Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Tuesday June 30 - Beijing

Life on the road is a continuous series of events with hardly a breath in between. So, true to form, we were up and off to see the Summer Palace, leaving the hotel around 8 am. The Summer Palace is a huge parkland attachd to a series of palace temples, gardens, pavillions, lakes, bridges, and corridors which were the summer home of the emperors and originally started as an imperial garden in 1750. It's 290 hectares is nestled at the foot of the hills in the nothwest suburbs of Beijing. For a city that has little water, the park provides a pleasant playground. There are pleasure boats and paddle boats crossing the lake which takes up about three quarters of the total area of the park. The lake was deepened and expanded by Emperor Qianlong in the 18th C who organized 100,000 labourers to work on it. The palace has suffered many attacks; the English and French troops damaged it in the Second Opium Wars; and foreign troops again ransacked it during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. It was given a major overhaul in 1949. We walked down the long Corridor on Longevity Hill and visited the various palaces and temples and climbed the many steps up to the magnificent Tower of Buddhist Incense with beautiful views over the lake. We saw the Clear and Peaceful Boat which was first built in 1775 and is cared out of a "shadowy blue stone", marble. From here we took a boat across the lake to Southlake Island and the Dragon King Temple. Then we walked across the Seventeen-Arch Bridge with its balustrades carved with 544 lions, all in different positions. And we walked past more pavillions and the Bronze Ox which is made to keep the water under control. Then we had a completed our circle. We bought an icecream and sat in the shade of a tree facing out on the majestic lake before exiting through the Grand Theatre and the Hall of Benevolence and Longetivity where the courtyard was decorated with bronze animal sculptures, including the mythical "qilin". It was unfortunate many buildings are "barricaded" so you can only "peer in" through the nose-smudged windows like a guilty child trying to get a glimpse of some fairyland through a glass window. We took the Truck back into Beijing and to the Forbidden City. We, along with Will and Aussie John, decided to walk around the City to Tianamen Square and enter the Forbidden City at the south gate. As our time was short, we took a little train-like vehicle around to the Square. Tiananmen Square was a little anti-climatical. Its just one huge square in the true centre of Beijing. The main attraction is Chairman Mao's portrait which stares imploringly down on you with the intent of encouraging everyone who sees it to believe in him....and some still do. In the middle of the square is a tall obelisk which is a memorial to the People's Heroes, and then there are stately buildings such as museums surrounding the square. The whole area is massive, and its all sealed off, and I think closed at night time. In order to access the Square you have to go though a security check including the metal detector and x-ray machine. In the Square Ray and I were asked to have our pictures taken with a group of Chinese then a little girl came up to me and asked if her father could take a picture of her and me. I think we visit the Square again with Sundowners so may have a better description then. Otherwise, it wasn't very busy; but it was a weird feeling to realize where we were. We walked through the large arches leading from Tianamen into the Forbidden City. I don't think there can be another site in the world the size or magnificence of The Forbidden City, the home of the emperors in the Ming and Qing dynasties. It is a truly amazing site. It is designed in the traditional Chinese style and is named because it was "off limits" to the common people for over 500 years. The huge area contains highly ornamental halls, or palaces facing north/south with courtyards and gardens in between. The west and east side buildings are living quarters, including libraries, temples, theatres and gardens, but these are now mainly exhibitions of various Chinese cutural or historical treasures. Some of the main halls are barricaded but you can peer in to see period furniture and other ornaments. It is all spectacular. Unfortunately, by the end of it all, we were suffering badly from information overload. You definitely can't do it all at one time to do it justice. Depending on your interest in Chinese history, several short visits are definitely best. But it is truly a magnificent feat that must cost a ton to maintain. As we walked around we tried to imagine the staff the emperor must have had to keep it in working order, thousands, I would think. I said previously that overland trips are constant motion. We caught a taxi back from the Forbidden City to the hotel, showered and refreshed quickly, and met everyone in the lobby of the hotel for our departure dinner. We walked to a Korean restaurant and had delicious barbecued meat, Korean style, with some rather sparse vegetables all of which we cooked ourselves on a small barbequeue in the centre of our table. Fun! Then Ray and I came back to the hotel, but I gather the group went to some rather expensive spots and ended up back at the hotel sitting on the steps outside of the lobby drinking beer. Its marvellous the way you can freely move around with your drink, sit outside, etc. I think a beer costs Y2 in the store to buy, and anywhere from Y4 to Y12 in restaurants. There really aren't any "bars" as such, mainly all restaurants, in this area anyway.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Monday June 29 - Cruelty to Animals - Qing Feng Hotel

Today we had an experience that so upset me, it deserves a separate post. We were sitting enjoying lunch in the hotel's restaurant when someone said: "They've thrown a cat in the water." I looked outside and saw a pool of murky, green, water, which looked like a swimming pool, but was probably a fish tank because of the colour of the water, but I don't really know what it was, and there, sure enough, was a tiny little cat swimming frantically around the edges trying desperately to crawl up the shier concrete sides. A group of women and men were watching and laughing. At first, I didn't realize what was going on; then I realized they were keeping the cat in the pool. I went out of the restaurant and found the door to the pool of water. Of course, no one spoke English and I didn't speak any form of Chinese, but through sign language I confirmed they had thrown the cat in and weren't about to let it out. Angrily, I told the women they were being cruel, and how would they like it if I threw them in the water. They laughed heartily thinking it was all a big joke. I went back to the restaurant and spoke with our guide. I asked him: "Why did they throw the cat in?" He said he didn't know, he didn't understand it, and he didn't want to know why. I sat down. Then I watched one of the men deliberately push the cat down as it tried to climb up the steps out of the water. Incensed, I went back out to the laughing, joking, group around the pool. Again, really angry, I told them how cruel they were being, and to pull the cat out. I understood the cat had eaten a fish. I think the fish was probably meant for cooking, not sure, there were a bunch of these sleek, blue, fish in an aquarium at one end of the pool. I went back in to the restaurant and asked our guide if there were any superstitions, cultural issues, etc. about a cat eating a fish. He said "No", and Sue Mei said "No". I sat down. I was very aware of being in a foreign country with very different cultures, etc. I reasoned all this through in my head. Then I couldn't stand it. How could a group of 10 westerners sit and watch this happening and do nothing. If I didn't react, I would be so hypacritical, apathetic, and all the worst adjectives I criticize others for being. I spoke again to our guide. I knew I was putting him in an awkward position, but he got up and went out to the pool and got the people to "fish" the cat out in a tadpole net. I relaxed. Then, as I watched, the man who pulled the cat out, took the net and trapped the cat inside it. I was up, out of my chair and heading out towards him when Ray said disbelievingly: "He's strangled the cat!" I couldn't look, I couldn't stand being anywhere near these cruel people, and I stormed out of the dining room and went back to the Truck. Eventually Ant came out and said: "The cat's alive", and Ray told me the cat did get up after a while and slink behind a bush. I have no idea whether the cat lived or died. I just know that these people, all of them, who were laughing around the pool, were being totally cruel, and from what I could fathom, for no purpose other than the cat ate a fish. Feed the cat properly and perhaps it wouldn't be so keen to eat the fish!! As you can imagine, I was really, really, upset, and whether I acted rightly or wrongly I don't care. I just care that a poor little cat was being treated most cruelly by a bunch of anger-ridden Chinese who were taking their own problems out on it. When we arrived in Beijing and were listening to the English news on CCTV9, I heard that someone has just introduced legislation for "Animal Protection" in China. So...I'm not that far out. PS: I heard another story about this hotel that turned my stomach. I crossed the parking lot at one point and saw a dwarf sweeping up. I smiled at him. He gave me a puzzled look and I thought to myself: "This person hasn't had many people smile at him." Afterwards, Olivia and I were discussing the cat episode and she told me she had seen the dwarf sweeping as well, then the next thing she saw was someone come up to him and start beating him because it seemed that he wasn't sweeping correctly....or something. Anyway, apparently someone did come out of the hotel and stop this. It seems as if there is a little pocket of cruelty around that hotel.

Monday June 29 - The Eastern Qing Tombs

Today we are visiting the Eastern Qing Tombs, but first breakfast in the hotel. It was Y10 for dumplings. Not our favourite, so we decided to investigate the small village beside the hotel. Just outside the hotel grounds we met Su Mei and Emily who were also looking for something exciting to eat for breakfast. It was Su Mei who noticed the street food; and we ended up eating a delicious breakfast. We bought it from a woman who had a circular propane burner attached to the back of a scooter in a small 3-sided hut thing. She cooked something like a pancake mix spread circularly over the hot plate, then she broke 2 eggs over that; once that cooked she turned the pancake over and painted a sauce mix on the pancake; then she sprinkled chillies, onions, coriander, and a tasty crispy biscuit thing over the pancake, folded it up, put it in a light small plastic bag, and off we went, munching on the pancake/omellette like mixture, changing it from hand to hand because it was so hot. It was also so good! We sold a couple of the other Truck group on it too before we left to visit our first tomb. The Eastern Qing Tombs are a royal graveyard containing the tombs of 5 emperors, 74 empresses, and 136 concubines. We saw 3 or 4 of the tomb sites in the area including Cixi's. This maybe wasn't as elaborate as some of the emperorors' tombs but the floral displays at the tomb were beautiful. Some of the tombs were plundered by the military and others around the 1920s. Also interesting was the avenue leading to the tombs which was lined with stately lions, elephants, horses, and camels as well as various Chinese military personnel. The underground "palaces" or "tombs" were spectacular and I think everyone really enjoyed the morning. We ate lunch at the hotel, then set off for Beijing, stopping outside one of the gates of the tombs for Truck pictures. Then it was a serious drive into the chaos of Beijing. We noticed a number of "dump trucks' racing down the streets of the towns just as crazy as they do in Uxbridge; and we noticed crazy drivers driving on the inside lane, the opposite way, on a wide 4-lane road! We also noticed numerous "fender-benders". To say the Chinese are horrible drivers, is an understatement!! They are, generally speaking "awful". The energy level in the Truck picked up as we neared the city centre. Beijing, on a "drive in" impression is a fantastic, modern city with huge highrise apartment blocks, wide treed avenues, and colourful shop signs and billboards. Our hotel, the Huguosi Hotel is fabulous, and as we discovered when we went out investigating, in a fabulous area which abounds with musical instrument shops, hair dressers, and restaurants. It's off a tiny narrow street (hutong) with metal tracks where the cars ride (I think they are doing work on a subway line underneath the street), and is buzzing with activity. We had dinner in a neat little restaurant just around the corner on the main road for Y42 for both, about $6 or $7, and were in our bed, sweating profusely, despite the A/C by 10:30 p.m.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Sunday June 28 - The Great Wall - Mutianyu

This morning we drove about 2 hours to The Great Wall at Mutianyu. The climb up the steep and long steps to the Wall seemed like the million steps to Heaven. Three quarters of the way up there were speakers playing music. Was this the "Welcome to Heaven" signature tune? Finally, after much huffing and puffing were were once again back up on the Wall and all the splendid views it offers. This section of the Wall was much more modern and fixed up ....and touristy.... probably because we are just outside Beijing. Yesterday it seemed as if we were in the middle of nowhere, except for the vendors at the beginning. Today the vendors were stationd on the Wall and there were tons and tons of tourists, both Asian and Western. We only walked two or three gates, which was easier than yesterday, and then we turned off to take the Toboggen down. This was fun and much easier and quicker than walking! The Toboggen is a little sled which hurtles down the mountain side in a metal shute. You have a leaver in the middle which is both the brake and accelerator - forward for the accelerator, and back for the brake - and your legs go on either side. You lean into the turns like a bike racer. I am very cautious but, still couldn't get much speed out of it; on some of the steeper parts I had the brake on but mostly it was quite mangaeable. A second time down would have been perfect because you would know what to expect and could really let it go. After the Wall, we drove till 12:36; had lunch; then drove for 3 hours to our hotel in Qingdengling, the Qing Feng Hotel, probably the cleanest hotel on the trip. Shortly after we arrived Mike knocked at our door and told us they were going over to the square outside the tombs where they had found a nice spot to sit and have a beer, so we joined them shortly after and enjoyed the sunset, the historic site, the ponies, the goats and the goat herder, and just the ambience it all created. I came back for a shower, then went to dinner in the hotel restaurant with Su Mei and the rest of the group quickly joined us. Dinner was excellent and then it was time for bed.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Saturday June 27 - The Great Wall - Jin Shan Ling to Simatai

We were up early, breakfast, and off in the Truck to The Great Wall. It was about a 2 hour drive from Chengde before we reached the beginning of our 4 hour trek at Jin Shan Ling. We had a short fairly easy climb up to the first Gate (I think its the 12th Gate) on the Wall through the trees and when we got on to the Wall the views were absolutely stunning! The Wall snakes its way along the mountain ridge amongst the lush, treed, conical mountains. This is the Wall of all the pictures you see. It is truly gripping, I just couldn't take my eyes of the views. I wanted each second on the Wall to be 3 times as long. The trek is about 10.5 km and you go up and down the steep, sometimes restored, sometimes unrestored, sections of the Wall for about 25-30 Gates, I lost count! The unrestored, gravel-strewn parts can be quite dangerous and I wouldn't suggest you tackle the wall at this section unless you are fairly fit. The climbs up to each gate were typically around 120 steep stone steps straight up into the heavens, then down 120 steep steps on the other side. It seems to me that you always have to work to see the more amazing feats in the world and this was no exception. The feeling of awe is right up there with Machu Picchu. Others compared it's impact to Petra, and Anchor Wat. A Spanish couple we met told us this is one of the easier sections of the Wall mainly because you walk a little way in between the gates which gives you time to recover. At other parts, construction was in progress and then we had to clamber down off the Wall and walk along the narrow mountain paths beside it. The temperature was about 36C, hazy-sun, and hot, so we were sweating buckets. We had taken a picnic lunch with us and Ray and I stopped to eat it in the shade of one of the Gatehouses. One of the annoyances were the people who tried to follow us along the Wall selling " iced-water, coke, beer"! They literally followed us despite us trying to ignore them, they would tell us to "BE careful!", "Take it slowly", etc. and grab my arm and try to help me up some of the steep parts as I scrambled up the stones and rocks. Eventually, I had a melt-down and Ray gave them Y10 each and told them to leave us alone. It worked. They left us, and then we were all alone with the Wall and its ghosts and memories, apart from the few tourists we met along the way. I have to admit though, the vendors were very fit!! I kept thinking of the Great Wall Marathon and wondered where it was run and if it would be as hard as the trek! At the end we crossed a hanging bridge over a beautiful green Lake, took a last steep climb half way up to the next Gate and turned off to the car park at Simatai to meet the Truck. We had a well earned beer in the restaurant before driving in the Truck to Huariou and the Demyeng Seong Holiday Hotel. Probably had/would be a nice hotel;, but definitely felt like a mauseleum - there was just no-one there. Then we discovered the restaurant was closed! So we ended up getting a cab down to the local village and eating street food. A lot of meat, the vegetables came too late! Then it was back to the hotel in a cab and bed.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Friday June 26 - Chengde - Free Time!

Today was free to do as we wished, so we were up at 8:00 am and off down to KFC for breakfast - a bacon and egg crispy sesame bun and coffee and tea! After that we strolled back along the street looking for a hairdresser's. We found one, in a back street and much to the amusement of the hairdressers went in. Ray wanted a hair cut, and I, bravely, wanted to have my hair coloured and cut. So, without the ability of any Chinese or English, we managed it. There must have been about 15 people around us in the shop, all helping us explain what it was we wanted. Ray's was quite easy. Mine was a little harder. I wanted a cut, an overall colour, and highlights. I walked up to their storage cupboards, opened them, and looked around until I found a tube of colour! Then the light went on, and one of the girls brought a colour chart. We picked out two colours, then I had to try and explain that I wanted an overall colour with the darker one, and highlights with the lighter one. A hoot!! Great laughs all around. But I have been reasonably successful. My hair is a little darker than I would have chosen, but with my tan, it doesn't look too bad; and the highlights are not as light or as many as I would have done at home. The "cut" has a slight "Chinese" flair, a little wispy, not too much though. But its OK. Ray is still happy to have me along side him; and Rachel, who just sat down beside me still recognized me! So, no doubt the colour will wash out fairly quickly. We paid Y210 for both; about $25/30! At home in Canada I would pay at least $150 to have it done. After that we came to the Internet, and finally, I have been able to catch up with my blog. Still no pictures. If you can believe it, there must be about 200 computers in the room and they don't have one that reads a DVD - which is where our pictures are. In the alternative, I can access my camera pictures, 1300 on one flash card, but the pics are so small I can't really make them out and am too nervous to leave the camera hooked up for too long in case anything happens to the flash card! Such has been our problem all along. We are hoping that when we get to Beijing, we will be able to find somewhere that reads DVDs. This evening we are going for a beer in the square, then to dinner. Hopefully, it will be an early night. The last two were a little late! Tomorrow we leave Chengde for Huairou and a 4 hour hike on The Great Wall. We have seen it already in the distance, and it looks just like all the photos you see. I can't wait to do the hike, hot as it might be! The temperature is around 35C. The following day we drive to Qingdongling and then on the 29th into Beijing. Our next tour starts on the 4th and we leave Beijing on the morning of the 7th July. Doubt we will have any acess to Internet while on the 21 day train trip. Then we are home on July 29!! Looking forward to seeing you again then. It has been a long, but mind-stretching time!!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Thursday June 25 - Bishu Shanzhuang - Chengde

We had a lovely lazy morning before hitting the streets for brunch. Then it was off to visit Bishu Shanzhuang, litterally a 10 minute walk from the hotel. Bishu Shanzhuang is the summer resort of the Qing emperors. It was started in 1703 by Emperor Kangxi as a hunting lodge and gradually grew into a summer palace. It used to take 7 days to get here from Beijing and the Emperor would bring 10,000 people with him. The palace was eventually abandoned in 1820 after Emperor Jiaqing died there - supposedly struck by lightening. You enter the main gate and then go through a series of 9 pine-treed courtyards containing 5 halls. The wings on either side of the halls contain various exhibits such as pottery from the Ming Dynasty - fantastic; clocks - a really interesting collection of old Chinese and Europpean clocks; and glass ware. The halls include the Emperor's Study, and the living quarters, poetically called the Hall of Refreshing Mists and Waves. One part of this latter hall is the emperor's bedroom. On either side is the Pine Crane Palace for the empress dowager and on the other the apartments where the concubines lived. Then when you walk through that you enter a huge parkland containing gardens, a deer forest where the deer are so tame they pose for you to take their pictures and will allow you to go up to them and almost touch them; a lake, various temples, pagodas, all surrounded by a 10 km long wall. There were some pretty sites, but time has taken its toll on the buildings and the maintenance of the park. Nonetheless, if you stretch your imagination back in time, it would have been absolutely magnificent. When we finished there Ray came back for a nap and I went to the Internet for an hour, unfortunately mistaking the time because I actually had 2 hours not one!! On our way back a truck working at a roadworks site suddenly lurchd in front of us into a big hole in the road and almost toppled over, coming to rest with its hind left wheel up to the axle in the hole. I thought it was going to topple over, but it didn't although the two outer wheels on the opposite side were off the road. The workers quickly emptied all the earth out of the Truck and we didn't wait around to see what happened then! But it wasn't there next time we looked. We had a group dinner at 7:00 p.m. and went for a "steamboat". This is the Chinese equivalent of a "fondue". You have a propane fired burner in the middle of the table containing two types of "soup", one spicey hot, and one spicey cool. Then you choose dishes of food such as beef, lamb, vegetables, prawns, chipalatta sauceages, spam, mushrooms, etc. and they are cooked in the sauce as you sit around and chat. I can't say it was my favorite meal, but no doubt if I had had the opportunity to choose my own dishes to put in the soup, I would have chosen differently and would probably have enjoyed it a lot more. Nonetheless, the concept is terrific. After dinner we strolled back as a group and ended up in a KTV place (karaoke). What a dump - I haven't been in anything like it for a long time! Nothing like the one we were in in Lanzhou. It was all private rooms, filled with drunken Chinese (oops and westerners!), consuming vast quantities of liquor, and supposedly singing along to knock off hit songs. The atmosphere was rank with the smell of cigarette smoke, and the bathroom was putrid - so much so I walked in, then walked out again. I saw all the rooms when I went in search of a bottle of water. What chaos some of them were in! It was an "eye-opening" experience, and not one we needed to participate in, so after a beer, we left and walked back to the hotel ...and bed.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Wednesday June 24 - Datong to Chengde (537 km)

Today we travel from Datong to Chengde which is slightly north east of Beijing. It is sad, we have left the agricultural areas and the small communities behind and entered the greater Beijing industrial belt. The major item monopolizing conversation on the Truck is the pollution. All around us is a mushroom haze or fog ("chog" I think its called), and the atmosphere has a distinctly "coal" smell to it. The industrial installations are enormous, and smoke rolls out of factory stacks all around. The road is saturated wtih elongated lorries whose cargoes are hidden by the canvas blankets securing the load in the trailer, or returning empty from the city. I am currently reading "The Coming China Wars" by Peter Nevarro. It is a very chilling discussion about the major problems China faces and the threats they pose to the global environment. If the information is only partly true, it is a frightening thought as to what the next 25/30 years will bring. However, it is only one "angle" to a multi-faceted problem. There is another book called "The Bad Samaritans" which has another angle on the same problems. The Coming China Wars lists the following as some of the problems China has to face which not only affect them but also affect the rest of the world: (1) the huge counterfeit and piracy trade due to disregard of IP laws; (2) being the largest dope dealer in the world; (3) the air pollution and its affects on global warming or climate change and the huge natural disasters their policies are stimulating; (4) their thirst and need, for oil and their policies to ensure they get it; (5) their Imperialist wars, i.e. the way they are manipulating other countries such as Africa, not by helping them grow but by taking all of their resources back to China for manufacturing; (6) their huge dam projects and the fact that they are running out of water and how they are affecting other countries such as Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia with their water policies; (7) their disruption and riots from within the country; and finally (8) their internal problems such as aging, and sicknesses. It is the author's view that it will be our children who will end up having to fight these "wars". On top of this, as I was writing my journal, I was also watching a TV program on CCTV, Channel 9, an English program, called "Dialogue" which was discussing a book "Why is China Not Happy" written by 5 Chinese guys. It was an interesting discussion and hearing the panel's views on how China should face its problems and the rest of the world was quite heartening. However, what matters is if they stick to their ideologies, or take the easy way out. I suppose the bottom line is, that the 8 problems mentioned above seem to be accepted as a short-list of problems China will have to face in the coming years not only by westerners, but by the Chinese themselves. Another minor problem we and the Truck may have to face is that the government allocates which trucks can use the road system around Beijing according to number plates. On one day certain #s are allowed on the toll roads into Beijing, on the next day, certain other numbers are permitted access to the city. Ant assures us that somehow, we will make it to Chengde even if there is a "number plate" issue!! In one of the farming areas we drove through, we saw lots of little donkeys pulling carts in the fields. They are such troopers and like the working ponies and horses have big hearts. In another area we noticed wind-mills on the horizon around a body of water. Not sure of their widespread use here, haven't seen any so far, but have seen tons of solar panels. And trains with their long convoy of retangular coal cars. The mountaineous areas have been fascinating. Heaps of red mud gouged wtih deep weather lines. Quite weird to look at. We entered into a hilly region as we neard Chengde; the typically treed, conical hills one associates with China. Chengde is set in a river valley bordered by these hills in Hebei Province. Its population is about 700,000 and it was the location of the Mongol Emperors' summer palace and dates from the first half of the Ming dynasty. It is modern, but not as new as Xi'an. Our hotel Sa Bei Hotel seems to be right in the centre so location is good. We arrived around 6 p.m. cleaned up and went out to wander around to look for somewhere for dinner. We came across the remainder of the group and ended up in a tiny up-stairs restaurant where dinner cost us about Y26, thanks to the good advice of Su-Mei. We are lucky to have her on our trip. She helps us out quite a bit with language and eating issues when our guide is not around. You can really eat cheaply here if you eat Chinese. Afterwards we went looking for a place to have a drink, but ended up buying a bottle of beer and sitting in the main square drinking it. Everything was happening in the Square. Kids were roller blading, playing football, and kicking around large shuttlecocks. Su-Mei and Ray joined two Chinese guys doing the shuttlecock thing; soon there was a group of 8. It was fabulous. Everyone just moved around the square joining in where they wanted and then moving on. All of a sudden at 10:30 pm, the lights went out....and people disappared. Sort of like Cinderalla! So we came back and went to bed.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Tuesday June 23 - Yungang Grottoes, and The Hanging Monastery - Datong Area

Still no water or hydro - so we packed our bags (actually, we had never unpacked them) and took them with us to the Truck. We knew we were moving regardless of what the group did, but our leader and Chinese guide had made the same decision. The hotel cost Y160 a night and they rebated Y30 for the conditions. Considering we didn't eat breakfast, which was included, I don't think they suffered at all from the appalling state of their accommodation. Couldn't find anything to eat for breakfast so ended up with a packet of lemon swiss-rolls which filled a little corner, but how I am missing good food. Chinese food is good for dinner, but its so the same....at least as Ray says, it appears that way to us. We left at 7:30 am to drive to the Yungang Grottoes (www.yungang.org), a UNESCO Heritage Site, which were carved in the Northen Wei Dynasty around 460-525 on the demand of the Emperor. They are about 1 km long, contain 254 niches and 51,000 statues. They include a variety of religious figures such as the Buddha, several Bodhisattivas, and disciples and protectors of the Buddha. The vivid sculptures tell the Buddhist stories. Very touristy, but worth a visit. Then it was to Datong and breakfast/lunch. The rest of the group went for noodles, which are the mainstay in China, but neither Ray nor I are keen on them. I find the "soup" they are served in too greasy and somehow the concept of pasta floating around in juice turns my stomach. I am fine when they are dry and quite enjoy them then. So, we hunted out a typical little restaurant on one of the side strets and ordered by picture. Of course it wasn't what we thought we were getting, but it was good all the same!! Now we heading to The Hanging Monastery. Its a Buddhist Monastery on Taoism's sacred mountain Heng Shan, about 65 km from Datong. When you first see the temple literally "hanging" from the side of perpendicular rocks, it is hard to comprehend how it was built way back in the Northern Wei Dynasty. At first, it appears as if it is supported by "stilts" stretching from the base of the Monastery and anchoring in the rock below. But these "stilts" are actually loose to the touch when you shake them as you go by. The Monastery is cantilevered on strong wooden beams bored into the rock. It is a picturesque and absolutely charming array of tiny temples and statues built up the cliff. You wind your way along narrow wooden connecting passages, and climb up and down steep, narrow staircases to the various levels. It really was an absolute treat to see it. Sad though that there are no longer any monks there and it seems to be now only a "showpiece" of the Buddhist religion. The Monastery is about 1 1/2 hrs drive from Datong and we got back around 6:00 pm. Our new hotel: "Shanxi Sheng Jun Qulu Yuan Hotel" is much, much, nicer than our previous one and in a much nicer area - only Y28 a night more. After a wonderfully hot shower, we went out for dinner, then to the Internet, whre we managed to call Alanna. It was so great speaking to her. We do have some sad news. Our little black and white cat Chloe has gone missing after 8 almost 9 years with us. Alanna let her out one morning and she hasn't come back. Needless to say, we are all devastated. She was so much a part of the family; always with us when were around, slept on our bed, and cuddled up with us to keep warm on cold winter nights. Alanna will be lonely without her. We will all miss her dreadfully. The house will seem so empty. Lets hope that wherever she has ended up, she is happy.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Monday June 22 - Hohhot

I'm in the dog-box! Mistook departure time for 8:30 am instead of 8:00 am this morning, but still had time to pay the toilet-man another yuen!! We headed back through the grasslands to civilization in Hohhot, population 1.14 million people. The city was founded by one of the Mongol leaders in the 16th Century. It is very modern, and although industrious appears more prosperous than BaoTou. We took a taxi with Mike and Rachel to McDonalds for breakfast/lunch and back to the Da Zhao Lamasery/temple. Haven't quite figured out if there is a difference between a "monastery" and a "lamasery" yet or whether it is like stupa/chorten/pagoda. This has to be one of the most exquisite monastery/temples we have seen. In quality right up there with the hill-top monastery we took the roof-top bus ride to in Nepal, but older, and therefore all the art work is completed. Th temple was built in the Ming period and has been exquisitely maintained, and is still undergoing extensive renovation. Divided into 3 main sections each with its separate courtyards and prayer halls, the statues, artwork, and colours of green, blue, red and orange are stunning. Our visit culminated with the opportunity of one loud beat of the drum which resonated over the courtyard and the drum tower. The square adjoining the temple contained an array of little shops selling everything you need for and from the temples. Touristy, but nonetheless, quite attractively built. Now, we are back in the Truck and off to Datong. The scenery is changing again back to a weather-beaten mountaineous region, no trees, but there are agricultural terraces in the lower foothills. We passed some industrial areas and trains carrying coal to a power plant. Tons of highrises which are probably where the workers live. The scenery deteriorated and the pollution increased as we drove into Datong. Then we ran out of paved road and spent half an hour lurching and bumping along on the dirt street through town in an area where houses were knockd down and the old road dug up, all to make way for the new. Absolutely horrible! As we drove through Datong, we realized this was not one of China's highlights. But all the same, has to be seen to fully understand the very diverse country we are in. So far, the cities we have seen have mainly been quite modern and attractive. Datong, population about 580,000, is grimy, industrialized, dirty, and badly beaten up. Some of the rows of old shops/houses/buildings are slums, probably the reason they are being pulled down. We arrived at the hotel and it was simply the worst we have had on the trip. It was crap, shabby, dirty, and dark. The power had supposedly "just gone out", but as Ray said, the auxilliary lighting had also gone out so- either batteries not tested, or the power had been off longer than they were saying! As luck would have it, our bedroom was on the 6th floor, so we huffed, and we puffed, our way up the stairs with our backpacks. The room was livable, the bed at least had clean white sheets, but the bathroom was sub-standard, old, dirty, and smelly. When I opened one of the cupboards in the bedroom, three little cockroaches scurried to hide from the light under the spare blankets. Plus, there was no water! Anyway, we ended up changing rooms, but nothing improved except that I did not "see" the cockroaches, but of course, I knew they were there!! We met the others for a beer in an outdoor seating area across in the square. While we were chatting a couple joined us: a Canadian guy from Thomson, Manitoba married to a Chinese doctor from Beijing. I might add that we were also joined by about 6 or 8 men who were hanging off our every word, reading our exchange of email addresses, and looking at the pictures on our cameras as we exchanged them amongst ourselves. As I said before, the Chinese are very spontaneous, and none of this seemed odd to them. I guess we are tourists, and fair game!! All of us ended up going for dinner, including the Canadian guy and Chinese woman, to one of the hotels. It was great and only cost Y26 each. We thought about moving over to this hotel for Y260 a night, but decided to suck it up and see what the situation was in the morning.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Sunday June 21 - Father's Day and The Inner Mongolian Steppes

Breakfast in the hotel was the standard Chinese affair - which we haven't yet taken to - soup, pickles, dumplings, and rice, mmmmm, may all be good......but not for breakfast!! So, Ray and I beetled off on a 20 minute walk to.......oh no, KFC! Had a lovely egg/cheese muffin and two cups of coffee, then back to the Truck ready for 8:30 a.m. departure. Today we are "exploring". As we have a spare day, we are heading to explore the Mongolian Grasslands. This is uncharted territory for Dragoman, but we are hoping that since it is a tourist area, we won't be stopped/turned back by the police. The Chinese government strictly controls where we go. Permits are issued to the Truck and our progress is monitored. We are not allowed to visit certain cities and areas. Don't know exact reasons: "political" hot-spots, for example Xiahe due to Tibtan discontent; other not sure. According to the Lonely Planet Guide, China has suffered from increasing rural protests in recent years (74000 riots or demonstrations in 2004) due mainly to land confiscations, environmental pollution, and high taxes extracted by corrupt officials. LP says that "Beijing plans to install special police units in 36 Chinese cities, specifically targetted at quelling riots and disturbances." I guess this is what we experienced in Lhasa and may be the reason tourists are blockd from certain cities/areas. Despite this, we haven't "felt" any of this unrest, and the economic achievement of China, and its flirtation with capitalism is very evident. If it all holds together there is no doubt China will be an incredible force to reckon with - and a "force" that might be fun to be part of. Books such as "The Coming China Wars" succintly outline the author's perception of the "hot-spots", but more of that later. Our route followed through the flat grassland bordered on our left by a ridge of unusual looking hills. They look sandy/muddy, lightly grassy, with scatterings of darker green clumps of vegetation. Frequent service centres, and toll booths. We climbed up on to what looks like a huge "moorland". Probably the true Mongolian Steppe; passed some modern industrial areas spewing pollution into the air. Along the Truck journey, Will opened his "father's day card" which his two daughters had tucked away in his luggage and we all shared his emotion as he read it. As we roll along surrounded by wanton, rolling, grasslands, herds of sheep and little communities of mud houses and terra cotta tiled rooves, I realize that although I am excited by the hustle and bustle, and glitz and glamour of the cities, it is the desolation of some of the rural areas that captures my soul. I day-dream of gallopping across the fields and up onto the crest of the hills on my sturdy Mongolian pony, racing the wind. I think it is the feeling of freedom, abandonment, that mesmerizes me. We arrive at a tourist yurt camp north of Hohot at Cxi Liia Mu Ren Grassland. An amazing open space of rolling grass filled with white yurts. The yurts are rounded huts made of canvas-like material and set up with a low table for eating or sitting at cross-legged on comfy floor mats. Even has electricity for a light. The toilet tent is a concrete structure with smelly squat toilets guarded by the toilet-man who charges Y1 and then gives you a big hand shake after you have been to the loo, and washed your hands. One way of drying your hands, I guess!! He closes up at 7 pm, locks, the door, and disappears. So, talk about "shit"; there is plenty around but I think its mostly horse pooh. The mangy-looking horses wander around free - everywhere, tons of them - some were tied up but most wandered around - with their saddles on. This seems to be a very popular "tourist" area for the Chinese. We went out on the steppe for an hour on horseback; but it was an anti-climax. We walked along sedately, with my knees up to my waist, jockey-style, because they couldn't lengthen the stirrups, totally unable to make our horses do anything we wanted despite a wide range of equestrian ability amonst us. But if the Mongolian leader came up behind your horse, its ears went up, and its whole body became alert. Ant suggested because we were "westerners" they didn't want anything to happen to us. Every other group we passed was "running" along at a good pace, but when we motioned to our guide to allow us to "quicken-up the pace", he seemed either asleep, or trying hard to ignore our pleas. The other Chinese riders were fascinated to see us however, and gave us big waves, and "hellos", as they trotted past us! Very disappointing, but nonetheless, it was fabulous to be out there on the Inner Mongolian grasslands, in the fresh, rather chilly air. The saddles were weird, rather small, uncomfortable wooden structures with a metal semi circular bar as a handle and English style stirrups. The bridles were made of rope and included a bit. We ate dinner in the dining tent around 7 pm, consumed large quantities of beer and even wine which the "women" had finally broken down and bought bored of drinking beer - Y38 a bottle! After dinner, we sat and chatted and listened to music, and some of us wrote our journals, sat taking photos, etc., and finally rolled into our sleeping bags in our yurts.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Saturday June 20 - Yin Chuen to BaoTou (624 km)

Up early today for a big drive through the Inner Mongolian Grasslands to BaoTou. Scenery-wise it has truly been one of the most dreary days. We started with flat fertile lands which changed into rocky-hills and lots of mining (including smelly old coal) and industry. At one point we could barely see any distance because of the mushroom pollution-haze over the large factories, mines and other industrial sites. Even the atmosphre had an acrid industrialized smell about it. As we entered the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region (established in 1947) we entered the rolling steppes. Apparently only about 15% of the population is Mongolian, the rest mainly Han Chinese (85%), and a smattering of Hui, Manchu, Daur, and Ewenki. The traditional nomadic life where the Mongol herders move with the seasons in search of pasture for their herds, and life in circular tents called "yurts", is fading out fast and is mainly retained for tourist purposes. We stopped for lunch in a small non-descript town called Linhe. I had an egg and tomoato rice dish which once loaded with soy and hot chilli sauce was delicious for Y7. Ray had a lamb and rice dish which was apparently very good too. Since this was a Musim area, we were happy to eat lamb. Outside the restaurant, in a tractor-drawn cart, we saw a poor sheep standing in the cart probably awaiting its fate. BaTou is the largest city in Inner Mongolia (population 2.08 million). It is very industrialized and rather grim. Other than that, I don't think it has much claim to fame. Apparently one of the traditional Mongolian instruments is a "matouqin" which today has its 2 strings made of horsehair and the top is carved into the shape of a horse's head. I am hoping somewhere in our travels to see this. After we arrived we went wandering around BaoTou. It really is quite dirty, and not as nice as the other towns we have ben in. We all went for dinner in a typical restaurant. It was full, very noisy, and loads of fun. The food was good too! Then Ray and I went to the Internet to try and phone Alanna but we couldn't get Skype to work. We eventually found the Internet on the 4th floor of a building which we reached by way of a glass elevator on the outside of the building. We'll try again tomorrow in another city for Skype. On the way back to the hotel we sat and had a quiet beer at a little street vendor. It is amazing the number of people who spoke to us. One young chap said "Welcome to China" in his best English. Westerners are really greeted very welcomingly. Today I finished reading Huruki Murakami "What I talk about when I talk about running". A neat little book, less than 200 pages, that talks about the author's "recreational" running career and his philosophy on how running has inspired his writing. Just lots of little comments that I can certainly relate to about why we run, and what our achivement means in the big scheme of things. I am now inspired to read more of his books.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Friday June 19 - Zhongwei to Yinchuen (217 km)

A lovely long lie, a relaxed morning just puttering around the play-park watching people zip line, sand-tobagan, the camels and the horses....and of course the Yellow River. Had lunch around 12:30 pm and left. The day started out chilly and hazy but by the time we left it had warmed considerably, the sky cleared, and the sun was strong and warm. The desert park is just outside Zhongwei on the edge of the Tengger Desert where the dunes, the river, and the fertile plains meet. It is based around the Sho Po Tou Desert Research Centre which was established in 1956 to fight against "desertification", a big problem for China, in China's northwest. It has now become a desert amusement park and is very commercialised. The rafting was quite gross. For centuries apparently, the main mode of transport on the Yellow River was the "yangpi fazi" or leather raft made from sheep or cattle skins soaked in oil and brine and inflated. About 14 hides are tied together under a wooden framework making a raft that can carry 4 people. I was happy to give that a miss, it just seemed somewhat grotesque to me! We drove into Zhongwei located between the Yellow River and the sand dunes. It seemed a very modern town built for the future. The road system was massive, with wide avenues and separated highways that would put an American city to shame, but no cars....yet!! The potential for car sales in China is huge and giving the car manufacturers enormous appetites. They do have some electric cars here, but it is said that dealing with the batteries causes more pollution than using petrol!! The same thing is true of some of the highways, huge, modern, but no traffic. Also beautiful big modern service centres, but no gas, and many centres were all locked up. We are suspecting, but not sure, that government has built these facilities, but because there are no "users" they don't have the money to maintain them - at least to a standard we would consider acceptable. Its really a shame. Beautiful structures, roads, plazas, buildings, not maintained and soon they are falling apart. You are tripping over loose tiles in the pavements, and stumbling in the pot holes. Not sure what the city's liability insurance would be like!! In Zhongwei we visited the Gao Temple. This was originally built in the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1655) to serve Buddhists, Confuscians, and Taoists. Now it seems more Buddhist, but it is still a mix of styles; small temples joined by narrow wooden stairs and passageways, in part very quaint and picturesque. Then there is the old bomb shelter which was built during the cultural revolution and converted into a Buddhist "hell/haunted" house containing a series of dark, barely lit tunnels off which there are little chappels of ghoulish Buddhist figures on sensor lights which come on as you approach complete with sound effectsand haunting screams. You want to believe the temple is religious because it is so picturesque, but you are left with an uncomfortable feeling of where you could end up if you don't gather the right "merit" in your life. We drove along fantastic highways into Yinchuen. We passed through desert where it is obvious that great attempts are being made to "solidify" the sand by planting grasses and trees. Then gradually, the terrain changed to flat and fertile. As we drove into Yinchuen I was struck by how clean everything was, and the city itself is quite beautiful. The Chinese cities are truly amazing. They are huge, modern, colourful, and full of life. The sad part is that generally things don't seem to be maintained. Can't quite grasp whether the old has been pulled down to make room for the new, a little like some of Canada's cities, or whether there never was any old. I read an article in an English Chinese paper that says that for the first time the "majority" of Chinese live in urban areas. But, there is enormous disparity between the country and the cities. I guess this is true for all countries. We arrived at the Hotel Royal around 6:30 pm. It is quite acceptable, one of the largest rooms we have had, and a bathroom that has glass walls. We had a room like this in another city whose name I can't remember. We immediately went out to the Internet, then back for dinner. Although we didn't know it, we saw Ant and Adam in a restaurant, went in, and realized it was the hotel restaurant. Chinese food is truly delicious. How healthy, I'm not sure. Although there are lots of vegetables, also lots of fat and MSG. I had a lovely spicy pork dish with peppers and chillis and Ray had a slightly calmer beef dish with broccoli. After dinner we were pulled into a private room with a group of Chinese celebrating someone's birthday. It was a merry affair. We toasted the birthday boy with some Chinese wine that tasted quite good but a bit like neat vodka; had pictures taken all around, then left before it became too rowdy! I know I keep mentioning this, but I am truly overwhelmed by the very positive reception we have had every where. Throughout our whole trip, we have been "fetted" most places. Never have we felt uncomfortable or threatened. As I write my journal, I am lying in bed watching Chinese TV and Chinese English TV. Oh, I forgot to mention, that we nearly had to go to hospital before being allowed into the hotel because of the swine flu. Fortunately, our guide was able to persuade the hotel we are fine. Apparently, the PFB has advised all hotels to have their guests check in with the hospitals for a temperature check. Hope this doesn't affect us elsewhere.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Thursday June 18 - Ping Liang to Sho Po Tou (350 km)

Up around 7 am, English breakfast: baked beans, mushrooms, chipalatta sauseages, eggs, and bread with marmite! On our way around 8:30 am. The countryside on the drive was the typical grassy mountains with terraced slopes and fertile valleys. The communities are larger now and more established. The roads are pretty good, many of them toll roads. We stopped for noodles/fried rice in a typical little restaurant in a small town. The food was quite mediocre but since it only cost $1 each, I guess we couldn't expect much. We ran out of pretty mountain scenery and into flat fertile valleys which eventually turned into desert. We arrived into Zhongwei and Sho Po Tou Hotel around 3:30 to 4 pm. The hotel is in a sand park, Sho Po Tou, where there are all sorts of activities including camel rides, horseback rides, sand board, rafting on the Yellow River, ziplining across the river and bungee jumping. All a little cheesy, but its a typical Chinese entertainment park and fun to be in. Temperature is very warm and dry. I can't say we did a lot after we arrived. Cleaned up a bit and then went out with the intention of going for a walk, but never got passed the patio bar. There is a long walkway along the Yellow River, and the hotel restaurant has a patio there. We walked around a bit and when we came upon the patio and some of our group were there, we just sat down and didn't go any further. Then it was dinner time and bed early.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Wednesday June 17 - Xi'an to Ping Pliang - or .... Ping Pliang Revisited (400 km)

We are on "Gertie" now, our new Truck with Anthony (Ant) as leader and Adam as lead driver. Our Chinese guide is John. Six of us from Daphne continued (Emily, Rachel, Mike, John, Ray and I) and 4 new people joined us (Sui May, Stormy, Olivia and Will, a professional travel photographer from England. Did I tell you about Globebusters? We met a guy last night in our hotel in Xi'an who is working with them. They do motorbike tours similar to the truck tours. They re on their last week of an exploratory trip London/Beijing. Can you imagine what fun that would be! They also do a trip Alaska to Ushiaia. So, if you are a bike lover, check it out!! And you are right...we are heading BACK to Ping Pliang and the Tao Mountain. Not sure what happened there, but I think our previous leader was hard pressed to find somewhere to go when we were denied entry to Xiahe. Anyway, we were supposed to spend 2 nights there, and Ant has promised we will only do one night and put in an extra night elsewhere. Despite being upset at retracing our steps we loved Mt. Kontong. Kongton Shan is on the border of Ningxia in the Linpan Shan range. It is the most famous mountain in the Tao religion. It was first referred to around 399 - 295 BC. The mountain has various paths that lead up and down over the hilltop past dozens of picturesque, small, temples. As well, we climbed the Ladder to Heaven which must be a million stairs that lead up to the Tian Shi Temple, and the Yu Huang Palace perched almost at the summit of the mountain, then we came back down by Thundering Peak and through a series of three old minute temples, with rickety, worn, stone steps right in the middle of the mountain. We visited temples with names like Dragon Kings Temple. I lit incense sticks in one temple, and received a blessing from the diminutive Taoist monk. We bought bright red ribbons which we were told to tie around our heads and did - didn't know what they read and hoped it was something nice. On the way up the extremely steep and unending steps, we got looks of amazement, words of encouragement, and requests to stop for pictures with old and young Chinese, male and female. On the way down, one handsome, young, Chinese man coming up, looked up, saw Ray and immediately piled our hands full of delicious red dates. I reckon he thought Ray must be 110 with his white hair and must therefore be in need of energy!! Actually, he was just being incredibly kind. The spontaneity of the people is both refreshing and intriguing to us inhibited westerners. Instead of taking the mini bus back down, Ray and I walked down the switch back road, about 36 minutes. It was peaceful, pretty, and gave us some much needed exercise. Incidentally, did I mention that the ride up in the mini van was a thrill ride at break neck speed up the switch-back bends narrowly avoiding hitting the trees so awkwardly placed in the road itself! Back at the camp site (same one as last time here), over looking the "Zhang-plucking Lake", Ant and Adam cooked a delicious meal: leg of lamb, gravy, mashed potatoes, green beans, carrots and broccoli, and we ate it sitting around a glowing camp fire. No Chinese fire crackers this time!!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Tuesday June 16 - Xi'An

A blissful lie in, then breakfast. This is by far the best hotel breakfast we have had! After breakfast, I spent 3 hours on the Internet, updating the blog. Sorry its not up to date, but just finding the time is very hard. As for pictures, we keep hoping for the appropriate circumstances, i.e. DVD reader, or somewhere where we can access pictures on the camera, and a reasonably fast and consistent Internet. We visited the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower, both close to the hotel. It ws fascinating learning all about the "drum culture" and how significant it is in Chinese history. The towers were first built ein 1301 but have been renewed many times since then. The Bell Tower holds a large bell which was originally rung in the morning and the Drum Tower has a series of drums which were sounded in the evening and 4 times through the night for different purposes. At each of the Towers we listened to a 10 minute concert using typical old Chinese musical instruments. It was quite lovely. Other than that we just wandered locally; went to Walmart to buy tomorrow's lunch (its interesting how places we don't frequent at home suddenly take on new meaning and become attractive because of their familiarity; had dinner in a Chinese restaurant; and finished the day with a beer at the Youth Hostel with the group. Xi'an is a large city, about 7 million population, and sits in a fertile plain of the River Wei. It has a large Muslim population, hence the Muslim Quarter. Although its been historically rich, the current city is new and reasonably clean on the streets, but pollution is huge. Our hotel was in the city centre and we could have been in a brashy US city except that the Chinese exude high energy and the sound of chatter increases exponentially in the underground subways (underpass tunnels for crossing under the roads - although a subway is being built). The thing that hit me is the variety of goods for sale. Advertising is bold; colours of packaged goods strong; and the variety endless. Clothes shops, shoe shops, cell phones, and restaurants are the most common. The young Chinese are very fashion conscious and girls wear high heels everywhere! However, we have all agreed (the girls at least) that the Chinese men's "fad" of rolling their t-shirts up to just below their nipples, thus exposing their lower chest and bellies, is a passion-killer!!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Monday June 15 - The Terra Cotta Warriors

Ever since I first read about the Terra Cotta Warriors many years ago I have wanted to see them. They are located about an hour's drive from Xi'an and Ian took us there on the Truck first thing on Monday morning. Some background info on the "Warriors". Qin Shihuang was the King of the Qin State and the First Emperor of China. When he came to the throne in 238 BC, as was custom, Qin Shihuang began building his mausoleum. Because he wished to live for ever, he attempted to move his earthly empire to heaven. This is the reason that he built an "underground empire" that was as glorious as the empire he ruled on earth. The area covered by the Qin Mausoleum Garden, according to current exploration, is about 56.75 square kilometers. It contains the tumulus, an underground palace and auxilliary buildings, and the ruins of an outer wall containing 4 gates, and an inner city wall containing 6 gates. Some of the main discoveries include the valuts of the warriors in 1974, vaults of bronze charriots and horses, vaults of stone armour and helmets, vaults of terra cotta acrobatic figures, vaults of civil officials, vaults of rare birds and unfamiliar animals, pits of bronze water birds, and lots of other cultural relics. The tomb itself has not been opened for a number of reasons including the suspicion of large quantitites of mercury being present as well as the fact that the appropriate technology is not available to properly protect the contents once opened up. It is said that over 700,000 artisans worked on construction of the project over a period of 38 years and it was not completed when the Emperior died. There are 3 vaults of warriors that have been excavated and a 4th vault that work has not yet been started on. Vault 1 is the largest. It contains about 45 charriots and over 6000 infantry and was the main force of the terracotta army. Vault II was discovered in 1976 and is divided into 4 arrays: Array 1 contains 174 standing archers and 164 kneeling archers. Array 2, 64 charriots with 3 warriors each. Array 3 contains charriots, infantry men and cavalry. Array 4 contains 6 charriots and 124 saddled horses and cavalry men. Valut III contains a horse stable, a charriot, some warriors, horses, and weapons. To be there and see them is an overwhelming experience, When discovered they were not in good condition and have required a lot of painstaking work to put them back into their original positions. Not all of the warriors etc. are completed, and many are still lying broken on the ground. Just looking at the rows and rows of infantrymen you can really imagine meeting them on some grassy knoll in China. Its just so interesting learning all about the different levels of warrior, the formatioo, the charriotts, and of course the horses. The whole complex is a huge tourist site complete with souvenior shops, hawkers, restaurants...and KFC. None the less, this does not detract one little bit from the immensity of the project. In the evening we met our new truck group and leaders and went into the Muslim Quarter for dinner. This area of Xi'an was fabulous!! Colourful market scene with outdoor food tables and indoor restaurants. We ate skewered lamb and chicken, goats arteries, pickled cucumber, a raw peanut dish, and a green bean dish. I loved it, not so sure about Ray! Then it was to the Youth Hostel where the guys played pool and the girls chatted before turning in for the night.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Sunday June 14 - Ping Liang to Xi'an

Tamar woke us at 6 am by walking around our camp-site and banging on some pots and pans with an old wooden spoon. There is a feeling of excitement and sadness on the Truck today as we near Xi'an and the end of our 4 1/2 week segment Kathmandu/Xi'an. We have been through a lot together: the tough cold times of Everest, the breaking down of the Truck, and the health struggles with altitude. The group in its entirety has at all times been cohesive, supportive, fun-loving, and great companions. We wish them all well with their lives and their further travels from Xi'an to Beijing, Shanghai, HongKong, S. America, the US, Norway, etc etc. The road to Xi'an was paved, straight and fast - of course, it still had the odd patch of dirt over a bridge, or where there had ben a mud/rock slide on the road. As we neared Xi'an, it became less mountainous and we ended up in a fertile valley approaching the city. We had one stop in a gas station; a brand, new, huge, building for a shop, restaurant, and badmington court but absolutely no one it it....and the snacks were stacked on the shelves minimally, and in perfect order. We arrived in Xi'an around 1:30/2:pm and checked into an amazing hotel right in the centre of the walled city. First thing we did was to go and eat, then we walked down all the little streets around the area, ostensibly looking for a laundry and internet but also just enjoying the ambience created by the energy of the people. Its hard to believe this is a communist country; its almost a "US-wannabe" atmosphere. Consumerism at its height; a lot of ads show Western people, fashion is huge, both for men and women But there's a contrast. The wide avenues, shopping malls etc. are frequented by fashion-conscious young people driven by the glitz and glamour and the manipulative advertisements. The tiny lanes behind the main avenues, where the vendors shops are tiny - or on the street, are inhabited by another world more intent on survival. We eventually came across The Bell Tower Youth Hostel and went in there to check on Internet and laundry; seemed an obvious source to us...and it was. Laundry Y25 a bag and Internet Y6 an hour. Perfect! Also, fabulous atmosphere, pub, dining, and general relax area. Typical hostel - like some we had stayed in in South America. We are amazed that most of the "tourists" are Chinese from other parts of the country, and the kids in the hostel were largely young Chinese. We reported back to our group who were delighted to find beer at Y10 as opposed to Y44 at the hotel The hostel became our "tryst". We had our group dinner in the evening meeting around 7:30 pm. Myles, our Chinese guide took us to a fabulous restaurant specializing in Peking duck. The food was fabulous: red pork, a beef dish, chicken and peanuts (a little hot spice!), a fish dish, an aubergine/vegetable mix, rice, all delicious and very similar to what we would find in a good Chinese restaurant in Canada. I've even mastered using chopsticks, so all is good! After dinner, we wandered around looking for some where to go for a drink. We ended up in a few unsavoury joints before 4 of us left the group and sat down at one of the street tables where the chap had the beer on the table before we had time to hit the bench seat! Much more fun!!

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Saturday June 13 - Kontong Shan

We drove about 60 km through the clay, teraced hills and wondered at the number of people who would be required to establish and maintain all the terraces. It is a labour intensive agriculture. The houses and communities all snuggle into the rocks and crannies of the hills unnoticed because they are camaflauged by their mud brick construction which matches the colour of the ground. Most of the roads in this part of China seem to wind up and over mountain passes or around gorges and canyons. Inevitably there are road works somewhere which can delay travel times from a few minues to a few hours. The road we travelled this morning had all of the foregoing. Around lunch time we reachd Ping Liang, population 105,300. The city appears modern and economically sound, although for a Saturday we found it quiet. It is located in the hill and ravine region on Loess Plateau - whatever that is!~ with rivers, mountains, valleys, plains and tablelands. It used to be the second key post on the Silk Road. The city is split into many nationalities including 73.4% Han Chinese, 25.5% Hui, and the rest including Mongolian, and Tibetan and tons of others. We spent a couple of hours in town wandering around the streets and market. The makets are always fun, and here there were all kinds of food stalls with exciting things to eat - mainly fried, or at least containig a lot of fat/oil. The two fun dishes were all the skewars of meat, potatoes and veg that you can select from the various stalls to have stir fried, and the steam boat containing pieces of ham, broccoli, noodles, sweet peas, crevettes, etc. simmering over a table burner in a pot of water. The highlight of this area is Kontong Shan which is an important mountain peak in the Taoist religion. The hilltop has dozens of picturesque temples to the summit of over 2100m. Unfortunately we arrived there about 3:30 allowing only 3 hours till closing. Access was ridiculously expensive having increased only recently, It was Y120 entrance, minibus Y15 or cable car Y90. We chose not to do the climb because it was hot and we felt that including the hike yup we would once again be rushing ! One person from the group went and seemed to enjoy it. In restrospect, we probably should have gone, "seized the moment" and all that!! While John went off up the mountain the truck drove to the reservoir at the bottom of the mountain and our Chinese guide managed to convince the officials to let us camp up in a picnic site overlooking the reservoir, and Kontong Shan. The view was spectacular and we sat along the edge of the retaining wall with our legs dangling over the road below drinking beer and taking in the beautiful scenery including the breathless gondola ride over the reservoir and up the mountain. 4 of the group (Dave, Jack, Maeve, and Renate) were brave and walked down to the Reservoir, braved the cold water and swam over to the opposite bank. We had a visit from a very smart gentleman, his wife, and daughter. They were all mezmerized by the Truck ,the tents, the fire making, and the food preparation. It turned out that our visitor was the chief of the cable car operation! We had a great dinner of pork kebabs and rice (Ray was on cook duty) in the daylight for once. Around 9 pm (its dark now then) Dave set off some Chinese crackers. They were fun especially since they are illegal in Canada - I was concerned the Chinese army would come rushing up to find out what was going on -- a strip of sparkle and fizzle, and lots of noise. After that most of us retired to our tents although I am sure some remained up.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Friday June 12, 2009 - Lanzhou

Friday June 12 - Lanzhou We had most of the day free in Lanzhou. Ray and I got up late - 9 am and hunted for something for breakfast other than rice, noodles, etc. Mmm, difficult. We ended up in KFC eating mini chicken burgers and tea and coffee. It was excellent!! Another couple from the Truck wandered in too!! You can't believe how popular KFC seems to be here. We saw so many outlets!! Lanzjou is fairly big, 2,800,000 people. In the 1990s it was considered the world's most polluted city. Its built in the valley floor surrounded by mountains. What we saw was fairly modern and typically Chinese. Tons and tons of residential high rises. The downtown was fun. Chinese people love to eat out. We went to the HezhengLu night market, a collection of food stalls on either side of the street all making up fresh dishes of goats head soup, steamed snails, mutton pitas, stir fry, etc. Ian had goat's artery kebabs. Each stall had its own table around which all the stall patrons sat. It was an exciting place. Other than that - not much was unique. After breakfast Ray had some passport photos taken. He waited patiently while the girl went out on her bicycle to get the prints. I went to the Internet - it was a huge room tucked away on the 2nd floor above the shops and must have held about 50 - 100 computers set up classroom style. Still can't access my blog though!! After that we went into one of the restaurants and picked a dish by pointing to the picture. It was delicious!! What I thought was green and red pepper turned out to be chilli peppers, so poor Ray had quite a time with the hotness. But it was really good. Then it was back to the hotel and on to the Truck and off on our way. We didn't drive far (about 2 1/2 hrs) and made a rough camp on the ridge of a hill looking down over all the terraces. It was a spectacular view, and very unique.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Thursday June 11, 2009 – Liujiaxia Reservoir, Yellow River

Thursday morning I vaguely heard the alarm, then Ray saying: “don’t go back to sleep.” So I got up, had a lovely hot shower, in the bug infested bathroom, and we went for breakfast. A buffet for Y10 each consisting of shredded carrots, cucumber and garlic pickles, bean sprouts, and noodles – all flavoured; with a little dough-ball and some sort of porridge….mmm! We ate our small quantity quickly and went out the hotel to look for some passport pictures which we needed so that our Chinese group visa could be split into individual visas. What a palava all the Chinese visa rules have caused, enough to dissuade anyone from coming here ..and sooo expensive! Its not even as if China is a highly threatened country. Anyway, across the road from the hotel a big sign said “Cake”, so we went in and managed to buy a currant bun, a coffee (hallejuah!)…haven’t had a coffee for ages, and a coke – no tea unfortunately. We left around 10 am. To catch the boat for our ride on the Lixjiaaxia Dam, a major dam along the middle-upper part of the Yellow River forming the Liujiaxia Reservoir. The dam is located down river from where the Tao River meets the Yellow River . The dam and hydro-electric facility are near Yongjian about 70 km southwest of Lanzhou .

The boat ride on the reservoir lasted about 3 1/2 hours each way and was quite pleasant. It wasn’t too cold and the rock formations of the gorge were quite stunning. The Bing Ling Temple Grottoes qre said to be one of the finest Buddist grottoes in China and because of their remoteness, they have been able to survive and also remain void of tourists. Over a period of 1600 years sculptors hanging from ropes down the steep porous canyon walls, carved 152 niches in the rock and sculpted statues into them. There is a walkway all around making viewing access easy. The art work was sponsored by the wealthy merchants who passed along the Silk Road . There was a magnificent 27 meter high statue of the future Buddha on one side of the canyon and on the other an enormous sleeping Buddha tucked inside a cave. We were also offered a jeep ride up the canyon to see a small Tibetan monastery but due to our time limit didn’t have time. We couldn’t believe that after such a long boat ride we would be limited to 1 hour to see the carvings. It was nowhere near enough time to absorb everything and we felt as if we were rushing around as if we had a boat to catch.. which of course we did…All in all, it was a pleasant boat ride, but the carvings were not really that exciting. All in all, it was another Chinese tourist attraction that left you feeling short of value for the money and effort expended in getting there.

After we got back off the boat around 8 pm we drove to Lanzhou (2 hours), had a late dinner, and checked into the hotel. A group of about 10 of us went out to a Karaoke Bar which is all the rave here. It ended up we were the only ones in the club, but the manager seemed happy to have us. Leon and some others learned how to use the computer and we listened to the songs, danced a bit, chatted, Maeve sang a little, Ian tried to pole dance and al in all a ton of fun was had. We left around 2 am and some others shortly after us. The remainder we hear (4 people) made it through to about 6 am, so not much sleep for them!!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Wednesday June 10, 2009 - Tongren to LuiJiaxia

On Wednesday morning we left the campsite around 8:25 am and went straight to the Rongwo Gonchen Gompa. Admission to this monastery was only Y18, the cheapest by half that we have been charged so far, and the monastary was so special. Definitely one of the highlights. Tongren itself is a new town and there is a Muslim area and a Tibetan area. We drove all through it and it was clean and comfortable and the people all very friendly and congenial. The Monastery was a maze of passages, temples, chapels, and monks residences dating back to 1301. It seemed that a lot had been destroyed in the cultural revolution, and/or slowly deteriorated over the years and a lot of the temples had recently been rebuilt and a lot were in the process of being rebuilt. The monks were so friendly and relaxed, there were no other tourists, and if a temple was locked and there was a monk around he unlocked it and showed us over. The temples were stunning. The art work, the treasures, the Buddhist statues, all beautiful colours, intricate designs, and telling passionate stories. The lack of military and police presence was noticeable and probably added to the relaxed charm of the monastery.

By 11 am we were on our way once again heading to Lanzhou . We actually had a great opportunity to see the town and surrounding area twice, as our Chinese guide made a mistake and we did a complete circle around town! It was a pretty drive on tree-lined roads, flanked by canola fields and beehives and passing monasteries, chortens, and mud brick homes mixed among the cultivated terraces and flanked by Sedona-looking hill formations. We wove our way up and down mountain passes dwarfed by the grass covered peaks all around us. Sheep and goats swarmed over the hills….and road… and were magnificent with their wide horns, and sandy-white wool coats. Landslides were abundant as could be seen by the piles of rubble lying by the side of the road. Some cars passed us., VW Passat was common. Donkeys stood idly by in the scrub at the side of the road. We passed through some small communities. This area is a mix of cultures including Muslim and we ate lunch in Xunhua Salarzu Zizhixian, noodles again, but not nearly as nice as yesterday. Also, the restaurant was quite dirty with food shoved underneath the table as we hear is customary all over China . We made a quick trip to the supermarket for ice-cream and potatoe chips. I did mention before the food on this trip was definitely not nutritious. In fact, although we buy fruit and eat lots of veg, I still feel starved of good fruit, salad, fibre and protein – there is lots of fat, and carbs in the local foods. The cramp has eased off so I must be back to the right level of electrolytes. How we take eating a nourishing diet for granted. My other bleat for the day is about poo. I am sick of pee and poo – seeing people peeing, seeing other people’s poo in the gross toilets, and then camping in fields of cow patties, yak poop, and little black poop pellets probably sheep and goats. I am sure all my MON friends will appreciate what I’m saying!!

This afternoon’s drive taxed our list of the worst roads we’ve been on, but the drive was utterly spectacular. We crossed the mountains from Yun Hua to Naisigou and LinXia and the scenery was exactly the way I imagined parts of China to be - high grassy mountain ranges and deep gorges. In the first part, we only saw sheep/goats/yaks, but as we came more into the fertile valley we started to see more people, and farming, and right down in the valley you could see the cultivated terraces on the other side. The whole area is dominated by the Hui Muslims mixed in with the Tibetans and Chinese. The Chinese looking Mosques were really sweet, but there were still Mosques with the middle eastern onion look. At the top of the high pass we passed into Gansu Province , and of course the road was dirt. Pat and Richard will remember the Corduroy Road outside Collingwood. Well, multiply that by 10, add in the switchback bends and the ascent up a steep mountain on a dirt road, and you might have an inkling of what the 100 kms we traveled through the mountains was like. Just spectacular though, and everything around us was so interesting and the people just as curious and friendly! The Muslims do not appear as fundamental as some of the Middle East Muslims in that the women wear hijib but not burka’s and seem more integrated with the men.

LinXia used to be an important terminus on the Silk Road but now its an important centre for the Hui Muslims with their while skull caps and wispy beards. It’s a big market town and we drove the length of the market as we passed through.

We thought our climbing was over and that the last 100 km would be civilized, at least I’m sure that is what Sarah was hoping, as she gets very motion sick. But no, after LinXia we once again climbed up into the terraced mountains, this time on a paved switchback road. Just incredible country side. The green fertile terraces built into the sides of the mountains stood out from the mud colour of the clay. We climbed up and up until finally we were driving along the top of a narrow ridge, looking down on either side to small communities built on the valley floors beneath us. We travelled on after dark around 10 pm until we came to the ferry across the Yellow River where we had visions of making a bush camp overnight because the ferryman had stopped working for the day. But….we are in China , and our Chinese guide was able to persuade, for a little extra money, the ferryman to take us across. After that it was another 5 km drive over a small mountain and down ino Liujiaxia.

Gansu Province is one of China ’s most rugged provinces and also about the 5th poorest. The Silk Route ran right through the long narrow province.

The hotel in Liujiaxia left a lot to be desired. We walked in to be met by little cockroach-looking bugs darting out from under the skirting boards, and one managed to make it up to the washbasin and eyed me as I sat on the toilet. I checked out the bed, it seemed clean and bug free, and I was so tired, I climbed in with all my dirt from 4 nights of bush caps and went soundly asleep leaving Ray pottering around showering and shaving, and the bugs to have free rein in the room once again.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Tuesday June 9, 2009 - Golmud to Tongren – The Tibetan Plateau II

Tuesday morning we were up at 7:30 am again and off just after 8:30 am. We continued our drive along the lake and passed an area of huge sand-dunes which was quite unique in the generally grassland area. We are heading to Tongren, or Repkong, at least that is what we hope and are also hoping that there are no police checks along the way which may refuse us access. Tongren is a monastery town of Tibetan monks and Hui shop-owners. The area around Tongren is famous for its thangkas and painted statues and it’s inhabitants are a mixture of Tibetan and Tu, who bear some relationship to the Monguls.

Slowly we descended from the Tibetan Plateau and it seemed that all of a sudden we were back below the tree line. The land became much more green and fertile and things started to look more Chinese than Tibetan. We pulled into Xining (population 770,000) and were struck by the high rise apartments. Xining, at the edge of the Tibetan Plateau, is the capital of the Province and the only large city. It is a Han Chinese outpost, a military garrison, and a trading centre since the 16th Century. Being on cook group we explored the massive Shuijing Xian market for lamb and ended up with beef – 32 yuen a kilo, chopped into bite size stewing pieces and the fat removed. The mutton was the same price, pork a little cheaper. We bought potatoes, carrots, onions, chillis, red pepper and cabbage for 21 and it cost 42 yuen. Once the shopping was done, I went into a typical restaurant with John and had lunch for 4.5 yuen – a cup of green tea and a bowl of vegetable noodles cooked in a sauce with a comfortable bite, shredded fresh carrots, fresh coriander leaves, and something else we couldn’t place. They were delicious!

The last part of our day’s drive followed the Gahe River, a tributary of the Yellow River, along the sides of an impressive gorge. The rocky sides rose perpendicular out of the water bed and were dotted all over with hardy, sure footed, mountain goats. The paved two lane road wound its way, corner by corner, through short tunnels, along the course of the river. You could see pack ponies winding their way along the narrow path on the opposite side of the canyon wall. We came across a Buddhist religious site where a suspension bridge draped with prayer flags crossed the roaring water below to a huge painting of a Buddha on the rocks.

In one stretch we paralleled an aquaduct along the opposite side into a min power station. Making full use of the arable land along the roadside, much like we had seen in Newfoundland last summer, people had planted patches of bright yellow canola and other vegetables, and of course we saw the inevitable road repairs where patches of the beautifully smooth road became rocky challenges that jettisoned those in the back seat of the Truck up to meet the Truck roof high above them. It was an extraordinary area but scarred in places with power dams and gravel works and pipelines although areas of reforestration attempted to cover up the severity of the rocky mountains as we drove out of the canyon into the valley.

As we neared Tongren we saw 3-wheeled cart loads of monks who smiled and waved at us enthusiastically as we drove by them. We saw Chortens (stupas) built at strategic points in the valley; we passed the 400 year old Gomar Gompa with its Gasar Gompa distinctive by its 8 chortens and in the village of Sengeshong there are 2 monasteries famous for their thangka art which is commissioned from as far away as Lhasa. The Lower (Mango) Monastery also has 8 chortens. We camped on the terraces overlooking the town about 7:30 pm and had a pleasant evening chatting around the campfire. I was on cook duty and we hurried to have dinner ready around 10 pm; beef stew “a la Chinese”, mashed potatoes and cabbage.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Monday June 8, 2009 - Golmud to Tongren – The Tibetan Plateau II

We were on our way by 9 am on Monday morning – the first part was a little scary. We decided to walk out to the road, and Ian our driver chased us.with the Truck! That was good for a rush of adrenaline! We rolled speedily along the highway through the vast sandy plains about 2500 – 3000 meters above sea level passing through the few dirty grimy communities which seemed to be more like truck shops than anything else.

Our original itinerary was to visit a town called Xiahe which was supposed to be very beautiful, typically Tibetan, but a politically controversial area. Despite it all being a go a month ago, the Chinese Government has now decided not to allow us to visit that area – no reason given! So, we are headed to Lake Qinghai, a saline lake situated in the Province of Qinghai. It’s about 3205 m in a depression in the Tibetan Plateau. It is the largest lake in China. Our travel in China is fairly restricted. Our guide has to get permits for each area and the government is at liberty to prevent us going anywhere it chooses. We haven’t “felt” any restrictions personally, but in one of the little towns Ray was hunting behind the main street for a loo and a policeman came up to him and wanted to know what he was doing.

As we started to climb into the mountains, the road startaed to deteriorate and in one section there were large patches of diret road probably where frost has heaved the road and it is now waiting to be fixed. The mountains are pretty desolate and bleak; lots of loose rock and stone covered with a mossy layer of grass. As we approached the lake, the countryside smoothed out into large grasslands littered with sheep, yaks, herders, a team building a pipe line, and tents, probably for nomadic Tibetans.
We drove into Heimahe which a melting pot of different cultures: Mongol, Tibetan Muslim (Hui) and Han. It seemed like just another tiny little grimy town, however while cook group was shopping for lunch Maeve and I wandered down one side of the main street and back on the other. It was one of the priceless moments. The people were fabulous, and each of them had a different “traditional” dress, all so colourful. We stood looking at them in admiration, and they stood looking at us in admiration. They took pictures of us, and we took pictures of them! There were tons of “hellos’, handshakes, smiles, and words spoken that the other didn’t understand. We found a fabulous shop with jackets, police coats, and hats and so 3 of the group (including Maeve) went back and bought a coat, and one person bought a hat. There wasn’t much in the way of food, but the town was rich in culture. The police checked on us a couple of times probably due to the gathering crowd around the Truck.

The shores of the aquamarine lake were uninterrupted grasslands and we had to be careful not to hit a yak, or a sheep as we droe along. Sooon we arrived at Puhahe another community but it lacked the colour and charm of Heimahe. We made a Truck lunch stop just outside the town. It wasn’t the most pleasant stop as there was a nasty smell that I couldn’t place. Anyway, it didn’t stop me and some of the other girls from washing our hair in the river. Felt sooo good after a few nights camping and no showers.

Around 3 p.m we set off for the Bird Sanctuary on Qinghai Lake. It cost 115 yuen each and was really rather disappointing. We were whizzed through the flat wetlands in a little green open air bus to a viewing centre where you could look out at brown striped face geese. I ask you, I couldn’t believe I was paying to see geese when all spring we curse and swear at them in our own garden!! They were very similar to our Canada Geese in size and look, just a different colour. The babies were the same little yellow chicks that bring us so much angst…..and geese poo…. at home. Then we were whisked along a road in another green mini bus to a little harbour area where we climbed up x number of steep steps to see a rock covered with black cormarants. Anyway, we took the requisite number of pictures, but with all the beautiful birds we see in our own garden, and have seen on our other travels, this was a little tame and poor value. Added to that, the paths were breaking up, the signs were deteriorating to the point you could hardly read them, and the toilets were absolutely disgusting! Hardly world class!! We went back to pick up those who remained at the lunch stop and set off on the 70km journey to a spot where we could camp. It was a “merry” Truck as we drove along the road as vast quantities of beer were being consumed by most. Relief probably at getting back to normal altitudes!

We camped in another field just off the road. It was threatening rain when we were pitching the tents but it came to nothing until later on when we were either in bed or going to bed. Fortunately the wind was so strong it blew everything dry as soon as the rain stopped. Ray and I didn’t do too much except sit on the Truck and try to pick out some photos for the blog using Caroline’s lap top that she so kindly lent us. After dinner, it was quickly to bed as we were all so cold.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Sunday June 7, 2009 - Golmud to Tongren - The Tibetan Plateau II

Sleep came easy and deep until 7:30 am on Sunday morning when once again it was up and on our way continuing through the desert. At one point, we came across a herd of camels (two humps) beside the road, mangy looking, and unexpected. Not sure if they are wild or not, suspect not! The drive was uneventful. The scenery changed from pure desert to a sort of grassy desert within mountains ranges where sheep, goats, cattle, and horse grazed. We stopped for a shopping spree in Dulan to buy food for dinner (Ray is on tonight’s cook team) and other sundry items for the Truck. A very friendly little town where tourists were obviously rarely seen. The curiosity of the people continues to amaze us. After that we had a short drive, for part on a bumpy, dirt road, but otherwise in a fairly straight, smooth tarmac road. We stopped for lunch in a cow patch and made sure we left some scraps! We have noticed the number of bridges that are washed away which always means a detour off the main road through the ditches on either side.

We came to Caka Yan Hu, a salt lake, turned off the road and drove across the sandy plain which was sprinkled with bunches of pretty blue lilac looking flowers and tufts of grass resembling sea-grass or sea-oats, and sheep, cattle, and horses. Immediately, a lone horseman appeared on a little brown scruffy mare with a foal following along. He just hung around us …watching…. curious, but when I came to put up the tent he came to help me which was fabulous since Ray was on cook-group. I did get a bit concerned and wondered if there was any expectation that since he had helped me put up on “sleeping quarter” I might also want to “share” them with him!! Another horseman appeared this time on a much prettier grey. They hung around just watching and chatting with our Chinese guide for a while then disappeared across the grass-land in to the sunset. We had a good night’s sleep, not too cold, and were awakened in the morning by the sound of “mooing” in our ears. Obviously one of the cows had come fairly close to the tent!

Saturday, June 6, 2009

June 6, 2009 - Golmud to Tongren - The Tibetan Plateau II

On Saturday morning the alarm woke us at 10 am. It seemed as if we had just got to sleep, but we dragged ourselves out of bed, showered, and set off for breakfast. The only thing we found was the hotel restaurant which although lovely, was expensive, and only sold Chinese food. It was difficult to come up with something suitable but we ended up with black tea and some little cake-like buns with honey. They served a lovely “steaming cloth” (a jaycloth!) for your face and hands but charged 1 yuen for it!! After breakfast, we checked out of our room and took the Truck into the centre of town.

Golmud (meaning “river”) is a city of about 200,000 built at 2,802 meters. It’s the third largest in the Tibetan Plateau after Xining and Lhasa. Around the city there are 20 salt lakes, and it therefore abounds with natural resources resulting in lots of industry including salt lake chemicals, potassium, magnesium, salt, natural gas, and minerals including gold, copper, jade, precious stones, lead and zinc. Other important industries are petro-chemicals, oil refineries and gas fields. The 2001 GDP totaled 2.215 billion yuen, a rise of 31.9% over 2000. Golmud is planned to become “China’s Salt Lake City.”

We only had a couple of hours to explore the city and what we saw was fun, despite Lonely Planet saying that you only go there if you are “an engineer or an escaped convict.” We wandered around the centre square which had massive floral displays all in pots, some sort of weird “ghost mountain” structure which some of the kids said was for babies (could be a translation disconnect!!) so, we assumed some sort of kiddies rides; a pond on which people took out paddle boats. We saw a roller blade ring, and one level down covered by large umbrellas were hundreds of poole tables with snooker tables in little rooms around the poole tables. It was amazing, we have never seen so many poole tables all in once place. Walking around was like being in a large city in the states with huge advertisement bill-boards. The roads were wide, in some cases tree-lined avenues. The people were so friendly it was amazing. They couldn’t speak English but could say “hello” and we spoke to old and young, male and female, waved to the little kids and generally felt very welcomed. I said to Ray: “We went to the square to site-see, but everyone was gazing at us!!” At least the “gaping” is neutral! I don’t think they see many western tourists here! Everything was in Mandarin and none of the signs in English. After our quick city-tour, we went into Dicos (the equivalent of McDonalds) and had a chicken burger (actually chicken breast which you could eat and no bones) and chips and coke. Mmmm, delicious!!! Then we grabbed a cab with Leon and Natalie whom we had met in Dicos back to the hotel and the Truck.

Around 2:30 p.m we said goodbye to everyone on the second truck “Suzette” including Dan and Zoe and left Golmud on a beautifully hot sunny day for the desert and a bush camp. The scenery is now totally changed. There is a mountain ridge on the horizon on one side of the road but the rest of the scenery is absolutely flat – yellow-brown sand topped with gravel. There are small waist-high bushes in some parts but in others there is nothing. After about two to three hours driving, we pulled off the highway, which is now smooth and paved, and drove about 3 – 5 kms in the desert only getting semi-stuck twice when we all got off the Truck and walked a bit. It was a beautiful camp-site, in the middle of the desert with a ridge of mountains about 3 kms behind us. It was also warm till it got dark around 10 pm, but even then it was no where near as cold as what we had just come through. We cut down one of the scrub bushes and lit a fire around which all of us, minus 1 person, sat and talked, told jokes, etc. until we went off to our tents and bed.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Friday June 5, 2009 - Lhasa to Golmud - The Tibetan Plateau

After breakfast we voted unanimously to keep driving through to Golmud. The road continued to be awful. Just a mud road in the process of being built into a paved road. The plains are as flat as the eye can see at times, and at others, mountain ranges surround it. We are running along side the railway from Lhasa to Golmud which took 5 years to complete and was opened in 2006. Apparently some cars are pressurized so people suffering from altitude problems can travel comfortably. One chap off the other Truck went to the Dr. in Lhasa because he was feeling so tired. He was told his blood pressure was really low and he should take the train to avoid the high passes. Golmud is located at 2802 m. There are no communities in this northern part of Tibet, but there are lots of yak, small ponies, and deer or antelope scattered over the plains. Again we were stopped at a road block and the road was closed for roadwork's. I think we arrived around 12:30 p.m. so immediately decided to cook lunch, which we did....and then waited. We played some games on the Truck, and then the younger crowd went outside to play hide and seek...and still we waited. It started to get cold, so we wrapped up, and still...we waited. Around 7 p.m the Trucks around us started their engines and to move forward, and we all rushed for a last minute pee, but it was a false alarm...and still we waited. At 8:0 pm sharp, things started to move. There were hundreds of trucks around us, and it was dead slow, moving forward. Trucks vied for position, made 3 lanes where there should have been two thus blocking the road, honked at other trucks trying to usurp their position, but somehow, once again, it all seemed to work and were were on our way. It was a "dozey" day, and I lived it in a haze, snoozing, eating, peeing, and generally paying little attention to the inconvenience around us. We hadn't gone very far, maybe another 20 km, when we had to stop again. Another road closure. This time because they were "paving" the road. We waited some time, then our guide got the OK for us to use a diversion along side the road, so we backed up, got some other tucks to back up, and turned off the road down the bank to the dirt, bumpy track below the road and running parallel to it. By the time we got through all of this it was around 10 pm. At this point we still had 300 km to go to Golmud and we anticipated arriving there around 2 pm It was freezing cold and so we got our sleeping bags out and tucked up on the truck and attempted to snooze. No wonder the Chinese close the roads during the day, they don't want you to se what you are driving on!! We were on and off the main highway to Golmud, mostly off - and it was do incredibly bumpy that you could hardly call it a road. At one point we were driving through a river valley in the Quaidam desert actually along the river bed. So you can imagine, our shock when we looked out the window and saw water surging past us. We had taken a detour, along with hundreds of other trucks, which took us through the river. Then we stated to realize where we were. Then horror set in as we saw the number of trucks burried up to their axles in mud and water. It was a surreal experience, sort of like travelling on the moon (the moon was bright!) and we hoped we wouldn't get stuck because we might be there for days. Fortunately, Ian is a great driver and he barrelled the truck though the river, around the stuck trucks, and intimidating anything coming towards us to move out of the way. We did it. We got through in about 10 mins and were back on the old bumpy roads again. Shortly after, around 12:30 p.m. we stopped for dinner - veggie/egg fried rice. Despite the late hour, the cold and the awful conditions, the food tasted really good at the Huaxing Hotel! Then it was back on the Truck to finis the last 100 km on a decent highway, and snooze some more. At around 5:030 to 5:45 we pulled up to our hotel, unloaded our bags and crawled to the elevator (thank goodness they had one) and our bedroom on the 4th floor. We were in bed and asleep in minutes. The bed was so comfy, nice white sheets and snugly downy, and a bathroom that worked with hot running water. Bliss.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Thursday June 4, 2009 - Lhasa to Golmud - The Tibetan Plateau

On Thursday (June 4) morning we were up at 6 am to leave our camp site around 7 am. There had obviously been frost over night and it was still very cold in the morning. We just got on to the road from our camp site when Ian and Tamar told us we had a flat tyre. So, we drove to a sunny spot on the road and they changed the tyre in about 27 minutes. Our drive continued through the Tibetan plateau over high passes, again over 5,200 meters, and across the top of the plateau. We arrived at one point on the road only to find out that the road was closed, til 7 pm, so we had a nice Truck journey through the fields at the side of the road. At one point due to the angle the Truck would be lying at on the side of the hill, we all got out and walked. We passed a little three wheeler bike-cart with a high unstable load of grain bags. The passenger was on the upper side of the hill holding on to the load over for dear life so that it didn't tip . They looked really funny, but they actually made it safely! We stopped for lunch in Naghu and as I was on cook group we went off to do the shopping. Once again I was quite surprised at the lack of variety, but we did end up getting some good pork and great vegetables - carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, red peppers and a courgette type of vegetable from which they remove the seeds before cooking - I think they all it pumpkin. The other staple seems to be potatoes, so although I haven't been eating much meat - yak is quite tasty but tough - there are usually plenty of veg, rice, noodles, and potatoes to choose from. After lunch we got on our way again, not passing many communities on the high, cold plateau. We came to another road block which was going to be about an hour's wait, so we decided to cook dinner. It was cold, snowing on and off, and we cooked dinner watched by a growing crowd of Tibetans. It can't have been very appealing to them because one guy went away and came back with a packet of biscuits for us Finally, we set off once again on easily the worst road we have encountered so far. We made the decision to drive through the night and stop at 6 am and pitch our tents aiming to leave about mid-day. Next stop was the police check which was good for 1/2 hr. This was going into a new prefecture in Tibet. Just as we were starting to climb over another high pass at Tanggla (5220m) on the muddy, bumpy road, we had a problem with the gear box and Ian and Tamar cheerfully hopped out in the below freezing weather to fix it. Then we were off again. We crossed out of Tibet into Qinghai Province as we crossed the high pass of Tanggula Shanku at 5220. The road was absolutely awful and I think we covered about 200 km in 10 hours or so. We continued bumping and rocking through the night, but at 6 am decided it was too cold, too foggy, and too much effort to pitch the tents so just kept going till breakfast at 9:09 am. The drive was truly beautiful passing snow capped mountains and snow all around us....but it was some of the coldest pee stops we have had!!