Wednesday, 19 December 2012

China - Part 1

Market street (Urumqui)
Dentist anyone? (Urumqui)
Local Uyghur man (Urumqui)
Egg cooking the alternative way (Urumqui)

Friendly lady (Urumqui)
Turpan minaret at dusk (Turpan)
Standing tall (Turpan)
Flame cooking (Turpan)
Lunch time at the bazaar (Turpan)
Feeling watched (Turpan)
Slurping like the locals (Turpan)

Playing hide and seek (Turpan)

Girls just want to have fun (Turpan)
Jiaohe ruins (Turpan)
Shadow games (Turpan)

Ruin posing (Turpan)
Chilling with friends (Turpan)
Mati Si Temple (Mati Si)

Ice capped mountains in the background (Mati Si)
Any resemblance is purely coincidental (Mati Si)
Guard (Mati Si)
On the edge of the tibetan plateau (Mati Si)
On the way back (Mati Si)

Pagoda (Zhangye)
Village life (Outside of Zhangye)
Making solar tea (Zhangye)
The Great Wall (Outside of Zhangye)
Abs conquering the Great Wall (Outside of Zhangye)
Development (Xining)
Spiritually above the city (Xining)
Demons and hell on the walls of the temple (Xining)
Beichan Temple (Xining)

Kumbum Monastery (Xining)
Yak butter (Xining)
Labrang Monastery (Xiahe)
Details (Xiahe)
Moving the prayer wheels (Xiahe)

Tibetan lady (Xiahe)
Spinning Wheels (Xiahe)
Lollipop kids (Xiahe)

Older generation (Xiahe)
Smiling monks (Xiahe)

The heaving mass that is China surprised us. Gone is the collectivist economy we thought it would be and in its place sits a very capitalist market run by a very totalitarian regime. In China they call this “Communism with Chinese ideals” and, sadly, for the most part people are fairly tolerant of this regime, or so it seems.

With few obstacles to bar its way, and with corruption percolating through every crevice of the system, the sweaty beast that is China continues to plough on at an exhilarating speed either ignorant, or simply unconcerned, by any ramifications of its actions.

Our first impressions of China were set by the people we had met on the road who had just left the country. They had all talked about the dirtiness, the rude people, the kids defecating on the street (because it was normal, not because they were being overtly rude), the horrendous toilets, the constant staring and the strategically placed ticket booths at every possible scenic view point.

The more we heard the less we were looking forward to entering China. But then we arrived in Urumqi in the far West of the country and all our fears seemed groundless.  Yes the public toilets were pretty bad and the staring was constant but the people were friendly, the food absolutely delicious and most of the time the interesting things were free and could be easily found from walking within a market or just down the street.

Whilst Urumqi in itself it is not particularly beautiful on the surface and just seemed like any another middle sized city in China (which in Chinese terms means a population > 1 million) with skyscrapers, construction rigs and bright lights, once we walked around the Muslim quarter and its night market we were captivated.

We stayed exploring the city before heading further east to the grape town of Turpan, also a very Islamic town with a thriving night market. We stayed for a couple of nights, renting bicycles to explore the countryside and the ancient city of Jiaohe, before moving onto Dunhuang, a reasonably sized town on the periphery of the Gobi Desert.

In true China style people were charged to enter the desert, which was ridiculous as it’s a desert and anyone could simply find another part of one of the world’s biggest deserts and just walk into it. But that was China for you. We hung around for a while, visiting the highly rated Mogao Buddhist caves (very over-rated in our opinion) before moving onto the next town a mere 24 hour train journey away, Zhangye.

There was nothing to do in Zhangye…but we liked it. There were very few tourists, but lots of life and what’s more we discovered that a thousand years ago the Great Wall had extended this far West of China (2000 km from Beijing). And so at the behest of Abs, we spent an afternoon taking the bus 30 minutes out of the city, where we saw the sandstone wall intermittently crumbling by the roadside. At one point our road even bisected the Wall.

It was very unimpressive in terms of the status quo image of the Wall we are used to seeing in guidebooks, but nonetheless impressive in the fact that we were standing on something so iconic with no one around but us.

After Zhangye we headed south to unknown, and un-touristy, Xining in Qinghai Province. The road that led here was beautiful, and the bus caressed the edges of the Tibetan plateau as it weaved its way over snow-capped mountains. The city was a nice introduction to some Tibetan culture before a journey to Xiahe, the highlight of our trip, where the Labrang Monastery awaited us.

Labrang is home to the largest number of monks outside Tibet and subsequently the largest group of ipad carrying monks. Yes, that’s right, they had ipads. Or iphones. And yes, all of them had at least one of these items. Our enquiries led us to discover that these had all been acquired through donations. And so as we sat drinking salty yak butter tea in a cafe, sheltering from the cold and rain outside, we would stare with wonder as the monks sitting on the next table browsed itunes. Perhaps the cessation of material desire wasn’t being taught with great fervour in this particular monastery?

In spite of this oddity we thoroughly enjoyed Xiahe; the setting was beautiful, nestled placidly amongst the hills on the edge of the Tibetan plateau, there were very few tourists and we experienced a degree of spirituality when we took part in the 3km prayer wheel pilgrimage that circumvented the religious complex. The more devout were taking part in the Chak Tsal, the pilgrimage to Lhasa whereupon they prostrate their entire bodies to the ground every 3 steps. It was truly humbling.

We stayed only a few days in Xiahe. The land of clich├ęd China lay ahead and so we packed our bags and headed further East in search of the Terracotta Army, the Great Wall and warmer climates before winter finally set in.

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