Permanent Vacasian

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

Big Buddhas


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.


  1. I know your post is about China — and caves — and that’s really interesting. But I’m still stuck on the sentence about Baco telling you that ingredients for Coca-Cola products become illegal in some countries. What exactly is in Coke?

    Bringing this reply back to the matter at hand, during a recent flight between NZ and SF, I asked for a Diet Coke. Turns out the flight attendant gave me a Chinese Diet Coke. It looked the same (with the addition of a few Chinese characters on the can) but tasted exactly like regular US coke. If you have a moment, try a Diet Coke in China and let me know what you think. Did I get an off can or is Diet Coke in China different?

  2. Real sugar, that’s why Mexican Coke tastes better.

  3. Stuart, you are a great travel writer but if I were you I would get very self-conscious about over using the word awesome. I like your sense of humor. I am going to map quest the cities you are visiting to get an idea of where you are. Vic

  4. That’s AWESOME advice, Vic. Thanks! 🙂

  5. Sutter- I don’t think there is anything “illegal” as in drugs. I think it’s that certain countries outlaw different kinds of things in foods that can be imported or manufactured – think trans-fat. Or a manufacturere in a country might make more money from a certian ingredient being used – like sugar from the local fields instead of corn sryup or whatever. From what I’ve heard, the main differences in taste from country to country are the sweeteners and the purity of water used.

    As for the taste test – I’ll leave that up to Tina, the resident Coke expert. 🙂

  6. Thanks for the photos including yourself. You look SO Handsome. 🙂 Mom