Thursday, 15 November 2012

Dunhuang - The Oasis Town

We were still craving cheese, and added to that list was a good old fry up and a roast dinner!  But I digress.

The bus journey from Jiayuguan took about 5 hours and was interesting, if a little nerve wracking at times!  Our preferred method of travel is train as it is largely considered quite safe and you generally won’t go wrong on two rails.  Four wheels, with a 2 or 3 lane road to zoom around on, and a horn seems to give the driver a lot more options and sometimes you think just a bit too much freedom to drive where and how he likes! 

We were sat at the front which didn’t help, particularly as overtaking is more akin to a game of chicken but we made it in one piece, grabbed a taxi from the bus station and asked to be taken to one of the travellers cafes listed in Lonely Planet.

The sand dunes outside Dunhuang
This is where our problems started (and our plans to head far west began to unravel).  The particular travellers’ café we were heading for was shut, as were all the others mentioned in the book, as well as the information café attached to one of the hotels.  We guessed (and had this confirmed later) that they had shut down for winter.  It was at this point that we were a bit unsure whether we should stick to our original plan to continue travelling west but we put off any final decision until later and in the meantime we booked into a hotel (no hostels in Dunhuang either).  Our room was almost identical to the one in the hotel in Jiayuguan in terms of layout, décor, furnishings, bedding and, of course, the obligatory rock hard bed!

We were at a bit of a loss at this point as to what to do for the best.  We had to make a decision fairly soon about whether to continue west or, if not, where we would head to instead as we had to book train tickets to somewhere!
We had no internet access (standard in hostels but hotels don’t provide this service) and although the Lonely Planet advises that all travellers’ cafes have internet access, clearly as they were shut, we were a bit stuck.  We were beginning to feel a little isolated and misinformed.  At this point we were no longer sure how much we could rely on Lonely Planet with regard to a route which was less travelled.

We hadn’t restricted our research to the Lonely Planet, and were happy that we had researched quite our intended destinations quite extensively both before setting out and during our trip.  We had already changed our original plan once and decided against heading up north from Beijing to Changbai Shan after various resources had indicated that it was just a bit late in the year to go.  However, nothing we had read had indicated that October would be too late to head west along the Silk Road, indeed the Lonely Planet cited September and October as being one of the best times to go as it was cooling down (the desert summer is unbearable).  While it is the best time to visit in our view (the temperature is warm during the day but freezing at night and it is the perfect time to visit the desert, particularly if you are clambering around sand dunes which would be near impossible in the searing summer heat ) but unfortunately the lack of facilities after the end of September does make it more of a challenge, and therefore more expensive and time consuming and so, for us, it was necessary to reconsider.

Paul and Camilla
When it became apparent that even some of the hotels and all the travel agencies were closed or due to close down for the winter very shortly we decided it would be wise to head back east.  We felt that not only would it be too difficult, with the language barrier and the lack of information along the way, but also that it would turn out to be expensive – we didn’t want to spend a large part of our budget, taking a long time out of our time available, to do something just because it was part of our original plan.  We knew when we set out that we needed to be flexible at every step of the way so we bit the bullet and decided to head back east. 

We decided to head to Lanzhou, from where we could catch a train onwards to Chengdu so duly trotted off to the train booking office.  Paul was becoming an expert at buying tickets and more than comfortable doing this but it sometimes turned out to be a bit of a battle and we were never sure what tickets we had until we had deciphered the Chinese characters on the tickets we ended up with! 

Paul, Camilla, Dawn and Doris
On this occasion, while we were in the ticket booking office we were approached by a couple asking us if we needed help.  People in China often come up to you if you look a bit lost.  It turned out Billy was born in Hong Kong and brought up in the States while Jane was Chinese and lived about an hour from Macau on the east coast.  Billy spoke English and Cantonese while Jane was fluent in both Mandarin and Cantonese, and with their help we booked two lower berth bunks on a hard sleeper to Lanzhou (although I maintain Paul would have managed on his own but it would have been churlish to refuse assistance).
Tickets booked, outside the booking office we started chatting to Billy and Jane.  They were travelling around China for a couple of months.  They were as surprised as we were that the place seemed to be closing down and were planning to visit the same places in Dunhuang that we were so we arranged for them to share the taxi we had booked for the next day to the Mogao Caves and the sand dunes just outside the city.

At 9 o’clock the next morning we all met our taxi driver outside our hotel and set off to visit the Mogao Caves.  As it turned out it was really helpful to have Jane and Billy along to translate.  Jane would speak to the taxi driver in Mandarin, translate to Billy in Cantonese, who in turn would translate for us into English.
The Mogao Caves are considered to be the finest example of Buddhist art in the whole of China and they are indeed very impressive.  The paintings and statues are beautiful and there are 3 huge Buddhas, two sitting and one sleeping.  No photography is allowed anywhere in the caves so we don’t have pictures, and we had to join a Chinese tour group as there are only 3 English tour groups a day and we had missed the 9 o’clock one!  So we were were led around about 8 or 10 of the main caves – there are over 400 but only about 25-30 are open to the public at any one time – listening to a guide we couldn’t understand with Jane translating the important/interesting bits.

After the tour you can wander around the other open caves not included in the tour but by the time you’ve spent a couple of hours there, it’s probably enough.  There is such a thing as Buddhist art overload!
Crescent Moon Lake
We left the caves about midday and the taxi driver took us on a little detour to a burial ground where there was a tomb which was open to the public for a very small fee.  Billy and Jane explained to us that throughout most of China, burials are forbidden, simply because they don’t have the room, and the majority of funerals are cremations, which is something which is quietly resented by some as it is goes against their traditional beliefs.  However, in areas such the area around Dunhuang, where there are fewer inhabitants and there is plenty of land, burials are permitted.  The burial ground we drove through was set out over acres of flat desert, with various graves and family plots marked out with triangular piles of stones or elaborate brick alters.  Some plots were marked out with low walls or other markers and you could see recent offerings had been placed by many of the graves.

This site was obviously an ancient one and the tomb we were taken to was about 1700 years old.  It was the tomb of what they believed was a husband and wife.  The tomb had been raided at some point in the past and certain items stolen - although it was not a king’s tomb the inhabitants had clearly been quite wealthy.  The tomb took the form of an underground house with steep stairs leading down to a living room, with a small kitchen off to the left through a narrow doorway and an even smaller bathroom to the right.  The coffins had been laid out either side of the living room and on the wall facing the entrance door was a wall painting (now protected by glass) depicting what they believed were the tomb’s inhabitants.  Although some of the items originally placed in the tomb had been looted, some simple items remained in the living room and the kitchen.  The brickwork was quite elaborate and would have been richly painted but the colours had faded.
It was an interesting little site where they had also discovered lots of paintings and scripts and were able to learn a lot about life at that time from the objects found there.

Our last stop was the sand dunes just outside of Dunhuang.  It is described as a bit of a “theme park” and we were not sure what to expect.  As it turned out you are charged to get in (no surprise there!) and then you can either just wander about the dunes or partake in one of the many activities on offer:  camel rides, paragliding, dune buggying, or sand surfing.
We all opted for a camel ride.  We donned our bright orange shoe protectors over our jeans and boots and climbed on our allotted camels.  I had never been on a camel before, and Paul’s only experience was in Egypt some years before when he rode a very reluctant and rather irritable camel that protested rather loudly at having to carry his rather large and heavy load.  The camel that drew the short straw on this occasion bore his/her burden very well.  She (let’s call her she for the sake of argument) did protest every time she had to sit down for him to disembark but I think, like her rider, she had dodgy knees.  She was blonde and looked like a Camilla, and Paul chatted happily away to her for the duration.

On top of a sand dune
We formed our own little camel train of 5 camels.  I was number 4 (on Doris) and Paul was number 5 in the train.  Once you are all seated the camel handler coaxes each camel to stand up in turn, starting with the one at in front.  The same procedure is followed when you stop to disembark, again starting with the camel at the front.  As Paul’s camel was following mine, when we stopped and disembarked, his camel sat down after mine, and as she plonked herself down she emitted a low pitched groaning shriek right in my ear!  She did this both times, poor dear, and nearly deafened me!  I should be grateful she didn’t bite or spit at me I suppose.

Other than that, the camel ride was without major incident.  It was surprisingly comfortable and the camels all seemed to be in good condition and well treated.  We rode up the sand dunes for half an hour, then they have a 15 minute break before heading back down the dunes.  It’s certainly the best and easiest way to climb a sand dune.
The rope ladder up the dune
When we said goodbye to our respective camels (we had all become quite attached to our trusty steeds) we headed to one of the sand dunes and there followed a long discussion between the four of us about whether we should attempt to climb to the top.

The general consensus was a resounding “no”.  It was quite warm by now, and the sun was surprising strong.  Certainly climbing up the sand dunes with no support and where you sank up to your knees with every step would have been a killer but we spotted a kind of rope ladder in the sand and decided that as we were there we should at least attempt to get up to the top.  It was incredibly steep and it was hard work but it was worth it.  From the top we could see the sand dunes surrounding the area, and the Crescent Moon Lake which probably isn’t worth seeing up close but was quite picturesque and oasis-like from the top of the dune.  We were also able to see across the city of Dunhuang and see how it really is an oasis town in the middle of the desert.
Climbing down the dune was much more fun although equally tiring (especially on the knees and the hips when you get to our age!).  Paul tried to surf down on his bum like he used to on the beach in Australia and I kind of went down skiing.  Either way it was much quicker than climbing up and a hell of a lot more fun!

After that we headed back to Dunhuang, and to our delight found a café serving pizza (with internet access!).   We each ordered a pizza to ease the craving for cheese slightly, and made use of the internet.  We then spent some time wandering around the night market but other than that there wasn’t much to see in the city so we headed back to our hotel room and the next day headed out to the railway station to catch the train to Lanzhou and continue on our revised journey, east and then south.



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