China 21 – A Quiet Bus Ride in the Countryside

I’ve been waiting for 14 minutes to buy a ticket for a bus that was leaving 15 minutes after I got to the bus station. Most of that wait was due to people diving into the front of the queue because a lot of people in this country don’t seem think that any form of orderly behaviour applies to them. As I get to the window someone tries to thrust their money across the front of me, I’ve had enough at this point and physically eject him, perhaps a little over enthusiastically, as he ends up on his arse swearing and waving his hands at me. I don’t care at this point, I’ve got one minute to get my ticket and find my bus in the maze of randomly arranged buses in the parking lot, throw my bag on and go through the standard procedure of ejecting the person from my seat occupied by the person who doesn’t think that seat allocations apply to them.

It’s a small bus, we get on the road and realise with horror that I forgot to charge the iPod, normally a sanctuary of sanity for journeys like this:

The guy in front has the loudest phone I’ve ever encountered, which he holds on his knee and proceeds to yell at, with equally deafening responses coming back, for the entire journey.

The woman behind at least has the courtesy to not put her phone on speaker but is yelling so loud into it that I don’t know why she just doesn’t stick her head out of the window and save the call charge.

The guy across the aisle from me proceeds to hack up great pints of phlegm pretty much on the minute every minute to the sound of someone working overtime on a cappuccino machine then gobs it onto the floor between us. Several people are shoving sunflower seeds into their mouths then spitting the husks out wherever they may land.

Someone else is vomiting wildly into plastic bags then throwing them out of the window.

I don’t want to look down for fear of seeing a flotsam of sunflower seeds riding a tidal wave of phlegm, spit and vomit.

Amongst all this, the driver is singing opera at the top of his lungs in between hacking up his own phlegm while chain smoking and driving in the belief that nothing could possibly be coming the other way around those blind mountain hairpin corners so feels the need to take each one on the wrong side at full speed.

I’m looking out of the window thinking this is how people go mad …

China 20 – A Walk Along the Wall (Jinshanling to Gubeikou)

Full photoset @ Flickr

I decided on starting at the little visited restored section at Jinshanling and hiking the 25-odd kilometres of unrestored wall to the small town of Gubeikou out to the west. My guidebook had suggested this in the reverse, but as that would entail a roughly 1000 metre climb I figured my direction was better. I also liked the idea starting with the restored, walking the wild wall and finishing where there is no tourism at all.

The Great Wall has many faces, rather than a single continuous unbroken line that the typical image conjures. In some places it splits, others it simply terminates, and others yet where it forms several lines of defence, all built over more than a millennium. It exists as little more than a mound in some places, to crumbling overgrown ruins, to full on Disneyland fantasia complete with go-karts, chairlifts, teeming masses and devoid of a single original brick (such as at the infamous Baudaling).

I arrive at the wall at Jinshanling to find it virtually deserted despite being peak season. It’s built along a steep sided ridge and disappears off to the east up a near vertical stretch of mountains with some amazing views around. The restored section is interesting and gives an imposing idea of the wall in its original state, but for me it lacks any of the feel of the history of the place.

After a short while exploring this area, I turn west and soon find myself completely alone on increasingly dilapidated wall – worn bricks, ruined guard houses, bushes and trees growing from every crevice. Wild hillsides stretch out in from both sides with only the hint of distant farmland. This is the perfect Great Wall experience I was hoping to find, happy not to be having to share it with 80,000 selfie stick wielding throngs at the popular sites.

After around an hour or so, I reach a section closed off due to a military zone butting up to the south side of the wall. Looking in to the area I’m not allowed to be looking in to, all I can see are pine clad valleys stretching off as far as I can see. Maybe these are top secret military grade pines that they don’t want the rest of the world to find out about. Instead of continuing on the wall, there’s a 90 minute track to follow to the north with rolls through scrub, forest and a patch of farmland before climbing back up and continuing west. It’s interesting to see it from the perspective of the approach would be invaders would have had. Good luck scaling that beast with heavy armour and cavalry.

Further west, the landscape softens and the wall rollercoasts along the ridge, watchtowers every few hundred metres or so look out on the surrounding landscape and give some impressive views. It would be great to sleep out in some if mosquitoes are your thing …

The wild and desolate landscape, combined with being completely alone along this stretch (I haven’t seen another soul since leaving Jinshanling) make this an incredible experience.

Eventually the wall spills down into the Gubeikou valley and begins a long rambling descent with views across the valley to the wall climbing an impossible peak across the river. Closer to town, the wall has suffered centuries of being used as a cheap source of building material. The wall dwindles to a long hump before disappearing altogether above town. I end up in someone’s backyard much to their surprise and mine.

The light is growing long by the time I reach Gubeikou proper, time to organise getting to Chengde to the north which ends up involving hitch-hiking, one taxi and three share taxis. Nobody ever said travel in China was straightforward …

China 19 – A week in Beijing

Full photoset @ flickr

In a vague attempt to catch up on the last 3 months, I’m going to keep this one brief as possible 😉

I’ve arrived from Kashgar in Beijing which is a jolt to the system. It’s been 24 years since my last visit. The waves of bicycles have gone, replaced by horn blaring traffic, but it’s not the congested smog-infested megalopolis I’d braced myself for. Don’t believe everything you read in the news. Sure it’s grown vastly over that time, but somehow it has a small city feel to it still. To Beijing’s infinite benefit, the metro system runs everywhere, is dirt cheap and runs like clockwork – if they could just do away with the airport bag scanners at every station it would be near perfect.

I’ve got 6 days to kill while I wait for my Mongolian visa to process (one extra thanks to the clueless taxi driver who got lost and delivered me to the embassy 2 minutes after it closed), so I throw myself into some of the many tourist traps on offer. 24 years ago there was next to no domestic tourism, and hardly any foreign tourism. I’d enjoyed many of these sites almost to myself at the time – I’m guessing this time around I won’t be so lucky, but a bit of stealth planning, hitting sites early, going to the less known sites in the weekend, it’s not too bad all things considered.

First stop, the 18th Century Lama Temple, a jumble of temples and overlapping ornate rooftops, huge frescoes and smoking incense cauldrons. Inside the temples are some imposing statues including an 18 metre high Tibetan Buddha and a wildly colourful lamasery draped in a rich rainbow of prayer flags and banners. The smoky, incense leaden air and dark interior is a blissful retreat from the heat and noise of the chaotic street outside. Taking time out here it’s easy to forget you smack in the middle of one of the world’s largest and most modern cities.

Down a small street from the Lama Temple is another sanctuary from the wild streets, the Confucius Temple where an atmosphere of impassive tranquillity greets you the moment you step through the ornate archways. Some of the buildings here date from the 14th Century, the timelessness seems to permeate everything. Towards the back is a forest of 190 stelae with each of the 13 Confucian tomes inscribed using over 600,000 characters.

Standing on what was the outskirts of Beijing in ‘92, the Summer Palace is largely unchanged, though the painted walkways along the lakeside are looking a little worse for wear. I have fun memories of trying to find my way out this place back in the day, now it’s a short 20 minute metro ride from the centre of town. The biggest change (apart from the mass of tour buses parked outside) is the proliferation of ticketed entry gates within ticketed entry gates – user pays rules supreme in modern China. The Summer Palace was built as a retreat for the royal entourage to escape the cloying heat of the city but I’m not noticing the benefit today – it’s a hazy, humid day (or is that smoggy?) but still great to wander around. There are crowds here but it could be worse and with a bit of effort it’s easy enough to find some space with relatively few people, particularly up on the hill where it requires a bit of legwork to get to.

The day I choose to go to the Forbidden City turns out to be scorchio, one of those days that the heat feels blinding. On the plus side, it keeps the crowds away, and as an afternoon heat shower passes through, what people there are run for cover in a panic as if the sprinkling of water will burn like acid … actually, now I think of it, maybe they were wiser to Beijing atmospheric conditions than me and were wondering what the stupid guilo was doing out there in amongst it all … maybe that’s what turned his hair white. Outside the gates I’m approached by two women running one of the oldest hustles in the books: “we’re students wanting to practice our English, can we walk with you?”. “Uh, yeah, sure. Say, is that scam I see written on your forehead?”. Sure enough, 10 minutes later they invite me into a café where I insist on seeing a menu first and see that a pot of tea costs $20. Nice try. I wander off and find an ice cold beer for 50 cents, follow that up soon afterwards with another ice cold beer for 50 cents and come out of the deal $19 better for it.

I manage to lose a couple of days wandering the Hutong districts – medieval blocks of maze-like alleyways filled with funky bars, cafés and boutiques, and the usual melange of Beijing streetlife, narrow enough that you wouldn’t expect to see traffic on though of course the local drivers have other ideas … Sights, smells, good food, rooftop patios, easy to become intentionally lost here.

A climb up Jingshang Park hill offers a very hazy view across the Forbidden City and nearby Behai Park just off the is another blissful retreat from the noisy and clammer of the Beijing streets.

Just enough time to soak it all in before grabbing my Mongolian visa and get my stuff together for the train up to Ulan Bataar … Mongolia beckons but there’s a few days in hand for an excursion north to the Great Wall, the old royal palaces of Chengde and a loop out to the coast. And a chance to sample some of the Beijing specialities …

China 16 – Silk Road 13 – Up the Karakoram Highway

Full photoset @ flickr

The Karakoram Highway runs south from Kashgar across the Khunjerab Pass at nearly 5000m all the way down to Islamabad in Pakistan. Khunjerab means ‘Valley of Blood’ from the days when bandits guarded the pass and plundered anyone foolish enough to come through this way without the protection of a small army. The name Karakoram comes from the days of the Mongol Empire who used this route to reach their south Asian territories, Karakoram was the capital of the empire at the time.

I’ve joined a car for a couple of day’s tour exploring up these parts as the prospect of sitting on a bus looking at closed curtains and passing all the best scenery didn’t appeal too much. We head south across the Kashgar oasis and gradually into more dusty plains for a couple of hours before hitting the abrupt line of the northern flank of the Himalayas and into the Ghez Canyon which climbs all the way up to the high plateau through sheer sided walls with glimpses of high icy peaks way above.

When upgrading a road in China, the strategy seems to be to rip up the entire length in one hit, then maybe work on a little bit at a time occasionally while the rest of the stretch goes to hell turning a one hour trip into a five hour 4WD adventure. That was the lucky experience along the length of the canyon with most of the road reduced to single lane mud and rock – add to this the habit of drivers in China to drive at each other in an endless game of chicken, it added a bit of spice to journey. On the plus side, you don’t want to be in a hurry driving through this kind of scenery.

Eventually, back on proper road, we popped out at a dazzling blue lake surrounded by sand dunes of the Sarikol Pamir at around 4000m, and pass through an ever increasing scenery as the two massive peaks of Kongur and Mutzagh Ata mountains loom up at over 7500m each. We stop Karakul Lake for some amazing views across to these mountains, the ice bound tops and massive glaciers tumbling down the valley towards the lake with great reflections.

The road beyond takes over more high passes and through deep green lush valley floors dotted with round nomadic tents with grazing yaks and camels, flanked by stark barren mountains. Tajikistan and Afghanistan lie just over the ridge to the right.

We reach the small city of Tashkurgan set in a broad valley walled in by two long lines of imposing mountains. The 1400 year old fort gives incredible views of the vista in all directions (it was used in the filming of The Kite Runner). It feels far removed from China up here, more part of a Central Asian republic, with the predominant Tajik people and landscape more reminiscent of Afghanistan or Iran.

We have a great couple of hours wandering the fort and the grasslands below before heading back to Karakul Lake for the night.

By the time we reach the lake, the sun is angling low through high snow clouds making for some dramatic lighting as the day draws to a close. We stay in a nomadic tent and the temperature plummets (the tents inside are incredibly warm, fuelled by a hearty yak dung fire): clear skies, 4500m altitude and the proximity to so much snow and ice don’t make for balmy evenings.

The night sky is incredible with the Milky Way arcing overhead, the high Himalayas lit up by a bright moon. It’s a stunning sight to see which lasts as long as my ability to not shake violently with the cold.

Morning breaks with clear skies and more superb scenery. A few hours kicking around the lakeside and it’s time to head back to Kashgar and on to a flight to Beijing to pick up my Mongolian visa to begin the next leg of the adventure. This is the end of the Silk Road for me ….

China 15 – Silk Road 12 – Kashgar Animal Market

Full photoset @ flickr

Kashgar’s Sunday livestock market draws farmers and buyers of different ethnic groups from all over the region in a great show of noise, dust and smells. It’s a bustling, boisterous affair with animals, vehicles and people pushing past each other with a constant din of haggling, herding and general gossip. It’s very much a male dominated arena, I could probably count the number of women here on my toes.

Cattle, fat-tailed sheep (which have the odd appearance of having huge overhanging buttocks), horses and even a few straggly looking camels are all on sale. Bartering is done by fingers and great theatrics of pride on behalf of the seller and disdain on behalf of the buyer with animated waving of arms and grimacing until both parties agree and money changes hands.

The heat, sun and dust are blinding but it’s a great place to dive into and submerse yourself in the chaos of it all.

It’s not for the faint hearted if you’re sensitive to animal welfare – for the large part, the animals are either a form of currency too big for the wallet, or future slabs of meat, depending on which side of the buying line you’re on, and are treated with as much respect. Sheep are kept on long chains of looped roped through which their heads are put through, the bulls end up trying to fight one another or mate anything that moves and the camels seem to be in a constant state of panic.

Wandering around here without breakfast gets a hunger on, luckily I find the guys making lamb mince bread at the back. I guess the meat’s fresh at least …

China 14 – Silk Road 11 – A Central Asian Crossroads

Full photoset @ Flickr

Kashgar was a major hub in the Silk Road days. To the south lies the Karakoram Highway to Pakistan, the west is Kyrgyzstan with Afghanistan and Tajikistan in between and Kazakhstan further north. More Stans than you can shake a stick at. Being at such a strategic crossroads surrounded by regions ruled over by competing factions and warlords, it’s changed hands more times than a hot potato at a hot potato changing hands competition:

754 Tibetan Empire
840 Karakhanid Khanate
1041 Eastern Karakhanid
1134 Karakhitai Khanate
1218 Mongol Empire
1225 Chagatai Khanate
1306 Moghulistan
1392 Timurid dynasty
1432 Chagatay
1466 Dughlats
1524 Yarkent Khanate
1697 Dzungar Khanate
1759 Qing dynasty
1867 Emirate of Kashgaria
1878 Qing dynasty
1913 Republic of China
1933 East Turkestan Republic
1934 Republic of China
1949 People’s Republic of China

The people here are mostly Uighur with Tajik, Kazakh and ancestors of a host of other peoples who came in its heyday and never left. In the last twenty years a significant number of Han Chinese have moved here as part of the government’s resettlement programme, the cynic might say to Sinicise the area, something that doesn’t go down well with the more traditional inhabitants who are strongly Muslim. There’s a strong feeling of control going on here including posters displaying what is considered appropriate Muslim dress and what is forbidden (including hijabs, niqabs, veils of any description and any beards considered excessively Islamic). It’s not a touristy town, in fact many Chinese stay away from the area believing it to be some kind of hotbed for terrorism. It’s safer than a lot of Western cities that I’ve been in.

“Is the meat fresh at this butchers?”
Meanwhile, at the “Rest Assured That The Meat Shop” …

I’ve missed seeing the original old town. The historic buildings were torn down a few years back and replaced with a new old town made from concrete and sprayed with a synthetic mud to give the appearance of the original style. If you don’t know that it’s surprisingly got a very historic feel to it, largely due to the streets being filled with people selling all kinds of wares as it probably once was – various bazaars cater for different specialities including metal work, spices, carpets, musical instruments and hats. Oddly, it seemed every few shops popped up a back street dentistry … maybe not.

Dentest surgeon anyone?

While not Turpan heat, it’s still hitting low 40’s and with clear skies the sun is packing some punch. Ramadan is on, meaning the Muslim population are fasting during daylight hours and have taken on a decidedly lethargic attitude to everything. It’s contagious and a few hours of wandering the streets is enough to fog the mind and call for a siesta followed by a cold beer or two. There’s a good crowd in at the hostel, this pattern seems to continue for the next few days. I’m happy to turn down the pace a little after the last 10 days or so of constantly being on the move in the heat.

Lethargy – there’s a lot of it about
Street bazaar near the grand mosque

Evening brings more respectable temperatures and the day’s end to the fast kicks off with the opening of the night market street food, which the locals descend on with the vigour of hungry locusts. There’s all sorts of food on offer here, some recognisable, some not. I’m game to try just about anything including the sheep’s head, but I draw the line at stomach (bad experience in Morocco) and the “Fountain of Dysentery” – a dubious hose firing white liquid of some sort into the air and back into an entirely unsanitary looking trough. Good call as it happens, I meet someone later who tried this one and ended up three days in bed. It’s a noisy bustling affair, you squeeze onto tables where you can and get shouted at if you linger too long. Sensory overload.

The Fountain of Dysentery with special ameoba
Things-on-a-stick
The best meal $2 can buy …