When Marco Pineapple (pineapple is bo lou--"Polo" in Chinese) was recounting his memoirs, he recalled a place where the shifting dunes whispered to travelers. Where spirits waited to lure homesick men from the camel caravan, calling them by their own names and leading them to death.
This whispering may have been caused by the settling grains of sand at Resonant Sand Gorge--the piles of sand sigh when you step on them, perhaps loudly enough to cause an already weary traveler to go in search of the demons calling him.
Today, there is no camel train to the east or west, just a set of trained camels ready to ride you in a circle out in the dunes for 40 or 60 RMB per person.
While not enough to go travel-mad, it's enough to get a taste for the rhythm of the two-humped camels and an ear for the singing sands.
It wasn't very easy to get there--we took a bus to a different destination but got off along the highway before it arrived, then paid a woman selling boiled ears of corn to let us pile in her minivan with her wares and drive us the remaining 2 kilometers to the park.
Once there, we rode Mongolia's oldest cable way across the gorge from arable land to arid sand, watched people sledding on the 300-meter dunes and admired the camels enough to take a short ride on them. That afternoon we went to the highway and flagged down a taxi to continue on. Baotou, Inner Mongolia's most populous city, was our next destination.
We had water, we had snacks. We were ready.
I settled into my seat on the bus and browsed through our Lonely Planet guidebook.
This afternoon we should get to the Genghis Khan Mausoleum, not really a tomb since he isn't buried there, but a memorial to him, sacred to the Mongolian people.
Dad said, "Let me see that." He skimmed the guidebook. "Are you sure we can get there?"
I read the passage again. Dad said, "No, I think that the village near the mausoleum is not Wushengqi. I think it's a different village." We were on a bus to Wushengqi.
We bought a map of Inner Mongolia when we went to see the trees in EjiNa last year. Time to consult it.
Wushengqi, Yulin and Genghis Khan's Mausoleum form a triangle, with Wushengqi to the far west and our target to the north. We are going the wrong way.
Well, we reasoned, there must be another bus from Wushengqi that must go to the mausoleum.
We took the two hour trip through the arid plains of outer China ( I slept) and ended up in a one-street town. This was Wushengqi.
We walked out of the dusty corral that served as the bus station and mostly ignored the laughing taxi drivers offering to drive us to a bigger town for 600 RMB. "Why are you here?" they asked. They had no confidence in their hometown as being a tourist destination, it seemed, and neither did we.
We wandered around the square by the bus station. I noticed a hotel, in case there were no buses out. I noticed a grocery store. We were in search of a restaurant. It was lunchtime and a bathroom break was also in order.
We walked by a few small noodle restaurants, all deserted. Wasn't noon lunchtime here too? Or was the town just shut down?
On the corner there was a 15-foot tall extremely faded billboard showing various things to do around Wushengqi. I tried to read the Chinese but mostly pictures guided us. A picture of a man fishing. A picture of an archaeological site. A picture of a temple. How far away were these things? We asked a man nearby. He didn't know.
We crossed the road and settled at a clean-looking restaurant directly across from the bus station. It had green signage and big holes in the tables for hotpots. Mongolian Hot Pot. We'd been meaning to try it in Inner Mongolia anyway.
The waitress was more understanding than usual and helped us order what she thought would taste good—a bone soup base and mutton and beef and vegetables to add to it. We got a platter of vegetables as a cold starter and three plates of mysterious, extremely salty sauces to dip the meat in after it cooked in the broth. She showed us the straws for sucking the marrow and juices out of the leg bones in the pot. Delicious.
We ordered local beer, and, after some confusion about which beers were local and which weren't, got some Snowdeer, which is brewed in or near Baotou.
We were enjoying our meal in peace, ready to make the most out of Inner Mongolia even if we didn't actually make it to Genghis Khan's Mausoleum, when the invaders came.
"Huanying pengyoumen! (Welcome, friends)!" A man, beaming and weaving a little from side to side, came up to us. He had a half-empty red-labeled bottle of baijiu--rice spirits-- and a waitress scurried over with five shotglasses.
This was the owner, surnamed Feng, who wanted to show us some Mongolian hospitality, ie alcohol.
My parents had tried baijiu the first time they came to China, but so far I had protected them from ganbei culture.
Ganbei is usually translated as “cheers” but really means “dry your glass”--when the ganbeis start flying, one toast is followed by another, and small shotglasses of 80 proof alcohol are drained faster than happy sentiments are expressed.
Baijiu is an acquired taste. Baijiu seems always to be gulped, not sipped, and so hits the back of the throat like a two-dollar vodka. It has a faintly sweet taste, like the artificial flavoring in cheap ice-cream, that lingers in the mouth after drinking and wrinkles the nose on the first shot. The third shot is easier, but the fourth always makes me crave a chaser, which is not generally provided.
The first toast was Feng's, of course.
"Welcome foreign friends. I hope you enjoy your meal."
The next, was ours. "Thank you for your wonderful food. This is feichang hao (very good)."
The third, back to him. "Welcome to Inner Mongolia!"
The fourth, ours. "What a great restaurant you have. You must be very successful."
Back to him, telling my mother she was pretty. The first bottle was finished.
He called for another, on the house.
Our turn, we complimented his staff.
His turn, he tried to sell us on a fishing trip to some reservoir nearby.
Our turn, we thanked him profusely, but told him we had urgent business elsewhere (namely, anywhere away from baijiu).
His turn, he brought up his brother, working in Guangzhou. Because he is far away and depending on strangers, Feng wants to be nice to travelers. By now, he was mixing Mongolian dialect with Mandarin. Neither Dan nor I could understand him.
We toasted his kindness, and told him in my alcohol-improved Mandarin about our good experiences with the warm-hearted Chinese people.
Dad organized some beer to be brought as a respite from the baijiu. Much better, we figured.
We drank that with the staff, with the manager, with random people who showed up from the street. We took pictures with anyone who wanted them.
Finally, we caught the last bus out of town for Dongsheng. We didn't make it to Genghis Khan's mausoleum, but we figure his ancestors are holding down the fort for him.
The Red Rock Gorge in Yulin
My parents had already braved one hard-sleeper trip from YiChang to Xi'An, and said they were game for another to Yulin.
We paid 40 RMB per ticket to have our hostel book the tickets for us, making sure that it was bottom and middle bunks and not the dreaded, 10-foot-high top bunks.
Trains, once aboard, are generally a nicer way to travel. Train tracks in China seem to be built along prettier routes than their corresponding highways, and train windows are nice and wide. Also, bathrooms and dining cars and easier communication with other passengers make the trip more interesting.
It was for this last reason that the trip to Yulin from Xi'An stood out. Using Dan's and my hard-earned defensive train-riding tactics, we had reached our train car quickly and secured our territory in the bottom and middle bunks. (Once, when we had not done this, a 98-year-old woman and her grandson had stolen our berths and we had a very uncomfortable time trying to straighten it out.)
We started out drinking some rum that we had brought from Zunyi and cola from the station. We were enjoying that when the two men who had the top bunks came by. We scooted over on the bottom bunk so that they could sit down and offered them a drink. Of course, being polite, they refused a couple of times, but on the third time one of them accepted.
At first, he denied knowing English, but as we kept pressing rum (and then, he begged for beer) on him his English got better and better. He was from Yulin, it turned out, had studied tourism at university but now ran a home appliances mall. He had been in Xi'an with the other man, one of his "team", on business.
Li Bo, his name was, drank and talked with us and soon decided that he was going to help us enjoy Yulin to the fullest. He called a hotel from our Lonely Planet, decided it wouldn't do, booked us in to another, called a friend with a 4WD to pick us up at the station, drove us around to all of the tourist attractions in town and organized a large banquet for that night. We couldn't express our thanks enough.
The first sight he took us to the first day was the most famous one-- a guard house that had once been part of the Great Wall. Five hundred years old but recently refurbished, the Zhen Bei Tai had stood against Mongol invaders and mustered troops to defend the empire's borders. Now, it's a squat, grey, disembodied tower looking a little like a castle. The wall that linked it east and west now has been eroded or stolen for building materials.
We ate lunch, including a lamb's head, at a nearby restaurant in a cave house. Many people in this area in China live in homes hollowed out of the loess hills. Seeing 'the cave people' has been a desire of mine since before we had come to China. I had first read about it in Paul Theroux's Riding the Iron Rooster.
Next we saw something even more impressive. We had had no idea it was in Yulin and would never have found with out Li Bo's help. This was the Hong Shi Xia (Red Rock Gorge), a collection of more than 50 caves, or grottoes, scraped out of limestone cliffs over several centuries.
Before the Cultural Revolution in the 60s and 70s, these had housed ancient Buddhist statues and paintings. Some new ones replaced them, but other caves were empty, ready for imagination to fill them.
Then, we went to the best, most unanticipated temple I have seen anywhere. The Qing Yun Si (Roughly, Green Cloud Temple) was a giant, labyrinthine complex of courtyards--sixty or seventy--that offered worship in China's three main religions: Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism. Each courtyard had delicately decorated columns, roofs and stairways.
Although the temple wasn't open when we got there an old caretaker came to show us around. A team of carpenters were working in the back, creating eaves and statuary for the parts of the temple that had been damaged during the Cultural Revolution. Many of the statues had already been replaced, the man said, but they still had a long way to go to get it to it's former splendor.
Finally, Li Bo and his friend who was driving us around took us to the best restaurant in town for a huge banquet for us and his sales staff. We drank several boxes of beer (the local Hans beer) and afterward went to a bar for more.
The next morning we didn't want to abuse Li Bo's hospitality too much so we laid low in our hotel for a few hours and then met up with him in the afternoon. He took us downtown to the museum (which wasn't open, but he pulled some strings) and then to the Yulin Exposition center upstairs where we met the mayor of Yulin and got a tour (in English!) of the area's natural resources and industries.
That evening, more food, and on the walk back to the hotel we ran across a group of people singing local Shanxi songs and strumming hand-made instruments on the sidewalk. They wanted Mom to join in, so she and Dad sang 'Puff the Magic Dragon' and the alphabet song. The crowd of about 70 people clapped and cheered, then got back to their own style of music.
By the third day we knew we couldn't take up too much more of Li Bo's time--he had a business to run, right? So, we took off on a bus to Inner Mongolia that should have brought us to Genghis Khan's Mausoleum. **Please click here to see our photos!**
Dad making friends on the train.
Getting onto a train in China is complicated business.
First of all, tickets are needed. While websites exist from which it is theoretically possible to book and buy tickets, in reality it seems that these are only good for looking up the timetable to see what train you want to take.
Armed with this information, you'll then need to: a) go to the train station to buy the tickets or b) pay through the nose at a hotel or travel agency so that they will go stand in line at the train station instead of you.
As much of budget travelers as we profess to be, and as tightfisted as we are usually, I will happily, gladly, enthusiastically pay for someone to get the tickets for me. I would add up to 50 RMB onto the original price of each ticket, that's how much I hate the train station.
However, if there's no other way to get the tickets and I do have to go stand in line at the station, it usually goes like this:
Me: Why is it so crowded?
Passerby or Security Guard: It's a festival/back to school/weekend. (pick one)
Me: Excuse me, but where can I buy tickets to ____?
Passerby: I'm sorry,I don't know either.
Me: Okay. I'll try this line.
(15 minutes later)
Ticket Clerk: Wrong line. Go to counter X.
(30 minutes later)
Me: I'd like to go to _____ on XX train.
Ticket Clerk No. 2: Sorry. No tickets. Next!
Me: I guess we're going to take the bus.
If we do get the stupid tickets for the train, then the next hurdle to leap over is on the day of travel, first entering the station and then at the platform gate.
Because of concerns about terrorism, all baggage is put through an airport-style conveyor-belt metal detector before it is allowed in the station.
There isn't always someone watching the detector to see what is going through, but there is always someone waiting there to make sure you put your bags on the conveyor belt. Because everyone is in a rush to get to the waiting area, this bag search becomes a big bottleneck, with people first trying to put their bags in before anyone else and then trying to snatch them out on the other side.
Once safely through the metal detector (at least once on this trip my parents' clean laundry fell on the floor), it's time to proceed to the waiting area.
Passengers except those holding soft-sleeper tickets wait together in the train station hall. The early travelers, say three or four hours before the train departs, might score a place for themselves and their luggage on the seats that line the corridor to each gate. After those are filled, say two hours before the train departs everyone just stands and waits, watching the gate for any sign that the railway guard is ready to open it, and slowly pushing forward as it gets closer to the posted departure time.
At last, ten minutes before the gate should open, everyone is crammed in as close to the gate as they can get, luggage in hand (this means carrying poles and baskets and buckets in rural China). Once the railway worker opens it everyone pushes harder, trying to squeeze through the hip-width aluminum gate with all of their baggage without tripping. They do this one-handed, since they have to give the ticket to the guard to punch with the other hand.
Once through the gate, travelers turn into stampeding elephants and rush out to the train. Often, this involves going upstairs to a walkway over-passing the tracks and then back down stairs to a different platform. Old people, pregnant women, women in stilettos, everyone is ready to trample whoever is between them and the train.
Once at the right carriage, no matter that the conductor's yelling on the megaphone to slow down and line up, everyone squishes together trying to board the train-- at times even before disembarking passengers have made it off.
Sometimes, when the passengers make it to the platform before the train has arrived, the conductors tell them to line up in specific places for specific cars. However, this is usually the wrong place, which means when the train pulls up, everyone who was neatly lined up then surges for the carriage as if it contained gold or diamonds instead of just train seats.
The reason for this madness is because the train is often overbooked, and if people don't get to their seats soon enough, someone may have taken it, which will then require kicking them out, or, if there's a lot of luggage, then the luggage compartment areas may be full and they'll have to store their stuff farther from where their berth or seat is.
This rush, the physical crush, creates a physical excitement and a mass nervousness. A normally polite individual, stuck in the midst of the hard-seat crew bound for Chongqing on the T109 will pick up his or her rolling suitcase and use it like a wedge blocking another group of travelers from getting to the gate. A gentle and calm retiree will scream at the guards because the train is a fraction of a minute late. Small children, confused and unused to travel, cower on their mother's shoulders, little knuckles white with anxiety.
Crowd mentality starts to blossom, and the passengers are a single entity with unified desires...get to the gate, get to the platform, get on the train!
But, once on the train, the blessed train, all this madness is replaced by a giant, gliding sense of elation . The train bucks and takes off, and as the passengers start to breathe normally again, they look around, smile, and, watching the others scuffle for their seats, relax and start to enjoy the journey.
Of prime interest on the trip through China with my parents was my father's quest to find new kinds of beer to sample.
So far, in Chongqing and YiChang, we'd had the (we thought) ubiquitous Snow Beer and TsingDao. Chongqing has it's own weak brew, Shancheng. In YiChang, we had some Hunan beer called Chero. After trying these beers we headed for Hans beer territory--Xi'An, incidentally home of the Terracotta Warriors.
Dan and I went to Xi'An on our first big trip in China, over Christmas 2006 with some coworkers from Foshan. We had only had one day to explore the city that time, but decided to go back to get a better feel for what had once been the capital of China in her Silk Road heyday, and of course, to try more beer.
A few of the Hans-labeled beers weren't bad (though it seems to be just an offshoot of TsingDao), but we did get duped into drinking one terrible beer while stopping for lunch in the Terracotta Warriors complex: bittermelon flavored beer. Not recommended.
We revisited the Warriors (an experience much better than the beer) and also had a few nice afternoons in Xi'An looking at the BanPo Neolithic site, an archaeological dig discovered in the 1950s and the Shanxi Provincial Museum, which had had a face lift since Dan and I were there and may be the best museum we'd visited in China. The entrance fee has also been waived since our last trip, which was a nice surprise.
After a few days we headed off to Yulin, a not-very-famous city near the border with Inner Mongolia, where remnants of the Great Wall still stand.
We're making dreams come true this trip.
Since Dan's stepfather Colin has always wanted to sail along the Yangtze River, when it turned out that he and Dan's mom and my parents were all looking to come to visit us in China at the same time, we decided to make it happen.
We packed up our apartment in Zunyi (thanks to a lot of help from our colleagues!) and arrived in Chongqing via train a few hours before Dan's family came from Australia. My parents came on the last flight from Shanghai and the next day we set off to explore Chongqing. We spent a lot of time in the Hong Ya Dong complex, shops and restaurants rebuilt in “old” style over 11 floors going up a cliff.
We also visited the old neighborhood of CiQiKou, good for shopping for local handicraft and for people-watching, and took an ill-fated trip to the zoo to see lazy pandas. I say it was ill-fated because the zoo was under construction and it was so hot we couldn't bear walking to the exhibits that were still open. We did get to peek at the rear ends of some napping pandas though so it was worth it. We took the light rail to the zoo, which was fun because for a lot of the journey the train runs on an elevated track through the city and along the river.
On Friday we boarded the ship, the MinShan, and took off to see the gorges.
The ship wasn't much to enthuse about, but we'd gotten a good low price for our tickets. We spent most of the time on the 4th floor's sun deck sipping free tea or Snow beer and watching the muddy river flow past us.
The first full day we went to a ghost temple near Feng Du and to a temple in honor of the legendary general Zhang Fei, who is still regarded a protector of China.
The second day we visited an island city where a self-proclaimed emperor had once lived a short reign and started through the gorges themselves. In the afternoon we took a different boat through the Little Three Gorges and the Little, Little Three Gorges.
The third day we visited an impressive narrow stream called Jiu Wan He and watched acrobats performing on a tightrope about 20 stories above the river and then disembarked to look at the Three Gorges Dam. From there we took a bus to YiChang. On the boat we'd lived on picnic-style sandwiches and instant noodles, so in YiChang we went out for a big steak dinner to celebrate a successful trip.
From YiChang, Marilyn and Colin will fly back home and Dan, me and my parents will take a train to Xi'an to revisit the Terracotta Warriors on our way to Inner Mongolia.
The Big Trip has begun! We are in a Chongqing Subway waiting for our parents to arrive this afternoon and evening.
So far the trip is going well--yesterday and the day before were a nightmare of packing and organizing. This will be no surprise for some of you who have seen us packing before, but we ended up with way too much stuff even after all the careful equipment research and discussions we've done over the last year. We're scuttling a lot of it today and over the next days I expect our loads will get lighter.
Next up: Chongqing for parents
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Here's a short list of the things we're planning on taking on our trip. Anything that turns out not to be useful will be dumped pretty quick.
In no particular order:
- powerboard for charging cameras, cellphones, etc.
- 100 percent silk sleeping sacks
- hiking boots
- Tevas-style sandals
- a pedometer
- Nalgene bottles
- a cord to hang laundry up with
- quick-dry microfiber towels (kitchen cloths sewn together by our local seamstress) -sunscreen, canvas hats and a UV-resistant umbrella
- pashminas for handy pillowcases/protection against overzealous air conditioners
- lightweight rain jackets
- dry sacks
- a monocular telescope
- a Chinese dictionary
- playing cards
- first aid kit
- sewing kit
- hip flasks
Over the next months we'll be posting lots of information, trips, and most of all pictures and stories about our Big Trip through China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia and beyond. We hope you enjoy them!
At the moment, in addition to preparing AlaskanKangaroo.com, we're packing up our stuff, finishing up our final classes and getting ready to change not only the scenery around us but the lifestyle we've been living.
After six years of teaching English in the Czech Republic and China, we're going to dedicate some time to just traveling and soaking up as much as we can from the world we traipse through.
In just one day we will be leaving Zunyi, our home for the last year and a half. Since this isn't going to be just a normal vacation, the preparation for the trip has been a long one!
In addition to starting this website to document our travels, we took a jaunt up to Chongqing two weekends ago to get stuff ready for our parents--both sets are arriving on the 18th. We found a company to take us down the Yangtze, searched out parent-friendly venues for entertainment and booked accommodation.
At work, we've been saying goodbye to the students, mucking out our office to make way the next director of the foreign department, Manuel, and sorting through the books and papers we've accumulated.
At home, we've given away old clothes, got our friends drunk one night so we could sell them our DVD collection, and started making little piles of things to send to America or Australia.
And then, there's our gear. Not even counting our technology habits, we're trying to pack smart things.
Poor Dan's had only functional gifts from me for the last year: A first-aid kit for Christmas, a camera memory card for his birthday and a sleeping bag liner for our anniversary.
To see a short list of the things we're taking, please visit our stories page.