Tuesday, September 18, 2007

On the Silk Road

Deserts take on the most unimaginable forms. Flat basins strewn with fist-sized stones stretching from horizon to horizon. Massive sand dunes rising out of this flatness to 1715m, the highest in the world. Wide valleys dotted with worn mounds of rock 20-50 meters high, biding their time like lost swimmers before being pulled under and to drown in the sand swirling at their bases. Stretches of land with small 3-foot high mounds dusted with salt crystals in all directions, like driving across a piece of Melba toast. Ever present along the way are snow-capped peaks and huge mountains ranging in and out of view. Flitting by in our jeeps, sleeper buses, minibuses and trains, these different desertscapes zip by faster than a painter could sketch them, leaving us with an only an overall sense of the magic and wonder of this part of the world. For the hundreds of thousands of souls who traversed this Silk Road on camel or horseback, they would have had more time to ponder their surroundings, and wonder what form of God would create such stark and hostile beauty.

One of the few oases we saw - Crescent Moon Lake outside Dunhuang.

The Silk Road is like a river, with its headwaters in Xi'an. From there, the road follows a northwest course through the Gansu corridor where it's pinched on both sides by 3000-5000m high mountain ranges. Once it hits Dunhuang where the desert spreads in all directions, however, it becomes a delta, and branches off across Central Asia before it deposits itself into the ocean of Europe. Branches lead one south to Tibet, India and Pakistan. A myriad of roads flows through the present-day '-stans' before heading into Saudia Arabia. One road leads north into Russia. Finally, the trunk stops in Istanbul, where West meets East. Names like Dunhuang, Turpan, Korla, Miran and Jiaohe don't mean much in today's world, but for centuries these were places travelers wandered through on their way to Xi'an or back. The Gansu Corridor/Dunhuang area was of such significance, that over history the equally-powerful empires of China, Tibet and Mongolia fought each other, each taking it over in turn. When China owned the corridor, the Silk Road flowed. When Tibet or Mongolia owned it, the tide was stemmed, and silk and gold stayed on their respective sides.

Sunset on our camel ride out into the desert, where we stayed overnight.

As we left Xi'an, we had no idea what we were getting into. This is a largely forgotten part of China, and finding information on some of the places we wanted to head to was rather like finding clouds in the skies over these deserts. We've had to remind ourselves time and again that we're still in China, as the faces, language and food has changed significantly. This area is largely populated by Uyghurs, Kazhaks, Mongols and Tibetans, though the Chinese government is still in full 'Han-isation', and construction is everywhere.

The oasis of Dunhuang was our first stop, and it proved to be a nice, sleepy town. The Mogoa Buddhist caves are some of the world's best, and recent documents found preserved in them have told us that these cities held the same name at least 1700 years ago. Crescent Moon Lake was just as famous back then, and pictures and accounts of visits there abound in the literature and on the walls of the caves. We enjoyed a great sleep in the desert, with no one and nothing around for kilometers - the stars were unbelievable, and the camels were suprisingly comfortable to ride!! It's easy to see why these places were famous along the Silk Road - from brown and desert to green and lush in a blink of an eye - amazing.

Is this China? Han Chinese become the minority out West - muslim Uighurs, like this man, abound.

From there we pushed on to Turpan, otherwise knows as the second-lowest depression in the world at 500 feet below sea level. The dry, heavy heat was the kind that made you feel like you deserve a tall, cool beer at the end of the day, even if you did nothing all day. This area is famous for its grapes, raisins and melons, of all things!! It is very strange to drive through hours and hours of arid desert, only to find yourself surrounded by trees, rushing water beside the roads, and local fruits and vegetables! We also tried the wine, which was ... well ... did I mention they're famous for their grapes? One highlight here was getting to go into the courtyard of one local family that were just finished harvesting their grapes - we had a great time checking out their drying racks and learning the process of turning grapes into raisins, Turpan style.

After crossing the Taklamakan desert, we headed up into the Tibetan plateau on quite the road!

After Turpan, we really headed off the map. We were heading for where we are now, Golmud, which is the city you need to pass through to head into Lhasa, 1000 km to the south. To do this, we thought it would be a good idea to head across the Taklamakan desert and then up into the Tibetan plateau, and arrive in Golmud from the West, a sort of back door. Wow - what an adventure. The first 6-hour ride to Korla was uneventful, but the next supposed 6-hour sleeper across the desert actually took 12 hours - why? Sand storm!!! The wind and driving sand was amazing, and, coupled with a massive thunder and lightning storm, was an experience we won't soon forget. Peeking out the windshield while the driver tried to drive through the storm was like looking into a snow-storm, except it was yellow instead of white. We emerged in Ruoqiang dusty and dirty, needless to say.

From there it was a 6-hour packed jeep ride up into the Tibetan plateau - truly amazing scenery and quite the road!! 9 people packed in a 6-person jeep...well, we focused on the scenery. A quick 2-hour bus ride out of a hellish Asbestos-mine town and we landed in a city called Huatugou that reminded us a lot of Annikin Skywalker's home town - a city where you'd expect nothing could survive. A quick overnight in a hotel with no heat and no running water, and the we took a sleeper bus to Golmud, where we just bought our tickets for Lhasa!!

We're here for 2 days to acclimatize to the elevation (2800m) and cold (14 degrees this morning at 11:00) before heading through 5000m passes and into Lhasa. We're pumped, not only about surviving the past three days of travel, but about finally heading into Tibet! Check out our Picasa web album for more pictures. We'll probably update again once we hit India in about 10-days time. See you then!!

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

From Beijing to Xi'an

After leaving the wilderness of Mongolia, we trained across desert, steppe and more desert into Northern China. The landscape up there is vast, empty and flat - a far cry from the mountainous terrain we saw in Mongolia. The alien landscape was offset by us sharing a sleeper booth with a Chinese couple. We were worried about pickpockets on the train, as we were warned at every turn in Mongolia to watch out for them. However, as soon as we heard our train-mates speaking Chinese, we started up a broken conversation, and all was well:) We felt as though we were coming home. As we approached Beijing at dawn, the Great Wall peered down upon us from mountain tops, the traffic increased, the other bus sleepers' cellphones starting ringing and the next stage of our journey began!
The desert landscape of Southern Mongolia and Northern China.

After checking into our hostel in Beijing, we relaxed for the day, ate some great Chinese food and then met Mom and Dad Styles, who had just come from their year in South Korea - a unique meeting!! Since then, we've been slowly working our way West, and are now in Xi'an, the beginning of the Silk Road and our home for 6 months in 2004 when we worked here teaching English - another one of our homes away from home!

One ever-present reality of China - masses and masses of people.

Our first stop, Beijing, was unbelievable. New roads, old ones completely gone, construction and renovations everywhere - this is a city in the midst of major facial reconstruction. It now has a lovely, relaxed almost regal feel, with broad boulevards, flowers and trees everywhere, no horn honking and lights lining streets at night. With the Olympics only a year away, the push is on to make Beijing a world-class city. From our own perspective - it's working. We even enjoyed blue sky and clear air for the 4 days we were in the city - amazing! The Great Wall 10km hike was fantastic to see again, and MnD were blown away by it. Unreal what 750,000 slaves will do when put to work eh? After great feeds and some major dumpling feasts, we then headed off to see our Chinese friend's (Li Jin, or English name Armstrong) parents in his home town of Zhoukou, in Henan province. This province, usually off the tourist map, holds 100 million people, 3 times the population of Canada!!
Seeing the Great Wall again was wonderful - and to see it with my parents was even more special.

Once again we met with wonderful Chinese hospitality, with literally unending feasts of local dishes (every Chinese city or town worth their salt has a famous dish) and lots of time to have discussions on everything Chinese. It was heart-warming for Emily and I to see MnD meet Armstrong's parents - what different lives they have led! His parents are two people who were sent to the fields during Mao's Cultural Revolution, and now he is in his last year of work and she is already retired. They lead a happy, simple life, and were more than happy to open their arms and hearts to us once again. We also played a bunch of mah-jong, which was great! From here it was off to the provincial capital Zhengzhou to check out Armstrong's new university and see his friends for what else -more eating!

Armstrong's parents and family friend, in their home in Zhoukou - absolutely wonderful people:)

Chinese students live through competition us North Americans can only dream of (well, actually, nightmare of). To enter his Master's degree program, Armstrong had to take a lengthy test which another 1,000 people took. Only 67 were taken from this massive list, and he was one of them! He's now in Zhengzhou National University, getting a Master's in Translation. This university is ranked 37th in China, which, being naive Canadians, we thought wasn't that great. However, seeing that there are over 1,000 universities (!!) in the country, 37th all of a sudden looks really really great. His friends all speak great English, and they treated us to meal upon meal - more Chinese hospitality! One more major number fact for you - Zhengzhou train station, being situated in between all the major cities in China, is therefore an important transport hub. Being important leads to over 1,000,000 people passing through that station, EVERY DAY. Trying to comprehend how many people in this country is like trying to count stars at night - just a waste of mental effort!

Armstrong's new home - Foreign Language Center, where he'll be doing his Master's in Translation.

We've now been in Xi'an for a few days and have gone to see our old school and friends, and, of course, eaten more great food. Tomorrow we're shopping with Hellen and Justin, whose wedding we went to a year and a half ago. The day after MnD take in the Terracotta Warriors and Friday we head out on a 22hour train ride following the Silk Road through Gansu province and into Dunhuang, a major Silk Road hub for centuries to see cave art and 1700m-high sand dunes meet oases! Should be great - from there it's through the Taklamakan desert and into Tibet via Golmud, for those keeping track on maps at home. Hope everyone is well, and take care!!