Climbed the Great Wall” t-shirt, prices drop the further you climb. There should be air. Ming Tombs Guide-Book Dismissed. wrong Amazing barrel vaulted rooms nine stories underground. Jade doors, carved thrones, marble, marble, miracles. Reminiscent of Renaissance Italy. Eternal bricks engraved with the names of their makers. Souvenir jade boat 55000 pounds.
White curtains over erotic statues in Tibetan lama temple. Same animal material in wall painting. 24 meter golden Buddha through incense-obscure. No smoking signs everywhere.
Mao’s Mausoleum is the emperor’s tomb. Rows of rows painted in squares. Feng Shui Up side, feet pointing north towards Tiananmen Gate. It is shiny, waxy and the face is painted. Gone are the sliding lines on either side. no pause Outside, stalls with Mao T-shirts, Mao key rings, cuddly toys, post cards, magic lantern shows. Mao Zedong by the armful of candy floss. Then the Great Hall of the People. 5000 in dining room. Fast food for tourists now. Great hall chop sticks, cigarettes, t-shirts. Great Hall of the People plush toys.
2500 miles. Three and a half weeks. 5 destination. 50 caves. 6000 terra cotta warriors. 1 each Great Wall, Forbidden City, Beijing Opera, Mao Zedong. Hundreds of mausoleums, temples, pagodas, parks, bendy-buses and bicycles. 3 silk shirts on the silk road. A wonderful trip.
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