Spinniní Silk

Part II: Dunhuang and Urumqi, China

(following Part I: Hong Kong and China)

by Christopher Moore and Biko Tabor

Saturday, April 17, 1999

Biko: At 4:45 the a hotel clerk called and woke us up from our wonderful eternal (I wish) sleep. We did our morning routine and drove through the city of Xian to the airport. Aging street sweepers, in their 70s, dragged themselves around town and swept the dirty streets at that early hour. Unjust? Not in the least. Communism. At the airport we chugged a diet coke and squared off to face the day head on.

When our flight boarded we were all surprised to find ourselves bypassing the commercial jet and going onto the tarmac and walking to our small jet plane. Halfway there we had to wait for a commercial jet to pass before we could continue walking to our waiting plane. For ten min. we waited, the jet firing up its engines and getting ready for take off. After all that waiting wouldnít you know, it turned the other way. Our flight to Dunhuang was uneventful and we were met in the baggage claim area by our new guide, Miao, who took us to our hotel.

Our next stop was to the Gobi desert. Yes, the sand dunes of the Gobi desert to take a ride on the local transportation. Camels. These hairy humped creatures proved a pleasure to ride through the shifting sand. We wound our way through the dunes to a place where you could slide down the dune on bamboo sleds. Chris and I dismounted and climbed the 150 meters to the top and let it rip.

Besides getting enough sand in my eye to recoat the Sahara, it was amazing fun. We continued on riding our humped friends until we reached a small lake where Chris and I paid a local, 20 yuan to play a good old and boy do I mean old, game of archery. It went well, I used the longbow, and Chris used a combination of crossbow and longbow. Keep in mind we are in the middle of the Gobi desert, riding camels and dueling it out with a medieval archery contest.

Chris: The excursion into the Gobi desert on camel back was spectacular but, we had bigger fish to fry. Shopping! In case you are new to this web page the Erickson family is internationally known for their expert bargaining skills. It seems that our good friend Biko might be learning a thing or two along this road.

After a quick obligatory, very Chinese (chicken stomach and all) meal we were off into the night for the perfect find. When we hit the famed nocturnal market we were a bit disappointed at the number of vendors we found. But as we forged ahead deeper and deeper into the unknown we found our perfect style of screaming and pulling. The market is mostly made up of people from Tibet, so as you can imagine the prayer wheel is present on every table. Each item we put our eye on the merchant quickly picked a price out of his head and challenged us to a calculator duel. With our exceptional team of expert bargainers the eager merchants had no clue as to what they were in for. One thing I have noticed about the Chinese people, is that they enjoy this bargaining dance very much and encourage you to put your best foot forward. Never ones to refuse a challenge we took on the very best that Dunhuang had to offer. In our minds we came out victorious and headed back to our hotel to rest our weary bones and let our tired souls rejuvenate from one great day on the silk road.

Sunday, April 18, 1999

Biko: This morning we visited the famed Buddhist caves of Dunhaung. These caves, almost 500 in all, dating back 1500 years or more, were made by monks from India and China. The caves are filled with amazing frescoes and sculptures representing the Buddhaís past, present and future self. Our cave guide Lucy, was very knowledgeable about all aspects of the caves and was able to provide mounds of useful information to us. Unfortunately many of the caves were the Muslim people and then at a later date the Russians, who used these caves as shelter during the early part of this century. Still the caves were very beautiful and well preserved, a definite plus. After visiting five of the five hundred caves we headed back for lunch.

Chris: Well, hello again. I am here to tell you about our afternoon visit back to the caves. Iíll start with lunch which consisted of spring rolls, and potato chips at least thatís what I had, I have a feeling mom probably wishes thatís all she had too. By the second cave of the afternoon we had already lost mom to a comfy stone in the shade where we left her sitting, feeling the wrath of some unidentified morsel that she must have consumed earlier in the day. We went on our way to take a peek in one of the 500 Magao caves which contained the 2nd tallest indoor Buddha in the world. It stands 34 meters tall and is truly spectacular. Gathering up mom, we started walking back to the bus. Let me say that mom didnít look her finest. All of a sudden we heard her tell no one in particular that she was going to be sick. Nue, our guide quickly pointed her in the direction of the nearest corner bush and we spread like wildfire not wanting to witness what was about to take place. Well, enough of that gory little detail and on to the good stuff. We arrived back at the hotel and tucked mom into bed and Lisa, Biko, and I hit the streets for one last bargaining spree. We came home, bags full of good stuff, and hit the sack.

Monday, April 19, 1999

Biko: At breakfast our table seemed sadly empty. Only Alf, Chris and myself managed to make it to the table. After soggy eggs and a couple of bites of something I could swear was not from this planet, we loaded up Annie all and headed to the Yangguan pass 75 kilometers southwest of Dunhuang. Endurance was strained as anticipation hung heavily in the air like Christmas ornaments on a dead tree in February. Finally the ruins of the 1800+ year old watchtower materialized out of a heat haze atop a rounded hill to our left. We passed through a small village on our ascent to the ancient outpost.

As our motorized carriage chugged up to the gates, we observed some of the local women riding ponies around the dusty desert. True to our premonition as soon as our eager feet hit the sand we were approached by the women on horseback and not asked once but probably 100 times if we would like to ride their trusty steeds for a small fee. We graciously declined and went off to explore the watch tower and area around it. All I have to say is that these women are persistent. They insisted that riding around the ruins would be much better than walking. There was no shaking these women, we just had to accept them as part of the scenery and onward we went with our exploration of this great place. Knowing we had a night of train travel ahead, we made our way back to the hotel for a quick lunch and to pack for our journey.

Chris: So long Dunhuang, Hello train station! This afternoon we depart Dunhuang for a two hour bus ride through the desert to the train station where we catch an overnight locomotive headed for Turpan. On the way our guide Nue, picked up some fire crackers so we made a pit stop to light up the desert with our pyro-technical skills. Riding into the small desert oasis town where the train station is located, we were held up at a crossing by a train carrying mass amounts of asbestos. Maybe those little white masks that all the local people seem to be wearing really do have a purpose.

Biko and I were really lucky and managed to have a sleeper compartment all to ourselves. Our compartment came with our very own fan and four little beds. As we were the only Americans aboard this train we became quite the attraction. Lot of inquisitive people poking their heads into our compartments just to have a look at us. It turns out that in this remote part of China mostly Japanese and Chinese tourist come to this area and not so many westerners.

The Chinese trains are quite comfortable for those who can afford to have a sleeper car or for those who can have a seat in a seater car, but for those traveling in the first come first serve cars itís a very cramped uncomfortable ride. People hanging out of every window just to breath some fresh air, standing for hours and hours with no room to sit, I canít even imagine what the bathroom facilities would be like.

Speaking of bathroom facilities, the one in our car was really something. Mom figured the only way to tackle this experience was with a mouthful of Altoids and a deep breath. Biko and I settled into our bunks and had a Pokimon Nintendo marathon only to be reminded of where we were by our neighbors in the next compartment as they cleared their nasal passages with some regularity, in other words hawked some damn good loogies. We managed to get a couple hours of shut eye in between being woken up by curious passengers wanting to have a look at the funny kids in compartment 4. We rolled into the station at about 4:30am, just a little over 10 hours after leaving the Liu Yuan train station. What a great ride!

Tuesday, April 20, 1999

Biko: My tranquil state of sleep was shattered by a rickety click of the train and a smile from Annie. Apparently we awoke in the nick of time. We had ten min to get our stuff together and depart this moving dragon. Half asleep and hurriedly packing I left my penguin pajama bottoms wrapped up in the covers of the berth. So as of now I am PJ less. Unloading all our stuff, we were met by our local guide and escorted to our awaiting bus. We checked our bags at the train station in Lui Yuan so we had to wait for it to be unloaded. We waited for what seemed to be a really long time and as we watched the train pull out of the station we feared the worst. A huge sigh of relief was heard throughout the bus as we saw our luggage appear out of the darkness and loaded onto the bus.

Next stop the Turfan Oasis Hotel, we will be calling this home for the next couple of days. Upon arriving we found a fax waiting for us. This fax bore grim tidings, the Kunjerab pass, other wise known as "The roof of the world" and the one and only pass we can go over from China into Pakistan was CLOSED because of a huge snowstorm. There is no way of getting through. Our guide Nue, explained that the people in Beijing at the CITS head office recommend that we be flown to Istanbul. We were a little bit puzzled as to why they would send us to Turkey. Alf said that he had no desire to go to Istanbul and that Nue would have to see if there were other alternatives. Alf informed us that if we couldnít cross over into Pakistan our journey would be cut short and we would be heading back to the US of A.

We headed to our rooms to await the news and catch up on some sleep. We slept fitfully in those early hours, waiting for the latest update. About 9am Nue informed us that there was a flight to Istanbul that could get us over the pass. We all looked at him with puzzled expressions and then asked him if he meant Islamabad?! It turns out that he had mispronounced the word and we could continue on our journey with a little deviation. All rejoice and angels sing, our trip is saved.

After breakfast we drove out to see the Tang dynasty tombs. In the tombs we saw a pair of "air dried" 2000 year old people. The security of such relics was surprisingly nit. A dusty glass box was all that stood between them and some tomb raiders. Next stop, the local Buddhist caves. These were similar to the Dunhuang caves except they were horribly defaced.

Chris: Hi, Yes itís me. Iím going to lead you through lunch and then on to the Ancient city of Gaochang. Lunch definitely deserves a place on this page as a few "new" things crossed our palates today. Alf led the way popping a fish eye in his mouth with Biko, being the adventurous eater that he is, following suit, while I munched on some jellyfish. Not bad for two boys from the west.

After our culinary adventure we headed 47 kilometers southeast of Turpan to the ancient city of Gaochang. Built in the second century BC, long before the Golden Arches or Starbucks ruled the earth, this town became the capital of the kingdom of Gaochang under the Han house of Qu. Howís that for a little history! These ruins resemble something you might see in Bedrock minus Dino. Itís pretty cool roaming these ruins imagining what life must have been like for its inhabitants 2000 years ago.

Wednesday, April 21, 1999

Anon.: Farewell Turpan, hello Urumqi! We're on the "road" again. Through the desert and snow covered mountains we go. What a contrast of scenery. About half way through our drive to Urumqi we came across rows and rows, numbering in the hundreds, of huge high tech windmills. Common in the windy areas of China and Mongolia, these massive fans create enough energy to heat 10 million tea pots a day, or blow dry momís hair once. From the road these things looked really big but we had no idea just how big until we saw a row of about one hundred men dragging a line of some sort at the base of one of the rows of gargantuan propellers. The men looked like little ants all in a row.

During our two and a half hour drive our guide filled us with useful and wonderful information about past and present day Silk Road commerce. Arriving in Urumqi, we headed to lunch and then it was off to explore the city. Unfortunately we had to leave Chris behind in the luxury of the hotel watching CNN and making frequent trips to the ... well, maybe I shouldnít go into details but you get the picture. Annie, Biko, Lisa, Nue and our wonderful local guide made our way to Red mountain, which is really another name for a hilly city park with a pagoda on top. With photos taken we were off to the local market.

On our way to the market we spotted Alf on a crowded street corner in downtown Urumqi with his GPS in hand. The market was bursting with businesses of every kind from carpets to herbs to Mao memorabilia to dried lizards, snakes and frogs to spices to silks to breads to freshly slaughtered lamb, chicken and cow. Annie spent the whole time with her finger on the shutter while Lisa and Biko bargained for Tang trinkets. The best buy of the day, or maybe of the trip: V I Lenin under the Golden Arches hawking the time. Again we found ourselves the center of attention and had quite a following as we exited the bargaining fields.

Thursday, April 22, 1999

Biko: A yert is a type of shelter common among nomad Chinese and Mongolians. After a hotel breakfast we boarded the bus and headed to the foothills to pay a visit to one of these nomad villages. Our drive took us through some very interesting parts of Urumqi, lots of markets and outdoor restaurants lined the streets and were full of people.

A one and a half hour drive brought us to a horse filled encampment with a single Yert in the middle. We were invited inside and served tea and fried noodles (very CITS if you know what I mean). We quickly but graciously guzzled our tea and were off in search of more colorful surroundings.

We had a little excitement on our way back to the bus as our guide dropped her wallet into a fast moving stream. Our driver and I quickly responded and dove to grab it before it disappeared downstream. We both missed it by a hair and in turn gave chase diving at it every chance we got. We finally caught up with it at a small drop off in the stream and rescued the wallet, soggy yaun and all for our very grateful guide.

As we made our way back to Urumqi we stopped at various points along the way so Annie could get her photos. One stop that was of particular interest happened to be a lively farmers market full of people, animals, cars, trucks, donkey carts etc. all trying to weave their way between the food stalls. People were selling all kinds of vegetables and meats, not much fruit though. We were defiantly the stars of the market, all heads were turned as we walked by. We sadly left our fame behind and headed to lunch.

Chris: Alas it is time to bid adieu to this fair city. Down in the lobby at 5:30pm with 7 big pieces, and 10 carry ons, of luggage in tow (lucky for us we are headed back this way so we can ditch some of the load, in other words store it in the hotel, and just carry our backpacks for the next 3 days) we headed to the airport to catch our flight to Kashgar. Just for you history buffs Kashgar was the point at which the northern and southern Silk Routes join back together having split in two to skirt the deadly Taklimakan Desert.

With a quick detour at one of Urumqiís finest, serving up a scrumptious meal of yellowish chunks of fatty lung accompanied by a lovely piquante sauce we were on our way to the airport. With the Domestic terminal waiting area being our goal we, or shall I say our local guide joined the check in line to make sure we had seats on the plane bound for Kashgar. Patiently waiting, we were approached by a very precocious, also pretty short 12 year old Urumpqian, Uygur boy, who kept us fully entertained with some very inventive sign language.

With boarding passes, tickets and airport tax vouchers in hand we said a tearful farewell to our wonderful local guide and proceeded through security to find a nice comfy spot to wait at our gate. I think I forgot to mention that the weather in Urumpqi and vicinity has deteriorated to gray and dreary with wind and rain. Which makes for an interesting walk to our awaiting plane let alone bumpy ride to Kashgar. Judging from the amount of people waiting at the gate it looks like there will be a few empty seats on our plane.

Finally, our plane has been called, having heard over the intercom, at least all we could decipher from the slightly broken English and aged squawk box, that many incoming and out going flights had been canceled. We hesitantly boarded an awaiting bus to carry us through the gusty storm brewing outside to our Russian manufactured enormous flying machine: Tupolov 154. Looks like there were more people in that waiting room than first thought, every seat was taken, filled, occupied. Mom found herself sitting next to a handsome, well dressed man of 30 who if not for the recurring need to hack up colorful gobs of god-knows(nose)-what, would have tried to add him to her wishful list of admirers.

With seats in their upright position we rushed down the runway to be lifted skyward by a benign wind that would soon turn, to stab us back. My fear of pooping in my pants led me in search of the toilet. Thank god for the runs! The back of the plane was awash with empty seats while our section in front was like a well stuffed sardine can.


Having hit the mother lode of airplane acreage, I spread myself over four seats, initially not giving a damn about the comfort of my traveling companions, but being a good guy at heart I eventually shared my good fortune with the others. About the time we should have been picking up our baggage from the carrousel in Kashgar. Crackling static announced in Chinese that due to nasty local weather we would soon again be on the runway in Urumqi. Kashgar blew us off! After a quick scary taxi ride through the falling sleet we were back in the same rooms that we had vacated just hours before.

Next: Pakistan

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