China – Dunhuang & Jiayuguan & Xiakou & Chongqing

From Turpan, we drove to the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Cave complex (5th to 14th century), nestled in a gorge of the Flaming Mountains. The cave grottoes’ best murals were hacked away by German explorer Albert von Le Coq who sent them to Berlin where they were subsequently destroyed during WWII when the city was bombed. Today, only 4 of the 77 rock cut caves are open to tourists so we felt that Bezeklik was a bit of a rip off at 40 Yuan apiece since there really isn’t anything to see there. From Bezeklik, we drove towards a bush camp where we got to celebrate a reluctant Andy’s 49th birthday…yippee! The next day, we said goodbye to the Taklamakan Desert and hello to the Gobi Desert..Gansu Province, here we come! Our oasis for the next few days was Dunhuang, which used to serve as a frontier garrison on the Silk Road. Today it is famous for the “singing sand dunes” near Crescent Moon Lake, and the nearby Mogao Caves, a 4th to 14th century cave complex of 492 grottoes full of frescoes and Buddhist statues. We enjoyed both attractions, as well as Dunhuang’s awesome night market where cheap, tasty eats were aplenty. After Dunhuang, we had back to back bush camps. Amazingly, our bush camps happened to be right next to the Great Wall of China…talk about an awesome view from our tent! The first bush camp was at Jiayuguan, which is the westernmost fort of the Great Wall. This section of the wall has been largely restored, but it was well worth a hike. The second bush camp boasted a section of original (untouched) Great Wall ruins at the ancient city of Xiakou, where we had one of the prettiest sunsets of the trip thus far. From Xiakou, we made our way to Chongqing where we were housed in a Super 8 hotel (yes, the chain has made its way to China). The reason for sleeping at Chongqing? Why, the earlier to catch our boat ride out to Bingling Thousand Buddha Caves on the Yellow River. The fantastic cliff side carving of the 100 feet tall Maitreya Buddha was well worth the trip, and the Bingling caves did not disappoint! Just like that, another week complete. Next up will Xiahe, an ethnically Tibetan town in the Gansu Province. The Labrang Monastery is reputed to be a highlight so we are looking forward to it!

17 Jul – Goodbye Turpan! After an early morning breakfast, we were packed up and on the road by 7:30 am. Kate had already decked out the truck with birthday decorations for Andy – the reluctant birthday boy who is 49 today. Poor Andy’s misery was complete when he was forced to don a happy birthday crown complete with lights and birthday music..ha ha. From Turpan, we drove directly to Bezeklik 1000 Buddha Caves where we each paid 40 Yuan to visit. We should have paid more attention to our guidebook which mentioned that German explorer Le Coq had stripped and hacked the cave grottoes’ best murals out of the caves…this meant that what remains today is limited at best. And for some unknown reason, the staff keeps almost all the caves securely locked up. We only had access to 4 of the caves, and our every movement was scrutinized by a watchful security guard. The remaining frescoes had been severely damaged with all of the Buddhas’ faces scratched off. It reminded us of the caves at Bamiyan where the Taliban destroyed all the Buddhas’ faces. This was a sad site to visit and we wouldn’t recommend making a special effort to come here. Definitely not worth the entrance fee with the surly staff keeping everything locked up. A short walk away from the entrance to 1000 Buddha Caves was an old theme park with dozens of Buddha statues and monuments. Unfortunately, the park appeared to have been closed for good, but it was still fairly picturesque and worth visiting from the outside. From Bezeklik we drove east while staring out the window at the surrounding scenery, taking a break for lunch to have Andy’s risque birthday cake (pink boobs with cherry nipples). Then it was more tarmac for the afternoon, driving until just past the city of Kumul where we bush camped on a nice flat desert area. Robby and Ichi felt a bit industrious so they set about chopping up scavenged firewood. Poor Robby’s thermarest came to a shocking death tonight…it was great while it lasted but a lifespan of only 3 months – that would never do for the Trans trip! Our original plan was to sleep under the stars but about five minutes after lying down, we realized we were getting dive bombed by mosquitoes so there went that plan! We quickly retreated to the tent for the rest of the night.

18 Jul – Ichiyo and Lars slept outside last night and when we woke this morning, something had bitten Ichi overnight to cause her bottom lip to swell massively…poor thing! From the bush camp we drove to to Dunhuang and checked into Junyiyuan Hostel. Our rooms had no toilet paper or towels and the receptionist was being overwhelmed with other rooms having similar issues. We weren’t able to lock our door which was our big concern but after swapping room keys, we were finally able to secure our gear. We were keen on exploring Dunhuang and getting some food so we linked up with Ichi and Lars and hit the streets. Our hostel was a 10 minute walk to the center of town where there we souvenir booths, restaurants and a sizeable night market area. After perusing our options, we opted for some roasted pork with noodles…yum. It was a scorcher and Robby kept inadvertently hitting and switching off the air conditioning in our food shack much to our dismay. Beer at the night market was way too expensive so we stocked up on some drinks at a nearby convenience store (much better prices) and headed back to the hostel to chill out. Thankfully, Ichi’s swollen lip was looking much better by the end of the day so she wouldn’t have to deal with it again tomorrow.

19 Jul – Dunhuang is known for its singing sand dunes which was on our agenda for today. After having breakfast, we loaded up into the truck and drove over to Mingsha Shan (aka the “singing sand dunes”) and Crescent Lake. This is the biggest tourist destination for the area and despite the early morning hour, the place was completely packed with Chinese tourists. There were thousands of people crammed into Mingsha Shan already, and hundreds of camel trains for tourists to ride around the dunes. We wanted to get away from the crowds as quickly as possible, so after a quick walk around the White Horse Pagoda and Crescent Lake, we climbed up to the top of the dunes. Given the hot temperature, it was a tough hike but we managed it in about 15 sweaty minutes. Not a good sign to see a Chinese tourist passed out at the top of the sand dune with an emergency responder trying to revive him. After admiring the view, we galloped all the way down the sand dunes looking as graceful as a clumsy giraffe. Apparently, the only takers for the micro-lite flight were Greg, Molly, Kevin and Anthony. We had briefly considered it but were turned off by the extortionate price for the 2 to 4 minute flight…no thanks! By lunch time, we were ready to head back into town so we caught a ride with the truck and headed over to a nearby dumpling restaurant. After relaxing in our room for a bit, Becky had to head back into town to do cook group shopping (Becky, SCUBA Gill and Kevin) with Robby tagging along to scoop up some snacks. The supermarket had a decent stock of supplies and shopping was relatively easy. On the return trip, we stopped at one of the dried fruit stores that can be seen all over Dunhuang and tried some of their raisins and nuts…yum. Since we still had a bit of a budget left over, we bought a few kilos of dried apricots and raisins to share with the group. The rest of our day was chill with Robby drinking in the lobby with Lars, Ichi and the gang and Becky boycotting drinking for the night. After way too many shots of rice wine (Warner actually likes it!), Lars, Ichi, Warner and Robby headed out for some dinner to get some food in their bellies.

20 Jul – Goodbye Dunhuang…our 2 days here was just right and we were ready to move on. After a quick breakfast, we were on the road by 7:30 am to see the Mogao Caves. This is one of China’s most popular sights and deservedly so. Before vising the cave complex, we watched two excellent movies inside a huge Cinemax theater. The movies gave us an idea of what we were going to see and helped us appreciate the magnitude of the Buddhas (especially the big Buddha). Then we were linked up with other English speaking tourists and had to wait for our English guide who led us on a guided tour to several of the caves. The Buddhas were really impressive, especially the big Buddha whose toe was bigger than our hand! Talk about massive. Too bad photography wasn’t allowed inside the caves but it would have been impossible to take decent photos since the lighting was so poor. Our guide lamented that China has been irresponsible in its handling of the overwhelming tourist numbers. They had initially restricted Mogao Caves to only 5000 visitors per day but the demand was so great that “special VIP passes” were sold to appease the aggressive surplus visitors’ demands to visit. While visiting Mogao, the weather outside took a turn for the worse and soon we had a strong dust storm which was kicking up dirt in all our crevices. What a miserable morning, weather wise! Kate made the call to have lunch in the parking lot area (on board Habibi), and then we drove to our bush camp in Jiayuguan right next to the Great Wall of China. This is the westernmost point of the Great Wall of China and we were able to erect our tents nearby…what a view! Becky’s cook group made a tasty veggie spaghetti for dinner which went down a treat. We had debated whether to put on our tent’s rain fly and were glad we did because we had a sudden downpour late tonight. It was funny to hear our tent neighbors struggling to put theirs on while getting soaked in the process!

21 Jul – After breakfast, we had some free time to hike on a portion of the Great Wall of China. All the oldies of our group were able to visit for free (except for Daniel who didn’t even try to get a ticket and missed out). Even Kevin was able to sneak in as a member of the oldie group even though he didn’t meet the age requirement because no one was checking their passports for age verification! It was an easy hike to the top of the wall and we were glad we did it right when the site opened because the place was packed with tourists less than an hour later. At the top of the wall, there were love locks on the fence so Kate ordered one made with “Oasis 2016” engraved on it. Entry to the wall also included some camel statues, a sculpture park, a pagoda and a small temple complex but our time was limited so we had to rush through everything. After our Great Wall visit, we drove into Jiayuguan, where half of the group opted to visit Jiayuguan Fort. We briefly contemplated it but were put off by the high entrance fee. It didn’t really look that interesting so we just strolled through a rock garden outside and headed back to the truck early since Becky had to do cook group duty for lunch. After talking to the group that did visit the Fort, many weren’t too impressed which helped vindicate our decision to skip it. The rest of the day was driving to our next bush camp in the village of Xiakou near Shandan. Our bush camp site was near a restored tower, which is part of the Great Wall. Curious locals invaded our campsite to take photos and we tried to be as inviting as possible. While waiting for dinner, we volunteered to cook prawn crackers which was a nice pre-dinner treat. Tonight’s sunset was spectacular and Andy was able to capture quite a few nice shots.

22 Jul – Another long drive day today as we made our way toward Jongjing. By late afternoon, we had arrived and were happy to check into a Super 8 Hotel (yes the chain has come to China!).Everyone scattered to the four winds and we were on our own for dinner after taking hot showers. A nearby restaurant met our needs (only Chinese spoken) and we were put in a private booth to enjoy our meal. A curious Chinese boy kept lifting up the privacy curtain to stare at Robby which got old after a while. Jongjing didn’t look like a lively town during our after dinner stroll. We did manage to find some delicious longan to munch on for dessert before calling it a night and heading back to the hotel.

23 Jul – Kate had coordinated an impromptu truck breakfast (peaches, apples, bread and peanut butter) which we ate on our drive towards the boat landing. Our destination this morning? Why, we were visiting Bingling Temple! To get there, we had to drive to a boat landing which was supposed to take 45 minutes according to Tom. 2 hours later, we finally pulled up to a parking lot and clambered out of the truck. From the boat landing, our group split into two speedboats for a short ride down the Yellow River to Bingling Thousand Buddha Caves. This was a cool visit because we got to see dozens of Buddha carvings, meet with a reclusive hermit, and marvel at the 100 foot tall “Great Maitreya Buddha” which was the most impressive. A few more adventurous souls opted to run/walk 3 KM each way to see another temple but we opted to just relax by the riverfront. Kevin returned a couple of minutes late from Kate’s suggested departure time so we took off just as soon as he got back. Kyle drove us back into Jongjing for lunch and had a great meal with Lars, Ichiyo and Kate P. We even convinced our friendly waitress and chef to pose for a photo with us afterwards and Kate P. even smiled – something she never does in photos! Yay!

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