Thursday, January 6, 2011

TURPAN, JIAYUGUAN, and DUNHUANG - Booties and Buddhas

January 3-4, 2011
Eng: Turpan,Xinjiang,China 
Chn: 吐鲁番,新疆省,中国
Written by Em

  Due to our inability to wake up and get out of bed before 10am, we caught a late afternoon bus from Urumuqi to Turpan (about 3 hours). In all fairness, daylight doesn't really break until 9:30/10:00 am in this region. Only in China can they make the ENTIRE country follow the same time. Anyway, the minute we stepped off the well-heated bus we were attacked by a bouffant-sporting man. He was doing his best to get us to 'just take a look' at his hotel. Obviously a bit skeptical after 4 years in China, Dan assured him we already had a reservation and headed to the only other hotel in town allowed to host foreigners. This other hotel was the Lonely Planet pick so it must be a winner. We walked down a deserted street and stepped inside a dark doorway. I'm pretty sure it was haunted, as in one of us would disappear in the bathroom while the chandelier probably would've fallen on the other the next morning. Needless to say we walked, in shame, back to the first hotel which turned out to be a palace; heat, 24 hour hot water and free soaps, all for rmb 120 (usd $18)!

  In the lobby of this paradise, we met our dear friend Amdullah. Following a lengthy and painful negotiation, we hired him for the afternoon and the following day as our driver. Our first stop was Jiaohe, ruins of an ancient village that was actually carved out of a dusty free standing mesa (rather than built on top of). It was made by the Han army in 100 B.C. as a fort from which to guard traders along the Silk Road. Although it was stunning with the sunset  casting a dramatic glow on the dusty remains of humble dormitories and monasteries, we were the only people there and expected 'baddies' at every turn. 

The ruins at JiaoHe

   The next day we went to "a small village in the desert that, unlike the ancient ruins of JiaoHe, is completely inhabited by Uighur people." Since its winter, this 'living' village was also fairly empty and looked much like the ancient ruins. To be honest, after visiting some of western china's most treasured ancient relics and historical sites, the biggest lesson we learned is that it must have been worse than hell to live in these places in the winter back then because it's awful in the winter in modern times.

The Tuyoq Valley - Giant mosque lower center left,
Ancient cemetery center with walls,
'Flaming Mountains' in background

   The crazy thing is that the locals still refuse to wear gloves or hats that cover the ears! In some places there are people who have to stand outside all day in the cold for example, military guards who have to stand motionless at the entrances to these areas or the fearless couples who grill up lamb kabobs on the street from morning 'til night.

   Later in the day we visited the Bezeklik Caves. We tried to admire the artwork and soak up the ambience, but by that point we were frozen so we basically spent 30 seconds at each cave and left almost immediately. Back in town we stopped to pick up a few snacks before hopping on an overnight train to Jiayuguan when a pile of black booties caught my eye. A mustached man waved us over and encouraged us to have a seat next to a giant pile of faux-leather booties lined with faux-fur. Again a bit skeptical, Dan was desperate and tried on a pair. The man helped force the zipper closed and shoved Dan's foot into his now bulging shoes. "Oooh!" was Dan's response. Two men selling carpets and bananas next door walked over. They looked around and then lifted their pant legs to reveal that they too were fans of the booties. Sold! Convinced we had found the secret to surviving winter, we hobbled to the train station in our now too-tight, but warm shoes.

 Dan and his booties

January 4-5, 2011
Eng: Xiahe, Gansu, China 
Chn: 夏河,甘肃省,中国
Written by Em

   I'll be honest, I can't for the life of me remember the name of this city no matter how many times Dan reminds me or shows me on a map. We stopped for the day since there's not really much to do but visit the western-most post of the Great Wall and the boundary 'civilized world' as the Chinese considered it to be 500 years ago. We visited the first fort, climbed a bit of the overhanging wall and went to the first pier of the Great Wall. Again, the cold started to get to us as our eyelashes and snot froze. Our booties also seemed to be losing some of their magic heating powers. At the fort, we walked through the western gate, which leads into the desert, imagining what those who were exiled by the Chinese empire must've felt like. We slowly walked up the stone road, looking out into the vast, lonely desert and … camels. A masked woman popped out of nowhere yelling, "Horsey! Horsey!" I wonder if they were that lucky back in the day. We drove back to the city and hopped on another bus to Dunhuang (5 hours). The bus was thankfully heated because the windows accumulated a 1cm thick layer of ice due to the extreme cold outside.

The view of the ancient fort from the First Pier of the Great wall
Emily did not like walking over the bridge

The Overhanging Wall - the western most
part of the Great Wall

The Jia Yu Guan Fort - exiled poets and officials
were banished from civilization through those gates.
On the other side is just desert and mountains.

January 5-7, 2011
Eng: Dunhuang, Gansu, China 
Chn: 敦煌,甘肃省,中国
Written by Em

   We arrived in Dunhuang around 8pm and headed to Charlie's Hostel. Not quite so warm, but there's hot water, wireless internet, and a heating blanket. We stuffed ourselves with some bread, spears of spicy, barbecued broccoli and a heaping plate of stewed beef with peppers and potatoes. We promptly passed out and started out the next afternoon for the Mogao Caves.

   In order to view 9 of the caves, you must be accompanied by a tour guide. For rmb 80/person (usd $12) you can have a Chinese tour guide. For only rmb 20 more (usd $3), you can have an English tour guide. That's right; we saved the rmb 40 and figured our Chinese was good enough. We were joined by 10 others and got more or less what the tour guide was saying. We think.
   The murals were absolutely stunning, but by the third cave, our toes were frozen. In the middle of admiring the intricacies of the thousand bodhisattvas painted on the ceiling, you could hear a loud, distinctive "zzzzzzziiiiipp." Dan, fed up with the now powerless booties, decided to take them off. I opted to continue hobbling through the tour. Between each cave we were jogging, karate kicking our legs in the air and wiggling our arms about trying to do the exercises Dan had looked up online to improve circulation. At the 7th cave we saw the first giant Buddha, a towering 36 meters (100 feet) in height. Dan's only comment, "How does he survive in here with no socks or shoes?!"

Mogao Caves- The entrance to the cave of the Giant Buddha

   We ended the night with a giant bowl of hand-pulled noodle soup accompanied by a variety of cold dishes and a pile of beef. We couldn't resist and popped into the only foreign owned café. It turns out the owners are a husband and wife couple, with 3 kids. They've been open for 3 years and are starting to expand their menu to include food. We had a great conversation sharing stories about trying to run a café in a somewhat secluded location. When they mentioned that their manager was also leaving, we ran for the door.

   Sorry this is another long one! We're gearing up for tomorrow's 20 hour! bus ride to Xining and are hoping to sleep most of the way. (I'm terrified.) Xining is the jumping off point for most traveling via China into the Tibetan plateau, but for us hopefully it's the beginning of a warmer, cozier, and even more epic adventure. 

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