Silk Road 12 – Mission accomplished: Arrived in Xian!!

After 3 months on the road, I finally made it to Xian, the Eastern terminus of the Silk Road. Mission accomplished!!

I arrived happy for having been able to complete the whole journey from Istanbul. Looking back, I could appreciate how different those two cities were, yet there are no discontinuities between them. That is the advantage of travelling overland: you can see how the world changes little by little from one town to the next, with slightly different racial traits, slightly different food, culture, etc. That’s as opposed to flying. If you flew from Istanbul to Xian, you’d suddenly arrive to a completely different world and wouldn’t make any sense of your journey or how things connect.

Xi’an is the quintessential Chinese city. Sprawling and with a population of over 8 million and growing, it is becoming one of the Chinese megalopolis. But in the past it was even more populated in relative terms, actually it was one of the world’s biggest cities and capital of the Chinese empire. It was then called Chang’an.

As a testament to its former glory, the city preserves the city walls and a beautiful bell and drum tower. These two, however, seem stifled by the ever-growing shopping malls and traffic jams that surround both monuments.

The city is also well-known for an attraction nearby: the Army of Terracota Warriors, which is usually one of the highlights of any visit to China. I assume you have all heard about this.

Bell Tower, Xian

Already finished with my Silk Road accounts in these 12 episodes, I hope you enjoyed it. Next post will change course: India.


Silk Road 11 – Tibetan flavour on the Silk Road

Hundreds of kilometres outside of Tibet and still you can find beautiful Tibetan villages and monasteries. Actually, the consensus among travellers is that it is better to visit Tibetan villages outside of Tibet proper, as it is not so much controlled by the Chinese army and visitors can travel independently and talk to people easily.

So, still in the province of Gansu, I visited Labrang Monastery, one of the six great monasteries of the Geluk (Yellow Hat) school of Tibetan Buddhism. It is located in the town of Xiahe, which I really liked for being very laid-back. Here, it really feels like being in Tibet, with Tibetan pilgrims and monks everywhere, Tibetan restaurants, houses, prayer flags, prayer wheels, etc.

Labrang Monastery

Pilgrims running the Kora at Labrang Monastery

While in Xiahe, I received a message from ‘Tom’, whom I had met in Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu. He studies in Lanzhou but was now in his hometown of Hezuo, the capital of Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (to which Xiahe belongs), and invited me to visit his city and stay at his place. As it is only a couple of hours bus ride away, I was there by the afternoon.

Tom exemplifies a modern generation of Tibetans in China: very much merged with the Chinese lifestyle but still proud of their own culture. He speaks Tibetan at home with his parents and grandmother. Educated, he also speaks and writes English fluently. Still, with a whole Chinese education, he cannot write his own native language.  He is a Buddhist and goes to the temple and runs the Kora when he’s at home, but not as often, as he says he is “busy” with studying (or internet :)). The family lives in a modern, middle-class apartment, far from traditional Tibetan homes, while they also add some Tibetan decor. Most meals are Chinese style, but for breakfast they never miss yak butter tea and tsampa.

Milarepa Monastery

Hezuo also has a famous Tibetan monastery, Milarepa. He took me to visit it. He showed much devotion to all the images inside but couldn’t (or wouldn’t) explain to me much about what they represent. I could remember some of them, though, from my visit to monasteries in Tibet two years ago.

Also here, I ran the ‘Kora’, always clockwise as it is required. Praying wheels contain the sacred scriptures inside, so rolling them is a proxy for reciting, even if one cannot read.

Me running the ‘Kora’

In the evening, we had a great meal in a local restaurant with his cousin, who doesn’t speak a word of English but was very welcoming.

In the Karaoke

And after dinner, the favourite entertainment in this part of the world: Karaoke. Not that I’m a good singer!! With a bottle of Chivas and free flow of beer… They wouldn’t let me pay for anything in my whole stay, no matter how much I insisted.

Finally, Tom received a phone call from his mother: there was no running water in the house. Before I even knew, they had booked and paid a nice hotel room for me, and would pick me up for having breakfast back home.

After lunch, they took me to the bus station and I went back to Lanzhou. After so much kindness, I could only invite the family to visit Spain, although in the knowledge that it is very unlikely that they will ever travel abroad.

Silk Road 10 – The edge of civilization

Continuing through the Hexi Corridor, I reached Jiayuguan, a pass in the narrowest point of the corridor. It was long thought of as the extreme western edge of Chinese culture and civilization, even if Chinese domains sometimes extended further. To the West, only feared empty steppes, deserts and nomadic tribes. It also marks the west end of the Great Wall of China.

The fort here is one of the most recognisable images of western China, and I saw many Chinese visiting it.

Jiayuguan fort

Marco Polo

After a short visit to Jiayuguan, my next stop was Zhangye, in the middle section of the Hexi Corridor. Marco Polo spent a year there in his way to Xanadu, and local authorities have erected a monument of the great Venetian traveller. It is in the middle of a roundabout though, so taking a picture is quite risking your life :).

The city also has a bell tower and drum tower, as other Chinese cities, and some nice parks and big squares.

Zhangye is best known for the Dafo Si (Great Buddha temple). The building is one of the oldest wooden structures still standing in China. Inside, the pagoda houses a huge 35 metre-long reclining Buddha.

Dafo temple, Zhangye

Silk Road 9 – The Dunes in Dunhuang

From Kashgar, the Silk Road splits in two routes that border the impenetrable Taklamakan desert: the Northern route and the Southern route. I took the Northern (easiest one) through Ürumqi and Turpan. Both routes merge again in the famous oasis town of Dunhuang. Getting there involved endless train journeys in crowded wagons: people on every open space. Two years ago I could book a cheap sleeper berth for longer journeys even 1-2 days before, but they are so popular now that it’s impossible to get one unless you book long in advance; even securing a seat isn’t that easy.

I left amazing Xinjiang and entered into not-less-interesting Gansu, a province that extends along the Hexi corridor, the only pass merchants could use to avoid the high mountains on both sides.

Dunhuang is the Silk Road town in China par excellence. It is a very nice, smallish, laid-back town. It is quite touristy though, although of course 98% of the tourists here are Chinese.

From a historical perspective, the most interesting site in Dunhuang are the Mogao Buddhist caves. Buddhism arrived here from India also following trade routes. Merchants would finance the building of these caves thankful for crossing the dreaded Taklamakhan. Monks inhabited the caves. Inside, there are beautiful painted Buddha statues, some small, some huge, as well as paintings in the walls and ceilings with religious motifs. This enormous complex that contains 735 caves is recognized as one of the masterpieces of Buddhist art in the world. No pictures allowed inside (so you need to go! :)).

Mogao Caves

The other big draw here, other than the town itself, is to explore the desert in an area with big dunes near the town, called Crescent Lake. The Crescent Lake itself is just a small lake in the desert which is supposed to look like a crescent moon. It is really popular with Chinese tourists, perhaps even more than the Mogao caves. Surely, Chinese and Westerners have very different tastes. The entrance ticket to this area is really expensive, completely overpriced. The problem is that all the desert area is fenced and you cannot just wander through the amazing sand dunes without paying the hefty ticket.

But a group of university students at my hostel had a plan. They wanted to get up before dawn, jump the fence far from the gate while still dark, and sneak into the complex. They invited me to join them. A Chinese guy who had studied in the US and spoke great English also joined (useful for translating the rest of them), as well a younger Chinese student who came separately. And so we did. It took us a long time to find a spot where we could possibly jump the fence and also quite a lot of difficulty to move up and down the sand dunes, but we finally arrived to the main area at the time the first tourists got there. Inside the complex, all kinds of touristy stuff like taking pictures with camels, etc., that Chinese tourists enjoy so much. This group of students were really nice to me while I was in Dunhuang, always offering me food or something, even though I couldn’t speak with them in Chinese.

Dune in Dunhuang

Crescent Moon

Silk Road 8 – Kashgar’s Sunday Market

And so Benoît and I arrived before the weekend to Kashgar, definitely one of the highlights of my Silk Road journey.

The inmense region of Xinjiang is the homeland of the Uyghur, a Turkic ethnic group. They look more like Central Asian, a completely different race to the (Han) Chinese; they speak Uyghur, a language related to Turkish and written on an Arabic-based calligraphy; they are Muslims and eat very different food. In short, being among the Uyghurs, you don’t feel like being in China at all. However, the Chinese Government is encouraging more and more Chinese people to migrate into Xinjiang to consolidate the region, and therefore the population is now split: two utterly different worlds share the same cities. They generally don’t mingle, it is uncommon to see a group of friends with Chinese and Uyghur, nor do they eat in the same restaurants.

Old and new Kashgar

Kashgar is still a good place to appreciate the traditional Uyghur lifestyle. The old town, with traditional family homes, stands in stark contrast to the new Kashgar, with enormous Chinese buildings, broad avenues and a big Mao statue. In the centre of the old part lies the main mosque, and around it food bazaars and Uyghur shops, which according to Benoît, felt like the Middle East.

Kashgar is well-known for the Sunday Market. This colourful market is held every day, but Sunday is the big day. It is like taking a step back in time. Everything can be bought in this enormous bazaar: meat, spices, knives, jade, second-hand utensils, etc. (or a haircut!). No Chinese in sight, bar a few tourists camera in hand. Awesome, a true Silk Road experience!


Need a haircut?

Only on Sundays, another beautiful market takes place: the livestock market. Thousands of animals are taken to the venue for sale. There are separate areas for cattle, sheep, horses, donkeys and so on. The potential buyers inspect the animals and negotiate directly with the owners. Again, 100% of the merchants were Uyghur. And again, I found the place truly fascinating.

Livestock Market

Livestock market

Animal instincts!


I will finish this post with another curiosity about Xinjiang, regarding the time. Officially, this region shares the same time zone with the rest of China (Beijing time). But as it is thousands of kilometres west of Beijing, the official time is ridiculously at odds with actual solar time. Locals unofficially use Xinjiang time (mostly used by Uyghurs), which is 2 hours ahead of Beijing time (mostly used by the Chinese). Therefore, you not only have to ask “What time is it?” but also “Which time?” 🙂

Silk Road 7 – Hitchhiking towards China

Crossing the Pamir and Tien Shan ranges that separate China and Kyrgyzstan today was one of the most difficult stages for Silk Road travellers. And it continues to be. 🙂

There are only two border crossings: Irkeshtam and Torugart. For crossing at Torugart you need special permits, a Kyrgyz driver with special permits to take you through the no-man’s land and pre-arranged transportation from the Chinese border to Kashgar, everything to be arranged through a travel agency. A costly nightmare of red tape. Obviously, I chose the Irkeshtam option, despite the greater distance. I wanted to cross before the weekend (on weekends both borders close) to be in Kashgar for the Sunday Market (next post). The only public transport is a very uncomfortable bus going twice per week, but the cheapest and most comfortable option is to hitchhike.

The journey started in the city of Osh. Just after arriving from Bishkek, I started looking for a shared taxi leaving for Sara Tash. It was rather difficult to find one. All the drivers would insist there were no other passangers going, in their – hopeless – effort to make me hire a full car. But finally in a more out-of-the-way stand I found a driver heading for there. It took me more than half an hour to negotiate a fair price, probably the lack of competition pushed the prices higher.

In this trip through mountaineous roads I met Benoît, a French traveller who would travel with me for the next 3 days and share the effort of hitchhiking. And he was experienced: he had come hitchhiking all the way from France.

After a few hours we arrived at Sara Tash, in time for dinner. This is a very small village, spread over the intersection of two important roads: the one that goes to Tajikistan and the one that goes to China. We asked in one of the two “hotels” in town, and agreed to sleep there for the night and have dinner. The place was a family house with a semi-independent big room where they welcome travellers to sleep on the floor with some pillows and bed linen. A hole-in-the-ground toilet was outside with no shower. Later, 4 travellers from Israel, Canada and Poland who were heading for Tajikistan appeared and shared the room with us. Two tents were also laid in the garden by Swiss cyclists.

The village boasts some spectacular views of the mountains that separate this country from China:

The road to China

Our first driver

We decided to skip breakfast and start hitchhiking at 6 am believing that most Chinese trucks would cross early. No truck or car passed through the road to China for the first 40 minutes, and I was really freezing! Suddenly, the first truck appeared and stopped. We got on, and this nice driver took us all the way to the Kyrgyz frontier, for a small fee.

We reached the frontier at 9 am, exactly when it opens. There were many trucks stopped there but nothing seemed to move. I was hoping to find some breakfast or at least a hot drink but none of the houses marked as “bar” seemed to be open. So we continued to the frontier and were particularly welcomed by the guards, being the only travellers who were crossing on foot in such a remote location. We had to wait some time until a truck was inspected and ready for crossing, and the Kyrgyz officers put us into it.

In this second truck we crossed the no-man’s land, a really scenic road where we only saw a couple of trucks.

Trucks follow the scenic route to China

When we reached the Chinese frontier, we entered the immigration post and surprise: the only bus that links Osh to Kashgar twice per week was crossing at the exact same time. Then waiting, waiting, waiting. In total, crossing from the Kyrgyz frontier to the last Chinese immigration post was something like 8 hours. We handed our passports to the officer and had our baggage thoroughly inspected. He took all my clothes one by one, opened all my medicines and stuff and asked me what each thing was. Then he took my books and looked at them, and he started watching the videos in my iPad (in Spanish). Apparently, he didn’t see anything offensive in my belongings, but one of his colleagues noticed my Lonely Planet guidebook. He knew that the map on the first page did not include Taiwan as part of China and therefore he had to tear it out from the book. I tried to convince him to strip only Taiwan (which is not included in the guidebook anyway), but after consultation with his superior, he tore the whole map.

A sign informed that the actual immigration post had moved something like 125 km down the road, and that people crossing on foot should join a truck so as “not to get lost”  and because “truck drivers know the way” 🙂 But the high-ranking Chinese officer ordered us to get into the bus instead. The bus conductor asked for a lot of money to take us to Kashgar (the full fare from Osh to Kashgar, even though we had covered most of it), and we refused. The officer got really angry but in the end he gave in and ordered a cheerful young officer to take us to a truck, while saying “here, no money, no money!”. The trucks were waiting there for ages, but this one immediately got permission to proceed.

Our third truck driver that day told us he was neither Chinese nor Kyrgyz, he was a Uyghur. Except for the last part, the approx 125 km were mostly empty space, just like the no-man’s land, occupied by some of these camels. There was also a checkpoint in between.

When we got to the new immigration post, the same story: waiting, waiting, more waiting, full baggage inspection item by item and, finally, we got our passports stamped and could proceed. It was late-afternoon, and we hadn’t  had breakfast yet. There were no moneychangers, so we had to rely on a few yuan I carried from a previous trip.

There was still an hour or more to Kashgar by car. There was only one taxi driver outside the border, offering his services to us insistently. But we had already come a long way to here, so why not continue hitchhiking?? We walked to what seemed a main road and eventually found a driver who took us to Kashgar for much less than the taxi fare.