We have a spreadsheet of places we want to visit. Now that we have seen the most famous places, top of the list was two cities on the Silk Road – 敦煌 (Dūnhuáng) and 张掖 (Zhāngyè), the latter being famous for the 丹霞地貌 (Dānxiá landform).
There are no direct flights from 成都 (Chéngdū) to where we wanted to visit in this more remote part of China – you can tell it is remote because there are cities of fewer than 4 million (one New Zealand). So, we flew to Urumqi (English transliteration of its Uyghur Arabic name), spent about five hours there and then boarded an overnight train to 敦煌 (Dūnhuáng).
Urumqi is significantly further north and west than 成都 (Chéngdū). It is half way across the Eurasian continent, so one of its claims to fame is that it is the city furthest from any ocean. Another is that it is the capital of 新疆 (Xīnjiāng), the largest province by area in China, with low population density, and mountains and beautiful scenery. It also is the site of political unrest due to many different ethnicities wishing to be independent of China. When we arrived, we were immediately struck by the number of guards with guns.
As we flew in to Urumqi, we could see why, over the 5,000 years of China’s history, fewer people have chosen to live here. Brown, inhospitable looking plains extended in all directions, and in the distance low mountains rose sharply from the plains with higher snow-capped mountains behind. However, Urumqi, with its proximity to Europe has been important on the Silk Road for centuries. Clusters of apartments rose from the plains, initially looking like small hills with sharp cliffs, until our plane got low enough to see what they really were. We wondered what the four million inhabitants do for a living.
We arrived planning to catch the airport bus into town. I ‘knew’ from the web that it went to the south railway station, stopped in the city and cost 15元. But it turns out that the pace of change here is such that I cannot trust the advice of earlier travelers.
In my best Chinese, I told the person at the airport information desk that we wanted to catch the bus to the city centre. I thought we would need to buy bus tickets there because elsewhere we have been caught out not buying tickets prior to getting on the bus. He connected us with a man who walked us towards the rather obvious bus. I said to Raymond ‘We could have found this ourselves if we knew we did not need to buy tickets beforehand’.
Our new guide introduced us to a man who did not offer us bus tickets, but invited us to pay 150 元 for a private car to the city centre (triple the going rate). I told him that I knew from the web that we could catch a bus for a fifth of that and turned to get on the airport bus instead. It started to move, so I jumped in front of it. I have never risked throwing myself under a bus before, but I was annoyed that we might need to wait 40 minutes for the next one because of locals trying to rip us off. Fortunately, the bus driver stopped. I told him that we wanted to go to the city. In Chinese, he told me they were only going to the station, then repeated ‘station’ in English to be sure I understood. I said ok and we hopped on. I knew Urumqi now has a new train station and thought let’s just go to that one, where we can confirm that it is the one from which we need to catch our train that evening, and then work out how to go into the city.
As we got on, nobody seemed to want us to have a ticket – oh well, let’s not fight it. Then, off we went, until after a few minutes, we stopped at another place, still part of the airport. Here, the ticket man got on and we paid our 20 元. We continue to learn to just go with the flow!
We did go to the new train station, confirmed this was where we needed to come back to and caught a taxi to the new museum. Oh, that’s right, museums are closed on Mondays. Plan B, let’s go to People’s Park. We caught a bus to near this park, and looked for somewhere to eat. It turns out Urumqi is not like 成都 (Chéngdū), where one only has to walk for a few minutes before finding someone selling food. We don’t know, but wonder if this is because Urumqi is less affluent, and because 成都 (Chéngdū) is famous across China for its laid back, enjoy life attitude, and for having been the food basket of China for thousands of years.
It was so hot we could not face walking to the Park, especially because the route had hoardings up for construction work, so we thought we would be unlikely to find a place to eat. I had read about the International Bazaar being a good place to visit and having a food court, so we hopped on a bus to go there. When we arrived, we did not find the impressive entrance of the online pictures, but scaffolding everywhere. We got directions from two shop assistants, but never managed to find the fourth floor with all the food places, so headed back out into the sun to continue our hunt for a cool place to sit and eat. Still no luck.
Plan D – let’s hop on another bus to the People’s Park and just buy drinks and street food and sit in the shade people watching. We got to the Park ok, but even there, nobody was selling food. This is so different from 成都 (Chéngdū)! We sat out of the sun in the beautiful surroundings, on the seat a friendly old man had pointed out to us. We ate the few things we had brought with us to empty out the fridge at home – apples and several days old cupcakes. I also found an ice cream seller in the children’s playground area. We sat in the cool talking about whatever we saw – a squirrel, women sweeping the grass, and different faces.
Urumqi has over 40 different ethnicities, one of which is the 汉 (Hàn) who are over 95% of China’s population. As we sat in the Park, and as we walked and bussed around Urumqi, we were fascinated by the different faces we saw. We are very used to 汉(Hàn) faces, even though there is a lot of variety. Urumqi faces looked more European. On the bus, the messages were in three languages – Mandarin, English and the local language, which sounded very different, more clipped. Looking at this third language on the street signs, the script shows its Arabic origins as fits a city that has long been key to China’s connection to the outside world.
Back to the new station, which is massive, shiny, modern, and efficiently manages large numbers of passengers. It is one example of the significant investment clearly happening in Urumqi. Everywhere we went we saw construction projects happening. We are used to construction, but it seemed more intensive than in 成都 (Chéngdū). We assume this is part of China’s One Belt, One Road policy. We had burgers and chips for dinner because, by this time we both felt like Western food, then on to our train.
We shared our four-bunk room with a Chinese woman. Our first interaction was Raymond and I both failing to work out how to open our shared jug for hot water. She worked it out immediately and I said in Chinese ‘clever’. I then told her our names, which began a nearly two-hour conversation in Chinese. She mimed a lot, spoke slowly, repeated things if I didn’t understand them, and we used my translation app. But it was one of my more ‘it really is worth learning Chinese’ experiences. The highlight was when I overheard her on the phone telling her husband that she was with a foreigner who knows lots of Chinese. We learned about the pressure she and her seven year old son feel with the demands of education, and how the pressure is greater than what her older son faced twelve years earlier. We talked about her older son studying sport at university, and how Chinese people, especially her in-laws, tend to not value such learning. We also discussed Chinese people’s obsession with money, and the challenges of being a Hàn married to a husband from a different ethnicity and religion. Very special.
Out the window, as we talked, the scenery was flat and brown with wind farms stretching into the distance. When we woke eight hours later, the scenery was just the same, illustrating China’s commitment to environmentally sustainable methods of power generation. I continue to wonder if a non-democratic socialist government that can insist on adherence to long term changes – such as change to sustainable power, stop using coal for heating, use electric cars – is the only solution to the environmental challenges of our planet. I am not sure what levers democratically elected governments alternating between left and right wing policies can implement to motivate private individuals and companies to make the necessary decisions to get us where we need to be quickly enough.
After a good night’s sleep, we arrived at 敦煌 (Dūnhuáng) station. Our friendly sleeping companion helped us get on the bus to the 莫高窟 (Mògāo Grottoes) ticket office, which is out of the city, close to the station. Serendipitously, the young Chinese woman (‘call me YY’) we sat next to in the back seat was going to the same place, and she had just returned from living in New Zealand for eight months, so we had lots to talk about and she had good English. Although, it turns out that even if you speak the local language, you may get off at the wrong place. As suggested by the bus ticket woman we all got off at what turned out to be the show, but not grottoes, ticket office. Once YY had clarified this, we followed her back across to where we had got off the bus, and shared a car to the correct ticket office. The Chinese tickets were all sold out, so it was nice that we were able to help her by asking if ‘our friend’ could join us in the English tour later that afternoon. We then had lunch together, enjoying recommended local dishes, and shared a taxi back to the entrance to the grottoes (by the show tickets office).
Our first activity was to watch a movie dramatisation, with English audio, of the time of the Silk Road and the monk who, about 360AD, had a vision of a thousand Buddhas bathed in golden light at the site, inspiring him to carve the first cave into the long sandstone cliff rising up out of the desert. Second, we watched a digital introduction to the inside of the caves, explaining some of the Buddhist art within them. Finally, we got onto buses, drove to the caves and met our English speaking guide who led us through eight of the 492 caves.
莫高窟 (Mògāo Grottoes), or Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, are situated along the Silk Road, at a point which has long been strategically important for trade, religion and culture. Initially, the caves were simple places for monks to meditate and worship. However, over time, wealthy families, merchants, military officers and women’s groups sponsored more elaborate caves with artwork and statues, giving the legacy we enjoy today. The statues and paintings span 1,000 years of Buddhist art, from the 4th to the 14th centuries. They give insights into life in China over that period of time, and the evolution of Buddhist art. The art integrates influences from Hàn Chinese, Indian, Turkish, ancient Tibetan and other Chinese ethnic minorities.
After the 14th century, Islam grew in influence in the region, sea trade took over as the main trade route, so 敦煌 (Dūnhuáng) became depopulated and forgotten by the Chinese rulers and the outside world, and the caves were abandoned except for an occasional pilgrim. During the early 20th century, while clearing centuries of built up sand from the caves, a Chinese Taoist, 王圆录（Wáng Yuánlù）, discovered a large hoard of manuscripts in a walled off cave. At that time, Chinese officials were not very interested. However, since the late 19th century, Western explorers had been interested in the ancient Silk Road. So, between 1907 and 1924, China lost most of the manuscripts, some of the best textiles and paintings, and some statues and sections of murals to Hungarian, French, Japanese, Russian and American explorers. We could tell from the guide’s stories and the show that we later went to, that having these treasures stored in foreign museums is a source of great sorrow to modern China, who has tried, unsuccessfully, to get them returned.
Certainly, I thought it was sad to be in the cave and see a section of a mural gone and a statue missing, so that Harvard University can have them sitting in their museum. It is a sign of how attitudes and the balance of power is continually changing. China had other priorities at that time, like surviving attacks from Japan and stronger western powers, and feeding its people. However, now China has the strength and resources to try to understand, value and share its rich history, in a way the West had the luxury of doing 100 years earlier. The fact that the Chinese tickets were sold out (visitor numbers are limited to 6,000 per day), shows that growing numbers of Chinese people want to visit the caves and understand their past.
We were not allowed to take photos inside the caves, but when we later visited the museum, were able to photograph replicas of the inside of the caves and these photos below give an idea of the ancient Buddhist art we saw.
We then settled into our hotel and walked to the night market. We bought some street food and a bag of the most delicious tangy, dried apricots. To us, the most notable thing at the market was the large numbers of stalls selling all sorts of dried fruit – showing a greater Middle Eastern influence than we see in 成都 (Chéngdū), away from the Silk Road.
The next day was a relaxed start. We both slept in, suggesting our sleeper train sleep had been more broken than we realised. We planned our day’s events and found a place to eat brunch. We chose noodles, even after clarifying that the meat was donkey. It tasted surprisingly like beef, but the cold sauce and meat and cold plate meant that the noodles quickly became lukewarm – not our favourite meal. Because of the drier, cooler climate in the north of China, it is hard to grow rice, so wheat products dominate. While in the region, we only ate pancakes and noodles.
Then we caught the bus to the edge of the Gobi Desert, where we rode camels, visited 月牙泉(Yuèyáquán) or Crescent Lake and climbed 鸣沙山 (Mīngshā Shān) to join all the other tourists to watch the sun set over the desert. Unfortunately, with the clouds, it was not very spectacular, and we were one of the last to walk back down, still enjoying the slowly approaching darkness then the lights sparkling below.
Our last day, we visited the museum, as always fascinated by such a long, rich history and the rise, fall, and rise again, of this part of the Silk Road. 敦煌 (Dūnhuáng) history began 3,500 years with the first group of people settling and starting farming on the oasis. In 111BC, the then Emperor intentionally established it as a place of trade and military presence, and brought people from other regions to live here. It is where the most western part of the Great Wall was. To guard this remote section of the wall, all 23-56 year old men had to be a soldier for one year. They also had to farm so they could feed themselves. They received training in both skills and were rewarded financially for merit. A key part of their military training was how to operate a signal fire system used along the wall, using different techniques for day and night time signalling.
I found it interesting to learn what was being transported along the Silk Road in the early days. About 200BC, China was exporting silk, spices and paper, and importing woollen and linen fabric, horses, metal, jewellery, coloured glaze, plants, medicines and spices.
Eight hundred to one thousand years later, during the 唐代 (Táng Dynasty), China’s golden age, was the most prosperous time for 敦煌 (Dūnhuáng). It was a cultural centre of language, literature, art, music and dance. However, as sea routes became the preferred method for transporting goods, the city became less important. Another eight hundred to one thousand years later, for a couple of centuries, the 明代 (Mìng Dynasty) didn’t even bother to have administrators based there. The city administration was re-established after the 1700s, but it remains small by Chinese standards. Now, the city’s 200,000 inhabitants mainly keep busy servicing the nine million tourists that visit each year.
Our last activity in 敦煌 (Dūnhuáng) was to return to the Mogao Grottoes site to watch a show. It was powerful, but difficult to follow at times with no or limited Chinese. We love dancing shows, but this was more of a play than the promotional material led us to believe. At the beginning, we were introduced to the key players on the Silk Road in a powerful way that, even without Chinese, we could understand through the costumes and how they acted. Next we saw a powerful dramatisation of the selling of the manuscripts by the monk who found the Library Cave. The stage setting was a whole room in which several hundred theatregoers stood watching different actions at different times happening in different places. We stood at the back to avoid pushing and shoving, but when the next action was behind us, we became the ‘front’ and others moved to be near this front. I struggled with the inconsiderate pushing of a small number to be at the front each time.
The last straw was when staff gave us verbal instructions in Chinese, we both monitored others’ actions to work out what to do and lined up behind others, but were then stopped from going with them into the same room and directed to join another group. To me this second group seemed larger than the one from which we had just been rejected, so I felt that we might face similar treatment. I went up to another usher, saying ‘I don’t understand’ in Chinese and realised I was crying. She was helpful but not particularly so. It turned out that we were allowed into that room with that group, where we were treated to yet another powerful drama. The play began below us, visible through the glass in the floor below us, then changed to be above us, visible through glass above in the ceiling that moved up and down, and then changed to be still above us but on a platform that went right around the small room. The setting and costuming were amazing, but it was hard not really understanding the story.
After that, we walked through the rooms of each of the stories that other groups had been watching and into the main auditorium where we watched the final play – again many powerful items of dancing and special effects, but wasted on us. The show ended up being a mixture of upsetting and enjoyable. I would not recommend it to non-Chinese speakers, but it was definitely an amazing spectacle and we have never seen anything like the physical space created for the show. China seems to be innovating in theatre in a similar way and scale to what we see in architecture and infrastructure.
Then on to the sleeper train and on to 张掖 (Zhāngyè),. This time we shared a cabin with a dad and his 11 year old son, who both had the chance to practise some English before we all feel asleep. We were woken at 1.30am, got off, were picked up by the car I had arranged through the hotel, and travelled for an hour to our Yurk tent accommodation.
The next day we marveled at the 丹霞 (Dānxiá) natural wonder – yet another secret that we only discovered once we lived here. The pictures tell it all.
Back to 张掖 (Zhāngyè),where we caught another train to 兰州 (Lánzhōu). We ‘enjoyed’ another transport drama getting from the train station to the airport, but this blog post is already very long, before arriving safely home.
We are so glad we did this trip – it helped us glimpse what a variety of Chinas exist in this vast, fascinating country.