Category Archives: Travel

Mongolia 09 – To The Far North

Arkhangai to Khövsgöl Aimag, Mongolia
July 2016

I’m leaving central Mongolia for the far north. It’s a couple of days bouncing on the now more than familiar hummocky tracks that serve as roads here. Along the way I transfer to another van, this time a Soviet era all terrain beast that’s got less butt pounding but more airborne action.

We pass a horse race in the middle of nowhere, part of the annual nationwide Naadam Festival. Kids line up on full sized horses and take off across the grassy moutainsides, surrounded by more horses and motorbikes, and disappear over the next hill.

The landscape is empty here, even for Mongolian standards. Towards the end of the day, we pull up to a random nomadic family, the driver asks if there’s space to stay in their tent. Discussions are had, I’m guessing a price is suggested, driver looks disinterested and begins to drive 50 metres then pretends to make a phone call (the chances of cell coverage in these parts is nil). The owner arrives at the window, the process repeats again, this time we drive only 20 metres. Eventually they send the young daughter out with an acceptable price and it’s all on.

The traditional greetings come out, offerings of horse milk tea, dried yoghurt and snuff. Outside there’s a glorious sunset throwing long shadows across the wide valley.

Inside, the TV comes on. They use small solar panels to charge a car battery into which they plug a satellite receiver and small computer monitor. It’s a set-up duplicated in tents across the steppes. We’re entertained with some Mongolian historical movie to do with a wrestling competition and the hero trying to win the most beautiful girl in town by winning the tournament. Quality action.

Breakfast time and we’re given a clear liquid which turns out to be vodka made from fermented horse milk then distilled over the fire place. Apparently finishing your glass means you want more. It took me a few to work that out. Turns out to be a good remedy for the Mongolian roads. Breakfast of champions.

The “road” north heads through more mountainous country, over some semi alpine passes and across a huge river flowing north into Russia and the mighty Baikal. We find an old shamanistic stone totem out in a valley, draped in Buddhist prayer flags and bits of yak hair for blessings on the herd. This practice dates back millenia.

Lunch is by a distinctly aromatic soda lake that smells as if the yaks have been using it for a bath. There’s no outlet, presumably only evaporation and seepage drain this, the shore is covered in a thick crust of mineral salt, the water has that weird oily feel of super-saline lakes anywhere.

We arrive in the brightly painted and mildly amusingly named town of Moron (amusing until you find out it’s pronounced mooroon), just in time for a massive thunderstorm, stay the night and swap to another Soviet van for another 12 hour bronco session.

The landscape, nature and culture change up here. There are high mountains around, more forest which slowly morphs into Siberian Taiga carpeted by deep moss. There are less nomadic tents and more log cabins spread around, some in small clearings in the forest, others out on the grassy valleys by lazy silver rivers and lakes, thin snakes of smoke trailing above from the fires within.

The long twilight works for us, it’s almost 11pm by the time we reach our destination – a small log cabin up a mountainous valley. Inside is a single room in which the whole family sleep, a wood stove set in the middle. As always, they’re incredibly friendly and hospitable. Milk tea, home made cream cheese on fresh bread, mutton soup and fresh made yoghurt come out. Superb.

Hore trek adventure into the far north awaits the next day …

Mongolia 08 – Canyons and Hot Springs

Arkhangai, Mongolia
July 2016

Full photoset on Flickr

The morning woke with low mist swirling around the White Lake. A cold wind whipped through reminding me of the brevity of summer in these parts. Winter is never far away. A late start allowed time for the sun to burn of the cloud, the temperature climbed twenty odd degrees in the space of an hour.

A stop to climb the dormant Khorgo Uul volcano revealed massive lava fields around extending all the way across the the lake and great views of the crater and surrounding mountains. Ground squirrels dart about amongst the lava formations at the base as opportunistic hawks circle overhead looking for a well earned meal. The steps to the summit are busy with Nadaam week holidaymakers, but the best of the scenery is found circling the crater leaving the crowd far behind. I make my way back down through the forest, thick for trees with a dense mossy carpet. It’s quiet and blissful in there.

We move on to the Chuluut Canyon, where the swollen brown river has carved a deep gorge through a deep layer of ancient lava. There’s a long ridge up above covered in pine and deep grasses and wildflowers which makes for a great hike with stunning views across the surrounding landscape. From here you can see the start of the canyon and see it snake thorough the valley below to end somewhere way off beyond the visible range. It would make for a superb rafting trip.

Up on top of the mountain is a shamanistic shrine where people have left offerings. There is a plague of flies in the forest here, I wonder how people live with it without going insane as I feel myself rapidly approaching that point with them in only a couple of short hours.

Back at camp, a fire is lit to hold the flies at bay, as the sun goes down, so do the flies.

Morning breaks hot and sunny, the wet season has moved on for the moment and we ride out into the countryside to the Tsenkher Hot Springs in a beautiful wooded valley filled with more wildflowers. When they say hot, the springs emerge at 87 degrees and are piped down to pools barely cool enough to get into.

After only 10 minutes in the pool, standing up I almost pass out now a deep shade or purple. Even stood up to my knees there’s enough sweat running off me that I might as well be in the pool. Stewing yourself up to the neck has the added advantage that it minimizes the surface area that the horse sized horseflies can bite at. Fortunately they’re not active at night and a midnight soak beneath the stars is the perfect end to the day.

Mongolia 07 – To The White Lake 

Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur, Mongolia
July 2016

Full photoset on Flickr

The days of summer seem to have fled for now, Karakorum is an enveloped in thick cloud and horizontal rain with the temperature struggling to nudge double figures.

With the rivers in flood and anything off tarmac resembling a mud bowl, we abandon our mission to reach Tsenkher hot springs out in the mountains. Instead, we make a short stop at the regional centre of Tsetserleg where I make the climb to the shrine above Zayin Huree monastery. Visibility in the rain isn’t fantastic but it’s a nice view all the same and a welcome break for the butt from the back of the van.

Slowly the weather clears, the landscape switches to forested rocky mountains and a watery sun struggles to make it through. After passing through some impressive country we branch off the relative bliss of the sealed road and hit something resembling moguls after a busy weekend. There are low slung hatchbacks and battered 90’s station wagons attempting this in convoy. Holes big enough to swallow cars do exactly that, bemused drivers get out and look even more bemused at their stranded vehicles. As we head up over a steep rutted pass there are cars defying all design limits bouncing in both up and down the slope, sometimes even in the direction intended.

At the top of the pass, the splendour of Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur (Great White Lake) unfolds. Less white but shining steel grey silver as I arrive, the sun piercing through heavy rainclouds to light up patches of verdant slopes around the edges.

Terkhiin Tsagaan Lake, Tariat, Arkhangai, Mongolia

From our camp, I climb a small nearby peak and watch the shifting light highlight one then another aspect of this wide vista. The lake seems to disappear beyond a vast winding coastline into the grey hazy distance in one direction, distant sunlit mountains spread along the horizon in the other. The landscape seems to shift every few minutes.

Some local kids scale the near vertical wall of rock (rather than the easy grassy slope) and proceed to entertain me with renditions of favourite songs, acrobatics and various impressions of favourite monsters and animals. Eventually a holler from below sends them running, tumbling and laughing hysterically back down the slope to some distant yurt. A good end to the day. 

Terkhiin Tsagaan Lake, Tariat, Arkhangai, Mongolia

Mongolia 06 – Mud Holes and Ancient Relics

Kharkhorin, Mongolia
July 2016

Full Photoset on Flickr

Rain has arrived and turned the road out into a set of twisted mud snakes winding across the valley floor. It seems we’re often just following the vague imprints of tyres where someone once drove before, or creating our very own new road. Cars designed for Japanese cities are slithering about and getting stuck trying to cross new streams that didn’t exist the day before. The rivers are swollen and crossing the main one brings the water almost up to the windscreen. Our driver does a great job and eventually gets us out back into semi-sealed roads by mid-afternoon on a journey that should have only taken a couple of hours.

We had intended to reach Tövkhön Khiid, a remote mountain top monastery, but considering the road there was even worse than what we had just got through, and that the van was only two wheel drive, it was consigned to the nice-idea-for-another-time bin.

Erdene Zuu Monastery, Kharkhorin, Uvurkhangai, Mongolia

Instead we reach Erdene Zuu monastery near to the ancient capital of Kharkhorin (Karakorum). Built in the 1500’s, it was the first monastery in Mongolia and housed at its peak over 100 temples and over 1000 monks until the Stalinist purges of the 1930’s when most of the temples were destroyed and the monks either shot or sent to Siberian gulags. The impressive walls surrounding the complex are still intact forming a huge rectangle of interlinked stupas.

Most of the few remaining temples are now museums housing relics that survived the purges by being hidden for over 50 years by locals until the end of communism when the monastery was allowed to reopen. The 4th Dalai Lama was born here in the 1570’s and one temple is dedicated to him, another Tibetan style temple is now practising again. Inside, an 8 year old monk plays with a paper aeroplane before heading out to jump in the puddles and chase birds. Normal 8 year old boy then.

It’s a seemingly meagre remains for the capital of the largest empire the world has ever known, stretching from Eastern Europe and the Middle East all the way to the Pacific, from the Siberian tundra to southern India. Ground surveys have revealed a vast area of foundations stretching out beneath the steppes from here but virtually nothing to date has been excavated.

Erdene Zuu Monastery, Kharkhorin, Uvurkhangai, Mongolia

Despite being mid-summer, the temperature has plummeted, the rain continues thick and heavy, so much that there is almost like a midday twilight going on. We decide to abandon ship before one becomes necessary and head west to the promise of hot springs and volcanoes.

Mongolia 05 – Horses, Waterfalls and the World’s Smallest Rabbit 

Orkhon Khürkhree, Mongolia
July 2016

Full Photoset @ Flickr

The Orkhon Khürkhree valley woke filled with swirling mist, slowly pierced and broken by the morning sun. This morning’s early start for the horse trek ended up being 11.30. You have to adjust to Mongolian time, things happen when they happen. A walk along the nearby canyon fills the time in before getting started.

The slightly psychotic Mongolian horse, don’t let the size fool you. 

Mongolian saddles are small and hard, they require a different technique to Western riding style. I’m not complaining, it was still more comfortable than yesterday’s van ride. I get my steed for the day, a short stocky mare with a bit of feist. The handlers are a bit worried that it might be too feisty for me, but for the first hour or so it’s more of a battle of wills to get it to do more than plod and go her own direction. I think she must have eventually warmed to me, we’re soon cantering and galloping across the valley, going in the direction I wanted whenever that was also the direction my horse wanted.

Mongolian horses could be said to have a vague homicidal nature about them. Never approach them from the rear, never approach them from the right for some reason, never stare them in the eye and on no accounts play poker with them over distilled fermented yak’s milk. They’re said to keep you on your toes, mostly as they start galloping and, in a effort at preserving the possibility of continuing your lineage, you raise your nether-regions off the rock-hard saddle.

Orkhon Kurkhree, Övörkhangai Province, Mongolia

The goal was to reach the nearby waterfalls, the largest in Mongolia. Not huge by any normal standard but still impressive. Also very popular with Mongolians apparently as well. The water, fortunately full from recent summer rains (it only flows for a few weeks each year) plummets off the edge of a lava flow into a chasm below. Safety standards here are a little more relaxed as people either jump to the small island above the falls with their kids in tow, and clamber down the sheer cliff single handed (the other hand carrying children too small to walk). I see parents waving their small children over the waterfall, considered good luck seemingly – presumably for those that are successfully retrieved to relative safety.

Everywhere you look, the scenery is dramatic here. Mini canyons and craggy pine clad peaks, mist rising through the forests as the afternoon thunderheads build. Heavy rain knocks the afternoon’s ride on the head but clears late evening to allow a hike out in the long twilight.

I come across something surprising here. The lava flows I’d seen along the valley so far could be thousands or more years old, but across the valley I find relatively fresh lava (no more than a few hundred years old I would guess), new enough that no soil and almost no vegetation had yet developed. And seemingly it had erupted from fissures rather than volcanoes. I guess I’m readjusting my understanding of Mongolia again.

Lava flows, Orkhon Kurkhree, Övörkhangai Province, Mongolia

The sun breaks through to light up the low mist at the head of the valley. As I turn to head back, I spy a pika scurrying about the lava blocks, most likely happy to use these as protection against the falcons that frequently pass overhead. Pikas look a lot like a hamster with large inverted ears. They’re actually the smallest member of the same order that includes rabbits, smaller than the palm of your hand. Possible contender for cutest small animal also looking like the progeny of a Pikachu & a hamster.

Being immensely timid creatures (understandable when you see the size of the vultures circling overhead), you need to remain stock-still and completely silent for a good 10 minutes or more. They were thought to be extinct in China, but it turned out that it was just that nobody had managed to stay quiet for that period of time.

Mongolian Pika, Orkhon Kurkhree, Övörkhangai Province, Mongoli

Darkness is at hand, as I hike back across the old lava flows, a brief sunset display flicks its way across the valley, the only sounds are the distant roar of the river, the braying of animals and the laughter of the family’s kids as they play football and chase goats. Mongolia life.

Orkhon Kurkhree, Övörkhangai Province, Mongolia

Mongolia 04 – A Bumpy Ride

Uvurkhangai, Mongolia
July 2016

Full photoset @ Flickr

Sunrise colours started a couple of hours ahead of the actual sunrise across the plains, the horizon lighting up purples and yellows over the distant mountains.

When the brilliant yellow light hits the land finally, filling it with impossibly long shadows, the wandering animals begin to stir and the first movements of the locals emerging from their gers gets the day started. Life moves slowly at the start of the day here, then progresses at a similar speed for the rest of the day. Come to think of it, the end of the day is fairly sedate too.

Mongolian steppes: the morning starts slowly, continues at the same pace during the day and ends much the same way

I go for a walk getting some photos of the herders getting the animals out to pasture and wander out on to the dunes to watch the shapes shift in the sand and the day slowly get started out on the plains.

A couple of hours drive through more wild scenery, alternating between wide open valleys, rolling hills and money mountains. Always the ubiquitous herds of horses, sheep and goats and the white gers break up the otherwise endless green expanse.

At the end of this is the small town of Khurjit, a mix of permanent gers, Siberian-style wooden houses with brightly painted roofs, and the occasional Soviet era building thrown in to the mix. This is as big as towns tend to get outside of the capital which act as a centre for supplies and services for the thousands of nomadic families that live in the region.

Khurjit. The locals were beginning to question the “Annual Road Maintennance” line on the council rates.

Khurjit also marks the end of the sealed road which is where things get a bit more lively. Rather than having a single road to follow, the road splits into several meandering threads which criss-cross and down which several cars vie with each other for pole position as they bounce and slide along the muddy tracks. The vehicles are everything from large 4×4’s to small Toyota hatchbacks and Soviet era vans. I start to feel a bit like I’m in an episode of a Mongolian version of Wacky Races.

A combination of Mongolian roads, Mongolian driving and rock hard suspension ensure you get to stay airborne for as much of the journey as possible. The last thing you hear when boarding a Mongolian bus may well be “enjoy your flight” …

Along the way we come to a cliff with a dark history. Before the second world war there were thousands of Buddhist monasteries in Mongolia. During the Soviet era, Stalin ordered  the Mongolian communist government to destroy almost all the monasteries, the only survivors were the ones that managed to convert to museums. Some 30,000 monks were massacred, and at this spot alone, 100 were thrown to their deaths off the cliff top. For such a serene place of beauty, and with modern Mongolians seemingly being such gentle and spiritual people, it’s hard to imagine such a thing happening here.

The route to Orkhon Kurkhree, Övörkhangai province, Mongolia
Serene scene with a dark past

What seems like hours of butt pounding road adventures brings me to the head of Orkhon Khürkhree, a beautiful remote valley flanked by Siberian looking spruce forests and filled with a wild river tumbling it’s way towards Lake Baikal in Russia to the north. My family greet me with a bowl of fermented horse milk and dried yak yoghurt, much better than it sounds. A walk along the river is quickly abandoned as lightning strikes the nearby hillside and the skies open.

Lightning struck off the opposite bank a few minutes after this shot … time to be somewhere else in a hurry …

Late evening brings a clear in the weather, enough time to try my hand at yak milking (definitely not as easy as it sounds) and a walk out across the ancient lava fields that fill the valley to watch rainbows and sunset colours.

Home for a couple of nights …

Mongolia 03 – To the Edge of the Gobi

Mongol Els, Mongolia
July 2016

Full photoset @ Flickr

Wet season visited overnight, waking to mist and horizontal rain. Things lifted to reveal a soft green landscape around. Driving through central Mongolia, the clouds broke, sun shining in ever shifting patterns across distant mountains with gers, the traditional nomadic round white tents, scattered across this vast landscape.

The contrast with China couldn’t be more. Endless heavy industry and densely populated cities replaced with an empty land seemingly at one with its nature. Every corner unveiled more wild beauty, every moment shifted the clouds to create more unparalleled contours in this wild land.

Freeeeeedommmmmmmm!!!!!!!

Arriving at Mongol Ers, I reached a northern extension of the immense Gobi far to the south. The green pastures meet sand dunes, not the harsh empty desert of the south, but sand interspersed with trees and shrubs, with springs winding through the grasslands that meet the dunes.

The family ger

I stay with a family in a ger, welcoming and friendly. Herds of horses graze in the spring water, immense mixed herds of goats and sheep wander aimlessly, the occasional camel wanders past finding feed in the tough shrubs that grow here.

The sky is immense, the green intense. Everywhere I look is another photo. I can’t even begin to write the feeling of being here, but the overwhelming sense of being lost if a beautiful timeless vastness grows with every hour that I’m here.

I go to the spring fed stream and sit for a while with the herds of Asiatic horses, watching their interaction, the semi-wild herds that wander freely across the grasslands. They are owned by the nomadic families, each with their brands marking who owns what, but free to wander, mix and interact as they like.

Up to a nearby mound there’s a view over this endless vista, a camel grazes at the top paying no heed until eventually wandering up to me for close scrutiny, seemingly as curious about me as I am of it.

Mongol Els, Bulgan, Mongolia

The family organise a trek out across the dunes on camels. It’s gimmicky, but it’s still a fantastic experience. The camels seem to barely tolerate their human masters, feisty and belligerent to the last. They show their displeasure by spotting and blowing snot on anyone unfortunate to be in their path.

Back at the ger, the shadows deepen, the dramatic scenery keeps getting more dramatic. The sky unfolds a spectacle that last for hours, sunset leading to twilight that never seems to end. The vastness of land and sky grows with each minute.

After dusk, the family bring in their sheep and goat herds to their corral. I join in the action as we run in the near darkness, herding them in, heading off the splinter groups. The whole family is involved, including the tiny three-year old boy who in the midst of the throng intent on bringing down a lamb of his own. The general action is to run into the galloping mass, throw yourself into the air and attempt to rugby tackle anything you can reach, end up empty handed in the dust laughing so hard you can’t get back up  again.

The overwhelming feeling here is that people are happy and content. They live a very basic life, with minimal possessions. There is no competition with others, what they have is shared with everyone around. The children seem filled with an unbounded joy and spend the day running and laughing like there is no tomorrow. It’s infectious. I’m filled with a total feeling of happiness and contentment here.

I look back to the “developed” countries and wander what we’ve lost, and why we are so wrapped up stressing about unimportant dross that seems to fill our lives. Why we rush around working our lives to amass so much junk we never see value in, why we feel it so important to fill our lives pursuing meaningless aims and possessions when happiness can be achieved so simply, and with time left over to enjoy that happiness. My decision to abandon the trap of mortgage and career feels more right than ever.

My final thought for the day was under the wild skies slowly filling with stars while the remnants of sunset seemed to burn forever in the west over the last vestiges of the northern Gobi.

Mongolia 02 – Wild Horses Couldn’t Drag Me Here …

July 2016
Khustain National Park, Mongolia

 

Photoset @ Flickr

They did really, wild horses being what Khustain National Park is all about, established to protect the takhi (Przewalski’s horse), the only remaining true wild horses left in the world (trivia: all other wild horses are actually feral and come from domesticated horses that have escaped into the wild). 

Wiped out in the wild in the 1960’s, enough remained in zoos worldwide to re-establish a handful of herds at the end of less-than-conservationally-minded communist government. My guide tells me that the horse is so integral to Mongolian culture that it became a matter of urgency to “restore the lost soul of our nation, without the takhi it was as if a limb had been removed”. Mongolians start getting a far off dreamy look and a deep slowly spreading smile when talking about horses and riding out onto the steppes – it’s infectious. 

There are now around 250 takhi in a dozen or so herds. They graze the high grasslands in the summer months and move down to water late evening. There was time to kill before hoping to see one of the herds, enough for a hike up one of the surrounding peaks.

Khustain National Park, Töv, Mongolia

On the way up marmots poke their heads out of the ground and screech, huge vultures watch from the craggy tops and launch themselves lazy into the valley below, a surprised deer gallops off across the foot slopes to somehow evaporate into a small gully. The view from the top is mesmerising. The landscape is bleak and unforgiving and, at the same time, a soft undulating greenness that stretches to every horizon. Mongolia has the ability to make you feel as if you’ve been shrunk down into a vast landscape under an impossibly huge sky.

Khustain National Park, Töv, Mongolia

Down in the valley again, a small herd of the wild horses can be seen up on the opposite treeline. I hike up slowly towards them, not wanting to spook them, but they don’t seem to pay me any attention. I stop a few hundred metres away and prop myself up against a rock, amongst the deep grass and wildflowers while grasshoppers and butterflies go about their business around me. It’s good to be in nature again after a month of industrial China.

Reassuringly, there are several foals in this one herd alone, which numbers around 19 that I can see. Hope for the continued future of these incredible animals in their natural homeland. Winters are brutal here, even spring  and autumn are harsh enough and there are wolves to contend with too. They need all the numbers they can muster to continue out here (pardon the pun).

Wil Takhi horses, Khustain National Park, Töv, Mongolia

 

Mongolia 01 – Into Mongolia

July 2016
Beijing – Ulan Baatar

Full photoset @ Flickr

I last took the train from Beijing to Ulan Baatar in 1992 shortly after the Soviet Union dissolved and after Russia had pulled support from Mongolia. Mongolia was closed to foreigners at the time and the only way in was by personal invitation from a local. On my way into China I’d met some dodgy Russians in Hong Kong who were running a black market operation out of a hotel in Beijing where visas could be “arranged”. Entrusting my passport to some seedy mafia outfit, it surprisingly returned a few days later with all the paperwork needed and I was off.

1992: The visa office opens for business in Beijing

At about that time the Russian rouble had previously been tied to the US dollar on a one to one rate, the new government had removed this fix and it had promptly settled at 120 to 1. The Mongolian Tougrik had taken a similar nosedive and official bank rates were having trouble keeping up. Changing money on the street was a prisonable offence but people on the train were keen to change at a rate almost 15 times higher than the bank rate. I changed $20 thinking it’d be enough to start with, received bricks of notes and was giving it away by the time I left a week later.

24 years, things are a bit more official … there’s a government kiosk in a Beijing suburb to get the visa, prices are high compared with most Asian destinations and there’s no longer any black market. The Russians will have long moved on to some other dodgy enterprise by now.

Getting into Beijing train station is an adventure involving a 25 gate wide rugby scrum, pushing, jostling and shouting its way through multiple security screening layers.

Not my photo, but an idea of the security gates on a (very) good day … it seemed to be permanently a couple of hundred people deep spread across 25 gates. Don’t even think of coming here on a national holiday …

Luckily I’d arrived with plenty of time on my hands, or so I thought. No sign of my train on the departure board. Turns out the time on the ticket next to the date of departure is the time of ticket purchase and the actual time of departure is that obscure four numbers near the bottom. Obvious really. Equally obvious is that you can’t buy or amend the ticket at the train station but instead have to go to a hotel a few blocks away. Fortunately I just need to pay a small admin fee and I’m on my way the next day, escaping China with 3 minutes left on my visa …

The train to Ulan Baatar is not the most exciting ride, particularly as the most scenic part through the Gobi sand dunes happen at night now. There’s a scenic mountainous area north of Beijing, then you’re into the dusty northern semi desert plains all the way to the border.

The current schedule lands you at the border at around midnight where you have to get off for 90 minutes while they change the carriages from Chinese width bogeys to Russian ones. After both sets of border formalities, it’s near 2am by the time I get settled into my shelf sized bed. It’s 31 degrees in the carriage, there’s no cooling other than an open window supplying a steady miasma of diesel fumes from the engine up front. Pleasant.

Morning finds the train rattling through stony semi desert with glimpses of goat herders and the remains of the once great ibex herds that once roamed here. By late morning we’re chugging up the first of the grassland hills before arrival in Ulan Baatar some 20 hours after leaving.

Mongolia is not a country that lends itself to exploring by public transport. Ancient buses bounce you along unforgiving roads to take you from one town to another, bypassing all the wilderness and national parks that make Mongolia so incredible. Even with your own wheels, in a country where the main route is nothing more than several sets of intertwining tyre tracks across the vast landscape with no road signs, unless you’re self-contained with camping gear, a GPS and a set of coordinates then you’ll be spending a long time lost in the wilderness (not necessarily a bad thing).

One of the few places where taking a tour is the better option, I sign up to a set of connecting van tours to take me through central, northern and western Mongolia over the next 6 weeks. The tours are rough and ready, camping and staying with nomads along the way with a leisurely schedule. It’s a good compromise.

I’ve a day to kill before heading out, enough time to catch the morning prayers at Gandan Khiid Monastery, Mongolia’s largest and most important monastery. It’s an oasis of peace from the city outside with a large area covered in temples ancient and new. In the oldest temple, monks are reciting sutras, the inside dark except for shafts of morning sun lighting up the clouds of incense. It’s a great place to hang around in a dark corner and soak up the atmosphere …

The band warms up ready to knock out a few old favourites…

An afternoon of replacing worn out gear and sampling the street food, I’m ready to start my Mongolian adventures …

China 22 – The Other Summer Palace and Out to the Sea (Chengde to Shanhaiguan)

Full photoset @ Flickr

North of the Great Wall sits Chengde, favoured summer retreat for the emperors of the Qing Dynasty escaping from the Beijing heat. The Qings, being Manchus, weren’t too worried about being north of the wall at this stage since that fateful afternoon while sitting about munching dried yak cheese in frigid tents on the plains of the frozen north, they’d noticed a lot of chaos and a particularly large power vacuum and figured they’d head south for a taste of the high life*. They’d gone on to invade and conquer the whole of China and weren’t too worried about anyone behind them.

* May not be an entirely factual account of what actually happened

In those days it was a remote forested area teeming with wildlife suitable for hunting (which in China could mean pretty much anything that moves).

The imperial palace sits inside of a 10 kilometre wall encompassing lakes, parklands and spreading out over wooded hills. Walking in to the park I’m having to plough through milling crowds and scores of loudhailed tour groups which isn’t boding well for the experience ahead, but they seem to only be hitting the buildings near the entrance. The more community minded of these have thoughtfully brought along their portable speakers with the volume turned up to 11, playing some traditional music that, to my unaccustomed ears, sounds a little like the noise a cat makes sliding down the glass roof of a conservatory using its claws for brakes and realising it’s all about to go horribly wrong.

The Summer Palace of Chengde, home to temples, pagodas, ornate bridges, forested hills and the sounds of terrified  cats

As I press on past to places requiring a little effort to get to the crowds thin to bearable levels. The lakes are dotted with ornate bridges, pagodas, temples and other royal buildings and make for a great couple of hours strolling.

Beyond is sprawling area of scattered temples and forested hills. Hiking up to the top of the hills at the back of the park gives outstanding views of the Puning and Putuozongcheng temples, the latter a replica of the Potala Palace in Lhasa.

This is one of the residences of the Panchen Lama, highest ranking lama after the Dalai Lama. The 10th Panchen Lama mysteriously died suddenly after criticising the Chinese government’s treatment of Tibetans. His Tibetan nominated successor also mysteriously disappeared shortly after being named and was replaced by a government nominated one instead, which the Tibetans refuse to recognise with arguments from one side saying the Tibetan successor is being held captive, the other saying he’s living a normal life. One of the Panchen Lama’s responsibilities is in naming the successor to the Dali Lama when he dies … expect lots of controversy when that happens.

Controversies aside, the temples are outstanding inside and out. The buildings are, rather than their appearance of huge solid blocks from the outside, actually multilevel courtyards with a huge temple in the middle. Escaping down long corridors leads me down creaky floorboards, past ancient murals depicting scenes from the sutras, ancient carvings and through a general miasma that reeks of history – it could also have passed for musty socks but the monks all seem to be in sandals.

Wandering done, I have the great idea of catching a bus out to the coast to the place where the Great Wall meets the coast. I’ve been to the western extremity where it meets the Takloman deserts in Gansu, hiked a decent section in the hills to the south, this seems like a good way to complete the experience. I’ve had better ideas. The walled town that formed the first gateway through the wall has been turned into a tourist circus with your senses and eardrums assaulted from all sides, and the circus was in town en masse for the weekend.

Trying to find some peace walking down an alley barely wide enough to fit a car down, sure enough, a car hares up behind me and starts blasting his horn at me … as if I’m able to melt into the wall to let him past. I need some distraction from the melee so I stop and cup my hand as if I can’t hear what he’s saying. More horn blasting ensues, along with more hand cupping and gestures to say I don’t know what he’s trying to say to me. He’s going livid by the time I turn around and gently saunter on ahead with the speed of a herd of turtles. The alley widens and he zooms past only to park another 20 metres ahead. Time for more fun, I stop next to his door before he gets out, pull out the phone and pretend to be busy doing whatever it is that people spend so much time doing on their phones. The horn blasting, ear cupping cycle starts all over. I can see he’s gone a shade of purple at this point, time to make an exit through the market before he has an coronary.

A rare lull on the wall, likely caused by bottlenecks at both ends as opposing movements of people attempt to jam their way through the smallest opening so that nobody can move rather than, perhaps, letting one at a time through …

Where the wall meets the sea, a tsunami of tourists has already washed ashore and it’s a struggle to make it out onto the ramparts, which look suspiciously like they were built last week. To be fair (in what has to go down in history as one of the greatest barfights of all time), 110 years earlier, occupying French and Japanese troops starting drinking, things got out of hand, fights broke out and in the morning they all woke to hangovers from hell and noticed that they’d managed to blow apart a significant chunk of the eastern end of the Great Wall*.

* May also not be an entirely accurate rendition of events, but not far from it apparently

Sandwiched up against this most historic of sites is an industrial shipyard and docks … I was greeted with a view very reminiscent of what I saw from the western end … so some sort of completion then.

The Great Industrial Wall – East End
The Great Industrial Wall – West End

I managed to last half a day here before retreating to the comparative peace of Beijing and get on the train north to Mongolia. Not before visiting this excellent landmark however …

Welcome to the Greatly Sad Courtyard, we hope you have a truly miserable time

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 …

China 13 – Silk Road 10 – A Hard Sleep and a Mysterious Canyon

Full photoset @ flick

I’ve arrived in Kuqa as a watery sun struggles to pierce the early morning smog. I’m a bit tired and grumpy from the overnight train due to sleep deprivation – it was an all-night circus going on with the Chinese lack of concept of personal space or consideration that people might be trying to sleep on a sleeper car, possibly so named from a Confucian sense of irony but I’m doubting that.

The hard sleeper cars are chicken coups set up in bays of two lots of three tiered bunks open to a narrow corridor the length of the carriage. It’s open game to have long conversations with someone at the other end of the carriage at a volume to overcome the distance, the noise of the train and the noise of other people doing the same. Add into this the curse of the Chinese mobile phone addiction which means people playing games and movies at competing volumes (nobody has heard of earphones seemingly) and the curious Chinese habit of a) watching your phone for a good minute while the ringtone plays at full volume before answering it and b) putting the phone on speaker mode then holding the speaker to your ear, then holding the phone out in front of you and yelling as loudly as possible (repeat this cycle for a good 15 minutes minimum). This went on all night.

Chinese hard sleeper carriage (chicken coup class)

My first impression of Kuqa is “what the hell have I come here for?”, possibly due to aforementioned sleep deprivation, possibly due to it being ugly and smoggy as hell. I’m more interested in getting out of the city to some of the remote sites but even my best haggling powers struggled to get a driver down below NZ$100 for the day – seems the distances were more than I realised and nobody was that desperate for business. I figure to cut my losses and catch the next train on to Kashgar, but that turns out to be at 2am the next morning, 20 hours away. I book that and go for Plan B – find a cheap hotel, get a shower and catch up on some sleep. At the hotel, I meet a couple of Korean and Chinese tourists who are wanting to head out to a canyon in the desert and figure I might as well chew up some time and tag along.

After a long drive through dust flat desert we reach a mountain chain and, shortly afterwards, the mysteriously named “Mysterious Grand Canyon of Tianshan”. The mystery being “what’s so mysterious about a canyon in the desert?”.

The “Mysterious Grand Canyon”

It’s a narrow cleft a few hundred metres deep with a thin stream running through with some nice sandstone patterns. Along the way up we reach a side canyon with the mysterious sign reading “… the whole valley twists and turns leaving anyone roaming inside with an endless aftertaste”. A bit like eating Durian fruit then.

Gaishi Valley – 5.2m wide and 5.2-6m wide, leaving an endless aftertaste …

Further up the canyon gets narrow enough to almost be a squeeze to get through before ending up at a small waterfall (more of a water-trickle really). The drive back through the dusty plain and intense heat send me off to a blissful slumber.

The Mysterious Canyon becomes a squeeze

I figure I might as well visit Kuqa’s one site to visit, a mausoleum and palace from the days when this was an important city in the now defunct country of Kashgaria. It’s pretty run down and a bit of a fizzer so I wander back through the markets, but even here it seems everyone is in a kind of torpor. Time for that shower and bed before the 2am train, which, as luck would have it, I find in a dreamy state of dormancy, not a sound. I’m rocked to sleep as the train pulls out, headed south the old capital of Kashagria itself.

Kuqa – even the locals struggle to find interest in it all …

China 12 – Silk Road 09 – Out of the Fire, Into the Fan Assisted Oven

Full photo set @ Flickr

The train glides into Turpan, the doors open and a wall of heat normally only found inside a fission reactor greets me. It’s the evening and the temperature is a bone dry 47 degrees. A bit like sticking your face into an oven on gas mark 6 to see if it’s heated yet.
Despite being thousands of kilometres from the nearest coastline, Turpan sits at 154 metres below sea level in the second deepest depression in the world. Daytime temperatures are hitting low to mid 50’s. Maybe I’ll crack out the shorts for that one then.

Winters here on the other hand are bitter as Siberian winds arrive dropping the temperature to -20 and below and then some for the wind chill. Spring time brings dust storms so I’m guessing there are a couple of days in late autumn when the climate is agreeable.

On my way out of the station, I meet a Ahmed, with light skin, fair hair and pale green eyes, he looks more Russian than Chinese, and speaks perfect English. He’s never taken a lesson and had learnt everything from watching movies apparently. He’s Uighur as it turns out and also a tour guide with an amazing knowledge of the history and culture of the area, and has a car as a bonus. I’m dropped at the hostel and arrange to meet the next day to tour the surrounding sites scattered far and wide around Turpan. The hostel’s a bare bones affair with no air con and a heat radiating off the walls that could grill bacon. Luckily they’ve given me a duvet in case it’s not warm enough for me.

Scenery north from Turpan
Karez aqueduct

The area around Turpan is one of the largest raisin producing regions in the world. The surrounding countryside is covered in vineyards with adobe drying houses scattered around. Despite the dry arid climate, Turpan is home to one of the engineering marvels of the ancient world, the Karez System – hundred of kilometres of underground aqueducts that have existed for thousands of years to bring water down from the distant mountains and turn the scorched earth green.

After travelling through long kilometres of grapes we reach the Flaming Mountains, so named because of the orange and red hues of the rocks that glow in the sun. Apt considering the already soaring temperature despite only being 7:30 in the morning. In fact they’re a bit murky today as fair amount of dust is blowing in from the desert.

Grape drying rooms for raisin production, Tuyoq town

We pass through an impressive gorge and reach the ancient village of Tuyoq, inhabited for thousands of years and home to the most sacred shrine for Uighur muslims – seven trips to this one is equivalent to one to Mecca apparently. There are also some 2nd century Buddhist caves in the cliffs close by which have somehow resisted centuries of attempts to destroy them by both muslims and the Red Book waving zealots of the 1960’s, mostly due to their apparent haunting by the spirits of massacred monks. Who said realism was dead?

Buddhist caves at Tuyoq
Tuyoq mosque

The countryside contrasts with stark barren mountains on one side and lush green vineyards at the other. The ancient Buddhist caves at Bezeklik weren’t so lucky as the caves at Tuyoq, local and passing muslim people have sabotaged the huge wall murals depicting scenes from the sutras and the life of Buddha. Portraits of living things (plants, animals, people) are considered haram and in their zeal for kuranic purity, any offending portion of these once amazing paintings dating from the 6th Century were chipped and ripped from the walls. What was left was largely looted by European and Japanese treasure hunters in the early 20th Century and then suffered further damage from bombing campaigns during World War II (I can’t think what anyone would have even been targeting way out here). Still, there are enough remains to get an idea of what once was, and the setting is dramatic enough.

The Bezeklik Cave complex

We visit some other villages and sites, stop for some lunch at a local hangout and then, early afternoon, arrive at the 1600 year old remains of the garrison town of Jiaohe on the edge of the desert. A thermometer nailed to a shady tree proudly proclaims that the temperature is currently sitting at 55°C which just pips my previous record of 54°C. The site was built on an island between two (now dry) river beds and built of mud and adobe. The city spread over around six square kilometres now mostly just the remains of walls and streets to wander along. The heat is radiating off every surface, my two litres of water has gone before I’ve even reached the far end and I’m feeling like I’m wandering about in a heat induced stupor. I’m sparing a thought for those ancient soldiers that used to have to stand out in this in full battle dress standing guard over the town.

The ancient ruins at Jiaohe
Emin Minaret

Last stop for the day is the impressive Emin Minaret built in the 18th Century and standing 44 metres high, it’s the tallest in China and one of the tallest mud brick structures in the world.

I’m on an overnight train to the west this evening, and fortune has it that as I mention this to Ahmed he tells me that it’s from a different Turpan station that lies an hours taxi ride to the south in the desert. Nothing like Chinese travel to keep you on your toes …

China 11 – Silk Road 08 – Circus in the Desert

Full photo set @ flickr

Lesson #2 in not holding romanticised ideals of places I’d read about and seen in old photos …

The Crescent Moon lake was an important stopping off point on the Silk Road and the principle reason for the existence of Dunhuang back in the day. Crescent Moon lake … because it’s the shape of a crescent moon … Singing Sands mountains, because the sand makes a long mournful moaning sand when the wind shifts it, said to be the cries of the souls of those who perished trying to cross the desert. Not that you’d hear today as the place is abuzz with camel ride touts, quad bikes, micro-lites and helicopter joy rides.

I wanted to go up mid afternoon, in the 45 degree sun, which the locals told me I was mad to consider. “Go at sunset, that’s when everyone goes there”. That was about all the encouragement I needed to go there and then. It was busy but comparitively quiet compared with what was to come, but with a bit of effort I could still get relatively away from it all. By “bit of effort”, I mean climb a 300 metre high dune during the hottest part of the desert afternoon. Nothing a few litres of water couldn’t put right …

From the top is a view back to the dusty city of Dunhuan and the tourist mecca below. In the opposite direction, endless tracts of massive dunes stretching off beyond the distance. I stayed long enough to watch the shadows lengthen and the colours become deeper, which was about the time the wave hit below and thousands started to pour in. Exit stage left. Time to head into town and try out the lamb’s penis kebabs.


China 10 – Silk Road 07 – Ancient Grottoes #2

Full photo set @ flickr

Near to Dunhuang is the UNESCO protected Mogao Caves. Started by a Buddhist monk some 1000 years ago after he came across the oasis here, it grew to over 700 intensely painted and carved shrines hacked into the cliff face.

The level of detail and scale of it is mind boggling, particularly when you think of the crude implements and technology they had at their hands to create this. Amongst this is the now second largest Buddha in the world (promoted after the Taliban blew up the Bamiyan giant Buddha’s in Afghanistan). There’s a powerful sense of history and timelessness inside the caves, hard to put into words.

The miracle of this place is that it survives at all – not from the elements (the bone dry climate here is perfect for preservation). Muslim travellers and local rulers took offence at images of deities and portrayal of human and animal forms (prohibited in the Koran) and promptly gouged the eyes out of everything they could reach. In the early 1920’s, White Russians fleeing the Bolsheviks came down into this region and, having no food or money, began ransacking everything they could lay their hands on – modern day Hun. The newly formed Republican guard rounded them up and, in their infinite wisdom, decided to use the caves as a prison. The White Russians being orthodox also took offence at the portrayal of heretical images of worship and began to destroy the images, also largely motivated by the extensive use of gold leaf throughout. Once they had been dealt with, the first academics moved in and found a hidden cave containing ancient scrolls dating back to the origins of the caves themselves. Lacking any funds to preserve and study the cave, the local commissar promptly sold them off to anyone who would have them at bargain basement prices only to appear in later years in private collections and museums across the world.

An unexpected bonus of Mogao Caves (and something I’m in full support of being spread across the rest of China) are that the ubiquitous tour leader loud hailers are banned here, tour groups have closed system headsets to listen to their commentaries on. The result, a blissful hush everywhere. Fortunately, I was the only honky in town that day so got my own private English speaking guide to show me around.

Photography inside is forbidden, but here are some photos plagiarised from Google to get some sense of the interior (which don’t come anywhere close to the sense of wonder you get walking through these caves but it’s the best I can do considering …).





China 09 – Silk Road 06 – Into the Desert

Full photo set @ flickr

The bus continues out into the far desert along a rough road. We arrive at the Yan Dan desert area not long before sunset and as a series of thunderclouds roll through.

The low glowing sun makes for some amazing shapes and colours under the dark clouds. There’s a selfie-fest going on with the other members of the bus, but it’s easy to wander a short distance and enjoy the scene unfold in some peace and solitude. The vastness of the desert out here is incredible.


China 08 – Silk Road 05 -The Outer Limits

Full photo set @ flickr

I’ve arrived in Dunhuang, remote outpost of the ancient Chinese empire beyond the wall (ignore that city of several hundred thousand just over there). Frontier country in the old Silk Road days. The Han Dynasty built part of the Great Wall out here sometime back in the 6th Century or thereabout, subsequent emperors retreated due to the fierceness of the climate and the local Hun.

I’ve taken a tour to get to some of the more remote and interesting sites out of town. The heat is on, it’s somewhere in the mid 40’s and things are starting to shimmer.

First stop is to “Old Dunhuang”, the original old walled city. Well, it was until half of it was demolished to make room for a movie studio and the rest completely rebuilt so that anything original is buried deep underneath. Still a good place for a wander, get some sort of idea of life back in the day I guess.

Not-so-old Dunhuang

We move out to Yanguang Pass, an old garrison and lookout post (looking out over some of the most unforgiving and relentless desert stretching out into the horizon … leaves me wondering who was insane enough to be riding out across that), and guarding a nearby strategic oasis. There’s still the remains of an old sentry building on top of the hill nearby with commanding views across the sea of rocky sand spreading beyond the eye’s reach. There’s the option of an electric cart to whick you up to the top and back, I opt to just walk up which the other tourists take to mean I’m verging on insane. I want to ge an appreciation for the conditions people endured out here or something … or maybe I just don’t like being herded into sardine can compression under blaring speakers. One of the two.

 

Beyond that we find an odd pyramidal shaped outpost building overlooking a sizeable oasis in the middle of nowhere, and the final remains of the original Han Dynasty Great Wall poking out like nub ends in the endless sand. Impressive that this was an earth mound wall built 1600 years ago. Wait … wasn’t Jaiyaguan, 600km to the east, touted as the “end of the Great Wall”?

China 07 – Silk Road 04 – The End of the Line

Full photo set @ Flickr

Jiayaguan sits out in the desert or Western Gansu and was either greeted with jubilation or tredidation by the Silk Road caravans. This was the furthest reach of the Ming era Great Wall. Coming from the West it meant at last they were out of bandit territory in the untamed barbarian lands stretching thousands of kilometres to Persia and were now in the relative security of Imperial China, along with all the luxuries of life that an established local trade route brings. Leaving Imperial China, there was a fair chance that this was to be the last bit of civilisation you might see.

The huge Jiayaguan Fort was the garrison where Chinese armies would ride out to more remote outposts and to quell incursions by marauding hordes. I’d seen plenty of photos of the fort, seemingly in a far flung forgotten corner, slowly being reclaimed by the shifting sands and had romanticised having to travel through some wild country on precarious transport to reach there and have the run of the place more or less to myself.

First lesson in not romaticising historic places in China: a bullet train brought me into town at a leisurely 200kmh where I could hop straight into a taxi to whisk me off to the Great Wall and fort where several thousand Chinese tourists had had the same intentions, arriving by the busload with flag waving tour guides and loud-hailers. It’s possible there were more selfie-sticks in operation than there were guards in the Ming Imperial Army. The fort is completely rebuilt, as is the “last stretch of Wall”, the only remnants of the original in view stretched away from the fort towards the mountains, where it’s been bisected by high speed rail links and motorways.

Jiayaguan itself is no dusty village – 300,000 people and a lot of heavy industry. Kind of killed that romanticised ideal as I turned from the top of the Great Wall to gaze out on the lonely desert …

I’m still working on learning that lesson …

China 06 – Silk Road 03 – Rainbow Rocks

Full photo set @ flickr

Not far from Zhangye is an area of desert known as the Danxia Rainbow Rocks. No prizes for guessing the origin of that name … take hundreds of metres deep of tightly packed rock layers, paint each a different colour, then bend, shape and sculpt it all into a fantastical landscape. The finshed product is Danxia.

For some added zest, throw in some mighty electrical storms with nowhere to shelter and you make for an afternoon well spent.

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

China 02 – Inscrutable visas

A couple of details regarding the Chinese visas might have been handy before attempting to spend 6 months travelling through the country … the six month multiple entry visa only allows stays of up to 30 days at a time (as does any Chinese visa apparently). It’s also only available to residents of Chinese territories. Double entry was the best I could do.

It’s going to need some creative planning to dip in and out of the country without involving an insane amount of flying and expense … I think I’m up for that challenge 🙂

First stop, the northern deserts sandwiched between Tibet and Mongolia.