China 05 – Silk Road 02 – Ancient Grottoes

Full photo set @ Flickr

Arriving in Zhongye, I’ve quickly realised this is another of those anonymous dusty industrial sprawls that China specialises in so well. A quick manouvre onto a rickety minibus that reassuringly looks like it’s been worked over with a cricket bat and I’m on my way south to the mountains.

Ten minutes into the journey, we pull up behind an empty bus and everyone is ordered off and told to go into the next bus. At least that’s what I presume was said. Lots of shouting and arm waving, I just shrug my shoulders and follow the herd. Trying to work out logic in daily life here is a bad move, madness lives down that path.

Mati Si was worth every effort to reach however. Tucked up on the edge of some very large mountains that form a first barrier to the Tibetan Plateau to the south sits a lush valley with an array of ancient Bhuddist temples carved into the sandstone cliffs starting from over 1,600 years ago with many of the temples accessible only by climbing hidden staircases and vertical shafts in the cliffs.

The people are descended from a mix of Tibetan and Mongol herders, you immediately feel that surrounded by Tibetan prayer flags and stupas on the hills. It’s a blissful world away from the melee of the city to the north. People are relaxed, friendly and seem to have all the time in the world. Life moves at a very  leisurely pace up here. And the air is clean and the sky blue – you learn not to take that for granted in China, especially further east where a brown soup sits over much of the country for weeks on end.


I’ve spent the day climbing around inside the caves and up on to the ridge above for some amazing views across the valley and up into the mountains. In the evening I go for a walk up into the meadows and sit for a while with a local herder who seems intent on holding a long conversation with me despite it being fairly obvious that I can barely form a word in Chinese. I suspect that even if I had a good grasp of Beijing mandarin, I still wouldn’t have a clue what this guy was saying, a bit like learning basic Queen’s English then visiting Falkirk and attempting to engage with a drunk scheemy. It’s ok though, it fits in with the vibe of this place.

In the morning I go for more hikes across the tops with more friendly locals and visit the 1,000 Bhudda caves further down the valley where a man oddly attempts to flog me plumbing fixtures. Just what I needed.

Onwards and westwards.

China 04 – Silk Road 01 – A Close Shave

I’ve decided to abandon any ideas of travelling the south just yet – aside from feeling like a sauna that’s had someone be over generous with the water bucket, there’s floods and lightning storms as far as the forecasts go.

I’ve flown into Lanzhou in the central north on the edge of the Gobi desert with the intention to follow the old Silk Road as far as the Chinese border. It’s already over 40 degrees in these parts but that’s not as hot as it gets and in any case, I’ll take the feeling of sticking your face into a blast furnace over resembling Victoria Falls in wet season any day.

Lanzhou as it turns out is an unnecessary hour’s bus ride from.the airport (always good to find out at 1am) and sits in a bowl surrounded by mountains. When you factor in over 3 million people and a lot of heavy industry it ends up with some of the worst air pollution in the world. There’s a night market across from hotel which I arrive at after 2am, and it seems to be in full swing still. I nestle down on to my bed made of granite and am lulled to sleep by the gentle thwok thwok thwok of an air conditioner that sounds like a military helicopter coming in to land.

View from the train heading west from Lanzhou

With nothing much to hold me in town I decide to take the first train west and get out of Dodge … which I barely make becausqe a) the traffic moves at roughly 4kph so it takes almost an hour to make the short distance to the train station and b) I’m held at the security scan and told that underarm deodorant and shaving cream are too dangerous to take on a train. I didn’t let that one go, in the end I caused them too much embarrassment and they just tell me to get on the train, deodorant and all.

Travelling with toiletries is the kind of living-on-the-edge adventuring I do. When Mao Zedong raised the revolution cry, no way did he do it with sweaty pits and three day stubble.

mao
Chairman Mao – dry pits, no stubble