Heading West, at a Pace


Hello from the second lowest place on earth! (after the Dead Sea). Here in Turpan I can feel that I am back in the Muslim world for sure - mullah-types wandering the streets, and earlier today after helping some local Uighur people pick raisins off stems (Turpan is famous for its grapes) and being given a large sweet and delicious handful for my efforts, I visited an interesting minaret that could have been in Khiva (Uzbekistan). Yesterday in Hami someone told me that the city has over 300 mosques, and I could believe it. But until I reached Hami (a city famous for its melons, but I didn't see any - lots of very ripe pineapple though) my experience travelling west from Shanghai had been very Buddhist, and fairly Tibetan.



Two weeks with Friends

I left Shanghai by train on the 4th of February, after an excellent two weeks with Michelle, Alexa and Pascal, friends who were game to come to China during the 'dead' period over Chinese New Year. Furthermore they were willing to agree to my plan to spend the "Spring Festival" itself in Harbin, Heilongjiang province (Manchuria), which is the coldest part of China. So after a couple of mandatory days in Beijing (Great Wall, opera, foot massages, roast duck, Forbidden City, etc) we took an overnight train to Harbin, arriving in relatively mild morning temparatures of about minus 15 degrees centigrade. We celebrated the arrival of the new lunar year that evening with Catherine (Jing Yuan Yuan is her Chinese name), a Chinese fellow-BLCU student who comes from Harbin, and her parents. Since we were in town her father cooked a special dinner for us (including chicken claws, and 1000-year old eggs which are black potassium jelly, essentially) to share with them (making us eat most of it) rather than go to her grandmother's home as they would otherwise have done. At around 11.30 pm we added to Harbin's noise-level by lighting rounds of firecrackers in the stairwell and hanging them out the window, and at midnight we ate piles of jiao zi (steamed pork dumpling, rather like large ravioli, eaten with vinegar) before heading back to our hotel. The next day was spent testing ourselves against the cold, marvelling at the hundreds of ice sculptures in the city's park, and in the evening going to the more commercial 'snow and ice world' which is actually on the frozen river! It is a huge show, including activities like 'climb this wall of ice with no safety net', 'ride this ice chariot', and more japes - I did go skating on a bit of river - rather bumpy, but a lot of fun! and we enjoyed seeing our eyelashes freeze, our hats go from black to white with frost, and our noses and cheeks begin to look like Father Christmas's. So he is not just on the whisky, as we weren't drinking a drop.

From Harbin we visited numerous spots on our way to Shanghai - including Xi'an (terracotta warriors were just as impressive the second time round, and the Great Mosque was even nicer under snow than it had been in the first flowers of spring); Luoyang (to the Longmen Buddhist caves nearby); Shaolin Temple (of fighting monks fame) and Kaifeng, which was my favourite. Kaifeng was capital of China under (I think) the southern Song dynasty in around the 10th century AD, and it has been far less modernised than most cities in eastern China. It has a superb nightmarket, with local specialties as well as other Chinese street food including Uighur lamb kebabs that were, as Alexa could not stop saying, 'not too spicy, not too salty, herby and very tender' (or something along those lines, sorry A I have forgotten your more roll-off-the-tongue phrase....)

Shanghai provided a stark contrast to Kaifeng when we got there though (by plane - buying train tickets as people were returning to work was proving just far too stressful) - reminding us all of New York City! After a day buying big in silk in Hangzhou, Alexa and Pascal went back to Beijing to fly home from there, Michelle and I got our hair done, and Nick Playoust arrived (having fortuitously been just 'close by' in Hong Kong). Michelle's last night in China was spent in a very a la mode manner - in a karaoke parlour! We were taken there by my hairdresser from the day before, after first being taken to a tasty local meal. Karaoke in China is not something you do to further embarrass yourself when drunk, it is a serious pastime for the modern youth. We had a little booth to ourselves, fairly well sound-proofed (I hope), and I warmed up proceedings with one of the two Chinese pop songs that I know. Luckily there were several English-language songs in the system too, so Michelle was rapidly able to come into her own, and even Nick I don't think would deny he had fun! Fu Ke Li, the hairdresser, couldn't drag us away, even at the Saturday night rates of 60 RMB (five pounds fifty) an hour for the booth, and we were there till 1.30 am! I am not sure what he made of us, especially as Michelle wanted to get curious outsiders watching foreigners prancing around to come in and join the fun.....

Anyway, that was Shanghai. As you can imagine the thirty-hour train west to Lanzhou provided well needed respite. And why has my experience since been so Buddhist and Tibetan?



Xih to Zhangye: Buddhist Monasteries and Tibetans

Well, my first stop from Lanzhou was at Xih, town of the Labrang Lamasery, a few hours south. Very fortunately I arrived at the end of an annual festival, so the town was crammed with Tibetan pilgrims. It being winter, I was almost the only tourist. I spent four and a half hours during the afternoon with them, wandering all the way round the monastery, spinning prayer wheels, murmuring my own, and being entertained by a cocky little boy who came and went. I stood at the back of the beautifully decorated player hall (coloured silks covering pillars, finely detailed paintings on the walls) with hundreds of Tibetans, while monks sat in columns leading up to the front. That evening was an 'exposition' - of several brightly and delicately painted images ('lanterns') made from yak butter. That's right, yak butter. I went up to see this with a couple of the maids from my hotel, so could not spend long there as they were on shift, but it was a marvellous sight - monks chanting on all the rooftops round the large courtyard in front of the main prayer hall, and people patiently lining up to pay their respects. I know very little about Buddhism, but it was a moving scene all the same.

The next morning I went to buy my ticket to Jianzha, where I had been told I could change for Xining (to be my next stop - not far from Gumbum, the other significant lamasery outside of Tibet), but the tickets were sold out - stupid girl, should have bought it the day before! Wait two days, I was advised. But I stood around a bit, and the women in the ticket office took pity on me - I was squeezed onto the bus at I don't know whose expense, into the jump seat next to the driver (magnificent views through the windscreen of countryside that changed from grassland, to red rock ravine, to yellow rocky desert, but I suppose I would have been the first to die in a crash!). Right behind me was a smiling handsome young monk, on his way to see his family in Jianzha. We chatted for a lot of the way (stopped for an hour in one town due to deliberations over an arbitrary fine for overcrowding in the bus.....) as much as possible given my absence of Tibetan, and had lunch together after arriving. Zhaxi Sangbo (his name) invited me to go with him to his former monastery, in the mountains above Jianzha. So I did, as there would be plenty of buses to Xining the following day.

We took a motorbike-turned-truck up the mountain, along with 15 other adults and two small boys. It would have comfortably held around six people. Early on I had to relinquish my seat for a standing position - I didn't have the muscle, in the squash, to keep more than an eighth of a buttock on the plank, which was just too uncomfortable! So we swerved and swung our way upwards for about an hour, me clutching onto two local women who didn't mind. After we had got out of the truck, with two other monks that we had met in the town, we walked uphill for a further twenty minutes or so to the top. This monastery is one of four above Jianzha, and is made of mud and wood buildings that blend into the hillside, which is barren but for a crop of pine trees on the opposite face. Zhaxi (this might not be the right way to shorten his name) took me to his friend's hut, as his younger brother, also a monk there, had ironically gone to Labrang for a few days and his hut was locked. We washed, and were served a delicious dinner of noodles and pork cooked by Zhaxi's friend. A couple of other monks came by for chats and tea - all in Tibetan, except for the odd thing explained to me in Mandarin. After the friends had left, Zhaxi's friend picked up my camera, so I showed them my Psion. What they liked most about it was the ability to see the timezones of different countries! I went to sleep on one side of Zhaxi's friend's low orange table in the wooden raised section of the hut, and they on the other. The next morning Zhaxi took me round the prayer halls of his former monastery, encouraging me to take lots of photographs. They are also very fine, brightly coloured, the walls covered with religious paintings. After destruction in (I think) 1958, restoration was begun in the 1980s and is not yet finished.

Zhaxi and I were fed a breakfast of lamb dumplings before setting off back down the mountain, being picked up by the man with the truck along the way. The journey back to town was far less squashed - and a lot colder and more windy! Luckily we had left bags with Zhaxi's brother in law, the caretaker for some apartments in Jianzha, so we were able to unchill our fingers on a large chimney carrying heat to the buildings from a large coal fire below.

From Xining the next day I visited Gumbum - there being no festival, and it being a somewhat more popular Chinese tourist spot, it could not hold the appeal of Xih, but it was worth it all the same. Gumbum is famous for its butter sculptures, which in one hall have become a 'permanent' exhibition. When I arrived at around 9.30 am, the others there were pilgrims, but by the time I left at noon the visitors were mostly Han Chinese tourists, asking for help from tolerant monks on how to bow and how to spin prayer wheels. On the bus back to Xining I was befriended by a lovely Tibetan nomad family, who had come north from their home for a few days to shop and to visit the monastery. Their father spoke good Mandarin (better than Zhaxi), having taught himself when five years old, and he was able to translate things that Zhaxi had written in Tibetan. Back in Xining they insisted on taking me to the room they had rented, and feeding me: tea, big hunks of boiled beef spread on a tarpaulin sack (cut your own chunk, using Dad's large knife), and a kind of 'cake' called tsampa - made by mixing butter, roasted barley flour, tea, and (for my benefit as a first timer) white sugar. It was like eating a cross between butter icing and dough mix - so tasty! But very filling....... After photographs and repeated invitations to their home, the family accompanied me to my overnight bus to Zhangye and waved me off.



Zhangye to Turpan - 'This is off-season'

My experiences in Zhangye the next morning (9 hours north, plus a three hour 'rest stop' in the middle, in a roadside restaurant) were not quite so positive. The women working in the bus station were rude and evasive. I dumped my bags and went to visit Zhangye's famed 'big buddha', and found a dirty, crumbling and peeling reclining body, and surrounding pavilions with exhibits that I had to get staff to open one by one, all poorly lit and displayed. But I did eat some good dumplings for breakfast. That was probably good fuel for the shouting match I had to have with the woman on the bus who was trying to charge me three times as much as the guy next to me for my ticket to Jiayuguan. Having bought the compulsory Gansu Province foreigner's bus travel insurance when in Lanzhou, I wasn't standing for this. But the more I waved the paper in the woman's face and tried my best to be rude in Chinese, the stubborner she got, getting the driver to stop the bus and try and kick me off. But I was not moving (and I don't think she would have dared to touch a foreigner), so the bus started up again. I suggested we go together to the police in Jiayuguan upon arrival, with her work unit number to settle the matter. She sulked at the back of the bus and then (having made the guy next to me move to another seat) came back after we had both calmed down a bit. I agreed to pay 30 yuan, half of what she had originally asked, and what seemed a reasonable amount given the distance and what I had paid for my ticket the night before from Xining. But it was still more than the guy next to me......

In Jiayuguan that afternoon I went out to the fort not far from the town, and had a pleasant hour wandering around Ming mud. Not Bam, but splendid all the same. I was tired, so decided to have a lie in rather than arrange some trip with a keen motor-tricycle driver to other supposed attractions not far away the next morning. The lie-in was worth it! But when I tried to visit the town's museum, I found it had been turned into a mobile telephone company office (sign of the times). The museum, I was told, had moved to the fort itself. So back to the fort I went. Except that the museum hasn't quite made it to the fort yet!!! Probably will have done by tourist season. So I walked the hour or so back to town in fresh sunshine, taking photos of smokestacks, and had a delicious lunch of noodles in a restaurant busy with workmen when I got there.

From Jiayuguan I took a bus to Dunhuang, close to the Mogao Caves. I have no knowledge of art history, a guided tour is compulsory, cameras are locked up before the tour, and the only light in the caves is provided by the doorways put on the front of the caves and the guide's not too strong torch. Furthermore, it being deep off-season there were no English-speaking guides on duty (the last foreign tourist was a Japanese guy two days earlier whom I ran into in the street), so I had to join a Chinese group with a none-too friendly or tolerant guide, and he only showed us ten of the 492 extant caves. Despite all this, I really enjoyed the frescoes and statues in the caves and would heartily recommend a visit. At Mogao the colours (brick red, gold, a bright pastel blue-green, and black) as well as the details (flying figures, 'thousand buddha' walls, folk tales, heavenly kingdoms, and ceilings painted with delicate flowers) meant they were easily appreciated. There is one more set of caves that I hope to visit next week if I have time: the Kizil caves near Kuqa, in Xinjiang - I'll let you know how they compare. Dunhuang is used to foreign tourists - lots of signs in English, restaurants advertising 'pancake' - but most things were closed.

And that brings me back to Hami, the town of the melon and the start of the Muslim world for real. There I enjoyed walking through the Uighur part of town, eating 'zhua fan' (just like Central Asian plov) and lamb parcels (kao baozi), and being shown to the tombs of the town's muslim kings (last one died c.1930) by two friendly and very talkative eleven-year-old girls. I arrived in Turpan at 3.30 am this morning (on the Urumqi-bound bus). At least I was dropped off on the main road outside town, with a point 'town in that direction'. As if by magic, a taxi appeared. Luckily someone else from the bus got in too, so I could not be ripped off! We hammered on the door of the 'traffic' hotel (next to Turpan bus station) and within five minutes they were awake. Boy did bed feel good. Further tales from tour providers that 'this is off-season - so we don't come back from lunch till after four o'clock' - ok that is only 2 o'clock on unofficial local time, but then they knock off at 6 pm Beijing time!

Tomorrow I am off to rmqi, the capital city of Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, and the place where I first set foot on Chinese soil last year. I still haven't managed to get hold of Memet, whom I met then, but I hope to tonight or tomorrow. Meanwhile I am battling with a dilemma of how to physically get to Kyrgyzstan. My original plan had been to go directly over the 3900+m Torugart Pass. But communications with travel agents on both sides of the border are indicating hassle, permits and - being alone and no other tourists in sight to team up with - very high cost (mostly paid in US dollars cash which I don't have much of on me), never mind weather as inhibitors. So I may have to leave China by the way I first came in - on a train between Urumqi and Almaty (Kazakstan). A further problem is that I can't fully assess the Torugart thing until I get to Kashgar, which is 24 hours by train from rmqi! So trying to sort this out, especially if I do have to leave from rmqi (and so spend time getting BACK there again as I am certainly not going to spend the next ten days in China's most polluted city), is likely to dent my remaining intended itinerary. By the time you read this, though, I may well be already in Kyrgyzstan!!!

I will be in Kyrgyzstan for up to a month - and hopefully able to check my e-mail a bit in that time. Thank you for all the recent messages, I will reply as soon as I can.

Lots of love



The tiles on this page are from a painted wall inside the prayer hall at one of the Buddhist monasteries above Jianzha. |Click here to view the original photo|