Tuesday, October 6, 2015

September 2015 on the Silk Road

Interest in this trip began when I read Charles Blackmore"s book about crossing the Taklamakan desert.  I began a search of ways to travel in that part of China.  I had been at the beginning of the trail: Xi'an - and at the  end, Kashgar -  on separate trips, some years earlier.  But ne'er the between, a significant part of the old Silk Road, which included the Taklamakan  And  that segment would complete the whole for me:  India, Pakistan, China and the other Stans.

Not a lot of companies feature that particular area.  I was cautious of a local company that did the Taklamakan sans recommendation.
I did find several  western outfits that included the Taklamakan as part of a Silk Road tour but chose Wild Frontiers' 20 days tour  - I had traveled with them before into the Pamirs and thought they would have the basic kind of travel I prefer. Expensive but inclusive!

It was not an auspicious start:  China Air had problems with their flight out of SF and left several hours late which meant I missed the connection to Xi'an connection at Beijing.  With the help of an IT guy's cell, I was able to notify the local tour  people of the change so was met when I arrived a flight  late.

Things had changed since I was last there, over ten years ago.  More hustle and bustle - all   the signs of a prosperous city.  And the Terracotta Army had increased:  more excavations and additional viewing areas.  China treats its relics with respect. 

From there began the first of the three overnight train rides:  soft seat.  Four to a compartment.  I had top bunk once and bottomed out twice.  Squat toilet at one end and Western toilet at the other. 
A convenient way to cover distances - but tiring for we charged about during the day, from one photo op to another.   It was only at Turpan a bus was used to deal with the distances between the various Buddhist and Uiyghur and Chinese sights - for this was a sight seeing tour more than a experiential one.  

Group:  eleven including the Italian tour leader.  An Austrian  couple who marched to the tune of their own drummer; a Scot, an Irishman, three Brits, a Kiwi working in Kuala Lampur, an American-Brit of the old Hippie days and me.  Three men and eight women. Most of a certain age.  My roommate, one of the Brits, was a joy - here I was ahead of the game.  I couldn't ask for a better.  Plus she was knowledgeable about I-pads!  What more could one want!

Our stops were at Lanzhou, off the beaten track to Xiahe, then Jiayuguan, Dunhuang, Turpan, Korla, Kuq, Aksu, Khotan and ending at Kashgar. A flight  to Bejing and the final fight home.  Along the way, it was the  Labrang Tibetan Buddhism Monastery with its photos of the Dalai Lama, the Binlingshi caves with its ancient carvings, relics of the old Wall, wall paintings  and sculptures in caves from 220 AD ff.  And sand dunes, a bit reminiscent of the Empty  Quarter but on a much smaller scale.  And the Chinese really go out of their way to showcase  the restorations.

One  thing China and Iran have in common is their irrigation system:  the Karez system of underground channels.  Starting in Xiahe,  start seeing notices in Arabic coexisting with the Chinese; Minarets were evident.  But no  Calls to Prayer.  I think once in the entire trip, I heard a weak afternoon Call.  While the buildings are restored, it is for historical purposes not for practical use.  Practice of the Faith is discouraged though most women are covered in the Moslem regions,.

Towns along the Road were some,  majority  Han Chinese and others, mostly Uighur.  It was at Aksu, the road began along the Taklamakan desert.  A awesome but  desolate sight - I ached to get out and walk or camel my way on.  Too civilized to ride a bus in this area. No big deal was made of it.   An interesting stop along the way was at Yorkent, a Uighur craft center.  And then there was the livestock market at Khotan - an authentic experience.

But as we continued  into the Xinjian  region,   the Chinese check points increased.  By the time we arrived at  Chairman Mao in Kashgar's city centre, there were at least a dozen police vehicles en garde. And I was disappointed in the Old City which had been well "sanitized" as one of my companions put it.  As at earlier stops, a collection of Chinese Soviet style apartment houses throughout the city.  Progress?  Ah, the Chinese paws were well established all over the area. All the same Tibet! 

Along  with visiting historical sights:  mosques and caves, we were taken to museums, rug and jade shops,  night markets and   bazaars. the latter packed with patrons.     For some of our group, this was a shopping trip par excellence.  It was really    more of a conventional sightseeing tour than the adventure trek I had expected.   Interestingly, several of us brought along copies of Judy Bonavia's reference  of the Silk Road from  Xi'an to Kashgar, with its magnificent photos.  In  high hopes!

Accommodations: Over the top, garish Chinese 4*+ hotels with one exception:  at Dunhuang, the tasteful  Silk Road Hotel. congruent with the theme of our tour and the landscape.  Reminiscent   of Dwarka's in Kathmandu.  Overlooking the Gobi desert. I could have remained there an extra day.  The other place that impressed me though we didn't stay but did eat there:  Nirvana Hotel  at Xiahe, a charming small inn near the Monastery.  I think Wild Frontiers really missed the boat here. 

Food:  Ranged from hotel meals to local restaurants to street cafes.  A wide and appreciated  variety.  And I certainly developed my chop stick skills.  (Had tea at Kashgar's old Russian Embassy, where I stayed on the previous trip). 

Cost:  Tour:  $6143 inclusive all meals, flights Kashgar-Beijing,  and airport pickup up and delivery,  International flight:  SFO-Xi'an; Beijng-SFO.:  $1045.  Tips:  $400?

Conclusion:  Back to the simple life.  Also, sending tis out sans photos, which are caught up on CVS' developer - I am moving on to a digital!  Anyway, photos to follow!

Jo Rawlins Gilbert

Palo Alto CA  94303


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