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Meggan Badin

Xiahé Labrang Monastery05

Xia hé, China

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One street village and a Tibetan monastery, Labrang. More than 50% Tibetan and the rest Han and 10% Hui. It is the largest monastery in the world outside Tibet. This city was closed until March last year. Hotels and guest houses are being built and more tourists are coming in. Built since 1709, it is still active with all the monks in saffron robes in large presence in the city. It is surprising to see them with mobile phones and Nike shoes.

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We had dinner with Julien and Isabelle. We tried some Tibetan dishes with yak meat and tasted momo – dumplings with yak meat. Strong flavor and not may favourite.

Lanzhou Museum22

Lanzhou, China

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Huge city of over 4 million with its Hui areas with stronger Han predominance. We only spent time to visit the new Gansu provincial museum with theme exhibitions on the Silk Road and prehistoric sites discovered in the province. The Silk Road exhibition is excellent presenting each aspect by theme and showing the extent of communication between east and west.

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80 days since we are on the road and the joys and feeling of discovery are giving way to fatigue and anticipation of resuming a “normal” comfortable life. Not waking up at odd times to catch a train or a bus. Not planning the whole day on where the toilets will be. Not having to walk for 1 or 2 hours before finding a place to sleep. Not having to wash and wear the same clothes every day. Simple things but all taken for granted in our every day life.

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Around Xining, China

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I think I now understand the meaning of “Tourist trap”. This is how we felt. We listed ourselves for the tour to the Qinghai lake. The 16-pax minibus is full of Chinese tourists except us. None of us knew the full itinerary and what was exactly included in the tour. We had several unprogrammed stops – Dang er ancient city, a small Buddhist temple, a Tibetan “village” and finally the lake. The entire tour are interrupted regularly for souvenir shopping included free of charge. We realized that the tour only included transport and everything else is payable, even the ticket to the lake.

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Qinghai lake - Xining22

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The 18th century ancient city is just a street with buildings renovated on both sides. I am sure Confucius may not appreciate, the yuans claimed for yak ride, the souvenir shops around his school, the fashion show disguised as folk dance introduction. We bypassed the Buddhist temple to the great displeasure of the ticket seller who scolded us for being too close to the entrance. The “Tibetan village” is totally fake. Even Disneyland look real, the tents are total empty shells, with a pond for romantic boat escapade. The only attraction was the costume trial which everybody enjoyed and was worth the 20 Yuans. The Lake climax was unique in the world not for its 3600 m altitude but for the mercantilist attitude. I have never paid money to see a lake, or the sea. Even the Tibetan villagers were guarding any alternative routes and claiming money. Lunch was a desperate attempt to lighten the day and was paid by the friendly Shanghai couple who are the only ones to speak English. The village where we stopped reminds me of one of the Far West towns with one street and façades.

I wonder if this attitude will encourage tourism growth or this total disdain will discourage new comers. Unfortunately I believe there will always be some very willing volunteers to test these traps.

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Xining- Lanzhou, China

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Easy 3 hour train where we were seated next to 2 Chinese young women playing all their charm on us. Matters got complicated when we reached Lanzhou. We never found the hotel booked on internet. By 1H00 am we were so relieved to find one, we did not negotiate and just took it and slept like a log.

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Xining, China

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If we had to choose a town to avoid, it would be Xining. Lonely Planet mentions 2.1 million people in 2009 and it is probably over 3 million now. Any buildable m² has been built over the old town with about 25 floors on each plot. And the town is still sprawling like and ink stain over the landscape. It is amazing that the people still manage to find a livable human life in between the skyscrapers, inserting food stalls and markets. People live, smile and laugh.

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The people are a strange mix with Tibetans in the dark red robes walking around town, the Chinese Hui (real Hans converted to Islam) and the Hans themselves coexist.

 

The Kumbum 16th century monastery built a few km away from the city gives a breath of fresh air to the city. Suddenly one sees himself inside another life with monks working at their every day duties. It is a pity that the Chinese tourists inundate the place not only with their overwhelming presence, but even drive their cars inside the monastery walls.

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We decided to change our itinerary away from the cities and try to follow an alternate route through some villages to Xi’an.

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Xi’an, China

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The Emperor Jingdi tumb was much more revealing of the life of the dynasty in these days than the Terracotta warriors. The museum is well designed and gave us an excellent insight of the period. It is unfortunate that the English texts were so succinct.

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We went on a shopping craze this afternoon and bought mainly clothes and shoes for Kim. I think he loved it. Tomorrow will be our last day in Xi’an before Hong Kong.

Zhangye - Xining02

Zhangye-Xining, China

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We chose this destination instead of Wuwei on the way to Lanzhou. It allows us to go through another province the Qinghai

 

Are good manners a cultural issue? Simple things such greetings of the day seem to bear different values here in China and in Central Asia. The “Ni hao” or “Have you eaten today?” are not equivalents to the Western “Good morning”. They are sometimes said and most of the time just omitted or ignored. French people would be horrified not to be greeted by a “Bonjour” and by a “Meio” before you utter your question. Millions of Chinese never use it. Queuing seems to start here in China as opposed to Central Asia, although one would be pushed around if we try to let the ladies and children go first. We nearly missed the train by avoiding pushing our way through. It appears almost as a survival reflex. Of all my travels to nearly 100 countries, I have only met 3 nations with such an attitude, China, India and Nigeria. Kim is not put off by this attitude and is tolerant considering these as forming part of local ways and that some day they may learn, thinking that cleanliness should be learnt first.

 

We are on our way to Xining. We do not have the heavy music, but our driver is an angry hooter. He cannot stand the slightest movement of any vehicle or pedestrian hinting that they may be on his way. Stop “pipi” at Minte.

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We just went through a 3 685m pass to reach the Eastern Tibet plateau. The landscape is totally different and we are now in the Qinghai province. Green soft rounded pastures, rivers and lakes with free yaks and horses grazing. A few shepherds with their tents and no yurts. This is the only difference with Kyrgyzstan. Stupas here and there. Surprisingly we noticed also mosque domes in the villages we pass.

Zhangye, China

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We had no option than to stay an extra night here. No train to Xining, we preferred to travel daytime instead of 10 hours seated this evening.

 

Our hotel is opposite the 10th century temple which convinced Marco Polo to stay one whole year here. It also contains the 34m long sleeping Buddha. Peaceful and serene traditional courtyard architecture in the middle of a busy city.

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Marco Polo statue looks sad and crying in the crossroads and street in faux Venetian architecture.

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The 90th anniversary celebration was heavily celebrated on the main square with thousands massing in various coloured shirts. The green, yellow, red and blue seat and applaud together. Montgolfiers and fireworks! Star singers, musicians, dancers and performers with giant screens transmitting every scene to the whole crowd. Carmen and Vivaldi executed in Chinese performance. We met Julien and Isabelle again and were surrounded by curious Chinese wishing to take photographs with us. We must have looked bizarre and immediately spotted among the thousands. It was amusing to see all the young children with the split trousers to enable them perform their natural needs at any urgent need.
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Kashgar, China

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Kashgar did not live up to our expectations. In addition to the disappearing city, the market also was well below its mythical description. The livestock market Mal Bazaar was just selling grounds for cattle and sheep. No camels or horses which would give it the Silk Road fare. The most interesting moments were the price negotiations with intermediaries working hard to reconcile the buyers and the vendors. The usual crowd accompanied such gatherings, food venders (polo, samsa, lamian, cha and nan. Some tourists like us, and most surprisingly the same Israeli couple met in Altyn Arashan, Kyrgyzstan.

The day started on an unusual note. We woke up 2 hours earlier being on Beijing time instead of the Xinjiang one. The taxi took us into a strange place at 4H00 am with a special fauna of late sleepers and early risers come to eat shashlik and a cup of cha. In any case it was the second error of the day.

Uyghur and Chinese names are different and all taxi drivers are Uyghur.

After a long siesta to catch up the lost sleep, we gave the night bazaar a second chance. It was lively and somehow retained the local authenticity. Over 80% of the city is still Uyghur and this has not been erased by the Han Chinese. Shashlik smoke fill the air everywhere, melon vendors cut and sell their fruit by the slice, women sit around the ice grater to drink coloured lemonade and crushed ice. Huge lake fish are cut to mouth size bites and are offered crispy fried. Large soups with head of animals soaking for hours to water the lamian in delicious (!) broths, steaming mutton dumplings in their bamboo baskets. In between these food stalls, the dentist celebrates his profession with white teeth arrangements.

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Kashgar, China

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We nearly missed the plane by 2 hours. Xinjiang and Urumqi run on 2 hours earlier than the official Beijing time – the unified time for all China. We managed to get to the airport in time and arrived in Kashgar this afternoon at 15H30.

I have never been offered a hotel room without window and then to be upgraded for one with window for an extra 10 dollars.

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Kashgar is almost defunct. The old town is giving away to new buildings and new roads through the traditional houses area. Such a sad sight to see all the brick walls being torn down. In 5 years time nothing will be left and it will be just another city like everywhere else in China. The Uyghur people too looked sad and have this look in the eyes which knows that it is a lost battle and they are slowly but surely being absorbed by the Han official identity. Yesterday at the Urumqi Museum visit, I was quite amused with the exhibition of all the various minorities showing the traditions and customs of each ethnic group, Uzbek, Tajik, Kyrgyz, Uyghur, Tatar and Russian. The Russians were presented as a strange minority group which performs songs at Christmas and Easter. The world seen from the East and especially by the Middle Kingdom.