TW and Jo – Adventurers

Jiayuguan marks the last stop of the trip that we’ve made a plan for. We know that eventually we’d have to reach XiShuangBanna (really!) at the end of December to catch our flight back to Singapore, but how we are going to get there is still a mystery to us.

For now, our plan is to listen to what the other travellers are saying and after careful fact-checking and intense discussions, we’ll ditch the plan and just wing it.

So far, we’ve realized that the thing about winging it is that you’d never really know what is going to happen from day to day.

For example, when I woke up this morning, I did not expect myself to be Tomb Raider-ing through the caves of cliff-side temples before sun went down.

The day started innocently enough (don’t they always?). Jo was thumbing through our copy of Lonely Planet: China and felt that the description of the small town of Mati Si (马蹄寺) sounded “nice”. Looking at the map, Mati Si (besides sounding like an awesome Malay swear word) looked relatively near to Jiayuguan. Our original plan was to head straight for Xi’an via Lanzhou from Jiayuguan. However, since we had some time on our hands, we decided to do a quick detour to check out Mati Si.

To that, I only have one thing to say…

4 hours bumpy bus ride + 2 hours waiting in a dusty little town + 2.5 hours bumpiER bus ride = not THAT close to Jiayuguan.

On top of that, the first thing we found out when we reached Mati Si was that there was only one bus out of town everyday… at 8am in the morning… and also most of the town was closed because the tourist season was over. In fact, at that moment, there were only two shopkeepers in town who were willing to open up their shops as lodging for tourists.

So far,

Planning/Researching Ahead: 3
Winging it: 0

Since our quick detour seemed to be turning into a three-day side trip (arrival + one day tour + following morning departure), we decided to make the most of our time there and catch whatever sights we could while the sun was still up.

Right around the corner of our lodging, we saw this…

Temples carved into sandstone cliffs!!

Pretty darn impressive for something that just sounded “nice”.

But this is where it got even more awesome. The temples in the cliffs can actually be accessed… via vertigo-inducing staircases and narrow, twisting corridors. Some parts of the caves can only be reached using small hand/foot holds that had been cut into the walls.

It’s like rock climbing… only with the added bonus of an actual DESTINATION.

Jo - Tomb Raider

A view from the temple. With snowcapped mountains like these, who need sutras?

Score now
Planning/Researching Ahead: 3
Winging it: 100000000000000000000000000000

In other related news: I think I might’ve accidentally signed up for a climbing expedition. I’ve more or less resigned myself to the fact that we would be climbing up 1000000000000000000000000000 flights of stairs every other day.

Mati Si, of course, was no exception.

ahhh.... my mortal enemy... stairs...

Needless to say.. the view at the top is awesome... again....


A Change of Plans

After our sojourn in Dunhuang, we were supposed to be headed west along the Silk Road towards Urumqi, Turpan and Kashgar, right up to the edge of Kazakhstan (totally NOT a pilgrimage to see the homeland of Borat). (Dziekuje)

Somewhere along the way in Dunhuang, we decided to scrap that plan because of stories we heard from fellow travellers. Stories that chilled us to our bones… literally… Apparently, it had already started snowing in Xinjiang and the night time temperature could plummet to as low as -20◦C.

I think we’ve already had our fair share of coldness in Tibet, so we decided to head east (again) along the Silk Road towards the ancient Chinese capital city of Xi’An.

Our first stop along the way to Xi’An was Jiayuguan (嘉峪关).

For us, there was only one reason to visit Jiayuguan – To visit the symbolic end of the Great Wall of China and the “Impregnable Defile under Heaven” (REALLY!).

Unfortunately, these signs are pretty par for the course in China so far... spot James... *snigger*

I know… after our short time in China, I am beginning to doubt my own command of the English language.

So, if you were to ask me what my thoughts were on seeing the Great Wall of China, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, and a testament to the ingenuity of the ancient Chinese civilization, I can only say that it was… Great…

In fact, it was humongous, and I am sure the particular section of the wall that we chose to climb was inclined vertically.

The Great Wall was built as a defence against marauding barbarians from the west. I don’t know how good it was at doing its job back then, but to this day, as a modern man who has had a fair bit of exposure to cutting-edge defence technology, it remained a powerful deterrent. I took one look at the wall and was prepared to just leave it at that. I didn’t care how much treasure central China held, I was not going to climb that wall.

TW: Would not make a good marauding barbarian

Of course, there was a perfect counter-argument against impeccable logic such as that – It comes in the form of Jo.

Hint... if the Great Wall looks that small, it means there is a LONG way to CLIMB...

I’m sure Genghis Khan had a platoon of complaining wives standing behind his vanguards to make sure they didn’t back out of the invasion of China just because there were ONLY a few million steps on the Great Wall in the way too.

It was NOT a happy climb... or, as I would like to say to Jo.. "I TOLD YOU SO!!"

Although, I have to admit... the view at the top is pretty awesome... again....

Unlike Jo, I’ve never seen any portions of the Great Wall before (not in real life, and definitely not from outer space) (incidentally, I just found out that “the Great Wall is the only man-made structure you can see from space” factoid is actually a MYTH) (it was famously debunked when China’s first astronaut, Yang Liwei reported he couldn’t see the structure of the wall from his capsule window) (cue dramatic music) (that is a LOT of bracketed text), so Jiayuguan was a fabulous introduction to the Great Wall for me.

I just wished I could have seen the sights without climbing it…

Exiled ancient Chinese were normally banished to the west through Jiayuguan. To this day, the fortress towers and walls are an intimidating sight. Among the passes on the Great Wall, Jiayuguan is allegedly the most intact surviving ancient military building. The pass is also known by the name the "First and Greatest Pass Under Heaven" (天下第一雄关).


On other news, I’ve got another article published… this time by Boots n All about how Jo and I managed to keep from killing each other during our travels so far.

Do click on the link and show some support. Thanks!

Can’t Get Enough of… Dunhuang

Dunhuang, the most charming town we’ve been to so far. Here, we camel trekked across the Gobi desert, where the sand was so smooth it was like liquid; we trampled a movie set in the Old Town; we acknowledged our insignificance when placed in the vastness of the unbelievably majestic Ya Dan. Pity we couldn’t shoot any pictures or video in the Mogao Caves as that was definitely the highlight. Ahhhh Dunhuang.

We Really Really HEART Dunhuang

While in Dunhuang, we took a day trip to Ya Dan National Park (雅丹地貌).

To be fair, only ONE of us really wanted to go see the National Park.

While I am suitably impressed by the National Park’s badass nickname, Demon City (魔鬼城), it was not really enough to convince me to take a two hour (and VERY expensive) cab ride to see what appears, to my uneducated eye, to be a bunch of rocks.

I was finally swayed when we heard we were going to hit a few other (free) detours along the way. You can’t blame me. I am Singaporean and I cannot resist a bargain.

On the way to Demon City (I HAVE to use this name), we stopped at Dunhuang Old Town where we accidentally walked right onto a movie set! We have no idea what the movie is about or who the actors are, but there were many minions running around, so it must be a big production, right?

From the meaningful looks some of the actors were giving us, we think they were expecting us to go clamour for their autographs…. Or it could possibly be to ask us to get our modern dressed ass off the set… I can’t be sure.

Apparently, this was not an uncommon sight in Dunhuang Old Town. The whole town was built to be a movie set, and many productions are filmed there every year. Was the movie set worth the price of admission? Probably not.

But for us, it was a good chance to have a bit of goofy Kungfu Movie fun!

Fun with movie props!

In fact we had so much fun at Dunhuang Old Town that it was already pretty late when we hit the Demon City. We were required to watch a movie about how the rocks were formed (quote: zzzzz…), along with video footage of UFO sightings in the area (quote: AWESOME) before we were allowed into the National Park.

So after a 3 hour drive and a half hour movie, there we have it!

A bunch of rocks!

A bunch of rocks

Ok, I am being a bit harsh here. It was a bunch of rocks in the middle of the Gobi Desert.

To be fair, the rock formations were really impressive, but I was a bit turned off by the attempts to name what looks like (and again this applies only to my uneducated eye) a bunch of rocks.

There was also a limit to the amount of time we could spend in the park. We were driven to all the more famous rock formations (Sphinx, Lion Chasing A Man, Fleet of Ships, Lion-Chasing Fleet of Ship, Sphinx-Chasing Man, you get the idea…), and were told in no uncertain terms that if we were not back in the vehicle by the time allocated, we would be left in the middle of Demon City.

Lion Chasing Man.... really!

My personal favourite... A fleet of ships

They seemed to mean it as a threat…

But there was a wide expanse of desert and a lot of rocks, so the ten minutes we got to spend at each formation was kind of fun too.

We had one final treat in store for us on the way back to Dunhuang.

A visit to the famous Jade Pass (玉門關) –  the supposed Final Frontier of civilization for ancient China. Having read a lot about the Jade Pass in the Tang poems during my Chinese Literature days, I was suitably excited.

When we finally reached the final bastion of civilized man, where wars were fought and lives were lost, where Persian spice traders meet with Chinese silk merchants, where exiled Chinese court officials were sent never to return, there we have it…

A bunch of rocks!

We really heart Dunhuang

We’ve been staying in Dunhuang for 4 days now.

If we were vacationing within a time limit, it would be a bit of a “waste” to spend so much time in a small city. In that sense, we are thankful that we are traveling long term, and so we are able to have a better grasp on our schedule (or the lack of one).

There really is much to see in Dunhuang.

The highlight of Dunhuang is definitely the Mo Gao Caves  (莫高窟). In the olden days, Dunhuang was the last city you would see before you set off on a passage across the unforgiving desert, and the first thing you see after you return. Instead of offering incense at a temple like everybody else, the Ancients decided that the best way to get their prayers answered would be to build their own temples. Not just any temple, mind you, but one that is carved into a cave. The result of this is a collection of more than 300 cave temples surrounding a stone mountain in the middle of the desert.

Just outside the fence of Mogao. They built a facade all around the mountain and installed gated doors for each of the caves

An impressive sight in any sense of the word.

But what is more amazing (to us) is the feeling that the Mo Gao Caves are well-loved and fiercely protected. The archaeologists doing the excavation work for the caves double up as guides, and you can tell from their explanations that they really know and care about the treasures within the caves. Visitors are not allowed to wander around the caves on their own and the caves are carefully locked up after each visit. Tour groups are kept small (less than 20) and no photography is allowed once you step through the ENTRANCE. The guides have zero tolerance towards Bad Behaviour.

The Entrance of Mogao Caves... one of the last photos we were allowed to take that day

It’s a pity the same cannot be said about a few of the other Chinese “National Treasures”.

Spitting is a (too) prevalent bad habit among the locals, but it really irks me when I hear the jarring “SCCHHHRRRGGGGJKHJKJKJKJHHHGHGHGJHhhhhh…. PUI!” in a National Park, or worse… a museum (yes, it happened…)

What is inside the caves... Don't worry, I did not sneak a photo. This was taken in a replica cave that was on exhibit.

Materials used to make the colors of the frescoes in the cave

The Caves themselves were eight shades of awesome. I am no purveyor of fine art (or art of any nature, for that matter), but even I am sufficiently awed by the frescoes and sculptures within the caves.

Perhaps, it was because of the passionate brief given by the archaeologist/guide, we could really see the development of the art within the caves. We were essentially shown 1000 years of art and cultural history of the Dunhuang area within the span of the two-hour tour.

Only ten of the more “significant” caves (out of the thousands) were shown to us, but it was enough to tell us the story of the rise and decline of the Silk Road. Of the fickleness of human nature. Of  how something that was so important at one point in history was just forgotten and neglected once something new (sea route trading) comes along.

It was definitely an enlightening side trip and we would highly recommend the detour for anyone coming to the Dunhuang area.