In August 1992, myself and my wife, Caroline, arranged a trip to post-Tiananmen China. It was in the days when the London China Travel office was on Cambridge Circus, opposite the Palace Theatre on Charing Cross Road. It took me at least twenty books, a late-night Japanese television series and several months to plan and arrange the trip from what was then our base in Balham, south London. In those days, you could arrange the visit via China Travel and then, as long as the itinerary was lodged in advance, you could travel absolutely independently. Everything was pre-paid, but on setting off, we had no tickets or confirmed reservations apart from our air tickets in and out of Beijing. As ever, I kept a journal of the trip, which ran to more than fifty pages. A few years later, I condensed the experience to two sides of A4, ignoring rules of grammar and syntax, and produced the following ramble, a perhaps poetic impression of nearly a month of travel.
Ex-London while the Sun dissected Michael Jackson’s nose and praised Boardman’s hooterless gold-medal bicycle. Air China to Beijing, where taxis cost more than Lonely Planet predicts. A Chinese character itinerary from one Tim Han of China Travel whilst fellow workers drool over televised lithe Afro-American sprinters at the Olympics. Then to the no-longer Forbidden City. Piles of local tourists to negotiate.
Four hours of Xinjiang Airlines to Urumqi. Signs in Chinese and Russian plus Uigur written in Arab script (a recent innovation). Land lines across Inner Mongolia. Why and how so straight? Urumqi multiple-peaked. Piles of coal, scruffy high rise, snow-capped Bogda Shen at street-end. Pavement fortune tellers, traders. Food stalls. Women washing sheeps’ stomachs in a stream, tripe kebabs. Uigur town now Han Chinese, populated by Shanghai overspill, over 2000 miles from ‘home’. The second long march.
Uigur breakfast. Hot sheep’s milk, Chinese tea, flat tomato bread, sugared tomato and cucumber, pickled cabbage, thin congee, sheep’s milk butter, two giant sugar lumps. Uigur market. Fruits amid a forest of hanging lamb. Chinese market. Live vegetables and meats. Tank over-spilling with energetic eels (unit price). Self-knotting spaghetti.
Woman losing her gold watch at an illegal ‘find the lady’. Policeman looking on. Tears when the loss hits home. Renmin Park for noodles and rocket-fuel chili sauce. Bag slashers with finger-ring knives on a crowded bus. Care needed.
Car to Turfan. Fertile valleys. Barren mountains. Occasional snow. Road ploughed. Kazak yurts. Semi-sunken shade-making rammed-earth Uigur villages, invisible at a distance save for chimney smoke. Steep downhill gorge, spectacular river, rocks, white water and slate-grey hills. Into Turfan depression, snow-capped distance surrounding grey stone pit 100 miles across. 42 degrees at its base, 200 metres below sea level. Car ahead leaving tracks on molten road. A hefty gob from the driver irrigates. Gobi means stones. Plenty here. And then green. An oasis. A giant mirage?
Turfan. Latticed vines for street-shade. Hanging raisin grapes. 15 yuan fine for casual picking. Hotel tea in galvanised buckets. Turkish-style dancing and music. Genghiz-sacked rammed-earth cities of Goachang and Jiaohe. Painted tombs and brick minarets. Flaming mountains. Karez underground irrigation system. 3000 kilometres of channels. 1500 years old, gravity-fed from mountains at the depression-edge. Uigur culture’s greatest feat, and in full working order.
Bus to Daheyan. Two hours over bumpy stones to depression-edge. Dump of a railway town. Coal heaps, box buildings, waste land. Two women at war on station forecourt. Ramming victim’s head onto the ground. Blood. Onlookers. Inaction. A tense town of resentful postees.
500 miles to Liuyuan in Gansu. Featureless flat grey shale stone. Spectacularly unique. Snow mountains to the north. Utterly empty, save for smoking coal towns. 40 above in summer, 30 below in winter. Overnight by train. Dawn reveals same massive scene, now in brown.
Arrive Liuyuan. Daheyan writ similar. 120 miles south across the desert (black at first!), past remnant ramparts of Han Dynasty Greater-Great Wall. Camels and dunes of Taklimakan, world’s largest sand desert. Near Dunhuang oasis blossoms again. Sand and scree suddenly crop and tree. Feitian Hotel, with complimentary toiletries labelled Sham Poo and Foam Poo. Lunch. Fourteen dishes. Duck, foo-yong, cucumber, cabbage, oyster mushroom chicken, coriander pork, steamed buns, steamed bread, rice, beef broth and noodles, pork and green beans, pork and sweet chili, chicken and squash, plain noodles, water melon. Then to get the essential torch for the caves. Houses huddled together. Wood stores for winter piled on top. View across the roofs like a scrap heap. Ground level claustrophobic stoneware maze.
Cave day. Mogao Buddhist caves – closed from 12 to 2, full day needed for perhaps the most stunning sight on earth. 400 ‘caves’ (some cathedral size) in a sandstone gorge, between 400 AD to 1100 AD. Utterly dry, always dark, perfectly preserved. Everything painted. Tang period complex and colourful. A world of scenes by torchlight. Buddhas reclining, sitting, standing, posing. Thirty metre seated figure with thousands of unsmoked cigarettes and coins on his lap as offerings. Shock of Qing-renovated cave with Taoist figures. Ghoulish features, contorted, and a face in the groin. 40 caves seen in the day, archaeologist as a personal guide. Stunning. Fourteen dishes for dinner.
Desert bus back to Liuyuan. Always a fight for seats. Three dusty hours. Train to Lanzhou. 800 miles along Gansu-Qinghai mountainous border. More black desert, then yellow earth. Jaiyaguan fort at the limit of the Ming empire. Overnight by train. Country changed. Mountain pass, green rolling hills and stepped fields. Wheat harvest in. Straw dollies like children at assembly. Houses still of rammed earth. Lanzhou a thriving industrial city. Thirty hours of travel. Walk by Yellow River.
Fish in hotel restaurant tank all dead. Lanzhou bus expensive. 50 fen per trip. Radios and knitting banned. Han dynasty flying horse and bronze warriors. Steamed carp with rape on menu. The fish comes first. Train to Xian through yellow loess country. Deep furrows and gorges. All flat land cropped. 500 miles overnight.
Terra cotta warriors facing east to guard Qin Shihuang’s tomb. Made in pieces. Assembled in situ. Partly excavated section where piles of dismembered limbs emerge from the earth. New terra cotta warriors for sale from the factory behind the museum. Exact replicas of originals. Wheeze at the thought of the whole thing as a sham for the tourist trade.
Xian, like all Chinese cities, a square. Roads straight, intersecting always at right angles. Ancient centre walled, Ming rebuilt. Old mosque exquisite. Xianyang nearby, with Seventh century Qian tombs, museum with another 3000 Han terra cottas like a football crowd. Train to Beijing. 800 miles, 26 hours. Houses often caves in valley side. Later immense flat land, maize everywhere.
Temple of Heaven, Tiantan, and then Beijing Opera. Pause for beer at wayside stall. Served by moonlighting trainee stockbroker! Breakfast pickle amazing, like four year old camembert out of a shotgun. Takes the head off. Great Wall. Mucho touristico, but still stunning. Like climbing a giant ladder in places. “I climbed the Great Wall” T-shirts, prices lower the further you climb. Must be the air. Ming tombs dismissed by guide-book. Wrong. Amazing barrel vaulted rooms nine stories underground. Jade doors, carved thrones, marble, marble, marvel. Reminiscent of renaissance Italy. Everlasting bricks etched with names of their makers. Souvenir jade boat for 55000 pounds.
White drapes over erotic statues in Tibetan Lama Temple. Same bestial content in wall paintings. 24 metre gold Buddha through the incense-blur. No smoking signs everywhere.
Mao’s Maosoleum an emperor’s tomb. Lines for queues painted across the square. Feet pointing north towards Tiananmen Gate, upside-down feng shui. He is shiny, waxy and painted about the face. Moving lines file past on either side. No pausing. Outside, stalls with Mao T-shirts, Mao key rings, cuddly toys, post cards, magic lantern shows. Mao Zedong candy floss by the armful. Then Great Hall of the People. Dining room for 5000. Now fast food for tourists. Great Hall chop sticks, cigarettes, T-shirts. Great Hall of the People cuddly toys.
2500 miles. Three and a half weeks. 5 destinations. 50 caves. 6000 terra cotta warriors. 1 each Great Wall, Forbidden City, Beijing Opera, Mao Zedong. Hundreds of tombs, temples, pagodas, parks, bendi-buses and bicycles. 3 silk shirts on the Silk Road. One amazing trip.