Homeward Bound

On our last full day in Kashgar, Ariana and I bid fond farewell to Aziza and our truckmates, who were headed over the passes to Kyrgistan. After 22 intimate days on the truck, the parting is quite emotional, near tears.

The Crew

Graham, encyclopedic about anything you want to know, with a grain of salt; Tom, the serious intellect, winner of the final trip-trivia contest on the truck (I am number 2 in the run-off); wife Jane, always a motherly ear for comments and reflections. After Kyristan they were off to a Dragoman hike in Tibet where some other travelers were washed away by storming streams; Ariana, alternatingly reflective and bubbling, an infectious smile and forceful laugh; Marion, an absolute scream, quick to jab with sharp-pointed wit, perhaps still in search of a second husband; Susan, also encyclopedic, but about pop music, including both artists and their words;  Kelly, where lies beneath a Jersey-girl exterior an intrepid adventurer. Her offer of her brother as the second husband was a running joke on Aziza; Sandy, the traveling Silk Road encyclopedia from the Library of Congress; and the other Dennis, our driver, far from his Midlands home. His wife Jody, our substitute mother, was off somewhere diffusing the latest crisis.

Speaking of adventure, after breakfast with Ariana I began the Great-Ticket Challenge. Since our arrival I had been interrogating the obscurantist clerk at the hotel’s front desk about my train ticket back to Shanghai. Under the cryptic Chinese train-ticketing system, one has to apply for tickets on line, then pick them up at the station or have them sent to your hotel just before travel. And for a return ticket, the pick-up has to be at the point in space and time when you start back. Well, after asking daily for the message with my ticket , I discover that a package did arrive for me- but the desk did not check the guest list and so sent it back! Jeez!

After more online enquiries I learned I had to go to the train station to try to explain the situation and collect a ticket. That began badly when the taxi driver ripped me off by doubling the fare.

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I arrive at the neolithic train station to join a mob of 100 or so ticket-seekers not even allowed into the building. I the Foreigner push to the front to show the security guy a note in Chinese obtained online from China Travel claiming that I have ‘lost’ my ticket. He quickly delivers me to the ‘Question Office’ where through a heavy grate I try to make my case with the Chinese message. After some dithering, the ‘Question Person’ calls in backup: Translator 1. After some back and forth going nowhere, they call in Translator 2, another woman who after some debate emerges from the Question Cage and leads me through the queue to an actual ticket wicket.

Another debate focusing on ‘Where is your ticket?’ 

It seems I had to produce my ticket to prove I had lost it…

‘I lost it’ I answer.

‘Yes but where is the second ticket?’

No idea where this comes from. Maybe the note. Maybe written Chinese is as vague as Japanese. Translator 2 leaves me in the charge of Ticket-wicket Girl. I have to barge in front of a whole line of desperate-looking Uighurs. The puzzle limps forward. Enter Translator 3, who runs through all the questions again, with the same answers. But we are getting somewhere: Ticket-wicket Girl is tying some stuff, scanning her screen.

Momentary back-step- my passport number does not register because she thinks I am an American. My passport straightens that out by itself. More back and forth behind the grate. Pink ticket-like slips of paper start to appear. Translator 3 gives me an OK sign…Things are looking up. An exchange of 100 Y notes and I have my ticket!

I recede apologetically through the still-desperate crowd. They probably understand this bureaucracy intuitively.

It turns out I do not have a copy of my original ticket, which has evaporated into Zen-space, but a new one. This means that on every train I have to speak to the conductor, show a new Chinese note, get a confirmation that I have indeed used up a replacement ticket, and then a refund from the station where I get off. Surprisingly, this works. I must say the train people were quite professionally helpful in dealing with this conundrum.

From then on, the return trip was somewhat anti-climactic. I spent the day doing last tours of the markets, picking up some treasure, like unique Uighur square hat, Mao caps for the boys at home, and frocks for the girls. At night Ariana and I were joined in John’s Cafe by a several new travellers, university students from Norway and Shanghai and a couple of guys planning meetings with some sort of activists, it seems. Ariana started a game of guessing the nation attached to the myriad flags hanging from the ceiling. That and some fine local beer ate up a most pleasant evening, a gentle breeze wafting over this other-worldly environment.

Train Day 1 : Kashgar to Turpan Station

Next morning, after sending Ariana off for a flight to Heidelberg, I am back in the very-basic but laid-back train station with a few hundred fellow travellers. Soon we are on our way in a cosy compartment: a pretty young girl, a dad with his obstreperous 3 year old boy, super nosy and noisy.

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Unlike pretty well every Chinese on board I enjoy the scenery.

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After dark I resort to the musical episodes on my ipod to muffle the screams of my roomates and several new friends. Then I discover a gem: the dining car!

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There is a picture menu so I order what looks like ‘beef and greens’ but turns out to be ‘fungi and greens’, with a bowl of rice. Delicious for 22 Y. Eventually the dining room blacked out, so I did too.

Train Day 2: Turpan Station

Awakening at my normal body-time, 6:20- it is still pitch black outside, except for a bright crescent moon and stars. As the sun slowly appears I see we are traveling through ragged mountains, sometimes following highway G314, sometimes not. Eventually the mountains give way to massive gravel plains. We are crossing the Taklamakan again.

Suddenly there are trees, and we are in Turpan Station, some 30 km from Turpan itself, before noon.

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Here I must wait until 6 in evening until the train from Urumqi arrives to carry me to Shanghai. So I smartly look for a hotel for the afternoon At the first shabby place I meet a young Chinese couple, med students somewhere, who help me search. The second hotel is not authorized for foreigners, but we find a third marked with a big Olympic symbol, and I have a simple place- public bath- for 80 Y. Quite decent.

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Happily, Turpan Station has lots of stuff- markets, restaurants, bars- for the over-laying travelers. The med students tell me food here can be good- or not. So I case a place on the street, and decide to risk its hot-pot, full of lettuce and bean sprouts and maybe pork.

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The hot pot is delicious but as I finish up, the med students re-appear and tell me they are going elsewhere because they ate here and did not feel so good…

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I apply the universal antidote: cold beer. It is very hot, fierce sun, high 20s at least. I am sitting in partial shade, in a cool breeze, overlooking the action on the main drag. I have more cold beer and a circular sesame bread from a street vendor. Perfect way to spend an idle afternoon!

Behind me the joint’s owner is quietly helping his 5-year old with her Chinese homework.

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I am dozy. Suddenly, an emergency: a German guy has arrived by plane (!) from Urumqi- but his luggage has not. When he calls China Southern, a questionable airline, in English, the line goes dead. All the local forces turn to me for great wisdom: Denzo, Turpan Branch, is open for random guesswork. Not much else to offer.

The cafe owner tries to phone China Southern in Chinese. After some back and forth he begins a descending arc with his hands that ends up pointing at Turpan Station. I interpret this to mean the luggage will come by air from Urumqi and arrive at Turpan Station. Maybe he found this out. Maybe he is making it up. The German traveler heads to the Station. He returns. China Southern denies any knowledge of ‘so called ‘ luggage.

I return to my revery. The German traveller joins me.

After sleepy afternoon in the sun I am back at the station, and soon on my way East.

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I am surprised to find my assigned train carriage more of a chicken coop than the expected compartment.

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I guess the replacement ticket has dropped me a class or two. The thing is, we are in early October, the start of the Chinese New Year debacle, where all billion-2 Chinese have to go somewhere else. So I am lucky to have any ticket.

Six bunks separated by a narrow aisle. There are 11 of these units in the car, all apparently filled, people everywhere. As the last-arrival, I would get the ceiling-shelf- but a kind middle-aged guy offers me the middle one, just above his ill-matched wife. Mixed company: a guy who appears to keep reading the same page in a Chinese magazine for the next 2 days; a middle-aged woman, a younger guy possibly her son, and the now-divided couple. On a short reconnoitre I am pleased to find the dining car , a potential refuge. And a class-above compartment car where I will spend most of the next 40 hours by the aisle window watching the passing scenery and my fellow travelers.

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Train Day 3:  Turpan Basin to Shanghai

We are leaving the Taklamakan behind, more or less following the superhighway, over varying terrain. Here and there we pass what looks like remnants of the ‘Great Wall’. In fact many of these are apparently the remains of local fiefdoms, even different empires.

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The train is very busy with people traveling somewhere, probably home, for the October festivals. There are a lots of young kids, many  with just a mom, or even a dad.

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At one of the myriad stops a young Uighur introduces himself in fluent English. He is taking his 12 year old sister to a Justin Bieber concert in Shanghai! 4,000km and 600bucks!

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I am comforted that a Canadian is scamming the Chinese even more unscrupiously than they are scamming me.

The young Uighur, Eryan, is quite interesting, so we have many chats about Uighur culture and politics. It turns out he has run into trouble with a drunk-driving charge, subsequently being sent off for vocational training etc. I wonder now whether he was in fact a victim of the now infamous ‘re-education’ program that the Chinese have imposed on possibly millions of Uighurs, to tame supposed separatists.

Later he introduces me to a couple of fellow Uighurs, big tough looking fellows, maybe intent on some skullduggery in Shanghai. I contemplate providing them with some combustibles to be tossed on the Bieber stage…

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I thrive in the dining room, first enjoying a fine fish, bass-like in a gentle sauce, 35 Y. Then over the next day and a half I experiment with the menu: some good rice soup; veggies, boiled egg and dumplings for breakfast (twice); a bunch of odd veggies and soup for lunch; beef bones and potatoes for supper. Unfortunately my Uighur companion and his sister cannot join me for these fine meals. I thought maybe they were too expensive on a Chinese budget; but no, the restaurant serves pork, so Muslims are not even allowed to enter. On board they have no alternative service.

Our train plods on, relentlessly, through the ever changing scenery. Essentially we are retracing our route on Aziza, the Dragoman truck, on rails instead of the highway, across the desert towards Gansu province.

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Early fall, so colour is starting to appear in the trees and gorse.

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Once again I pass the Rainbow Mountain range, but this time in different light, so  I can see where the name comes from.

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Characteristically, lots of isolated mountains, this one decorated with a shrine.

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Somewhere near Lanzhou we follow  the yellow river.

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Late in our second night on this train we stop in Xi’an. I can see the great wall of the city, brightly lit for the holidays. I relive the fabulous summer night Kelly, Ariana and I spent riding the length of the walls on rented bikes, with delicate kites lofting overhead.

Train Day 4: The Last Stretch to Shanghai

On our final day we pass the deep gorges formed by a smaller river.

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I got a glimpse of them in the dark on the train from Shanghai to Xi’an, three weeks earlier. In defiance of the enormously difficult terrain, life continues. Not visible here, but many of the isolated buttes were capped by crops of corn and wheat.

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Obviosly there are times when a lot of water flows through here.

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In spite of the risk, a town nestles on the floor of the gorge.

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We follow another river, somewhere between Xi’an and Nanjing.

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The countryside becomes more pastoral, dotted with peasant villages…

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…soon transforming into heavy industry…

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…and urban density.

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Some suburban housing, not unlike what one would see in Japan.

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As we approach Shanghai, the ubiquitous high rises.

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And quite distinctly, a maze of canals large and small crisscrossing what seems to be land recovered from the massive Yangste delta.

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Finally, around 4 in the afternoon, the centre of the great city itself.

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At one of the earlier stops a young student introduces herself. She too wants to work on her English, so she can become a tour guide.She is a senior at Shanghai University, returning to school after a holiday at home in Zhangye in Gansu province. Towards the end of our journey I get her to help me secure the refund for this portion of the ‘lost’ ticket. Turns out to be easy because the train people are fluent in English. Another couple has the same problem so I follow them to the appropriate wicket in Shanghai station. All’s well that ends well.

Back in Shanghai, at the Manhattan Hotel again, I enjoy an upgraded room, with a sort of skylight instead of a real window. Refreshed, I am off to the nearby Bund for a magical evening with a few hundred thousand holidayers.

 

 

 

 

 

Towards the Roof of the World

One of our Kashgar activities was a day-trip to the heights of the Karakorum Pass and Lake Karakol on the Tajikistan border.

The Karakoram Pass is a 5,540 m or 18,176 ft mountain pass between India and China in the Karakoram Range. It is the highest pass on the Silk Road, the ancient caravan route, between Leh in Ladakh and Yarkand in the Tarim Basin. ‘Karakoram’ literally means ‘Black Gravel’ in Turkic

Historically, the high altitude of the pass and the lack of fodder were responsible for the deaths of countless pack animals while the route was notorious for the trail of bones strewn along the way. There is an almost total absence of vegetation on the approaches to the pass. (Wikipedia).

The Karakorum mountain range is the second highest in the world, with 8 peaks over 8,000 metres, including K2 (second highest after Everest), and the most heavily glaciated area outside Antartica.

We started late morning, following the deeply carved valley of the Karakash river, on a very tortuous and dangerous road which is understandably not on the map.

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Spectacular scenery, a few isolated herding communities, lots of goats and sheep and camels, some horses, but everywhere massive construction projects- hydro but no road work, alas.

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We did not see masses of pack animal bones- but we could see why that would come about.

We climbed higher and higher into the snow-covered Pamir Mountains…

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to the edge of a mysterious lake, probably created by a dam.

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Perhaps because of the altitude, the lake was shrouded in an effervescent mist. An ethereal band of white sand lined its edge, Soon we reached our destination, Karakol Lake, on a high mountain plain.

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We passed through the Tajik/ Kyrkyz village of Karakol on the lakeside to, lo and behold, a tourist faciltity (!)

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…where after some intense persuasion by the locals, Ariana and I rented horses for a trail ride.

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Across the lakeside plain, we could see Pamir peaks reaching over 7500 metres.

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Going back the way we came, we passed the mysterious lake which had lost its mist in the changing light…

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…back through the rough range astride the raging Karakash.

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Back in time for a well-earned Uighur dinner.

 

 

Kashgar

Something, maybe border closure delayed Aziza the Truck’s departure to Kyrgistan, so we got an extra night in Kashgar, 3 in all. What a blessing! Kashgar turned out to be a delightful place, full of Silk Road flavour- a highlight of the whole trip. Our hotel conjured up a stop among the sands for a weary 19th century traveler. The bar, John’s Café, was always full of people,, eating, drinking, chatting. Outside, the streets buzzed with activity.

We were towards the edge of the city, just off a main drag that ran through the commercial district, past the old city then across the river into the market, all within walking distance. Weather perfect, hot and sunny.

In Kashgar we are at the western extremity of China, virtually on the Kyrgistan border. Exciting, but a downside is that despite being roughly 4,000km from Beijing, everything operates on the Beijing clock. So in early October everything nominally starts when it is  9am in Beijing- when it is pitch black, maybe 4am on our body clocks. No point getting up at 6 or 7 as we usually would, nothing to do. Unofficially, Kashgar runs on its own time, a couple of hours behind Beijing.

A very visible aspect of central control in China. In addition here there is considerable friction between the local Uighurs and the Han, the Chinese majority group, visible as prominent police presence in public places and especially on the roads, ostensibly to combat separatists and terrorists, but increasingly directed at Islamic commoners. Most locals here speak and maybe write Uighur, a Turkic language, and no Chinese. Only the young speak both, and often English as well. It was great fun to reply to kids who shout ‘Hello’ with ‘Ni hao’ or even ‘yah xmu’, occasioning great gales of laughter.

Around the corner from our hotel were a number of good restaurants, including two real classics, both of which we took in. The area mixed old and new elements, an architectural wonderland, dominated by designs from much further west in Central Asia. At the time I remarked that even the country folk exhibit a better sense of design and quality finish than typically seen in China proper.

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Parts of the old city showed signs of gentrification…

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others dereliction.

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Some parts showed much more recent attention.

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Like the Central Square, with a very visible riot-police presence.

Others, a more commercial intent.

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Some, modern housing…

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Here and there, enduring crafts.

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Down the street, a school for small boys.

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And in a park an odd anomaly- do Snow White and the Seven dwarfs figure large in Central Asian mythology?

And at various places, mosques in various life-stages.

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The main mosque, now closed to worshipers but open as a tourist site…

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It is not clear whether the state of this last one reflects recent policy or renovations underway on the edge of the old city. Chinese policy has become increasingly repressive of religious displays, especially in regard to Islam in Xinjiang.

For two days and part of a third I prowled the shops in the commercial district along the main drag, and especially the markets across the river.

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The fabric and clothing markets were huge and fabulous. I was looking -successfully- for treasure for the stylish ladies at home.

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Lots of fine food, of course. I had some tasty lunches at these street-side cafes.

Fortunately we were in Kashgar on a Sunday, so we were able to make the mandatory visit to the ‘Kashgar Bazaar’. We set off early into the nearby country, to a huge field already full of cars and people- and animals! This is the livestock market…

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with just about any type of beast you might need.

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Some really beautiful horses, some saddled for test-drives happening at great speed and intensity on the edge of the field.

And for those not pressed for time…

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Here and there, men stood in small groups negotiating sales.

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It’s a deal!

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A sale heads home.

On the sidelines some really interesting crafts. One of the girls, Ariana I think, bought a harness made on site. Wonderful work.

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There were also a lot of knife sellers around. Must be important.  Kelly the Jersey Girl wanted a knife- for her own reasons, I suppose- but she did not like the price offered by a persistent seller. So she enlisted me, of all people, as the bargainer. Well, I turned out to be good enough at stone-walling, to the degree that I did the best job of bargaining in my life (apart from my marriage of course) and Kelly got her knife!

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One night a few of us wandered next door to a very handsome building that turned out to be a gem, seemingly a survivor from the late 19th century. Great street food here too.

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We ate well in a fine café atmosphere – excellent lamb choplets- and were amazed when the large doors behind us flew open to reveal a magnificent wood-carved hall full of very well-dressed women celebrating something. Fascinatingly unexpected!

Next night, the night before everybody except Ariana and I were to depart for Kyrgistan on the Truck, we repeated the experience. Our mentors chose a restaurant, the Allun Orda, a few steps down the main drag that featured the same classical architecture, dominated by sculptured wood over two floors joined by a marvelous staircase. We paraded in like pashas headed to a celebratory feast.

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This time the large luxurious room is not full of finely-dressed women, but average types-and us. This time, at the more adventurous table we forego the choplets and opt for a bunch of lamb –kebobs, liver, and a selection of vegetables: roasted eggplant, mushrooms, leek, bean sprouts, tomatoes in ‘brown sauce’- and a mystery dish, the ‘Special Museum’. Unfortunately the dishes start at the other end of the table so by the time they get to me it is not clear what is what. ‘Special Museum’ goes back  the other way so we do not even get a sample at our end. We are compensated by a delightful crispy chicken ordered by Kelly, always desperate for KFC. At the end, ‘Allun Orda Special Tea’, complimented by a rich honey. All wonderfully tasty. Total damage, $16.

A marvelous celebration of this last phase of my Silk Road epic.

 

Across the Taklamakan

Descending from the physical and spiritual heights of Heavenly Lake, we again sped through the centre of Urumqi, itself the centre of Uighur culture, that dominates the Xinjiang province. Uighurs, Central Asians who ruled the region for a few hundred years before the Mongol invasion, have been subject to increasing persecution by the Chinese government over the past decade, largely due to their adherence to Islam. More about that later.

Just out of Urumqi we left the superhighway G30 for a road headed southwest, into the Taklamakan desert, sometimes a widely divided superhighway, sometimes two lanes where the new one was under construction.

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The plan was to cross the desert to Kashgar in three days, camping for two nights. However, the Chinese government’s fear of terrorist attacks on isolated tourists compelled us to stay in hotels, in Korla and Aksu. Tant mieux- both qite sharming, modern cities. We were descending through the edges of a major mountain range, the mountain range, the Tjan Shan, through magnificent gorges marked by signs of very heavy runoff, past huge dunes…

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…back down into the Turpan basin, below sea level. The mountain ridges gave way to an infinite plain of sand and rock and scattered vegetation, also marked by signs of massive water flows.

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At times we ran parallel to the trans-China train that I would ride on the way back.

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Once again in the endless sands we were surprised by lush green oases …

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…as we approached Korla, toward the end of the day.

 

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More surprises, another modern city in mid-desert, and a really confortable hotel. One again we measured its quality by the toilet facilities: much above average.

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We had a really excellent meal in the hotel’s large dining room. As it turns out, this day was driver-Dennis’ birthday. Earlier I had chased through all the pastry shops I could fine in search of a cake. Best I could do were large chocolate cupcakes. I astounded the shop-persons by taking a dozen. And so we feted our intrepid driver in style.

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Back on the road next day (I think I breakfasted on those long fried breads from a nearby shop), more desert terrain, past a couple of not-so-charming industrial cities- Kuqa or Luntai no doubt.

Somewhere on this road we stopped for lunch at a roadside truck stop, as usual. As usual I got a ramen that needed hot water- but the system was not working. As I slouched bak to the truck with my useless lunch, a guy in an attached motel-like unit noticed my dilemma and invited me over for some water from his kettle. Must have been a trucker on a layover. I think he wanted to chat with a foreigner or something. I had to prod him to start the kettle. Then it worked so so slowly. I saw the truck had loaded up and was ready to depart, blasting its horn. Finally I had to get up and go- don’t remember if I got the hot water. I did get a few laughs on board.

Eventually, at the end of another day, Aksu, another modern town, a fine hotel, up to our standard.

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Once again, a really enjoyable visit. I toured the place, to a modern square with attached shopping centre, what seemed to be a zoo by the river, a huge girls’ school.

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On the way back I took a shot of some really beautiful dresses in a small shop- the lady in charge seemed to object to my violation of copyright,

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I found most of our crew feasting in a small restaurant, and joined them. Excellent food, friendly crowd and staff.

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Later, after dark, I wandered down the street in the previous shot to a market, really lively after 10pm.

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More desert on the road to Kashgar.

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Xinjiang is reputedly one of the poorest parts of China. Not evident in the fine cities- Aksu and Korla- where we stayed. However, on the road something different. Some pretty basic housing, and rag-tag villages.

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In response to criticsm of its repressive social policy in Xinjiang, the Chinese government claims to have raised masses out of poverty. Recall that in many places we passed blocks of gigantic apartment towers, part of a massive program to relocate the rural folk in urban centres- but apparently quite empty.

On the third day we did indeed reach Kashgar, which proved to be one of the outstanding highlights of the whole cross-China trip.

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Kashgar is a remote western outpost in the Uighur province of Xinjiang and it has managed to keep an exotic atmosphere under the ubiquitous march of Chinese modernity. This is mainly due to the ethnicmix of Uighurs, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Kyrgy, and is amply portrayed throughout the old town, with blacksmiths, silversmiths, cobblers and others working in ways that have not changed for hundreds of years. The highlight of the week for the local populous and for the visitor is the massive Sunday market. 50,000 people migrate for the day into the town. This is a must for the visitor, as it exemplifies the daily life of the indigenous people – the noise, smells, the animals, the traders, the junk, toot, cloths, rugs, jewellery, tapes and ghetto blasters. Horses,cows, donkeys, sheep and goats all awaiting the inevitable sale. (from Dragoman guide)

Our hotel, located near the green oval on the left of the map above, mixed the modern and the historical.

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We were of course in the historical section, in the back- but it was fun.

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The restaurant bar and kitchen, under a tent-like canopy served as our common room. There were bunches of travelers passing through, college students, some sort of activists plotting interviews with clandestine parties. The food for breakfast and beer at night were excellent.

We were well set up for three wonderful days in Kashgar.

Next: Fond memories of Kashgar

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Go West Young Man

Part 1: Outbound

After months of preparation, Yoshiko and I were ready to take this advice offered by Horace Greeley over a hundred fifty years ago. The rest of the quote reads: “There is health in the country, and room away from our crowds of idlers and imbeciles.” I don’t think he was referring to anyone around us, least of all the family…

As were to discover, the “health of the country” part is certainly very true in Canada.

On 7 July, an auspiciously bright morning, we piled the last bunch of stuff and our dog Bingo into the Volvo, hitched up our RT10 trailer, and hit the road. RT10 refers to its length in feet, quite short, and its “Rugged Trailer” construction. A large part of the preparation was a search for a vehicle strong enough to survive the rough roads we expected in the northwest. Our diligence paid off.

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RT10 tent trailer and navigator

Our route took us up the Ottawa River to Mattawa, then west past Lake Nipissing to Sudbury, the path followed centuries ago by the “voyageur” fur traders in their canoes. We had not reserved a campsite ahead of time, a risk because campgrounds across Canada are typically booked solid over the summer. I decided we had better see if there was anything available around Sudbury, an area I knew well from my years of working in the provincial parks. I dialed up the Ontario park service, and was directed to ‘Fairbanks Lake’, a name vaguely familiar.

“ Where are you,” I asked, “near Sudbury?”

“Yes, quite close” replied the naïf on the other end.

“On the west side?”

“Hmmm…I don’t know, I’ll have to look at a map”.

“Near the highway?”

“Yes, just off it”.

Near Sudbury, just off the highway? Ha!

Fairbanks must be a sort of penal colony for wayward park employees. We drove for half an hour west of the city to a side road leading to a derelict mine, then bounced for 22 kilometers over one of the worst roads imaginable, as the sun slowly sank. Fortunately we found the campsite, a mosquito haven for incorrigible fishermen.

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Fairbanks Lake

Happily, the lake was quite pretty, our first raising of the tent, and first night in it went well. But at $58, no services, $12 reservation fee, no bargain!

Next morning we bounced back onto Highway 17 north of Lake Huron towards Sault Ste. Marie, stopping briefly at Aguasabon canyon, which empties into the lake.

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On quite good roads, very little construction activity, we made good time towards our target, Wawa on the shores of Lake Superior. The terrain between the Sault and Wawa is quite rugged, typical Precambrian Shield, up and down over towering rocks: one of the really prettiest parts of a trip across Canada. We stopped at Rabbit Blanket (must have been a fur trader camp), where Bingo and I had an icy dip on a beautifully pristine beach.

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Next, another day of rugged rocky hills north of Lake Superior, one of the most daunting parts of a cross-Canada trip, especially in winter. This road was only completed in the late 1950s, largely following the iconic CPR route cut through the wilderness in the 1880s. We had a stop in Marathon, a favorite town because in 1980 our VW van broke down there on a Canada-crossing, and we (including 2 year old Taro, no dog) had to shack up in a gas station awaiting parts from Thunder Bay

Good time on good roads once again, so we were at Kakabeka Falls outside Thunder Bay for the night. Very pleasant campground, pretty good services. Noticeably though, prices for everything in this not-so-isolated region very high.

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Kakabeka Falls

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Kakabeka Kamp

From Thunder Bay the road is much flatter until the hills around Lake of the Woods. We drifted through Kenora to get a taste of this famous resort area: may lakes including the huge Lake of the woods itself, lined with elaborate cottages largely owned by Winnipegers and Americans, very busy. We ploughed on over the border to the surprising lakes and forests of Whiteshell Provincial reserve on the eastern edge of the prairies. Here we stayed in the very comfortable municipal RV park on Falcon Lake ($22, full services). A very different population, mostly farm and townspeople spending their holidays with huge mobile homes and tons of ancillary stuff.

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Falcon Lake RV camp

Bingo and I had a swim here too.

Around this time Yoshiko started expressing a serendipidous passion for Ukranian food. I thought we might see some roadside fast-food joints flogging perogies- but not so. This time we skirted Winnipeg on the circle bypass; I promised we would visit the city on the way back. So on the increasingly flat prairie we were soon in Saskatchewan, stopping, at just over 2500 km from home, outside Regina at a rustic private camp, the ‘Comfort Plus’ in White City. Kinda dusty place on edge of rural road, we were squeezed into the last possible site. Above ground pool closed, but there was friendly little dog park.

Next day, resuming our practice of meandering through towns on the route to get a feel for place and people, we did a quick tour of Regina, past the Parliament Bldgs, out on to plains blanketed by multi-coloured crops- wheat, canola, flax, lentils, etc. I was surprised that as we approached the Alberta border in the afternoon, the flat farmland gave way to rolling grasslands with occasional water-filled sloughs. I thought we would see some antelope but not so, only free-ranging cattle and horses.

By a stroke of luck, at a pee stop in the comfortable Alberta visitor chalet at the border we discovered a second ‘dinosaur park’ on our route, just outside of Brooks. I had already been to the other one in the wild badlands near Drumheller, north of Calgary, fantastic place. Fortunately we were able to reserve a site for the night.

Incidentally, the borders Alberta and BC were the only place we encountered visitor sites. Those at east and west borders of Ontario were closed tight. No sign of them elsewhere. As well, a great paucity of signage everywhere (distances, intersections, other key info). Cutbacks? Maybe the smartphone-GPS generation does not need signs? Cost us digital-illiterates lots of backtracking.

Great discovery, Dinosaur Park. Comfortable campsites nestled in the badlands. Spectacular scenery.

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Turned out the park had fossil tours, so next morning we joined a small group headed into a restricted area in one of the richest fossil sites in the world. Our guide introduced us to ‘microfossils’, minute records of some of the earliest forms of life. Some of the small kids in our group were precocious dinosaur experts, mastering the terminology and the search. Yoshiko and I did not find many microfossils, but we did find some dinosaurs remains.

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Dinosaur bones

All this time Bingo the reluctant traveler was only getting a taste of the adventure at our bi-hourly stops and in daily walks. However, when he did get to prowl about, he was a great star, guaranteed long ear-rubs and shameless idolatry. Piles of little kids at dinosaur park. One little girl, Isla’s age, rushed over to Bingo, asking if she could pet him. As she reached out to him, she stumbled and scraped her knee- so Bingo sidled over to nuzzle her. She cleared her tears and broke into song: “Old Macdonald had a dog, B-I-N-G-O was his name…”

After our fossil hunt we started late for Calgary and the Rockies. Once again, we skirted the city on a circle road that went on forever. Busy traffic in early evening. Finally we were headed up the Bow River Valley towards the entry to Banff Park. There we discovered the expected: all the campsites packed solid. We were told there might be something available along the Kananaskis Trail, a whole new outdoor area developed by the Alberta government in the 1980s. In fact, a really beautiful range of mountains and foothills parallel to the Rockies, not as well known but equally impressive. Anyway, we rolled along, tens of km, seeking shelter at one camp, being told to try the next one, same result. Eventually we were told there was an ‘overflow’ area down the road. Darkness was approaching. It was actually getting chilly, storm clouds appearing. Following vague directions, we finally found the purported ‘overflow’: a parking lot at the base of a hiking trail for Elbow Pass. No one there. But there was pit toilet and a mountain stream, all we needed. Actually a beautiful site. So we raised the tent just before a light rain began.

 

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Kananaskis camp

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Later, we had violent wind and rain lashing us, and the temperature dropped to near zero C. Happily, by morning clear air and bright sun on the mountain tops. We folded camp and descended to Banff village for breakfast.

Banff is of course overrun with tourists, no longer Japanese nor Chinese but now Korean. Pervasive development. Much changed even since my last visit around 2004, hardly any sign of the small town of my first visit in 1965.

After beginning what would be a regular duty- finding a Tim Horton’s with Wifi and checking in to report progress, etc.- we spent a bit of time around the refurbished Banff train station, specifically re-affirming that local campsite were totally full- except for the Banff overflow, far up the old highway almost to Lake Louise. We headed there, past old hiking haunts at Castle Mountain and Johnston’s Creek, where we would have liked to stay. Not only were the campgrounds full, the roadsides were jammed with the cars of hikers. Not even worth stopping.

However, Banff overflow turned out to be quite pleasant: lots of space in what appears to be a clear-cut/fire zone. Maybe a back-fire site. Anyway, decent facilities, lovely view.

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And wildlife! Next morning, very chilly again, no one up when Bingo and I got out to do our walk. I made the mistake of letting Bingo run free. We meandered across the largely empty campground until I looked up to see Bingo frozen in his hunting pose, eyes fixed forward. I followed his line of gaze…to a huge Elk buck, 30 meters away, returning Bingo’s interest. “No, Bingo” I shouted pointlessly as he started towards the buck. In a flash the two of them were racing through the camp, with me a distant third, still yelling. The buck and Bingo headed off into the forest, into some thick bushes. I followed and immediately plunged into an icy creek obscured by the brush. Staggering out, I imagined Bingo and buck disappearing into the wilderness. But just then Bingo came bolting back out with the buck behind. Happily, end of chase. Lesson learned by both of us.

Tellingly, a lot of campers were not prepared for inclimat weather. A Spanish-speaking group camped near us had to cover up their simple tents with tarps and don all the clothes they could find…but the fierce sun soon warmed up the day.

Later we traveled up the Bow Valley to Lake Louise. There the crowd density is such that there are warnings 10 km outside town that the parking lots at Lakes Louise and Moraine are full, so road access blocked. Apparently one has to arrive before 7am or after 4pm to find the roads open.

Overwhelmed, we moved on over the Kicking Horse pass to a favorite place, Field and Emerald Lake in Yoho National Park.

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People everywhere, on the trails, in the gift shop, on the lakeshore, on the lake, cars parked on the roadside for half a kilometer. I was shocked to see people lined up to rent canoes at $95 and hour! We meandered through the handsome resort, where a wedding was underway. Bingo was a big hit, almost included in the wedding shots. I am sure most of the tourists were not aware that on the far side of Emerald Lake lies the famous Burgess Shale fossil grounds, the world’s foremost source of remnants of the earliest forms of life on earth.

The other local wonder is the spiral train tunnel, wherein the CPR mainline circles back on itself twice to smooth out the drop from the Kicking Horse pass to the river flats at Field. We were able to watch two trains appearing to eat their own tails while negotiating the double spiral.

 

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Late in the afternoon we made a second assault on Lake Louise. We were fortunate to find a space in an overflow and spend some time on the Louise lakeshore.

 

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Yet more people. On the paths, in the cafes, on the lake, everywhere. Canoe rental, $110 per hour! No shortage of really loose cash…and loose screws.

Another cool night, maybe 5 or 6 C in the overflow camp. Comfortable in our little house without any heating. Bingo under control.

Next morning we set off at a leisurely pace for Jasper, taking in the sites.

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Bow Lake, Bow River Highway, wildflower, Sunwapta pass

Incomparably beautiful Bow Lake, rough rock cuts, wildlife including roadside bear, the high Sunwapta pass marking the divide between the north flowing Sunwapta and Athabasca Rivers and the south-flowing North Saskatchewan. Certainly among the most beautiful 200 kilometers of road anywhere in the world.

I had traveled the Icefield highway, between Jasper and Lake Louise, by bike in 1965, in early September when there was almost no one around except bears. Actually, I only got to Bow Lake on the bike. Heavy rains started so I joined two young guys I met, physics students from the UK, to rumble down to Banff by car.

We started from our Banff overflow camp with about a half-tank of gas, I figured more than enough to get to Jasper. However, with all the high climbs and extra weight of our trailer, I started to worry we would run short in the long stretch of no-gas road. I decided we better head to Jasper directly, and come back later to sight see, without the trailer. It got rather tense, especially over the very long and very high Sunwapta pass. In a sweat, we crept into Jasper, filled up and dropped the trailer in the Jasper overflow (everything else full, of course). The Jasper overflow is a lot more ragged than the Banff one, basically an abandoned gravel quarry between the Edmonton highway and the Athabasca River, no proper campsites, minimal facilities (a couple of pit toilets). Not even potable water. Bingo and I hiked about a kilometer to the fast flowing Athabasca to fill our jug. By morning the overflow was packed solid with campers.

Fortunately, a beautiful view.

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Jasper is increasingly busy with tourists, but still less overrun than Banff. It retains some of the flavour of a frontier mountain town. It is really on the edge of the great northern wilderness. In the shot above you can see the telltale red strip left by a recent wildfire that surrounded the town. I think there are still strong restraints on further development to preserve its character. I much prefer it to Banff- so we spent more time here and could not resist returning later in our trip.

We were discovering one of the really great benefits of traveling northwest in the summer: seemingly endless evenings. No longer necessary to scramble to campsite to get dinner done by dark. Typically, on this evening we resumed our exploring back on the Icefields highway up to the Athabasca Glacier.

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Icefields, Athabasca Glacier

Here, another sign of change since my earlier visit: the glacier has shrunk maybe 200 meters!

We made our way slowly back to Jasper, taking in Sunwapta Falls and its gorge, other scenery…

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Sunwapta Falls and gorge, salamander snow

…and visiting all the small campsites along the road, for future reference. Back in Jasper around 8:30, we made another important discovery: the Dead Dog Pub Sunday night special- steak dinner for $11.95. With a cheap pint of Keith’s, a real treat!

Next morning, the start of the trek north, on the road to Prince George- Highway 97. Lunch at Mount Robson in bright sun.

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Mt Robson, one of the tallest mountains in Canada

The road to Prince George, still Highway 97, follows a valley between two moderate mountain ranges. The other time I traveled here, to a conference, the fall colours of the deep deciduous forest were spectacular, significantly bright yellows instead of the red maple we see in the east. Apart from the scenery, the day’s highlight was a long shopping trip in Prince George, in a ‘Save on Foods’. Great selection, decent prices, surprisingly better than Thunder Bay in mid-Ontario. After PG, a straight road through the vast boreal forest, stretching on forever…

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Boreal forest, stretching forward almost for ever…

Nothing on the road til we hit Halfway House.

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A classic road house. Bunches of muddied heavy machinery lying around- we were in major gas drilling country- signs on the door requiring proper clothing, and removal of muddy boots. A too-friendly guard husky. Inside, lots of coffee, a table set up for a robust buffet, and a large hotpot full of stew as an alternative to coffee. Man-size toilets. We lingered with our coffee over a surprising collection of books for sale, on serious topics like local wildlife, the Rockies, butterflies etc. I got a great one on the building of the Alaska Highway. Yoshiko got a couple for kids. And only $10 each.

In late afternoon we made camp in deep bush at Whiskers Point on McLeod Lake. Swimming was pretty good among many locals enjoying the warm sun. There was a dog beach here. Me and Bingo also had a late evening hike along the shoreline of this large lake- and repose by our campfire, suddenly terminated.

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Back on the road of course, headed into the Peace Country. Another interesting surprise: the Northern Rockies. Never thought about it but they continue past Jasper into the NWT- and quite spectacularly.

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Pinepass, Peace River country

We descended into deep valleys before going over the back of this rocky ridge via Pine Pass, onto the Peace River Highway. In fact, the legendary  Peace River itself started about 70 km further north, exiting the giant Williston Lake near Hudson’s Hope. Instead of heading there and onward to Fort St. John, we chose to stay on the Highway to iconic Dawson Creek. Passing through Chetwynd, we wondered at a string of elaborate Chinese-style sculptures lining both sides of the road, maybe 50 of them. Must be a story there.

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Chetwynd sculpture, Dawson Creek

Yet another surprise. I always imagined Dawson Creek, frequently in news of the north, as a log outpost surrounded by impenetrable bush. Lo and behold, a modern town on the open prairie. After a mandatory stop at Canadian Tire (what greater symbol of our civilization is there?) and an ice cream shop, we headed north, at Mile Zero of the Alaska Highway. Soon we crossed the mighty Peace outside Fort St. John on the bridge that replaced a famous one moved from Tacoma after it destroyed itself in 1939- and then destroyed itself again 30 or 40 years later.

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Peace River Valley

We headed for Beaton camp on the north side of Fort St. John for the night. This part of the Peace Valley was marked by huge rolling hills. We rolled up and down as darkness loomed. Did I mention lack of roadside signs these days? As we powered up to the peak of a steep slope, suddenly the pavement ended: the road continued precipitously downward in dirt ruts, almost a cliff. The guy ahead failed to stop, ending up at the bottom half a kilometer away. Just in time I braked. At my immediate left, a sign: Beaton Park.

No swimming here- grungy water filled with some sort of algae. But after dark we headed back over the hills back into Fort St. John, to the really wonderful community centre, a great pool, hot tub and water slide among the facilities. For a couple of bucks we had a relaxing swim. This kind of centre turned out to be a common feature in the smaller northern towns. And another common feature, really friendly people.

Next day we did the next ‘250 miles’ of the Alaska Highway, through a lot of gas drilling sites and really minor gas stops to Fort Nelson. We had left the Peace River valley, running east of the Rockies in rolling foothills.

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Alaska Highway north of Dawson Creek

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Fort Nelson camp

 

Fort Nelson was pretty much like Dawson and St. John, modern little towns. We were getting grubby so we opted for the ‘Triple G Hideaway RV Park’, which offered a Laundromat. I think the ‘G’s stood for George, Gloria, and Gaston or something like that. We were lucky to get a place in this sea of gigantic road barges. In fact we had to fit in between two touring caravans of 20-30 of these RV beasts full of Elderhostel-type retirees from all over North America. The camp had a big restaurant featuring a substantial buffet dinner each night. We did not indulge.

On local advice we signed up for two nights so we could do a day trip 300km further up the Alaska Highway towards the Yukon to visit the Liard River hotsprings. Wise move. Fantastic scenery, once again in the northern Rockies, even more rugged high peaks, sharp rock cuts, tight switch backs, rushing streams and big lakes.

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Northern Rockies

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Summit Lake

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Northern Rockies Lodge

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Local residents

Without the trailer, driving the switch backs was real fun, especially as the co-pilot was asleep. Lots of wildlife though, kept the watchdog alert. We made good time, got to the springs by noon.

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Another revelation! The Liard River is historically important, but never heard of the Liard River Hotsprings. A Provincial Park, free for the public, very simple but very comfortable access to quite hot sulphurous springs ‘discovered’ by workers building the Alaska Highway in the 1940s (probably already known to natives). We had a delightful soak before heading back to Nelson in the late afternoon.

North of Nelson we left the Alaska Highway (still #97) for the Liard Highway towards the Territories. More endless boreal forest. Decent road surface til we got to the NWT border. Gravel! For 40 km. Mostly loose, dry and dusty. Almost no traffic, just the odd truck or camper. Winding trail through mixed forest and rocky outcrops. We were counting on gas at Fort Liard, so we were relieved to finally hit a bit of pavement on the edge of a modest indigenous community of clapboard homes. No real gas station, but a depot of large tanks with a single nozzle and attached card reader. Simple but effective. Turns out the indigenous Band communities manage these sorts of facilities as a collective. This one was open to non-members (apparently!). Good thing- only gas anywhere.

More gravel on NWT Highway 7, about 100km to Blackstone Camp, our first visit to a Territories park. The NWT road map gives a visitor a good feel for the scale of things in these parts. My map is about 3 feet square. The bottom 4 inches easily contains all the passable roads!

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Highway 7, NWT

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Up #7 towards the Liard River and Blackstone campsite

I quite liked Blackstone. On the banks of the Liard River, directly across from Nahanni Butte in the lower Yukon, maybe 20 rustic sites, heavily forested. Excellent facilities, including charming museum. The Territories have made a huge effort to encourage tourism with a string of well-equipped camps. We were introduced to a prominent feature: charming women in charge throughout. There were bugs of course, more manageable mosquitos rather than blackflies. Bingo and I had a long hike by the river; I had a brief swim in the silty Liard, dragged fiercely downriver by the current.

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Nahanni butte, sunset on the Liard River

But our first disappointment- we could not get across the river to the Yukon, accessible only by air.  If I had known, we would have continued past the Liard Springs to Watson Lake and maybe even Whitehorse. What’s another 1000km. Next time.

More gravel, another 200km to Fort Simpson, where there was a deceptive stretch of pavement. We had to cross the Liard on a basic ferry, the Lafferty.

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Fort Simpson where the Liard joins the Mackenzie…

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…is the stepping stone to the famous Nahanni River wilderness and much of the western hinterland. It is also the starting point of the Mackenzie Highway that runs about 200km down that river, then yields to winter road that runs another few hundred km to Norman Wells and Great Bear Lake. Far out, literally!

In the Nahanni hotel we had a decent fish and chips and fried chicken before going back to rejoin the highway, now NWT #1.

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More gravel! Another 250 km to Fort Providence. Sometimes loose and dry. Sometimes muddied by light rain. Sometimes one continuous pothole. Fortunately little traffic to scatter up stones. Maybe not so fortunately, our gas mileage was below expectations. And gas stations marked by road signs turned out to be phantoms. Theoretically we had enough to reach Providence, according to my ‘km to empty tank’ display. I was watching it carefully and trying to match its readings to the sparse mileage signs on the road. Did not look good. I considered leaving the trailer to go for gas. But we persevered, in a sweat. Last 45 km paved, so mileage better. Up one side of the magnificent bridge over the Mackenzie…

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I was counting on coasting on the downslope…but no, a red light protecting non-existent construction workers. I ran it and coasted a bit. Last few km, running on fumes, a Shell logo in sight, there at last.

What’s this? Gas pumps all covered in plastic bags. As I tried to work one, a local comes out; “we ran out of gas an hour ago”

“Jeez”

“Try that Band pump over there”

Wheeeuw. Not only our saviour but 14 cents cheaper than the $1.56 at the Shell.

That night we spent in the open poplar forest of the Fort Providence camp, on a high cliff along the Mackenzie River shore.

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Here again, pretty good facilities- but suspended in seemingly stalled repair; and a local woman manager, charming but seemingly not in total control.

Full of gas, next day we headed for Yellowknife, 300 km up a very straight, lonely Highway 3. Largely a very good surface through a huge buffalo reserve. Not much traffic: everyone was in Yellowknife for its annual folk music festival which was winding up as we arrived. In fact, it looked like all of Yellowknife had been wound up. Empty streets except for homeless stragglers. Apparently the city shuts down on Sunday. Almost nothing open. A lot of permanently shuttered stores

I did find a really good bookstore, shortly before it closed for the day, while Yoshiko was scurrying about the streets trying to find a public toilet…

This night it was the ‘Fred Henne’ camp, close to downtown, on a rather rocky outcrop adjacent to the site where gold was first found and became Yellowknife’s raison d’etre. Bingo and I hiked over the mine site that evening, the sun still refusing to go down at 10pm.

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Yellowknife is pretty much a rock on the water, the rock providing its wealth, the water the means of gathering it. Still has the air of a frontier outpost.

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Yoshiko’s desperate search for relief had another positive result- she ran across a liquidation centre full of interesting stuff, not just another of her thrift shops she assured me. Sure enough, a depanneur-sized store in a semi-derelict mall packed with esoteric machinery and mechanical bits and boots and clothes and CDs and just about everything else, including a jolly rotund liquidator happy to demonstrate his wares. We had a great time poring through the piles. Eventually I asked if he had any CDs with local fiddle music (a talent in these parts). He said he’d look. After a while an odd assistant- looked like an Afghan refugee- brought me a CD by a Fort Simpson musician. $1. Then the liquidator found another by a local band.

“Here, it’s yours” he said.

“No charge?” I said, “At this rate you’re going to go out of business”.

“That’s the plan” he replied…

A highlight in an otherwise disappointing town. To be fair, our visit was short, on a Sunday. With more time we could have explored the long string of remote camps on the Ingraham Trail north of town, to the edge of the winter road that leads another few hundred km north to the diamond mines.

More gas, about $1.45 litre here, then back down the road, over the Mackenzie to Hay River, to the Hay River camp at the edge of town, on Great Slave Lake. Really great camp nestled in the mixed bush, excellent facilities, run by a pair of charming and very competent women. A favorite stop.

Until the roads came to the north in the late 1960s and 70s, Hay River was the end of the line, the railhead where food, machinery, building materials, everything, was transferred to barges for a trip across the lake to Yellowknife or down the Mackenzie to the Arctic Ocean. From our camp the lake looked like an ocean. Next to the beach, several large lake boats reposed in retirement.

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Great Slave Lake with ornamental eagle

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Retired Northern Transportation workers

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Great Slave sunset

I had a swim in pretty clear water, not as cold as Lake Superior. In the evening we discovered the dining room at the Ptarmigan Hotel, minutes before the kitchen closed. Fine crispy calmari, excellent whitefish and tuna steak, prices quite reasonable.

Another long, straight, lonely road, Highway 5 to Fort Smith. This was one of the roads I worked on as a summer job in 1963 and 65. At that time the contractor was preparing a basic road bed, a lot of clay with a gravel topping, through near-virgin forest. We were only about 30 miles out of Fort Smith. About the same time the NWT government cut a winter road (over frozen muskeg and rivers) to Hay River to bring in a dismantled sawmill for Claire Lake, south of Fort Smith. Otherwise, until the 1970s everything had to be brought in by air, or barge from the Peace River.

Now there was a fine road surfaced with pulverized granite, very durable. Not much traffic but not entirely empty: lots of buffalo. Almost all the 200 km are in Wood Buffalo National Park, a giant reserve where these magnificent beasts have been revived.

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We arrived in Fort Smith in good time to set up camp at Queen Elizabeth park, in a tall pine stand on the edge of town, and the bank of the Slave River.

 

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Another great camp, in the form of a Band pow wow centre. Excellent facilities and a really interesting manager, with a neat name like ‘Butterfly’ or somesuch. I told her about working on the roads so we got into a great discussion about people and places I might have known. She told me about a book she had, written by Harold Steed, the roads superintendent at the time, which she brought in for me the next day. Subsequently I obtained a copy from an out-of-print book dealer (along with several gems about the history of Rockies pioneers, and a biography of an itinerant opthalmologist I happened to meet during my stay in 1963).

Steeds’ book is an enthralling account of the building of roads and other development projects in the 1950s and 60s, with minimal resources but a lot of fortitude and hard work. Latter-day pioneers; and I was there!

Fort Smith does not look a lot different than what I remember. Some new stores, the hotel where my drinking career began now a hole for a new project, the Chinese restaurant gone, a museum indicating residents now have the luxury to reflect on their place in time.

As for my place in this time, we did a trip down 50km of gravel towards Peace Point of the Peace River. This is the road I first worked on, in 1963, as part of the survey crew monitoring a lusty big Alaskan entrepreneur trying to make a killing on a cost-plus contract. He was forever hauling in new machines and new workers to overcome one problem or another. Our camp was about 50 miles out, so we rarely got into town. When we did, we were invariably plied by the contractor over a table full of beer…

Our camp would now be totally overgrown. We did not go that far, instead visited Fort Fitzgerald, where bargeloads from the Peace River would be unloaded for transit by truck around the rapids, to be put back on barges on the other side of Smith. And we wandered down a bush trail to look for Pelicans at Pelican Rapids on the Slave River. Surprisingly, this is a major breeding area for pelicans.

Pelicanrapids.JPGPelican rapids on the Slave River. No pelicans visible…

The road looked pretty much like it did 53 years ago, modest gravel surface, thick poplar and birch bush on both sides. Maybe better gravel, less red clay and there was even a grader working the road.

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Another feature remained the same- the main residents!

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Magnificent Wood Buffalo meandered casually about the roadway, happy to escape the flies in the bush. This was one of several families we encountered. High point for Bingo: he went completely ballistic, shrieking in his hunting voice with his nose to the windshield. He should be happy there was a windshield between him and these guys…

We turned off the highway on the road to Pine Lake, a place of really fond memories. Once or twice in ‘63 me and my buddy Jack Cameron got to the lake in the heat of summer, on one occasion for some sort of giant party, maybe Canada day. Anyway, there was lots of music and dancing and lovely local girls. In the end we just flaked out on the beach, awakening in the morning sun for a swim in the pristine waters. Heaven!

Though it was hard to find anything resembling my memories of the beach in the current rather ragged scene, I had to memorialize the past in a ritual end to the outbound leg of our pilgrimage.

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Pine Lake Memorialized

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Turpan Oasis to Heavenly Lake

Continuing along superhighway G30, the desert scrub around Dunhuang gave way, surprisingly, to lush fields and forests, vineyards and fruit trees. Though we were approaching one of the reputably hottest regions on earth, the Turpan basin is in fact an oasis sustained by remarkable systems of water management- which we were able to explore.

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The greenery was all the more surprising because we were entering the Taklamakan Desert, flanked to the north and south by the brutally beautiful Tian Shan mountain ranges.

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The oasis town of Turpan was crucial to the traders on the Silk Road, providing a staging post and a market place for the traders to exchange goods and to re-equip their caravans. Although Turpan is the hottest place in China, the lack of humidity makes the atmosphere pretty bearable. The town is a very relaxed, tranquil place, and has some fascinating irrigation channels which show how this dry area has been collecting water for hundreds of years. –Dragoman notes.

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Turpan is remarkably beautiful, and tranquil as the notes say, one of the most pleasant of our many stops.

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Our hotel was a bit rustic, but greatly enhanced by surrounding greenery.

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In fact, as on other occasions we overlanders were confined to the historic backrooms of a more luxurious update which seemed rather empty .

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Off-season I guess…or maybe failure of Chinese to draw tourists to Xinjiang

We had reached Turpan in one long drive, so we had lots of time in town. And it was quite eventful. First we had a field trip to the ruins of Jiaohe, an ancient fortress town built on an isolated plateau cut out of the desert terrain by two branches of the Yaemaiz River. Jiahoe means ‘river junction’.

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A natural fortress formed by high cliffs carved out of the plateau.

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Map reconstructing the once formidable earthen city.

The adjacent river basins were quite lush, under cultivation in fact…

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but the ruins a deathly dry adobe.

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A Buddhist shrine fairly well preserved

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A room with apparent hearth

Jiahoe is reputedly the world’s oldest surviving ‘earthen’ city, constructed of compressed earth and bricks. Its peak populations is estimated to have been about 7,000.

Dating from the Han Dynasty to Uighur times, a period of about 1500 years from the 1st century BC through the 14th century AD, Jiaohe ancient city used to be the capital of “Anterior State of Cheshi”, one of the 36 kingdoms in the West Region in the Western Han Dynasty. Situated along the Silk Road trade route heading west, Jiaohe ancient city functioned as the political, economic, military and cultural center of the kingdom. From 450 AD until 640 AD, Jiaohe County was established by the government of the Tang Dynasty under the jurisdiction of West Prefecture, which later became the seat of the “Anxi Frontier Command” from 640 AD until 658 AD. Later, Jiaohe fell into declining after the Uighur takeover and was finally abandoned after its destruction during an invasion by the Mongols led by Genghis Khan in the 13th century. –ChineTours.com

In another excursion we visited a museum devoted to the Karez water system. The karez water system- borrowed from the qanaq system in Persia, dating back to 500 B.C.- consists of a series of vertical wells collecting  the  runoff from the base of the mountains.

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Model of the karez water system drawing mountain runoff through a series of wells to supply an irrigation network

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The irrigation network, mostly in underground tunnels, surfaces in a stream at the museum.

The karez system has wells, dams and underground canals built to store the water and control the amount of water flow. Vertical wells are dug at various points down the slopes of the Tian Shan and Flaming mountains to tap into the groundwater runoff. The water is then channeled through underground canals dug from the bottom of one well to the next well and then to the desired destination, the irrigation system in the Turpan Depression. The canals are mostly underground to reduce water evaporation and to create a slope long enough to reach far distances using only gravity. This  system of  connected wells is thought to have originated in Iran circa 500 B.C.( the qanat system), perhaps indigenously, or  been invented in other parts of China. Both historical and archaeological research convincingly point to the origins of this technology in more western regions along with indigenous innovations. – modified from Wikipedia

Gordon and I also visited the impressive Turpan Museum, which displayed artifacts related to the silk road, as well as the remains of some former residents…

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On the way back we had a really local lunch -udon!- in a really earthy café. Somehow we always managed to deploy our rudimentary Chinese to get good food and drink.

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Speaking of drink, by chance another overlander truck, the Odyssey, arrived at our hotel. The drivers and guides knew one another of course; the other travelers were a mix of anglos and colonials as I recall. We celebrated the event with a wine tasting- from somewhere a dozen bottles of Chinese wine appeared and their contents as quickly disappeared. In truth it might better be described as a ‘wine distasting’, alas.

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As usual, one of the great highlights of the stop was our time in the fabulous Turpan markets…

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…culminating in a fine dinner in a street café.

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Jody scarfs some street treats

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In the foreground we dine finely on a great variety of shish-kabob type delicacies

Eventually we leave the delights of Turpan to set off for the Heavenly Lake, a Buddhist holy place east of Urumqi (Urumchi), a fairly large city, the capital of the Uyghur ‘protectorate’, Xinjiang. We drove right through Urumqi on a very busy superhighway before starting to climb up the Tian Shan range to the lake.

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Through the desert with dried salt lake in background

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Through the desert with the new supertrain track in the background

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Into the Tian Shan north range

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Approaching the lake, Tianchi in Chinese

Tianchi (Chinese: 天池; pinyin: Tiānchí) is an alpine lake in Xinjiang, Northwest China, situated at 43°53′9.7″N 88°7′56.6″E. The name (天池) literally means Heavenly Lake and can refer to several lakes in mainland China and Taiwan. This Tianchi lies on the north side of the Bogda Shan (“Mountain of God”, Bogda is a Mongolian word meaning “God”) range of the Tian Shan (“Mountain of Heaven”), about 30 kilometres (19 mi) south of Fukang and 45 kilometres (28 mi) east (straight-line distance) of Ürümqi. It is an alpine drift lake shaped in the Quarternary Glacier period.

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As if the natural beauty of Heavenly Lake were not enough, legend adds a mysterious touch. It is said that the West Queen (Xi Wang Mu) entertained King Mu of the Western Zhou Dynasty (1100B.C.-771B.C.) here. The West Queen fell in love with the king and asked him in her poem.

‘The white clouds drift while the mountains reach the blue sky. Passing thousands of mountains, crossing ten thousands of rivers, you come to us from a faraway place. If you are still strong and fine, would you like to come back to us again?’

The king answered in his poem.

‘After I go back to central China and lead the people to a prosperous life, I will come to you again.’

We do not know why the king never returned. Only the placid lake and the silent mountains witnessed the lovesickness of the West Queen.  –China Travel Guide

The lake is indeed heavenly beautiful. Kelly, Ariana and I did some separate-ways hiking to the local shrine, and started up the path that runs around the whole lake. At one point the route I chose ended so I struggled up the steep, brambled slope to reach the trail far above (mysteriously appearing out of the brambles in front of startled Kelly). From there I could look across to the yurt village where we were to spend the night.

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Atop the brambled slope. Kelly takes snapshot in lower left corner

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The beach left of centre, yurt village to the right

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The yurt village

I could also see that there was a beach a bit down from the village. Never visiting a body of water without trying to swim in it, I determined to have a plunge. So I sped back down the trail, past the village on a road to reach the beach.

One of the things Chinese do at Heavenly Lake is undertake a spiritual adventure in the shrines. Another more worldly (or maybe spiritual) thing is wedding photos. Sure enough, there was a serious photo-shoot underway, bride and groom assuming endless rather bizarre poses, with frequent changes of colourful costume – a seamstress was there to assist…

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I did not want to interfere in the celebration, but I was determined to swim. So I went up the beach a bit, out of camera range I hope, took off my jeans and shirt and plunged into the gloriously clear and super cold water. Janet and Susan happened to be there to witness this temerity. Not just them as it turned out. When I slipped behind a large rock to strip off my soaked undies, a tour boat hove into view.

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I don’t know what the boat’s guide was saying over his loudspeaker. Maybe something about the sacrilegious gaijin mooning the sacred mountain…

On the way back up the hill to our yurt a young guy in a pickup stopped to give Janet and Susan and me a lift. He worked on a tourism development project near the mountain peak at the end of the road. In an instant he persuaded us to ride with him to the top through some spectacular scenery, ending up at the construction site.

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Our serendipidus driver

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A bronze sculpture depicting local legend

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Near the peak

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The gondola to an adjacent peak, under construction. If you build it…

Back down the mountain, with the setting sun we settled into or yurt. A cook prepared an interesting meal of rice and veggies.

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A quiet night, apart from some snoring -not me. Outside a full moon beamed down on the lake. I tried to get some photos, but ended up with only a shot of sunrise as we rose to start a new day on the road.

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Next: Across the Taklamakan to Kashgar

Bingllng Si Caves to Dunhuang Oasis

Bingling Si Buddhist Caves

Leaving Xiahe, we head back north on the same tortuous road, but sidetrack over some high hills overlooking a lake-like widening of the Yellow river. We will cross the river by small boat through some spectacular scenery to reach the Bingling Si Caves.

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Bingling Si is a fabulous Buddhist grotto site along the Yellow River – the

site is full of carvings and Buddhist artwork, including the centrepiece

Maitreya Buddha statue, a 27m-tall statue dug into the cliff.

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Construction of the grottoes began in 420 CE and continued until the 15th Century. There are over 180 small caves and nearly 700 statues on the site (not all of which are open to the public), that are well preserved despite centuries of damage from erosion and earthquakes. For some reason I do not have shots of the dozens we visited- maybe photos were prohibited. Anyway, the statues tended to the repetitive, each probably the contribution of various devotees over the centuries.

Bingling7.JPGMid-visit we stopped at local shrine for tea with its resident monks.

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The shrine was adorned with statues and other artifacts.

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In the early afternoon sun we headed back across the lake and over the hills to the main road on our way to Luijiaxia, a small town on the Yellow.

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Our hotel in Luijiaxia was quite modest, usual standard. We quickly began to rate hotels based on whether there was any hot water. Usually not. I think Dragoman was paying something like $30-40 per room, shared by two of us. Later Jody discovered that in fact the Chinese tour company that provided our guide was charging us a premium on top of the hotel charge- which led to a great confrontation later in the trip. In some hotels we noticed the staff ran about furiously before we were allowed into our rooms- they were removing all the frills, like soap, towels, emptying the mini-fridges, etc., maximizing profit.

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Our hotel sat on the banks of the Yellow, which looks more like Brown, near a major dam.

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In the evening we crossed the river to the town centre, which was pleasantly attractive. We headed for the thriving market to buy supplies for our first rough camping adventure the next night. Our travel group was divided into teams of 3 or 4, with various housekeeping duties rotated among them. My group- Kelly, Susan, Gordon maybe, not sure- were responsible for cooking at camp, so we loaded up on fine vegetables for a ratatouille for dinner and eggs and stuff for breakfast. We had fun interacting with the locals in the market, including a small girl who insisted on practicing English, then a photo with her family. Shopping successful, we had a great dinner of dumplings in a small restaurant on the way back to the hotel.

Worth mentioning that breakfast was provided by most hotels, and was usually good basic stuff- rice, vegetables, boiled eggs, maybe some fruit. I remember the buffet breakfast here was pretty good. That was one of the expendables in the cheapskate hotels. In which case I would indulge in street food or local popular restaurants: fried bread sticks and such. For lunch we typically picked a truck-stop along the superhighway, ideally one with a decent store and toilet. Hot water was available to prepare ramen, and instant coffee or cafe au lait, that was quite good. There would be canned stuff and lots of snacks. Some of the stops, tho, were terribly grim.

At one stop there was no hot water for my coffee. I was grabbed by a guy, maybe a local worker off shift, with the promise of hot water from his kettle. It was really slow…our truck had filled up and was ready to go, Jody was yelling at me. In the end I had to grab my cup and run, contributing further to my eccentric reputation.

Next morning, on the road again towards Zhangye and the “incredible Zhangye Danxia Rainbow Mountains” (Dragoman notes), “formations created by the same tectonic movement that created the Himalayas, the landscape is a rainbow of different coloured rocks, the result of deposits of sandstone and minerals over the last 24 million years. The layer cake of coloured rocks has been sculpted by erosion,producing hills and ravines in the most remarkable patterns! “

We did see some impressive mountains en route, but somehow missed the ‘rainbow’. Maybe depends on sunlight…maybe after 24 million years it faded.

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One of the fascinations on the whole China trip was local housing, in all of its varied forms, from caves to vast walls of modern, usually empty, apartments.

That night we did our first ‘rough camp’ somewhere outside Zhangye, in the scrub on the edge of the desert.

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After setting up camp, Gordon, Tom, Kelly, Ariana and I headed out across the sands to view the remnants of the western edge of the Great Wall. Here the wall is adobe, badly weathered.

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Nearby, a large derelict construction that appeared to be a brickworks.

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On the way back we encountered what seemed to be a weathered Muslim gravestone, middle of nowhere, The only sign of life was a neat bug.

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For dinner we broke out the vegetables etc. we had bought in Luijiaxia to concoct a planned ratatouille, which turned out more Chinese than provencial because someone on our team insisted on throwing in a bunch of cabbage, Anyway, everyone was pleased

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and the select few again celebrated long into the night.

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In fact at nightfall a huge storm crept up from the horizon, lightning, thunder and a deluge. Fortunately done by daybreak, so our team did breakfast with eggs, veggies and so on. First camp passed the test!

 

Jiayuguan Fort

 Our next stop was Jiayuguan, a fortress town on a part of the Great Wall still in Great shape.

 

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The fort at Jiayuguan marks the far western end of the Great Wall of

China – this was one of the first parts of the Great Wall to be built by

the Ming Dynasty in 1372 CE, located at a vital pass on the ancient Silk

Road. The fort was at a strategically vital position for defence against

potential attacks from the northwest, and became an important

melting pot of cultures between China and the Silk Road. This

older section of the Great Wall is adobe, unlike the stone sections in the

east of the country. The fort here is very impressive and remarkably

well preserved. (Dragoman notes)

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We did the fort, popular with tourists…

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…then set up camp in a sort of campground and fishing hole.

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I think we had more rain- in the morning I discovered my tent was on a drainage route. In the evening we climbed up to a section of the Wall on the mountainside.

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dividing the lush kingdom from the barbarians, who apparently lived in caves.

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Next morning I went up on the wall again to capture sunrise against a not very pastoral background.

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The fort and the wall were quite impressive, witnessing the immense amount of labour and other resources poured into the defences of the Middle Kingdom.

 

Dunhuang

On the road next day, deeper into scrubby desertland bordered by low mountains on the way to Dunhuang…

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…punctuated surprisingly by apparently very shallow bodies of water…

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… and by a remarkable oasis, Dunhuang.

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Dunhuang is one of the largest and historically most important oasis

trading towns in Gansu province, an oasis in an otherwise

barren desert, surrounded by sand dunes and mountains – the setting is

spectacular and a good  reason alone to travel here .

However most visitors make the long journey to Dunhuang to see the

fantastic ancient Buddhist art in the nearby Mogao Caves – an

extraordinary site even by Chinese standards, the caves contain some

of the finest examples of Buddhist art spanning a period of 1,000 years

between the 4th and 14th Centuries CE. Re-discovered in the early

20th Century, the site is one of the most celebrated Buddhist sites in China, and full of

thousands of ancient Buddha images! (Dragoman notes)

This turned out to be one of the most beautiful towns on the tour. We had a fine hotel for the next two nights.

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Walking around town was in itself worth the visit. The streets, lined with modern buildings,were full of people and events- a street opera

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line dancing at night.

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I found a delightful café where I could access WIFI over a good coffee among friendly people and a string of small speciality restaurants where I ate a couple of times- noodles, dumplings in local style.

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However the official highlights were the Mogoa Caves and the dunes. Next morning we drove outside town to the massive cave site

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and an extensive visit to about a dozen of the 492 extant caves.

Carved into the cliffs above the Dachuan River, the Mogao Caves south-east of the Dunhuang oasis, Gansu Province, comprise the largest, most richly endowed, and longest used treasure house of Buddhist art in the world. It was first constructed in 366AD and represents the great achievement of Buddhist art from the 4th to the 14th century. 492 caves are presently preserved, housing about 45,000 square meters of murals and more than 2,000 painted sculptures. Cave 302 of the Sui dynasty contains one of the oldest and most vivid scenes of cultural exchanges along the Silk Road, depicting a camel pulling a cart typical of trade missions of that period. Caves 23 and 156 of the Tang dynasty show workers in the fields and a line of warriors respectively and in the Song dynasty Cave 61, the celebrated landscape of Mount Wutai is an early example of artistic Chinese cartography, where nothing has been left out – mountains, rivers, cities, temples, roads and caravans are all depicted.

As evidence of the evolution of Buddhist art in the northwest region of China, the Mogao Caves are of unmatched historical value. These works provide an abundance of vivid materials depicting various aspects of medieval politics, economics, culture, arts, religion, ethnic relations, and daily dress in western China. The unique artistic style of Dunhuang art is not only the amalgamation of Han Chinese artistic tradition and styles assimilated from ancient Indian and Gandharan customs, but also an integration of the arts of the Turks, ancient Tibetans and other Chinese ethnic minorities. Many of these masterpieces are creations of an unparalleled aesthetic talent.

The discovery of the Library Cave at the Mogao Caves in 1990, together with the tens of thousands of manuscripts and relics it contained, has been acclaimed as the world’s greatest discovery of ancient Oriental culture. This significant heritage provides invaluable reference for studying the complex history of ancient China and Central Asia.

The group of caves at Mogao represents a unique artistic achievement both by the organization of space into 492 caves built on five levels and by the production of more than 2,000 painted sculptures, and approximately 45,000 square meters of murals, among which are many masterpieces of Chinese art.

For 1,000 years, from the period of the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534) to the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty (1276-1386), the caves of Mogao played a decisive role in artistic exchanges between China, Central Asia and India.

The paintings at Mogao bear exceptional witness to the civilizations of ancient China during the Sui, Tang and Song dynasties.

The Thousand-Buddha Caves constitute an outstanding example of a Buddhist rock art sanctuary.

Occupied by Buddhist monks from the end of the 19th century up to 1930, the rock art ensemble at Mogao, administered by the Dunhuang Cultural Relics Research Institute, preserves the example of a traditional monastic settlement.

The caves are strongly linked to the history of transcontinental relations and of the spread of Buddhism throughout Asia. For centuries the Dunhuang oasis, near which the two branches of the Silk Road forked, enjoyed the privilege of being a relay station where not only merchandise was traded, but ideas as well, exemplified  by the Chinese, Tibetan, Sogdian, Khotan, Uighur and even Hebrew manuscripts found within the caves. (UNESCO Heritage site notes)

Unfortunately photography was prohibited to protect the delicate art. However, the shop provides an idea of the interiors. A lot more interesting than the Bingling caves.

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The other official attraction in Dunhuang is the dunes. We took a short trip on a public bus to the massive tourist site on the edge of town. And then climbed aboard more basic transport.

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Later, on foot, I climbed to the top of the massive ridge above.

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I forget her or his name…

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After the camel ride Gordon, Sally and I trekked up one of the massive dunes on a stairway. Then I sort of sand-surfed down, using my feet like skis. That was so much fun I climbed up the even taller ridge of sand, encountering a school group from Northern China at the top (for pictures of course), then on the way down a group of teenage girls singing some sort of song that I recorded. By then night had fallen, so I got a shot of the rising moon.

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Before taking the bus back, I sampled the local dancing girls…

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Dunhuang was one of the most memorable stops, for its intrinsic civility and beauty as well as its place in the history of the Silk Road.

As always, on the road the next morning, symbolically passing the mark of 3000 km from Shanghai on superhighway G30!

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Next: Turpan Oasis to Heavenly Lake