I speak and speak, … but the listener retains only the words he is expecting. … It is not the voice that commands the story: it is the ear.
~ Marco Polo to Kublai Khan
We had to stand in a single line even before entering the China border control building, with the border patrol officers strictly making sure the line is not broken. Everyone, except us, on that bus from Kazakhstan was either Kazakh or Chinese but we were not asked any questions by the authorities – almost as if they were expecting us. However, after passing through passport control I was pulled on the side and an officer went through my mobile phone pictures.
We did not know it then, but we ended up getting used to officials in Xinjiang province asking to check our identities and taking photos of us holding the passports open on the picture page. At the border crossing they did that three times: first, on entering the building, second, during ‘official’ passport check, and the third time, at the exit of the building.
Once in China, we got picked up by one of Max’s friends and driven to the nearest town of Khorgos. The first thing that struck me there was how modern the town looked (given that it is a relatively small border town in an undeveloped part of China). The second thing that surprised me was how high the level of security was. Even though we were aware of the Uighur ‘situation’ there, I had never seen anything like this on any of my previous travels (including the Bekaa Valley on the border of Lebanon and Syria when I visited it in 2000).
There were metal detectors and heavily armed police on the entrance of any public building. In fact, there were security on any building entrance. There were also military checks pretty much everywhere on the streets. Despite this we never felt unsafe or worried. The people did not speak any foreign language but were extremely polite and accommodative.
We stayed in Khorgos for about a couple of hours, literally: just enough to get something to eat and get on the overnight train to Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang. Incidentally, in Khorgos we discovered one thing that made our travel in the rest of China much less stressful: one can buy train tickets in the local post offices which are all over town!
Anyone who has traveled in a self-organized way in China would know that securing train tickets could generally be a hassle: foreigners cannot book online (easily and instantly – there are agencies which could do this, but it takes a few days and still need delivery of physical tickets), cannot use the ticket machines (need passport details which machines are not designed to handle yet) and therefore, the only way to do it (until we discovered the post offices) is at the train stations.
In our experience most train stations, especially the ones for the super fast trains as they were recently built, are far out of the cities. Buying train tickets in advance, which was for us a necessity in the case of some of the most popular destinations, would have been we a waste of time and money if we had to go to the train station and back.
Moreover, the problem with train station ticket offices is that they are crowded and the officials do not speak much English (and find it very complicated to enter non-Chinese identify details). While one has those same issues at the post office, there, at least they do not have the pressure of hundreds of Chinese travellers getting impatient and hustling because it takes longer than usual.
The other thing we realized immediately is that the only way we could participate in the local economy was through cash. For example, we attempted to buy train tickets for our next destination once we arrived at Urumqi train station from Khorgos, but couldn’t, as our credit cards were not accepted, we did not have enough cash and the only ATM machine there was out of order.
Away from top hotels and restaurants, non-Chinese credit cards, indeed, are not really welcome and everyone uses WeChat/Alipay otherwise. At least ATM machines would generally accept non-Chinese debit cards which meant that, as usual on this journey, we ended up travelling with a decent amount of cash (we are four people after all).
China is not cheap. Part of it was due to our unwillingness to put up with the risks associated with real cheap lodging and food in a country where, we had heard, hygienic and safety standards might not be as strict as ours. Part of it was due, though, to the demands of an intense local tourism business which must be pushing the prices of train, restaurant and hotel, more or less, on level with those in Europe. How is this possible, I thought at first? How can the average Chinese afford a $60 train ticket and a $100 hotel room? Well, because, the actual Chinese tourist is not of average income but their sheer size allows for that economy to flourish. When one considers that the Chinese middle class is equal to the size of EU’s total population, then suddenly buying that $60 train ticket does not sound that crazy (and also explains that all the trains we took, without exception, were full).
We arrived in Urumqi in the very early morning with the ground covered in freshly fallen snow. We could not immediately check in our hotel but we left our luggage there and went around looking for something to eat. That’s when we discovered another peculiarity of China. Away from the really big cities, like Shanghai and Beijing or tourist centers like Hangzhou, generally speaking, there are no Western-style cafes. There are, of course, Chinese pastry shops, but they do not seem to start baking anytime before they open (around 9am or later) which means no pastry or bread before lunch time.
Coffee is not really a Chinese thing (the default is instant coffee), but the really big surprise, for us, was that restaurants in Western and North China do not serve tea. What is customary, though, is to be served plain hot water. In fact, there are hot water facilities everywhere but especially so in the trains and at train stations. It is very common to see people in that part of China carrying their special hot water bottles around with them everywhere. Georgia loves her tea and eventually she also bought a hot water bottle to enjoy everywhere we went.
We continued to notice heavy military presence everywhere in Urumqi as well. I don’t know whether it was related to the recent events, but all public parks were closed. There were military drills in the streets as well. In another flashback from my life behind the Iron Curtain, we witnessed early morning police exercises including stretching and running in a circle in the public squares.
As we walked around the city (and we walked everywhere), we saw the police/military teaching common shop owners how to defend themselves
and what to do in case of riots. But, just like in Khorgos, we did not feel
unsafe at all. We stopped to observe these drills and the police did not seem to mind, apart from scolding the people they were teaching every single time they got distracted looking at us and not following their commands.
Despite its natural beauty and because of its remoteness, and especially because the government discourages travelling there, Xinjiang region is not popular with foreign tourists. In fact, I don’t think we saw any Western-looking foreigners in Urumqi. So, everywhere we went we were greeted both with curiosity by the locals and with special attention by the authorities: double checking passports and taking more photos. In each case, though, done in a very friendly manner. If at first we found this special security attention amusing, after only three days there though, we had a bit too much of it. I was both happy to get on the fast train to Dunhuang and somewhat disappointed that we did not have a chance to venture out of the city to explore more of the natural beauty this part of China has on offer.
The Gobi desert rises just outside of the city. I use ‘rise’ here intentionally as the Gobi is unlike any other desert I had ever seen and resembles more a small mountain: the sand dunes are massive.
Dunhuang used to be an important stop on the Silk Road, but was pretty much abandoned in the middle ages. It is not a big city by Chinese standards at all and nowadays is famous for the Mogao Caves, the first of which was built (yes, they are artificial) more than 1,000 years ago. The legend has it that an Indian monk, after wandering in the Gobi desert for days, had a vision of a thousand Buddhas (surprise, surprise!) and decided to stop and dig a cave there in dedication. Eventually, more and more caves were built at the site.
The caves are dug out in the rocks in the desert. There are hundreds of them but not all of them are open for visitors: we managed to see only 8. The caves obviously have a lot of archaeological significance (the largest collection of Buddhist art in the world on their walls) and carry a lot of history (the Library Cave, walled off until recently, contained thousand of documents, among which, the oldest printed book, in more than a dozen different languages – most of these documents are now in museums in India and Britain, by the way).
The Mogao Caves complex is very well organized. On arrival, visitors are ushered in a very modern building and shown a 3D video of the history of the caves. Then they get on special buses which take them deep in the desert where the actual caves are. There, they cannot just wander off unaccompanied by a guide. Finally, special high tech makes sure the air pressure and consistency in the caves stay constant to ensure the longevity of the art there. Visitors cannot take any pictures inside.
There is some irony in all this. The archeological significance of the caves was only recognized fairly recently. For example, even in the early 20th century they were unguarded and anyone could go in unhindered. During the war, the government decided to use the caves as a prison for captured Russian soldiers, who vandalized a lot of the art in the caves. And even a couple of decades ago, the public could visit the caves without a guide. Definitely worth visiting if you are in the area, yet somehow, I think the Necropolis in Shiraz is more impressive.
Yet, it was the Gobi desert that I was really looking forward to visiting. On our way back into town for some street food for lunch, we struck a conversation with a young family, a rare occurrence as people generally do not speak English (or any other foreign language in that part of China).They were so nice that they went out of their way to pick up their car and give us a lift to the desert on the outskirts of the city.
I have to say, nothing prepared me for the majestic sight of the Gobi desert. When I think of desert I imagine flat land but the sand dunes in Dunhuang suddenly rise out of nowhere as the city end approaches. It looks almost surreal. To top it off, among the sand dunes there is the so called Crescent Lake: a real oasis in the desert, shaped like a crescent, thus the name. We took the whole afternoon and well into sunset to climb up and down the sand dunes. The kids had an awesome time sliding down, pretending they are on a ski slope.
The Chinese clearly enjoy spending time in the outdoors but, at the same time,they somehow seem to prefer to have as little contact with nature as possible. Not sure whether it has to do with a (convoluted) idea of
modernization and urbanization whereby the average Chinese thinks he has ‘made it’ coming out of the village with its agrarian lifestyle, but we saw it on numerous occasions visiting Chinese natural landmarks. For example, on the foot of the dunes here in the Gobi desert, you can rent special boots which protect your own shoes and socks from the sand. We, on the other hand, went the opposite way: even though, it was rather chilly, we took off our shoes and socks and went barefoot!
That evening, as we were wandering the streets of Dunhuang in search of an ATM we stumbled across a tiny family restaurant. It literally felt it was their living room as there were no other customers and the family’s two kids were doing homework on the table. The mother was helping the younger son while the father was in the kitchen. The kids were very curious to start a conversation as, it turned out, the older one was actually studying English. Still, their English was not on the level to allow us to order food (no menu and no pictures), yet we had already been well prepared for this language barrier. We had brought along a “Point It” book which had hundreds of photos separated by category: one could simply point to in order to have a basic communication.
It was a lovely evening during which there was a genuine connection between us despite the language barrier. Our kids read their English books, while the Chinese kids, on the other hand, helped with Chinese pronunciation.
Dunhuang is, unfortunately, not on the fast train line, and one has to take a 2h drive to the nearest “connection” – a strange choice by the Chinese as that fast train station is literally in the middle of nowhere. Anyway, from there we headed to our next destination of Zhangye.
This city is is much bigger than Dunhuang, and just like it, was an important outpost along the Silk Road. So much, that Marco Polo decided to spend one year there – for which they erected a statue of him in one of the city’s squares. Apparently, the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan was born in the Dafu Temple in the city. What the latter is actually famous for is the longest wooden reclining Buddha in China.
We arrived in Zhangye in the evening, quite exhausted and hungry. We could not find proper transportation from the train station into the city and had no choice but to take one of the touts. Throughout Central Asia, that had never been a problem and we had taken many of them, but in China, we had heard many unpleasant stories. Anyway, we managed to negotiate a reasonable fare and we set on. As usual, I would follow the navigation on my phone, more out of curiosity than anything else, but this man would have none of it and was obviously irritated that I was doing it. We were communicating through the translation apps on our phones, which are not always right, but his comment was something like this, “I am a former China special forces, you should trust me!”.
Throughout our trip into town he was trying to convince us to take us to the Rainbow Mountains, another must see sight in the region, the following day. I had to politely explain that we would think about it and get back to him (I did take his number). When he dropped us off to the hotel he hanged around waiting for us to check in while discussing something with the receptionist. When he even requested to take a picture of our daughter, we did get a bit worried and we all grouped on it instead. We almost expected he might pop back at the hotel the next morning and were relieved that it wasn’t the case.
The hotel was in the town center, but the best way I can describe it is “dodgy”. There was this big neon sign in front of it which stated the room rates per night as well as per hour! The receptionist was smoking profusely all the time (disregarding the non-smoking sign) while checking us in. On the upside, however, he spoke decent English and was rather polite.
We left our luggage and, despite the late hour, we hurried out to find something to eat. Normally, there would be lots of choices of street food but in this case we could not find any. There were the usual Western fast food places (KFC, McDonald’s, etc.) and the Chinese fast food ones (local joints which normally are better than the Western, but in this case they were infinitely worse as people were smoking inside). Eventually, we came across a second floor, decent looking, non-smoking, and rather inexpensive restaurant.
We sat down at a table and a couple of people came over to take our order (because of the late hour, the restaurant was rather empty). Of course, none of them spoke English and there was no menu with pictures. The “Point It” book turned out to be of no much help either. We slowly realized, that this was a ‘hot pot’, a typical restaurant for this part of China. The way it works is they put a pot with a specific sauce on a “fire” in the middle of the table and then customers choose vegetables and meat to go along. Sometimes, in the West, this is called “Chinese fondue”. They were very nice in that restaurant. To explain all this, they took Georgia to the kitchen and throughout our meal they were super helpful: it felt that we had a private dinner!
The following morning, we took off to see the natural beauty of the Rainbow Mountains but not before we stopped by the post office to buy the tickets to our next destination, Xi’an. In the bus to the mountains we struck a conversation with a Filipino who had a business in China and who suggested that we should also visit Binggou Danxia, a rock formation, on the way to Zhangye Danxia (which is the Rainbow Mountains). It was a great choice! The place is amazing – in 2000, Binggou Danxia Landform was nominated by National Geographical Magazine as the world’s top ten magical geographical wonders. What was surprising, as we would soon discover on our subsequent tourist stops, was that it was deserted. We did, however, catch a sense of the Chinese “Disneyland-fixation” as they play loud music, the walking paths are well designated and everything is groomed.
We were so glad we had literally stumbled upon this natural wonder, that we stayed as long as we could before rushing to pick up the alleged bus to the Rainbow Mountains. The problem was that that bus never materialized. Not knowing when the next one would arrive we tried to hitch hike. After a few cars passed by with only a look of utter surprise on the face of the driver (and/or passengers), eventually one stopped a few meters afterpassing us, turned around and came to us. The driver was really nice and, I believe, genuinely wanted to help us but the problem was that we did not understand each other. We thanked him anyway but were getting worried a bit as it was getting late as well.
Luckily, just when we started to despair, a bus arrived, strangely going in the opposite direction, or so we thought. A couple of college kids inside spoke broken English and reassured us it would take us to our destination, so we boarded and after half an hour we were at Zhangye Danxia. This is the more popular tourist site in the region and it showed: hordes of Chinese tourists organized in buses to take them to see the colorful mountains. The scenery is spectacular, true, but somehow the way the trip was organized took a bit off the excitement being there: you get on a bus that takes you onto the first sightseeing spot, you get off, follow a well trodden path, take some pictures and get on a bus to go to the next spot. Can’t wander off, can’t go off the path as you are under the watchful eye of many officials always nearby.
The whole experience was more like going to the movies: if anything, everything was so efficiently done to limit any interaction with nature. Which makes me think that the Chinese would be perfectly happy and very open to the arrival of VR. It seems to fit nicely their culture and society. It was partially this, partially the fact that the evening was fast approaching and we needed to take a bus back into town, that we spent a rather short time there.
Back in Zhangye, we finally repaired my son’s phone, the one he broke in Yerevan which made him very happy! We were off to Xi’an the next day – to an extent this was kind of the end of the really exciting part of the Silk Road journey for me, as I and Georgia had already in the past visited all the cities, until Huangzhou, which we were about to visit again.
As we had travelled from West to East along the Silk Road, a thought was reemerging. This is how, in general, ‘information’ flowed in antiquity: the monks who travelled from India to China to spread Buddhism, for example. And then beyond China: we found out, actually, that the city of Kyoto in Japan was modelled after Xi’an.
I realized that there was very little I remembered from the last time I was in Xi’an in 2007: this was how much the city had changed. Our hotel was very close to the Bell and Drum Towers (after the experience in Zhangye, we decided to treat ourselves and stayed in a really fancy Art Hotel). I did remember those but everything was different around them: two massive Starbucks, a KFC etc. and an array of high-end Western shops along the avenues leading to the Bell Tower.
Our ‘goal’ in Xi’an was to show the kids the Terracotta Warriors site. No doubt the extreme commercialization which we had started witnessing in all Chinese tourist attractions was in full swing there s well! Ok, the actual site is still impressive, but everything around it was too much for me: the buses, the stands selling everything, the overpriced restaurants. I would say, if you have never been there, it is worth going but some of the charm is definitely gone.
Yet, one can still learn something new and interesting in Xi’an. This city is old, one of the few cities, still standing, around the world to have a history spanning three millennia. For example, we spent almost a full day just walking along its city wall. The city is also the site of the tomb of the only female emperor in Chinese history, Wu Zetian. A former concubine, she was ruthless – actually deposing her sons from the throne to become Empress. Bu she was also efficient – allowing for advances in education, improving taxation, and encouraging trade by reopening of the Silk Road.
Xi’an is also considered the ‘buckle’ that ties the belt together in the One Belt One Road idea thanks to its extensive rail network (the dark side of this industrialization is that usage of coal is still predominant which makes the city one of the worst polluted in China). But the Xi’an is also a pioneer in the digital sphere by becoming the first one in China to have its metro accept cashless QR code tickets linked with Alipay mobile payments. In fact, Xi’an has a New Software Park where Alibaba is planning to build its ‘Silk Road Headquarters’ to cover all of Western China (the name Xi’an, actually means “peace in the West”). Finally, Xi’an is also the home of China’s space exploration program: it is planning to be the first nation to reach the dark side of the moon!
The kids were actually really excited to visit the capitol. They had studied about China but the fact that China, aka ‘Beijing’, has been constantly in the news this year on account of the trade frictions, was a factor.
Beijing would turn out to be the most expensive city on our Silk Road Journey, so we had to resort to even more budgeting and planning carefully. For example, the hotel we booked was walking distance to the Forbidden City and had amazingly considerate concierge (I am kidding, the hotel concierge did indeed help us order delivery for dinner and paid with their own personal Alipay account – we, of course, paid them back – but we did not plan this!).
Not that transportation is necessarily expensive in the city. The Metro is very affordable while DiDi, the taxi sharing company, supposedly the only large start-up in which all the three Chinese giants, Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu have stakes in, is infinitely cheaper than normal taxis. There are also the city bikes, which are the epitome of true sharing: they can be left anywhere in the streets as they can only be unlocked by QR codes on WeChat.
For all the talk in the media, Beijing, itself, is actually not really polluted if it was not for the industrial zones around it (for example, Shandong Province) and the proclivity for the wind to blow in its direction. Also, despite Shanghai considered the financial capital of China, there are more Fortune 500 companies headquartered there than anywhere else in the world except Tokyo!
We spent a day enjoying the splendor of the Forbidden City, majestic as ever (and how I remember it – very big – as big as 28 football fields), lingering the streets in Hutong (massive change – I think it has shrunk by half from the last time we visited – and definitely lost its charm) and wandering the little shops (and antique tea houses) around Houhai lake. It was in Beijing that we first saw such delicatessen as scorpions and snakes for sale in the street food markets.
The Great Wall of China was another day trip. Beijing is already very well strategically located, mountains on the north and west, with the Great Wall an added bonus for protection. We got unlucky a bit as the weather that day was bitterly windy but we toughened it up for the kids. Otherwise nothing has changed much from before – only the hordes of Chinese tourists, and their inconsiderate behavior (littering, pushing, being loud, etc.), has increased.
On the way back into the city we stopped by the Beijing Olympics Stadium – our son really wanted to visit it. Unlike other former Olympics stadiums which may have been left derelict, the Bird’s Nest (as it is called) is as glorious as ever, especially at night with the lights on – it has a truly futuristic feeling. That Beijing will be the first city in the world to host both the summer and winter Olympics maybe has something to do with the fact that the stadium and the Olympic village next to it have been kept in pristine condition.
The third day in Beijing was devoted to the Summer Palace, which is more like a massive garden and where the emperors spent their…summers. There, you would still see impressive buildings and pagodas but one should visit with the idea of immersing in their splendor and just relaxing and letting time pass by. In the evening, we visited Tiananmen Square and Mao’s mausoleum. While the latter was lit up, ceremoniously guarded and full of couples taking selfies in front of it, the former was left dark and was off limits for tourists. This prompted some questions from my son about postmortem fairness in history.
The next morning, we got on the fastest train in the world and headed to Shanghai…