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Day 51 Qinghai Lake [China 2011]

June 15, 2012
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Day 51 Qinghai Lake 青海湖 [Recap of China 2011]

July 16, 2011

We drove from Xining to Qinghai Lake, through green grassy hills, by tents and motorcycles and trucks, and herders with sheep and yaks, and blooming rape flowers. White sheep dotted the hills. Qinghai Lake is the largest in China. A few quiet streets lead down to the waterfront, crowded with horses and tourists. The lake was deep and blue. The clouds were whipped like mashed potatoes on the mountains, and not a single one hung over the lake. The mountains sloped into fields of yellow rape blossoms down to the lake shore. We took a boat to Erlangjian 二郎剑, a saberlike sandbar in the lake, where kids played in the shallow water as if on a polished mirror.

By colorful cargo trucks and a gas station where goats ate garbage we had a sumptuous lunch at one of several Sichuan restaurants standing in a row. We droe to Bird Island 鸟岛, where we walked a windowed corridor and watched the birds nesting. The ground outside was covered in eggs.

We rode a bus up to see the cormorants on Cormorant Island 鸬鹚岛, a tall rock outcropping in the lake. The cormorants were nesting on rocks and cliffs, the green grass grew on Bird Island, and down the hill were sand dunes.

Driving around the lake, we saw herders on motorcycles and in tents, with yaks and lots of sheep, on green hills like Tibet.

We returned to Xining and ate Xinjiang food (potatoes, chicken, etc.) in a restaurant on a night street.


Day 50 Xining [China 2011]

June 14, 2012
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Day 50 Xining 西宁 [Recap of China 2011]

July 15, 2011 (Yamakasa in Japan)

Come morning I woke on the train from Jiayuguan. I brushed my teeth at a metal sink and packed my yellow bag. Halfway out of the train, I lost my wallet, but Joy got it back. Someone had picked it up under my bunk and returned it. We ate beef ramen at Mazilu by the station in Lanzhou and took a double-decker train to Xining that was hot and stuffed with standees. We met Joy’s family and had a seafood platter.

John Giles, Jr.

February 4, 2012

John Giles, Jr. (1788-1871) was a Georgia schoolteacher, and my ancestor. Two pages from his notes, circa 1806-1836:



Plus: an old typewriter, and the central piece of a cotton gin, for separating the cotton from the boll.


And: Sawblades from the sawmill.


From Jonesboro,

At the Terrell property, on Terrell Lake, Jonesboro, GA. (My mom is a Terrell.)


Day 49 Jiayuguan [China 2011]

July 31, 2011

(I’m going to complete the June-July 2011 entries covering travel in China.)

July 14, 2011 (Thursday)

Forty-ninth day in China, one day in Jiayuguan: 嘉峪关 Jiayuguan fortress, 悬壁长城 Hanging Great Wall

We took the train from Dunhuang a few hours to Jiayuguan, back east along the Silk Road. Jiayuguan town was unremarkable. We got a cabbie to take us to three sites: Jiayuguan, the Hanging Great Wall, and the river. At Jiayuguan we paid entry and rented an audioguide. The approach to the fort wound around a small lake stuffed with reeds. We passed the brown brick walls through a gate and walked to the inner fortress, a complex of walls and towers from the Ming dynasty. We walked under the towers and climbed the walls. A wall extended from either side of the complex. Jiayuguan was once the last bastion of the Great Wall. Pass through the gate and the traveler would leave China. A clerk would paint their likeness to confirm their identity on return. Outside the wall on our visit, tourists posed for photos on camels, while inside an old woman tried to get us to watch a “mouse show”. From the wall stretched a barren field to the foot of dark mountains. Beyond rose the icy peak of 祁连山 Qilianshan, the mountain separating Gansu and Qinghai.

The cab took us to the Hanging Great Wall. The renovated wall climbs the crags outside Jiayuguan city. Qilianshan could be seen over the peaks. The town of Jiayuguan sat on a vast flatland. Smoke rose from factories in town. Farmland ran up to the wall, illustrating 長城外內, the separation of inside and outside the Great Wall. We made the short ascent to a tower and took the stairs down the rocks. The cab drove us next to a bend in the river bounded by sheer cliffs. We walked a suspension bridge over the chasm.

We ate dinner in a restaurant by the train station, and rode the sleeper back to Lanzhou.


Day 48 Dunhuang

July 30, 2011

July 13, 2011 (Wednesday)

Forty-eighth day in China, third day in Dunhuang: 莫高窟 Mogao Caves

The object of any visit to Dunhuang are the Mogao Caves, the site of Buddhism’s introduction into China, and home to thousands of grottoes decorated with delicate statuary and wall paintings. We took a cab to the caves, down a dusty road just past the train station, arrayed along a rocky cliff facing a river. A Chinese guide took us to about ten caves. The caves are locked, and the inside monitored for moisture and oxygen levels. If the level is too high, the guides are advised by headset not to take tourists inside. Though statues were stolen by European, Japanese and American “explorers”, and others–including many central Buddhas–destroyed, many remaining figures are in excellent condition. The white-faced Tang dynasty statuary was especially attractive. Two caves contained giant Buddhas, each some three stories tall. One sits straight up. The shorter one in fact appears larger, as it leans over the visitors. Patches in the leg of the seated Buddha exposed Tang-era straw filling. Each successive dynasty added dirt to the floor of the Buddha’s chamber. When the original floor was uncovered, locals joked that the Buddha grew one meter.

Off one of the more famous caves, the ceiling covered in little Buddhas, sat a tiny room, once the 藏經洞 scripture depository at Mogaoku. The room once held 58,000 Buddhist scriptures. When the Hungarian scholar Aurel Stein arrived in 1907, he got them to open the room, and bought some 15,000 scriptures in various languages to take back to England (they’re now in the British Museum). A French explorer and a Japanese followed soon after. The Louvre has many of those. Japanese collectors have returned some of the manuscripts.

We snuck into a second group and got a guide who was not really a guide, but a researcher filling in. He told us (and Joy translated) more about rooms we had already visited, and took us to a few new ones, those he liked. In one, two identical paintings faced one another, each telling the story of the same Buddhist parable. Rival painters took up the same subject. When the paintings were shown, baskets for donations were placed in front of each so visitors could vote with their wallets. The blue pigments were especially bright, having been painted with a special pigment imported from Afghanistan via the Silk Road. Images from the walls of Mogaoku are iconic representations of Chinese art.

The buses and cabs had all gone, so we caught a ride with the staff from the souvenir stalls in their bus back to Dunhuang. One staffer, a woman with two kids, showed us a place for local food on a busy street. We ate donkey meat and cold noodles.


Day 47 Yadan

July 30, 2011

July 12, 2011 (Tuesday)

Forty-seventh day in China, second day in Dunhuang: 汉长城 Han Great Wall, 玉门关 Yumenguan, 雅丹 Yadan

We ate lunch at the hostel and hopped on the 2pm bus for Yadan, a “Geopark” out in the desert on the Xinjiang-Gansu border. The bus left Dunhuang via a lonely road shooting straight into the rocky desert. Dark mountains rose in the distance. The mountain range straight ahead looked like a 臥佛 sleeping Buddha. A huge mirage, like a giant lake, arose on our left, and a small sand-twister hit the bus. We stopped at a site of Buddhist cave art, but no guides were present to unlock the caves, so we drove on to the 汉长城 Han Great Wall. In Gansu lie the furthest reaches of the Great Wall, lost in the desert. The 2000 year old wall was reduced to a few meters of earth and straw facing a stretch of green on one side. On the other, “the lone and level sands stretched far away”. We rode on to 玉门关 Yumenguan, or the “Jade Gate Pass”, through which Joy’s father told us they used to bring in jade from Xinjiang on the Silk Road. The fortress was a lone crumbling tower.

At the peak of the day’s heat we reached Yadan, billed as a “natural sculpture garden”. The vast Geopark held many many large stones abraded into fantastic shapes. One looked like the Sphinx, another like a peacock on a pedestal. A bus drove us to several of the closer sights, then we chartered a jeep with a couple from Sichuan to take us further south. A thousand rock shapes arrayed on the sand like battleships at sea. Another group recalled city streets. Our shadows strethched many times longer than our height. The jeep shot out over a lumpy path through the sand to take us up a steep hill. We climbed a huge striated rock with other travelers and watched the sun go down. Two nights in a row we watched the sun go down in a strange place on Earth. Yadan looks like the surface of the moon.

Due to the time difference between Beijing and Dunhuang, the sun sets out west around 9:30pm.

We rode the jeep back in the dark and caught our bus back to the hostel. Made it home by 2am.


Day 46 Dunhuang

July 30, 2011

July 11, 2011 (Monday)

Forty-sixth day in China, first day in Dunhuang: 敦煌 Dunhuang, 鸣沙山 Mingshashan

We arrived early in the morning at Dunhuang’s shiny new beige stone station, and bought return sleeper tickets from Jiayuguan to Lanzhou. We met a Korean traveler on his way to 乌鲁木齐 Urumqi. At the cab stand we made friends with a fellow traveler named Ye, and rode together to Charley Johng’s Dune Guesthouse, a hostel south of Dunhuang, near the sand dunes.

We got a private cabin in an apricot orchard. Apricots dried on tables all over the garden, and the dunes towered right behind the hostel, which comprised a four-sided courtyard. We ate lunch and headed into Dunhuang proper with our friend Ye, but found nothing to be seen. The weather was bone dry and unbearably hot. The streets were deserted. Rather than the Silk Road trading post of my foolish imagination, Dunhuang was a small town in modern Han style. A mosque in square, contemporary style sat at the city center. We stopped for milk tea at 三毛 Sanmao cafe, and were pleasantly surprised to be seated on legless benches suspended from the cieling.

We took the bus down to the colossal dunes at 鸣沙山 Mingshashan, or maybe “Singing Sand Mountain”. We saw camels climbing around the side, rented orange gaiters to cover our shoes, and walked right up the middle on a narrow path. Truly mountainous, the dune was many times taller than anything I had seen in Morocco. The smooth slopes curved gracefully. The center path was hard to climb. Only by stepping in the footprints of those climbing ahead could you avoid slipping in the sand. We reached the top and saw 月牙泉 Yueyaquan, or “Crescent Moon Lake”, and got a great photo taken at the golden hour, as the sun set over the opposite dune. By chance, we met our friend Ye, on his way down, and together watched the sun go down over the lake.

In darkness we whipped off our gaiters and shoes and–forsaking the path–walked right down the slope. The dune sloped at a gentle gradient. I jumped as far as I could. For a moment, I flew off the mountain, only to touch down in forgiving sand a few meters below.


Day 45 Lanzhou

July 30, 2011

July 10, 2011 (Sunday)

Forty-fifth day in China, first day in Lanzhou: 牛肉面 (兰州拉面) beef noodles (Lanzhou ramen), 黄河 Yellow River, night train to Dunhuang

2011年7月10日 在中國第45天, 在蘭州第2天:

We set out in search of legendary Lanzhou lamian, or “Lanzhou ramen”, sold all over China, and called niuroumian, or “beef noodles”, in Lanzhou. On the pedestrian shopping section of Zhangye Road we got Joy’s glasses fixed for free. After three shops didn’t have the needed screw, we were sent to the back of a fourth. A somber young guy produced a box full of screws, selected one with tweezers, and fixed the glasses without a word.

“How much?”

(“It’s nothing.”)

We found Gansu people, lens-fixers to cabbies, quite helpful and kind.

We walked between department stores on the pedestrian Zhangye Road, turned down an alley full of restaurants, and ate lamian at 马子禄 Mazilu. I suppose eating Mazilu in Lanzhou is like eating Ippudô in Hakata (though a bowl of ramen in Mazilu is 5 yuan, or less than 100 Japanese yen, making it easily ten times cheaper than Ippudô in Fukuoka, and twenty times cheaper than Ippudô in New York). We stood in a long line and gave our tickets to a cook at the kitchen window. Chefs stretched and smacked the dough, then tossed it into a bubbling vat. Another cook scooped the noodles into a bowl and passed it to the window, where the ticket-taker with a ladle whisked beef and chili oil. The texture of the hand-stretched noodles was superb, the beef portion small but delectable, and the soup good enough to drink.

I still felt under the weather, so we taxied to the Gansu Provincial Second People’s Hospital. A doctor listened to my symptoms, diagnosed me with a minor cold, and sent me for a blood test. They pricked my finger and gave us a chart full of percentages. The doctor prescribed a mix of Chinese and Western medicine we picked up from the dispensary, and we headed out.

We caught a cab back to Zhongshan Bridge and walked along the Yellow River, then taxied back and caught the train to Dunhuang at the station.

The dry, treeless mountains of Gansu passed outside.

We slept on the train.


Day 44 Lanzhou

July 30, 2011

July 9, 2011 (Saturday)

Forty-fourth day in China, first day in Lanzhou: food, 正宁路 Zhengning night market, 黄河 Yellow River

2011年7月9日 在中國第44天, 在蘭州第1天: 食物, 正寧路, 黃河第一橋

In the cold, rainy early afternoon, we walked up 永昌路 Yongchang Street, and at the corner of a square squeezed into a packed restaurant for a meal. We paid at the window, gave our cards to the cooks working behind glass, facing the street, and received 麻辣鸡汤粉 spicy chicken broth rice noodles, 酿皮 niangpi, 包子 baozi, and skewers of pork and squid. Bought more medicines at a pharmacy.

We set out to find the bustling street below our window, and a few minutes from the door found 正宁路 Zhengning Street, the night market. The center of the street became a shoulder-to-shoulder path between food stalls. Behind the stalls were tables, behind the tables, restaurants. Many kinds of food were on sale, like cold noodles, fruit, nuts, barbecue, grilled fish, and lamb. We drank 杏皮茶 apricot juice and ate spicy potato fries and grilled fish. At the fry stall, the cook whisked potato slices in and out of boiling oil. At the fish stall, two cooks cook clamped two fish at a time in iron tongs, and held them over the fire, swapping tongs to cook many fish at once while the customers sat on stools behind.

One of Sawaki Kôtarô’s comments on Hong Kong in 1973 stuck with me:

“In Hong Kong, every day was like a festival.” – Sawaki Kôtarô Shinya Tokkyû (1986)

We visited Lanzhou on no special occasion, and yet the nighttime energy sparked a party atmosphere. We walked down to the Yellow River and crossed Zhongshan Bridge, decked in garish lights. Two illuminated billboards for China Mobile stared each other down over the swift current. On the opposite shore were buildings in pseudo-classical Chinese style going up the mountain. We took a cab back to Zhengning Street, shouldered our way back toward the hotel, and ate hot soup boiled in an iron vat. A pipe underneath spat a stream of fire. The sweet soup mixed raisins, egg, and other dry fruits in a fermented rice porridge.

“Of course, more than four million people–on top of carrying out their daily lives–couldn’t possibly hold a festival every day. But for me, their daily life itself I could not help but feel was like a festival.” – Sawaki (1986)





Day 43 Beijing

July 29, 2011

July 8, 2011 (Friday)

Forty-third day in China, eleventh day in Beijing: 雍和宫 Yongehegong, flying to 兰州 Lanzhou

2011年7月8日 在中國第43天, 在北京第11天: 雍和宮, 到蘭州坐飛機

I visited the nearby Yonghegong, or “Lama Temple.” Women in ethnic dress sat along the tree-lined path I walked into the compound. I walked through halls of golden Buddhist idols. A great many foreign tourists came to view the Buddhas with me. I cannot help feeling the very colorful temples are like Buddhist theme parks. Sincere worshippers came to burn incens, prostrate themselves, and pray. Some brought children. The famous white statue was covered. The wall of five-hundred arhats carved in sandalwood stood behind, opposite the largest hall. I entered the last hall, and stood at the feet of a giant Buddha. I looked up at the face of a Buddha some three stories tall. Colored banners hung from its palms.

I returned to Dreams Travel Hostel, where I met Bill. Born in Holland, he’d served as a pilot, and lived in New Zealand in the 40’s and Indonesia in the 60’s. In 2009, he lived in Fukuoka.

“You know Rainbow Plaza?” he asked me. He said he’d started an English corner there, where I got my job tutoring English posting on the message board. “What was the name of that station? …Tenjin!”

Michael, the resident travel agent, and also quite a character, joined us in a photo.

“One fat dad and two sons!”

I took the subway to the airport. I drank lychee tea in a cafe, reading about Lanzhou, Dunhuang, Jiayuguan, and Qinghai Lake. My 4pm scheduled departure took off at 6:30 (the original arrival time). We flew over mountains out of Beijing, and over desert, and descended over barren hills to Lanzhou. I met Joy in the airport. We took the bus to town, and a cab to the hotel. Out the window sound car horns. Between the high rises shuffle people down a lively street.

Tomorrow: Lanzhou lamian.

明天: 蘭州拉麵


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