Lanzhou (2), 2012

Our river cruise included a hot piping cup of chrysanthemum tea and a surprise, giant birthday cake for one of the other people in our tour group. Vanilla cake with mango slices and whipped cream frosting. Good stuff. Aside from the beautiful cake, there wasn’t all that much to look at when standing on the deck of the ship. In all honesty I didn’t find the Yellow River (“黄河” [huang he]) to be as stunning as it’s made out to be. Or maybe we’re just not viewing the right parts of it. 

Then it was back to the train station and onto the New Orient Express. 兰洲再見! Good bye Lanzhou! Our short-lived relationship will live on in my foggy memories, and more clearly on this blog.

I was really surprised that Lanzhou had such a nice and new train station. Though it is the capital of Gansu after all.Lanzhou was officially the last stop on our Silk Road tour, so boarding the New Orient Express one last time meant that our time in China was coming to a close. Always a sad thing when you know that half of your vacation is over and soon you’ll be back home and grounded in the mundane routine of home life.

But I don’t think I could give up the comforts of home for the discomforts of traveling the Silk Road. Sleeping in mud houses with thatched roofs and no doors, not being able to afford shoes, digging a hole in the ground to use the bathroom. I’m too spoiled for that lifestyle, quite frankly! I like my ceramic toilets, my plush bed, and well-insulated home located conveniently near my favorite restaurants and malls. It’s amazing how people did it thousands of years ago and it’s amazing that there are still people who can live that way.

We headed to the capital of Shanxi Province. To Xi’An, one of the largest cities in China. Along the Yellow River, past the terraced rice fields, the delicate Chinese mountains, and the tiny stone houses of rice farmers. Our last dinner of tofu, celery, eggplant, woodear, potatoes. Tasty.

Lanzhou, 2012

One more sleepless night, 450 miles, and 10+ hours later, and our train strolled its way into the Lanzhou Station. Lanzhou “兰州” is the largest city and the capital of Gansu province. The Yellow River cuts straight through the heart of this city, which is also a key transportation hub that connects the eastern and western parts of China together. It also has some of the worst pollution; Lanzhou is sandwiched between the Lanshan mountains, which literally stand side-by-side with the city, and probably 60% of the time the smog is so heavy and dense you can’t see the Lanshan mountains. Yay for lung cancer!

Our itinerary included visiting the Mother River of China, aka the Yellow River, the Lanzhou Waterwheel Garden, the Gansu Provincial Museum, Zhongshan Bridge, and go on a river cruise.

The Mother River statue is kind of a big deal there. I think because of the ambiguous sex of the baby. Is it a boy? Is it a girl? No one knows! We headed afterwards to the Water Wheel Gardens, which was actually only a 10-15 minute walk away. The pig or lamb-skin balloon-things used as floating devices for boats were a little disturbing to look at, but more interesting than watching the wheels turn round and round. Watching fruit vendors carry their 70-pound baskets of fruit on one shoulder was admirable.

Then it was off to lunch! We were taken to one of the hottest restaurants in Lanzhou for some famous Lanzhou la mian “拉麵”, or hand-pulled noodles. The entire street was lined with cars of noodle patrons, so the most our bus driver could do was park in the street to let us all out before going off on an impossible search for parking. Thankfully we had reservations, because who knows how long we would’ve had to wait! Every table was already filled with hungry people bright and early at 11:30am. Coolest thing that happened in Lanzhou was watching the chef make noodles in our banquet room. Straight from floured hands to our noodle bowls. Awesome.

There are 7 main types of hand-pulled noodles (not that I remember them all, but I’ll do my best). Thin, flat ones–the ones we ate. Super thin, cylindrical ones. Thick, flat ones. Thick, cylindrical ones. Medium, flat ones. Medium, thick ones. Triangular noodles. In some ways, making noodles is like making taffy because you have to stretch it, slap it, and stretch it some more. 

On the left was our “配料” [pei liao], or the dishes to go with our noodles. Back to basics: eggplant, tofu, woodear, celery, eggs, and tomato. Yep. On the right is a glimpse of all the delicious sauces that you can choose to go with your noodles: sesame, Sichuan peppercorn and chili oil, soy and vinegar, beef broth…etc. I think I actually enjoyed the other dishes more than the hand-pulled noodles themselves, which just didn’t live up to my expectations. 😦

Bellies full, we shipped off to the Gansu Provincial Museum, which had a ton of beautiful ancient Chinese pottery. The exhibition pieces so fine and delicate! One of the most renowned pieces is the bronze-fired horse, but the only thing I remember about it is that there’s a very special red dot on the left buttock of the horse.

The full name for the horse is “Bronze Galloping Horse Treading on a Flying Swallow“, which is quite a mouthful. Its Chinese name is far more elegant: “马踏飞燕” [ma ta fei yian]. “” is horse. “” is to step. “” is to fly. “” is swallow. My favorite piece, though, is the blue lotus porcelain bowl. So hard to believe that was made a few thousand years ago–and that it’s in near perfect condition, considering how fragile it is!

Peacock Chawanmushi, 2012

While I think that camel foot–served the day we went to Mingsha Shan–took the cake for weirdest delicacy served on the trip, peacock chawanmushi came in at a solid 2nd place. After visiting Jiayuguan, we were all taken to the Peacock Garden, “孔雀园” [kong que yuan] for a chance to use the hotel’s showers. Instead of the gross and mostly-broken ones on the New Orient Experss train. Score!

The Peacock Garden is a very small-scale, condo-styled resort in Jiayuguan. And beyond the giant swarm of flies in the room, it was really, really nice.

Once everyone was done showering, we feasted.

Le peacock egg. Ridiculously heavy.

So the giant yellow dish below is the peacock chawanmushi. Chawanmushi, if you’re unfamiliar with it, is basically scrambled eggs that are strained and then steamed in a water bath. Egg custard, if you will. I remember the director telling us that the giant, 10-inch-diameter bowl of peacock chawanmushi was over $30 USD. Crazy! My mom and I weren’t too comfortable with eating it, but the others said it was wonderfully tasty and smooth. There was also some beautifully-sliced braised pork belly, “東坡肉” [dong po rou]. We had this squishy vegetable roll dish: the wrapper was like an especially thin, spongy crepe that was made from potato. Inside were carrots, celery, some nagaimo, and chopped potatoes. Very light and refreshing dish.

Also served was a stir-fried vegetable plate, complete with crispy oyster mushrooms, other various fungi, black fungus/woodear, carrots, snow peas, and pumpkin. We also had fresh nagaimo sticks with 3 dipping sauces: blueberry, sweet & sour, and sweetened condensed milk. For those who don’t know what nagaimo is, it’s this really crispy and sweet type of yam that you can eat raw. If you’ve never had it before and get the chance to try it raw, it might be a bit off-putting because it oozes some gooey juices. But it’s very good! Especially good with blueberry sauce.

Egg drop soup with diced tofu and mustard greens. Yummy! Hand-shredded scallion pancakes. Even better. Purple yam–which is the sweeter brother of regular orange yams–, corn on the cob, brewed peanuts, more fresh nagaimo, and fresh pumpkin. Then a giant plate of mashed potato stewed in a light sauce, with bell peppers, hot peppers, bean sprouts, and mushrooms. That one went super quickly at our table. So good.

After dinner, we all shuffled back onto  the train as the sun was setting. My mom and I spent a good hour or so just taking in the beautiful scenery as dusk settled. Our train rolled past the snowy tops of the Qilian Mountains, which I hope I have the chance to visit someday! My photos don’t do them the justice they deserve.

Jiayuguan, the end of the Great Wall, 2012

Staying at a hotel in Dunhuang, instead of spending another night on the train, was such a relief. Although the night was more restful than it was on the train the previous night before–train whistles blowing every hour, jolting, sudden stops–I still woke up feeling a bit out of sorts. We had a wake-up call at 5am. Our next destination was 300 miles away and we needed to get there by noon! Breakfast was served about an hour after the New Orient Express departed from Dunhuang for Jiayuguan, “嘉峪關”. I had a light breakfast because my stomach was still being highly uncooperative.

Taiwanese Red Turtle Cakes! Sticky, sweet dessert cakes made entirely from brown sugar and glutinous rice flour, and with a black sesame filling. Red Turtle Cakes, “麵龜” [mian gui], are usually served during the Chinese Lantern Festival, or “元宵節” [yuan xiao jie]. Broken down: “” is flour, “” is turtle, “” is festival, “” is the first month of the Chinese calendar, and “” in ancient times meant night. The Chinese Lantern Festival is, consequently, held on the first night on the Chinese calendar where one can see the full moon. “元宵” is also what Chinese people eat during the Lantern Festival: a sweet soup with glutinous rice balls. Glutinous rice balls are kind of like mochi that you put in your soup. Red Turtle Cakes are “red” because red is the color of fortune and luck in Chinese culture, and turtles are revered for their longevity. 🙂 Best part of breakfast, easy! The fresh grape tomatoes were delicious too. I think that was the first time I saw yellow grape tomatoes.

After breakfast I crawled straight back into bed, still feeling woozy with fever. Most others were in the entertainment car, talking and singing karaoke. Chinese people love karaoke. Any chance they get, and it’s either mahjong or karaoke. There was singing, dancing and doing the twist and the hustle to oldies. What a party. They were doing this in traditional Hui clothing provided by a member of the Hui clan, who was working as an attendant on the train. She graciously offered to do a demonstration of Hui dance, and a couple of us volunteered to join in.

Not too long afterwards, the New Orient Express slowly came to a halt at Jiayuguan station. Jiayuguan is purportedly one of the richest cities in China because of its massive steel industry. But driving through it certainly doesn’t give that impression; the houses were no more glamorous than the ones we saw in Turpan.

Jiayuguan  ‘嘉峪關’ translated verbatim means “excellent valley pass”, and the name “Jiayuguan”, rather than Jiayuguan City, is more commonly used to refer to the pass at the extreme west end of the Great Wall of China. This section of the Great Wall is the most intact and the one least in need of restoration. It was a key stop on the Silk Road.

There was no lush flora and fauna like that of Mutianyu, but the Great Wall is always magnificent. “懸壁長城” [xuan bi chang cheng] is what locals call Jiayuguan. “懸壁” means “cliff” or “cliff-side”, and “長城” is the Great Wall. Locals call it Xuanbi because when you get to the top, a part of the wall is hanging over the Gobi desert. In deference to my agoraphobia, I climbed only 30 or so steps up the Great Wall and gave up. Too steep and too uneven: it would probably take me until sunset to get back down! But the Gobi would’ve been a sight to see from that high up.

We also went to the old Jiayuguan city fortress, which truly had one of the most amazing public restrooms I have ever seen in China. There was a restroom attendant. And soap. And free toilet paper. These things never happen! We spent a good amount of time walking on the walls, listening to the tour guide explain the history of Jiayuguan’s watchtowers and what not. “天下第一雄关” [tian xia di yi xong guan] means “the First and Greatest Pass Under Heaven”. Jiayuguan protects the West end of China–the most feared section of the Great Wall because people who were banished from China were forced to leave through Jiayuguan. Cast out into the desert to die.

Bian lian “變臉”, or face-changing, is the picture on the left. It’s part of Sichuan opera, and a very well-known ancient Chinese art. Performers can change the masks on their face faster than a blink, without using their hands, or hiding behind their cloaks, or anything. All of the performers in the martial arts show were just teenagers, so it was really impressive to see how disciplined they were.

Watching their performance was actually like seeing amateur Shaolin kung fu artists. Sword fights, martial arts, lion dances and crazy dudes being propped up on the points of spears half-naked. There was some pretty wild stuff in there.

Camelback in the Gobi, 2012

A quick lunch before we took off into the desert. It was kind of a sad lunch, considering we only had 2 dishes for us and had to share them with everyone else who weren’t vegetarian. 😦 All there was to eat were some flat rice noodles in chili oil and soy sauce, topped with egg; stewed eggplant with fresh red chilis; red bean sesame cake; “金银馒头” [jing ying man tou] or gold and silver steamed buns. The “金” or “gold” buns are my favorite–golden, fried, and to die for when dipped in sweetened condensed milk. Unfortunately, they disappeared in seconds with 10 people scrambling to get their share. 

Lunch ended at about 12:30pm. “鳴沙山月牙泉” was the last stop of the day. “鳴沙山” [ming sha shan] translates into “echoing sand mountain”. Rumors say that when wind kicks up in the desert, the sand “sings”: in different keys, too, depending on how hard the wind is blowing and in what part of the desert you’re in! Mingsha Shan is a vast expanse of sand dunes, with some dunes reaching heights of over 250 feet. It was about a 1-2 hour drive from Dunhuang. Gorgeous and worth the trip. We were all made to put on the most obnoxiously neon orange booties, to keep sand out of our shoes, before heading out into the desert. The tour guides had been nagging all of us since day 1 to also remember to cover our cameras in plastic–the sand at Mingsha is so fine that cameras have been known to break when it wriggles its way in through the gaps in the camera shells. Luckily for us, there was no wind that day.

The itinerary wrote we’d have the chance to ride camels across the sand dunes. Sounds cool. When it finally came time to saddle myself on the camel, I started having second thoughts. All the camels look underfed, overworked, and kinda/sorta/really abused. :/ Their nostrils were pierced with thick pieces of wood that connected the 4-camel train. It was really disheartening, and I felt really guilty. But I had already sat down, the camels were moving, and the people working the camels were yelling at all of us tourists to do what they were saying. My camel was particularly jumpy; it wouldn’t stop falling out of line with the other camels and would occasionally surge forward and bump the camel in front. The camel behind mine was really sweet, though. It’d inch up from behind and nuzzle me, asking to be petted. Squee~. All of us were told to not take pictures while riding the camels, because the dunes were so uneven and we could potentially drop our cameras. No one listened. Traveling in beautiful desolation and not take pictures would be a crime.

Riding the camels were the only way you could get to the sandboarding station. But before surfing, we had to climb this ridiculously high sand dune, which I’m guessing is at least about 6-8 stories high. There was over 100 steps. There were steps built into the side of the dune, but it was so steep. Once we got to the top, I kind of regretted it. The only way down was a shaky, splintered piece of wood to sled on.

My crippling fear of heights wasn’t helping; after about 15 minutes of pulling my hair out, I sucked it up, got on the board, and sailed downwards. I didn’t push off with enough force, so I only made it down 3/4 of the mountain, and was forced to pull myself down the rest of the slope, some 25 feet, using only arm power. Oof.

When everyone was done with the sandboarding, “滑沙” [hua sha], we all rode the camels back to their station. The ride back was several times more terrifying than the ride to the sandboarding station since it’s always scarier coming down than going up. The return route was a steeper incline, so the wood strung through the camels’ nostrils pulled on them harder, causing them more pain. My already restless camel became even more uncontrollable–ramming continuously into the camel in front, sometimes to the point where the both of them could have possibly led all of us to topple over the edge of the dunes. Barreling down sand dunes with a camel on top of me was the last thing I wanted. Even less so, since it was my 20th birthday. No amount of stroking or smooth-talking calmed the camel. After a taxing 10-15 minutes, we were back on level ground. Whew.

Everyone gathered to walk towards “月牙泉” [yue ya chuan], or Crescent Moon Lake. Crescent Moon Lake started out as a natural oasis in the Mingsha desert with an average depth of 4-5 meters, but due to climate change and desertification, the size of the lake has shrunk dramatically and the depth is now recorded to be less than a meter. Now the local government has started to fill the lake to restore its depth. Crescent Moon Lake is one of those places best viewed aerially. Not only was it difficult to see the lake because the sun was face-to-face with us at 5:30pm, but it was also hard to see the crescent shape, for which the lake is named, from level ground. I found it rather silly of the tour guides to give us only 10 minutes to snap pictures of the lake from the furthest place possible; there was no time to walk to the lake shore, or explore the little pagoda on the tiny green isle.

Didn’t get to enjoy any of my surprise birthday cake D:

By the time we were back on the tour bus, it was almost 7pm. Six hours had passed since our meager lunch. I was battling some gnarly hunger pains. The hour-long ride to our hotel meant eating at almost 9pm. When the food finally came, I was so nauseous that I couldn’t eat what I needed. I felt like I was suffocating: nothing felt like it was getting past my esophagus. Apparently I now had a fever.

Happy birthday to me! No birthday is more memorable than the one where you’re starving to death and end up throwing up what little food is left in you into the sink of your hotel room. And one where you’re faint, dizzy, sweating from fever, and end up passing out on the bed until the next morning. C’est la vie.

A short history of Buddhism, 2012

Day 6 began with a traditional Chinese breakfast: rice porridge, steamed buns, pickled vegetables, stewed tofu, and roasted peanuts. Toast, jam, and “butter” were also served, but the butter was disconcerting to look at. It was neon yellow. Out of sheer curiosity, I pinched a bit off to taste: like really powdery, margarine. Jam wasn’t much better: a cross between jello and plastic. On the other hand, the pickled vegetables were savory and crisp (and oily), and the rice porridge was actually delicious. My mom and I had a few bowls each of porridge (or congee, “粥” [zhou]). It was sticky like glutinous rice, very smooth and creamy, and a nice departure from all the fat, oil, and grease of the other dishes.

Our 15 hour train ride came to an end at around 10am. Finally! Time to stretch my legs; it was so hard going from exercising 4-6 days a week to doing…nothing. Sitting on the plane, sitting on the bus, sitting on the train. So I was anxious to get moving. Our purpose in Dunhuang was to visit the famous Buddhist art caves of MoGaoKu “莫高窟” and the desert oasis, Crescent Moon Bay “月牙泉” (yue ya chuan). MoGaoKu, or the Mogao Grottoes, is a pilgrimage and worship site for many Buddhists: the caves are some of the finest examples of Buddhist art and dug out for Buddhist meditation and worship.

Sneaky photos I took from the outside.

There were originally over a thousand caves, but only several hundred remain now. And though some caves date as far back as 366AD, they’re amazingly well-preserved. No cameras are allowed once you pass security, to preserve the paintings on the walls. Most of the color in paintings we saw were faded due to erosion, heavy tourism, vandalism, and exposure to light. But they were nonetheless beautiful.

Source: Google Images

Source: Google Images

All of the artwork at MogaoKu is entirely voluntary and not created by “professional” artists. None of MogaoKu’s contributers had any artistic training, background or career. It is strictly a tribute to Buddhism by monks and followers of Buddhism.  So when I saw the 113ft tall Buddha–one of the most famous at Mogao–housed in a 9-storied structure, it really blew my mind how devoted these people were. The Buddha sculpture is so masterfully done, too: this formidable clay (not stone or marble) carving, with the softest palms and kindest face, came from a simple Buddhist monk. Every fold in Buddha’s clothes, every wrinkle in his knuckles, every callus on the foot was captured. Breath-taking. Like I said, cameras aren’t allowed anymore, so I can only provide Google Images.

These are the stats I managed to take down: 492 caves open to the public, 2400 sculptures, 45000 (490,000 sq. ft) square meters of murals that would cover 30 kilometers if joined together. Statues are constructed on a wooden frame, modeled in clay stucco, and finished in paint–but the big ones, like the 113ft Buddha, do have a stone core. The most precious item from MoGaoKu, however, isn’t even at MoGaoKu; it’s now scattered across the globe. A treasure trove of 50,000 manuscripts was pillaged, removed, and sold by a Hungarian archaeologist paid by the British/Indian governments. These Dunhuang manuscripts are primarily religious but also range from history to mathematics to song and dance. They date as far back as the 5th century and are written in Chinese, Tibetan, Pali, Sogdian, and Khotanese. You’ll probably see more of the Dunhuang Manuscripts at the British Library or in France than in China.

While I’m a-religious, after spending 2 hours with the most stunning, millennium-old murals and statues made me realize that going to the MoGao Caves isn’t about religion. It’s appreciating history, art, a different culture. So if you have the resources, I say: see them before they disappear! So much has been lost to climate change and tourism already. I highly recommend this place as a must-see for travelers.

Sleeping on a Chinese Train, 2012

The rooms on the New Orient Express ‘新東方快車’ were cute. Very squishy, but cute. Beds were about 2-3 feet wide at most, which meant no tossing or turning while sleeping. I hit my head on the table next to my bed every time I tried to turn. I also almost fell off the bed and face-planted into the trashcan below. It felt like we were sleeping on cement, so I used half of my blanket as a mattress pad. Suitcases had to be shoved under the beds for more space. Only one person could be standing and moving in the room; the other had the sit on the bed. It was like a sad Whose Line game. Complimentary bottled water, tissues, fruit, and small hand towels were nice. The bananas were some of the strangest I’ve had, though. They were very gummy and rubbery in texture, with an odd plastic smell.

We departed Turpan main train station at around 7:50pm, leaving Xinjiang behind for its neighboring province Gansu. The New Orient Express trudged along at an impressive top speed of 120km/h, or about 75mph. Supposedly. Definitely saw trucks speed past us. Dunhuang, the city in Gansu we were traveling to, is 500miles from Turpan, so we were in for a long trip.

Dinner was served at 8:30pm. Major props to the chefs running the kitchen on this antiquated train! The food tasted better than the 5-star hotel in Urumqi. There were also 70+ people to feed, and the small kitchen that was no bigger than a bathroom stall managed to serve everyone at the same time. Although I felt like I was drinking a bottle of oil, seasoned with vegetables, at least my taste buds were happy. Corn, mushrooms, tofu, egg, and fried eggplant. 

The past few days of traveling in complete desert taught me the true meaning of the Chinese idiom, “鸟不生蛋” [niao bu sheng dan]. It means someplace that birds wouldn’t even want to lay their eggs in. Since there wasn’t a much of the view, I decided to learn more about our new home. The New Orient Express was built in the 1980’s, with 8 sleeping cars, 2 dining rooms and 1 bar/entertainment car with a piano and karaoke machine. Each sleeping car had 5 rooms (2 people a room). Usually trains that are “軟卧” [ruan wuo], which was our train, sleep at least 4 people to a room. But our tour company rented out the entire train so we could afford 2 people to a room. The less desirable, but cheapest, way to travel by train in China is choosing the “硬卧” [ying wuo] train. Sleeps 6-8 people a room. Be aware of the distinction if you’re traveling overnight by train in China!

Each car has just one shower, one toilet, and one washroom. Signup lists for using the shower were posted on the shower door. Our relatives had a “VIP” room because of their senior age. The VIP room had its own shower, toilet and washroom. Fortunately for my mom and me, our relatives generously opened their bathroom to us, so we didn’t have to wait in line. Bad news: the shower was so tiny that it was impossible to not bruise yourself: the toilet, the sink, the showerhead. It was actually the radius of a manhole. The showerhead confusingly faced the toilet, so all the water just straight up hits the toilet paper. The entire roll was soppy and useless by the end of the shower. The only place to hang clothes was a single hook over the sink. Moreover, water seeped out of the bathroom into the bedroom. The temperature of the water was as unpredictable as the desert climate we were traveling through, i.e. going from 50 to 80-degrees and back every few seconds.

Turpan, 2012

http://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/01243/Dharavi2_1243829i.jpg

Center image source: The Daily Telegraph
Surrounding images: mine

Slums, flecks of foliage, and dirt. Lots of dirt. This was Turpan. A deserted Mumbai (which I’ve included as the center image for comparison). In fact, the name “吐魯番” [tu ru fan], Turpan in Chinese, was chosen to reflect the geography. “” is dirt, “” means wild, and “” is “to flip”. So Turpan basically means “dirt flipping wildly”.

Turpan people are rumored to have incredible longevity. Our tour guide spent our bus ride telling us a story about a journalist who once traveled to Xinjiang in search Turpan’s secrets to old age. He stumbled upon the city of Turpan, where he found an 86-year-old woman knitting outside her home. In spite of her age, she still appeared youthful. Her waist-length hair was kept neatly braided, and her clothes had nary a speck of dirt. The journalist asked for her secret to such good health in old age. She simply laughed in reply: “Oh I don’t know anything about that; you should ask my mother.” More intrigued, he asked the old woman if he could see her mother. The woman snorted, “my mother has no time.” Yet he was determined to meet the mother. After a slurry of requests, the old woman sighed, “You misunderstand. My mother is out of town.” Now the journalist was confused. “When will she be back? Soon? I must see her.” This was met with a heavier sigh. “Oh I don’t know; like I said, she’s busy. Her mother, my grandmother, has been rather ill recently. She’s taking care of her.”

The story ends there. We never really find out how Turpan people manage to live so far past 100-years. Maybe the fact that Turpan is China’s lowest, driest, and hottest point has led its people to develop some supernatural toughness. Annual precipitation is barely over half an inch. On the other hand, it is this exact arid and unbearable hot climate that produces the infamous Xinjiang melons and grapes. It’s also the “wine country” of China. Grapes grow best in hot, unshaded areas without competition from trees or brush for moisture, Turpan provides plenty of.

The vineyards are irrigated by the karez, “坎兒井” [ka er jing], a system of wells and underground canals that date back to the Han Dynasty. Length of the wells and channels combined reaches over 3,000 miles. Karez is able to provide an otherwise barren land with ample water all-year round. Traveling caravans on the Silk Road would rest at Turpan to use the karez before tackling the brutal Taklamakan Desert. The channels of karez reach as far as the base of the Tian Shan mountains, to catch the melted ice waters.

Lunch was served after touring karez: another “specialty” or “特餐” meal, like the one in Urumqi. Except this was exceptional. This was the meal most of the tour members had been waiting for: the “烤全羊” [kao chuan yang], whole-roasted lamb on a spit. Xinjiang is considered to have the best lamb in China, so the fact that they served two whole-roasted lambs had all the carnivores in our tour salivating. We were all honored by a performance from the Hui and Uyghur people. Dressed in customary garb, the performers put on quite a show of their traditional dances. At one point, they even dragged a few of us up on stage to dance with them. I just flailed my arms wildly hoping it’d look like…something. 

The one dish I took away from this meal was this really great mushroom soup. And more naan bread! Every place makes its naan bread differently; this was by far my favorite. It was thinner than the ones we had earlier, and crispier. Most of the other vegetarian dishes served were consistent with the rest of our meals: eggplant, tofu, black fungus, some salad. We did have noodles, which was a nice change. Broccoli, too. 

Flaming Mountains, 2012

The monkey king and his posse.

Unless you grew up watching Chinese soap operas and dramas, chances are you wouldn’t be familiar with the Monkey King, Sun Wu Kong. 孫悟空 is the protagonist in a classical Chinese epic novel 西遊記 [xi you ji], Journey to the West in English. “西” is west, “遊” is travel, “記” means memory–or in this case, memoirs. Sun Wu Kong possesses supernatural powers, such as shape-shifting and cloning abilities, and wields a trademark 8100 kg golden staff that can change its size, multiply, and fight according to the whims of its master. The Monkey King tried to escape death by erasing his name from the “Book of Life and Death”, and was punished by imprisonment in Buddha’s hand. He was finally released on probation to assist and defend the monk Xuanzang in his journey to India. Xuanzang sought to retrieve the Buddhist sutras for the Bodhisattva Guanyin (观音菩萨), whom I was named after (just FYI) :D.

As a kid, I remember role-playing with friends in kindergarten and reenacting scenes from Journey to the West. Everyone wanted to be Sun Wu Kong, but never Zhu Ba Jie, 猪八戒, the Monkey King’s part human and part pig companion. Lazy, fat, has major fidelity issues, and the “idiot” of the group.

So here’s how the Monkey King ties into our trip: the Flaming Mountains, “” [huo yan shan]–with “火” meaning fire, and “山” mountain(s)–are giant, red sandstone hills in the Tian Shan Mountain range. They border the northern rim of the Taklamakan Desert and lie east of Turpan. And while the gullies and trenches of the mountains create the appearance of flames running skyward, I really believe the Flaming Mountains get their name from the climate. This is the hottest spot in China, with the air temperature frequently reaching, or exceeding, 122°F. That’s air temperature. Surface temperature is even higher. The mountains were supposedly created when the Monkey King knocked over a kiln when he was in the heavens, causing embers to fall from the sky. He and his ward, Xuanzang, ran into this wall of flames on their pilgrimage to India. The Monkey King was ultimately able to extinguish the mountains using the fan of the Iron Fan Princess.

Our tour guide gave us a more scientific explanation: a chemical reaction occurs when sandstone is exposed to extreme heat and causes the sandstone to turn red. Despite the fact that all of us were on the verge of heat stroke and were nearly blinded by the dust storm, if we truly wanted to see the bright red “flames”, we’d have to wait until 1) the sandstorm had subsided, 2) for the temperature to rise another 20° and 3) stay there until mid-afternoon because the mountains would’ve baked long enough under the sun for their infamous reddish hue to show. Nope. Not for me.

After about 30 minutes, we all scrambled back onto the air-conditioned tour bus to catch the New Orient Express ‘东方快车 dong fang kuai che’. Our dwellings for the next few nights would be on the train. The Turpan main train station was a rather unnerving place to be; most of us were obviously tourists, and the locals glowered at us when we came in. Although others were just nosy; one of the local men stalked a member of our tour group who was walking around taking video of all of us, since he wanted to see what was being taped.

Ancient Ruins of a Silk Road City, 2012

The Jiao He ruins, or “交河故城” [jiao he gu cheng], were awaiting us at the end of our long 3 hour bus ride from Urumqi. Jiao He is an ancient city that dates as far back as 108 BC. It was an important site along the Silk Road trade route. I have to say the ancients really knew what they were doing when they built Jiao He on a large plateau in the middle of a river. The river acted as a moat, removing the need for fortress walls to defend the city. The steep cliffs on all sides of the river also acted as natural defenses.

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