Tag Archives: silk road


After one of the worst stays at one of the (supposedly) better hotels we left on a 3 am train to Dunhuang. A zombie day to get over the lack of sleep and then off exploring. Dunhung is an oasis city at a crossroads of the silk road. No surprise to most of you but the first thing we found of note was the dumpling  shop…closely followed by the location of the night market…then the food snack street. One of the first things that strikes you about Dunhuang is just how pleasant a city it is. It is not overly large (about 200,000) but is extremely liveable.

All of the good bits of larger cities are here but without the annoyances that some of the other places have…the beeping is almost non-existent and the likelihood of being run over on the footpath by ninja motorbikes is also greatly reduced. The weather is warm (mid 30’s), the streets are wide as are the footpaths, the place is clean and the people are friendly. There is actually not much to the town but it is a really pleasant place to kick back and do stuff. The big thing for Jill was the sheer size of the walk symbols when you cross the road.

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We headed to the night market for a meal on the first night and had a Chinese casserole and the next afternoon returned for the Chinese Hamburger (slowly braised pork, chilli and capsicum chopped fine and put in a roll) with an ale or two in the sunshine. Dunhuang was a major hub of the silk route and was the most westerly frontier military garrison in China. We found a pair of Melbourne paramedics (Jude and Astrid) who are trying to cycle from Melbourne to Glasgow (in bite sized chunks) as the money allows. So we joined them for a trip to the flash 5 star hotel on the edge of the Gobi desert,  overlooking Mount Qilian for a massively overpriced (but relatively pleasant) sunset meal overlooking the dunes.

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The main things to do in Dunhuang are the Mogao Caves, the desert and the crescent moon lake (and of course the camel safaris through the desert). Having learned from my last camel experience I refused outright to willingly place myself on the back of another of these dirty, smelly and uncomfortable beasts. The caves on the other hand were no problem at all and after avoiding the crush of Chinese tourism weekends we set off to the Mogoa Caves/grottoes on the Monday morning. A cruise through the very interesting museum and a wander through about 15 (of the 925) caves with our English guide and we were done.

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The caves had been subjected (externally at least) to a Chinese renovation which meant that the outside of the caves and grottoes essentially looked like a relatively modern (if ugly) stucco apartment block. As Chinese tourists come to see statues…all of the previously destroyed or stolen statues that would have inhabited the caves had been replaced with more modern and stylised versions of themselves. The paintings on the walls for the better part were original. The 35.5 metre Buddha remained but the housing around it had been severely modernised. The before and after pictures in the museums give a really fine indication of just how bastardised the current version of Chinese historical sites actually are. Having done the caves we were left with the crescent moon pool and sand dunes but rain, wind, weather and a general post Tibet malaise stopped us.

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Instead along with our newfound biking buddies we ate and drank and enjoyed pleasant company and a comfortable city. Our big boon for the city was the discovery of deep fried oyster mushrooms that were coated in chilli after the battering and frying…this is without a doubt the best ever beer snack ever made. Not one day passed after its discovery did we not indulge, which is possibly a good thing as some of the other menu options left a little to be desired.

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Lanzhou and Jiayuguan

Having left the minority areas we got back into China proper. Lanzhou is in Gansu province in the north west of China and is the province with the westernmost point of the Great Wall. We are getting close to having seen the majority of China and now have the northern strip and we plan on (generally) following the Great Wall to where it meets the ocean.

We have been in tiny cities for over a month now and I have really not been enjoying them. The prices for everything have been high, the services available have been poor and the English has been virtually nonexistent. We got into Lanzhou and found a night market around the corner where we could have 2 main meals with rice and the equivalent of 8 stubbies for under $15. There is still minorities and very little English but the food is great and cheap.

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We headed to the museum and spent time checking out the Silk Road exhibition which was truly fascinating. Some very cool maps of the olden trade routes, and a great way to get your head around the spread of cultures and civilisation. Then off on the cable car up the mountain for some aerial shots and a look at the pagodas etc. the cable car sets off from the banks of the (very inappropriately named) yellow river… it is interesting to see what passes for a beach in China.

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Jiayuguan is the westernmost fort of the Great Wall of China and is at the end of a torturous 8 hr train ride from Lanzhou. But the key attractions are the Jiayuguan Fort, the Overhanging Wall, and the First Beacon which are all a simple 1 yuan (18 cent)bus ride from town and a taxi. The place had been renovated to within an inch of its life and was obscenely fake. This is a typically Chinese phenomena whereby a renovation puts in things that were never there or leaves out bits that were meant to be there…our first exposure to this was on the three gorges tour but it is a common theme throughout China.

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The absolute kicker to the fakeness was the installation of a jousting field into the fort and a concrete camel caravan running alongside the renovated wall of the overhanging section. There were sections where the old part of the wall could be seen and it was really interesting. The fort and wall is adjacent to the Gobi Desert so you could photograph from the newly renovated wall across the Gobi desert which in itself is pretty cool. Alas on the other side of the wall was the hire of camel rides (actual camels…not the concrete versions) and quad bikes…so you could belt around the desert making obscene amounts of noise and tearing up the natural environment.

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If you can ignore the added bits the place is quite stunning…the original wall was fascinating, the renovation had it been done authentically would have been great the only real detractor was the out of context additions which are clearly just grabs for the tourist dollar. Whilst walking around you could see the construction going on to build additional elements such as pagodas and temples etc. I am glad we came when we did as I have a fear that in 5-10 years time this place will more closely resemble a theme park.

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On a positive note…as part of the admission fee there is the Great Wall Museum which is fantastic. It does not have the usual nationalistic rhetoric but rather has the facts of the great wall, its construction, make up, fortifications etc. The museum was the best part. The next best thing was the photographs lining the path towards the Fort. There was a strip of about 100 metres that contained historical and current photographs of the same sections of the great wall. Some of these had been renovated, some had remained untouched. Some of the renovations had been done in line with what was originally there while others included the “additions” such as were found in the Fort.

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Some of the photos and artists drawings dated right back to the 1800s while others were just the more recent (2004 to 2007) history photos. But any way you look at it these photos of what it once was, were without a doubt the highlight of an enjoyable if not a little contrived day.