“My husband (read ‘my husband and his generous colleague’) spent a great deal of time organizing this last adventure as it was not a very touristic destination and required many advance reservations. In fact for 5 days -from the time we stepped off the plane at Yinchuan (in the province of Inner Mongolia, west of Beijing) until we arrived in the more common destination of Dunhuang (further west in the province of Gansu and on the Silk Route) – we didn’t spot any other Westerners at all. Consequently our limited Chinese got a work out – ………..and we were often stared at!
Xi Xia Mausoleum (left) and the back streets of Bayanhot town (right)
We weren’t expecting the trip into the desert to be quite as hair-raising as it was. The kids described it like being ‘in a trampoline bus on a roller coaster’ and that’s a pretty good description of the way it felt as the 4-wheel-drive wove it’s way over the seemingly endless dunes of the Tengger Desert.
We slept 2 nights in the desert. What did we eat? This green vegetable/grass(?) Not sure what it is but we ate it while we were in the Desert and later on our travels saw it being sold in the local markets. Rather chewy.
One of the highlights of the desert adventure was a stop at a farm – with sheep, goats and a donkey and a lovely farmer with wrinkles in all of the right places (as if she were smiling all of the time) and one of her 4 grown children.
We slept in a yurt for one night – not far from roaming camels
We took an 11-hour over-night train journey to join the town of Dunhuang.
Trains in China don’t officially have a ‘1st’ or ‘2nd’ class – presumably because its a ‘communist’ country (?) Instead they have ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ seats/sleepers …. but as the price differs….it really is just ‘1st’ and ‘2nd’ class in disguise. There were no ‘soft’ beds when we booked our journey but the ‘hard’ ones were surprisingly ‘comfortable’.
Dunhuang was an important desert oasis on many of the Silk Routes: “Even at the routes busiest period 7-9th century – silk only formed a part of trade which included everything from precious stones to rhubarb. More importantly the trade routes were the information superhighway of their day. Religious ideas such as Buddhism travelled into China and technological ideas such as paper making and movable printing travelled out.”
“There was never just one Silk Route – and the routes varied according to changes in politics and water supplies.”
“The Silk Routes were not some ancient M1 or Route 66 to be travelled from one end to the other. The majority of states on the Routes traded with their nearer neighbors and travelers were like participants in a relay race stretching a third of the way around the world.” Peter Neville-Hadley – China the Silk Routes.
Here in the fertile Dunhuang oasis we visited the Mogao Caves (unfortunately photos prohibited!) – The third tallest buddha in the world is housed here and really was an amazing sight. Here is one of the greatest repositories of Buddhist art in the world plus one of the oldest printed books in existence (AD868) – although none of the 10,000’s of documents were on display as most of them were bought by ‘foreign devils’ (European archeologists) in the early 1900’s. There were 100’s of caves each decorated with buddhist statues and paintings that were remarkably well preserved thanks to the dry, dry climate.
Whilst rice is the staple in the south of China, noodles and dumplings are eaten in the north. We ate noodles practically every day (for breakfast, lunch or dinner) and here are two of the many sorts that we tried: the one on the left was sliced from a block of starch, the one on the right was rolled by hand (and dare I say looks similar to the trofie pasta from Genoa, Italy, where pesto originates from).
We also devoured some ‘crepes’ with sauteed potato and greens (left) and had to try the local speciality…donkey meat (right) which was served with a spicy sauce to dip it in.
We took a taxi trip into the middle of the Gobi Desert’s awesome nothingness – except for a few tourists who found Western children as interesting as the landscape.
During our trip we saw 4 different parts of the Great Wall of China. This part was probably my favorite as it had not been restored and you could see the packed earth and the plant debris with which the wall was made.
We went way out to Yadan National Park Gobi desert which was only accessible by guided buses – which limited our ability to explore but meant that it was the best preserved National Park that I’ve ever seen and one that could rival those of the USA or Australia. The ground was covered with tiny multicolored stones which contrasted dramatically with the large yellow-orange rock formations dotted over the vast landscape.
I recently came across a description of the’ ideal vacation’ by Ann Patchett “What we want out of a vacation changes as we age. It changes from vacation to vacation. There was a time when it was all about culture…. Later I became a disciple of relaxation…. Now I strive for transcendent invisibility and the chance to accomplish the things I can’t get done at home. I think the best vacation is one that relieves me of my own life for a while and then makes me long for it again.”
This vacation was just what I needed right now – some fresh air, some time to chat and read and space, lots and lots of space! (…. and of course some interesting food to discover)