Wednesday, September 20, 2017


Dunhuang Day 1

I was right about the train to Dunhuang. It could have been a part of any Indiana Jones movie. Old, slow, hard seats, smoking passengers and yes the hole directly onto the tracks. It is everything you would expect from a regional train in China's north west. It was great! Once we left Jiayuguan we were immediately surrounded by factories that went on for hours. The monsters were spewing the pollution that drifted south east into they eyes, nose and throats of the good people of Xi'an. About half way they suddenly stopped and a massive wind farm appeared. A crazy contradiction to be sure but China is making progress towards cleaning up their environment but for now it is glorious coal to choke my lungs.

Dunhuang. New, modern and clean. The airport was immaculate, the roads are wide, paved and lacking what can be considered any form of Chinese traffic. Once you reach town the desert sits there like a huge guardian. I immediately felt connected to this town, I have no idea why. I suspect this is the town Jiayuguan is trying to be. Historically Dunhuang was one of the most important Chinese stops on the Silk Road. The Gateway into China as well as entrance to the Western routes to India and the Middle East.

My stop here did not start all the wonderful. I took a cab to the hostel I had booked on which has become my go to site. As with any site I take user reviews with a grain of salt. People will complain about the most mundane things when staying at a hotel/hostel that charges you $15 a night. I for consistency in the comments good or bad. The Dunhuang Nongfu Hostel looked fine but I did not take the time to ready any reviews. When the taxi dropped me off  the driver had a look of "dude what are you doing here". When I entered the lady running the place looked a bit shocked telling me foreigners could not stay at her hostel, she was not qualified. When I asked about my reservation she said she had it but I must stay inside her house and sleep in her daughters room. The police could show up and there would be trouble. Fucking China!

I told her NO, that was unacceptable and I was going to book another hotel. She started getting a bit mouthy about me paying so I did what anyone would do, I told her I would go to the police and tell them she had foreigners staying here. She quickly smiled and gave me the Wifi code. I found a room at the Super 8 in the heart of the night market for about the same price so off I went. Walking to the hotel I stopped at a random middle eastern restaurant which are common in the part of China thanks to the Silk Road. I filled up on lamb, beef and peppers and cold beer for 45 rbm.

The primary reason I came to Dunhuang was the Crecent Moon Oasis and Echoing Sands Dune parks. An easy 5 km walk but I took the Number 3 bus, which cost 1 rmb, knowing I would walk the 5km back to town. The bus is downtown and easy to find as this is not a large town.

Quite near the entrance to the park the bus stopped at a place called "sleepless town".  I had to see what this was all about. It turned out to be an touristy type place with restaurants and hotels with an old rustic style theme. Great, lets eat again. I filled up on noodles and green beans plus I drank the absolute best cold apricot juice I have ever tasted. By this time the sun was fading and so was I. It was a long day with the train ride, the hostel debacle and now a good meal, plus my eye was bothering me. The Crescent Moon Oasis has been here 2000 years and like the Great Wall in Jiayuguan it was not going anywhere. I headed back to town and wandered the night market. So much food, so many smells, so much activity and noise. Sensory overload to be sure.

Dunhuang Day 2

Today the Whispers Sand National park. I have a descent sense of direction by remembering landmarks and when possible I take pics on my phone in case I get turned around. I also take a business card from my hotel if I get completely lost which has happened in the past. I had the route to the park in my head from the bus ride yesterday. It was a sunny warm day, I load up on water and off I went. As is always the case I got side tracked.

The Dunhuang Leiyin Monastery covers 180 acres and is 1700 years old. It is hidden amount a dense grown of trees and shrubs with only a bland entrance that anyone could easily walk past. Personally I can not tell the difference between a Temple and a Monastery but the statues at the Monastery are much cooler. I know nothing about Buddhism as I have said and one of these days I will learn what some of this symbolism means but for now I just enjoyed walking around. As with all other similar sites it was quiet and peaceful as I suspect it is suppose to be.

The dunes were just up the road and it was time. I walked past Sleepytown which was on my right so cold apricot juice with lunch was on the menu post sand dunes. The dunes were ever present on the walk and crept closer with each step. Entrance to the park was 120 rmb and your pass was good for 3 days. Oddly you needed to be photographed using facial recognition when you leave in order to validate the 3 day pass. I honestly thing China uses technology for the sake of "using technology". When I returned the second day I just told them I had my photo taken and they let me in without issue. Nothing was checked or verified. Technology for the use of technology. What a waste of time and energy really.

There were two main hikes and as recent as 3 years ago "sand ladders" were laid over the sand to help climbers and they really worked. I stepped off at one time to try without and it was brutal climbing without them. It was not difficult, maybe a 15 minute climb on the smallest hike. You can then walk the crest line to the top of the second hike which was a gentle slope.  Looking toward the Oasis or towards the desert each provided fantastic views. You could just sit and take it all in, wander about the ridge line or if you were ambitious you could climb down the opposite site and hike other dunes. That appealed to me however the possibility of getting turned around and lost was very real and it cold happen very quickly. I took the sit and enjoy the view approach.

When traveling on your own it is easy enough to find someone to take your picture. Today I met a girl who was helpful. We took pictures of each other in and around the dunes. As I was leaving she was climbing so we smiled and said good-bye.  I needed apricot juice.

Dunhuang Day3

Today I had planned a camel ride, to visit the oasis and of course to climb the dunes a second time.
I was taking a picture of the Oasis and I saw a big smile in front of me, it was the girl from yesterday. I found out her name was Yin Cheng and we decided to hang out together. Funny thing was she was a travel agent and she lived in Xi'an.  Her English was decent enough but Google Translate became our best friend that afternoon. Oddly enough she word the same funky hat that my friend Lucy had when we were traveling in Mexico.

We wandered around the Oasis and the park. She had a nice Nikon camera and was also learning he art of photography. She had no intention of climbing the dunes but when I told her about the views, showed her my pictures from the previous day and told her she had to follow me because we were now going to climb them she reluctantly agreed.

What was the first thing that happened when we reached the summit and were relaxing. A huge wind storm, which the area is famous for..."singing sands",  come out of nowhere and blew here cool hat over the side and down the dune. "do not chase it, I do not care. It is only a hat". Cool girl. We sat talking and I discovered she was a Buddhist and knew nothing of the monastery. Off we went. First I wanted to ride a camel but returning to the camel loading zone as they called it the place went from peaceful to absolute chaos. What was a few groups heading out turned into a steady stream of camel riders stretching into the distance. Nope!

The return trip took on a whole new meaning as she was describing the meaning and purpose of each statue and the reason for the symbolism. She looked at me as said only "tourists" take pictures inside temples.  With my camera already in my back pack I did not have the heart to show her my photos from the previous day however the though did cross my mind "I wonder what an angry Buddhist looks like"

Yin Cheng had a late plane to catch so we walked back to town. She was staying near the river front which I knew nothing about. As is the case in China it was all about lights and water.

Dunhuang surprised me. I expected a dust bowl of a town focused on one main tourist attraction. What I found was a modern city that was busy enough to be interesting but had a wonderful slow pace to it. The streets and sidewalks were wide and not crowded and the food was a mix of Middle Eastern and Chinese so delicious on all accounts. Wandering around you get the feel that this was an Oasis town on the old Silk Road. Knowing that Xi'an some 1200 km away was the final destination of so many traders gave me a bit of historical perspective.

From Dunhuang the primary goal for Chinese traders was the Middle East and India and modern day Iran with Tehran and major stop before moving along to Europe. I wonder if I can get a letter of invitation to visit Iran?

Costs Perspective 
The question I am asked most often is "how can you afford to travel so much?". Well first I am working so there is that and my costs are minimal. A bit of perspective about traveling in "emerging" or non "Western" countries.

In Canada a "vacation" is more times than not a one week winters break to an all inclusive in the Caribbean or Mexico. The costs vary but most people want 5 star and on the beach which can run $1500 to $2000 per person. These are generalities and I have not energy to start looking up these costs. Trips to Montreal, New York, Toronto, Vegas or any point in between usual include expensive hotel rooms and meal plus activities. This also becomes the benchmark from which "travel costs" are based.

My 6 days in Jiayuguan and Dunhung including 2 flights, a 5 hour train ride, 6 nights accommodation, tourist attractions, food, alcohol, taxis and buses set me back just over $500 Canadian. My hotel rooms are clean and safe, although this time I did stay in a capsule for a couple of nights.

My point is this. How much per month do you spend on Car Insurance and Petrol, plus a car payment if you have it? How many Timmies do you consume every week. Are you complaining about the high costs of food while eating in yet another restaurant. You see where I am going. You spend you money on your car, I spend my money on flights.  I know too many people making well over $100,000 a year, and have for a while, who constantly complain about being broke while driving in their new car because they were bored with their 5 year old car regardless that it was finally paid off. Car payments become the crutch with which you can justify your presumed poverty.

These are your life choices. It is not about how I can afford to travel, its about how can you not afford to travel. What's your excuse I would love to hear it.

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