Day 1

Yep, you read that right. As it turns out we are not, in fact, in Urumqi. We’re not even in Xinjiang province. We’re about 12 hours away from Lanzhou, in the Western part of the Gansu province.

But did we just come straight here? No… that would be too easy. Instead we sat in our chairs across from a very overweight mother and her two mostly well-behaved but sometimes annoying kids for 24 hours going from Lanzhou to Urumqi. We tossed fitfully but managed to snag an hour or two of sleep. We got out in Urumqi, had a late lunch, and promptly turned around and took a 12 hour sleeper train back towards Gansu.

So yeah, we did go to Urumqi. We got out and realized, “Hey, this is a city.” We walked around for a little bit, briefly visited an internet cafe to catch up on e-mail, and had some food. Piotr then broke out and flipped through our Lonely Planet guidebook and we found that the camels are actually in a small city called Dunhuang. We went to the train ticket office to see when the next train left for Liuyuan (a nearby city to the one we wanted), and found out that it would leave in 15 minutes. So we bought the tickets and ran.

This time, fortunately, we managed to get soft-sleeper tickets, so we had a pretty decent sleep. We woke up just as we were pulling into the station of Liuyuan and got off. We walked around Liuyuan for a while and took a fair amount of pictures. It really was a nice, small town in the middle of the desert. After our walk we had a nice little brunch, and then took about an hour long cab to Dunhuang.

The cab ride was nice, though fairly uneventful. Since it’s such a long cab ride, we shared it with two other people who were also going to Dunhuang from Liuyuan. Pretty much the only purpose in life of little Liuyuan is to let people get off the train and set them on their way to Dunhuang, so it was not unusual that others were making this hour long cab ride, too. Sitting in back with us was an ex-military Chinese guy now working in Dunhuang, who was able to do a Chinese martial art called Wushu. Piotr, of course, asked to see the guy’s Wushu upon arrival in Dunhuang with the intent of challenging him to a duel afterwards, but the guy politely declined saying he wasn’t wearing the right kind of clothes.

So now we’re here in Dunhuang about to go to bed and enjoy the festivities that tomorrow will bring. And boy will they be festive! Some of the things we’re excited about doing: a long camel trek through the desert (a real desert, complete with huge dunes), climbing of the dunes, sandboarding down the dunes, and paragliding off the dunes (where you jump off the top of a tall, steep dune and fly away in a parachute).

Piotr had already bought a plane ticket from Urumqi to Beijing, but we cancelled that today and he got a new one from Dunhuang to Beijing on the same day, the 14th. I got one of my own for that day from here to Xi’an, so that will be my next stop and when we part ways. Until then we’ll be kicking around Dunhuang trying not to get ripped off too badly since this is quite a tourist town.

Day 2

Guest speaker today! Post courtesy of Piotr (from an e-mail to his girlfriend):

Gabe slept in in the morning (Gabe was a bit tired from train ride), and then I putzed around for a while (I was a bit tired from train ride), so we got a late start on the day. We first went out for food, and Gabe went clothes shopping, although I bought a couple of things too.

After that, we went to sand dune touristville park. Giant sand dunes in the desert. Quite cool looking. Admissions was 80 kuai. We took a ride on a camel (huge caravan of hundreds of tourists on camels, of which we were in a group of four). One the first stop, we sledded down a sand dune, which sucked, for 10 kuai. On the second, there was touristland, which was a bunch of sand dunes with slides and things. We tipped our driver to jog on the last leg of the trip. He said 20 kuai, but Gabe managed to negotiate him up to 30 kuai somehow.

Next, we walked back because we had seen paragliding. We weren’t sure if it was a scam, and Gabe decided to try it first. For 60 kuai, he ran down a mountain with a sail [ed: Piotr calls it a sail, though it was more like a parachute in a long strip. Hard to say what it is… ] strapped to his back. Periodically, the sail would yank Gabe’s top in some random direction because of wind, and he would fall on his butt. It was funny, and well worth the 60 kuai of entertainment the audience got from it. At this point, we were pretty sure it was scam, but I’d feel like a schmuck going and not trying, so I tried it too. I actually got a little bit of airtime – it was mostly in technique – but not much, since my technique also sucked (apparently better than Gabe’s, but mostly through Gabe’s instruction). I tried a few more times, but lower down, the slope wasn’t steep enough. I took photos of Gabe getting yoinked on his butt, but there’s only one blurry one of me flying, partially because camera was low on memory, and partially because I know my camera and photography a little better than Gabe [ed: true that, true that].

We went up the mountain, since there was a really cool view from there of the sand dunes surrounding a man-made oasis, but the sun was low enough that they didn’t come out well. Then we went the rest of the way up, where I tried, at Gabe’s instruction, somersaulting down the mountain. We had a misunderstanding about what a somersault was, so I didn’t do too well. Gabe caught up with me and showed me the proper technique, and then I felt better doing it.

Then we wandered back, buying random things on the way. We got home late, showered some of the sand out, and now I’m in an Internet cafe. The massive amounts of dust there made my cold go from almost cured to much worse, so I’m contemplating merits of returning, since paragliding is wicked fun, and I’d like to get better at going down the sand dunes, but I don’t want to be sick.

Thanks Piotr! He covered the details pretty well. I’d like to add that the stuff I bought today was pretty sweet. I’ll be proud to show it off when I get back to the states. I bought three pairs of pants, two shirts, a third awesome shirt, and some cool shoes.

One of my t-shirts has dragons all over it, and words that seem like they should be English, but aren’t. The second of my t-shirts is bright orange and proudly proclaims across the top: “DJ’s Limeina’s Pattern of Popula Romantic Style” and has a nice street map of Power DJ’s Shibuia on it (??). The last shirt I got seems pretty authentic chinese with the cloth loops on one side and cloth knots on the other to serve as buttons. It’s whiteish, heavy, buttons all the way up, and has a giant dragon on the front.

Unfortunately, my pants all suck. They seem decked out with pockets, but upon further inspection (back at the hotel room after buying them), the pockets are all just for show. Two of the pants have tiny little pockets about halfway down the leg, but all the others are just sewn on to LOOK like pockets.

And then of course, is the cool pair of black shoes I got. They’re kind of slippery (as in, slipper-ish), and are basically what you would imagine Jet Li or Bruce Lee walking around in. They’re hot.

Day 4

Today I’m leaving Dunhuang. For as long as we’ve spent here, I don’t feel like we’ve done all that much. But that, too, is actually kind of nice. I feel like I’ve been so busy in China that just laying around in a hotel room isn’t too much of a waste. My flight to Xi’an leaves in about five hours, and then I’ll be busy, busy, busy again. But it should be very interesting. Xi’an is one of the cultural hubs of China and should have tons of good stuff to see. Unfortunately, just last night Piotr and I finally found the thing we were dreaming of here: a several day tour through the deserts and dunes on camels, camping in tents, watching the sunrise and sunset, and all that. So I’ll have to remember that for next time I come to China.

Anyway, yesterday was pretty amazing. Piotr and I rented bikes and struck out west. We had a vague idea to bike out to some famous but usually pretty deserted caves about 30 km to the west of the city. We were a little worried about the heat and sun (biking on a small road through the desert and dunes in the middle of summer in China, and all that), but we figured if we lathered on the sunblock and brought plenty of water we’d be okay. (And we were perfectly okay, of course, Mom, you can take another breath now).

So that was our vague plan, though neither of us were particularly attached to it, and were in fact more interested with what we’d see on the way. In the end, we only ended up making it about 10 km out of town to the west. But we didn’t just go straight west. We rode on a main road, and then we went down side streets and little dirt paths near farms, and over small bridges over the little streams and rivers they had set up to irrigate their farms. It was adventuresome and very fun, though it would have been better with mountain bikes than our road bikes we had rented. Often times we had to walk the bikes over particularly difficult terrain. Lots of the little paths we took were dead-ends so we had to backtrack and try a new direction. It was really a whole lot of fun.

Our whole bike ride the huge, beatiful, sand dunes of the (Gobi, I think, though generally that’s to the north) desert loomed to the south. We kept trying to find a way to get to them that wasn’t the tourist trap of the days before, but we kept finding only dead ends. Eventually we found a nice road that let us to a dry riverbed. Walking our bikes across the riverbed we were finally able to get to the virgin dunes. There weren’t any footsteps in sight. It truly was amazing to see. Piotr and I decided to hike up the dunes for a while to see what we could see. We left our bikes down below and hoped no one would steal them. After we reached the highest peak we could see from the bottom, we found only higher and higher peaks beyond, so we decided not to go on. Piotr brought his camera which is really good, and he took a bunch of pictures, so I’ll get those from him and some point.

We eventually headed back to our bikes and then drove back to town. I estimate we biked for about 25-30 km yesterday, and we had the bikes for about 6.5 hours. It was definitely a great way to spend yesterday, and much better than the alternative of just taking a cab out to the caves.

So we finally got back and decided to go for a massage. Oh man what a massage it was. We paid for an hour long one for each of us, and about 50-55 minutes of it was spent on the feet and legs. It was so amazing. They spent about 5-10 minutes on our back, but the beds weren’t very comfortable lying on our stomachs, so I didn’t enjoy that part as much. But lying on our backs and having a dedicated foot rub for that long was pure heaven.

Okay, my time here at the internet cafe is just about up, so I’m going to go now. Off to Xi’an!

Thu, Aug 10, 2006 | For updates follow me on twitter