21st November 2018
WF's Sara reports back from her recent time on our Chinese Silk Road Taklamakan Adventure tour, describing her best bits and her tips to anyone wishing to follow in her footsteps.
The Singing Sand Dunes near Dunhuang are just how I dreamed sand dunes would look! The shapes created by the wind are so elegant, snaking off into the distance. Despite the many tourists visiting this site it is still possible to find a peaceful moment and take it all in, and it was a great place to experience at sunset. Climbing to the top is slow going and fairly strenuous, but worth the effort for the view down on the Crescent Moon Lake. And it’s great fun and much quicker going back down the dunes!
The food on this tour was fantastic, and as those in the office will tell you, I love my food! The variety and quality were excellent as we moved from fairly standard Chinese fair during the eastern part of the tour onto the spicier and much more Central Asian style dishes of Xinjiang Province, where the prevalence of noodles increased. Having looked after the logistics of our group tours to Central Asia for the last 10 years and travelled to most of the ‘Stans now, I have grown very fond of the wide choice of manti available in these countries and was delighted to find them as we headed into Western China. These dumplings come in all shapes and sizes, some filled with lamb and others with pumpkin, and all delicately spiced to optimise the flavour. Definitely best eaten hot and fresh from the street vendors!
The Silk Road Dunhuang Hotel was definitely the most characterful of our trip. The rooms are really thoughtfully decorated with local handicrafts and fabrics, in keeping with the Silk Road theme. Located outside of the city centre, the building is in traditional Tang Dynasty style with a large courtyard. It also has a great rooftop restaurant and bar where you can enjoy some wonderful views over breakfast, or whilst enjoying a beer at night!
Rising early before breakfast in the Tibetan town of Xiahe to join the morning kora is a wonderful experience not to be missed. At this time of year we certainly needed to wrap up warm, but it was great to be able to walk along with the local people and pilgrims, young and old, as they underwent this ritual – a circumambulation of the entire perimeter of Labrang Monastery.
We rode camels out into the Taklamakan Desert just before reaching Kashgar on the final leg of our journey. Out amongst the sand dunes we had the chance to witness traditional Uighur folk music, muqam, and dancing performed by the local people of a nearby village. These songs and traditions have been passed down through the generations for centuries and it was a privilege to be able to experience them and help support their retention as modern China encroaches on traditional life.
I think the best souvenir shopper amongst our group was Silk Road specialist Alan. He haggled like a pro to buy a wonderful checkich, the stamp used to make intricate patterns on the typical flatbread of the region. He also bought a metal “Tang dynasty” camel in an antique shop in Kashgar, similar to this one we saw in the Gansu Regional Museum.
As we gazed out towards the Tien Shan Mountains on our day trip out of Kashgar to climb up to Shipton’s Arch, I definitely had a hankering to carry on the journey west and cross the Irkeshtam pass into Kyrgyzstan, land of mountains and nomads, as other Silk Road travellers have done before me. I don’t think Jonny would have been happy if I was away from the office any longer though!!
With two bullet trains and two sleeper trains on this tour itinerary, it’s a good idea to be prepared for the security checks involved. You have to pass through metal detectors and bag screening on entering all train stations in China (as well as on the metro in some cities). All batteries and most electrical items are best carried in your hand luggage, and any knives with blades over around 4cm are likely to be confiscated so leave Swiss Army and Leatherman knives at home. Sharp items such as nail scissors are ok, but pack them in your hand luggage so that the security staff can see them if they ask. No aerosols are permitted, e.g. shaving foam, and these items will be taken off you and disposed of.
Despite most train stations in China being very modern and newly built, the architects don’t seem to have given much thought to people with luggage! I don’t recall coming across any lifts/elevators. We found there are sometimes escalators going down to cross underneath to other platforms, but not necessarily an escalator going up the other side, and vice versa. This means carrying your bags up and down stairs in many places, so I recommend keeping your main bag as small and light as you can to manage this. Storage space on the trains is also quite limited so a small bag is easier to fit under the bunk.