September 18 to 22, 2007
Back when I was a professional compulsive instead of just a recreational neurotic, I investigated every trip exhaustively--pored over guidebooks, read historical and cultural sources, selected touring sites, made lists of restaurants--all so that we could, quite literally, hit the ground running.
This sort of obsessive
commitment to future pleasure at the expense of the Zen present once got
Gary, who generally insists on doing everything himself (hence all generator and costume jewelry repairs) finally gave in and asked a passing English bloke.
“You’re standing in it, guv’nor,” he said.
Now, had we helicoptered in, as any truly useful guidebook would have suggested, we’d have realized that we’d already been scrambling in and out of Maiden Castle for hours. This not-to-be-missed sightseeing coup was a series of deep circular troughs designed to repel invading enemies—in fact, a very early example of modern trench warfare. Mitigating our disappointment, we decided maybe ungallant knights used it on foggy nights attempting to deflower local maidens.
Such experiences, coupled with the laziness of the happily retired, led me to do absolutely NO research on China--a daunting investigative project anyway--but instead to merely glom onto the itinerary of a couple I’ve never met.
Rose and Hal Hull are friends of our son, Bobby. Their routine trip prep apparently included studying all available scientific, geological, historical and cultural material, plus thorough dips into World Heritage websites.
Bobby, with 3
“Most of the stops are really hokey,” Rose wrote in dismissal.
So I ticked off the 5 days and went with the rest. (Would that toiling Christian missionaries were rewarded with such slavish devotion.)
At the time we had neither a
Thus, except for
Can you top this?
Let me say that any preparation
would have been a total waste of time. The entire 35-dayOdyssey was an exercise
"Yeah, no problem...Mei wenti," in Mandarin.
Just as surprising are the stupendous natural phenomena: immense gorges, fabulous caves, magnificent mountains, picturesque waterways and lush scenery.
Between Kashgar and our next
stop, Turpan, we breezed back into the
We expected little from
Turpan--which sounded like little more than some Arabic headgear--but it
actually was a Stonehenge of sorts--as well as the lowest (and hottest)
city in China. We toured two fortified cities (each more elaborate than
When the rivers dried up some 2000 years ago (early instance of global warming) the Turpanians proved themselves adept at irrigation. They engineered and hand dug more than 1,000 subterranean wells, which still today draw runoff from the surrounding mountains.
Close by Turpan, we visited the
Thousand Buddha Caves, a group of mountain caves dating back 1,800 years, where
several gigantic Buddhas, two and three stories high, beamed benevolently down
on us. In other nearby caves merely giant Buddha figures sat on altars
surrounded by walls painted with thousands of smaller Buddhas, many of their
faces gauged during the Cultural Revolution by the marauding Red Guards, who
had Chairman Mao’s blanket government permission to erase and deface all
bourgeois capitalist traces.
We crossed between Turpan and
Dunhuang—about 1,000 miles of empty desert—on an overnight sleeper train. At
the Turpan railroad station we got a physical demonstration of
Since there were no elevators, escalators or ramps we hauled our 4 overweight suitcases, plus assorted carryon luggage—through a maelstrom of people, up 3 flights of stairs and into an ill-lit waiting room closely resembling every painting we’ve ever seen of the damned consigned to purgatory.
Also known as
At the far end of the room,
Hebib flashed some tickets at a guard. To our shock we were ushered into a
separate waiting room filled with a serious bar and upholstered easy
chairs. Within seconds a table was whisked before us. Four cups of coffee and a
plate of peanuts appeared…after which we were invited…to shop!
Even a second kid is buyable.
We discovered that even freedom
is for sale.
That’s about $15,000 for the 11 years he’s got left. For nomadic hill people this will amount to selling just about everything, down to the last yak and turquoise bead, but the family is determined to get him out.
Love of “stuff” runs very deep in Chinese society. For example, the famous Xi’an Terracotta Warriors, which we visited next, actually amount to an emperor insisting on taking it all with him. Not just his gold and jewelry but his entire army—6.000 strong—plus assorted horses and chariots.
Oh, and all the people who toiled to create these marvelous stone beings got buried alive so no one would ever find the tomb and destroy the king’s sleep.
Better than my trying to
describe this wondrous place, take a look…