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Two Years & Twice Around the World...  



May 24. DUNHUANG (Gansu Province)  The tour we had arranged was a bit over our budget but we'd had some slow days so we decided we could justify it.  The cost per person for transportation in a minivan to the Jade Gate Pass, Han Great Wall, South Gate Pass, Western 1000 Buddha Caves, and the old Dunhuang village was Y100 and the entrance fees to all of the places would come out to another Y100 per person.  

We arrived at 8:00 and they had arranged the same driver we had had the day before. He was a nice enough guy.  Another guy was loading up the front seat with bottles of beer and the tour agency explained that there would be three of us going in the minivan.  We said that was fine but we wanted a discount if there was going to be an additional person.  We tried to push back on the Y200 transport fee the day before but we were told that was as low as they could go for two people.  Since we were going to have three people it seemed that the cost should be divided three ways.  We proposed this to them but they weren't willing to give us much off.  That didn't sit well with us. It was becoming obvious that they had given the other fellow such a good deal to join in at the last minute that they couldn't give us an fair discount.  Basically we paid for the minivan and he was extra profit.  Meanwhile we was going to sit in the front seat and get drunk all day.  So, we said if it wasn't going to be split three ways then we wanted to go on our own as we had agreed  upon the previous day or we wouldn't go at all.  They didn't even discuss it with the third guy and told us we could go on our own.  Of course, the local tourist wasn't happy and looked at us as though we'd slapped him.  We felt a bit bad but if they couldn't give us a fair deal then it didn't seem fair to us that we should subsidize his tour.

The first stop on our long circuit was the Jade Gate Pass.  It was about 95km from Dunhuang and it seemed to take forever to get there.  The gate itself isn't much to look at anymore but it actually is amazing that anything resembling a gate still stands today.  The Jade Gate Pass marked the beginning of the northern Silk Road route that went through Turpan and then down to Kashgar.  We saw a few land cruiser whip by us as we chugged our way out there but no on was at the sight when we arrived. There was an opportunistic woman who kept trying to sell us "genuine old coins she'd found in the dirt" as well as other rare finds. It is true that such things can still be found in the expansive desert outside Dunhuang but her selection had a curiously reproduced look about them.

Not far from the Jade Gate pass was a remnant of the old Han Great Wall.  The best piece had been fenced off but separate bits still scattered the landscape.  Our guide was encouraging us to jump the fence and take a look but we declined. (It seemed that Rob's pack of Marlboros had made our driver more accommodating than he should be!)  The wall was really nothing more than straw and sand stacked tightly together and somewhat of a miracle that there were wall like pieces still standing some 2000 years later!  Near the wall there looked to be remnants of larger structures with thicker walls that had been blown over into recognizable curls of straw and sand. These too were fences off for protection.

The second stop on our whirlwind tour was the South Gate Pass.  It stood on a hilltop near a little oasis town and a serious development effort had already taken place here to make the remaining stump of mud into a tourist extravaganza.  We had to buy our ticket at the museum which was still some distance from the bit of remaining gate.  The ticket included a visit to the museum exhibits. We were offered an English tour for another Y20 per person but declined.  It was a very slow day and with a nudge from our Marlboro smoking driver they ended up give us the guide anyway.  She was a nice young woman who had a reasonable command of English and she gave us a thorough run through the exhibits about the Silk Road.  The South Gate Pass was the start of the southern Silk Road that passed through Hotan before reaching Kashgar.   

The stretch between the Jade Gate Pass and South Gate Pass was fortified with the wall and numerous watch towers which represented China's western frontier at the time that Silk Road trade began to flourish in the Han Dynasty.  The wall was necessary to guard against warring tribes in the west while the gates were needed to give access to the important trade route.  A decoy route through today's Qinghai Province was also developed to ensure that people got through.  

Our third site of the day was supposed to the highlight, the Western 1000 Buddha Caves.  They weren't supposed to be as good as the Mugao caves but we enjoyed those so much we wanted to see some more.  But, when we arrived we couldn't even get someone to come give us a tour.  They were spraying some smelly caustic insecticide into the surrounding trees and children at the nearby campground still cheerfully played in the milk white water.  We wandered around for about 20 minutes before the snack bar lady retrieved someone for us.  He took his time come out as well, stopping within view to have tea with friends in the camping area before finally waiving at us indignantly to come along.  About a half dozen screaming kids tagged along from the camp ground.  We debated between ourselves over the fee and he came down to Y30 per ticket.  He proceeded to open the first five doors along the cliff and let the screaming kids go running in and out as we tried to explore the caves.  He didn't speak any English so we didn't really know what we were looking at and it was poorly maintained in comparison to Magao at any rate.  The guidebook indicated that they would open up to 10 caves for viewing but this guy couldn't be bothered.   We left totally unsatisfied.

It was around 3:00 already and our last stop was just outside Dunhuang so we were nearly done.  Our driver took us to the movie set of old Dunhuang as an added sight but we didn't want to pay another fee to see an imitation city.  We wanted to see the real old Dunhuang but it only turned out to just be a few walls and a tower that stood in the city suburbs and were used as toilets more than anything else from the smell of the area. 

The day hadn't been a highpoint in our stay in Dunhuang and seemed to signal to us that it was time to move on.   Adrian, Idan and the two women tourists we'd met earlier in the week had already moved on to Turpan so we decided we'd go on as well.

Of course we spent our last night at the food market eating shish kebabs and bread from the same guy.  His darling little girl was out that night catching mosquitoes in her hands with a couple of friends.  We finally gave into one of the three young girls that prowled the town trying to get money for singing a song and playing her guitar.  I didn't object to paying for a song but these girls were out about the city all week, morning to evening, and I objected to parents that made their kids work the streets for money instead of getting an education.     

May 25. DUNHUANG (Gansu Province) Sunday wasn't supposed to be an eventful day.  All we had to do was get a bus back to Liuyuan and a sleeper out to Daliyan, the jumping off point for Turpan.  We got on the noon bus without any problems.  The weekends were busy enough with locals traveling about that the bus was running.  But, as we exited Dunhuang the bus pulled over in front of a hospital.  Our driver gestured that it was a SARS thing.  It was odd because they didn't usually bother very much when you were leaving a town.  

I entered the hospital courtyard first and saw people having blood tests taken.  I looked at our driver and said "no" waiving my hands.  He pointed to his mount indicating that we just need to have our temperature taken.  I pulled out my SARS vocabulary list and pointed to blood test.  He shook his head and pointed to temperature.  I felt relieved for the time being.  

We queued up to sign all of the paper work and began to notice that the other people on our bus were indeed being routed around to have their blood tested and to have an x-ray done.  We looked at the doctor square in the eyes, his cigarette dangling out of his mouth, and said "No", pointing to the words "sterilization" and "dangerous" in my notepad.  The bus driver asked if we would have the x-ray only but I pointed again to my notepad.  How did we know when the last time was that the x-ray machine had been properly maintained?  It almost seemed worse than having our fingers pricked by someone who was wearing the same dirty gloves she had been wearing all day to test who knows how many peoples' blood. Yuck!  The ticket lady from our bus wrote the characters "Leave Dunhuang" on my notepad and then crossed out the "Leave", trying to convey to us that we wouldn't leave Dunhuang unless we had the tests taken.  We just shrugged and said, "Fine".  They weren't going to strong arm us into unsanitary tests.  We would stay as long as we had to in order to figure out a solution.   

It took nearly two hours for our bus load of people to complete their tests.  We heard our driver arguing with the doctor again and again and it looked like he was trying to work something out for us.  In the end we just held out our bus tickets and pointed to "We'd like a refund" in our phrasebook.  He looked at us and held out two forms with our names, passport numbers, body temps, and a big red stamp from the hospital.  Somehow he'd managed to get the forms approved for us.  We were incredibly grateful and Rob made use of another pack of Marlboros by way of thanking our driver. 

As we sat on the bus we wondered if it was all a scam. We still had to reimburse our driver Y10 per person for the "tests".  Everyone else had paid as well.  But, if our fellow travelers had come up against the same thing only a couple of days before it seems like some would have been held up by the process and we would have seen them.  In any event we were glad to be out of Dunhuang.

The bus made good time getting to Liuyuan and as we approached the checkpoint we noticed a taxi sitting along side the road and several people yelling.  We'd seen the taxi whip by the bus as we pulled out of Dunhuang.  It appeared that they didn't have the hospital form and weren't being allow to enter Liuyuan.  We handed over our forms, allowed ourselves to be subjected to anther temperature reading, and were on our way.  So, perhaps it was all for real after all.  That was scary.

Liuyuan is really nothing but the train station for Dunhuang but we found a decent restaurant to grab some dinner while we waited for our train.  There was no one else there and the staff were keeping themselves entertained with the TV.  For a while they watched what looked like an episode of "America's Funniest Home Videos".  It certainly was a bunch of Americans making fools of themselves because at one point they flashed a phrase in English onto the screen that said "The best kind of nuts come from California".  The staff were in stitches over the silly stunts and I had to wonder what impression this left of our illustrious culture.  

They let us into the train station without showing our hospital forms again and we were safely on our train at 10:40, bound for Daliyan/Turpan.

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