Thurs, Oct 3, 2013
We had an 8:00 departure from Golmud. I had 3 really sour kiwi fruits for breakfast as we left town. The first couple hours of driving were the least interesting of the trip – flat, dry sand and rock with an occasional salt lake. Later, things got more interesting – we started to see double humped camels in the desert and travelled amongst mountain scenery. While descending one large hill, the Chinese traffic police were pulling over all traffic. We were told that we would need to wait 40 minutes to cool our brakes because too many vehicles burn their brakes on this hill. They took our driver’s license so we couldn’t make a run for it. Meanwhile, many buses full of Chinese tourists came and went – many of them taking pictures of us and our truck. By midafternoon, we started to see large sand dunes. With the hopes of camping near them, we drove off a random road towards the dunes. We passed thru several fields and vineyards, where grapes were being harvested.
After pulling up to quarry where the military seemed to be working, we continued to an amazing spot overlooking the dunes. We set up camp and then watched sunset in a very comfortable temperature. It’s amazing the weather difference when there’s a 3000-meter altitude difference. Dinner was pasta and homemade cheese sauce and carrots cooked over charcoal. Since the temperature was so nice, we sat around the fire for quite a while and watched the stars.
Fri, Oct 4
The winds picked up overnight. We were one of the few lucky ones that set up our tent in the quarry. Those that set their tents up on the side of the dunes had a sand storm overnight. As we boarded the bus, some appropriate music was played… “Mr. Sandman” by the Rat Pack and “Enter Sandman” by Metallica.
We drove to the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Moago Caves. These caves are/were a repository of some of the best Buddhist art work in the world. Unfortunately, much of it was taken by European and American archeologists. However, there are several large Buddhas and many paintings still there that are over 1,000 years old. Since it was still part of the one week Chinese National Day, the place was absolutely overrun by Chinese tourists. The tour is normally supposed to take 2 hours to see all the caves. We took 3.5 hours and still didn’t see all the open caves…it was queue after queue. I only had 5 minutes to look around the museum before we had to meet back at the truck and they had some interesting exhibits on how the statues are built and painted. Back at the truck, there was a Chinese press woman who wanted to take a picture of us and the truck for an article…we are quite the celebrities and oddities here – less than 1% of the tourists are non-Asian in this part of the country.
We came into the town of Dunhuang where we would be spending the next 2 nights. Dunhuang seems very pleasant and is very clean and safe. It is officially our first town along the “Silk Road” that stretches from Xian, China to the middle east. In town, I walked around to get my bearings and 3 of us arranged a driver for the following day to take us to several sites west of Dunhuang. I bought some grapes that are in season and grown around here and they might be the tastiest grapes ever. In the evening, a few of us went to the night market for dinner. We had rice and shared some dishes of spicy tofu, pork and bok choy, and mushrooms and peppers with meat. We went into a dried fruits/nuts store and sampled the local foods – raisins, almonds, dried apricots, and date. We walked back to the hotel on the brightly lit streets and took some photos at the night market and some of the lit sculptures around town.
Sat, Oct 5
Today Barb, Robbie, and I will be heading out on a full day tour to the west of Dunhuang. My original plan for today was to head to the sand dunes for activities (micro lighting, paragliding, etc.) but there are so many tourists here I can imagine that’s an absolute zoo today so we’re hoping there will be less people farther out. We had an included breakfast of fried eggs and toast and then prepared ourselves for the day out. We left at 8:30 and first headed to the Western Thousand Buddha Caves (Grottoes). We were amongst the first tourists of the day at this site and we followed around the guide who gave narration in Chinese as we visited 6 of the grottoes. This was a far cry from the Mogao Caves from a day earlier – the murals were much more crude and the Buddhas were smaller, but the crowds were non-existent.
We continued to drive on to the Jade Gate where we bought a combined ticket for several sites we would see later in the day. First, we would drive all the way to the Yadan National Park to see the rock formations. This was once a lake bed, but erosion over the last 12,000 years has left interesting formations. What a weird National Park – the ticket price was nearly $30 per person. This included a shuttle ride. We waited with all the Chinese people and boarded a bus where all the narration was in Chinese. The shuttle ride lasted only a few miles and they let us get out of the bus exactly 4 times – once each for 5, 10, 30, and 5 minutes. Definitely not enough time and no time for some hiking – I guess Chinese national parks work like Chinese assembly lines.
In the car, the driver was fascinated with my lunch – a giant green radish and a couple carrots – he kept on offering me bread. We continued to 3 different sites after the park. The first stop was the Great Wall of the Han Dynasty. This great wall was built in 101 BC and predates THE Great Wall of China. It’s amazing this mud brick structure is still standing after over 2,000 years. There was also a beacon tower and some ancient wood piles.
Next, we moved onto the small and large Fangpan castles – these were earthen castles built in the Han Dynasty.
In the evening, I headed to the Dunhuang night market where I had minced pork and chilies in the local Muslim bread (sort of like a large English muffin). For dessert was a fried pastry with a sweet bean paste inside. After dinner, a bunch of us went to a great local show – a mixture of dancing, juggling, acrobatics, contortionists, etc. that told the story of the deer princess – a local fable that has ties to the Moago Caves. The show had some good special effects including snow, rain, and even 2 live camels!