Travelling Hopefully

12 May 

A relaxing start to a holiday. I had booked a taxi to collect me at noon for the trip to Birmingham International Airport, so I had the morning free to prepare the house for my upcoming absence.

A nice taxi driver who grew up in Albania collected me at 11.50am. Traffic was light, and we arrived at the airport an hour later. Slight complication in that he expected to be paid in cash. I went into the airport, visited an ATM, and paid him.

Check in proceeded smoothly. My bag weighted 21.3kg, which I thought wasn’t bad for a 46 day trip, particularly as I had to pack a sleeping bag and mat. The airline didn’t weigh my hand luggage, which was overweight (camera equipment!)

The first flight was to Istanbul. We arrived around midnight, Turkey time. Off the plane, short bus ride to the terminal, straight through to departures, and the gate for my second flight was on my right. Very easy. 

13 May

Less comfortable second flight, which set off at 12.40am. The plane was full, and I just couldn’t sleep. When we arrived at Bishkek at 8.15am, I was glad that going through immigration and collecting my bag was straightforward. I’d booked a taxi to collect me, and the driver was waiting for me. A 40 minute drive brought me to the hotel, where I checked in, went to my room, and went to bed.

I had lunch at the hotel. The Dragoman truck and my fellow passengers arrived whilst I was eating. A number of them came over to greet me. After lunch, I went back to bed for a couple of hours. Then I started sorting out my luggage for the truck. I always have a ‘bus bag’ for overland trips, namely a small duffle bag to hold items such as rain coat, hat, sun cream, etc. Seems I can leave my sleeping bag on the truck, which will free up a lot of room in my main bag.

The group had consisted of 22 people for the first leg of the journey, which had started in Istanbul around 50 days ago. 9 people were leaving. We walked down to a restaurant where very heart-felt speeches were made about the time they’d had together. I had a delicious local dish, chicken fried in sesame oil (from what I’ve read, all chicken in Kyrgyzstan is raised free range) and some local beer. The latter came with a straw, which is a first for me.

Rain was hurtling down when we’d finished, so we shared taxis back to the hotel. I went up to bed.

14 May

I fell asleep almost immediately, then woke up in the middle of the night and found it difficult to go back to sleep. When my alarm went off at 7.30am, I groaned myself out of bed and went downstairs for breakfast. I hate jet lag.

Breakfast was an intriguing offering of omelette, fried cauliflower, salad, cold meat, bread, cereal, and fruit. I have packed coffee bags for the trip, but the hotel did have some real coffee on offer. I talked to fellow travellers and tried to commit names to memory.

We had the morning free. At noon, we gathered for a briefing about the next five days. I also had a one to one briefing about the truck rules. The main three were no drugs, no smoking on board, and no prostitutes. I assured the guide that I could adhere to those! We all have assigned jobs, and until we reach China I’m on ‘locker duty’. Everyone will bring their bags to the truck by an assigned time, and I will work with one other person to load them.

We then had a guided tour of the city. A quick stop at a lunch bar and a coffee provided much needed fuel. I managed to change some US dollars into Kyrgyzstan currency (I couldn’t get any in the UK). 

The architecture is an interesting mixture of Soviet style influenced by local culture. So, for example, the Triumphal Arch had the Red Star at the apex, but the style is meant to emulate a yurt. The eternal flame honours the men who fought for  the Soviet Union, and the women who waited to welcome them back home.

Kyrgyzstan became part of the Russian Empire in 1876, and remained in the USSR after the Russian Revolution. On 31 August 1991, the country declared independence from Russia, and is now a democracy.

We walked through a park to the Opera House, admired a statue of Lenin, and then went to see the Parliament Building. Near the latter was a statue for Manas, the main character of an epic poem which dates back (in written form) to 1792-3). We caught the end of the changing of the guard, and a some children played this out themselves for some time afterwards. 

A local man attached himself to our group for some time. I was uncomfortable around him, although others maintained that he was just interested in improving his English. He was of help when several of us decided to take a taxi back to the hotel.

I walked with a couple of other people to our restaurant in the evening. The place had a sports bar vibe (with large screen TVs showing football matches). The beer was quite good. I had yak ribs. Very tasty, but much smaller than I’d expected. I caught a taxi back to our hotel afterwards.

15 May

Jet lag prevented me from falling asleep until the early hours of the morning. When my alarm went off at 7am, the sound was even less welcome than usual.

At 8.45am I reported to the truck with my luggage. The luggage locker is quite high up, and I offered to be ground staff. Bags were loaded, and I claimed two seats in the rather roomy inside. There are thirteen passengers and three guides, so we have plenty of space. 

We drove out of the city and into the countryside. At first we travelled through flat agricultural land. People were working by hands in the fields, and herds of goats, sheep, and cattle wandered around with shepherds nearby. Every so often we’d see horses. 

As we went into the mountains, the fields disappeared, and the number of horses increased. In addition to the low lying houses, we also passed yurts. Sometimes the horses wandered around loose. At other locales, the horses were tied to central stake or, in some cases, their foals were tied, to keep them from wandering. I also saw donkeys and the occasional mule. 

The large graveyards were interesting. Mausolea filled the fenced off spaces. These looked to have been built out of adobe brick, and every so often we’d pass a graveyard in which the structures had crumbled. 

Many of the small towns had very small mosques, almost always of the same design. We also passed various statues, erected far away from habitations.

Progress was halted for around 30 minutes. A group of men were deliberately loosening stones from the mountainside. These were later transferred into a dump truck, and we were able to move on. A number of people sold some form of vegetable, and caterpillars had come along for the ride.

Lunch was in a cafe with wonderfully clean toilets. Our next toilet stop was not as grand. In fact, I haven’t seen facilities so filthy since my trip to North Korea. At least there was a man on a horse nearby, who willingly posed for photos, and some people decided to wade into the river.

Around 4pm we arrived at our hotel for the night in a small town. I’m sharing with Kay, who started the journey back in Istanbul. We settled into a companionable silence, both of us working on our photos and our blogs.

16 May

Finally a good night’s sleep. 

We headed out after spending some time talking to a couple of men who are doing a motorbike ride from London to Russia. People posed on the bikes. 

We drove through green countryside, dry hills on on our right and snow topped mountains on our left. Sheep in the herds we passed numbered in the hundreds, rather than the smaller flocks of yesterday. The shepherds were mounted, and often assisted by dogs. At one point, we had to drive very slowly to pass a herd of horses using the road.

At lunchtime we arrived at Tash Rabat. This was once a key staging post on the Silk Road. A caravanserai dating from the 15th Century (and rebuilt in the last) is one of the main attractions in the area. Our group is sleeping in three yurts (the women split across two, the men in one) rather than camping in tents. The altitude is 3200 metres/10,500 feet. 

Whilst some people cooked lunch (toasted bread with scrambled eggs, fried sausage, and baked beans) others played football with the locals. Sheep, cows, and dogs wander freely through the site. Small children played with the lambs and were intrigued by our group. 

After lunch (and after the departure of  a large party of tourists had come to visit the caravanserai) we went to look around the structure. It’s very large inside, which rooms leading off on either side. 

I walked further up into the valley. More yurts had been set up. A rider came past and drove cows away from the yurts. I was told that cows will try to go inside and eat anything they can find.

During the drive we’d seen some brown coloured rodents—I later found out that they’re Menzbiers marmots. As I approached the yaks, I spotted several on a ledge just a short way up the hill. They were very obliging as I came closer for some photographs. I also spent time watching the yaks. Most ignored me, but the bull keep turning his head in my direction.

The skies greyed over. I walked back down and went into the yurt. Soon afterwards, thunder and rain followed. The temperature dropped. I spread out my down sleeping bag and put on another layer. Our local guide invited us to go into one of the rooms attached to the site owner’s house. A heater (fuel was dried cow dung, but it wasn’t smelly) had made the atmosphere very cozy. Food was spread across the table-bread, dried fruit, apples, sweets. Later on, we were served our evening meal in that room. A vegetable soup, followed by a rice dish with carrots and a tiny amount of meat.

One of our party has a talent for telling ghost stories. We started in the room, lights off, as he acted out the two main characters by way of introduction. Then he told the tale, only light that of his light and his iPad. We walked up to the caravanserai. The local guide unlocked the gate, and we went inside to hear the rest of the tale. At the end, on cue, someone covered in white sheets shuffled towards us from one of the side passages. We chanted to drive him back. The fact that he stumbled over a bit of floor detracted from the fear factor! Under the sheets as one of our guides, of course.

Went to bed early. The yurt was cold to begin with, but the site owner came in and set up the heater. This made the inside very comfortable. 

During one early morning trip to the outhouse, I looked up and saw the Milky Way. It’s been a few years since I’ve had such wonderful star watching.

17 May

We’d been warned that today would be long and tiring. We were to cross the border into China, which would take many hours and much patience. 

Our departure time was 6.30am. I rose at 5.45 am, and realised that I was in trouble. For those who don’t like reading about digestive difficulties, you might decide this entry is ‘too much information’!

Food, altitude, perhaps not drinking enough water, whatever—I was constipated, and it was the type which makes it impossible to urinate. I think, if I had access to a Western style, toilet, I might have been okay. But I was stuck with the hole-in-the-ground squat toilets.

Breakfast was on the truck as we travelled. Bread, eggs, a small apple, sweets. Food was not on my mind. And although I was thirsty, I didn’t dare add to my existing difficulties. Near the end of the two hour drive, I was standing up in the truck in an attempt to gain some comfort.

At the first border crossing, we had access to squat toilets on either side of the border. As it took some time for our truck to be cleared, I simply hovered in and around the outhouse, hoping for the relief which didn’t come. The local guide brought over more loo roll and wet wipes for me.

I was still suffering when I had to climb back onto the truck. We drove to another check point, went through, then on to the first check point into China. Although we arrived at 11am, in good time to go through before their two hour lunch break, we were not permitted to pass. It seems that there was something wrong with our paperwork.

So we ended up waiting until 2pm. This was actually very good for me, as I was finally able to urinate (down the hillside and surrounded by open countryside. No outhouse at this crossing). I felt able to take in some food and water after that. As we waited, snow and hail alternated with bouts of sunshine. The truck was just about warm enough. 

We finally went through that check point at 2.30pm. We reached our next check point at 3.25pm. Our main luggage had to come off the truck to be x-rayed. Our passports were checked. One of our group was accused of carrying a hand gun in his luggage, so he had to unpack most of his belongings to prove otherwise.

Then the truck had a thorough going over. The Chinese personnel had hand held scanners, and their equipment was telling them something they didn’t like. Our guides had to pull out all of the tents, even unfolding one for inspection. The various lockers around the truck were emptied and contents checked. This took around an hour. 

Back onto the truck. We took our main luggage into the passenger compartment, rather than try to load it back into the back storage locker. A drive through dry hills, some of which bore lovely patterned stripes of red and brown, brought us to another border control. At this one, we had to show our passports, then walk down the road and wait for our truck to collect us. We boarded just before a thunderstorm overtook us.

We reached our final border crossing at 7.10pm. Again it we had a wait on the truck. Unlike the previous crossings, we went into a large modern building. We had to fill out entry cards, and this time our passports were stamped. We also had both hands and thumbs scanned, and a photo taken. Our luggage went through another x-ray machine.

The truck requires additional processing, so a small bus collected us and our luggage for the drive to Kashgar. We reached out hotel at 10pm Kyrgyzstan time. However, this region of China is on Beijing time, so it was actually midnight. We took our bags to our rooms, and went down to dinner. The hotel restaurant had prepared a number of delicious Chinese dishes, and we fell upon the food. Then to bed!

18 May

After yesterday’s trials, I was exhausted. I actually slept through to 1.30pm. My room mate and I spent the most of the day relaxing and working on photos and blogs.

We went to a local shopping mall in the evening for our dinner. And I began to feel uncomfortable in this city. Police were everywhere. The pedestrian areas went through fenced areas and I wondered if these were for keeping people in, or keeping them safe in case of trouble. We walked through metal detectors to use the underground passage under the streets, and through another one to go into the shopping mall. Although several of us set them off, no action was taken.

The food court was on the eighth floor. We settled for a Chinese hotpot meal. After some debate, we ordered two dishes, one with chicken (‘with bones in’—this turned out to be true, as the chicken had merely chopped up in thrown in), and one with a mixture of beef and frog. The waitress brought over the ingredients, and the meal was cooked on hot plates in the middle of the table. We also ordered pitchers of beer, most of which we had to leave behind as we’d overestimated!

19 May

I faced my first breakfast at this hotel. And was unimpressed. Tomatoes, watermelon, cucumber in some sort of sauce, white bread lightly flavoured (some sort of spice), deep fried egg, spicy noodles. Tea was free, coffee (powdered) was extra.

We left soon later for a drive to Shipton’s Arch. This arch is the largest natural arch in the world. The height is estimated to be 1500 feet, and the span 180 feet. Once we'd arrived at the visitors’ centre (a large building with nothing inside except an unoccupied snack shop and another room with three beds), we made up lunch to take with us. This consisted of a pancake into which we could place lettuce, tomatoes, and various types of sausages. I decided not to try the ‘preserved ducks’ eggs’. 

The path was all gravel and rocks, with the occasional stairway. I had a walking stick with me, but I found the altitude difficult (2900 metres/9700 feet). I made it far enough to be able to view the arch. As I contemplated the large rocks ahead of me, rain fell and I creased over coughing. I decided that trying to cough whilst navigating slippery rocks was probably not a good thing, so with a sense of disappointment, I turned around and started back down. The cough, sadly, has persisted all afternoon and evening.

The thunderstorm held off until most of us were back in the truck. It was then that people noticed the small surprise I’d added to the truck bulletin board—a keyring of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, placed there in honour of the royal wedding.

We headed back to the city. In the afternoon, the programme for the next section of the trip was handed out. I streamed some of the wedding, and got as far as the sermon when it was time to go for our  group meal in a local restaurant. Great food! Dishes kept on coming, and we passed them around.

There was great amusement at the start of the meal. Our local guide had insisted that we must all try the tea, it was a speciality of the restaurant. Out came glasses, and a see-through pot of, well, tea so weak that it looked like water. We all sampled our portion, trying desperately to find some flavour. A few minutes later, another see-through pot emerged, this one filled with hot reddish liquid. We’d misunderstood. The first pot contained only hot water, the second was the promised tea!

We stopped at hotel reception to ask for more toilet paper. What the hotel provides is very small rolls, no where near enough for two people sharing a room.

20 May

A group outing today. We arrived at the Kashgar animal market around 10.40am, which was great timing. Some goats and sheep were already present, as were stalls offering meat for sale. As we wandered around, the grounds both cleaner and less smelly than I’d expected, trucks began to arrive with cattle. I was surprised by the number of bulls which were unloaded, often two men straining at the ropes to convince the animal to leap off the side. Some people came with smaller vehicles carrying only cow, or a few goats.

There were a few mules and donkeys. Men sometimes had to work hard to take a bull in the human’s preferred direction. Sheep were tied up side by side, heads forced through loops of rope. Negotiations were sealed with a handshake. 

We left at noon and drove back to the city. Our next destination was the Sunday market. Stalls of cheap clothing and shoes gave way to food stalls. Vegetable stalls led on to collections of, well, what looked to have been pulled from rubbish tips. CDs, tapes, bits of metal, old car parts, rotting books, ancient magazines. The stall owners often looked in not much better shape than their wares. As instructed, I asked before taking a photograph, and a decline was very rare.

Down a side alley, a man was having a shave. The sharp blade made me cringe. We used a toilet facility, which was up a rickety set of steps and past a room piled with rubbish.

Kay and I, who are room mates, went out of the market and stopped to eat a snack lunch. We walked over a bridge to what remains of the old city of Kashgar. The Chinese government razed most of it to the ground, and built a newer version of it. We wanted to see the authentic section, but a guard waved us away at our first attempt. So we found another route inside.

At some point, the area had been a tourist attraction. Signs in English explained what you would see inside the (now locked up) houses. People still lived in the area, and we saw a number of children. But many walls had fallen down, and I don’t think there will be anything left ten years from now.

We exited and picked our way over mud towards the rebuilt old city. Children were playing table tennis, using bricks as a middle net and pieces of wood as paddles. As we came round to the main street, we saw what had been the official entrance to the real old city. A police officer warned us that we could not enter.

The rebuilt old city was very obviously newer. Wide streets, souvenir stalls, a few craftspeople working with wood or metal. But some of the wooden doors looked original. We had a coffee and then a wander.

Around 5pm we managed to catch a taxi back to our hotel. After a quick meal at the on site restaurant, we joined a small group to walk back to the rebuilt old city to visit the night markets. Several people decided to be adventurous in the food area, trying the sheep lungs and sheep intestines. I declined, explaining the pun, ‘It’s called offal because it is’ to our Chinese guide.

Rain began to fall. We took refuge under a large umbrella with beers purchased from a local store. At one point, the amount of water which had collected in the umbrella made it tip from one side to the other, splashing against stall holders and other drinkers.

Five of us shared a taxi back. I was one of the four squashed in the back. One of our group had an open can of beer, which he held out in front of him to keep his drink safe.

21 May

The rain continued all night. Kay and I had a lazy morning in our room. At noon, we decided to venture out and catch a taxi to the Id Kah Mosque. I’d picked up a tourist map, so we were able to show the taxi driver our desired destination.

The city’s drains were not coping with the rainfall. The streets were like streams. As we splashed our way from the taxi, I saw that a collection of animals were enduring the weather near the mosque. I’m assuming that the horses and camel were there for people to sit on to have their photographs taken. The yak and another horse were tied up to carts. The owner was nowhere to be seen,

The entry fee to the mosque was 45R, so around £6.00. Large gardens, dripping wet, greeted us after we walked through the entrance. At the far end were a number of outdoor prayer areas, and we were allowed to go into a smaller indoor prayer room. I tried to put my Buff over my head, as I’ve done at mosques before, but the guard told me sharply, ‘No scarf!’ When I tried to explain that I wanted to show respect, he said, ‘Sorry, no English.’

And that, as far as we could tell, was it. As this was supposed to  be the largest mosque in China, we kept thinking that there must be more. We headed back out, and tried to find somewhere for lunch. Unsurprisingly, all of the outdoor stalls were closed up. We finally caught a taxi back to the hotel, where we changed sodden shoes for dry before going to the site restaurant for lunch.

I spent the afternoon working on photos. In the evening, we had a party in the hotel’s foyer. (As far as we could tell, we were the hotel’s only guests). The receptionist joined us for the game of ‘pass the hat’ (in effect, a version of ‘musical chairs’). I came second.

Did some packing after I’d returned to my room. We leave Kashgar tomorrow morning. 

22 May

Out at 9.15am for what would turn out to be a 12 hour journey - 720 kilometres.

The skies were still grey, but the rain ceased during the course of the day. We started on our 800 km trek through the desert. The desert, by the way, is more of a scrub land of rocks and small bushes than one of sand dunes and camels. A haze softened the outlines of nearby hills and the flat plain. 

The guides held our passports at the front of the truck. Our Chinese guide leapt out at the police inspection areas to show our ID so that we could continue our journey. We stopped at motorway service stations for toilet breaks. The buildings looked impressive, but half of the loos were roped off, and water wasn’t always available. The snack shops carried items such as chicken feet. I bought potato flavoured crisps. Yes, that’s what the label showed, a potato next to the crisps.

We had lunch at one stop. Although we sat inside the restaurant to eat, the meal (a rice dish with meat) was cooked outside. There was also a cockatiel in a small cage, sitting on the floor (no perches) and panting as all he had was a small amount of dirty water and no food. I asked our Chinese guide to say something to the restaurant staff, and then all I could do was to walk away.

We finally arrived at our hotel at 9.30pm. The restaurant buffet offered a wide selection of hot or cold Chinese dishes, plus some pizza and french fries. I tried to concentrate on fruit and veg options. 

23 May

A 7am departure as we had another 620 km of desert to cross. The grey haze gave way to a beige one, but the scenery was still mostly of gravel and bushes.

At 9am, we all had to get out of the truck for the police inspection. They looked over our passports, asked for our home telephone numbers, and took photos of us on their mobile phones. All this took over an hour.

140 km later, we had to go through the same process all over again. This took even longer, since this time the police wanted to check out how each of us had crossed into China. More photos taken by mobile phone. We felt as if the police felt they had to do something to process us, but weren’t sure exactly what. Although there was a petrol station and facilities on the other side of the police check, we weren’t allowed to enter that area, so girls and then boys went down a slope for an outdoor toilet stop.

As we’d lost so much time on the police checks, lunch was takeaway rice or noodles with a mixed vegetable and meat topping. I declined, as I felt (and this was proven correct) that the dish would be too spicy for me. I ate snack foods instead.

We went through hills, up and down, the bleak countryside still a monotonous grey and black. As we went down, we saw burnt and broken cars and trucks mounted on concrete platforms above the road. A grim warning to watch our speed, perhaps? 

We finally arrived at our hotel in Urmuchi at 11pm. But the day’s challenges were far from over. Access to the hotel car park was meant to be from the back, which meant going down a narrow set of streets with our large truck. Locals came out to watch as we tried to inch our way past concrete bollards and the walls of buildings. We passengers finally got off and took our luggage to the hotel. The truck joined us soon afterwards.

I was too exhausted to think of food. I went to my room, and soon after was in bed.

24 May

Despite the late night, we still had a 8am departure. The intention was to go to Heavenly Lake, arriving by lunch time to have the rest of the day free to enjoy the scenery. We packed small overnight bags, as we were to stay in yurts.

Heavy rainfall and the fact that the truck had been parked near a white railing made loading up luggage rather difficult.We also discovered that the touching the metal railings resulted in white paint coating skin and clothing. I particularly received a heavy dose, as I was the one who wrestled the bin from the entry door so we could climb inside (there was very little room between railing and door).

When we pulled into the visitor centre car park at 10am, we were told that no one would be allowed to enter the area. Snow had been falling all morning, and more was forecast. So we decided to abandon Heavenly Lake, and drive to our next destination, the city of Turpan. 

As we drove down the highway, leaving behind the shelter of mountains for more flat desert, the wind became stronger and stronger. At 1pm, we reached a roadblock. The police were turning all traffic back, as they were concerned that the high winds could knock over trucks and cars. Rather than head miles out of our way to reach Turpan, we returned to the same hotel of the night before, although this time we entered the car park from the front (which is meant to be exit only).

After checking in again, a number of us went to the local museum. Various large graveyards have been discovered in the region, and due to the dry heat, many of the bodies have been well preserved. We viewed said mummies, plus a fascinating exhibit about the history of the area. Another part of the museum was dedicated to the various ethnic groups of the region. Sadly, some of our number were denied entry because they were wearing flip flops.

We went on to the bazaar. Some parts were very touristy, others less so. In amongst the many stalls selling the same scarves, hats, and tea blends were those which had very high end rock and wood carvings. Kay and I bartered for a white jade dragon pendant (for me) and an embroidered scarf (for her). As ever, walking away was the final action which brought the price down. 

The hotel was near quite a few Western fast food outlets. We first had coffee, then went to Pizza Hut. I would never visit one at home, but after two weeks of eating more exotic fare, pizza sounded wonderful. But even pizza has variations. Among the offerings were ‘eel pizza’ and ‘Peking duck style pizza’.

Then it was to our rooms and time to collapse.

25 May

8am departure. The weather had cleared, and blue skies greeted us. We had no difficulties using the motorway. Fresh snow coated the mountains, and we saw two herds of camels. Only one police stop hindered progress, and this time they came on board the truck to check our passports and to take our photos.

The temperatures were still a bit low, until we reached Turpan. The area is below sea level, and one of the hottest places in China. We went from shivering in the morning to sweating by afternoon.

Eleven of us wanted to visit the burial area from which the mummies had been taken. Our Chinese guide organised a minibus to collect us from the hotel. The drive took about an hour. Alas, when we arrived, the gates were shut. The guide explained that the site was not open to visitors, and no amount of pleading would change his mind.

We went on to see the ruins of the city of Gaochang. As we drove through a small village, and then through watermelon fields (and quite a few stretches of vineyards), our driver suggested that we stop and take some of the melons. What we did instead was to halt where a number of people were working in the fields. They seemed quite happy for the visit, and offered us melons. (When we cut into them later, we decided that the fruit was more of the honeydew variety than water melon). 

By the time we reached Gaochang, the time was nearly 3.30pm. We paid to enter, and to go on the electric bus around the site. The latter was a good choice. The site was huge, and hot, and we would have seen very little of it if we’d tried to walk. This did mean a bit of frustration, as we drove past bits for which we had no explanation. 

There were three stops. The information signs were in English. We admired the remains of what had once been a large city. 

We returned to the minibus around 4.45pm. The driver took us to the museum in Turpan. Several of us decided to walk back to the hotel, and because rather lost. Although the hotel had given us their address, and a map, people we tried to ask couldn’t help us. Finally we hailed a taxi. The trip took less than five minutes, but the taxi driver himself phoned the hotel for directions! Worth the £1.20 equivalent which we paid him.

A number of us tried to find a restaurant for dinner. In the end, Kay and I headed off on our own. We ended up in a small place, where picture menus, and Google translate on my iPhone, enabled us to order sweet and sour chicken plus rice. Then back to the hotel and the hope that temperatures would cool during the night. 

26 May

Fortunately the temperatures dropped during the night, and I slept well. And we had a late rise -  we didn’t head off until 9am. Vineyards are all over the area, along with brick drying houses. Most of the grapes are grown for raisins, not wine.

Our first stop was a place I’d never heard of, and which had me open jawed in amazement. The Jiaohe ruins are from a city first built 2000 years ago,  built from clay on a plateau. Rivers run along either side, and the steep cliffs provided a natural protective barrier. Although various battles destroyed parts of the city, the very dry climate (the temperature hit 31C during our day, and the highest recorded is supposed to be 48C/119F) has helped to preserve what is left.

The city had two gates, one in the east, the other in the south. Visitors now enter through the south gate. A brick path has been laid over the original streets, which lead to residential areas (houses were dug out into the clay, only one level above ground), governmental buildings, and several Buddhist temples. Walking along the better preserved areas, walls rising on either side, I was reminded of visiting Pompeii. 

We had nearly 2 1/2 hours at the site, which was just long enough. It was also fun to run into other Western tourists, and to hear how they were travelling across China.

Our next stop was for lunch. We were dropped off in a residential area. At the front of one alley way, ‘Chinese pizza’ (pizza like dough in which beef had been baked) was for sale. We bought portions, and then went into the shady area behind to eat. 

Just up the road was a museum about the karez water system. I’d read about this method of irrigation, but it was good to see large scale displays on how it works in practice. Underground channels are dug out by hand to bring water from the mountains, through the hills, down to the fields far below. The immense engineering required is amazing. For example, several methods were used to ensure that the tunnels ran straight. This sort of water system can  be  found in other countries as well, such as Afghanistan.

The exhibits ended, and we had to negotiate our way through a number of shops. Again, the usual mixture of ancient rubbish and modern knock offs. I did find a 1908 USA silver dollar. The stall owner wanted Y120, but a friend helped me to negotiate down to Y30.

The shops carried on and on, so that we joked that there was more shop than museum! 

We next drove out of the city and past the Flaming Mountains (which, it seems, are famous for featuring in a tale called ‘The Monkey King’). After an hour’s drive, we reached a grotto of Buddhist caves. Sadly, all of the statues and many of the wall paintings were removed by Western collectors decades ago. Other paintings were defaced by Muslims. What we saw was still very interesting, and although photography is forbidden I managed to sneak a few (non flash) photos.

Nearby was a hill up which people trudged (or hired a camel to take them up). As we were now at the hottest part of the day, I watched without any wish to join them. 

Our last stop, back in the city was to have a quick look at the Emin Minaret, an 18th century mosque and the tallest minaret in China. We walked over to the nearby vineyard to try to get some photos. 

When we returned to the hotel, it was wonderful to discover that the air conditioning in our room was finally working. I ate various snacks and drank a beer rather than wander out to find food.

27 May

A grim day. As we had a 800 kilometre drive ahead of us, we left the city at 5.30am. Again we travelled through desert. At least this time, we only had one police check at which we had to present ourselves with passports for photographing. The other check points allowed us through without that effort.

We amused ourselves in various ways. I worked on my laptop, others played cards or read books. And there was a lot of napping going on. 

The toilets at the motorway service stations weren’t too bad. But one set of drop toilets have now taken the number two spot of my ‘Five Worst Toilets in the World’ list. There was human filth all over the floor, and the holes in the concrete led to just open countryside. I don’t know how many years those toilets have been in operation, but let’s just say that the height of the mounds of excrement lying below the holes was horrifying.

Lunch was great, however! We shared seven dishes between ten people. One dish was served at a time, each cooked fresh. I don’t know if I’ll be able to face Chinese food in Britain again after this. The flavours are so much better over here.

We had a quiz in the afternoon. Three sections, one on the Silk Road, one on acronyms (annoying that I couldn’t remember what  ‘laser’ and ‘radar’ stood for, but I did get NASA right), and the last on general knowledge. The tie breaker question was ‘What was the real name of Ben Kenobi—‘  I shouted out ‘Obi Wan’ and my team was the winner. No prize except a feeling of achievement. 

We arrived in Dunhuang around 8.30pm. And settled into an excellent hotel. The rooms are large, and include a settee and a desk. It’s great to have space to unpack the suitcase rather than have to leave everything inside.

I went to the supermarket which was just next door to the hotel. They had Chinese wine for sale, and I bought a bottle of cabernet sauvignon for Y48. The vintage is 2000. Yes, 18 year old wine for around £6.50. And it was very good. I worked on photos before settling into a very comfortable bed.

28 May

A late start - we didn’t leave the hotel until 10.30am. I endured breakfast. The usual offering of tomatoes, cucumbers, rice porridge, sweet white bread (with no spread whatsoever), and bean sprouts. I was very pleased to find some bananas on the truck, and I wolfed one down.

We drove to the visitors’ centre for the Mogao caves. The first cave was dug out of the cliff side around 366AD. More and more were created, and decorated with statues and wall paintings. The complex was abandoned for hundreds of years, which probably helped to hide it from collectors. Due to the preservation concerns, only certain caves are open to visitors, and these are rotated, so you never know which ones you might see.

We started off with two movies. Each of us was given a set of headphones with a radio receiver, which gave us the commentary in English. The first film was about the construction of the caves, and the battles along the Silk Road. The scenes were wonderfully re-enacted. Then we moved to the next theatre, in which the projection extended over our heads. This movie was about the caves themselves, showing us some of the more important sites.

Afterwards we boarded buses to be taken to the cave complex. We were given an English speaking guide, and headphones and receivers so we could hear her without her shouting. We were shown seven caves, including the one of a massive seated Buddha (35.5 metres high) and a nearly as massive reclining Buddha. Seems there are three Buddhas, namely the one of the past (which is never depicted), the present (this one sits in the lotus position), and the future (this one sits with his feet touching the ground). The reclining Buddha is in Nirvana. Strictly no photography inside any of the caves!

Some of the statues were originals, others had been re-created 100 years ago. The paintings were authentic, however. Images of the Buddha often lined the walls. These, we were told, had all originally given him a pink face. Sunlight and carbon dioxide exhaled by many visitors had turned their faces black. This was a sobering reminder than places like these are badly affected by tourism.

The local guide explained that the Buddha was often depicted as being attended by both his youngest and his oldest disciple. The oldest was ‘ancient—forty one years old’. This, plus the fact that the oldest disciple is ‘always suffering’, caused great amusement to we older members of the group.

The local guide also had some interesting verbal difficulties. She left the ‘w’ off ‘wood’, so it sounded like ‘ood’. And instead of ‘roofs’, she said ‘proofs.’ She was quite cheerful, and clearly called us all ‘stupid’ when we walked past a cave instead of going in.

We had a little time afterwards to visit the gift stores. For a change, actual souvenirs (instead of the usual old stuff, hats, and scarves) were available. I bought a mug and a fridge magnet. 

We returned by bus and truck to the city. In a few days, we’ll have two days of camping, and so we’ve been split into cook groups. It’ll be the responsibility of each group to buy and prepare dinner/breakfast/lunch. Fortunately, Kay heads up my group, and she’s done this before. We had a quick meeting to discuss the options, and agreed to meet on Thursday to do the shopping.

I went to my room and relaxed with red wine whilst I caught up on blog and photos. At 7.30pm, a group of us met up to go to a local Chinese hotpot restaurant. The first thing to be handed out, to those of us wearing glasses, were glass cleaning cloths. Then we were each given an apron. Two pots of broth were placed onto the gas burner located in the middle of our table. Various items were brought through and dumped into the broth, such as beef, mutton, quail eggs, shrimp, meatballs, vegetables, and noodles. We fished them out using extra long chopsticks (well, those who could, others cheated and used ladles). One broth was very spicy. Some of us broke out in sweats. The other broth was much easier to eat.

A great deal of fun was had. And the meal came to only Y45 each, so around £6.00. Bargain!

29 May

Today featured an optional trip (not covered by what we’d already paid for the holiday), namely a trip into the Gobi desert to see various sites. About half of the group signed up (others either weren’t interested or need to count their pennies). 

We drove for several hours to our first stop, which was the Jade Gate. This was an important fort along the Silk Road, and was built as part of the original Great Wall by the Han Dynasty in 121 BC. A good visitor centre (with a small museum and gift shop) led to a ten minute walk to the actual structure. 

Next stop was a section of the Great Wall, built during the Han Dynasty (121 - 101BC). Again, as with the fort, the wall was made from clay rather than bricks. A watch tower was just a short walk away. By the this time, the heat was building, but a wind helped to keep us somewhat cool.

Then on to Yadan National Geologic Park. This section of the Gobi desert features a large number of natural rock formations, which the Chinese have after the shapes they (supposedly) form. We had to board a bus, which took us to four areas. The first three were of rock formations, one called ‘recumbent lion’, the second ‘the Sphinx,’ the third ‘the peacock’. (I thought this one looked more like a jet ski). The final stop was to admire a long stretch of the rock formations. The scenery was spectacular, but I don’t understand the need to relate the rock formations to different sights or animals.

Then back to the start and a return to the truck. We drove back towards the city and our last stop for the day—a film/TV set! The attraction is called ‘The Old City’ and tries to market itself as a way to see lots of China in one place. And to walk where various (Chinese) productions have filmed.

A number of group members hired two or four person bikes to whizz around the lots. I took it in by walking. And there was a lot to take in. The place was very strange, full of mock buildings and abandoned props. At one time there had been activities for tourists in some of the buildings, but no longer. Everything was just beginning to fall apart, including a room full of decaying stuffed animals. 

And in the midst of all this, a local vineyard had set up a wine tasting shop! Although I didn’t taste first, I did buy a half bottle of their Pinot Noir. 

Back to the city to relax in the hotel room and reflect on a rather strange day. 

30 May

At 9am, three of us set off to Crescent Lake. The original attraction was a small lake at the edge of the city, surrounded by sand dunes. Over time, a whole tourist area has built up around this, offering sand buggy and helicopter rides, as well as the opportunity to slide down the dunes.

Our goal was equally touristy—to take a camel ride through the nearby desert. We found the booking office, and paid the Y100 easily enough. With our tickets in our hands, we went through to the camel area. However, there we were stopped. A handler managed to explain to us that we needed six to make up a camel train. We managed to find a fourth person, but then were stuck. And rather frustrated that, somehow, making up a large enough party was our responsibility.

Finally the handler took us through, found two more people, and we were allowed to mount up. The large saddle was complemented by stirrups and a huge metal grab handle. The handler made it clear that he expected us to keep both hands on the grab handle at all times. 

Well, that was never going to happen. We wanted to take photographs. Kay, at the end of the train, seemed to be caught out the most. The handler, who walked at the front of the train, regularly looked back, discovered she was taking photos, and told her off. Somehow he never seemed to spot me!

We stopped part way up for the handler to borrow our phones and to take photos of us (for the price of Y20). I let him use my iPhone for this purpose. The results are pretty good. Later on, another photographer took photos of us passing by him. I purchased one for Y20.

We went up, and around, then down. The heat was building, but it wasn’t uncomfortable. The down was a bit challenging, for humans and beasts. The camels tried to go sideways, as much as their ropes would allow. A bit of a scrum, and several camels became rather annoyed with each other.

The ride took just under an hour. We dismounted. Kay went back to the city, so Mary and I continued to the Crescent Lake. We laughed at the bright orange shoe coverings so many people had rented to protect their footwear against sand. At the pavilion near the lake, we visited the gift shop and had a cold drink.

I visited an ATM near the site entrance and was pleased to be able to take out some cash. After a bit of a stroll along the souvenir stalls, we caught a taxi back to our hotel.

We’ll be bush camping for the next two days, and cook groups have been set up to prepare all the meals. Kay is in charge of our group, and the five of us met up at 2.30pm to shop for the food. Finding what we wanted, for a European dish, was challenging. We wanted pasta, but settled for Chinese noodles. No butter or cheese was to be had, and the only bread was the white, sweet stuff. But we managed to find what we needed for a lunch, dinner, and breakfast. We used a taxi to transport it back to the hotel, where we filled the fridge in our room and put everything else on the settee.

I did more work on photos until the evening. Then Kay and I went off to the Night Market. This was split into sections, the first being a series of small restaurants with outdoor seating. Kay wanted to try ‘donkey meat and noodles,’ and used Google translate to explain this to eager waiters. We found a restaurant which provided said dish. Well, to me, donkey tastes a bit like goat, and nothing at all like horse. We also had kebabs, which had been covered with a spicy sauce. Our beers helped to cool down our burning lips.

The next section of the market offered souvenirs. The local craft appeared to be carved, two dimensional depictions of local scenes. The wooden plaques had been painted in layers, and by removing the correct amount from each layer, the subject was created. Kay and I each bought a depiction of a camel train. 

We returned to the hotel at 10pm. I did most of my packing, and went to bed. 

31 May

We left the city to continue our journey along the Silk Road. A long drive through more scrubby desert. Lunch was at a service stop. The setting might have been a bit run down, but the seven dishes brought out (one by one) were all freshly cooked to order. No microwave specials here. 

In the afternoon we arrived at Jiayuguan fortress. This was one of the major gates along the Silk Road, and the Chinese had viewed it as the end of civilisation. The fort has been rebuilt over the centuries, most recently around thirty years ago.

We pulled into a car park filled with tourist buses, which was a taste of things to come. The fort has been turned into a major tourist destination. Very little of the original can be seen. A large video screen at the entrance advertised what would be found within.

The road up to the entry gate went past greenery and a lake. Several men dressed in costume stood at the gate, their swords looking very plasticky. A bit of a incline led to the first main square. More guards on display (one yawning quite openly), closed exhibits, souvenir shops (with the usual mixture of rocks and scarves, but lacking anything linked to the place in question, such as t-shirts, or mugs), stalls with ice creams and plastic toys. A musical production was happening on a stage.

Through another gate to more of the same. Steps led up to the top of the rebuilt wall. The last gate led out of the complex, and to an area offering activities such as camel rides, dune buggies, and target shooting. 

One Chinese couple came up to me, and motioned a request for a photo. I posed next to the wife. We were the only Westerners I saw during our visit, although the place was heaving with visitors.

I walked back out and visited the Silk Road Museum, which provided English translations for the main areas. Then I found the exit. To return to the car park meant walking through a maze of stalls, most of which had packed up for the day.

We returned to the truck and drove on to a section of restored wall. Then we went off road, driving across the bumpy, hard desert ground to our camp site. We set up our tents in an area surrounded by trees. I had a tent to myself, which meant I could put my large case inside for easy access. 

The cook group served up a beef dish with noodles. It felt strange to use knife and fork after several weeks of using chopsticks.  I drank my half bottle of Pinot Noir, which went very well with the food. We sat around the camp fire, and one of our number told us some Norwegian folk tales. After a trip into the woods (no loo facilities!) I crawled into my sleeping bag. The inflatable mat I’d brought along made for a comfortable bed.

01 June

The trees provided some cover for attending to bodily functions. Unfortunately, they also harboured mosquitoes, and these took advantage of exposed flesh.

I had assistance taking down my tent, so I walked over to help someone else with his. I was looking at his tent rather than the ground, and my left foot went into a hollow. A twisted ankle was the result. I seem to twist an ankle every couple of years so I now carry a support bandage in my first aid kit. I hobbled over to my bag and put it on.

We packed up tents and left shortly after breakfast. At lunchtime we reached the Rainbow Mountains. The cook group to which I belong was on duty to serve up lunch, which we did in the car park. Curious Chinese tourists wandered over to see what we were doing. 

A long walk from the car park brought us to the visitors’ centre. There we boarded buses, which took us to four viewing areas. The Rainbow Mountains are striped with colours of red, green, white, and purple, all reflecting sandstone and different minerals pressed together. I should think land heave is why the layers are now tilted sideways. Even under the harsh midday sun, the colours were spectacular. 

A steep climb, either by road or by steps, led to each viewing platform. I gritted my teeth and ignored my throbbing foot as I made my way to the top. I had my walking stick with me for some extra help.

After we’d finished our tour, we drove on to our next bush camp. Again we went off road, and parked near an original (not rebuilt) part of the Great Wall. A long section had run alongside the highway for many miles. The length is  a reminder of what an achievement it was to build such a fortification. 

Our cook group worked on dinner, and other people kindly put up our tents for us. We had chicken in a hoisin sauce, along with noodles, green peppers, onion, garlic, and tomatoes. Steamed broccoli for the veg. Pudding was a ‘rainbow cake’. A base of crushed sweet biscuits, mixed in with melted chocolate. On top were fruit arranged in a rainbow. Banana, apple, kiwi, red grapes, melon. 

We had a horror story around the campfire, and then I went to my tent for bed.

02 June

Although our campsite might have been atmospheric, there was a distinct lack of cover for taking care of bodily functions. I decided, at some point in the morning, that bush camping is beyond me. I don’t mind a night in a tent, but I want this to be where there are at least toilet facilities.

Some rain fell as we packed up tents and our cook group prepared breakfast. Plenty of fruit, as well as bread coated in egg then fried. 

We set off for another drive day. As we drove east, the scenery finally changed. We were leaving the desert behind us, and heading into much greener country. The flat land also disappeared behind us. We were driving through hills. I was intrigued to see that many of the hills had been terraced. Trees grew on the terraces, and the occasional water sprinkler showed that these were cultivated.

We arrived in the city of Liujiaxia around 5pm. The temperatures were still hot, in the early 30s C. After we’d checked into our very budget hotel (no curtain for the shower, only one electrical socket working in the bedroom, everything run down but clean), some of the group headed into the city. Kay and I decided to have showers and relax in our room. Both of us worked on photos and blog. The single electrical socket wasn’t a problem because I have a converter which leads to four British type sockets. We used two each.

I took the support bandage off my foot and examined the interesting spread of bruises. The swelling had gone down. But I decided, rather than go out for the evening, I’d stay in my room and have an early night.

03 June

We had another early departure planned. Bags to be at the truck by 6.45am, and departure at 7am. However, possibly due to a number of people staying out until the early hours of the morning, a number of them didn’t appear until around 7.15am. Two of us helped Adam (one of the two guides) reverse the truck from the car park, and we waited for our tardy members.

Rain started to fall as we headed out of the city. There was general consternation at the amount of precipitation as, several hours later, we pulled into the car park for the Bingling Grottoes. It seems I was the only one who had looked at the weather forecast and prepared for the wet. Half of the group had packed their rain coats into their main bags, which were piled up in the truck’s back locker. Unloading bags wasn’t an option, as there was no where dry to do so. I pulled on my rain jacket and my waterproof trousers and tried not to look smug.

The Bingling Grottoes can only be reached by boat. We went into speedboats, which took us up river for 30 minutes. The water was choppy, and as one person muttered, ‘This is a great hangover cure.’

At the other end, a set of steps led up to the path to the grottoes. The rain couldn’t dampen the beauty of the place. Tall peaks of brown stone rose from the water. The grottoes were along a valley, the figures and paintings created over a number of centuries. The highlight was a huge seated Buddha. I felt spiritually moved by the setting and the faith which had created such beauty.

The visitor facilities, however, were rather lacking. As we returned to the start, cafe owners desperate for business tried to entice us into their rather grubby establishments. The main food on offer was such dishes as pot noodles or fried rice. We did have an intriguing tea. Chunks of crystallised sugar, along with dried dates, flowers, and a tea bag. Very sweet and very tasty.

The speedboats returned us to the car park. I was pleased that Adam took a moment to remind people to be on time. It’s not fair for those of us who do make the effort if others do not.

The drive to our next stop, a town called Xiaha, took five hours and was fascinating. The scenery became mountainous, with cities and towns spread out in the plains between. We saw a large number of mosques to start with, some of them in the style of Chinese temples. Then, as we headed to the Tibetan foothills, Buddhist temples took over. Prayer flags fluttered up hills and from buildings. Fresh snow dusted the mountain peaks, and the temperature began to drop.

We arrived at our hotel around 6pm. As we unloaded bags from the truck, some of the locals helped us. Our hotel is just several hundred yards from the Labrang Monastery, and monks and pilgrims brushed past us.

Our room was on the third floor, and we’re now at an elevation of 3000 metres/10,000 feet). So I was very grateful that someone helped me to carry my case to my room (no lift!). 

Kay and I did some washing, then joined a number of others for dinner. We ate a restaurant just a few doors away. I had a dish of ‘sizzling mutton’ (delicious) and the group shared a couple plates of broccoli. The restaurant owner spoke excellent English. And there was real coffee on offer! I swooned over a cappuccino. 

A number of the red robed monks used the restaurant. I was amused to watch one run prayer beads through one hand whilst scrolling through his mobile phone screen with the other.

04 June

Wonderful to be able to stay in bed until 7.30am. And it’s a very comfortable bed. The room is large enough for Kay and me to spread our things out. 

Breakfast was toast and scrambled eggs, along with orange juice and (powdered) coffee. A nice change from spicy salads!

We met up at 9.30am to walk over to the Labrang Monastery. We had a visit booked with an English speaking monk. Whilst we waited for him to join us, a large group of monks walked through the courtyard and went into the main temple for prayer. They wore red robes and wonderful yellow hats, and sang as they walked.

Our monk took us through a number of temples. Strictly no photography allowed inside, so we simply admired the tall, gold-painted statues of the Buddha. We were permitted to take photos of 3D depictions which had been carved out of yak butter. Instead of incense, yak butter was burned inside the temples, and the smell made me feel queasy. 

Our last stop was the main temple. Several hundred monks had discarded their boots at the entrance, and set on cushions inside. The older ones seemed to be praying. I did think some of the young boys were napping.

Our group went to have lunch at a restaurant which offered Tibetan food. I had the best sweet and sour pork I’ve ever eaten, which tasted nothing like the versions I’ve had in the UK or USA. We sampled the yak meat dumplings and, well, I wasn’t a fan. I also had the yak milk tea, which tasted pretty much like hot milk.

I then went for a stroll through the town. Many of the shops, yet again, repeated the same merchandise. Scarves, prayer beads, sculptures, prayer flags. I bought a prayer bead bracelet made from yak bone. Mostly I just looked, not really tempted by what I found. 

Some of our group had tried a dish last night which, the restaurant owner told us, held a special small root which is only harvested this time of year. I saw a number of people cleaning piles of said roots (very small, not even the length of my small finger) on the sidewalks. 

Around 5pm I went to the hotel and arranged washing in the sunny window, hoping to hasten the drying process. What the town lacks is any sort of cafe culture. If I could have found a place to sip a coffee and people watch, I would gladly have done so. The town is filled with red robed monks and Tibetans pilgrims in their traditional clothing. It’s a fascinating place to be.

05 June

A number of us went on an optional (in other words, the cost wasn’t covered by what we’d already paid for the trip) excursion into the nearby mountains and grasslands of the plateau.  The guides wanted to do some maintenance on the truck, so three cars were hired, along with a local guide.

Our first stop was a viewpoint at the summit of the first mountain pass. Flocks of horned sheep as well as yaks grazed nearby. The shepherds I saw were on foot and didn’t have a dog or any other help. The sheep were very happy to use the road, which would continue to feature in our day out.

We drove down into the valley. My car had the guide, so we learned about his life as we drove along. Seems he’s studied abroad, and has been in jail twice, once for trying to sneak back into China (when he hadn’t been given permission to leave), and the other time for joining a protest against the Chinese government.

The remains of an ancient town wall, Gan jia, was our next stop. We pulled into a new looking car park, from which a long set of wooden steps led up to a viewing platforms. A man collected entry fees from us. A path is being built which will take visitors on a walk around the walls, so the place is obviously being geared up as a tourist attraction.

I went part way up the walkway. The height revealed that a town, albeit modernised, still exists inside the clay walls. We walked through one of the gates, and along the road. Our guide explained that the government was building homes for those who had once lived nomadic lives in the area. The older generation hate the new homes, as they were used to living alongside their animals. The younger generation prefers the new living arrangements.

After a short drive into the valley, we stopped for a picnic lunch. A small river gurgled past our feet, and we had good views of the old town walls. A few water fights broke out, and people paddled in the clear water.

A number of nomad summer homes were nearby. The guide explained that nomads only used them in August, preferring to live on the grasslands. I was never able to find out why they used a building in the summer.

The cars carried us up narrow roads into the mountains on the other side. We visited the Tsewey monastery, which had been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution but rebuilt around 30 years ago. There used to be around 65 monks. Now there are only 35, but I did see a good number of young boys in that number.

One thirteen-year-old monk took us around the temples. In the first one, the monks were engaged in prayer. We were told that we could photograph inside, but to please not take photos of praying monks. Their chanting was very relaxing, although livened up from time to time by the clashing of metal on metal.

The statues in each temple were large and golden, and surrounded by other statues in various colours. I left some money at the temple of the Buddha of prosperity.

The third temple was at the top of the complex, and a bit of tiring climb at altitude. After we’d looked inside, some of the group decided to hike up to the viewpoint. I went back down, and amused myself by taking photos of sparrows.

We started back to town. At one point, the cars pulled over so we could take photos of the sheep and the yaks. Neither group was very obliging. I was glad for my telephoto lens.

This was our last evening in Xiahe. A number of us went out for dinner, and we were discussing which restaurant to choose when the Sacred Goat appeared at the monastery entrance. This shaggy creature, we were told, had been given to the monks by a local farmer, and he now roamed freely through the monastery. I’d photographed him earlier in the day (and made the mistake of standing downwind—he’s a very smelly goat). After that excitement, we split ourselves between our two favourite restaurants. I had another portion of the delicious sweet and sour pork.

06 June

A long day in the truck, from 8am to 6pm with a stop for lunch. But we didn’t mind. Unlike the days travelling through the desert, the scenery was very interesting. 

Our route took us from the mountains and down into valleys, before heading up over mountains again. We left behind tree covered hills and come into agricultural land. Crops had been planted on terraces which had been carved out of the steep sides. 

Our lunch stop was in a small town. Our Chinese guide told us to use the toilets in the local hospital. We were appalled at what we found inside. The patients’ rooms looked dingy, and the beds uncomfortable. The toilets (squat only) were dirty, and there was no running water so no way to wash your hands. A patient wandered out, holding his i/v bag in his hand. 

Our lunch was a bowl of spicy noodles. I went to a small store to buy a bottle of water. Two women followed me inside and took photos as I shopped. When I tried to pay for the water, they wanted to take photos with me. Finally I was able to return to my meal.

We pulled into our hotel in Pingliang around 6.20pm. Ninety minutes later, we met up to go out for a meal. As we ate our way through a mixture of dishes, I realised that I’m getting tired of eating Chinese food! 

After the dinner, the restaurant owner came to our table with her twins. The boy and girl were four weeks old, and most of our party cooed and took photos. Fortunately, I was at the back, so I was able to avoid close contact. Babies are not my favourite animal.

07 June

Our excursion today was to Mount Kongtong, one of the most sacred sites in Taoism. The mountain is full of walking paths between temples and caves, a place you’d love to linger on a sunny day. So, of course, we were there on a day of relentless rain.

There were various options if you wanted to see the top of the mountain. You could take a bus up and walk down to the central section (where there were restaurants, shops, and the bus back to the tourist centre near the city). You could take a bus or a cable car to the central section, walk up to the top, and take a bus from there back to the tourist centre. But you could not take a bus from the central section to the top, or from the top to the central section.

I consulted my ankle, the warning about steep sections, and the weather forecast. So I decided to take the cable car, look around the temples in the central section, and not attempt to see the top.

Mary and I walked around together. Although work was being done on the temples, we saw a number of monks as well as people offering incense and prayers. The walkways between temples were lined by trees, and birds flew from branch to branch. Our progress was halted by people wanting to take photographs with us. Mary was far more gracious about this than I was. 

As we came into the central area, we passed a stall selling hand carved walking sticks. I picked one out, and was entranced by the smell (cedar wood!) and the pattern of the burl. The stall owner wanted 1000 Yuan for it. Mary offered Y350, and he immediately accepted. So I bought the stick and used it the rest of the day. Goodness knows how I’m going to get it home, though...

We had a simple lunch of fried rice. As we wandered back out into the rain, we met members of our group who had walked down from the top. I poked around in the souvenir stalls, which carried the usual mixture of prayer beads and bells. Still no mugs, t-shirts, fridge magnets, etc. 

I caught the bus back down. We were taken down to the start of a ghost town of shuttered shops and restaurants, which I had to walk past to return to the car park. The wet afternoon was brightened by a family of wagtails. The parent bird was chased by three chicks nearly her size, still begging for her to feed them. I watched them for awhile, entranced. 

We returned to the hotel. The wet afternoon encouraged me to stay in my room, drink coffee, and work on photos. At 7pm, a number of us caught the bus to the Night Market. The market was a rather lacklustre affair of food joints, all rather wet from the non stop rain. I had kebabs and a shredded meat burger. We then walked back towards the hotel, popping into a coffee shop along the way. 

08 June

We left at the civilised time of 9am for the six hour drive to Xi’an. Rain feel relentlessly during the day, which meant that the scenery passed by in a damp haze. 

Time passed slowly, as a result. I found that my mobile data faded in and out, which surprised me, as we’re now heading into larger cities. 

An hour long lunch break reduced the journey’s monotony. But, as I chewed through my fried rice, I found myself dreaming of spaghetti, and steak and ale pie, or even beans on toast. I’m getting tired of Chinese food. On the other hand, although I’ve always been good with chopsticks, my skills have improved even further.

We arrived at our hotel around 4pm. The rain and traffic (as we had to park at the side of the road) encouraged us to unload cases as quickly as possible. Ten people are finishing their trip in Xi’an, so their sleeping bags and mats also needed to be pulled out.

The hotel is the the main part of the city. Designer shops lead away from either side. When we walked to a Peking duck restaurant (great food!), we passed many other stores. We also saw KFCs, a McDonald’s, a Pizza Hut, and several Starbucks as we drove through the city.

I’d received a text from my mobile provider in China which, unsurprisingly, was in Chinese. I asked our local guide what it said. Her reply was that the provider had explained that, due to this being the day many students would be taking university entrance exams, mobile data would be unreliable. This had been decided by the government to ensure that students would focus on their exams and not be distracted by their phones. When I expressed my amazement about such government control over internet provision, she back-pedalled. ‘I’m explaining it badly,’ she said quickly. I was suddenly reminded of our guides in North Korea, I’m sad to say.

After the evening meal, several of us walked back to the hotel. Others decided to head on to a bar. We’ll see what their heads are like in the morning.

09 June

We left the hotel to clear blue skies. Hurrah!

The truck took us to the museum of Emperor Qin’s Tomb, more commonly known as the Terracotta Warriors. We arrived at noon, so we were sent off to get lunch before coming together for our tour. I went against my morals (my stance against factory farmed chicken) and, God forgive me, I went to the KFC. That’s how desperate I’ve become to have something other than Chinese food.

An English speaking museum guide met us afterwards. We were handed earpieces, and she started explaining the site as we walked through gardens to the museum. In 1974, a farmer digging for a new well discovered a clay soldier. The government was informed, and archaeologists realised that there were thousands of these soldiers, as well as depictions of horses and many weapons. 

Only part of the site has been excavated. The bright paint used on the statues fades very quickly once exposed to light, so the plan is to keep the majority of the site undisturbed. The hope is that, in future years, a method might be found to preserve the colours. The tomb of the Emperor has also been left in its original state. Dancers, musicians, and acrobats have been discovered in a few experimental excavations. Again, once the technology is available, the tomb will be opened up and preserved. 

We first visited ‘Pit One’, the original find. This houses over 6000 warriors and horses, organised in a battle formation. At the far end are the workshops, where more statues are being reassembled. One of our group, studying the statues, muttered, ‘Looks like the Weeping Angels.’ We agreed that the site could make a great ‘Doctor Who’ episode.

‘Pit Three’, which we visited next, is small but intriguing. It’s built to be the command centre of the army. One of the rooms was for planning military tactics, and the other possibly meant to be used for prayers for victory. The lighting was dimmer than in Pit One.

‘Pit Two’, which we visited last, also has warriors ready for combat, but the formations are far more complex. A general, a kneeling archer, and a calvary officer with his horse were found here. Sixty-four war chariots make up war formation.

Some of the more spectacular statues were in another building nearby. There was quite a scrum to get close to the glass enclosures, particularly around the bronze chariot. And our guide said numbers were down due to students taking the university entrance exams!

We then had an hour to do our own explorations. Three of us had ice creams, then wandered through the large area dedicated to shops and food. 

By 5pm we were back to the hotel. I went to an ATM to withdraw some money, and to a small store to buy nuts, orange juice, and a bottle of Chinese red wine. Although others had organised various ideas for a night out, I decided to stay in, drink wine, and work on photos. 

10 June

Three of us had agreed to meet up at 8am to take a taxi to the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda. This we did, emerging at the complex just 15 minutes later. 

The pagoda had been built to store important Buddhist documents and statues. What I hadn’t expected, when I entered the grounds, was to find so many Buddhist temples. A service was going on in one of them, and beautiful chanting filled the air. I visited a nearby shop, and bought a prayer bead necklace.

As for the pagoda itself, I only climbed the steps to the second floor. A full day of site-seeing lay ahead of us, and I didn’t want to strain my ankle. 

We met up again, as agreed, at 9.30am. The Roman Catholic Cathedral, as far as I was able to find out on-line, had a service at 10am on Sundays. I had taken screenshots on my iPhone of an image of the church, and a map showing the location. The first taxi we hailed was not interested in taking us there. The second one pondered the map for a moment, then nodded.

We were dropped off on the correct street, but not by the church. I showed the map to some people standing nearby, and one of them pointed us in the right direction.

The service was just starting when we arrived. We had to step over beggars to go through the gates. People were sitting or standing outside the church, and the inside was packed. We decided to go just inside, and to our embarrassment, people insisted on moving to one side so we could have their chairs. (All of the pews were full). 

Although the entire service was in Chinese, the three of us (two Church of England, one Roman Catholic) could follow the liturgy as it was nearly the same as at home. No one seemed to have service books, and I don’t think we sang any hymns. Instead, people sang the elements of the service. A woman cantored for a psalm, her voice beautiful and clear, the choir leading us all in the response. 

After an overly long sermon, two people were brought to the front to be baptised. Water was poured over their heads from a teapot (perhaps because one of them was in a wheelchair), and then white robes were placed over their regular clothes. 

The priest sang the sursum corda and delivered the preface of the Eucharist prayer in the same plainchant which I’ve used. I had to retrain myself from singing along with him. I joined the queue to receive Communion, which was bread only. Most of the congregation left the church as soon as they’d received, but we waited until the final blessing and dismissal.

We took a few photos of the wonderful detailed paintings on the walls, which were of birds and plants. Then out into the bright sunshine and an already hot day. 

Since we’d explored two religions, and it wasn't even lunchtime yet, we thought we should walk on to the Great Mosque. This was beautiful and utterly unlike any I’ve visited before. The style was the same as Buddhist temples, albeit with Arabic script. We were able to wander freely through the grounds, although not into the prayer area itself.

Afterwards we continued to explore the Muslim quarter. The streets were narrow, but that didn’t stop mopeds and bicycles from charging through. We stopped for a coffee break, two of us choosing lovely iced mochas.

Kay peeled off, so Clare and I continued together. We had a small lunch (shared a platter of beef and vegetables). A man at a nearby table had a cricket in a small wooden cage.As we continued our explorations, I tried to not look at the songbirds trapped in small cages hanging outside the various shops.

Our next destination was the city’s Drum Tower. Somehow on the way we ended up in an area of temples dedicated to various gods, including the city god, the god of medicine, and the goddess of childbirth and the afterlife. These, I found out later, were Taoist. So four religions in one day!

Near the Drum Tower was, in effect, a souk. We browsed the shops in the covered market. When we emerged on the other side, we used our iPhone maps to find our way to the Bell Tower.

It was now 5pm, very hot, and we were flagging. So we stopped at the nearby Starbucks. I had ‘peach and oolong iced tea’, which was delicious. Clare had an iced black tea which wasn’t as nice.

We dropped into the hotel, where I unloaded various purchases. Kay was in the room, so we headed off together to the city wall. The wall is 14 kilometres/8.7 miles long, 18 metres/59 feet thick, and an amazing site. Kay rented a bike and went off to explore. I walked along part of the length, and enjoyed people watching. Many young Chinese were strolling along in traditional costumes, taking photos of each other.

At 7.45pm I finally collapsed in my hotel room. I poured myself a large glass of red wine and rested my aching feet.

11 June

Another hot day, although it wasn’t too bad on the truck with the windows open. We had a four hour drive, much of it high above valleys full of trees, broken by the occasional lake and agricultural area.

We arrived at Yan’an shortly after noon. The hotel we’re staying is quite intriguing. It’s up a flight of stairs, and consists of rooms off one long corridor. Beneath, on the ground floor, must be all of the shops we passed.

After lunch, we headed off to the Revolutionary Memorial Hall. Yan’an holds an important place in recent Chinese history. It was the stronghold of Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party from 1934 to 1949. The 6,000 mile Long March ended here. 

The museum celebrates Mao and the battle first against the Japanese, then the civil war which ended in defeat for the Kuomintang (who fled to Taiwan). We had hoped to have a guide, but the museum was crowded with visitors, and all the guides were taken. Parts of the exhibits did have English. The interpretation of events reminded me of my time in North Korea. Same massaging of the facts. 

The last exhibit seemed to be of a model Chinese village, all of the peasants happy in their dwellings and occupations. Despite being unable to read most of the descriptions, going through the museum still took me nearly two hours.

I braved the hot sunshine and trudged back to the hotel. Bliss—our room had air conditioning. I had no desire to visit the rather small city in the 35C temperatures, so I settled down with lots of water to work on photos. Although some of the party were going out to the Night Market, I decided to give my aching feet another rest and stay in. 

12 June

Our early morning excursion (8.30am) was to the Yangjialing Headquarters site. This is where Mao had his headquarters during the early years of the Chinese Communist party. Despite the hour, we shared the space with quite a few other tourists, particularly in Mao’s compound. It felt like a real privilege to stand in such a historic site.

We then had a day of challenges. Our goal was to reach the village of Lijiashan, in which people live in cave houses. We were first thwarted when part of the motorway proved to be under construction, so we had to take some back roads. Then we had the challenge of crossing the Yellow River. Our local guide expected us to be able to go over the small bridge, as she had taken that route with other trucks owned by Dragoman Overland. However, our truck is higher off the ground than those. We who sat near the front could clearly see that the metal height bar erected over the entrance to the bridge would hit the truck, and we shouted at the driver to stop.

So we backed up, and found a place to park whilst our Chinese guide sorted out transport. The idea was that we’d park the truck in town, and the owners of our night’s accommodation would come down with a car and a minivan to collect us. As we drove through the city, delighted children and other onlookers followed our progress on foot. When we found a suitable car park, the police helped us to clear people away so we could drive inside.

And, just as we were preparing to board our alternative transport, a thunderstorm broke out. Lightning flashed overhead, and rain threw down against the windshield. We crossed the bridge, and drove through an area of rough road. Mud alternated with puddles, and a fierce wind sent debris flying across our path. 

The vehicles took us up to the car park for our accommodation. Despite the weather, the view was charming. The houses didn’t cling to the cliffs, they were simply part of them. We walked into the courtyard, and into our rooms. The beds were on platforms, and shared (although each person had their own duvet). In the winter, the area beneath the platform is heated. People sit on the beds to work during the day.

The storm cleared, and we sat out in the courtyard for our dinner and beers. One of the house’s owners brought in some scorpions he had captured, and he showed us how they glow under ultraviolet light. Swifts flew between the eaves. The place had running water, electricity, and wifi, but the toilets were still the basic long-drops. The women accessed theirs through the courtyard. The men had to go outside to reach theirs.

I was suffering some digestive difficulties, which decided to surface when facilities were so basic instead of when we were staying in hotels! But let’s pass over a fuller description. It did make for a restless night.

13 June

I rose at 7.30am and went outside for some morning photos. When I asked for a cup of hot water for my coffee (I packed coffee bags for the trip), I found that one of the owners was kneading bread. This, cut in half and filled with butter and herbs, was later part of our breakfast.

The sunny skies meant a far less fraught trip back down to the nearby city. We returned to the truck, and settled in for the drive to Pingyao. But our plans were brought to abrupt halt. One of our party was missing his mobile phone. The owners of the cave house were contacted, and the phone was discovered in the mini van. We waited until the phone had been returned to owner. 

This meant that we reached Pingyao around 2pm. The ancient walled city, many of the buildings dating back to the 17th century (and the city walls to 1370). The truck was parked outside. Shuttles were hired to help us take our luggage to the guesthouse. 

The city, as you might expect, is a major tourist attraction. The rooms of our guesthouse have traditional beds, high platforms, very wide, and shared. The bedrooms are off a central courtyard. 

We went off to find lunch. As it was now nearly 3pm, many places had shut up to the evening. We managed to locate a still open restaurant. Afterwards, we wandered past the shops. Clare wanted to buy a lacquered Chinese jewellery box, which is a speciality of the region. We visited a number of stores, and it was me who ended up buying one for a young friend in England!

The heat defeated us. It was 34C, and very little shade on the city streets. We went to our room and took showers. The guesthouse only charged Y20 per kilo of laundry, so I decided to pay for my washing to be done rather than do it myself. Luxury!

We went back out in the evening. A trip to the Night Market provided food. A wander through the night streets, and then time to retire.

14 June

The walls are very thin in this guesthouse. Any noise travels. Particularly that of a man who was very obviously enjoying the company of his partner. Three times from around midnight to 1am his great enthusiasm echoed through the complex. This lead to a lot of giggles at breakfast, except perhaps for the person whose bedroom is next to theirs.

We left the hotel at 9am and walked to the car park. There we picked up a local guide, who accompanied us to Zhangbi. This is a complex of underground passages, around 10Km/6miles in total, which were built over 1400 years ago by the Sui dynasty in case of attack by the Tang dynasty. We were glad for our guide, as it would have been easy to get lost in the sections which have been restored and are open to visitors.

The site also includes a number of temples and buildings of a still-occupied farming village which exists above the tunnels. We wandered through the cobbled streets, looking at the architecture and an ancient tree (said to be over 1000 years old).

We returned to Pingyao and had lunch. Then the local guide, who lives in the city, took us on a tour. There are many sites of interest in the city. Pingyao was an important banking centre for a number of centuries. Our guide explained how a code and watermarks were used to guarantee paper currency. We also saw the law courts, including instruments of torture. 

Temples also dot the city, and we visited Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucian ones. The heat was beginning to draw the energy from our bones. We decided not to visit the city wall at that time, as we would have baked! About half of the group had left the tour by this time, seeking shelter from the heat.

The guide finished at 5pm. I finished yet another bottle of water, and we headed back to the hotel. Showers were taken, and several of us met up in the guesthouse courtyard for beers. I decided to spend the evening in, as we have another day here tomorrow.

15 June

I rose at 6am, and just before 8am headed out into the city. Shortly thereafter I was on the city walls. The day was already beginning to heat up, so it was good to be walking along before the sun became unbearable. The side of the wall which faced the outside world carried on with a thinner barrier of bricks. But there was nothing on the side which faced inwards. I kept well away from the edge, and mused that railings would probably have been put into place in many other countries.

Glancing down led to some interesting sights. Vegetable gardens, courtyards, buildings falling apart. One courtyard had a number of sheep and goats, and I heard a rooster. 

Statues had been placed at various places to admire and photograph. I finally came down from the wall into a small side street. A break for a coffee, and then on to visit the nearby Catholic church. No one was around, and the building looked rather sad and in need of love.

I dropped back to the hotel to leave my large camera behind. Then I wandered the nearby streets for a time, poking my nose into shops. I visited a wonderful preserved wealthy merchant’s house. The signs helpfully explained that his rooms would have been higher than those of other family members, and servants, to show his greater status. A side passage down the length of the compound was for servants and the younger women of the family (e.g. the less important) to use for entering and exiting, rather than the main entrance.

I joined several others for a long lunch. Delicious sweet and sour pork balls, and a local dish which seemed to be made out of cured beef. 

Afterwards, I went to the truck to collect my travel tripod. I worked on photos until after sunset, when I headed out to take long exposure photos of the beautifully lit streets. Pingyao really comes to life at night.

I met a Chinese man who was also using a tripod to take night time photos. His daughter was with him, and her English was very good. We had a conversation about photography, and I gave them the address of my website. I finished off the evening by taking some photos of the guesthouse.

16 June

It was with some sadness that we left Pingyao the next morning. Our route was north, and into the mountains. Our destination, where we would stay for two nights, was Wutai Shan. The mountain is one of the Four Sacred Mountains in Chinese Buddhism. Wutai is considered to be the home of the Bodhisattva of wisdom, and is also important to Tibetan Buddhists. There are over 53 monasteries in the area, and pilgrims have ventured there since the seventh century.

The temperatures dropped as we headed higher, which was a welcome relief. We had lunch in a restaurant on route, and reached the entry gates in the early afternoon. We all had to disembark the truck, go into a large visitor to pay to enter the mountain area, and then reboard the truck.

As we proceeded onwards, it became obvious that we’d hit a busy time. Today was the start of the three day Dragon Boat Festival, and people had come to the area in droves. Our plan, to drive immediately to our hotel, was thwarted. Due to the heavy traffic, the police insisted that we had to park up still quite a distance away. This was despite the ploy of using one of the passengers who spoke Chinese, rather than our local guide, and her attempts to speak it badly. The police still wouldn’t budge.

We parked near a temple, and went up for a visit. It was rather exciting to see so many people at prayer. The smell of incense filled the warm air. The mountains were covered with trees, and sunlight glimmered on pine needles.

When we walked back down, the police still refused to let us through. So we gathered up our day packs, and boarded a local bus. At the bus stop, as we were still a distance from our hotel, we used several shuttles to take us the last way. The truck came up later, at which time we were reunited with our main cases.

I went for a short walk, which included a purchase of hand soap. Our hotel is described as ‘basic’ in our trip notes. This seems to indicate a total lack of toiletries. I’m also getting a bit tired of the ‘shower over the loo’ set up, which we’ve had at several hotels now.

We had group dinner in the hotel, and then I retired to my room.

17 June

Despite the bed being little more than two inches of padding over a hard board, I slept well. Breakfast consisted mainly of three different types of bread. One was like a twisted doughnut, and we could see the man making them (putting the shapes into boiling oil) just outside the hotel.

We walked down to the start of the climb to our first monastery of the day, Dailuo Ding. Most of the group decided to tackle the 1100 steps up. I elected to take the chair lift. This actually took longer than the climb, due to the long queues. 

The views from the top were fantastic, despite the cloud cover. I spent some time taking photos before paying the Y8 entry fee into the temple area. Pilgrims were praying and offering incense. Monks wandered around the grounds. During the course of the day, we would see monks (no nuns?) in outfits of various colours.

After going back down, we had lunch. A gaggle of geese and a rather bedraggled chicken caught my eye afterwards. Most of the group headed off together to tour more temples. I decided to go and visit the souvenir shops (which smelled wonderfully of herbs and incense) before making my own way up to the Pusa DingSi monastery. Steps alternated with terraces, both filled with people selling the usual mixture of prayer beads, bags, and hats. 

The climb up was breathtaking, in both senses of the term. I admired the views back to the temple we’d visited in the morning, and further down into the valley. The area was crowded, both by those praying and large groups clustered around their tour guide. As this is a Tibetan Buddhist monastery, large prayer wheels surrounded the temples.

I made my way down to another monastery, Guang Hua Si. This was much quieter, and had large gardens. I drank in the peace. Monks started chanting their evening prayers, and the one on duty outside the temple gave me nodded permission to take photographs.

By this time, I’d had enough temples for one day. I made my way to the main road, and caught a taxi back to the hotel. I spent the evening relaxing in the room. 

18 June

Our route out of the area was up the steep mountains. The road clung to the sides, and despite the misty morning, I was treated to very good views of the sheer drop. I quickly put on my seatbelt, but I couldn’t help but think that, if the truck went over, we’d all be dead anyway.

Cows grazed on the green grass, and at one point we had to pause to allow one to cross the road. We then dropped down on the other side. The hills were dotted with small squares of plastic. As we came nearer, we realised that each square was below a small pine tree. A lot of work has gone into an attempt to bring forests back to the mountains.

We also passed traditional villages. The usual pattern of ornate gate leading into a large courtyard, then a single story house leading off, was repeated. We’ve seen this pretty consistently across China. 

By mid morning we reached our planned stop, the Hengshan Hanging Monastery. This was a charming set of temples (three) built up against the sheer cliff wall, built around 15oo years ago. Three religions have temples here, namely Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. The reason why the monks had built high was because the plain below flooded regularly (a dam has since been put into place). As this was the third day of the Dragon Boat Festival, a lot of people were in the queue to visit. Walking through the levels (and climbing the very narrow steep steps) was at a shuffle. Every so often, an open door would reveal a statue. I’d love to live there, but only   if decent plumbing were installed.

After a quick snack lunch, we continued our journey to Datong. We arrived in mid afternoon. Temperatures had heated up again. I decided to relax in the air conditioned hotel room until joining some of the others for dinner. Our Chinese guide took us to a lamp barbecue restaurant. The leg of lamb was cooked outside, over coals, and then the entire grill was placed into the centre of our table. We were given long handled forks and knives to carve off our own meat. Both tasty and a bit difficult sometimes to manage, as one didn’t want to drop a slice onto the coals, and it was too hot to slide a plate underneath.

‍ 19 June

An early start. We headed out at 8am to visit the nearby Yungang Grottoes, built in the 5th and 6th centuries. ‘It’s less than 20km away, so we should be there in no time,’ said one person. That jinxed things, of course. The road we wanted to take was shut (roadworks). We tried a different route, which took us through the middle of a street market. Then we had to turn around, because there was a height restriction on said alternative route. We finally found a new approach, and ended up at the grottoes at 10.30am.

We had a Chinese speaking guide. Our own local guide had to take one of our group to see a doctor about a persistent cough, so Elaine served as translator. She seemed to thoroughly enjoy wearing the microphone headpiece.

Datong has an interesting recent history. The previous mayor spent millions trying to develop the coal mining town into a tourist destination. He tore down the ancient old town, and built a replica in its place. Sadly, neither merchants nor tourists ever came, so much of the replica sits empty of shops or visitors. He also spent money doing up the grottoes, building a set of new temples and a visitors’ centre.

The original caves were carved at the instructions of the then Emperor. Local people added more carvings. Because the statues are deep inside caves, the colourful paint and intricate carvings have survived. We were amazed at the detail, and I wished I’d brought my wide angle lens! 

One set of carvings was of the Buddha’s life. These showed him as being born from his mother’s armpit, as befits a member of nobility (common people, it seems, are born from feet). Another showed his parents taking him to see a prophet, and then being upset when they were told that he’d give up his royal throne rather than follow his father as king. 

We’d see images of apsaras, flying heavenly beings who follow Buddha, in previous caves. Here, some of them showed a Christian influence in their design (wings and haloes). 

The last few statues were outside. We admired these before making our way to the exit. To leave, as usual, meant going past multiple souvenir shops. I was appalled by the crickets being held in small cages, exposed to the heat of the day.

A few people stayed behind to enjoy the area a bit longer. The rest of us returned in the truck. Return journey took an hour. I took a half hour’s break, then headed out to the old town. 

My intention was to catch a taxi to the Huayan Monastery, which dates back to 907AD. I found a Chinese couple on the main road, also trying to hail a taxi. They were curious about me, so I showed them a photo of the monastery to explain my intentions. It took ten minutes for them to gain a taxi. They spoke to the driver, and we all piled in.

The driver first took the couple to their destination. This took over twenty minutes. I tried to explain that I was from England, and I sang the first verse of ‘God Save the Queen.’ My fellow passengers found this highly amusing.

After my bit of driving tour of downtown Datong, the couple got out, paid, and the driver took me to the rebuilt old city. I paid him, and looked at my application (which I can highly recommend). I first walked up to the 9 Dragon Wall, spending a little while admiring them all. As I walked back to the old town, I met up with a fellow traveller, and we stopped for a beer. I went through part of the rebuilt old town which is all shut up, then to the monastery.

The grounds are huge. Many temples alternate with trees and courtyards. I didn’t bother looking into many of the temples. I’ve had my fill of Buddha statues. I did climb the nearby tower. This gave good views over the original old town, mostly now in ruins. Seems sad to have destroyed so much, and then not provided something better in return. 

By this time, I was very hungry. One street of the fake old town was quite busy. I had that old standby, egg fried rice. A Chinese woman at a nearby table took it upon herself to correct my chopstick handling.

I caught a taxi back to the hotel, and did some washing. 

20 June

A longer drive day again. We headed off into the growing heat of the day. The views from the truck was initially of dry country, but this soon changed to tree covered mountains. 

In mid afternoon we arrived in a small village. We took our cases into a guesthouse. A common area lead to separate bedrooms. Although the toilet needed a good scrub, the rooms had air conditioning and the wifi was very good.

A section of the Great Wall was only a short walk away. Some of our group went for a visit. The rest of us settled down with beers and relaxed. After a lovely dinner (served by the guesthouse), we walked to the Great Wall for sunset. The path up was steep, consisting of many steps, but once on the wall the path was pretty level.

We admired the views and the golden light. Some of the group decided to walk on further, whilst others of us simply settled down to enjoy the views. And the realisation that we were on the Great Wall of China!

After we returned to the guesthouse, more beers were ordered, and we enjoyed a convivial evening.

21 June

An early start. At 7.30am, we headed back up the steep path to the Wall. Once up, we walked along and on the Wall. I let the group go on ahead, and I enjoyed over an hour admiring the views and taking photos. A dragonfly hovered past me at one point, birds called in the trees below, and the scent of trees and soil filled the air. Above all, it was wonderful to be able to visit the wall without a single other person in sight. 

After a couple of happy hours, I headed back down. At 10.30am we packed up the truck, and headed off to our next city. After a delicious shared lunch (our local guide plus Elaine ordered a series of dishes, which we passed around), we headed on to Puning Temple in Chengde.

Puning Temple was built in 1755 by the then Emperor. Many of the temples were undergoing renovations. We strolled through the grounds (searching out shade wherever possible). The highlight was a large statue of the Buddha, the largest wooden one in the world at 22.2 metres/73 feet tall.

After all this, it was good to check into our hotel and to take a shower. Although this shower is not near the toilet, there’s no shower curtain, so the water still gets everywhere!

22 June

Only one destination planned for the day, but what a place. The Mountain Resort in Chengde was built between 1703 and 1792 and covers near 5.6 square kilometres/2.2 square miles. The emperors of the time had exclusive use of the grounds, which was their summer retreat from the heat of Beijing. 

The entrance to the resort leads to the palace. The front section was where the emperor conducted business, and the rear was the living quarters for him, his wives, and his concubines. 

Once past these buildings, we entered the resort proper. A mountain section lies to the west, and we boarded buses to go through the area. Several stops and climbs lead to views over the resort and the nearby temples. Spotted deer grazed between the trees, and various birds called as they flitted past. We also visited part of the wall which surrounds the entire complex.

After a break for a snack lunch, we walked on the islands and admired the lakes. Several of us went onto a pedalo and had a leisurely hour on the water. 

The surroundings were lovely. What the place lacked was any sort of cafe, or bar, or coffee shop. I could quite happily have sat with a beer in hand, admiring the views. But there was nothing like that, not even a proper restaurant. 

Several deer had ventured down to the main area, so I took some photos before leaving the complex and returning to the hotel. Later on, we had yet another excellent group meal at a Chinese restaurant. 

23 June

We headed towards what will be my final stop before going home—Beijing! The day was already warm when we boarded the truck.

Our guides had a lovely surprise for us. We broke our journey to visit another section of the Great Wall, namely at Jinshanling. This was a much more touristy section than our earlier visit, with the option of a cable car to whisk you to the top (which I used!).

The place was relatively uncrowded, and the temperatures were still bearable. I walked a short way, taking in several of the towers. I did have some unwelcome company for a time. An elderly woman had tried to sell me a guidebook whilst I was buying my cable car tickets. I shook my head and told her I wasn’t interested. When I emerged from the cable car and started up the path to the Wall, she was there, having raced up the path. She followed me for some time, telling me that I was ‘beautiful’ and calling me ‘friend.’ I tried politely to tell her to leave me alone. Finally, after around 20 more minutes of this, I finally told her strongly, ‘Go away’ and I held up both palms. That worked.

We had around an hour to explore before heading back down. One of our group was missing, so we ended up buying coffees and ice creams while waiting. When she finally joined us, we boarded the truck and headed off to Beijing.

The day became hotter and hotter. When the truck was moving, air through the open windows cooled us down. But as we hit Beijing traffic, we stood still and and baked. 

The hotel we’re using is located in a hutong, namely one of the original style of city neighbourhoods. These consist of narrow streets formed by lines of traditional courtyard residences. Many were destroyed during the modernisation of the city, but a few remain. Parking the truck was quite a feat, and yet again we were amazed by the skill of our guides. 

I do find going through the lobby of the hotel quite disturbing. A collection of birds are in cages which are too small and lack fresh water. One of the budgies has a terrible skin condition which has covered one eye. And there are two crickets in those tiny cages. 

I cleared the truck of all of my possessions and took them to my hotel room. After a shower, I relaxed for awhile. At 6.30pm, I met up with a few others, and we used the underground to go visit the Night Market. Almost any creature you could imagine eating, and some you’d never thought of consuming, was for sale. Several of our group tried the fried scorpions. I found it hard to look at the still living ones, wriggling on the wooden skewers. 

Afterwards we wandered along the shopping street. Every major brand you could think of was represented. I also popped into a store specialising in chopsticks, and was amazed at how much you could pay for a pair. 

When I returned to the hotel, I was in need of another shower. And tomorrow is supposed to be even hotter!

24 June

We headed out on an already warm morning to go to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Only when we were at the entrance to the Square did our guide remember that we would need passports in order to go in. Only half of us were carrying said passports. So one guide went off to catch a taxi back to the hotel to collect the missing ones. The rest of us went through and waited for an hour in the Square until the group could meet up again.

I remember well the protests in 1999—and the terrible aftermath. Our Chinese guide knew nothing about it. The topic is not discussed in China, in appears. When I called up an image on my iPhone, she hurriedly told me, ‘Don’t show me that here, I don’t want to get arrested!’ So I quickly closed the Google search.

Finally the rest joined us, and we walked to the entrance of the Forbidden City. We were issued with audioguides. These were quite good. Each was rectangular, with lights on a map of the complex to show where you were. The commentary started up automatically. 

We set off on our separate ways. I admired the main structures, went to the Nine Dragon Wall (which the audioguide confidently stated ‘surpasses the others’ in China), and looked briefly at the side palaces. The heat sapped at my strength. I stopped for a cold drink in the air conditioned restaurant, and spent some time in the gardens. Then I finally headed out.

It was quite a trudge back to the underground station. I watched men fishing in the Forbidden City’s moat, and found myself walking past the houses of a hutong. Finally I reached the underground station, and I paused for water and a rest before going down to make my way back to the hotel.

I should mention how easy it is to use the Beijing underground. All the names are in English as well as Chinese, and the map in the carriages has a green light which shows which station is coming up next.

I had a shower in my room and slowly recovered. At 6pm, we met up for our final group meal. Various dishes were enjoyed, culminating in Peking duck. (Well, it had to be done!) Goodbye speeches were made, as only three passengers are continuing onto the next leg, which does a loop through Mongolia.

Afterwards, a number of us went to a great bar nearby. The place had a large variety of beers on tap, and even more in bottles. I ordered a pitcher of a very nice porter, which I shared with one of the guides as we watched the World Cup match. England beat Panama 6:1. The table of Chinese next to us were cheering for Panama, so the single goal caused them great excitement.

25 June

The first thing I did, upon waking, was to check in for my flight. I had breakfast and headed out. I’d decided to visit the Temple of Heaven. The temples in this huge area (267 hectares/660 acres) were originally built between 1406 to 1420. Emperors came to the complex to offer animal sacrifices and to pray for a good harvest. 

When I arrived, just after 9am, local people were enjoying the extensive parkland. I found a group singing and clapping. Another section had a marriage market. People with mature children, who were as of yet unpartnered, sat with placards declaring details of said offspring. 

I then walked on to visit the temple complex. Graduates posed on the steps of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. I went on to the next structure, the Imperial Vault of Heaven, but as I arrived police put up tape and closed off the entrance. I walked on to the next structure, the Round Altar, but this too was shut.

The reason became evident about ten minutes later. The Prime Minister of France emerged from a car, surrounded by assistants and photographers. Fortunately, he only spent around 45 minutes in the area, so afterwards we less exalted people were allowed in. Afterwards I had some lunch, and felt vaguely insulted when I was given a spoon rather than chopsticks.

Clouds had thickened overhead, and we had some rain. This cooled the air slightly, but added to the humidity level. I headed for the exit, ready for a return to the hotel. Along the way, I admired the bird life, and wished I’d brought my telephoto lens.

Once back in my room, I took a deep breath and started to pack. Much to my horror, I was nearly 3kg over the 20kg check in limit. I couldn’t locate any one item I could remove to bring the weight down. I could only hope for a merciful check in person at the desk. My carry on bags were already full. 

I was collected by the taxi driver at 8pm. Although the airport was only 20km away, traffic was slow, and I was glad I’d given myself lots of time. When we arrived, the taxi meter stated Y98, and so I handed the driver a Y100 note. He tried to emphasise something to me, and waved a wad a notes under my nose. I fished out a Y10 note, and he grudgingly accepted it. Only later did I realise that he might have been insisting on a tip. Tipping isn’t part of the Chinese culture, but perhaps taxi drivers have become accustomed to Westerners providing a tip.

I took a deep breath and went to the check in desk. My bag came to 23.8kg. ‘Mighty woman,’ the check in man said and laughed. ‘I’ve been in China for nearly six weeks,’ I said. He was working away at producing the bag tag, and wasn’t saying anything about excess fees. So I turned on the charm. ‘You have a beautiful country.’

‘Thank you,’ he replied. We both moaned about the heat. He handed me my boarding cards and wished me  good flight. I scurried away before he could change his mind about my overweight bag!

Both flights were uneventful. About ten hours from Beijing to Istanbul, and then at 3 1/2 flight from Istanbul to Birmingham. I had treated myself to a taxi to take me home, and it was good to simply sit back and relax rather than make my way with public transport.

The house was fine, but the spiders have been busy in my absence. I’ll have to do some web removing!

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