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Five Things We Love About China

1. THE FOOD! Whether it cost 30p or £3 just about every meal has been delicious, healthy and great value. The delights which can be cooked up in a single wok or the ingenuity of a restaurant on the back of a motorbike trailer can only be marvelled at. Never forgetting those who cook it – the millions of generally friendly men and women who work long and hard providing great food. Just brilliant!

2. COMMUNITY LIFE. In the park, in town and city squares, and on the streets it all goes on. Karaoke, orchestra practice, aerobics, ballroom dancing, line dancing, tai chi, games of cards, and mah jong (at any given moment, there must be at least one million games of mah jong happening in China!)

3. PUBLIC TRANSPORT. A huge network of cheap and efficient long distance coaches, city buses and village minibuses mean that you can get around this vast country cheaply and you almost always get a seat. Not to mention the trains. I will especially sorely miss the “bottom bunk hard sleeper”. First a decent China Railways meal, then a soothing politically correct lullaby before lights out at 10 pm, a comfy bed with sheets and duvet and when you wake up, you’re in another part of the country altogether.

4. RURAL LIFE. Anywhere there’s some land, there are small scale, neat and productive fields. The country people have a well developed self -sufficient lifestyle with piglets on the porch, chickens in the garden, and lovingly tended veg patches. Outside are stacks of wood for the winter, feed for the animals, pickles and preserves. The country people know their environment intimately and how to make the most of it.

5. Jim says NATURE. The physical geography of the place, the desert, the Tibetan plateau, the mountains of Guizhou, the lakes and rivers and the man-made beauty of astonishing rice terraces and lovely villages. Di says THE MINORITIES – the exotic Tibetans, friendly Uyghurs, busy and sociable Dong, chatty Bai, tough and resourceful Miao, hardworking Hani and especially those gay Tibetan line-dancers!

And then there’s also the fantastic MARKETS – Kashgar Animal Market, Kaili Bird Market, and all the other wonderful country markets – colourful, sociable, and endlessly fascinating where we have spent so many happy hours! And Jim wants to put in a word for big bottles of TsingTao beer at less than 50p…

And Five Things we will not be sorry to leave

1. The Noise. Conversations and instructions all delivered at top volume and usually in a scolding tone, the peculiarly Chinese sound of loud hawking followed by the inevitable gob, furious mobile phone calls shouted at full volume, blaring car and bus horns, dreary pop music and loud martial-arts fantasy films on the buses.

2. The ugly mess. The rubbish, the litter, the urban scene mostly an eyesore with falling down buildings which no one can be bothered with any more, so they build another one. Beauty spots covered in crap, litter tossed out of the bus and on to the ground, gutters blocked with rubbish and plastic bags. Piles of sand, gravel, bricks, cement, routinely blocking roads, pavements and shop fronts.

3. The tourist biz. The regions have obviously all been instructed to come up with some sites of touristic interest – whether they be an ancient irrigation system, a mosque, a big fishpond folk art village or a sunset on the rice fields. Huge inappropriate viewing platforms, coach parks and steel gates where ticket offices are then constructed to extract at least £3 but probably much more from every one. Legions of Chinese tourists dutifully worship at these shrines to consumerist tourism, complete with the obligatory trappings, the enormous telephoto lenses, tripods and various other leisure-related totems supplied by the camera industry.

4. The bad driving. The meaningless gridlocks on village streets, at bus stations and city road junctions, which occur for no other reason than selfish and/or stupid driving, and a certain cretinous type of bus driver who prefers any activity -smoking, gobbing, talking on his mobile, yelling out of the window, whatever- to actually driving the flipping bus to its destination. Being blasted out of the way on a pedestrian street or on a zebra crossing (don’t make me laugh!) by a car or scooter quite possibly going the wrong way.

5. The construction boom (enough said about that one) and the relentless pursuit of wealth which seems to have gripped the nation – or a certain sector of it.

Not to mention…strange sugary milky stuff masquerading as coffee, strange sugary airy stuff masquerading as bread, going into a supermarket and not knowing what 90% of the items on sale are, being reduced to a state of total non-communication through a mixture of cultural and linguistic barriers and total illiteracy, the OCP (the spoilt self-obsessed twenty-something Little Princesses and Little Emperors – products of the urban One Child Policy), that heavy metal guitarist with his soaring rock guitar solos who seems to feature on 75% of Chinese pop songs, cold hotel rooms with rock hard beds, being shouted at, oh that’s enough… roll on Vietnam!

P.S. I know you will have noticed a startling omission from this list – the toilets. They ranged from luxurious tourist toilets to the village communal shit-pits (sorry, but there is no other word). But in general, they are plentiful and not as bad as I thought they would be – and, anyway, anyone can get used to squatting over a stinking trough with a load of other women.

Jim working in his hard sleeper bunk

Bottom bunk hard sleeper

HERE ARE A FEW OF OUR FAVOURITE THINGS!

productive little veg patches

Wonderful veg plots

food at a restaurant in Dali

Lovely fresh food

An open air orchestra practices in the Park in Kunming

Park Life

A market in Guizhou

Great minority markets

Line dancers in Kunming park

Line Dancing with the Gay Tibetan troupe

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Indigo shibori or tie dye

Part of an indigo shibori tablecloth

Dali, Yunnan Province, SW China

Dali – long-time hippie paradise– more Japanese organic cafes and groovy backpacker hostels than you can shake a stick at. It’s not hard to see why people have come here and kind of forgotten to go home again.

Jim in front of cafe

Jim in front of his own Peace Cafe

There’s a few of them in our guest house. The owner himself is one – a quiet Australian (yes they do exist!) who has managed to find a way of making a living here by organising dumpling parties and pool tournaments while playing his favourite rock videos. It’s just like “The Vaults” away from home!

This very pleasant little town is just a 15 minute bike ride from the lake shore. In between there are small scale, extremely productive fields. These supply veg to Dali’s seemingly hundreds of eating establishments

Behind the town are the Cang Shan mountains with extremely impressive cable cars, and an amazing paved walk all along the top – we did at least 11 kms of it, and there’s plenty more. Is there nothing the Chinese can’t do? An Expressway method of hill walking!

In spite of the endless coffee and cocktail drinking opportunities, the beautiful surroundings and the very congenial guesthouse company, we are here to work – honestly!

We have come to Dali because this is the area where some of the wonderful deep indigo blue tie dye fabric we sell in our shop is made, and we have come to track it down. We are directed to a village about half an hour away. The population is Bai – another of those 55 Chinese minority groups. The women wear bright pink scarves or disconcertingly flowery headdresses.

2 women

Two Bai ladies in those very popular pink headscarves!

If we had any doubts that we would have trouble tracking down the fabric, they don’t last long. No sooner have we stepped off the bus than we are “taken in hand” by two Bai ladies who beckon us to follow them down small alleyways. Either they make a living kidnapping tourists, or they want to sell us something.

They take us to a couple of houses with big yards where the fabric is made. Inside the smell of indigo tells us we have found the right place and we are confronted by the largest indigo vats I have EVER seen!Very big vat

At these small household factories the designs are marked on to the white cotton in a disappearing yellow dye. This is then farmed out to the locals who stitch and tie thread around the designs. This makes a resist against the dye.woman stitching

Once the design is completely sewn up, it is dyed and then the thread is pulled out to reveal the pattern. The cloth is washed and dried and ready to sell. The Bai seem to have a monopoly on this technique, and the older women sometimes wear bits of it. But mostly it gets made into very nice tablecloths.

Back in Dali we spend a pleasant day negotiating for the very best tablecloths on sale.

   So you see it’s not all swanning about! Hard research has to be done, and even harder haggling, and then what do you think we did? Yes another trip to our old friend China Post.

Old lady in chair

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More thoughts from Jim Gaffney

When was then?

Officially, the Silk Road opened with an exchange of embassies between Parthia and China in 105 BC. Once the sea route from Europe to the East opened from the 16th century onwards, the overland Silk Route declined in importance, at least for long distance trade.

Where did it begin and end?

The Silk Route has no universally agreed start or finish lines, or, indeed, er, route. The silk which gave the name came from ancient China, so the eastern end of the route would have to reach to the borders of the early empires, the present day province of Gansu. At the western end, the huge prices paid for silk in ancient Rome were the stimulus to extend the route’s length. So a reasonable definition could be “from the borders of ancient Rome to those of ancient China”

Who travelled the Silk Route in the old days?

For the first thousand years, from the time silk first made its appearance in the most exclusive merchants’ shops of Ancient Rome, no individual human being is recorded as doing the whole thing. A few famous travelling monks made it from China as far as Persia in the early days, but nowhere near as far as Rome. It was the goods that did the travelling. Traded from hand to hand perhaps hundreds of times, the stuff got a long way.

Statue of Silk Road travelling monk Tripitaka with his companions (inc. Monkey!) in Lanzhou.

Statue of Silk Road travelling monk Tripitaka with his companions (inc. Monkey!) in Lanzhou.

Two sorts of stuff: light, easily transported items, such as precious stones, spices, dyestuffs and, of course silk; and items that could transport themselves, i.e. livestock and slaves. The only people to travel the whole of the Silk Route in the first thousand years, if anybody did, would have been slaves

Even the section of the route that Diane and I have tackled with 21st century technology available reveals why so few travelled the full route. We can report that the factors which everyone has moaned about over the millennia are still in play: distance, deserts, mountains and awkward locals. On the plus side, however, I can list oases, views, discovery and lovely locals.

What’s the Silk Route like now, then?

Tour group on the Silk RouteAs a travel biz marketing ploy, you’d have to  say it’s not doing too badly. The great oasis cities of present day Uzbekistan, Bokhara and Samarkand, have had some serious money spent on doing up the mighty mosques and madrassas of yore. There’s not exactly hordes of tourists but no doubt enough to keep the restaurants, hotels, taxi drivers, coach drivers, guides and souvenir sellers going for a fair while yet.

Tourists are also doing a great job taking on the role fulfilled by slaves in the old days. They obediently shamble around in little gangs, getting shouted back into line by barking tour guides if they show any inclination to wander off. They are a tradable commodity too- guides will happily deliver them to your tat emporium for a small commission.

I myself have been captured and sold on quite a few times at the long distance shared taxi stands.

We made a deal with a guy who swore by all that is holy that he was leaving now, yes, now, definitely! He grabbed our bags, locked them into the boot….and promptly disappeared. Of course, he needed two more passengers to make the trip worth it – a situation we were already very familiar with.

Shock, horror, a taxi driver lied to us! It’s only happened to me about 1,500 times, so why am I always surprised? Maybe there’s something in the middle class English upbringing which doesn’t prepare you for the real world. Anyway, there we squatted disconsolately in the dust, waiting for our master to come and release us, when he was ready.

Another time, we were turfed out halfway through the journey and transferred to another driver. It was done quickly and furtively, but I spotted Driver 2 paying Driver 1 the bit extra for the lucrative tourist fare. We cost about £1.20, if you’re interested.

So at least one traditional Silk Route commodities, the slave, has found a modern substitute, the tourist.

But a big improvement – the tourist pays for his own food and drink and makes only half-hearted attempts to escape.

Deserts, Mountains, Oases.

View of desert landscape with mountains and an oasisThese three are the clichés of Silk Route reportage from 300 AD onwards and with good reason. The deserts are still dry, dusty, huge, mostly ugly (ignore the guidebooks) and frightening. The mountains are still almost impassable, very high and awe inspiring. Their weather is maddeningly, not to say dangerously, unpredictable.

The oases are life savers. The sheer joy of arriving at them seems to have inspired the building of some of the most beautiful cities ever to have existed. No wonder the poets and travellers have gone into raptures about pomegranates, fountains, fig trees and so on. It’s the feeling that you’ll never see another one that stokes up your enthusiasm for that sort of thing.

21st Century Deserts

1. Khiva to Bokhara, Kyzyl-Kum desert, 374 kms. Shared taxi took maybe 9 hours. Grey dust, gravelly stones and so little vegetation that I saw no animals and that means very little vegetation. The only town is built to serve the natural gas wells which have been drilled in the desert. Absolutely impossible to imagine living there in ugly concrete blocks, 45 ̊ heat and dirt. The name of this place is Gazli, meaning “got gas”. Yeah.

2. Bokhara to Shahkrisabz, Karshi Steppe, 253 kms. Shared taxis about 6 hours. Very barren. Huge, almost derelict industry lurking in unlikely bits of desert. Still working, but I couldn’t work out what was being produced.

3. The Erkeshtam Pass to Kashgar, 200 kms of the driest, dustiest, greyest yet. Gravel extraction, road building and mobile phone towers waiting to be erected.

Oil well4. Kashgar to Turpan, 1,400 km. The “Taklimakan” (“Go in, don’t come out”) desert. No need to say more.

The Chinese have built and are still building innumerable industrial plants in the desert: oil extraction, petrochemical installations, mineral extraction and quarries for stone, sand and gravel. The dust clouds are therefore much worse. The stark, relentless stamp of this human activity seems to make the desert, if anything, even more forbidding.

Mordor, indeed!

21st Century Mountains

Aaah the mountains, how we’ve loved them! The freshest air I’ve ever breathed, the most entrancing views I’ve ever gazed upon and the brightest stars shining down on the path ‘twixt bed and midnight wee. Diane in the mountainsEven Diane’s enthusiasm (making Julie Andrews appear positively disenchanted by comparison) hasn’t been enough to dent my love for the mountains.

So the great push to conquer the pass into China, which had filled me with foreboding ever since I first looked at the map to check the altitudes, no longer held any terrors for me. I’d worried about our visas, the weather and the political situation in Xinjiang (would we even be allowed in?) but as we ascended towards Sary Tash (altitude 3500m), before hitting the border first thing in the morning, I breezily confided in Diane just how good I was feeling. Mountain viewNone of the problems I’d foreseen looked like materialising, the sun was shining and we were speeding along nicely.

A few hours later we sat in a room so hot we had to leave the door open to the sub-zero outside in order to breathe. It was now clear that the previous night I had finally found vodka cheap enough to give me an evil hangover. Altitude sickness was causing shortness of breath, dreadful nausea and, in the words of the ever-helpful guidebook “general malaise”. I had also started a nasty urine infection with a raging temperature. No doubt I would live, but I didn’t want to.

“As for his intestines, he could no longer claim them for his own” (H.E. Bates)

In the end I tackled the pass and the descent into Kashgar with the aid of lots of encouragement from my lovely and resourceful partner, my own paltry reserves of “can-do” spirit, some fierce anti-biotics aimed at the nether regions and two hardboiled eggs.

These last two had dire repercussions. My first five days in China went by unaccompanied by bowel movement. I was faced with an appalling dilemma. I could find no chemists or traditional medicine shops in Kashgar with anything but Chinese labels and Chinese speaking staff. No Boots, no Superdrug. So should I practice the Mandarin for “Could I have laxatives please?” and repeat this several times in my hopeless accent until somebody in the shop got what I wanted?

Chinese laxatives

The first shop assistant able to stop giggling would eventually serve me, but humiliation was certain. Or go for the mime option? On reflection, I realised that this would not only require nerves of steel to carry off, but would run the dreadful risk of giving the exact opposite of the intended message.

Fortunately, I found a phrasebook with the relevant information (full respect to “Just Enough Chinese to Get By”). Highly motivated, I made myself understood at only the fourth attempt. A capital young shop assistant and I managed the whole transaction with the seriousness and professional dignity appropriate to the gravity of the situation. Climb every mountain, guys.

21st Century Oases

I guess the area of irrigated land under cultivation nowadays would amaze early travellers. It amazes me, anyway. Every drop of water flowing along the course of the Amu Darya is potentially divertible for agriculture. I was excited to be crossing this mighty and legendary river. In ancient times it was the Oxus, giving its name to one of the oldest known civilisations. A whole region, Transoxiana, was defined by the fact you’d got across it.

We approached, rammed into the back of a shared taxi. Oh, the cruel disappointments that travelling sometimes has in store! The taxi bounced through the river bed, occasionally across pontoons spanning the shallow streams that wound between the gravel. The banks of the once enormous river towered either side of the poor remnants of the current. It took ten minutes to cross the river bed, but very little of that time was spent crossing water.

Between the glaciers feeding the sources of the Amu Darya 1,500 miles to the east are hydroelectric schemes, lots of ageing Soviet-built industrial plants, field and fields and fields of cotton and several quite large cities. The countless small farms and villages that also share the water would have been there in ancient times too, and so could not be blamed for the stricken state of the river. It’s the Amu Darya that once fed the southern half of the Aral Sea, and this no longer exists. So the oases of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan are now bigger, but not without cost.

My Personal Top Five Oases

French Klezmer band in Bishek1. The Registan Café, Samarkand. A real cup of proper, lovely, caffeinated Turkish coffee! Bliss! Astounding, but there’s hardly a coffee worth the name on the whole Silk Route from Khiva to Lanzhou.

2. Bishkek. Parks, museums, a decent art gallery, restaurants, the ballet (Swan Lake for £2.75!), a great French klezmer band (Kekiristan Republic?) playing for free. A capital city of culture!

Stream among trees in Aslanbob3. The village of Aslanbob – an Uzbek enclave in the midst of troubled southern Kyrgyzstan. Listening to every sound running water can make, we wandered up to the enormous walnut forest. Gentle Uzbek villagers kept on inviting us in for tea and snacks.

4. The little Chinese caffs in Turpan. Fantastic tasty meals for a quid, big Tsingtao beers at 50p. A welcome respite from the endless lamb kebabs and chai.

Jim snacking5. Speakers for the laptop (for only £4.50 from a Chinese electronics superstore) providing me with an oasis of good music – an antidote to the relentless diet of Chinese pop and rock played on every form of public transport.

Jim and Diane in a cafe

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Over the mountains to China

View of mountains, plains and a riverI had read Lonely Planet’s section on crossing the border into China where the possibility of hitching rides on Chinese trucks is mentioned. I had thought to myself “Yes, I’m sure that’s what I would have done when I was a young traveller. Luckily we won’t have to”. So what on earth are we doing here by the side of the road at 8.30 on a very cold morning hoping for a ride on a Chinese truck to take us to the border?

Our attempts to be sensible and middle aged and throw money at the situation failed miserably in Osh where we couldn’t find any taxi willing to take us the whole way. So we got as far as Sary Tash and spent the night there. Sary Tash is a village which owes its existence solely to its position at the fork in the road between the Tajik and Chinese borders – one road leads over one set of mountains into Tajikistan and the other over another set of mountains to western China and Kashgar.

Sary TashIt’s a cold and bleak place where winter already seems to be setting in and the dried dung piles (for winter fuel) are stacked high. The nearby graveyard has a weirdly animist atmosphere with horse tails fixed to the grave posts (presumably a reminder of the occupant’s favourite mount?)

The inhabitants of Sary Tash make their money doing seasonal farm work in Russia or scrape a living from their few animals, taking in the odd traveller (like us) or selling petrol, tea and vodka to passing motorists.

While we are sitting outside the shop (the throbbing heart of this metropolis) a party of Kyrgyz tourists turn up fresh from a day out in the mountains and already rather The Sary Tash shopthe worse for wear. I am dragged into the party (rather unwillingly honestly), have to be introduced to everyone and then just to be sociable,join them in downing a very large shot of neat vodka followed by kurut –crumbly dried sour yogurt, yum! This could easily turn into a bit of a session but Jim is feeling too ill to join in (altitude sickness is diagnosed) so we make our way back to the hovel we call home for the night

Next morning we are standing at the petrol station at the edge of the universe hoping someone will help us to reach the border. Hitching in Kyrgyzstan isn’t quite like elsewhere in that it’s very acceptable and what’s more you always pay for your lift so it’s a good way to share petrol costs -a system which could be adopted everywhere I reckon.

Jim and a truckA couple of trucks go past but luckily it’s not too long before a lovely warm people carrier comes by and praise be! It stops, and in we hop. The mountains look amazing in this light and the road is brand new and as smooth as anything. It was only finished this year and was built by – guess who? The Chinese.

A preliminary passport check, then 10 kms. to the second passport check and we’re out of Kyrgyzstan and on our own. But there’s another seven kms. until Chinese immigration and this is achieved in a series of further passport checks with lifts from lorry drivers in between. As we’re hauling ourselves up into very high truck cabs fully laden with rucksacks, I remind myself that we are doing this trip now while we’re still fit enough to do it.

Jim in front of "Welcome to China" signFinally the last driver pulls up behind a great queue of trucks and tells us it’s still at least 2 kms to the border. He urges us to wait but the rate the trucks are moving means that we could very well still be in the queue at night fall. We decide that we can easily walk 2 kms. – even if it is at 3,600m and thank goodness, we just about can! We’re through the final checks and it’s welcome to China!

Luckily we’re the last people through before the 2½ lunch break which the Chinese border guards obviously need (what for – an extended 14 course banquet?) Unluckily, this means that nothing moves at all and there is no possibility of a lift down to Kashgar.

We spend the time chatting to a group of Uzbek ladies who have come over to buy stuff here to sell back in Kyrgyzstan – same business as us really, and a Dutch guy who is trying to get his Land Rover in. There’s plenty of time for us to negotiate a lift back with the driver who brought Dutch guy’s Chinese guide here, but we can’t go until Dutch guy’s Landy gets the all-clear and various bits of bureaucracy are seen to (it gets complicated)

Three Bactrian camels in front of some red mountainsFinally we’re off through red mountains, past dirt poor villages and herds of horses and huge stately Bactrian camels. The road deteriorates fast and quickly moves up into a second place (behind the never to be forgotten Khiva to Bokhara) as worst road of the trip so far. The story is the same – they’re building a new road but instead of doing it bit by bit, they just tear up the whole lot and then replace it here and there, so there are a couple of miles of smooth tarmac followed by dozens of dust choked rocky track.

Eventually after a journey I thought would never end we get to the outskirts of Kashgar and the Uyghur driver pulls into his favourite Uyghur caff. The Uyghurs are Turkmen people and speak a variation on guttural Turkish but now live in the “Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region” and occasionally feel obliged to riot against their Chinese oppressors.

The restaurant is a showcase of both Chinese kitsch (plastic flowers, electric animated “aquariums”) and Muslim devotional wall decor (huge dioramas of Mecca, enlarged scriptures from the Koran) But the food is delicious (Hello taste buds! Where have you been for the past 2 months?) and the price is ludicrously cheap.

Welcome to Xinjiang!

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