grey marble

September 20, 2009

A Beijing wedding

I leave for Uzbekistan in under eight hours. I feel unprepared. This morning military aircraft flew over the hutongs in preparation for the October 1st celebrations, some trailing colors behind them. On the rooftops locals pointed and took photographs. One man with a red armband pointed behind me. Look, he said! There'll be more coming.

Last night I met with friends for dinner at a duck restaurant down the street. It was the newest incarnation of Da Dong. A kitchen stadium welcomes guests who can see the ducks being roasted by chefs over open flames. If you order the special duck you're able to walk up and choose your own duck. We shut down the restaurant.

I skipped the afterdinner char to come back and finish doing laundry. I debated whether to begin packing but decided I was too tired to try. I went to bed.

The night before I had attended my friend's wedding. The months of planning had come to a head.

The morning began slowly. I went and bought breakfast for the bride and groom. Hair and makeup arrived at the house and the bride began her preparations. The groom gave me envelopes of money with which to pay the vendors. I checked the list and familiarized myself with the delivery schedule.

The photograper arrived and we hung out in the calm before the storm. Around eleven thirty a van arrived and we packed last minute items into it to bring to the site of the wedding, a temple in a nearby hutong that was in the midst of a conversion to a hotel and event space. The wedding would be their second event after the first stage of renovation.

We arrived at the temple at noon to find the narrow alley leading up to the temple packed with delivery trucks and workers. The gates had not been opened and nothing could be unloaded. We quickly found the manager who unlocked the gates. Trucks began pulling in and unloading. They were told not to drive over the patches of grass even though we had been given permission and instead did worse dragging small carts over the land. Permission to pull the trucks forward was re-granted.

Deliveries began to come in earnest. Tables and chairs were being unloaded while flowers were stacked in the front courtyard. My cell phone rang; the drinks delivery had arrived. I distributed my envelopes of money, lightening my load. The caterer arrived as did the roast pig. The guzhen player arrived, the band, the wedding cake.

The wedding began to take shape. The registration table was assembled as well as the alter. Chairs were lined up in front of the alter. The alter was dressed. In the temple the dinner tables were prepared so that they could quickly take the place of the ceremony space while the guests were in the forward courtyard having cocktails.

Guests started to arrive. Ushers kept them in the forward courtyard as we undertook the finishing touches. Light refreshments were served. A red cloth was signed.

A woman played the guzhen as guests sat. I learned later she was working on an album that was to come out the next year. She was vivacious and spoke with wide eyes about her instrument and her plans for the future. One of the bride's cousins is the vice-dean of a music conservatory in Vietnam. He played the flute during the ceremony and the guzhen player expressed admiration at his command of the instrument.

Once the guests were seated, the guzhen player began a classic Chinese song; a favorite of the groom's father. The groom entered, eight men bearing symbolic gifts to the bride's family. They placed their gifts on the altar table and took their seats. The Family followed, first immediate family followed by aunts and uncles. The bride's father introduced his family; the groom's father his, then the groom requested permission to marry the bride. The bride's father accepted the request and the bride entered.

The parents lit candles, then the families burned incense to the ancestors, and then the bride's family decked her out in jewelry. Once prepared, she turned and exchanged rings with the groom. Chairs were prepared and a tea ceremony was performed with the family members assembled by the altar. They then began a processional into the front coutyard where drinks were served.

The wedding was beautiful, a mixture of Vietnamese and Chinese traditions. The bride wore an ao dai; the groom was dressed in a Mongolian-inspired jacket. After circulating through the crowd, the bride disappeared into the back to change. Guests mingled.

In the back, there was a crisis with her hair. She had wanted it down originally, but it didn't work and so she tried putting it up. Her sisters tried consulting, confusing the hairdresser. When I went in to check on her, the bride asked me to translate. I thought she looked great. They took some orchids out of an arrangement and put it in her hair. She looked fabulous.

The chairs from the ceremony had been cleared from the courtyards and dinner tables were in place. The groom's brother-in-law seated the guests. Appetizers were served. The bride finished her preparations, and then the couple were announced. They welcomed their guests and sat at their table amongst family. The parents were thrilled. The groom's mother thanked me for helping them prepare. The bride's brother presented a slideshow, set to music written by their parents and by Ennio Morricone. Dinner service began, a series of Thai dishes catered local Beijing restaurant. The band played, a mix of jazz and European tunes, on a bass, guitar, and accordion.

The couple left to toast each table, slowly making their way around the courtyard. The tables welcomed them, each in their own way. The bride and groom then sat to eat what they could before toasts began.

The fathers each welcomed the guests. The bride's father told of how he was already a Wong, having chosen that surname as the name under which he wrote music. He had brought a CD with him, and the bride's brother joked that they would be on sale in the back after the wedding. The groom's father ended his toast with a poem, which he delivered with great exuberance. I gave a toast, the groom's sister gave a toast. Toasts followed by colleagues and friends. The evening kept passing, too quickly.

The cake was brought out, and after a few words from the bride and groom, it was cut and served. The cake was delicious. Dinner had been delicious. The wine was delicious, my glass seemed never to empty.

The party moved inside one of the temples. It was a smaller party; the older guests having left after dinner. The first dance was announced. Then the floor was open. We danced until two in the cavernous space. One of the photographers produced cigars left over from the bachelor party. He offered me one and we walked to the back courtyard to celebrate as the Cure and Modern English played in the temple. I couldn't not dance. I had to dance. I went back in. Outside, it began to pour.

After the last guest had left, we collected what we could and packed up one last van to take us back to the house. It was three in the morning. The bride wanted a cheeseburger; the groom and I walked to MacDonald's and brought back sacks of food. We sat and ate and talked of how well the wedding had gone, of how wonderful it had all been. The after wedding brunch would be in a few hours, but until then the bride and groom could rest.

Posted by eugene at | Comments (6)

September 16, 2009

Back to Beijing

I picked up my Uzbekistan visa yesterday from the consulate in Beijing. Having secured a letter of invitation, it was surprisingly simple. I dropped my passport off on Tuesday, and was told to come back the next day after 9am to pick it up. The woman's Chinese was beautifully accented.

Driving back from the embassy, the taxi driver caught my accent and asked me where I was from. When he learned I could speak English, his eyes lit up and he thrust a hand into the glove compartment. He dug a cassette tape from out of its depths and popped it into his deck. An English song came out of the speakers and he turned it up. "Michael learns to rock!" he said, using the Chinese phonetic translation of the name. He told me he loved the album and played it now and again in his cab. Last year, two westerners wanted to buy the tape from him, but he refused. The next song came on. "This is a happy song," he said in Chinese, and turned the music up even louder.

Since returning to Beijing, I've been caught up in errands: wedding errands for my friends and Uzbekistan travel arrangement errands for myself. I was up late Monday chatting with my friends and going over what they need done before their ceremony.They filled me in on the various events they had planned for their out-of-town guests.

That night I met Tini's family, as we all congregated at a Vietnamese restaurant nearby. The night was clear and cool and we sat in an unenclosed upstairs patio. The owner of the restaurant was supplying the wine for the wedding; he doubles as an importer of foreign wines, and we ordered a bottle to share. The atmosphere was convivial and we ate and drank into the night.

Tuesday morning I was up early to get to the embassy; that afternoon I went with Ed to a local photo-framing place to lay out their wedding program. They had a copy of InDesign and a computer they were willing to let us borrow. It was fun trying to figure out the menus in Chinese, and I was thankful that I had so many command keystrokes memorized.

I bought my tickets on Tuesday through C-Trip, making various calls and receiving SMS after SMS in confirmation. There was difficulty getting a flight back to Beijing from Tashkent on the international carrier taking me to Uzbekistan, and I had to find a local carrier to get me from Urumqi back to Beijing on the 9th. I have a two hour window to clear customs and re-check myself in. I'm hoping that baggage claim for international arrivals from Uzbekistan is as efficient as that for domestic flights.

Yesterday, my friends had arranged a group trip to an unrenovated section of the Great Wall. We drove an hour or so out of town and then through a village marked with tourist fishing villages and hotels. We arrived at the hotel and set about making plans for the day. We split into two groups: one to hike an easier path and another to tackle the harder path. We all returned for lunch about the same time. We ate bowls of noodles and plates of dumplings along a long family table while people recounted their adventures. Three from the difficult party had gone onwards and we waited for their return.

When they eventually returned they spoke of the edge to which they had come and the slightly dicey areas they encountered. The hotel owners offered to let them shower and they disappeared into the compound. A haze that had hovered around the mountains the entire day began to descend, and the far ridges began slowly to fade.

Posted by eugene at

September 15, 2009

A few days around Lanzhou

I'm back in Beijing, after catching an afternoon flight yesterday from Lanzhou. I spent a few days in and around the capital of Gansu after leaving my parents in Jiayuguan. They were en route to Xian and Guilin; I was trying to pack in a few more sights before returning to the country capital to help my friends with wedding errands.

I took the overnight train to Lanzhou, climbing into the top bunk in a hard sleeper cabin. I went to bed shortly after we left the station and woke an hour before arriving. It was probably the best night's sleep I had had since arriving in China.

In Lanzhou I walked across the square from the station to my hotel. It was early yet and none of the rooms in my price range were free. I debated what to do. On the one hand, I wanted to rest a day in Lanzhou; on the other I didn't want to waste time. I asked the travel desk how best to reach Xia He. The woman told me to go to the South bus station and not to waste time; there were few buses that left in the morning.

I took a taxi across town, chatting with the driver as we went. Situated in a valley carved by the Yellow River, the city has grown long and narrow along its banks. The driver dropped me at the station and studiously gave me my change. He cautioned me to take a large bus; it was safer.

At the station, an attendant told me the bus was leaving in half an hour and asked me where I was from. I told her and she said she needed a copy of my passport and visa. She directed me to a copy center across the street. I made my copies and raced back to the station. I handed the copies to her and she passed me a ticket. I boarded the bus and we were soon off.

There were but four of us departing the city. At the city limits a man with a basket of drinks boarded the bus and immediately got off. It wasn't worth him to try to sell us anything. We drove along the highway for a while and then turned onto smaller roads. At one village a man got on with a bunch of other passengers and began to tell the ticket seller what to do. We drove on, picking up passengers as they hailed the bus, finally leaving them all off near Linxia.

I fell into conversation with the passengers near me. When we reached the small Tibetan village of Xia He they suggested we find a hotel together. One of them had been before many years ago, but was taking his friend from Xinjiang to check it out. We found a respectable hotel and went to check in, but they couldn't take foreigners. They directed me to the Overseas Tibetan Hotel up the street.

Xia He is noted as the leading Tibetan monastery town outside of Lhasa. The Labrang Monastery is situated on the far side of town, which at its peak housed nearly 4000 monks. The days I visited, the monastery seemed ghostly.

After a bowl of noodles I walked to the monastery and began by circumnaviating the monastery, joining a line of pilgrims as we spun the over 1000 prayer wheels along the way. I met a Chinese woman traveling alone and we fell into walking with each other. After making the 3km walk around the complex, we went inside and took a tour of the main buildings of worship and study. She told me she had trouble understanding the monk's Tibetan-accented Chinese.

After the tour we climbed a nearby hill for an overview of the area. The sun had begun to set and the evening was getting cold. We walked back to town and explored some of the back alleys, stumbling upon a mosque that was teeming with children. My friend pulled out her camera and immediately the children went nuts. A man in a white skullcap threatened to beat them with a stick and they dutifully quieted down and lined up. A girl came out and gave them treats, sharing some with us.

For dinner we had soup noodles in a simple restaurant, and then I walked my friend back to her hotel. She had booked it without consulting a map and discovered when she arrived that it was far down an unlit street and then down an alleyway. She asked me if I would be ok getting back to my hotel; I assured her I would.

The next day I had planned to stay in the area, but a light rain began to fall. I decided that hiking around the grasslands would be no fun in the rain and so caught a bus to Linxia and then back to Lanzhou. I took a cab from the bus station to my hotel, and the cab driver asked me where I was from and then if I was married. He had married at 26 and already had a one-year-old. He was from Tien Shui, as was his wife. He had met her in the city where he had come to work. He said there were many people from Tien Shui, which was an area also noted for its sights. He told me eventually he wanted to go back to his village; already he had thought that his five years in the city were long.

At the hotel he wished me well and kept the small change from the fare. I had promised my Xia He friend that I would eat some of Lanzhou's famous noodles when I returned; she had rushed through the city and had missed out. I checked into the hotel and asked where I might find good noodles. The desk attendants fought over different restaurants and then one assured me that one across the street was among the best in town. I threw her a look but she seemed confident. I went and ordered a piping hot bowl.

The next morning I decided to sleep in. I had asked the travel desk how to reach Bingling Si, a set of Buddhist grottoes located on a bend in the river some 75km southwest of Lanzhou. He told me to go to the West bus station, but to leave early, around seven. At seven forty-five, I crawled out of bed and debated trying to make the trip. It seemed too late to try, then decided I had to try.

I took the 137 bus to the west station a instructed and found myself in a huge intersection. I asked where the station was for buses to Liujiaxia and was told different things depending on who I asked. One told me to go back a few stops and one told me to go forward. I hopped another city bus and went forward, asking a man on the bus where to catch the bus to Liujiaxia. He sighed then told me to take the bus forward and that he would tell me where to get off. There I could hail a passing bus as it left the city. He told me I would see the name of the destination writ large and I could just wave it down. I thanked the man and memorized the Chinese characters.

At the turnoff I watched the passing buses carefully, but none approached bearing my destination. I resolved to wait until 10 and then there wouldn't be time enough for the trip. just past nine thirty I saw it. A bus called Liujiaxia. It barely slowed for me to hop on as it rounded the bend.

The ride to Liujiaxia was uneventful. The bus wound its way through mountains and valleys and an hour or so later we were there. The bus let me off at a small storefront where tour to the caves originated. There were no other tourists and the woman tried to convince me to hire a car for the almost four-hour round trip to the caves for 200RMB. The fast boat would be 95RMB per person but needed at least five passengers. I said I would wait.

A few minutes later another bus arrived and four Chinese passengers got off. They were also looking to tour the area but had yet to determine what they were to do. I stepped out and let them suss out their options. They called me back in. They too had decided upon Bingling Si. One of them had bargained a van down to 300RMB for the five of us, from an original 500RMB price. The woman at the shop made a phone call and we were soon on our way.

The bus wound its way through valleys and up over passes. The road went from serviceable to bad, and near the grottoes gave way over to mud. The driver stopped on a mountainside and said we'd have to walk the rest of the way. We hopped out into the mud. Turning a corner, we saw the Yellow River and a stone forest of mountain behind. I caught my breath. One of my fellow passengers said it was more beautiful than she had imagined and I had to concur.

We walked down to the grottoes and toured the valley walls, first one side, and then across a bridge to the other. The large buddha that is the star was under renovation and the stairs leading up to grottoes beside the statue were closed for renovation. We were short on time and had to rush.

Back at the road leading up to the van we were told to wait. Workers had set charges to blow out some rocks up ahead. We said we were pressed for time and a man told us not to worry as an exposion rained rock up ahead. We walked on.

The van sped us back towards town. A rain had begun to fall, but the driver sped on with confidence around the winding mountain roads.

Back in Liujiaxia we caught the bus after the last bus back to Lanzhou. It was the overtime bus as they called it. One of my companions bought bags of dumplings which she shared with us for the ride. The large comfortable bus quickly made its way back towards the city, the sounds of the window wipers putting me to sleep in my seat.

Posted by eugene at

September 9, 2009

In and around Jiayuguan

It's raining in Jiayuguan. The day started overcast with the threat of rain, and by afternoon drops began to fall. It's not raining hard, but the overcast skies spread a pall over this city of broad avenues and relatively few people. This morning we awoke to music being played from within the public square. We're staying in a hotel right across from it and yesterday afternoon some intrepid individuals were out flying kites. In my sleep-addled mind, I thought I was hearing a morning call to prayer until I realized the tone was wrong. Across the park, schoolchildren seemed to be performing martial arts in tune to the music.

We arrived by train from Dunhuang, a short four and a half-hour jaunt. Two days before, the skies were blue and clear and my mother and I rode camels around the high desert dunes of Mingsha Shan. It was her first time on a camel and she rode like a pro. Ahead of us, two women from nearby rode with a one-year old child. He kept saying the word for "horse" while his mother repeated the words for "camel" all along the ride.

At the crest of one dune, I climbed a set of wooden stairs to the top of another, higher dune for its views of the surrounding desert and the oasis of Dunhuang, just a few kilometers away (from the town itself you can see the dunes rising above). The wind threw sand against my back, which stung me where my skin was exposed. I slid back down on a bamboo sled, where a man asked me if I wanted to ride an ATV. My phone buzzed. It was the women with us who wanted to hurry to catch the sunset by the Cresent Lake.

We rode our camels back down the dunes and around the base of Mingsha Shan. Our camels parked in a camel parking lot, and we walked a short distance to the lake, nestled as it was between the dunes. A pagoda had been erected, cradled in the arms of the lake. Tourists walked about, their feet shrouded in bright orange booties to keep the sand from their shoes. My mother and I had declined the covers, and we're still pouring sand from out of our shoes.

Our first full day in Dunhuang, we hired the taxi driver who picked us up at the train station for a full day's tour around the western attractions in the area. Mr. Li was gracious and suggested he pick us up at 7am to drive to Ya Dan, a geological park noted for its wind-blown rock formations (and featured in Zhang Yimou's Hero, among other films).

At the appointed hour we piled into his taxi and set out into the desert. Soon we left the city behind; desert spread out as far as the eye could see. Mr. Li told us there were animals out in the desert: wild camels, scorpions, snakes, and golden sheep. He had never seen a wild camel, but had seen the sheep.

In the middle of nowhere a gate appeared and we bought tickets for the Han Great Wall and the Yumen Guan, the northern city tower that guarded the silk road. We continued driving into the desert, along a straight sealed road. Some two hours after leaving the city we arrived at Ya Dan. We were the only ones there. The staff ushered us into a room to watch an explanatory video while they waited for other visitors. A small bus arrived, and we were all invited to board a tour bus to take us into the park.

We descended into a basin, pausing at formations that looked like a lion with a person's head, a peacock, and the Sphnix. Along the way, we passed formations resembling a Mongolian Yurt and a turtle. At the end of the road, we stopped at a set of formations known as a fleet of ships heading out the sea before returning to the park entrance.

On the bus, a woman asked my mother if she hadn't brought a camera. She pointed to me and told her that her son had a camera. The woman was surprised. She had thought I was a westerner.

We hopped back into the taxi and went back into the desert. At one point the driver pulled off the road and drove us towards nothing until the ruins of the Han Great Wall appeared before us. A small fence had been erected around one better-preserved area and a tower. We walked along the fence until it ended and found a piece all but buried in the sand. We walked along the straw and mud remains and felt ourselves transported in time.

Another taxi waited along with ours and when we left, they drove in the opposite direction. Mr. Li said they were heading towards Ya Dan, taking the desert road. We drove a little further on a sealed road and then paused at the Yumen Guan before heading towards the southern gate.

A sudden spot of green broke through the monotonous desert and we soon found ourselves in a small grape valley. Mr. Li told us that all the inhabitants of the village were very well off, keeping a house in the village and one in the city. They lived in the village only during the grape growing and harvesting months and did very well for themselves.

Just downhill from the Yang Guan we paused in another grape valley for lunch. We ate under a trellis, where the grapes grew right above our heads. For appetisers and dessert we had but to reach up to pluck their ripe fruit.

Outside the Yang Guan, a newly built garrison town housed a small museum devoted to the construction of the towers and the forts. An efficient guide quickly explaned all the exhibits and then lead us outside the garrison to buses waiting to take us up to the ruins of the tower. The view of the surrounding area was sweeping, and we spent as much time taking in the surroundings as the tower itself.

We drove back towards town and stopped at the western thousand Buddha caves. They were closed, but a Singaporean tour group had arrived just before us and their guide managed to convince the gatekeeper to let us in. We toured the ruins of a few caves before they closed. The gatekeeper said that there once were more caves here than at the famous Mogaoku, but that they had been damaged by the river. The sand was softer here, he said.

The next day we drove out to the Mogao caves. A sign at the front gate said that an additional 12 caves could be seen for 10Y each. I said I was interested and was lead to an office by the ticket gate. An official told me that of the 12 only 8 were available to visit. I asked how much it would be to see them all. He did some calculations and told me it would be 1500Y. I told him I'd think about it.

A guide met us at the front gate and gave us headsets the better to hear her with. She lead us through 10 or so caves, and we spent as much time admiring the ones we did see as wondering what lay behind the many locked doors that hid the other caves. The guide told me that 62 caves were officially opened. A computer told the guides what caves to show on each tour, though some of the major caves were on every tour. She told me the most expensive cave was around 500Y. It was the cave I most wanted to see.

Dunhuang was a pleasant town and I didn't mind spending so much time there. It has a laid-back atmosphere, but it's a town on the move. New pedestrian malls are under construction and the area by the river is being turned into an attraction in and of itself. It's already seen a bit of development thanks to Japanese interests in the area and the fame of the Mogao caves; I'm curious how it will look in another five years.

Posted by eugene at

September 4, 2009

Hello Xinjiang. Goodbye.

We didn't stay long in Xinjiang, just a week spread over two cities; not enough time to explore the largest of China's provinces (it comprises 16% of the country's landmass). There's a saying that you don't know how large China is until you've been to Xinjiang; you don't know how large Xinjiang is until you've travelled to Kashgar.

We arrived by plane, flying over large swaths of the country. From our window we could see mountains and rivers, deserts and plains. The capital city of Urumqi was our destination, a city noted as being the farthest city from the ocean in the world (and far as it is from Beijing, you could feel the presence of the capital in the soldiers stationed there after the unrest in July).

We took a cab to our hotel and settled in. I was given a note at the front desk. Unfolding it, I discovered that Teresa had arrived from Taiwan by way of Hong Kong and invited me to a drink (she had been living in Moscow and is the friend with whom I stayed while I was there). She was in a nearby pub, soaking up the atmosphere. I called her and arranged to meet her for dinner.

My parents and I then went to the nearby Hongshan park, I to climb the mountain steps up to a hilltop pagoda overlooking the city, my parents to ride the bus to the top. The views over the city were expansive, and I was surprised at the reach of this inland city.

For dinner, Teresa and I went to a nearby nightmarket, where all the stalls were orderly numbered, each third stall selling much the same: skewers of meat or seafood, noodles in hot pot, whole roasted lamb. We chose a stall and had a seat, feasting on skewers of mushroom and meat, a whole roasted fish, and a hot pot of noodles. The spices on all the dishes were the same, and while tasty, each portion of our meal began to run into each other. For dessert we ordered sliced melon from a vendor who wound his way through the crowd, a platter perched upon his shoulder.

The next day my parents and I took a bus Tien Chi, the heavenly lake. The bus was late, and had to pick up a group of elderly tourists. When we arrived, there were arguments to be had, and after everyone had settled, the guide asked us all to try to put our differences behind us and enjoy our trip. She then told the oft-told joke equating using the restroom with singing a song that seems to be a staple of Chinese tour groups.

The lake was serene in a way that the surroundings were not as groups of tourists flocked to the platforms built along its shore. In the distance, snow-capped mountains must have watched over the transformation for eons, as the pristine alpine scenery became increasingly made accessible, and the wanderers who had come in search of pure waters went from a trickle to busloads.

That said, the number of tourists in Urumqi are far fewer than in years past, much to the dismay of the tour operators and local economy. The effects of the decrease in tourism are felt even more in the desert oasis of Turpan, where we went next.

Our bus left the cooler climes of Urumqi to head into the Turpan basin, where at its lowest point it is 154 meters below sea level. Just outside Urumqi we passed large wind farms, the white blades of the windmills visible for miles. As we began to descend, the temperature rose until the bus became uncomfortably warm. We arrived at our hotel mid-day, the sun hot on our backs, and we welcomed the air conditioning in our room.

The town is noted for its grapes and trellises are everywhere. One pedestrian mall is entirely covered with them, the ripe grapes hang temptingly from above. There's a fine for picking them, however, a cost more dear than the less than fifty cents US it costs to buy a kilo. I bought one kilo then another. The grapes were the best I had tasted. If it were possible to overdose on them, I would have.

For lunch we had the local rice specialty, and then I braved the afternoon sun to visit Sugong Ta, an Afghan style minaret built in 1777 by the local ruler. A seemingly recently-renovated mosque sits beside it. The minaret was once open to tourists, but has since been closed for conservation.

My ticket also offered admission to the nearby governor's mansion and so I gamely climbed a small hill to look in. A woman appeared from nowhere to tell me that the basement lights were motion and sound activated. I thanked her and she disappeared.

At the entrance to the basement I paused. The steps lead into darkness. I clapped my hands. I whistled. I took a step. The darkness remained, and I considered turning back then took another step. With a whoosh the lights came on and a fake fire blew at the curved rafters. Behind me hung a portrait of the former governor. Ahead of me lay a long dim corridor, lit again only at the other end.

I inched my way forward, half-expecting the woman to jump out at me, an Asian Large Marge at once warning of her own presence as she lead me further into the horror of it all. I began to whistle tunelessly. At the end of the corridor, another long dark hall lead to the left. I walked faster, careful not to lose my step. There, another hall lead to the left, but at the end of that I could see a series of steps leading to the light. I all but skipped skyward.

The next day we toured the ancient cities of Jiaohe and Gaocheng, with stops in the grape valley and the ancient cemetery near Gaocheng. The grape valley had been turned into a Chinese tourism attraction the likes of Knotts Valley Farms, though without the rides or the shows. The low number of tourists didn't do much to encourage them. Our driver told us over lunch that usually in high season the roads would be jammed and the small grape-trellis covered restaurants would be packed. That day we saw a handful of cars. The restaurants stood mostly still.

Along the way we also toured the karez, an underground irrigation system that had first been developed and dug 2000 years ago. The engineering to bring the water down from the snow-covered mountains was astounding, even more so for the fact that it had been developed so long ago, using gravity as the only source of power. It's a feat to be compared with the Great Wall, though it's less given to the imagination for it all being underground.

At the Asitana graves, an attendant followed me around the hot plains down into the opened tombs to turn on the lights and make sure I took no photos. The first tomb held two mummies, the second some beautiful paintings of birds, and the third portraits of the deceased. I thanked the attendant when I left. He nodded to me from under the towel he placed upon his head.

At the Gaocheng ancient city, I took a covered donkey cart into the middle of the city to tour the ruins of a large temple there. I had planned to walk but the sun was hot and the children who drove the cart were insistent. Along the way we picked up a Korean tourist who gave in to the comforts of the cart.

We walked back out, sweating through our shirts. Back at the entrance I bought two bottles of iced tea. I drank one in minutes; I gave the other to the driver. Heading back to town he offered to turn on the air conditioning. I told him he could if he wanted, but I didn't need it. He said I was the first tourist he had come across to refuse the a/c. He braved the heat with me.

Driving up towards the main road, he pointed to a large swath of land. He said many more graves lay underneath. Efforts were being made at conservation before opening them up to the public.

Passing the Flaming Mountains we paused for photos. I couldn't resist a photo of the entrance: The Monkey King perched upon a gate announcing the mountains. The gate couldn't keep the mountains in, however. We drove further and I took photos from the cab. Nearer to the city, I saw oil wells and the driver said that Turpan was rich in oil, but only that area was open to exploration. He said the largest reserve was right in the middle of the city, near our hotel, and under the central square.

We left Turpan the next day, climbing back up out of the depression and into the cooler climes of Urumqi. A storm threatened. We stayed in Urumqi another day and I went to the Xinjiang Musuem. We had attempted to go before we left for Turpan but were ushered out midway through our visit so they could clean. We surmised an official was on his or her way but could never confirm it.

I spent some time with the mummies, one a brethern to the ones I had seen in Asitana, then left and toured the city. The day before I had walked to the People's Square and attempted to take a photo of the obelisque that stands there, its facade inscribed with the Arabic script used by the Uyghers, and was told by a soldier that it was forbidden. It wasn't until then that I saw the transport vehicles and soldiers stationed around the square. I had wondered why it had seemed so bare.

I decided to get a haircut. I asked the barber to cut it short. He left it a little long. I asked him again. Was I sure I wanted it that short? I was sure. It might be better a little longer at the top? It's a style of fashion. No, I wanted it short. He cut a small portion and asked me if I was sure. I was sure. He proceeded, but he didn't seem happy about it.

We left Urumqi by train, boarding our sleeper car at 11:48 for the 10 hour journey. Another man joined us, who seemed to be known by everyone working on the train. He told us he worked for the railroad and we later learned he worked for the police responsible for railway tourism in Xinjiang.

Everyone either seemed to know him or want to know him. One woman made him a cup of tea. With us he was sociable and jovial; with his colleagues he was serious. He asked us if we knew how they had dug the karez so straight between the wells, and then explained that they had placed mirrors in the shafts. As long as the digger could see his light reflected in the morror he must be moving straight. He told us that Turpan in the local language meant "hot place," and indeed it was. He told us he was Han Chinese; his father had come to Xinjiang with the army and stayed.

He sat with us a time and then they found him another berth. We travelled on through the desert. At Hami, I bought some of the namesake mellon and lugged it back to our compartment for the sake of saying I had bought them in Hami. Three mellons for a little over two US dollars. I gave one to our train car's attendant and looked forward to eating the others at our hotel in Dunhuang.

We arrived at Liuyuan near 10pm. My parents had decided to stay the night. We walked to a hotel recommended by the railway attendants, but it was booked. We decided to take a share taxi for 130km ride to Dunhuang.

We drove on towards midnight and the distant oasis. An almost full moon tried to light our surroundings. A single star or planet shone nearby. The night was cool and the road was near empty. Piles of mellons dotted the sides of the road. The desert spread out around us. Then trees appeared and the lights of a town. Emptiness gave way to blocks of buildings and neon signs. We had arrived.

Posted by eugene at


Recent Entries