Our Trip to XinJiang: Part 11 of Many 14

Day 14:
Since  Dunhuang (敦煌) and Jiayuguan (嘉峪關) were not originally in our agenda, we were still somewhat open to where we spend our time.  We knew we had two and half days for the two cities and had to decide on when we should leave Dunhuang for Jiayuguan.  Our first thought was to spend our first day and night at Dunhuang, and leave for Jiayuguan the morning of the second day, but Siubo told us we wouldn't get to Jiayuguan until mid afternoon and there were at least three sites he thought was worthy of visiting.  Our second choice was to leave Dunhuang by early afternoon on day one, which meant we might not have time for all the sites we hoped to visit.  In the end, we ended up picking the latter, let Siubo sleep in while we woke up earlier and took a cab to Mingsha Sand Dunes (鳴沙山) and Cresent Lake (月牙泉).

When we got to Mingsha Sand Dunes, we found the the lines of the sand more elegant.  It gave us a different feeling than when we were at Taklamakan Desert.  The name "Mingsha shan" translates to "Echoing-Sand Mountain" because it is said that when the wind dances across, it produces flute-like sounds.  Legend has it that there was a battle many moons ago, on these sand dunes.  During the fight, a fierce wind picked up and buried the generals and their troops.  It was after this, that the sand dunes started producing these sounds and the locals thought it must be the troops still fighting under the sand.

Below: Mingsha Sand Dunes

We were given the option to ride a jeep or a camel to go up the sand dunes.  As well, you could rent these florescent booties to cover your shoes to prevent sand from creeping in.  We opt for the camels as it seemed more authentic.  However when we were waiting to get our camels, it seemed like they couldn't understand (or refuse to), put us all in one group.  They seem to have groups of 6 camels set up, but somehow split us up.  We got these tickets with numbers on them that corresponds to the number on each camel's harness and I guess its too much work for them to re-bundle the camels?  Anyhow, on the first ride up, Flora got put in a separate group from us, but that was apparently because I was riding the wrong camel.  On the second part of our ride, I was riding with Flora and some other random tourists, while Kel and Annie were in another group.

When we got to our first stop, tourists can pay to rent and drive an ATV around the sand dunes.  It looked interesting, but watching others do it, we thought it wasn't as worth it as the ride we took at the Taklamakan Desert.  These ATVs didn't seem as fast, and driving ourselves wouldn't be as exhilarating since we wouldn't know how fast and what route is good.  Something else they offered there was sliding down the sand dunes with an inflatable doughnut.  It looked interesting, but the cost for a ride was pretty high.  Plus, you'd have to walk back up after sliding down and anyone who's walked up sand dunes know how tiring that gets.  All in all, this stop seemed more like a tourist trap.

The camel station

My pretty camel. :)  Doesn't it look like it's smiling?

Left: Kelly taking a picture of me (and yes, that's Annie riding her camel in front of him). Apparently it was so bright that day, that almost all the pictures I was in, I had my eyes closed. :(
Right: Flora on her happy camel.

Left: The prettiest tree ever and in the middle of the sand!  Doesn't it look like the magical tree you see in storybooks?
Right: Flora on her camel

Next, we rode our camels to Crescent Lake.  It is pretty much what the name is, a pool of water in the shape of a crescent around a pagoda.  It was really pretty and we were looking for a story behind such a place since it is in the middle of a desert.  However, we found that the pagoda was actually not from back in the day, but rather reconstructed from what they thought it used to look like.  We felt somewhat scammed at this point. Also, there wasn't much inside except for a snack stand.

Upon leaving Crescent Lake, we finally got to ride together as a group.  The reason being we wanted to go, but the rest of our groups were still inside.  Below, you can see us with our camels again. :)

We left Crescent Lake not soon after and went back to meet up with Siubo at the hotel for some lunch. He drove us to the Dunhuang Mogao Grottoes (莫高窟) afterwards.  It is said that these rock temples of Dunhuang dated back to 366 AD when a local monk had a vision of a thousand Buddhas in the clouds.  The monk then got a rich pilgrim to hire an artist to paint one of the caves and turn it into a shrine dedicated to his well-being during his travels.  From then onwards, others would make donations for such shrines to be carved out of the cliff believing this will garner the donor protection.  The custom went on for hundreds of years, creating over a thousand of these grottoes.  However, because of the remoteness of the Mogao Grottoes, the earliest recorded foreign discovery of the caves was by the Russian explorer, Colonel Prejevalsky, in 1879.  One of the key things to note about the Mogao Grottoes, is the hidden library within (what is known today as cave 17).  It was discovered by a Taoist priest Wang Yuan-lu in the early twentieth century, whom appointed himself as the guardian of the caves and dedicated himself to its restoration and preservation.  Unfortunately, due to his illiteracy, he ended up selling many of these ancient manuscripts to British archeologist, Aurel Stein, and later to French explorer, Paul Pelliot, to raise the funds needed for his project.  One of the manuscripts sold to Stein was the Diamond Sutra, the world's earliest printed book dated 868 AD.  The scroll is said to be seventeen and a half feet long, ten and a half inches wide, and made of seven strips of paper joined together.  It currently resides in the British Museum.  Today, only 469 grottoes remain, with paintings, sculptures and inscriptions still somewhat intact.

There were two entrances to the Mogao Grottoes, one for Chinese, and one for foreigners.  We did not know this at the time and entered through the Chinese side.  The difference between the two was a slightly higher price on the foreigners side, but there they could arrange for non-Mandarin tours.  We tried to see if we could pay the price difference and arrange for an English tour, but they would not allow it.  They claimed they were different departments/groups and we'd need to pay the full foreigner price again if we were to get the English tour. Blah. We ended up going with random Mandarin groups to see inside the caves since they lock them up and only the guides would have the key.  We also piggybacked off of another English guide as they were finishing their tour.  Due to preservation reasons, cameras were not allowed inside past the admission gates.  But we did find it quite interesting as these grottoes were very well preserved.  The caves would have colourful wall murals, alongside buddhas of various sizes.  We learnt much about the excavations by the Swedes, Germans, Brits, Japanese, and later the Americans in the early twentieth century. Below, I've found some pictures from various sites online so you'd get a feel as to what we saw.

via www.the-silk-road.org

via buddhistchannel.tv

In this tower, we found a gigantic buddha made of clay 35.5m high. 

via relax.com.sg

We left Dunhuang by late afternoon, and headed towards Jiayuguan travelling another 448 kilometers for over seven hours before resting for the night.

Our Trip to XinJiang: Part 10 of Many 14

Day 12:

We got up in Korla (庫爾勒) that day and went on our way to Turpan (吐鲁番) covering 404 kilometres in about 6 hours.  We arrived in Turpan by late afternoon and saw these rectangular structures with grid like holes in the walls at the top of some hills.  Siubo explained to us that this is where the locals would hang their grapes and dry them into raisins.  Apparently, Turpan is famous for their production of grapes and these structures allow for good circulation for them to naturally air dry as opposed to sun dried.  We found that we much preferred the raisins from Turpan as opposed to the ones we get back home.  It seems like air drying would minimize the caramelizing of sugar inside the raisin causing it to be less sweet.  As well, it was much more organic in that the raisins are still recognizable as grapes and come in all sorts of sizes.

After leaving the grape houses, we went on our way to Jiaohe Ruins (交河故城).  Jiaohe was built in the middle of the river with natural 30 meter cliffs protecting it on all sides.  It was said to be the capital of the Anterior Jushi Kingdom (車師) from 108 BC to 450 AD and became known as the Jiao Prefecture from 450 AD to 640 AD.  After which, it became the highest level military post in the west due to its natural defense walls until its invasion and destruction by Genghis Khan in the 13th century.

It was another scorching day with barely a cloud in the sky and once again, there were barely anyone there.  I think we ran into maybe ten people max?  And really, this was a pretty big site.


We followed what seemed like the yellow brick road.

Looking out the side of the city to the greenery below.  I guess this is where the river used to run through, and although its dried up, there's probably still quite a bit of ground water to sustain all the plants.

Annie and I walking into the Great Hall.

That night in Turpan (吐鲁番) , we were excited to be in the city again and went to stock up on some snacks at the grocery store.  We were surprised at the variety of seasoned vacuum packed poultry snacks available.  We didn't get any though, we just stuck with our usual assortments of cookies, cakes, and chips.  While exploring their cold meat section, we also found prepackaged dog meat among the usual lamb, chicken, and beef.

Left: the wall of vacuum packed chicken legs, wings, thighs and feet in various flavours.
Right: Flo couldn't help but pose with a chicken thigh. :)

Day 13:
Today was our longest travel day yet!  We went from Turpan (吐鲁番) to Dunhuang (敦煌), which is in the neighbouring Gansu province (甘肅省). We didn't do much besides stopping to use the washroom or stretch our legs while getting gas.  Total distance traveled today amounted to 801 kilometers in about thirteen hours!  This was the stretch that Siubo didn't really want to do with our strict timelines, but ended up doing because we really wanted to.  Even after driving close to nonstop the whole day, we only got to Dunhuang for dinner around ten and went to bed after.  Full day of sites awaits us tomorrow!

Nothing a little parsley wouldn't fix

Going to the climbing gym last night meant Kingsley didn't get his dinner til midnight (and no playtime either). So it's a good thing fatty likes his parsley! Let him out for a run this morning before work. Hope he doesn't wake his dad up.

Our Trip to XinJiang: Part 9 of Many 14

Day 11:
Siubo took us to breakfast in Minfeng (民豐) when we got up that morning.  By now, we have concluded that all hotel breakfasts are the same and not to our taste.  Most hotels would come with breakfast vouchers that were buffet style, but the choice of food was to us, strange.  It'd usually include some very bland congee, corn congee, plain steamed buns, assorted spicy greens and milk.  We'd be lucky if there were hard boiled eggs, or warm soy milk. Bleh  If there was time, we'd get Siubo to take us to breakfast, but if he was tired, we'd just resort to eating snacks in the car.  On this particular morning, Siubo took us out to have soy milk, steamed meat buns, and onion pancakes. :)  We had a long drive ahead of us to Korla (718 kilometers for 18 hours), and most likely skimping on lunch, so breakfast was crucial.

We drove on the Tarim Desert Highway (沙漠公路) that was built through the Taklamakan Desert (塔克拉瑪幹沙漠).  The highway was funded by China Petro linking Minfeng in the south to Luntai in the north with a total length of 562 kilometers.  A good 446 kilometers of it was through uninhabitable regions due to desert sand dunes making it possibly the longest highway of its kind.  The highway allowed truckers to cut through the desert as opposed to driving around the outer rim.  Siubo informed us that to prevent the desert sand from eroding the highway (or burying it for that matter), they had to build a massive irrigation system using ground water to plant bushes and other vegetation at the side of the road to hold everything down.  Cool eh?

Left: We entered the highway from the south. Note the 562km marker on the side of the road.
Right: The entrance to the highway!

And of course, we had to take some silly pictures!  You can see Annie jumping for joy in the picture on the right as Kel jumped over Flo.

Not far after entering the highway, we saw two overturned cars on the side of the road.  The first was a car on its roof some fifty feet from the road.  There was another car with people helping them as we passed.  It looked out of place as it wasn't something we're used to seeing.  Further along we saw a second car, which was an SUV, overturned on its roof.  The driver was a young kid now crouched at the side of the road looking devastated.  We asked Siubo if we should stop to help and he told us that a tow truck was most likely on its way already.  Siubo said this highway was very straight, and the surroundings very flat.  As there's not much around, its very easy to speed on and lose focus from boredom or fatigue.  Siubo said these accidents happen a lot out here because once the car goes slightly off road, the tires would be in dirt and sand.  The surface difference plus the high speed would likely result in the car tumbling.  Inexperienced drivers tend to underestimate this stretch of the highway.

When we got to the end of the highway, we had to take a picture with the 0km marker!  Oddly enough, besides information on the construction of the highway, there were also billboards put up to warn people not to speed, documenting past major accidents on the road with pictures of the victims...

At the end of the highway, we stopped by the roadside to take pictures of a cemetery of popular trees.  It was strangely eerie to see so many dead trees randomly and sparsely laid across the desert.  The ground water must have receded over the years.  We trekked around, taking pictures of our surroundings when we spotted a dust devil in the distance.  Kel and I were still at the top of a sand dune at that point, while Flora and Annie had wandered down.  We called out to them to turn around to see the dust devil, but pretty soon, we realized they were right in its path!  The girls ran as the dust devil seemed to chase after them for a bit before changing directions.  We thought it disappeared and died off when it hit a line of bushes, but soon we saw it take out a bush!  If only we caught that on video!  The bush went FLYING.. :P

Flora and Annie turns around to see the dust devil in the distance.

Flora and Annie running up the sand dune to us as they realized the dust devil was headed straight for them!

A bit further down, we saw live huge popular trees in the desert.  A sign we were close to civilization once more!


We had a late lunch of more yummy lamb skewers.  We rated this place as second place of our entire trip.  They made the skewers on Tamarix sticks (红柳), which adds to the flavour. Mmmm...

Our Trip to XinJiang: Part 8 of Many 14

Day 9:
We woke up for breakfast in Kashgar and went on our way.  Today was a travel day for us as we had to cover a distance of 519km to get to Hotan (和田) for the night.  Google estimated our trip would take 11.5 hours, so it's a good thing that the sun doesn't set in XinJiang until at least 9:30pm.    Throughout the day we only made stops for lunch, gas and bathroom breaks.  For lunch, we stopped at Yecheng (叶城) for beef noodles.  Beef noodles has become one of our staples on this trip and the noodles we had here were definitely the best we've had!  It was so good that Kel and I decided to order a second noodle to share.  However when the noodle came, Kel seemed to have forgotten that we were sharing.. and almost ate the entire bowl!  It wasn't until I finally got his attention that he remembered! Grr!  This became our running joke throughout the trip.

It wasn't until we got to another restaurant later on, that we learnt the rules/criteria of what is considered a good beef noodle.  The five criteria it must meet are known as "one red, two green, three white, four yellow, five clear" (一紅、二綠、三白、四黃、五清).  What this means is the redness of the chili oil, the fresh green colour of cilantro and green onions floating in the soup, the thin white slices of turnip, the gleaming yellow of the noodles, and the clearness of the secret recipe beef soup with it's many spices.

Below: The beef noodle pictured below was unanimously voted as the most delicious ever!

It was this night in Hotan where we finalized our change of agenda.  We will be extending our stay in XinJiang for an extra day in order to cover Dunhuang (敦煌) and Jiayuguan (嘉峪關) in the neighbouring Gansu (甘肅省) province.  In exchange, we will be forgoing some sites in Turpan (吐魯番) as well as the towns and sites north of Urumqi.  We had not considered going to Dunhuang and Jiayuguan before as they weren't in XinJiang province, but Siubo recommended those cities because they were in a corner of the Gansu province where it was closer to other XinJiang travel spots and far from any Gansu travel spots.  Siubo informed us that because of the distance, most people travelling through XinJiang would also go to Dunhuang and Jiayuguan, but people travelling through Gansu would likely skip them.  Furthermore, Annie told us that there were more to visit in northern XinJiang than we were able to fit into our current schedule, so we could always come back another year specifically for the northern region.  Siubo helped us call the airline to push our flights for a day as well as borrow his friend's credit card to put the change fee on.  (They only accepted China issued credit cards, and apparently credit limits are quite low in China.  Siubo had maxed out his own card already. :P)

Below: The stove contraption at the restaurant reminds me of the pioneers. :)

Below: I couldn't help but take a picture of this.  Next to our hotel was a "MFC", Muslim Fried Chicken!

Day 10:
After a quick breakfast, Siubo showed us one of the characteristics of Hotan (和田): the tree lined roads.  He brought us to one he considered prettier than most for the trees were bigger in size, and the road was of good condition.  Siubo informed us that these trees were planted to increase the visibility and therefore safety for the drivers as we were at the southern rim of the Taklamakan Desert and sandstorms are frequent.  Similarly, it protects the road from sand erosion.  To us, it was simply picturesque like it was straight from a picture book.

Next, we headed over to see the king of all walnut trees.  They've built a park around the tree and a plaque by the tree indicates it's been around since 1362!  That means the tree is 649 years old!  Its said the tree is over 20 meters tall and yields close to six thousand walnuts a year.  We later learnt that Hotan walnuts are different from the ones we get back home in that they are especially thin shelled and can be easily cracked open by hand.

Below: some interesting seating areas at the park

We headed to the Hotan bazaar for lunch afterwards, where we bargained for red dates the size of golf balls.

Left: Squashes (?) for sale
Right: Street food; a big wok of fried rice with chicken legs and thighs on top

Left: a mule dressed up for the market
Right: a street vendor performing his cooking skills in an open flame; he saw us with our cameras and purposely smiled and made the flame bigger for us :)

 Left: their communal water fountain; we watched them walk over and pick up one of the many plastic mugs attached to a string, filled it with water and proceed to drink from it... huh
Right: a local butcher stand at the market.  We wondered how they could just leave the meat hanging out all day like that in such hot weather...

 Below: yummy yummy pineapples, skillfully skinned with a special tool to get rid of the spikes and looking so pretty with the spirals.  We were very tempted to try, but wasn't brave enough to take the risk of having raw fruit at the side of the street.  Afterall, where did the water they use to wash and soak it come from?

Siubo picked us up from a corner to take us away from the bazaar when we were done.  He bought us these very yummy lamb buns for lunch.  We ate them in the car as he drove us to our next destination.  However, before we got there, we were stuck in a traffic jam trying to get through the Sunday livestock market.  As Siubo skillfully maneuvered the car around, we welcomed the gridlock as we took many pictures of the lambs and sheeps being bargained off.

The next stop Siubo took us to was a traditional silk factory.  Kel and I found it quite interesting as just the year before we had a tour at a modernized silk factory in Suzhou.  Here, instead of seeing the many cocoons floating down a metallic channel to be sorted, we watched a lady manually going through the cocoons in a tub of water and feeding the loose ends to a giant wheel as an old man spun it.  They also showed us the old machines used to "knit" the silk into the many different patterns.

We continued on our way after visiting the silk factory and ended our day in Minfeng (民豐) where we had our first "big pan chicken" (大盤雞).  This was one of the many famous local dishes in the region and we all regretted not having gotten a bigger order. Mmmmm.. :)  From Hotan to Minfeng, we traveled 6.5 hours for 298km.

Tallying our first ten days of travel, we've already gone approximately 2,452km not including inner city travelling and sites less than an hour away.  Nine more days to go!