Backpacking (October 23rd – November 5th)

With my stuff sent packing to Chendgu, the last few weeks were spent tapping into the more traditional backpacking style way of doing things.

During the train ride to Urumchi I saw much of the Taklamakan Desert go by and in many ways I was really glad I wasn’t cycling it. Maybe 5-10 % looked interesting, the rest exceptionally dull. That said it was a 24+hour train journey so there’s a fair chance I missed some cool bits during the night. Out of the South facing windows was a very samey desert while on the North side was a mediocre looking mountain range. It was certainly nothing to write home about…

After the thrill of arriving in Kashgar, I was well up for visiting my second Chinese city. The 2.5million city of Urumqi proved to be a mixed bag. The main reason I was there was to sort out a visa extension and to break up the long journey to Chengdu. I discovered that it isn’t possible to extend a visa in advance (as someone had said back in Kashgar) and I spent a few days getting over a nasty cough I had got since a few days after arriving in China. There is a “heavenly lake” somewhere in the mountains North-East of Urumqi but other than that there isn’t a great deal to do. I felt a bit mountained and laked out so I gave that one a miss (+ it sounded stupidly expensive). The People’s Park proved to be a good source of free entertainment. I pitted my table tennis skills against a granddad, and watched people of all ages delight in dancing to music in the park. There was even Karaoke opera singing to be seen. The whole dancing in the middle of the day in the middle of the park thing is a really popular phenomenon here in China. It’s difficult to say if it’s a cultural thing or if they get some kind of loss of inhibition through the anonymity of a big city, but whatever the reason, they absolutely love it. The highlight of Urumqi was walking up to the city’s large Pagoda and gaining an impressive view of the sunset and the city skyline as dusk became night. From this vantage point you could really see how bad the pollution was in this city – bad.

Next stop after a really comfortable sleeper bus journey was the town of Dunhuang. I say town because that was the type of provincial place we were expecting from looking at the map but as it turned out it, it was a large city with a CBD to rival at least Plymouth’s. What brought me to Dunhuang was the opportunity to check out the Magao Caves – a national treasure formerly filled with Buddhist artwork and manuscripts. Most of the manuscripts were stolen by Europeans, but the indoor Giant Buddha statue remains. It cost a whopping 18quid to go visit this treasure, or you could jump the fence. The other attraction in Duangong is an oasis (possibly artificial) amongst huge sand dunes on the edge of the Taklamakan Desert. You could pay £12 to go in or (on the suggestion of the hostel receptionist), you could walk about 1.5km around the fence. It was a good laugh to stomp about in the sand and run and flip down the massive dunes. Probably the last time I would see camels in a while too. I said goodbye to Daniel a German cyclist who I had been with for a few days and made plans to check out The Great Wall.

That brought me to Jiayuguian. This is in fact The Great Wall’s most westerly and final point. By this time I visited this city, it really became obvious that the Chinese wealthy middle class is not something that will be happening in 20 years time, but that it is very much here and now. Despite the fact that goods are being produced in their own country, people here pay the same thing we would pay in the UK , and often more. Still, with a bit of looking I managed to find a reasonable new pair of sneaks for 15squid. It must surely be a visa thing why the Chinese aren’t coming en masse to Europe every tourist season, because it seems they definitely have the disposable income for it… Anyway the end of the wall and adjoining fort cost a tenner to go visit the end of the wall, or you could jump The Great Wall of China. The fort was actually very impressive and it felt worthwhile making a quick stop off here. There was a story which I remembered from Blue Peter or something about the architect of the fort being so confident about how many bricks he would need that he only asked for one extra brick to be made as if to prove his point. That brick, supposedly, can still be seen sitting on one of the gatehouses.

From Jiayuguian I made my way via nightbus to Lanzhou (China’s most polluted city), and promptly onwards via train to Xian – the end (or beginning) of the Silk Road. This city had a good handful of tourist attractions. My favourite however would have to be the people dancing around the large Pagoda. Hilarious. Otherwise there was the famous Terracotta Warriors which were exactly as you would imagine they would be – not bad, but the sort of thing which you could get just as much out of by watching a National Geographic documentary. I can’t say how happy I was to have visited all these tourist attractions out of the tourist peak season.

Xian would take me to Chengdu where I was at long last reunited with Olga. Here I would meet a pair of cycle tourists heading the same direction as me….

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