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Two Years & Twice Around the World...  



May 21. DUNHUANG (Gansu) "Amazing Sand Dunes!"  For breakfast we decided to try the other backpacker place in town, Shirley's cafe, sister to Charley. It was a cozier spot and we found ourselves just whiling away the day reading and drinking tea until it was lunch time and we still hadn't left.  We stayed on for lunch as well.

Rob had run across the street to get something from the hotel and met a Malaysian and Japanese women just getting out of a cab, driven by the annoying driver that had stalked us the morning before in Liuyuan.  Apparently the bus didn't run that day because there were just not enough people.  After checking into their hotel they also ended up in Shirley's for lunch.  Dunhuang was starting to feel like a happening place after all.  We were all still hanging out there when we noticed a familiar face walk by the cafe.  It was an American guy, Adrian, that we had see in Xiahe.  He recognized us and came into the cafe to talk for a while.  He had hooked with an Israeli fellow, Idan, and they had just arrived from Lanzhou in the middle of the night.  Idan recognized the Malasian woman from a couple of months back when they had met traveling.  The small tourist community in China just seemed to get smaller and smaller.

After basically lounging around all day long we finally decided to get ourselves motivated to see something.  The cafe rented bikes for Y1/hour so we grabbed a couple and set off to see the sand dunes that were about 4 km outside of town.  The road was being reconstructed so it was a rather bumpy ride but it was already 5pm so the sun wasn't very harsh and it felt good to get some exercise.  Half way to the dune's entrance we past a huge hotel that normally catered to the tour groups. It was closed entirely.

When we reached the entrance to the sand dunes, a park that wanted to charge us a whopping Y50 fee to see the piles of sand, we decided it was worthwhile investigating the notes we'd seen written by other travelers in the Charley's Cafe and Shirley's Cafe journals.  Many people had suggested that you could take a small path to the left of the entrance, past a row of sleeping camels, and find an entrance to the dunes.  We rode our bikes along the pathway and checked out several potential entrance points but in the totally desolate tourist season it seemed just too obvious to go strolling into the dunes.  The area was still inside the park and it seemed unlikely that they wouldn't notice a couple of foreigners suddenly making their our way across the barren desert.  Eventually we tried the path to the right of the park which didn't dead end and took us past home and fields.  We kept turning left to stay as close to the dunes as we could until we hit a "T" in the road. The pathway towards the dunes looked too much like a driveway so we were getting ready to go the other way when a bicycle taxi came wheeling down the road and waiving at us to come up the path.  Sure enough the pathway opened up again after it went past a couple of homes and the towering masses of sand were right before us, outside the park fence.

As we parked our bikes and started into the sand we looked up and saw two figures scrambling towards the top a the huge dune.  Even from the distance we were able to recognize Adrian and his travel companion, Idan.  They waived and keep on with their scrambling.  We felt like we were making good progress until the incline got substantially steeper and we too started to scramble along.  It was hard to keep any steady rhythm.  It was a matter of just scrambling for 20 steps and then resting, scrambling for 20 steps and then resting.  The top of the ridge was deceivingly far but after a lot of huffing and puffing we finally hurled one leg over the top and straddled the sand dune.   Adrian and Idan had gone further towards the peak of the dune by walking along the ridge but we saw them just sitting another 100 feet along.  After a good long rest we got ourselves and up and balanced ourselves as we walked to where they were sitting.  It was far enough.  The peak didn't look like it would provide any better views for the additional effort.

These dunes must have been a good 80+ meters high and from the ridge we looked over the town of Dunhuang, across the sea of sand dunes, and down into the famous Crescent Moon lake inside the park area.  If they'd left the little natural lake alone amongst the sand dunes it would have looked more impressive. As it was they had built a traditional Chinese-style building along the lake and installed rope tows on the nearby slope so people could pay to get to the top of the dunes.  

The sun had set behind our sand dune as climbed on the shaded side but the final sunset was still some time away.  We considered waiting for it to finish but after a good hour or so on the dune it seemed wiser to make our way down with some daylight, especially since we still had to bike our way back to town.  

You would think that sliding down huge sand dunes would be a rapid descent but in fact the traction of the sand is too good to allow for much sliding.  We scooted and were able to build some momentum but never really gained the speed we were hoping for.  We regretted that we didn't bring something to slide on, like a piece of plastic of cardboard.  It was a fun time anyway.  Adrian and Idan were more aggressive in their attempts at sliding and had more sand caught in their clothes than we did but our shower that evening revealed a pretty good quantity of sand all the same.

For two people that had had little exercise in recent weeks the bike ride and sand dune climbing left us both pretty knackered.  The bumpy ride out was felt more when we mounted our bikes for the return ride.  Our butts were sore, our legs and arms were very tired, and we had not brought enough water!  We rolled right into town and straight back into Shirley's Cafe for dinner.  We missed seeing Adrian and Idan again because they had to spend too much time getting sand out of their clothes before they went for dinner.

May 22. DUNHUANG (Gansu Province) The bus for the Magao Grottos, Dunhaung's main attraction, was supposed to leave around 8:30 in the morning from the nearby hotel.  We planned to get up early and go see the caves but we were sore and tired from our sand dune excursion and overslept.  

It turned into another long morning hanging out at Shirley's over breakfast but before it reached  lunch time we got ourselves out to walk around the town of Dunhuang.  For being in the middle of a flat desert it was a nice green place, no doubt the trees were a necessity rather than for beautification.  It made for a really nice place to hang out and catch our breath before we moved on into Xinjiang province.

Just up the street from our hotel and the restaurants there was a small but lively day market selling mostly foods - dried fruit, meats, tea, noodles, etc.  We did see one vendor selling soda bottle labels which was a bit disconcerting.  The Coca Cola reproductions were very genuine looking. We had read about fake mineral water that people produced in their homes but now it appeared that we should also be careful of the sodas we drank - cans would be more reliable.

The dried fruits looked delicious.  There were all kinds of varieties and I recognized several that had been used in the Muslim fruit tea that I'd had in Xiahe.  We bought some fig-like fruit for a snack and the shop lady kindly wrote down some of the names in Chinese of the other fruits they used in the local teas.  The sultana raisins and apricots were familiar to me but many of the others were not. 

We stopped at a Muslim noodle shop for Rob to get some lunch before continuing on our walk.  We found another produce market a few blocks away that opened up into what would soon become Dunhuang's night food market.  The area seemed to have quite a number of massage/spa-type places that probably hopped with business during a normal tourist season.  Dunhuang was a very popular spot for Chinese tourists as well.  The streets were also full of Internet cafes, often very full, and many shops selling DVDs and VCDs.  From the shopping and general appearance of the people in Dunhuang we could tell that the people had a pretty comfortable life.  Our walked ended back at our hotel for an afternoon nap.

I awoke from our nap first and went to get some dinner at Charley's (I'd passed on the beef noodles). Rob met me a little while later and after I'd downed some mediocre fried rice we walked over to check out the night food market.

The produce area was closed up but the nearby pedestrian street and square were full of stalls and tiny booths selling noodles and shish kebabs.  The booths were permanent structures which had tiny (not more than a 5'x10' room) kitchens for preparing food and little walled in areas outside where patrons could sit.  Adjacent to the booths was a larger courtyard full of rows of tables and chairs set up around a huge fountain and covered spokes of flags and lights that stretched from the fountain out to the buildings.  After having several young women solicit us to come sit in their area we realized that each woman had her own little table and set of six chairs that she would attentively hostess.  She would get the drinks and food from nearby stalls and booths and keep her customer's glasses full as they chatted away.  There were tables full of men as well as families and co-ed groups.

Rob priced out a nearby kebab chef for his dinner.  He was a Uyghur man, as most of the kebab chefs appeared to be, and after a bit more research Rob decided he had good prices and the best spot to sit.  His tables bordered the hostess area so allowed from some good people watching.  We sat and enjoyed the cool night while Rob got his fill of mutton kebabs.  

From the courtyard the kebab stalls spilled out onto the pedestrian road and in total there were probably about 25 or more.  They did a brisk business from the look of them.  We made our way back to our hotel and passed Shirley's to find Adrian and Idan having dinner. They were debating over a Camel trip into the sand dunes.  Idan was spearheading the initiative but Adrian seemed skeptical.  We thought it sounded awfully sandy and headed off for bed.    

CLASSIC CHINA Beijing April 23 April 24 April 25 April 26 April 27 April 28 April 29-30 May 1-2 May 3-4 May 5 Pinyao, Shanxi May 6 May 7 Xian, Shaanxi May 8 May 9-10

TIBETAN PLATEAU Xining, Qinghai May 11 May 12 Tongren, Qinghai May 13 May 14 Xiahe, Gansu May 15 May 16-17

THE SILK ROAD Lanzhou, Gansu May 18 Dunhuang, Gansu May 19-20 May 21-22 May 23 May 24-25 Turpan, Xinjiang May 26 May 27 Kashgar, Xinjiang May 28-29 May 30 May 31 June 1-2 June 3-6 Hotan, Xinjiang June 7 June 8-9 June 10-11 June 12-13 June 14-16 June 17-19

A LAST LOOK Shanghai June 20-29 Beijing June 30