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The Old Silk Road

Nimen Hao!

The next leg of our journey is a 15 day Intrepid Tour from Beijing to Kashgar, following the Silk Road; one of the world’s most ancient trade routes.

We are the only two to make the meet-and-greet with Peter, our tour leader.

This will be our 4th (my 5th) Intrepid Tour so, we are pretty familiar with the intro programme.

It’s going to be an intimate group of 5 Australians; Pia and Andrew are arriving later tonight and James, who will be meeting us in Xian.

The trip begins with a 12-hour overnight sleeper train. Train travel in China may not be entirely luxurious, but it’s certainly one of the best ways to come face to face with the country and its people.

Compartments are open-plan, clean (well that’s what the brochure said), with padded three-tiered berths (6 to a compartment). Sheets, pillows and a blanket are provided.

Peter assures us that the sheets are clean because the train starts here.  I don’t want to think about what that means when you board a train mid journey…

I can probably ignore the sheets, I’ll be sleeping fully clothed, but I am glad we purchased pillowcases.

The term ‘Sleeper’ carriage proves somewhat debatable. As we slowly roll out of Beijing our carriage is full and animated with chatter, card games and music – that continues throughout the night.

I’m not taking any chances ensuring a good night’s sleep and pop a Valium (staple travel drug), which assures me of a few hours’ reasonable shuteye.

Onboard there is boiling water, in the morning Don pulls out the plunger and we start the day with coffee, we also had the foresight to bring milk with us from Beijing.

Basic bathroom facilities are situated at the end of each carriage, by basic I mean squat toilets that open onto the tracks. If this was an ensuite situation I probably wouldn’t be too fazed. It’s the 59 other people I’m sharing with (aside from my husband), who may not have the same hygiene standards, which disturbs me!

I figure I’ve got three options:
1) limit fluid intake before and during the trip to avoid using the toilets at all,
2) use toilets early in the trip (whilst they remain in reasonable condition) or,
3) take lots of disinfectant wipes, hold my breath, roll my pants up and close my eyes!

On this particular trip, I opt for option 1 (which remains my preferred strategy). Throughout the tour, we take 5 overnight train trips and I put all three strategies to the test; my advice is to avoid option three wheresoever possible!

Xi’an

Early morning we arrive in Xi’an, the imperial centre of China for over 2,000 years and the oldest of the four great ancient capitals.

Today Xi’an is a vibrant modern city with a population of 9 million. Considered a mid-sized city by China’s standards.

Xi’an marks the beginning of the Silk Road.  However, it is probably better known as home to the Warriors of the Emperor Qin Shi Huang, who were immortalised in terracotta.

After dropping our luggage at the hotel, we have a western style breakfast of eggs, toast and coffee (the last we see for a while), before embarking on a 2-hour commute to visit the terracotta warriors.

Discovered in 1976, it is a remarkable piece of history; over 8,000 soldiers, horses and chariots stand in battle formation protecting the emperor in his afterlife.

Every figurine has unique facial features, its own expression and hairdo. It is spectacular and one of the highlights of our time in China.

I’ll defer to the experts and recommend anyone interested to pursue further reading from more qualified sources, such as the National Geographic: Emperor Quin’s Terra Cotta Army

Dinner that night is a banquet of dumplings and Tsingtao (local beer). Xi’an is a city we could certainly have spent more time exploring.

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Tianshui

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The ‘Lounge’

Day three is a leisurely daytime train trip to Tianshui, the 4-hour journey is a relatively short commute in the scheme of things.

Peter, our tour leader is a little overzealous about being at the train station well ahead of departure – I’m talking 2 plus hours! And it’s not like there is a ‘club lounge’ to hang out in.

Over the coming days we convince him to relax a little on departure times. It’s much easier and quicker herding 5 people than the usual group size of 16.

Tianshui is situated on the Wei River, renowned for its culture and history dating back over 2000 years.

Buddhism was introduced in China back in the mid-5th century and about 45 km from the city, the surrounding Majishan Mountain are the site of a major Buddhist temple.

The mountains rise up abruptly 142 meters from the landscape. The people named the mountain ‘Maiji’ because it resembles a stack of wheat straw (mai meaning wheat, and ji meaning stack).

The sheer cliff faces hold over 194 Buddhist caves and niches, contain more than 7,200 clay statues and over 1,300 square meters of murals. Works of art from ancient craftsmanship, dedication to the Buddhist ideal.

Tianshui for me marks the beginning of most of our meal being heavily seasoned chilli. I don’t love chilli!

With a population of 3.5 million, this is a relatively small city. After visiting the caves, we have plenty of spare time, unfortunately, there isn’t much else to see or do with that spare time!

As a westerner, particularly a blond(ish) one, we often found ourselves the centre of attention.

Without warning you’d find someone siding up to you and thrusting a selfie stick out in front to snap a pic! The more polite Chinese ask as they took the photo, most just sneak-on-up, take it, giggled,and run away.

On the main street of Tianshui there is a bar with outside pool tables. We decide to have a game and before long there is a crowd of locals watching us.

By 11pm, it’s all aboard for another sleeper train to Zhangye. I’m in the lower bunk and a young mum with an 8-month-old baby is in the bunk opposite me.

I learn that nappies are a luxury and not considered a necessity in China.  In the early hours of the morning, I also learn why baby pants come with a split up the middle and how they learn to squat from an early age.

Squatting anywhere you please seems to be acceptable, even on the floor of the train carriage!

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Zhangye

The train arrives into Zhangye in the early hours and check into our ‘Guesthouse’.

I am not sure why they insist on calling the accommodation ‘Guesthouses’, they are grotty and derelict hotels. The foyer might look reasonable but, that’s just to lull you into a false sense of comfort.

We’ve been given the ‘honeymoon’ suit, with mood lighting and a round bed! I’m not sure it qualifies as a bed because the mattress is so hard, we could play table-tennis on it.

Today’s adventure is a visit to Zhangye Danxia Landform Geological Park.

Of course, it’s another UNESCO World Heritage site – one day I’m going to count up how many world heritage sites we’ve managed to visit!

The landscape is a striking contrast to its surrounds; a tumultuous layer cake with folded waves of reds and yellows sharply contrasting against the greens and greys of the plains.

The land formation is the result of sandstone and mineral deposits being layered over 24 million years.

There are viewing platforms dotted around various locations within the national park. We are shuttled around on buses from one spot to another. The whole exercise taking several hours.

The town of Zhangye does not offer much, dinner is mediocre – more dishes laden with chilli – this is certainly good for some much-needed weight loss.

We had such a bad night’s sleep on our rock-hard round bed, that I’m actually looking forward to the train bunk bed for the overnight journey to Turpan.

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Turpan

Once an important staging post on the Silk Road, Turpan is an attractive oasis town famous for its vineyards, stone fruits, melons and the nearby Flaming Mountains.

The country roads on the outskirts are lined with poplars and lovely old mud brick dwellings of the Uyghur people, while the modern ‘inner’ town has shiny new buildings, spacious streets and public squares.

We visit the ruined city of Jiaohe, the Bezeklik Buddhist caves and the ancient Karez underground irrigation system, which still provides water for the agricultural needs of the area.

We also visit the old Uyghur village of Tuyoq where the grape trellises draped around the city provide welcome shade in the summer months – temperatures can easily reach 45°C here!

We check out the Emin Mosque with its monumental minaret, the tallest in China and the Astana Cemetery which dates back to the 4th century.

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Security

The standard of hotels has consistently declined as we’ve travelled further west.

In Turpan we have no hot water, air-con that doesn’t work and disinterested staff who just don’t care.

It’s certainly been an interesting experience, but I’m glad the end is in reach.  Our final train journey is a short, 2-hour ride to Kashgar.

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Kashgar

Kashgar is very much a frontier town, from here roads lead into Pakistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and beyond.

There are few signs that you are still in China – other than this is home to the country’s largest Chairman Mao statue.

This once ancient city is quickly modernising. In 2011, the Chinese government started rapid demolishing of the Old Town of Kashgar.

The official word it that it was due to the old city being overcrowded, with poor drainage and vulnerable to earthquakes.

The unofficial story: this was as an excuse to tighten security measures and limit religious practices of the Uyghurs, who are mostly Sunni Muslim. The Uighur families were relocated to newly built apartment blocks.

The town’s main landmark is the Id Kah Mosque and its surrounding square, from which dusty old lanes lead off, crammed full of shops, food stalls and Uyghur locals living a lifestyle virtually unchanged for a hundred years.

Kashgar has been an epicentre for trade for more than two millennia.  The main attraction is the Sunday Bazaar. The modernised version of this centuries old market is divided into two sections – the Downtown Bazaar, which sells clothing, household goods, produce and everything else you could imagine, and the Animal Bazaar just outside the city.

The Animal Bazaar is hustle and bustle, where the local herdsmen and farmers are trading and bartering for sheep, goats and cows.  It’s not for the vegetarians or faint hearted with freshly butchered animals on display.

And here ends our journey through China. The tour has been interesting and certainly an eye opening experience.  It was not the picturesque journey down cobbled streets and ancient chinese architecture that I expected. Nonetheless is was a great experience and insight into Chinese culture and the rapid development going on in this part of the world.

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