Magao Caves

For a day I jumped off the train to visit the Magao Caves near Dunhuang, four hours out of Jiayuguan. The Magao Caves (or Grottoes) consist of 492 chambers carved in the side of a cliff 1700 meters long and is the best rove of Buddhist art in the world.

From AD 366, traders, merchants, and officials patroned the building and painting of religious caves for the next 1000 years. The area is particulary interesting as it lies in a crossroads of different cultures. Peoples from all over Asia and Europe meshed here and some depicitions have clear Tibetan, Chinese, Indian, and even Greek influence.

In Mongolia I had a few days repast waiting for the train and I ripped through 4 or 5 books, inluding Peter Kopkirk’s Foreign Devils on the Silk Road. The book describes in vivid detail how the caves lay dormat for about a 1000 years, bricked off or filled by the sands of the Taklamakan Desert that also ate many towns along the Silk Road after it’s decline.

For the first quarter of the 20th Century, several groups of European, Japanese, and American adventurers and archieologists (notably Aurel Stein and Paul Pelliot) took notice of the vast Central Asian area and its trove of history. They followed in one of the world’s greatest explorers footsteps, Sven Hedin. They came in force and dug up cities lost to the desert to find frescoes, statues, and manuscripts from a chapter in history long forgotten.

Paul Pelliot Sorting Manuscripts in the Library Cave

Paul Pelliot Sorting Manuscripts in the Library Cave

They hauled thousands of relics back to their sponsoring organizations. Their methods were often destructive, sometimes sawing off huge chunks of frescoes. China considers this a dark period and the items stolen. Counter to this is the fact local people were burning the precious items as a source of scare wood and the vast destruction of religious items during the Cultural Revolution. Some items were also destroyed in WWII bombing in Europe.

Even so, perhaps the greatest trove lies in the Magao Caves, 28 km from Dunhuang. In three sperate caves lie Buddha statues of over 30 meters, two sitting and one reclining. The frescoes are in various states of decay, some areas peeling away to show three layers of paintings covering different Chinese dynasties. Many statues still display vivid color.

The Chinese governement has poured a lot of resources into the maintainence and restoration of the caves. Entrance is strictly regulated and bears a high entrance fee of 160 RMB, plus 20 RMB for foreign language guides. Visitors are taken conveyor belt stlye and shown 8 – 10 caves. No photos are allowed, except from the outside.

Magao Caves

Magao Caves

One of the most interesting is Cave 17, called the Library Cave. A self-appointed curator of the caves, Wang Yuanlu, discovered the small cave inside number 16 behind a false wall of fresco containg many thousands of ancient manuscrips in many languages, including some ancient unknown Central Asia languages such as Khotanese. Inside lay editions of classic Buddist texts by the most famous caligraphers and the oldest printed book known, The Diamond Sutra. The Europeans gained Wang’s trust and bought thousands of them for miniscule sums before China slammed the door shut.

Bible in Syriac

Bible in Syriac

I had great interest in the site after reading the aforementioned book. It’s one of the highlights of the Northern Silk Road. The site is well maintained and has a nice International Research Project Building where 8 caves have been nicely reproduced (though half were closed) in addition to many relics. I found it extremely interesting but had a few reservations.

Cave Reproductions

Cave Reproductions

The price is extremely high (highest I have paid for any entrance), having been increased from 100 RMB in the last year. For that price, I wanted to see more caves and have a better tour guide. She was knowlegable enough, but spoke hurried, making it a bit hard to understand, and moved me right along. It was only her and I, and I don’t think I saw as many caves as a larger group though I had great interest in the site. I did not come away disappointed, though I overheard other foreigners express as much later on.

More information about the caves can be found at the International Dunhuang Project.

The caves are located about 28 km from the city of Dunhuang. Halfway in between them is the train station. I found a sleeper available that evening for Urumqi, so just made a day of the caves and moved on.

Both the train ticket and admission were higher than expected, leaving me short of money before I could get to a bank to change more (plus it was Sunday).

Luckily, I met perhaps the nicest people of my stay in China; a couple from Urumqi visiting for the weekend. I arrived with 3 hours to kill at the station and found them camped by a foodstall passing time. None of us spoke the other’s language, but we got on well. They ushured me up to some hidden room with beds to chill out before the train, and gave me tangerines, bananas, water, and bought me a bowl of delicious noodles and a beer. Amazing, considering I didn’t have enough money to properly eat.

I checked their seat assignment (we had the same train) and found them later with a meeger offering of a couple of beers. They further supplied me with more fruit and snacks of spicy chicken toes and some kind of spicy hardboiled bird egg (yes, Chinese foods are crazy).

By the time I reached a bank in Urumqi, I had 4.3 RMB left (~US.50), so it worked out perfectly!

On the Silk Road

Travels

On now out of Mongolia and back across the Chinese border. Spent a night in Hohhot and had a gander at the Indian influenced five-tired Wuta Pagoda, home to the only Mongolian star chart ever found.

Wuta Pagoda

Wuta Pagoda

Via Lanzhou I took a couple days to explore Xiahe, a Tibetan town home to the leading monastery outside of Lhasa and home to over 1200 monks. The Labrang Monastery is one of the “big 6” of the Gelugpa “Yellow Hat” sect of Buddhism.

Xiahe

Xiahe

Unbeknownst to me, this town has been off limits for foreigners until recently because of protests that took place in March and I had to be among the first to visit. China severly limited access to Tibetan areas in the buildup to the Olypmics much to my dismay.

I walked the 3 km kora (pilgrim route) around the monastery and peeked in on chanting and meditation sessions. Prostrating brightly dressed pilgrims were abundant walking the route and spinning prayer wheels.

One of the workers at my hostel took me to meet his friends at the local watering hole. Interesting evening of singing, dancing, and what converstation we could manage. The Tibetans proceded to tell me how badly China is treating them, pantoming hitting each on the head and cocking guns.

The next series of bus rides was long and uncomfortable but scenic. One leg I shared a seat next to a rather wide monk and I think we were the biggest on the cramped bus. I had time to step off at Zhangye, where Marco Polo stayed a year to write, and see the world’s largest reclining Buddha at 35 meters long:

I arrived finally to Jiayuguan (at the recommendation from some Chinese on the train out of Ulaanbaatar). This city is a major destination on the Silk Road and the start of what I’ll consider my Silk Road leg.

The Silk Road is more accuratley the Silk Routes and were “important paths for cultural and technological transmission by linking traders, merchants, pilgrims, monks, soldiers, nomads and urban dwellers from China to the Mediterranean Sea for thousands of years.” The routes stretched from Turkey to the then Chinese capital in present day Xi’an. My route will take the branch down through Pakistan to India.

The fort here is effectively the western most stronghold of the Chinese Silk Road and guards a pass between the snow-capped Qilian Shan mountains and the Hei Shan “Black Mountians.” Its the start of the Great Wall in the west and also known as the “First and Greatest Pass Under Heaven.” It was built in 1372 Ming Dynasty.

Jiayuguan Fort

Jiayuguan Fort

Marco Polo traveled this way and described this outpost. Quite excited for this leg since I have an interest in the history here. Its easy to feel as if you are a traveler of old. With that I’ll leave you with this gem:

\"Thou shalt not pass\"

Thou shalt not pass

Goodbye, Mongolia
Goodbye, Mongolia

The second half of my time in Mongolia has proceeded much like the first: lounging around the ger camp, reading, helping when I can, and riding horses.

Traditional Mongolian Deel

Traditional Mongolian Deel

I went on a 3 day horse and camping trek with some Australian girls. The first night we spent camping in a national park with a destroyed and rebuilt monastery, then camped of the open steppe. Great weather and a nice chance to get the horses moving.

Cooking on the Steppe

Cooking on the Steppe

You say, “Chuu, Chuu!” to get horses moving in Mongolia. Mine seemed hard to motivate until I adopted a strap to whack his hindquarters with. Walk to gallop in no time.

Back in UB, I’ve had a few slow days, but did head out to the Gandantegchinlen Khiid Monestary, better known as Gandan Monastery. They boast an impressive 27 meter tall statue of Migjed Janraisig, the Buddha of compassion.

Gandan Monastery

Gandan Monastery

Migjid Janraisig

Migjid Janraisig

I was unable to find any groups going to the Gobi Desert that I could join for cheap. Surprisingly, tourism in Mongolia is not cheap. With the general lack of infostructure, trains and long distance buses are not existent. Instead, you can fly (expensive), public mini-bus (slow, bumpy, and completely cram packed), or hire private vans/jeeps with up to seven others. The latter can range from US$25/day to upwards of $90, with most end up paying $40 – 50. Tourist season is tailing off, so I decided to save some money and continue back to China for continuation along the Silk Road.

I really think there are lots of business opportunities in Mongolia, including tour companies and restaurant establishments. There is little to no hiking or biking, and the rest exist in such small number they can charge exorbitant amounts.

For food, in UB there is hardly any vegetarian options, and, get this, no American fast food chains. Apparently McDonald’s has chosen not to pursue business here, which I think is utterly wrong from an economic perspective (morally??). Fast food here consists of establishments such as Berlin Burger and Hanburger (sic), plus a popular Mongolia food one that I can’t pronounce. The Western places’ food sits in hotplates behind glass and is additionally reheated upon order. Good as it sounds. Not sure I would want to be that guy, but whoever opens a McD’s in UB will be rich.

A few further observations:

Attractive Mongolian girls represent some kind of Central Asian supermodels. They are very fashion aware, very Westernized, and very nice to look at.

Customer service is perhaps the worst and most inattentive for any one country I’ve been to. While nomadic families are some of the warmest and friendliest, city Mongolians don’t give a f*ck. Faces are impassive and sour. Tasks are completed slowly, during which all other communication is severed. Often people completely ignore questions and even your presence. This extends to markets, such as the famous Naran Tul or Black Market. In China, bargaining starts at 300-500% of the settled price. Mongolians will have none of it and I never got anyone to come down more than US$1.50. Market stall’s owners mostly sit around and wait for you to initiate conversation, and cut it off if bargaining continues. The answer to most questions is “no” and they have already turned away from you in answering, leaving you staring at the back of a head. Unfortunately, the friendliest places are foreign owned, and while I usually like to shop locally, I don’t feel too bad frequenting them.

It’s been exactly one month here in Mongolia. I feel there is much still to see in this amazing place and I haven’t covered the countryside like I usually do. But it’s financially smarter to move on, and someday when I complete the Trans-Siberian Railway I can fill in the gaps.

“Steppe” Into Mongolia

Chinggis Khaan

Chinggis Khaan

Oh, I’m hilarious… The Mongolia steppe (pronounced ‘step’) is the grassland plains that dominate the scenery. Slightly surreal, my train departed Beijing and passed by pieces of the Great Wall and Gobi desert before completing the 32 odd hour ride to Mongolia’s capital Ulaanbaatar (UB for short), which means “Red Hero.” Yes, the Soviet influence is unmistakable; Cyrillic script, statues of Lenin, colorful and blocky buildings, and all the vodka.

View From the Train

View From the Train

Train Berth

Train Berth

Sunset From Train

Sunset From Train

Upon arrival, I began the hoof to Sukhbaatar Squre where I met Mendee, owner of Steppe Riders, taking in the scenery along the way. Ulaanbataar is dusty and under construction. Dirt piles and dilapidated sidewalks make walking a day activity. Near the square is a huge parasail shaped building that I am told is creeeeeping along in construction.

The square itself is impressive with a huge statue (above) of Genghis Khan, known here as Chinngis Khaan. I believe it was Marco Polo who popularized the spelling as we know today in the west. Genghis is revered here to a high degree, unlike the villainy he is associated with in the West. And its understandable because this ruler of the largest ever kingdom introduced currency, written language, stabilized the Silk Road, and generally used the brightest minds of his conquered lands in their strengths. I’ll point to Jack Weatherford’s fascinating Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World for more info (the author is actually in UB right now and gave a talk that I missed out on since I didn’t know until several days after!).

Sukhbaatar Square

Sukhbaatar Square

Mendee is the owner, along with his family and brothers, of the aforementioned Steppe Riders, a horse trekking company I have the fortune of helping as an assistant for a few weeks. After about a 30 minute drive into the steppe, I found myself settling in to a ger, the traditional nomadic home perhaps better known by the Russian yurt.

Mendee Tovuujav (center) & his Brothers

Mendee Tovuujav (center) & his Brothers

Steppe Rider\'s Base Camp

Steppe Rider's Base Camp

Mongolian Ger

Mongolian Ger

Inside of my Ger

Inside of my Ger

The gers are fantastic. In fact, I’m going to have to get one when I have a suitable place for it. They go up in about an hour and come down in half that time. These five wall versions hold four beds and a wood heater. They also have a cooking ger and communal eating one.

Other than that, I’n in UB for a few days to arrange another Chinese visa. Should be possible now, provided all the hassle of correct paperwork is there. During my stay at a guesthouse here a thief as struck via an unlocked door and I lost two small bags. Nothing really of value, so I can’t complain considering a German girl lost her passport, camera, and some money.

My toiletries bag was snatched, which just ticks me off since it is comprised of various items from the last two year’s travels; rehydration salts from Nepal, sunscreen from Vietnam, nail clippers from India, plus my first air kit and other items. The other bag had some books and sadly my moleskin journal. 🙁

Hiking the Great Wall

Perhaps the highlight of Beijing was the 10.5 km Great Wall hike from Jinsaling to Simitai. This was probably the most expensive thing I’ve done as no public transport goes there and I had to hire a car, plus entrance fees at each place. Still, the views and scenery were breathtaking. I happened to visit the day of the Great Wall Marathon, with lots of runners sweating back and forth between two points on the wall. Took a rest along the way and broke in a new sketchbook.

And now gratuitous Great Wall pics:

The Geat Wall

The Geat Wall

Picked up my train tickets to Mongolia and leave tomorrow!

Beijing Post-Olympics

With hard sleepers sold out, I opted for the hard seat from Xi’an overnight to Beijing. Wanted to try the comfort of traveling this way to maybe save some cash. The train is the one that runs back and forth from Lhasa to Beijing, so I found many Tibetans piled in my cheapest berth area. The ride was ok, though they leave the nights on all night. I threw my coat and towel down in the aisle and managed a few hours sleep.

Packed Xi\'an Train Station

Packed Xi'an Train Station

Beijing is nice, clean, and easy to get around in. The Para-Olympics are going on and there are info booths everywhere to ask directions. Flowers and newly painted buildings add to the very relaxed attitudes of the Beijing-ites. Where most larger cities I’ve found to be a swarming bustle with people yelling about who knows what, the locals here slowly walk their little dogs or sit outside playing Chinese Chess.

Paraolympics

Paraolympics

Tian’anmen Square and the Forbidden City are amazing. The Tian’anmen Gate, or Gate of Heavenly Peace, sports the famous public portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong and serves as the front entrance to the Forbidden City.

The Forbidden City was built from 1406 to 1420 and served as the seat of ruling dynasties. Today, the World Heritage Site is home to the Palace Museum.

Chairman Mao on Forbidden City Gate

Chairman Mao on Tian'anmen Gate

Imperial Palace in Forbidden City

Hall of Supreme Harmony in Forbidden City

Gilded Lion

Gilded Lion

Don’t forget the Temple of Heaven.

Temple of Heaven

Temple of Heaven

Detail

Detail

Communist leaders seem to like to preserve themselves for display after their death (or their followers do despite their wishes) and Chairman Mao is no exception. But just like in Hanoi, I was thwarted with short open hours and missed my chance, but I did get a nice red alarm clock with the Chairman waving his hand as the seconds click away.

I was able to couch surf a few days with a great host originally from Spain. Very nice flat and he and his friends are into just the kind of work I’d like to do with artistic projects using new media.

Hiking the Great Wall tomorrow!

Drunk Russian High Jump

Source

Terracotta Warriors

Overnight train to Xi’an where an acquaintance, Frank, was waiting with my name on a piece of paper. He’s a very cool guy and ran a large tourism operation during the Olympics composed of college students. Really exceptional host and person. This is his hometown and he welcomed me to his flat, took me to some great local food, and set me up today to venture to the terracotta warriors.

The warriors are arranged in three pits, the largest with 6,000 figures and horses in various stages of restoration. This area is the cradle of Chinese civilization and the county probably gets its name from one of the ruling dynasties here, of which 11 are said to have been based including the first emperor of unified China whom left the warriors as a testament. I’m having one sent home to guard the yard from gnomes.

Terracotta Warriors

Terracotta Warriors

The crowds are overwhelming sometimes. Here’s the train station leaving Xi’an:

Also spotted in Xi’an:

First Noodle Under the Sun

First Noodle Under the Sun

To Beijing!

Chengdu Panda Reserve

Starting to run out of time…. So from Lijiang it was 24 lovely hours on a sleeper bus to Chengdu. Actually not that bad, of course surrounded by cute girls hocking spit into bags, little girls throwing up in the aisle and watching people walk through in socks, and China’s favorite past time of spitting anything with seeds in it.

In Chengdu I had just enough time to make it to the world famous Panda reserve. Saw lots of pandas gnawing on bamboo, an array of baby’s from very young on up (including some twins), and my favorites the red pandas. For different prices you can hold and touch different ages of pandas, though I abstained. Very cool place.

Panda Reserve in Chengdu

Panda Reserve in Chengdu

Red Panda, But Not a Communist

Red Panda, But Not a Communist

Lijiang, China

Lijiang

Lijiang

I had to spend a night in Lijiang, my birthday evening, and tried to find a decent place to have a couple of drinks. I found the nightlife contained to a picturesque strip straddling a small canal. The only venues were these strange Chinese pseudo-discos blaring very loud techno style music with people dressed traditionally singing and dancing. The revelers were in large groups with nary a foreigner to be found (not that that’s important, but still the chances of any English were slim). I didn’t feel up to such nonsense, just wanted a few beers somewhere nice, so went home disappointed. Oh well, better nights ahead I’m sure!

Tiger Leaping Gorge

I had to scurry to Tiger Leaping Gorge to do an overnight hike staying in a hostel half way. Extremely nice views on par with some of Nepal I saw, and the weather mostly cooperated this time stopping as I began and starting right before my night stop. I finished the hike on my birthday which was pleasant.

I kept seeing signs for some mysterious “half-way” location. Every local I passed, when troubled, would point up the trail and say, “half-way.” What or where in God’s name is this? Several guesthouses incorporate the words and innumerable signs letter the trails. I think its some kind of scheme to keep you moving.

Tiger Leaping Gorge

Tiger Leaping Gorge

Half-way to...?

Half-way to...?

Finding Shangri-la

The north of Yunnan is host to an interesting mix of ethnic Chinese groups, most famously the Naxi (who were featured in a textbook I taught from in Japan) and Tibetans.

The city Zhongdian changed its name to Shangri-la after similarities to Jame Hilton’s famous book Lost Horizon, which put the word into popular meaning ‘utopia.’ I really had a good time and stayed longer, mostly due to an awesome couchsurf host. She took me all around old town where she lived and on a nice hike in around a mountain and through some yak fields.

Shangri-la

Shangri-la

The city is famous for its 400 year old or so Tibetan monastery with about 600 monks. You see them all over, talking on cell phones and chatting. The monastery was incredible with several very large Buddha statues and all the color one would expect.

Monestary at Shangri-la

Monestary at Shangri-la

Painting of Monestary Grounds

Painting of Monestary Grounds

I think I’ve enjoyed this place the most. You know its interesting when walking along, someone says, “This road goes to Lhasa.” Perhaps if I can return after Mongolia, Tibet will be more feasible and affordable by then?

Additionally, I found an awesome restaurant that served proper yak steaks, as opposed to the one I had in Nepal.

Yak Steak!

Yak Steak!

Yunnan Province

From Guilin it was an overnight train to Kunming in the Yunnan Province. Yunnan borders Tibet and the mountains begin to rise.

I came right to Dali and stayed two nights in the old town. There is a large lake here with villages and towns scattered everywhere. I rented a bike and cruised the streets of many of them and the farm plots in between. Much cooler and more comfortable weather here. Will be heading north to check the Tibet border areas out.

Yangshuo!

Yangshuo really does live up to the hype. Granite spires arise from otherwise flat rice fields and rivers in one the most spectacular environments I’ve visited.

Yangshuo

Yangshuo

I’m couchsurfing at an English school, so at night I spend 2 hours in an open conversation session with some Chinese students. Their English is really good and it allows me to have all my questions answered about the place.

The markets are packed with cool stuff, but I’m holding off on buying anything though I do need a new pair of shoes.

Today I rented a bike for 10 RMB (~$1.30) and rode out 8km to the Dragon Bridge. Not spectacular, but I did go swimming and jumped off the top into the river. Then biked a really great trail back towards Yangshuo that followed the river.

Dragon Bridge

Dragon Bridge

My front tire popped and I thought I was in trouble, but luckily I was right near a village and found a guy who patched me up and took out two thorns from the tire. Only charged me 20 RMB but I gave an extra 10 since he really could have gouged me if he wanted to. I was tempted to take the river cruise but stuck to my bike.

Fixing the Bike

Fixing the Bike

I found one school who will let me teach for a month, free visa, food, and room and board plus 4000 RMB. Tempting to stay for a month….

Huangshan

A night spent in Hangzhou introduced me to a rather popular Chinese drinking game. Popularly played with a local beer called Snow, you have a cup with 5 – 8 dice in it. You roll yours, not letting the opponent(s) see, and lay claim to how many of one number you have. I can say I have four 3’s, and you must go higher, ie any number of 4’s or more than four 3’s. If you think someone is bluffing, call them on it. When counting, everyone’s dice are fair game plus a 1 can be any number. The loser drinks a smallish glass of beer… which add up fast. The Chinese can really put them down with this game… though the beer is extremely light and only about 3%. I didn’t get much done the next day.

From there I stationed up at Tangkou to climb the fabled Huangshan. LP recommends visiting Mr. Cheng (Simon) for info and on my way there I was approached by non-other than Mr. Cheng himself on a bridge with a spectacular British accent. He sorted everything out for me including the next stage’s train ticket and gave me lift on his motorcycle to the bus. Really nice guy.

Tangkou

Tangkou

The mountain itself was one of those experiences better held in memory than the doing. Huangshan is generally held to be one of the top 10 thing to do. About 40 minutes into the ascent the rain started, not terrible and stopping as I got the to the top areas. This meant clouds obscured some amazing views. The it really started to pour. Most took to cable car up and it was literally a Chinese fire drill with people running everywhere to hide or get down.

Huangshan

Huangshan

Climbing in the Rain

Climbing in the Rain

I found a cafe (there are several hotels on the top) and waited the better part of 2.5 hours for it to die down with some hot ramen. I traversed western steps in a fast 1 hour dodging the crippled, hobbling, limping, oldsters, youngsters, road hogs, chatterers, and those going down backwards while holding a friend.

And I was soaked. Umbrella torn to shreds, but I savaged a yellow trash bag parka.

Upon return to Tangkou, I had just enough time to air my feet before grabbing a local bus and then hardsleeper train to a craphole of construction called Yingtan. The hardsleeper is open compartments of 6 beds with open windows and fan. Interesting to say the least and I almost missed my jump off at about 4 am. Still wet, I could only get a more expensive soft sleeper ticket (after being told to screw of I’m assuming and rescued by an English speaker) and proceeded to haggle for a hotel room to shower and finally change clothes since the next train is 5 pm.

Hardsleeper Berth

Hardsleeper Berth

I hope to spend a few days in Guilin and especially Yangshou before getting a sleeper to Kunming. I’m just glad my shoes are dry.