Wednesday, June 4, 2008


(If you are an intrepid traveller who enjoys adventure in exotic places way off the beaten track, do check out the excellent articles and photos on . The travelogue below is posted here with permission from the writer.)

China to Old Silk Route 18-days (Urumqi, Turpan, Dunhuang, Jiayuguan, Xiahe and Xian)

Yong Lee Min writes: The piece below is a contribution from Ernest Yoong, one of the oldest but fittest gentlemen on this trip. As a first timer with Yongo, he is a wonderful travel companion, quietly confident of his own abilities. He was first up the 1306 steps Flaming Mountain, first up the Tianchi Lake walks and second only to guide Dennis on the long Jiayuguan glacier trek, putting many of the younger Yongoers to "shame" but also an encouragement to those struggling, to be able to complete the walk.

YLM would also like to thank Jenny Lau who posted an extensive collection of some 900 photos of this trip on

A party of 28 people including Yong Lee Min (tour leader) and Goh Seng Aun (second-in-charge) departed KLIA 9 Sep, on the morning flight ZH796 to Shenzhen en route to Urumqi . The tour follows the old Silk Road from Urumqi to Xian, and traverses the remote northwestern region of China . Our companions are a diverse group of bird-watchers, a retired senior military man, tai- qi exponents, a marathon runner, a bald-joker with a penchant to spin stories not infrequently, an inveterate traveler who has been to China 46 times, financial planners and managers, young professionals and not-so-young seniors from Penang , KL and the antipodes. They encompassed various skills, talents and knowledge that complement the group such as native-speaking ability that was indispensable in navigation and ordering of food, congeniality, tolerance and endurance.

Shenzhen (Saturday 9 Sep 06)
After an uneventful three and a half hours flight we arrived about noon at Shenzhen airport. Temperature was 26 degrees C and raining. We bused to Shenzhen city which is about 30 km away and checked into the comfortable downtown Universal Hotel. Shenzhen is a very modern city with broad roads. We had free-time for the rest of the day and some of us did shopping at the less touristy ‘East gate' area. There were a number of good restaurants close to the hotel and the ordering skills of some of our members ensured a good meal for all. The rain continued intermittently until the time of our departure the next morning.

Urumqi (Sunday and Monday 10 - 11 Sep 06)
The morning flight to Urumqi ( wu-lu-mu-qi ) took about five and a half hours. Security at departure was stringent and any liquid container had to be opened and tasted to ensure it contained no flammable or explosive compounds. We landed at about 2.30 pm Urumqi airport (a modern terminal building) and bused to a downtown hotel. Temperature was a dry and comfortable 26 o C and sunny sky. Urumqi , a sprawling metropolis and the capital of Xinjiang ( Uighur Autonomous Region) has a population of close to 3 million people with a highly visible Uighur community.

We spent the day wandering around the Uighur market ( Erdaoqiao ), which has lots of ethnic food, fruit stalls and generally considered to be a tourist trap. In the evening, some of us took a taxi to Wuyi Lu (51 street ), a street block of food stalls and ethnic goods, and had dinner there.

The next morning was spent at the People's Park (entrance ¥5) and the close-by Hong San (entrance ¥10). The People's Park was a treat, viewing the many groups of people doing various activities e.g. taiqi , ballroom and line dancing, impromptu musicians and singing etc. The toilets in the park were very rudimentary consisting of a drain and partitions without doors. It is no surprise if some of us would have preferred to have a ‘quiet–time' behind some bushes. Hong San was a good 10 minute walk away and had some 2000 steps climb to the top of the promontory for a good view of the city.

Later in the afternoon we visited the newly refurbished provincial museum (entrance ¥25). Given time it was worth a whole day's visit. Prime visit is the well-preserved bodies of Indo-European origin, in particular the 4000 years ‘ Louhan Beauty' presented in a glass enclosure.

Tian Chi Lake (Tuesday and Wednesday 12-13 Sep 06)
We left Urumqi by bus at about 10 am for Tian Chi Lake . The local guide Lotus Wang accompanied us and travel was on good dual carriageway along barren country. Entrance to the area was ¥90 and after a change over to a smaller shuttle bus and a 10 seater electric vehicle, we continued on foot before arriving at Rashit's Yurt at about 2.15 pm. Rashit and family are Kazakhs. The lake entrance comprising of a large car/bus park, administration building and the usual tourist stalls was very commercial and crowded with a multitude of buses and people on short day visits. The lake presented a picture post-card with high mountains and snow-cap in the distance. Rashit's Yurt is well off the beaten track and in a remote cove of the lake backing on to steep mountains. The day was clear and cool.

After a late lunch we trekked up to the surrounding hills that gave a bird's eye view of the lake. Food was basic and after a good hearty meal of lamb kebabs, lamb bones and rice we retired early. We observed Rashit had a good stock of beer for the non- teetotallers . Each yurt comfortably accommodated 10 people. A central stove in each yurt kept us warm through the chilly night. Most had no problem sleeping after an exciting and exhausting day of trekking in the hills, although a few unaccustomed to the discomfort had to catch up with little sleep the next day.

The next morning after a noodles breakfast the group split into two for the horse ride expedition along the stream feeding the lake and on to high pasture ground. The horse ride cost ¥100 each. Many of us had never ridden a horse before and found the experience a novelty, exciting, sometimes terrifying and buttock bruising. The latter lasted for days. We rode for some hours, crossing the fast flowing stream twice before reaching the high pasture land for lunch. Some of us continued on foot further up the hills beyond for more scenic views of the valley and the lake now some distance away. We returned to Rashit's yurt by 4 pm and rested before indulging in a whole roast lamb dinner and more beer for the drinkers. Rashit had a new group of campers from Spain who occupied one of his other yurts.

Turpan (Thursday and Friday 14-15 Sep 06)
We prepared to leave Tian Chi Lake at about 11.30 am for Turpan . On the dual carriage motorway we passed through about 20 km of wind farm as well as no less than four toll booths. Wind energy was harvested by turbines, based on Norwegian technology. Along the way we saw at a distance two lakes, one of freshwater for cultivation of crabs and fishes, and a saltwater lake that has a density similar to the Dead Sea , and said to be the second lowest point on earth. We were told that the two lakes at a 20 m elevation difference in level are connected. A chemical processing plant extracted minerals from the salt lake.

We arrived at Turpan (population about 56,000) about 4 pm, and proceeded to the Jiaohe ruins ( Jiaohe-gu-cheng ), an ancient garrison settlement on a plateau bounded by two rivers. The Turpan area is about 154 m below sea level and the day was hot and dry and the highest recorded temperature was 49.6 o C. Entrance to the Jiaohe ruins was ¥40 and in reality it was a remnant pile of mud brick sprawling over a wide area.

We spent some 40 minutes before moving on to see the Karez (ka- er-jin ), a series of wells and 5000 km length tunnels constructed over 2000 years ago to capture the snowmelt from the Bogda mountains. Turpan owes its existence to the Karez which supplied it with fresh water for cultivation. Admission to the Karez was ¥30. We later checked into a budget hotel that was clean and comfortable with hot shower. At night a Uighur cultural show was available at one of the hotels but the group was too tired to attend and this was foregone.

The next morning we visited the Uighur markets that had stalls laden with a variety of dried fruits, raisins, spices etc. We then checked out of the hotel (at noon) before busing to the Flaming Mountains ( Huoyan Shan) some 10 km away. Entry was ¥20. The mineral contents of the rocks gave the appearance of multi- coloured tongues of fire at midday. It was a hot day with temperatures well above 40 o C.

A handful of us were crazy enough to climb the thousands of poorly secured timber steps loosely embedded on the steep slope to the summit. It was an arduous and probably risky climb with a number of rest platforms along the way. Hidden from view at the base were more suspended ladder steps before the summit was reached. The summit gave excellent views of the Turpan oasis and the distant Bogda mountains .

We later stopped briefly at a Uighur village and wandered about, then proceeded to the Afghan-style Sugong minaret (also known as the Emin minaret). As it was close to dusk we did not enter the mosque.

We bused to the Daheyan rail terminus about 58 km from Turpan to board the over-night train to the little town of Liuyuan , the rail terminus to Dunhuang . The soft-sleeper sleeps 4 people on comfortable bunks and cost ¥302 Urumqi to Liuyuan . There are separate washroom and toilets (squatting and pedestal) in each carriage. The hard-sleep accommodates 6 persons with little head room. We encountered strong winds at the crowded Daheyan rail station before boarding the 10 pm train. Observed that rail stations and train carriages are provided with dedicated water heaters for the dispensing of boiled water. The railway stations here are generally clean and there is some civic consciousness of disposing rubbish in bins; did not notice much spitting. Soft-sleeper railway carriages are non-smoking.

Dunhuang (Saturday and Sunday, 16-17 Sep 06)
We have now left Xinjiang province into the Hexi corridor of Gansu province, arriving Liuyuan rail station at about 8.30 am. We were met by the local guide Dennis ( Qin Xiang ) and then boarded the bus to Dunhuang some two and half hours away along rough roads in a barren landscape, passing some oil rigs. It is amazing that people can survive in such desolate environments. Dunhuang is a fair size oasis town (100,000 population ) close to the Mingsha Shan ( Singing Sands Mountain ) dunes and the Mogao Caves , and an important trade route of the Silk Road . We checked into a two star Xi Yu hotel close to the tourist mall. The hotel lobby and exterior looked attractive but suffers from poor maintenance and disinterested staff (probably government run).

After lunch in the tourist mall, at about 1.30 pm we bused to the Mogao Caves. Admission was a hefty ¥120 accompanied by an English-speaking guide. The grottoes known as ‘caves of a thousand Buddhas ' are world renown for its ancient collection of Buddhists drawing and sculpture. To the un-initiated the two hour visit to the numerous caves may be exhausting but here were some of the greatest treasures of ancient Buddhism. Photographs are strictly prohibited.

The next morning, Sunday 17 Sep, we visited Minsha Shan (Singing Sand Dunes) just 5 km outside Dunhuang . As expected there were huge crowds and admission was ¥80 and extras for rent of sand boots, camel ride, powered hand gliding and dune buggy ride. Peddlers sold cotton masks for protection against sand, wind and dust. The sand dunes are hundreds of metres high (1715 m) and have existed for thousands of years. Walking along the steep sand ridges was a challenge. Adjacent to the sand dunes is Crescent Moon Lake with a pagoda and some vegetation (market garden cultivation).

In the evening we hired bicycles and visited some of the surrounding villages and orchards. The locals were friendly and some even invited us to their homes for brief viewing. Dinner was again at the mall with lots of food stalls. Food was cheap and a large bottle of beer was sometimes as low as ¥2.50. Cheers to Major.

Jiayuguan , Monday and Tuesday, 18-19 Sep 06)
Departure was scheduled 6 am for Jiayuguan (130,000 population) about six hours away by road. The new highway was under construction and often detours had to be made on poor gravel roads. The terrain was flat and bleak with no vegetation; the weather was clear and sunny otherwise sand storms could prevail. Comfort stops along the way were simply where the bus stopped and boys and girls need not be bashful. We checked into the old wing of the Great Pass hotel ( Xiong Guan) on the 4 th floor – great walking up the stairs again. The hotel is probably two star and hot water was only available between 7 pm – 1 am, but breakfast of porridge, vegetable and hard-boiled eggs was provided the next day.

Located at Jiayuguan is the garrison fort for the western end of the Great Wall. Entry was ¥60 and a further ¥20 for the electric shuttle to the main gate of the Jiayuguan Pass Fort. Tourism obviously adds to the state coffers. The fortress is impressive with a number of high pagoda-like towers elevated on high walls. It presented the classic image of ancient western China . Most of the structures were re-constructed and the less impressive rammed-earth wall of the Great Wall could be seen. We later bused to view the Overhanging Great Wall not far away.

Tuesday, 19 Sep, we departed for the July 1 st glacier some 120 km away. It took about 3 hours on steep gradients to reach the entrance where vehicles could proceed no further. Entry was ¥50 with some discount for seniors. The glacier is 4300 m above sea-level. It is estimated that elevation at entrance is about 3800 m and the hike to the face of the glacier is 5 km. There was no crowd here and in fact we were the only group. A handful of us walked the distance to the glacier with BC Tan leading the way. The distance and height climbed were not excessive but as there was little time to acclimatize to the altitude, a few encountered altitude sickness . The view of the glacier was impressive.

We returned to the hotel at about 6 pm and then after some freshening, boarded the bus to the railway station for the 9 pm overnight train to Lanzhou .

Lanzhou , Wednesday, 20 Sep 06
We arrived about 7 am at Lanzhou , the capital of Gansu province. The city has a population of about 3 million people and sits on the banks of the Yellow River ( Huang He ). The day appeared to be under a constant haze that probably confirmed it notoriety as the world's most polluted city. After a quick breakfast of beef (of miniscule portions) noodles, we continued on to Xining . The dual carriage highway between the two cities is very modern, with dedicated rest-stops, well sign-posted, and generally elevated above the surrounding terrain; we passed many kilometres of viaducts and a 3 km long tunnel.

We have now left Gansu and entered Qinghai province and its capital Xining (population about 2 million) by about noon. Xining has a large Hui Muslim population, some Tibetan and Han majority. We visited the Great Mosque, one of the largest in northwest China (admission ¥10) and had conversations with the imam, a young Hui firebrand who was most fervent in expounding his beliefs. After checking into Haolong hotel (3 star?), we bused to the Taer Si ( Kumbum ) monastery, one of the six major Tibetan monasteries of the Yellow Hat sect. It was crowded with worshippers despite the ¥80 admission. The fee does not appear to commensurate with the visit. No photographs are allowed within the temples.

Qinghai is the source of Asia's three great river systems, Yellow River (Huang He), Yangzi (Chang Jiang ) and the Mekong .

Xiahe , (Thursday and Friday, 21-22 Sep 06)
After breakfast (porridge, vegetable, eggs and buns) provided at the hotel, we departed at 8.10 am for Xiahe , a journey which took close to 9 hours that included a number of stops and lunch at a Hui village. The single carriageway through a narrow gorge and high mountain pass was torturous; and some sections of the road were under construction. Along the way we crossed the headwaters of the Huang He . We are now back in Gansu province and arrived at Xiahe at about 6.30 pm and temperature was a lot cooler and chilly in the evening. Xiahe has a population of about 150,000 comprising Tibetan, Hui and Han, set in a mountain valley. Judging the size of the town the quoted large population is questionable and does not represent the urban population. A river, Daxia He runs along one side of the rustic town. The hotel was very basic, probably no star rating; with shower.

A small group of us was invited in the evening to the home of the guide's Tibetan friend. The family was most gracious and generous, and offered us tsampa , a mixture of yak butter, cheese and ground roasted barley grain eaten uncooked (tasted wholesome), hot yak milk and boiled yak meat. We had opportunities for a photo shoot of the family in traditional Tibetan garments. After dinner a few of us led by our internet specialist Xavier Goh , sought out the internet café ( wangba ). Internet cafes are widely available in towns along the Silk Road and cheap at two yuan per hour.

The next morning, Friday, 22 Sep, after the hotel-provided breakfast of noodles and hard-boiled egg, we set out for the renown Labrang Tibetan monastery about a 1 km walk at the other end of the town. The monastery spreads over a wide area and is intersected by local roads. Entrance was a reasonable ¥40 and well worth a visit; we witnessed the procession of monks and their prayers at the temple. The rest of the day was free. We had a sumptuous dinner at one of the better Chinese restaurants, courtesy of the ordering skills of Erica Ong and Fon Lee Kuan .

Lanzhou , (Saturday, 23 Sep 06)
We left Xiahe after breakfast for Lanzhou . We passed through Linxia and a number of Hui villages before joining on to the motorway and a 4.3 km road tunnel before reaching Lanzhou at about 2 pm. Lanzhou is at the geographic centre of China and its many industries contribute to the city's pollution. We checked into the 3 star Victory Hotel located downtown and close to the Yellow River bank, for a half day respite, prior to boarding the 8.45 pm overnight train to Xian. The soft sleeper Lanzhou -Xian cost ¥264.

Xian , (Sunday and Monday, 24-25 Sep 06)
We arrived at 6.40 am Xian and checked into a 3 star hotel just outside the city wall and about 20 minutes walk from the Bell Tower. Xian is the capital city of Shanxi province with a population of 7 million. It is the centre of Chinese civilization with a history of more than 3,100 years and was the capital of 13 dynasties, located at the eastern terminus of the ancient Silk Road . A well preserved defensive wall, re-built in the Ming dynasty surrounds the city centre.

Visited the Mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang, the first unifying emperor of China , located about 40 km from the city in the eastern suburbs. Admission was ¥40 that included some enactments of ancient royal court dances, military display and a long flight of stairs to the top of the truncated pyramid tomb. There was no visible entry to the tomb.

At 11.30 am, we continued on the bus to view the 2000 years army of terracotta warriors. Entrance was ¥90 and it was a fairly long walk to the covered site of the entombed warriors and museum. Three separate buildings housed the terracotta warriors. The 6000 plus excavated warriors were a sight to behold. The first vault was discovered in 1974 by peasants digging a well. There were also the inevitable hordes of tourists.

We returned to the hotel at about 5 pm. A slight drizzle continued for the rest of the day. Monday 25 Sep, there was opportunity to cycle about the city wall, while others preferred to do some last minute shopping before checkout at noon for the 3.45 pm flight to Shenzhen and then on to KLIA. There was a 3 hour transit at Shenzhen airport.

KLIA , (Tuesday 26 Sep 06)
We arrived KLIA at about 1.30 am. There was some sadness that the adventure had come to an end. A strong bond of friendship developed amongst the group but there were promises of other wild trips to China.

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