Chengdu #6

This was my last full day in China 😞. I had done pretty much everything on this trip independently (except for hiking the Great Wall), but today I signed up for a tour just to make life easier.

One of the things that Sichuan (and China in general) is most well know for is pandas! Chengdu has a large panda research facility where they have tons of pandas that are kept here for breeding and conservation purposes. It was so cool to wander around and look at them. They had everything from full grown pandas to little baby pandas under a foot long! So cute!

The second stop on the tour was to go see the Leshan giant buddha. This Buddha is absolutely massive… 233 feet tall! It’s so big that a person can fit on just one of the Buddha’s smallest toes. It was quite a sight! But, this part of the tour was a little bit of a rip off. We were initially told we would be able to hike up to the top of the Buddha and get up close to it, but once we got there they said that we could only choose to either see it from a distance or do the hike, but not both. We ended up getting back from the tour like 2 hours early, so it was a bit lame.

That night, I went out to go meet two people from Ireland who i had met on the tour (Ciaran and Eleine) to get some drinks at this cool bar called Revolucion. But, as usual, nothing is easy here. At first, they weren’t able to find the bar as they were dropped off on the wrong side of the little strip of bars. They texted me the name of the bar that they were at, but when i looked it up on google, it said it should be across the river. After a long walk, I found it.. but it was the wrong bar… just another bar with the same name. After getting more bad directions, it took like almost an hour to finally find them. Why is nothing easy here 😭?! Anyways, we finally went to Revolucion and it was awesome! The place had great cocktails and a fun atmosphere… great way to end off the trip!

Chengdu #5

My next day in Chengdu, I went to a different teahouse and just chilled there for most of the afternoon. Afterwards, i went to this popular area called Jinli Street. People wander about here buying all sorts of various snacks. Lots of skewers as you see everywhere else in China, but also large trays filled with bowls of brains or lots of rabbit skulls.

That night, i went out to eat at a restaurant near my hostel. I got a dish that was fish in this spicy broth. It was so good! The fish was incredibly tender and crazy flavorful. I didnt realize when i ordered it, but it also has tofu in there… and surprisingly, the tofu was almost the best part. It was incredibly silky and practically melted into the broth when you tried to pick it up, thus absorbing a ton of the flavor.

As i was about to leave the restaurant, i heard all this yelling at the door. All of a sudden this massive fight breaks out and comes tumbling into the restaurant. It was absolutely nuts. Like 10-15 people all swinging punches and brawling like crazy. People were being thrown against the counter, which caused dishes and other things to fly all over and crash on to the floor. People were screaming, and tearing apart people’s clothes. Some were grabbing the little plastic chairs and smashing them over peoples’ heads. Girls and other people on the periphery who were trying to pull the fight apart would get sucked into the vortex. It was completely fucking crazy. Finally the fight ended and a bunch of people took off, leaving some others standing there with ripped shirts and blood and bruises. One of the crazy things was that pretty much nobody inside the restaurant reacted. The people who worked at the restaurant didn’t do anything to try and stop the brawl. Other diners just went about their eating. It was as if this insane melee was no big deal. So odd.

Chengdu #4

That night, i asked the guy working in my hostel for a dinner recommendation. He said that i should try some “stacks”. “Stacks”? I asked him to say it again… a few times. What the hell are stacks? He says that they are great because you can try a bunch of different things. Maybe he was saying “snacks”?

I go to the restaurant he recommended. There are a bunch of low tables and everyone is sitting on tiny chairs. I squeeze in on a chair, and sit at a super awkward angle, with my legs not really fitting under the table. Shockingly, they bring me an english menu. I look at it and.. umm… everything is a bit weird. Rabbit skulls, various intestines, etc. Uh-oh. It’s too late for me to bolt at this point though, so i try to find at least something that is palatable. I see “rabbit belly” on the menu. I know I like pork belly, maybe it’s similar, so I decide to order that. The helpful server comes up to me and uses an app to type “You will need to take the sticks of incense now”. Uhhhh… what??

He motions for me to follow him, and we walk to the back of the restaurant where there are zillions of little skewers in buckets. He gestures for me to grab some. Oh. Things are making more sense now. There is a popular thing here, sort of like hot pot, called Chuan Chuan, where you take all these small skewers and then they are cooked in a small pot and you eat them. I guess the guy at my hostel was saying “sticks” and not “stacks” or “snacks”. I look at the skewers, and am a little terrified. All the skewers are weird organs. There are none that look like just normal regular meat. Back home, i do eat liver and would possibly be down to eat more weird stuff if i at least knew what it was, but i have no clue what all these things are. It’s a bunch of sticks with all sorts of odd lumps and squiggles on them. The guy has been watching me and waiting the whole time. Meanwhile, i am pacing back and forth, trying to decide what, if anything, is recognizable enough to eat. I feel like at this point, i *have to* get something at least, so i warily pick a handful of skewers, hand them to the guy, and go sit back down.

Eventually they bring me my food. Oh god. So, “rabbit belly” actually turns out to be rabbit stomachs. I have a whole bowl full of them. *Ten*. They bring my skewers. Fuck. I cant believe i need to eat this. I don’t want to eat this. The only normal part of my meal is some potatoes. Everything else is questionable. I start eating. Honestly, this meal felt like i was on one of those reality shows where they make you eat scary stuff. I would take a bite, choke it down, and wash it down with beer. I am devouring rabbit stomachs, one after another. I eat the skewers, for each one wondering wtf i am eating. What are these tubes?! What is this weird lumpy thing? What the hell am i chewing on? It was some sheer willpower to get through it all. I ate 9 out of 10 rabbit stomachs. It was rough.

Afterwards, I went to a brewery called the Beer Nest. This place had a lot of Chinese craft beers from various breweries. It was nice to try out Asian beers other than the typical Lagers you see everywhere. I got a sour, a milk stout, and a Hefeweizen made w/ Sichuan peppercorns.

Chengdu #3

I spent today just wandering about Chengdu. My first stop was People’s park, a beautiful chill park in the heart of the city. They have a very popular teahouse in the park. Tea is a social experience here, and people come to the teahouse, order a big pot of tea, and just spend the day hanging out, slowly drinking their tea, and chatting. It was a great atmosphere, and i just sat back and people watched for hours while enjoying my tea. Lots of people here were playing various card games, Mahjong, etc. One of the really bizarre things here is that there are people who walk around cleaning people’s ears. They have these long metal rods that they dig around in someone’s ears with, and then rub the rods making this weird chiming sound. Not sure if they are trying to vibrate the gunk out of people’s ears or what… yuck.

Walking around the park afterwards, i stumbled upon this area with all these old people dancing. It was fascinating watching all these people, everyone probably 60+ years old, all slowly dancing in the park. There was one couple, both of whom looked 85+, where the wife clearly looked partially paralyzed, yet the husband was still slowly hobbling around with her, including her in the dancing. It was so sweet, and sad, and uplifting, and depressing, and heartwarming all at the same time.

After, i went to go see the Wengshu temple. This is a beautiful series of temples that are still in use, so you see monks in yellow robes walking about. The whole area is in a very scenic beautiful park inside the city. I have always really loved the juxtaposition of old and new… it’s really cool to see these quiet, peaceful, tranquil settings inside a modern high tech bustling city… or seeing 1,000 year old temples with gleaming skyscrapers in the background. As i wandered around this beautiful area, i passed this old man who was shuffling along. He had some kind of speaker with him that was playing music. Normally, i would prefer silence, but somehow this mellow music fit the scene just right. It was a beautiful moment there with the soothing music playing, the tranquil scenery of lush gardens and beautiful temples all around me, and the sun slowly setting in the background. Just then, the old man rips this insanely massively loud fart. Um. Well, it *was* a nice moment until then.

Chengdu #2

One of the things Chengdu is famous for is hot pot. To be honest, I’ve never been too crazy about hot pot. I dont know if I’ve just been going to the wrong places or if I’m ordering the wrong things, but I just have never been that blown away. But, being here, I knew I had to give it a go. I went to a place recommended in the guidebook, but of course, as always, confusion ensued when I got there and asked if this was the right place. It turns out that the restaurant changed ownership. Oh well.

I sit down and they put a menu in front of me with a zillion things in it. It’s not in English and there are no photos. Oh god… Am I going to have to translate this thing line by line? Luckily, the server was extremely helpful and patient with me. I asked her, via the app, to recommend some stuff, and we went back and forth, with her asking me questions and us both translating. At one point she asks “do you eat your own organs?”, lol. Clearly these translation apps are not so perfect, heh.

Eventually, my hot pot arrives. There is an inner circle with some mild broth and an outer circle that is loaded with chilis and bright red hot oil. They also give you a bowl where they make a dipping sauce for you with garlic, herbs, and oil. You cook things in the broth first, and then dip into the sauce after. She ordered me some pieces of meat, some super thin slices of beef (that came on a plate of dry ice), some tofu, and some greens.

She had asked me if I was ok with spicy and I had said yes. When I tried it though, it really wasn’t that hot… Maybe just a little spicy. I assumed that she had probably made it more mild for my Western taste. What I didn’t realize though, was that since the hot pot is over a flame, as the broth slowly boils off, it becomes more and more concentrated and spicy. After a little while, it was crazy hot!! Now, I can handle food that is pretty damn spicy, but holy shit, I literally had tears gushing from my eyes, I was sweating bullets, and my tongue was on fire. It was *intense*. In the end, I did like the hot pot for sure… though I still wouldn’t say that it is something I am super crazy about.

What’s interesting is that there are *so* many hot pot places here. Chengdu actually had the highest concentration of restaurants in the entire world! Yet, you walk the streets and it is Sichuan restaurant after Sichuan restaurant after hot pot after hot pot. Back home there would be a burger spot followed by burritos followed by Italian followed by Thai etc etc… Yet here there are zillions of restaurants and they all serve almost the same thing. How do they compete? How do they differentiate from each other?

Chengdu #1

My next and final stop was Chengdu, capitol of Sichuan province. Sichuan is a province more or less in the middle of China and is most known for pandas and for amazing food. I’m not gonna lie, one of the reasons i chose this place was because of the food. Sichuan cuisine is one of China’s 8 major styles and is extremely popular all across China (and globally… i’m sure you’ve seen dishes/restaurants back home labeled Sichuan or Szechuan). It’s one of the most prevalent styles of Chinese food back home, but of course, the food back home is totally Americanized and often times barely resembles the real thing. Since Sichuan cuisine is so popular in China, i’ve seen it everywhere along my trip, but have actively avoided it because i wanted to save it for when i got to Sichuan province.

The capitol of Sichuan, Chengdu, is a super cool city. It is not one of China’s biggest most major cities, and is more like a second tier town, yet the population in China is so massive that even not being one of the biggest cities, it still has *14 million* people. Despite being that big, this place has a really relaxed chill vibe.. In fact, it’s actually know for having a relaxed pace of life and for the people here taking it easy and really enjoying life. Actually, before i even read that, i could just *feel* it here, which is kind of surprising as i dont speak the language, and dont know what i am basing it on, but i could just tell. I really enjoyed my time in this town.

After the last couple days of crazy trains and other issues, i arrived at my hostel completely exhausted. To my surprise, they had a large fridge stocked with great beers from all over the world. I got a Delirium Nocturnum right away. Ever since i left Beijing, i had been on the move quite a bit, moving from city to city almost every day, and going to see sites all the time. After all that, it sounded really nice to stay put for a while. Not only that, but i made *zero* plans for the next two days. No excursions. No destinations out of town. Nothing. I was just going to spend two straight days just being lazy, wandering about, and eating. That sounded amazing.

After a quick nap, i went out to get my first taste of Sichuan food here. Sichuan food is known for MaLa, a combination of fiery chilis and Sichuan peppercorns (a special type of peppercorn with a super unique taste that gives your mouth a sensation of being numb). Back home, the food is not nearly as spicy as it is here and pretty much every restaurant omits the Sichuan peppercorns altogether 😭. I got two classic dishes: Mapo Tofu (which translates to something like “pockmarked grandmother’s tofu”) and Gong Bao Ji (called Kung Pao back home). I gotta say, the Sichuan peppercorns really make a huge difference. The taste is just so different without them. The Mapo tofu was spicier here than back home and had an incredible flavor and texture. The Gong Bao was surprisingly not very spicy actually, and the sauce actually had a mild sweetness to it. Both dishes were great! I’m going to eat well here 🙂.

Xinjiang #2

Sadly, based on my schedule, i couldn’t stay in Turpan very long. In fact, i could only stay one day… not even overnight. I really was loving this town though, and i decided to try to cut a day from my next stop so i could stay here one day. I called the airline and surprisingly they said it was no problem at all, i just had to pay the $25 fare difference. Unfortunately though, if i wanted to pay with an international card, they would need to send me a form, have me print it, then sign it, and then send it back to them. Um. Whaaa? That clearly wasn’t an option. They said i could use a Chinese credit card, but clearly i dont own one of those. I went out to ask the hostel people if they could put it on a card of theirs and i could give them cash. But, none of them had a credit card… they only use WeChat. Dammit. So, i wasn’t able to change my plan after-all.

And my plan was a horrible one. I would need to (after already getting a shite night of sleep the night before on the train) take a taxi an hour back to the train station, then take the 12:30am train out to this random city called Hami which was only a 5 hour train ride, not giving me much time to sleep, and then wait around for 5 hours until my 10:30 am flight. Fun!! But what can you do?

Our awesome taxi driver picked me up and we drove to the station. He was bumping music super loud and his taxi had lights that flashed in time to the bass. As we drove through the darkness, little field mice would scurry across the road in front of us. It was one of those wonderful and surreal travel moments. Eventually he stammered out with a struggle, the only English words i had heard him say ever, “I like music”.

We got to the security checkpoint. It’s pitch black. There is a storm brewing and the wind is howling like crazy. Here are the guards with the crazy assault rifles. We are asked to get out. The wind is blowing so hard that i am almost being knocked over. I’m called inside. They fiddle with my passport. It didnt feel like such a big deal earlier when it was daylight, nice weather, and the Taiwanese woman was with me… but being back at this checkpoint, alone, at night, in this storm, with all the guns… it was really starting to creep me the fuck out. I stood there nervously as the guy spent what seemed like ages entering my passport data into a computer. I was incredibly glad/relieved when i was waved to go back to the taxi.

We get to the train station . There is a search, metal detector, and xray. Then there is another one. Then there is a third one to get into the ticketing area. They are not happy with the xray. I have to open my luggage and they look through my toiletries. They seem concerned by the spray-on sunblock, the insect repellant, and the shaving cream. They look confused and talk back and forth rapidly, but of course i understand nothing as always. I pantomime mosquitos flying around and biting me and me spraying them. I pantomime the hot sun burning me. I pantomime myself shaving. The guards seem placated and let me pass. I buy my tickets and then there is yet another (4th!) round of inspections to get to the waiting room. During each inspection, they make me take a big swig of my water so they know it’s not explosives or something. By the end, my water is almost empty.

I finally board my train. After only 4 hours of sleep, i get woken up by the train attendant. I reach for my phone. Um. Where is my phone? Oh god. I feel around everywhere… my pockets, my bed, my day pack. I feel all the cracks between the bed and the wall. I turn the blankets and pillow upside down. No phone. I do those things again and again. No phone. I am *freaking out* at this point. Not only would replacing a phone be expensive as hell, but I literally could not survive here with no phone. My flight confirmation is in there. I cant translate anything without it, or buy train tickets, etc etc . I’m getting frantic now. And my stop is hella soon. What am i going to do if we reach the stop and I haven’t found it? Finally i leap out of bed and there it is. It had fallen 9 feet down from my top bunk to the floor below. I felt so relieved.

We get into Hami at 5:30 am. I order a DiDi to the airport. We start driving, and the driver texts me through the app (it automatically translates back and forth which is amazing). The airport is not open yet. It doesnt open until 8am. Oh great. I ask if there is anywhere nearby that i can wait. No, it’s in the Gobi desert and there is nothing. Shit. He asks if he should take me to breakfast and i say yes. It’s still dark out, and basically everything is still closed, but he finds a tiny little hole in the wall dumpling spot.

We go inside. I order some dumplings. While i wait, i notice a “health inspection” card for the restaurant (they have those here??). This place gets a C, the lowest grade. I look down and i see a cockroach frantically trying to unsuccessfully climb out of a trashcan. I look at my dumplings. They looked yummy just a minute ago, but now I am grossed out and slowly force myself to choke them down. The driver leaves and i still have a ton of time to kill. I hang out and read my book for the next 2 hours, with people coming in and out of the restaurant looking at me weird, wondering what the hell this white guy is doing in Hami at all, and why he is reading a book in this tiny hole in the wall shop. Finally, it’s time, and i get up to go. The owner smiles ands waves me goodbye.

Finally i get to the airport and catch my flight. Oh man. I am *exhausted*. My tiny excursion into Xinjiang was fascinating and i’m really glad i did it. This is definitely the crazy traveling that you end up always remembering and looking back on. But damn… i really had to work for it.

Xinjiang #1

The province to the west of Gansu is Xinjiang. If Gansu was a little off the beaten track, Xinjiang is completely off the charts. It’s the western-most province and borders Central Asia, Pakistan, etc. Even though it is one of the largest provinces in China, it wasnt even in my guidebook at all. Similar to Tibet, Xinjiang is a pretty contested region. Only half of the population here is ethnically Chinese, and most of the other people here are Uygurs (a Muslim Turkic ethnic group). China took over this area in the 18th century and unsurprisingly, the Uygurs are not too happy about that. There have been a series of uprisings by the Uygurs, after which China has steadily cracked down on the region more and more.

Reading the news, things here are pretty horrific. Because of fear of muslim extremism and separatism, China has been ruling this area with an iron fist. People here are sent to “re-education camps” so they can be taught to fall in line w/ China’s thinking. Some say that there are tens of thousands of people in these camps, while other estimates say it’s close to a million. People say that there is torture and other horrible things happening in these camps, but nobody knows for sure. The Chinese government claims that all of this is overstated, and that the people in these camps are “treated well” and fed well and that they are absolutely free to leave… well, once they finish their re-education and are “fixed”… and if they dont get fixed… well, they need to stay a little longer. I read that the government actually gives out cards to the Uygurs and the cards state whether this person is good, bad, or neutral and based on your card, you are not allowed to go into certain shops or areas depending on your rating. The government is tearing down Mosques. It’s all truly incredibly disturbing.

Because of all this, things are tense here. Most Chinese people who don’t live here stay clear of this area altogether.

I took a night train to the city of Turpan. In the morning i woke up and groggily looked out the window. The scenery outside looked like Mars. Scraggly lunar rocks everywhere. Completely desolate. It was straight up eerie outside. When i arrived at the station, there was an altercation between the women working the metal detectors on the way out of the station and some guy. I have no idea what it was about but they were screaming at him at the top of their lungs and totally going nuts. No idea if this had anything to do w/ “the situation” here or not. He leaves the station and then the women go running out and yell to a police officer. The police officer calls the guy back, screams at him, and then slaps the guy upside the face several times super hard. He then grabs him by the collar and drags him off somewhere. What.the.fuck.

As i’m looking for a cab to get into town, i meet a woman named Cola from Taiwan who *gasp* speaks English and we share a cab together into town. There is a checkpoint on the way into town. Police with bullet proof vests and massive scary looking assault rifles check our documents. They search the taxi. We are allowed to proceed. When we get into town, the woman and i decide to meet up later to go explore the ruins. In the meantime, I check into a hostel for a much needed shower. It’s really hot here (the hottest place in China, their equivalent of Death Valley, is nearby and temps there can reach 140 degrees!!).

Afterwards I go wandering around town. This town is super fascinating. It really does not feel like I’m in China anymore at all. It seems like Central Asia. Everything here is so much more ramshackle than any place i’ve been on this trip. Run down buildings, boarded up factories, old people pulling random carts, dusty roads. This is kind of much more what i imagined the Silk Road to be like. It all just felt *so* different!

That being said, you definitely see signs of all the conflict here. There is a heavy police presence. It seems like there is some kind of police booth on every block with armed cops standing outside. Our hostel has riot shields and helmets stacked up inside the doorway and there are security cameras outside. Actually, a lot of the restaurants here have riot gear inside as well. I dont know if people here are literally preparing for civil war or what. Going to visit the old bazaar requires a thorough search, metal detectors, and an xray of your bags.

I find a restaurant to get some food. Everyone is going about their business, cheerfully eating and drinking. If it wasn’t for the riot gear at the entrance, you could almost forget that there are any problems here. I order rice pilaf and this baked bun with a meat filling called a Samsa, both of which are Uygur specialties. I’ve never been excited by rice pilaf, and now is no different, but the Samsa is good.

I wander around a little more. I really feel like i could wander around here for days. Eventually, i go to meet up with Cola and I bring along this Dutch guy who i met on the lonely planet forums. Our same taxi driver from this morning (super friendly smiley guy) picks us up and we are off to go sightseeing. First stop is to go see the Karez wells. The people of this area were able to build this ingenious series of wells and canals for irrigation and drinking. Without this crazy feat there is no way peole could have lived in this hot area.

Afterwards, we set off to go see the Jiaohe Ruins. These ruins from 2,000 years ago are called the world’s largest, oldest, and best preserved ancient ruined city. To be honest, i had kind of not really been that excited to go see these old ruins, though i am not 100% sure why. But, when we got there it was actually really cool. The area of the ruins was *huge*… a whole entire old city. As we walked, every time that i thought this would be the end of the ruins, we would turn the corner and there would be more ruins. The sheer vastness of it was super impressive… It’s over 1.5 km in length!

This area is also known for its grapes and wine. Our taxi driver has a friend who is in the grape business, so when he picked us up, he brought each of us a giant thing of grapes to try.

Afterwards, we went to get some dinner. There is a famous Uygur dish that i have been wanting to try for ages, and it’s called simply “Big Plate Chicken”. They chop up a whole chicken, bones and all, and mix it with a ton of chilis, spices, and a tasty sauce with noodles and potatoes underneath. When they brought it out, they really weren’t lying about it being a big plate… it was huge! You can see the dutch guy’s head for size comparison. I’m pretty good with chopsticks, but eating this was a bit tricky. The noodles were super slippery and we’re hard to pull out from under the chicken. Also trying to eat chicken on the bone with chopsticks was tough as well.

We all parted ways, and it really struck me all of a sudden how easy this day was. Since Cola spoke english and Mandarin, she was able to do everything for us. Buying tickets, getting directions, ordering food, calling the taxi driver and arranging multiple destinations throughout the day… all of it was a breeze. Its kind of crazy just how much of a difference it made.

Dunhuang #2 – Mogao Caves

Other than the dunes, the other thing to see in Dunhuang is the Mogao Grottos. Since this town was on the Silk Road route from India, it was heavily influenced by Buddhism pretty early on. Around the 5th century, artists here stated carving grottos in the sand stone and painting Buddhist art on the walls. A lot of it is super well preserved. There are hundreds of these grottos, but in the tour you only get to see 10 of them so that people arent trampling through all the grottos everyday. Unfortunately, you are not allowed to take photos inside the grottos so I don’t have any photos to show (I only took photos of the outside). The painting and statues were super impressive though.

One interesting story about the grottos. In the late 11th century, the monks that were living here had to abandon the area, so they put a ton of old manuscripts etc inside one small cave, sealed the wall, and drew a painting over it to conceal it. The monks never came back. 800 years later, some dude is in there sweeping out sand and when he bumps a wall, he notices a crack in it. They open this crack and find *50,000* priceless documents from centuries ago including the world’s earliest printed book. How insane is that?! I mean, that is like something you’d see in a Indiana Jones movie and roll your eyes because it seems so unreal and ludicrous. Sadly, when the guy went to tell the local government, they didn’t really understand the value of this stuff and didn’t care. So, the British and other international archeologists swooped in and bought 40k out of 50k manuscripts for next to nothing.

On the way back to town, my taxi needed to get gas. Oddly, he makes me get out of the car and stand outside of the gas station on the side of the road. Huh? Why can’t i sit in the car while he gets gas? Why cant i even be *near* the car? No clue, but this happened to me all 3 times that i was in a taxi that got gas.

The fanciest hotel here is on the outskirts of town and they have a rooftop restaurant where you can chill and look at the dunes just outside of town. It really was a *fantastic* view! Unfortunately, when i had come here earlier it was closed for the afternoon. I had been craving Western food all day and had really been looking forward to getting something other than Chinese food for the first time this trip. Dont get me wrong… the food has been really good, I just dont feel like the flavors have as much of a variety as say Thai food or Indian food, so after 9 days of Chinese food all day long, i wanted just one break. But, since the restaurant was closed, i had to eat elsewhere, and when i came back here for the sunset, i just had a beer and sadly longingly looked at the menu that had pizza, steak, and other stuff. Heh, nothing is ever easy here.

So… that’s it. I did it. I traveled the whole route of the Silk Road in Gansu province. I made it to the edge of the old Chinese empire. Now what? I had two options: 1) I could press on westward and go into the next province or 2) I could loop back east and check out this beautiful Tibetan village up in the mountains. I chose option #2… but sadly, there was no way for me to do it. The village was a 3 hour bus ride up a windy mountain from the nearest town, Lanzhou, which is where i had started, and even just getting to Lanzhou would be a pain. I explored every possible option of trains, flights, etc. Everything was either way too expensive or sold out. I seriously spent *hours* trying to find a way. Finally i gave up. Nothing is ever easy here.

Time to keep heading west.

Dunhuang #1 – Dunes

Dunhuang was my 4th and last stop of the Hexi Corridor. This is now beyond the fort and past the edge of the wall. Back in the day, this was an important oasis trading town out in the desert in the middle of nowhere, where two different silk road routes crossed.

I took the train there and for the first time got to try the hard sleeper. As I mentioned in another post, there are a lot of different train tickets you can get. The nicest one is soft sleeper, but I never tried that one. Hard sleeper is a compartment with 6 bunk beds, 3 on each side. The compartment is wide open, so you hear all the noise from people walking around, babies crying in other compartments, people boarding the train, talking on their phones, and farting loudly and spitting. Without earplugs, you wont get much sleep. They give you a blanket and pillow. Also, the top bunk is very close to the ceiling, so even a not tall person like me will smack their head into the ceiling on average 2 to 3 times per ride. When I woke up, I looked out the window and saw nothing but barren desert as far as the eye could see. Wow. It really hit me at that moment just how far out in the middle of nowhere I had gotten.

Food-wise, Dunhuang is known for donkey meat. I decide “why not?” and went to this restaurant that is well known. They actually had an English menu which helpfully showed items like “Braised donkey penis”. Now, I didn’t have much interest in munching on donkey dicks regardless of how they were prepared, but was pretty shocked to see that the price was almost 30$… Other than the Peking Duck, this is the most expensive food I’ve seen in China. In contrast, the donkey noodles I got were only $2. The noodles had that great hand pulled noodle texture, but the sauce was just ok. Given the amount of sauce on the noodles and the amount of spices in the egg rolls, I don’t know if I could really tell the difference between donkey and any other meat. At one point, the server beckoned me to come into the kitchen and watch the guy make the noodles. It was super impressive! He was able to turn a lump of dough into noodles, completely by hand, in just 2 minutes flat. Crazy! Check out the video below if you have 2 mins to spare.

If you take the road just 5 minutes from town, you see the dunes. Oh man. It was such a crazy sight. You just look down the road and there are these *massive* 800+ foot tall dunes. It really was mesmerizing. The highlight of this area is this tiny little oasis with a temple next to it. This is one of the things I had wanted to see most on this trip ever since I saw a photo online. It is just so incredibly picturesque… A tiny little oasis surrounded by colossal dunes. I kept envisioning traders back in the day… wandering for ages through the dunes with their camel caravans and then spotting this little body of water. It must have looked so miraculous. I sat there entranced for a while and took about a million photos.

One of the things you can do here is ride an Atv. I decided to try it out and it was pretty fun to zip up and down the dunes. Eventually the guide motioned that we needed to switch and that he would drive. I guess this is where the “thrill” part of the ride is as he swerved all over the place pretty fast. At one point the guy was getting a little too close to..the crest of one of the dunes and I started feeling nervous… when all of a sudden he cuts a super sharp turn and we go streaming straight down the dune at about a million miles an hour. It was nuts!! Super fun tho.

After watching the sunset, I started climbing down the dunes and at one point you can pay to use a toboggan to zoom the rest of the way down. Afterwards, went out to get some food. Had some tasty dumplings and these *super good* ribs. Yum!!