One of the first things I notice after we get off the bus in Kashgar are the motorcycles. There are no motorcycles in Kyrgyzstan so that’s new anyway but what’s the most remarkable: they don’t make any sound. They are all electric! Which scares the hell out of me because they sneak up from behind to only use their horn at the very last moment. And these silent monsters are everywhere, even on the porch. Trying to run you over. Or at least that’s how it feels. Freaking idiots. Welcome to China.
We are going to follow the Northern Silk Road for the next week or two. From Kashgar to Turpan to Dunhuang and finally to Lanzhou. Officially the Silk Road ends at Xi’an, known for the Terracotta Army, but we won’t go that far since we turn off towards Tibet. It will mean a lot of traveling because distances are huge. The total distance between Kashgar and Lanzhou is about 3100 km. Which will take around 50 hours. Most of which we will cover by train, something we look forward to after all the bumpy roads and suicidal drivers in Kyrgyzstan.
Thinking about the ancient Silk Road you might get an image of Kashgar where people are busy with all kinds of handicrafts in small dusty alleys. Where you see a couple of camels hanging around on the streets. Streets that are full of smoke from the kebab stalls. It’s only partly true. We arrived after dark and the old town is indeed full of smoke from the food stalls. And there are craftsmen working on the streets. But next to that the city is hugely modern. Big shopping malls and towering office buildings dominate the skyline. And with all the flashing neon lights you might even get the impression you’re in Las Vegas instead of an ancient Silk Road city.
Due to the Chinese modernization anger, Kashgar’s old town as it used to be is almost gone. And rebuild. In the original Uygur style using the original woodwork. That’s at least a good thing. You can’t blame them to keep up with times. Still, with the now nicely paved roads it has become a bit artificial. Altogether with sign posts pointing you exactly where the Chinese government wants you to go. It would prove to be a taste of Chinese tourism.
From Kashgar we travel to Turpan, which is at the lowest point in China and, at 154m below sea level, the second lowest point on earth (after the Dead Sea). Next to that it’s also the hottest place in China and together with nearby Urumqi the most inland city in the world, which means they are the farthest from any ocean. So far the facts. The train follows the northern part of the Silk Road, north of the Taklamakan desert, after the Sahara the second largest sand desert in the world (ok, that’s one more fact). And with the Gobi Desert to the east, it’s desert all around here in Turpan.
Since we haven’t really seen any Silk Road landmarks yet, we decide to go out on a tour around Turpan. We heard not all the sights are worth visiting so we did some research in the Turpan museum (which is free) on which ones to go to. We chose to visit the ancient ruin city of Jiāohé, the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves and Tuyoq, a well-preserved Uygur town as well as an ancient Muslim pilgrimage sight (it’s said that seven trips to Tuyoq equal one trip to Mecca). The Bezeklik Caves were a joke since half the site was under construction, but the other sights were definitely worth the visit. Maybe not very spectacular but now we finally catched a glimpse of how life was on old Silk Road.
That same night we catch the night train to Dunhuang, our next stop. The trains in China are surprisingly modern and clean. At least, if you leave the toilets out of consideration. And, as one would expect from the Chinese, the boarding procedure is very organized, like getting on a plane almost. Something to learn from in Europe where we all got stuck with our luggage in the aisle as everybody started to board the train carriage from both entrances. And why isn’t there a x-ray scanner for luggage on train stations in Europe?
On our way to Dunhuang we ride straight through the Gobi Desert and one side is full of windmills. It strikes me that there’s a lot going on in China regarding clean energy. All new apartment buildings are provided with solar panels, all scooters in Kashgar are electric and the deserts are full of huge wind farms. Maybe there’s a general opinion about China that they are one of the biggest polluters in the world (and looking at the figures that’s probably true), they are also vastly becoming the world’s leader in the production of clean energy.
Dunhuang is a pleasant city. Traffic is slow and silent. We both feel the relaxed vibe even now that there was a strong wind blowing through the streets. The remainder of the sand storm from last night. We came to Dunhuang for two things: the sand dunes and the famous Mogao Caves, a UNESCO World Heritage site that holds one of the worlds most important collections of Buddhist art. The caves were nice and certainly worth the visit. Unfortunately I only saw the dunes from a distance because I got knocked down with a little traveler’s diarrhea on the last day. I’ll spare you the details 🙂
Carina still went to see the dunes. However, like many tourist attractions in China, she couldn’t escape the idea of being trapped in the tourist circus. In China the tourist industry in general is mainly about domestic tourism. They always travel around in big groups, most of the time carrying the same hats so their tour guide can keep track of them. Like a herd of sheep. And that’s exactly how they behave. They are driven around along the various sights to take pictures from the viewing platform. They’re happy as long as they can be on a photo with some sort of statue or landmark. Or just the entrance gate. An artificial oasis in the dunes? Perfect decor for a nice picture.
The last destination on our Silk Road tour is the Jiayuguan Fort which marks the westernmost point of the Great Wall that guarded the old Ming Dynasty China. This is also called the “mouth of China” because of its position at the beginning of the narrow river passage which is called the Hexi Corridor (or the “throat of China”). So, actually, coming from the deserts in the west this is where you enter “real” China. Apart from being an important landmark on the Silk Road, the fort isn’t very interesting. And the Overhanging Wall seems to be a newly build tourist attraction (I think only some of the towers are original) but it’s still nice to climb all the way up and look out over the Gobi Desert. Well, it’s included in the overpriced entrance ticket for the fort anyway.
We have based ourselves in the Tibetan mountain village of Langmusi now. Getting some rest from the days of traveling on the Silk Road and enjoying the fresh mountain air. Yesterday we were sitting with a beer with Roger, an Englishman we met earlier in Kashgar. And he had the same frustrating feeling about the artificial sights, the tourist circus around it, the absurd entrance fees, etc. And that there was a lack of “real experiences” so far. But then we realized that traveling through China is an attraction on itself.
It might be frustrating at times. All the hassle that involves normal everyday tasks like buying train tickets, checking into a hostel, getting food (Carina spend an hour trying to buy tea bags), explaining the taxi driver where to go and so on. Almost nobody speaks English, it’s hard to find a restaurant with an English menu (or pictures). Then there’s all the noisy social behavior of the Chinese: the snoring, the smacking, the slurping, the spitting (although that’s sort of forbidden today), the rasping of the throat or just the shouting at each other. They really are a different type of people.
But at the end of the day, when you’re sitting with fellow travelers and discussing things over a beer, you can laugh about it. Traveling through China on itself is the experience, you don’t really need the sights for that.