Permanent Vacasian

The traveller sees what he sees; the tripper sees what he has come to see. – G. K. Chesterton

Big Buddhas

November 23, 2008
by Stuart

The next morning I headed back to Charley Johng’s for some banana pancakes and honey. The honey was really good – a light brown color and more creamy then honey back home. The staff was now part way through season four of Lost. They must have been watching it all night. Lucky.

Today’s destination were the Mogao Caves– one of the largest collections of Buddhist art in the world. UNESCO has this to say about the caves: “Situated at a strategic point along the Silk Route, at the crossroads of trade as well as religious, cultural and intellectual influences, the 492 cells and cave sanctuaries in Mogao are famous for their statues and wall paintings, spanning 1,000 years of Buddhist art.”

The front gate to the caves.

The front gate to the caves.

On the bus to the caves, I met Baco (short for Francisco) from Valencia, Spain. He had just done the bus route on the southern Silk Road that I was thinking about. He gave me good advice – basically to skip it because it’s just boring desert and you cross most of it at night. He also told me a story about how he got mad at a taxi driver and punched out some headlights, then the police sided with him and fined the cabbie.

Baco turned out to be a pretty interesting guy. He works as a food scientist for Coke in Brussels. He helps work out new flavors of drinks for Europe and Asia. Or if an ingredient become illegal in a certain country, he works out a substitute. They work on every drink except Coke – that’s only modified in the home office in Atlanta. And, in case you are curious, Coke in Mexico is made with brown sugar.

He also spoke like five languages. But during his stories about traveling from Pakistan to China, he kept saying that he hijacked along the way. After a few times, I asked if he meant “hitchhiked”. When I explained the difference he laughed for a while about what he’d been saying. Then it struck me kinda funny how those words are related: to someone learning English, they kinda sound the same. And they both have to do with someone’s involvement with someone else’s mode of transportation.

Even though there is a developed tourist scene at the caves, they were pretty dang cool. You can only visit them as part of a tour group, but fortunately it was just the two of us. We met our English-speaking guide and started off. Turns out the guide wasn’t too interested in us and just wanted to get the tour over with. But she did know a lot about the art and had a really bright flashlight.

The highlights were these two statues of Buddhas – one 34 meters (third-largest in the world), and the other 26 meters. Another cave had a big Buddha lying down with about a hundred smaller statues behind it, all in different prayer positions. You can’t take a bag or camera on the tour, but I found some photos of other caves online here and here.

After the caves, Baco and I headed back to town and grabbed a quick bite to eat until I had to catch my ride to the train station in Tulufan for my overnight ride to Turpan. The ride was about an hour, getting me to the station a bit early. Then maybe about 20 min before it was time for the train to arrive, all these people got in line. I asked a girl sitting near me if this was my train – turns out she was on the same train. She said no, and I decided to hit up the little traveler’s room before it was too late.

I hadn’t even unzipped my pants before some guy, who had been sitting by the girl, came running in the bathroom looking for me and yelling. Guess the train was here. I got in line pretty far back from the girl and he kept looking back at me making sure I was in the right line and kept an eye on me until I got on the right train car.

It Takes A Village

November 22, 2008
by Stuart

I took a taxi to the train station at 6am hoping to get a ticket on a train that I hoped left a little after 7. I got there, found the ticket window and tried to get a ticket for soft seat, which is essentially 3rd class but was stuck with hard seat, which is 4th class. It’s also the cheapest. But since this ride was only around six hours, I didn’t care about being too comfy. Plus the ticket was less then $3.

The well-traveled path to the highest dunes.

The well-traveled path to the highest dunes.

The double downside was that I wasn’t assigned a seat number, there was a long line and it was first come, first served. Fortunately, I got on a car with that wasn’t too full yet and a nice man waved me over to sit across from him. We ended up being the only people in our seats – which in 4th class is really a bench that can fit as may who may try to sit there.

The ride went well. The man and I had an understanding that when one of us got up, the other would look after the luggage. A few times some people came by trying to selling things like the hot water bladders or indestructible socks. While demoing the socks, the guy – who I think also worked for the train – would stab them with chopsticks and try to rip them. He would then put them over part of the luggage rack above the seats and hang from them. I wish I understood what he was saying because he seemed really funny and a great salesman.

The dunes when on forever - tallest one was over 3,000 ft.

The dunes went on forever - tallest one was over 3,000 ft.

After arriving in Dunhuang, I got in a taxi and was once again taken to two wrong hotels before I just got out and walk away. I passed a hotel with an “Olympics Tourism 2008” banner so I took a chance they spoke a little English. I went inside and the only helpful info I got was what street we were on. From there I busted out my Boy Scout skills and got to the right hotel.



The guidebook suggested a couple places to eat that have tourist info – both of which were close to my hotel. I walked to Charley Johng’s Cafe, sat down, and noticed that they were watching something on the computer. Being a huge fan, I quickly realized they were halfway into the second season of Lost. Awesome. After they took my order I asked about the things I wanted to see in Dunhuang and about getting my ticket onwards to Turpan. The woman there suggested I go to the booking office and get it since they charged a large fee. After lunch, and bit of Lost, I headed to get my ticket.

Looking down the road back towards the city.

Looking down the road back towards the city. Skyline looks like Tallahassee.

There wasn’t a line so I walked up to the window and tried my best to communicate what I wanted. So far in China most people are patient and enjoy helping you figure things out. Sometimes they find it funny. The woman working behind the Plexiglas found this a riot. She would write things in Chinese and show them to me and laugh when I couldn’t read it. So I’d point to words in Tina’s phrasebook and she’d nod. Then laugh.

The Chinese family that wanted to hang out with me.

The Chinese family that wanted to hang out with me.

But when booking a ticket you can quickly get into territory that isn’t in the book – like times, train numbers, etc. At this point there were about 10 people crammed next to me getting in on the action. She would be saying things and someone would say an English word that would help – usually they would just laugh, tho. But after about 15 minutes, and the effort of all of us in the room, I walked out with a ticket. Buy the way, Americans are not the only people who repeat things louder hoping it helps. People in every country have done that.

Their kid.

Their kid.

One of the highlights in Dunhuang are the huge dunes right outside of town. When I got there I started hiking up one of them to get a good view of them and the oasis at the base. After hiking for a couple hours – but not getting far – I ran into a Chinese family that wanted to take their picture with me. The uncle made me sit down with them as he smoked – I guess after hiking up some dunes you need a good tar boost to feel better – and tried to talk to me. Some of the kids new a bit of English, but not much. Even after about 30 minutes of laughing I not sure we ever really talked about the same thing.

Enterence to the night market.

Entrance to the night market.

They insisted I join them for some tea, so we started hiking down and took their shuttle out of the dunes. At the entrance I went to look at some ATV’s and when I turned around they were gone. I was bummed at first but I had realized on the shuttle ride back that the uncle was kinda drunk so I didn’t know where the evening would end up going. My first clue that he was drunk should have been how clumsy he was on the dunes. My second clue should have been when he keep saying, “Bush, good”!

So I hopped the bus back to my hotel, stopping to get some snacks until dinner time. I got these crackers that were called 3+2 and had a Chinese boy band on the wrapper. Each one was a Ritz (the snacks, not the boy band members), but thinner and sweeter, with chocolate and vanilla between them. Fantastic. I ate the whole back before getting to my room.

There was a section of little resturaunts.

There was a section of little restaurants.

Wanting to hit up the night market for dinner, I killed some time watching TV before it was time to go out. When you turned the TV on or off, the pictured opened or closed like a curtain and the volume display was a row of flowers with a butterfly that would move as you turned it up or down. And this being China, there wasn’t much I could understand. But I did find a show that was a bunch of James Bond highlights, coupled with travel information about where the action scene took place. There was also a segment all about his various watches. I feel bad for Pierce Brosnan. He could have made a good Bond, but man did his movies stink.

Once the Bond show was over, I headed to the night market for dinner. The food stalls were few and far between, with most stalls dedicated to tourist trinkets. And the food stalls I saw had stuff I didn’t recognize or want, like fish (do not eat fish in China) or a sheep’s head cooking with what was already in a pan. Now, I am willing to try most things once, but I have to know whatever it is I’m trying. And something I’ve learned is that “Yes” is all too common of an answer – even when it isn’t the right one. So at food stalls, I try not to mention the food, but wait until they do. Because you can ask if something is “chicken”, even when it clearly isn’t, and they will say “yes”.

It was cold enough to have stall and seats in little tents.

It was cold enough to have the stalls and seats in little tents.

I found someone who was cooking naan so I figured that would be a safe bet (Dunhuang is known for it’s donkey meat). He sliced the naan into five strips, cooked it over the open flames, coated it with oil, cooked it some more then put chili mixture over it. He invited me to sit at the little table next to his stall and he and what looked like his kids (chefs-in-training) got a big kick out of me being there. I made such a big deal about how good it was that he gave me some tea and even some money back. I tried to refuse the money, but he was pretty adamant and he shut me up by pouring some more tea.

Outside The Wall

November 22, 2008
by Stuart
Comments Off on Outside The Wall

After a long overnight train from Beijing, I arrived in Jiayuguan – where the Wall ends at a fort in the desert. I got in quite late at night and took a taxi to my hotel. Well, we eventually got there.

Looking fown from the Overhanging Wall

Looking down from the Overhanging Wall

Something I’ve learned about taxi drivers here is that when you point to the address in your guidebook, one that you have written down, they always say they know the place or at least understand the address. Basically they just want you to get in the car. Then they drive you to some hotel and let you out. When you ask if this is the right place it gets awkward and they look at the address – for what I think is actually the first time – and get all confused even though the book has both the Chinese characters and the pinyin. This has led me to my other theory – taxi cab drivers don’t know how to read. Nor do they have to have any knowledge about the layout of the city.

The Guys.

The Guys.

The next day I got up and planned to spend most of the day exploring the fort, hopefully getting out there by bike. So I walked around the city for a bit trying to find anything I could about renting bikes and getting to the fort. I knew I could take a cab or minibus, but I wanted to bike. Seemed more adventurous or something.

One of the towers of the fort.

One of the towers of the fort seen from one of the gates.

Eventually I got to a hotel that is supposed to rent bikes. But this being the off-season, a lot of tourist stuff is closed – like bike rentals for instance. But while I was “talking” to the people behind the counter, I notice a dude walk by who looked western. So after my conversation went nowhere, I walked outside and saw him. Turns out not only did he speak English, but he WAS English!

I think you know who this is.

This monument declares "First and Greatest Pass Under Heaven", another name for the fort.

We hit it off right away. Richard was pretty funny and had a mustache like that guy from Office Space that he was growing for a charity fundraiser.Totally awesome. He invited me along with his two Scottish buddies, Brian and Graeme to share a cab for the day and see the sights. The best part, tho, was that Graeme was near-fluent in Chinese. So we stopped by a little place for lunch and he ordered, then later he negotiated a good rate for the cab and made sure we were doing what we wanted. He kinda became our tour guide.

On my singnal, unleash heck.

At my signal, unleash hell. Me, Richard, Brian, Graeme.

The first stop was called the Overhanging Great Wall, which are two sections of the wall that have been restored that goes up two sides of a ridge overlooking the pass between them. The view of the fort and the mountains in the distance was cool, but nowhere as great as the surroundings of the Wall outside Beijing. One section had been restored in the ’80’s, and the other in 2001, so it felt too new to be taken seriously. Plus not much looks good from the ’80’s anyway.

You would also play mideval dress up.

You would also play medieval dress up.

The fort has also been restored a few times and is pretty touristy. There were shops inside and even places where you could stand atop the wall and shoot arrows down at targets shaped like people. Yes, we did this. Twice. I think it’s going to be a common experience in China that historical places have been restored to the point of not feeling historic. I guess that’s true in most countries, but I think there is a difference between restoring and rebuilding. In Europe they have restored churches but they still feel “old”. Like the sections of the wall, the fort felt too new. But the design and layout were great, and some of the towers called back to ancient times when China considered this the end of the “civilized world”.

The fort had some cool arcitecture.

The fort had some cool architecture.

After walking around the fort walls and courtyards our driver took us to this place where the Wall literally ends at a canyon with a river going through it. There is now a zipline you can take to cross the canyon where there is this gladiator-training camp or something. Maybe some summer camp for warriors-in-training. The driver took us to a foot bridge where we could cross over the river and see the end of the Wall from the other side.

Outside the fort, near the people offering camel rides.

Outside the fort, near the people offering camel rides.

With the sun behind the mountains we headed back to Jiayuguan for dinner. Again, Graeme, who could read the menu, helped us all order. We got a ton of food – chicken, spring rolls with some blueberry dough filling, potato slices in spices, snow peas in some really good sauce, tofu, and some beef with hot peppers. Then we headed back to their hotel and hung out until they left for the train station, giving me a lift back to my dumpy hotel.

Home, Sweet Home

November 15, 2008
by Tina

I arrived back in San Francisco via Tokyo on the 12th in order to see a doctor about my arm and to attend my obligatory Neurotech appointments.  I was pretty sad to leave Beijing, and I made quite a scene at the airport when Stuart and I were saying our farewells.  I bust into tears right in front of the security checkpoint just as a group of Chinese tourists approached.  In the middle of my sobs, I lifted my head from Stuart’s shoulder to see that we were surrounded by a sea of old Chinese people in red hats.  I’m not sure why I got so emotional.  I don’t know if I was sad to be leaving China, or sad to be away from Stuart for three weeks, or (most likely) scared to leave Stuart alone in China to fend for himself.  Probably all three.  Now that I am home, I am happy to be here.  Its nice to have some time to rest my arm and rejuvenate.  I saw a doctor at Kaiser yesterday, and aside from the hospital catching on fire during my appointment, it went very well.  The doctor (who looked kinda like George Clooney) said my arm looked like it was healing well, and said that I should be good to go by December 1 (good timing as I fly back to Beijing on the 2nd).  I also have to admit that I am really enjoying the comforts of home.

Top 10 awesome things about being home:

10. Clean clothes
9. Well maintained sidewalks
8. Western toilets and soft TP
7. Orderly queues
6. Pedestrian right-of-way and observed traffic laws
5. Western medicine
4. Friends and family
3. November heat wave
2. English
1. Tacos

Go West Young Man

November 13, 2008
by Stuart

This is just a quick post letting you know there might not be a post for a while. Tina is at home and I’m heading on a two/three week trip to western China along the Silk Road with the goal of making to Kashgar (Kashi on that map) – a melting pot of Uighur, Kazakh, Urdu and Tajik peoples. I hope to take the train along the northern route then take buses along the southern route, possibly crossing the Taklamakan Desert – a rough idea of the route. A couple towns have internet, but most don’t even seem to have much of anything. Hopefully I can post something along the way.