We arrive in Beijing from Xi’an by high-speed train. There had been a bit of a hiccup in arrangements over this which gradually became apparent from the moment that ‘Puma’, our guide in Xi’an, asked us innocently if we had our train tickets. We didn’t and neither did he. Someone had blundered and no booking had been made. After much running around by Puma, tickets were obtained the night before we left. We were very pleased as we had been looking forward to the day-time journey across a large swathe of central China. In the event, it was definitely worth doing and we were impressed by how green and rural much of the landscape was.
It was shirt-sleeves weather on the afternoon we arrived into Beijing’s massive Western Railway Station.
Surprisingly, we managed to meet up with our new guide, George, without much delay and headed straight off to the iconic Temple of Heaven, a circular pagoda dating from the Ming Dynasty (1420 AD). It is full of symbolic significance – and very beautiful. Locals are allowed into the grounds free of charge and many enjoy hanging out in the Long Corridor, playing cards and chess or dancing.
Beijing surprises us by how pleasant it is to wander round in its back streets (the hutongs) and how easy it is to get around in. The streets are in a grid pattern, so it’s straightforward to orient yourself and there’s an easy-to-use, cheap metro as well. Our hotel is in a hutong not far from the Forbidden City. We order a taxi to take us to a recommended restaurant, Dali Courtyard, but taxis don’t like navigating the narrow hutongs and ours doesn’t turn up. Nothing daunted, we set out on foot and find the nearest metro station. It’s a flat-rate fare, so buying a ticket is easy and there are plenty of signs in English to help us find our way. At the other end, we take care to orient ourselves when we emerge from the metro (easy to go wrong at this stage) and find the restaurant on Xiaojingchang Hutong without difficulty. We are pleased to do so because the restaurant – which is set in a delightful courtyard and has no menu – is excellent.
Next day we make the obligatory visits to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Our guide informs us that have to change our plans because the square has been shut off to the public in the morning (for a ceremonial wreath laying at the Monument to the People’s Heroes), so we go to the Summer Palace in the morning rather than the afternoon. The Summer Palace was an imperial playground, given to the emperor’s wife as a 60th birthday present, but mainly used by the notorious Empress Dowager Cixi, where she wasted vast sums of money on extravagances such as a marble boat.
There is a long queue just to get onto Tiananmen Square. Security is tight following a car bomb attack last year when five people died. Now everyone enters through a checkpoint where they are frisked and have bags scanned. It is the day before National Day and the streets are more crowded than usual. Once on the square, we see an enormous pot of flowers – surely, this wasn’t what was laid by the President this morning!
Unfortunately, the mausoleum where Mao’s embalmed body is on display is closed because of the national holiday. We make our way across the enormous space to the Forbidden City.
There are nine gates of increasing grandeur to reach the emperor’s living quarters. The quarters themselves are in a succession of pavilions – splendid from the outside but rather dark and dreary inside. That evening, we reward ourselves for touristic duty done by having a sumptuous meal of Peking Duck at the Dadong Restaurant. Great drama as well as good food.
Our final day in Beijing – and on our whole tour – is a visit to the Great Wall. It is National Day and we have been warned that the roads could be very congested, so we start early and thanks to some truly terrifying driving by Mr Wong, our driver, we arrive at the Mutianyu section in just one hour – it normally takes an hour and a half! The weather is closing in and as we get out of the car, it starts raining. The advantage of this is that, combined with the early hour, there are few other people on the wall and we have an atmospheric, if wet, walk with much of it almost to ourselves. To reach it, George recommends that we take the cable car, which we agree to. However, too late we discover that this is a misnomer and we are whisked off our feet onto a ski lift which is open to the elements.
This is the finale of our trip and a fitting one. The Great Wall marks China’s increasing geographical reach and was partly responsible for maintaining the peaceful flow of trade with the west. It is inextricably interwoven with the history of the Silk Road.
The Silk Road begins in Xi’an, China’s capital for more than a thousand years. Its central position allowed it to control the great overland trade routes and for us it is the eastern terminus of our Silk Road journey. Although we continue on to Beijing, that is no longer part of the Silk Road.
We arrive by plane on a murky, wet afternoon and are met by our new guide, Puma (‘like the trainers’), and Mr Feng, our driver. The drive into town is long but our hotel is not a concrete monster. It is a Tang Dynasty style courtyard, admittedly on a grand scale.
After the wild west of Xinjiang and the small-town feel of Dunhuang, we feel a bit like country bumpkins coming into the big sophisticated city. We see familiar western brand names and after weeks of plov, somsas, kebabs and noodles, we have a pizza for dinner!
The main reason for visiting Xi’an is to see the Terracotta Army, but the old city is also worth seeing. It is surrounded by intact medieval walls that are 40 feet high. Our hotel is close to the Wild Goose Pagoda, which is beautifully illuminated at night.
There is still a thriving Muslim quarter, dating from the heyday of the Silk Road when itinerant Muslim merchants settled in the city from the Tang Dynasty onwards. It is now a destination for local tourists, who queue up to buy local specialities such as nougat, deep-fried persimmon cakes stuffed with walnut paste (very tasty) and squid on a stick.
The Great Mosque, which supposedly dates from the Tang Dynasty (its claimed foundation date is 742 AD – a bit of a stretch of credibility since this is only a just over a century after Mohammed’s revelation), is an extraordinary structure, looking like no other Islamic building.
We wonder whether the Terracotta Army will disappoint. It does not. The warriors are in three excavation pits, of which Pit One is the largest, containing nearly 6,000. Not all have been re-assembled, but the ranks of those that have make an unforgettable impression when first seen. The broken pieces have been left on the ground and speak poignantly of the labours of the thousands of nameless craftsmen who spent years making them. Originally, the warriors would have been brightly coloured and a display area lets us get close to some striking examples where the original colour can still be seen.
The Terracotta Army dates from the 2nd century BC, so predates the Silk Road, but it marks a beginning of China’s growing influence which led to the development of trade and the exchange of knowledge. A fitting finale to our tour.
But that’s not quite the end! Now it’s on to Beijing…
Our driver is lost in the dark. We are trying to find the railway station to catch the night train from Turpan to Dunhuang. However, there is no railway station in Turpan – or in Dunhuang, for that matter. The station is in a one-horse town called Daheyan, about an hour’s drive into the Gobi Desert. Clearly, its location is on a strictly need-to-know basis and may even be classified, because there are no signs. The normally unflappable Mr Peng stops the car at a cross roads in the middle of nowhere and flags down a passing car to ask directions. Much to our relief, he returns with a new sense of where we are and we reach the station in good time.
Daheyan station is undergoing some fairly major refurbishment and we are told that there is no proper waiting room. Since no one is allowed onto the platform until just before their train arrives, there is a chaotic melee of people in the temporary waiting room that is shared by ‘hard-class’ and ‘soft-class’ passengers. A tense-looking policeman wielding a large wooden baton tries to prevent a stampede when a train is announced. Anyone trying to jump the queue receives a sharp blow. The ‘softies’ peer nervously at the scene from behind a screen. Brief attempts at fraternisation between the classes (the ‘softies’ are mostly European tourists and the hard-classers are local – predominantly Uighur) are discouraged.
By the time our train is announced, most of the hard-classers have already departed, so embarkation is an orderly affair. Our carriage is occupied by a us and a group of Scandinavian tourists, so there is no pushing and shoving. The train is comfortable and we are soon lulled to sleep by the rhythmic movement.
We reach ‘Dunhuang’ station shortly after daybreak. It is in a small town called Liuyuan, a two-hour drive from Dunhuang. We watch the Scandinavian group depart in their coach and experience a moment of nervousness before our new guide, Vicky, and driver, Mr. Liu, declare themselves. With relief, we are ushered into our vehicle and driven in comfort to Dunhuang.
Dunhuang is an important oasis town on the southern side of the Gobi Desert. It has been a crucial Silk Road city for centuries because of its position at the western end of the narrow Gansi corridor, lined by the mountains leading to the Tibetan plateau to the south and by the Gobi desert to the north. Going west from Dunhuang, the Silk Road splits into southern and northern routes to avoid the Taklamakan Desert. We have arrived by the northern route. The southern route skirts the foot of the Tibetan plateau until the routes reunite at Kashgar.
We have come to Dunhuang to experience the Mogao Caves and to ride camels in the sand dunes. We have had a minor preview of Mogao at the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves in Turpan. The Mogao Caves are much more extensive and better preserved. The frescoes were painted by Buddhist monks over period of 1,000 years from the 3rd to the 14th centuries and represent an extraordinary collection of Indian-influenced Buddhist art. Many of the originals were removed by foreign collectors in the early 20th century, including a collection of 13,000 manuscripts which now form the basis of the British Museum’s collection. But the caves are now well cared for and access is strictly controlled. Our English-speaking guide, Michael, is passionate about them and by the end of our tour we are exhausted and much the wiser.
What we are passionate about is riding camels in the dunes. Corny it may be, but we are suckers for camel rides! The wonderful dunes behind our hotel are not singing today, as they do when the wind blows, but they look the part as do our camels, who are very well-mannered beasts in comparison with some dromedaries we have known. Honour is satisfied.
We have really enjoyed Dunhuang. The caves were amazing (truly), the hotel was good and we had our camel ride!
From the boom town of Urumqi, we cross over the Bogda Shan and dip down into the Turpan Depression (500 feet below sea level). We are on the edge of the Gobi Desert, but as everywhere in Xinjiang there is evidence of rapid development and industrialisation. A new high-speed railway is being constructed that may one day link Beijing with Western Europe.
Turpan is an oasis that is fed by water from the Tian Shan mountains. It hardly ever rains here and the temperature can soar to over 40 in the summer, but the water arrives cool, having been channeled by an ancient system of underground canals called karez. As usual in China, this has been turned into a tourist attraction. It is worth seeing, but we are told that the canals may not survive in working form for much longer as water pumps are used to irrigate the vineyards these days.
The true treasures of Turpan lie outside the town in the desert. These are the ancient Silk Road cities of Gaochang (Karakhoja) and Jiaohe (Yarkhota). Each was founded in the 2nd century BC, becoming major centres of trade and culture from the 7th to the 10th centuries AD. They are very different in size and construction. Gaochang is huge and surrounded by massive mud-brick walls. Little remains within the walls, apart from the remains of some Buddhist temples. We were told we would be taken around it in a donkey cart, but found that these had been replaced by stretch golf buggies. We got over our disappointment when we realised how large the site was and how easily we were taken from one area to another in a buggy.
Jiaohe (Yarkhoto), on the other hand, is built on a leaf-shaped plateau with sheer cliffs dropping down to rivers on two sides. Whereas Gaochang was basically a mud-brick city, Jiaohe was carved out of the rock-hard soil and is better preserved. It is spectacularly situated and once we got beyond the viewing platform not far from the entrance, we found we more or less had the place to ourselves.
Another extraordinary find near Turpan, only discovered by Western scholars in the early 20th century, is the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves: 77 caves decorated with frescoes by Buddhist monks from the 4th to the 10th centuries AD. Unfortunately, since their discovery the caves have been pillaged by treasure hunters and vandalised by Red Guards – amongst others. However, the few that remain are worth the visit and the setting is wonderful.
We had heard much about the Uighurs’ love of music and while in Urumqi we asked our guide if it was possible to hear a performance of traditional music. Yes, it was possible – in Turpan. Perhaps we should have been suspicious when we found out how expensive it was, but lunch was to be provided so we assumed that accounted for the cost. Our fears increased when we were shown into a large, empty air-conditioned theatre called the Turpan Experience. We were seated at a table near the front and Uighur food was produced. We consumed our (perfectly acceptable, but unexceptional) meal in splendid isolation. After an hour, a large group of Chinese tourists arrived and no sooner had they started their food than the show began. Not a musical instrument in sight, but plenty of loud music, bright costumes and Bollywood-style dancing. It was too entertaining for us to feel completely cheated.
Turpan’s gastronomic delight is grapes and, above all, raisins – the sweetest we have tasted. We sample some local wine. The language barrier meant that we ended up with a sweet wine rather than a dry one, but it would have made a very acceptable dessert wine to go with one’s Christmas pudding. On our last evening, while killing a couple of hours before driving to catch the night train to Dunhuang, we stretch out under the vines of a grape farm. Before they serve us supper, we lie back watching the light filter through the vines.
We cannot avoid Urumqi, although its reputation as a Wild West town does not make it sound attractive. It is a major transportation hub in Xinjiang and to get from Kashgar to Turpan, we must pass through it.
Whereas Kashgar still retains some traces of its Uighur traditions, Urumqi has become a completely Han Chinese town. It looks glitzy and high-rise and is dominated by busy highways. Our hotel is in a Uighur-dominated part of town – it is a Uighur establishment – but it is not a good advertisement for the culture. ‘Brothel chic’ is not a look to strive for. It is our least favourite inn.
Chinese tourists do flock to Urumqi, in fact. They want to go to Tian Shi – ‘Heaven Lake’ – up in the Tian Shan mountains under the shadow of Bogda Feng (5,445 m). The lake is such an attraction that tourists are no longer allowed to drive all the way to it, but must transfer to a huge fleet of shuttle buses for the last 30 km. It is undeniably beautiful – and undeniably over-developed as an attraction. The Kazak farmers who used to pasture their sheep on the shores of the lake are no longer allowed to do so and now staff a ‘tourist village’ within the attraction.
With relief, we drive out of Urumqi and head for the Turpan Depression, the second lowest place on Earth. Turpan has a reputation as a slightly scruffy backwater which grows amazing grapes. Much more our scene!
All roads lead to Kashgar, one of the Silk Road’s great centres. The northern and southern roads coming from Dunhuang skirt the Talkamakan desert and meet up in Kashgar. To the south is the Karakoram Highway into Pakistan; to the west, the Irkestam Pass into southern Kyrgyzstan; to the north, the Torugart Pass into central Kyrgyzstan (our route in) – and to the east, all of China.
It’s an uneasy place. The Han take-over is almost complete and the old town is being left to crumble. Kashgar is being rebuilt in a theme-park incarnation of its former self, but there are still traces and its Uighur people are not going quietly into their new homes.
New Kashgar is probably safer, more resilient to earthquakes, than the old town, but it has lost its Uighur identity. Our hotel is a good example of the brave new town.
We search for traces of the Great Game, which was played out here by Britain and Russia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Both maintained consulates and the diplomats schemed and met for dinner in this remote outpost. The buildings still stand, but have become restaurants.
To see real life Kashgar, we go to the Sunday livestock market, which now takes place outside town. Here there is drama, action – and hundreds of animals: horses, camels, sheep (lots of those), donkeys and yaks. There is also a dust storm, which gives everything a slight sepia tone.
Kashgar is still an exciting, interesting place, but it also feels uneasy with itself – and that makes it a sad place.
The transition from Kyrgyzstan to China was always going to be a big step. So far our Silk Road odyssey has been through Turkic cultures. Also both Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan had been part of the Soviet Union and were strongly influenced by Russia. We were now about to cross the massive physical barrier of the Tian Shan, leave the former Soviet empire behind and enter the People’s Republic of China.
We leave the simple amenities of Yuri’s yurt camp in Tash Rabat (3,200 metres) to head for the oasis city of Kashgar (1,200 metres) in the Uighur-dominated province of Xinjiang. This involves a protracted border crossing through the Torugart Pass (3,750 metres). There are no fewer than six checkpoints between Kyrgyzstan and China, spread out over 60 km. The first two are Kyrgyz – an introductory check and then the real immigration checkpoint. These are followed by a long stretch of No Man’s Land (with plenty of farmers living in it) and then we reach the top of the pass itself where there is a metal gate with guards on each side – Kyrgyz and Chinese. Although not the formal border, this is the actual crossing point and foreigners can only do so if they have a pre-arranged vehicle awaiting them on the other side. Huge lines of heavy trucks queue up on both sides: empty on the Kyrgyz side, full on the Chinese, bringing in vast quantities of imports from the markets of Kashgar.
We have a fairly short wait for our Chinese driver and guide, made slightly nervous by the fact that it was close to midday when the border closes for lunch. Vichislav, our driver, is keen to get away as he has another job awaiting him on the other side of the country. Just as we resigned ourselves to sitting it out over the lunch hour, a black SUV pulls up on the Chinese side and our new guide signals that he has arrived. Two English women emerge from the vehicle and, a la Checkpoint Charlie, there is a tourist swap across the border. We greet our replacements as we pass.
On the Chinese side, we are met by Raman, our new Uighur guide, and Alim, our driver. They are keen to get started on the journey as it is still 160 km to Kashgar. We also have three more Chinese checkpoints to negotiate: the first to X-ray our bags, the second to check our passports, the third (being the actual immigration point) to do both of these checks again. At this last hurdle, we encounter a problem: there is a power cut and the border officials don’t know what to do. Eventually, faced by two large groups of foreign tourists as well as us, they start looking slowly at passports still not really sure how to proceed. They are saved in the end by the return of electrical power and we go through all of the checks again in the approved manner. At last, we are in the People’s Republic! The road had been rough and mountainous most of the way so far but for the last 50 km it is upgraded to a smooth superhighway – a bit of a culture shock in itself!
Immediately, it is clear that Xinjiang is undergoing rapid development and some fairly serious industrialisation. The edge of the Taklamakan desert is being torn up for all manner of reasons: road building and construction materials, chemicals, oil. The developments sprawl over the tabula rasa of the desert. In another part of the province, we pass the biggest wind farm we have ever seen, with thousands of turbines spread over a huge area. We reach Kashgar in the late afternoon and have another bout of culture shock as we stop in front of the enormous – and very ugly – Tarim Petroleum Barony Hotel, our abode for the next two nights. Nevertheless, we are delighted to get back to the mod cons of a comfortable room with an en suite bathroom after 5 days of camping!
Xinjiang feels very different from the Stans. A sense of unease gradually makes itself felt. There are all sorts of under-currents – too many and too complex for us to fathom in our short visit. How much will we understand?