Steve Watson


      Information: Travels: Turkestan: Gansu & Xinjiang, Kyrgyzstan & Uzbekistan







Dull and uninteresting until I got to Beijing.


There I discovered that the ticketing service at Brisbane had put me on the wrong flight from Guangzhou to Beijing : it had a different flight number and arrived an hour and a half later than I'd expected. Thus the airport express had finished running, and all the subways were also closed by the time I got the local bus out to Dongzhimen. I had to get a taxi to Dongsi and find my way from there. The first taxi wanted 100Y, but I got a metered ride for 17Y. Also, I left my iPad in the taxi and the guy. Chased me down to return it. That was pretty good, I gave him an extra 10Y.

The hotel was pretty scruffy actually. But the single room ensuite was good enough to crash in.







Left at 11:20 heading for Jiayuguan


as a stepping stone towards Dunhuang. Nice hotel, but with no English. The credit card stopped working so I had to go to a bank to get money out. Then it was necessary to go to the train station to get an onward ticket to Dunhuang. That was an adventure since no one had any English except for one very helpful young security girl. Hers was minimal, but they didn't seem to be able to understand my Chinese at all. It's all rather frustrating. It turned out the only trains were at ridiculous hours of the day (03:30 and 04:48). I took the latest one, but that meant I had to get up hideously early to catch the train. So, what with one thing and the other, I didn't get to see any of Jiayuguan at all. So I missed out on the famous fort and the end of the Han Great Wall. And with the prospect of very little sleep, I got to bed most dissatisfied.







Arrived in Dunhuang nice and early and got a 20Y taxi ride to the city. There were buses available, but I couldn't face them.


Map of Dunhuang

The red dot marks my hostel, while the mosque is actually on the other side of Huancheng Donglu

I don't think I've found a single accurate map of this city


Map of the area around Dunhuang

There's actually quite  lot around here: far more than show on this map.


The hostel's not that nice but it'll do. There is no English spoken here, which has to be a bit odd for an 'International Hostel'. I paid the bill - cash again - and then went off to look for a money machine. I asked the guy at the desk but he wouldn't slow down enough for me to follow what he was saying. I found the town oddly difficult to navigate using the maps from hostel world and I discovered in the afternoon that that was because the hostel was not where they said it was. The street may be known as Huan Cheng Dong, but maps show it as Wen Chang, and the pin is several streets over. I eventually figured it out though.

In the afternoon I went for another walk to the Dunhuang museum via Charley Johng's cafe on Ming Shao Shan Lu. I note there that they offer camel treks, which I might look into. I never did find the museum, but I continued on into the singing sands crescent moon lake monastery. It was odd to find it right on the edge of the city. It detracts a little from the awesomeness of the place, just as it did for the pyramids in Egypt . Still it was very nice. The whole place is very touristy now. I climbed up a sand dune to get better look, just like almost everyone else.

The desert at the end of the street


Gateway to the desert


Camels of the Bactrian variety

 I have no idea why people would want to ride these around the small reserve but they do


The Monastery of the Lake of the Crescent Moon in the Hills of Singing Sand

A famous view; and the world's most evocative name

The strangest thing is that the hills are sand dunes, and yet they have been stable for hundreds of years.


The Monastery of the Lake of the Crescent Moon in the Hills of Singing Sand

A view to the hills of singing sand which end actually resting upon the building.


Returning to the ticket office I retrieved my bag and jacket from the free small left luggage box - after a bit of a delay, because the code didn't open the door and the attendant had to do it for me - and sat for a while in the resting room. I and the attendant were the only occupants.
Home by bus: 1Y.
Out again at night for dinner and to see the sights. There weren't many. So home and to bed for a sleep that I really need.






Went out to breakfast while my laundry was doing. Both went well.
After a short break I went off to find Charley Johng's hostel behind the mosque to ask about various trips and sights to see, but they are apparently closed - at least in that location. I'll need to find their new spot or go to the cafe on Ming Shao Shan.
I continued on to the long distance bus station and got a ticket to Turpan leaving at 7pm on the 19th and arriving at 6am. This should save me accommodation expense, but the ticket itself was 161Y.
On the way out I came across the bus for Mogao, so I hopped aboard and out to the desert again. (8Y) when I got there I ignored the instructions of the  on ductile and read the notice. You need to go to the reception to organize an English language tour guide, then you need to buy an 'English' ticket for 100Y, rather than a normal one for 80Y. I didn't realise that latter until I got to the entrance to join the tour. Someone loaned me a brick and I pedalled quickly to the ticket office to exchange it and then back to where we were just about to get going.

Map of Mogaoku

It's 'unfortunate' that one isn't allowed to take photographs inside the grottoes; however,

the International Dunhuang Project has everything for all your manuscript and artwork needs.


There were four in our party and the guide. An Austrian chap called Willi who'd been working in Hong Kong for 20 years, and his niece Bettina; Jesse from Kansas, and myself. (I initiated the introductions in a break in the tour. I am proud of my social skills!) the guide was a pretty young(ish) lady called Serena, and I wish we were able to give feedback to the park concerning our experience. I thought she was great; she was able to answer almost all questions accurately and fully (so far as I could tell) and she knew a lot more about the whole business than someone would who had just learned enough to do the job. We got into a discussion of mudras and the various incarnations of the Buddha - Amitabha (past), Sakyamuni (present), and Maitreya (future) which I found very interesting. She showed how to recognise the scenes of Tustin heaven. She knew a lot of unrelated history too.
Things I learnt:
1. The Tang grottoes are with truncated rectangular roofs. Sui or Northern (Chao?) are in a gable form. Tang grottoes have the statuary at the back, while the earlier ones have the statuary as a centra pillar that the monks can circumambulate praying.
2. Sleeping Buddhas are really Buddhas achieving nirvana at the point of death, and are often surrounded by mourners.
3. Guan Yin really is just a Buddhist figure. I had thought that it was an accretion of an original native deity onto the cult of Avalokitesvara, but it seems not.
4. The figure of the Buddha and the surrounding bodhisattvas and arhats tend to be rather feminine because the qualities of the new religion are more feminine and the style wanted to emphasise this. This was to distinguish if from the previous Confucian and Taoist models. (This seems speculative.)
5. Earlier donors had small paintings to record them with identifying inscriptions, while later donors could get more than life size portraits.
6. Look for the mixture of Chinese and Indian clothes on the various figures. Some are in dhotis.
7. She told a story of the empress Wu who wished to butter up the Buddhists portraying herself as the future Buddha who would preside over the Big Rock Candy Mountain world. To this end she commissioned monster Buddhas who wore female dresses. This annoyed some Buddhists. They painted Phoenixes on the hem of the giant buddha's robe to show that it was a girl, and not the enlightened one.
8. There actually is a giant Buddha here. I should have known that. There is also another giant Buddha nearby, which very few people seem to know about. It makes the one here the third largest after it and the Leshan monster.
We spent so long here that my bus had long gone. Luckily I was able to get a lift with Jesse who had his own guide and van. He seems to be doing things in more comfort than me. He's a nice, quiet young guy from Kansas who's been working in Korea and is taking the opportunity of the end of his contract to have a good long explore. I was interested to hear what he had to say about Turpan and Kashgar. They're cold. Uh oh.
I got dropped off at the Ming Shao Shan place, which is where he was going, and got a bus back. I stopped at a coffee place, and read and sorted out accommodation in Turpan. Then I crossed the road to a Sichuan style place. They had no English menu but insisted on serving me anyway. Very kind of them I'm sure but really more trouble than it was worth. Goodish meal through.
I'm happy to note that my long walk yesterday has resulted in blisters on my toes. Joy.






I had a very long day today. I decided to go on the one day trip through Dunhuang Old Town , the Western Thousand Buddhas Grotto, Yumen Pass and Han Great Wall, and Yan Dan landform. My group also decided they wanted to see Yang Guan fort, so that added some more time to the trip which was supposed to be from 12:00 till 21:00 but didn't get back until 23:00.
It was a bit difficult again because the group was entirely Chinese and all the guides that we SW were Chinese language only, so I didn't get much out of them. On the other hand, just to judge from the flagging attention of my travel chums and the monotonous presentation of the guides, I don't think I missed out on much. The situation was made a little more bearable because I was adopted by Vera, a fat jolly girl who could speak a bit of English and was on a tour with a couple of her students. She had a masters in Italian and had studied in Italy . One of her students had studied painting in Florence , and the other was going there soon to learn about watercolours. That's really quite unusual for Chinese students - at least it would be amongst the calibre of students to which I've become accustomed.
The only place where I think hearing the guide might have been useful was in the Western Thousand Buddhas Cave . Many of the characteristics of the frescoes were familiar to me from Serena's excellent presentation at Mogao yesterday: the truncated pyramid roof of the Tang, the central pillar of the Sui, the paint oxidisation thickening the lines, the themes of the paintings, the earthquake damage, retouching and repairs of the Qing dynasty, and so on, but I worry that I may have missed new things. In any case the site was quite beautiful, and could be even better if more care was taken of it. I was rather attracted by the greenery in the midst of the really hideous desert country surrounding it.

Xi Qian Fo

The Western Thousand Buddhas caves. The Buddhas are on extended European sabbatical.


The other sights were ok, but not particularly gripping. One could certainly give a miss to the Dunhuang Old Town , which is just a large film set for a film by Yang Zhimou. It was supposed to give some idea of life in ye olden times, but it didn't help me much in that regard.

'Old' Dunhuang Town

Vera asked what I thought of it. I said, cautiously: 'interesting,' and she and her friends all laughed.


A camel

See, this sort of thing does not contribute to the verisimilitude that they are striving to achieve


Yangguan was at least - mostly - authentic.

Yangguan fort

Guarding the far end of the Han Wall


Yangguan fort watch tower

Looking over the land that is apparently very attractive to Mongols and Huns


Small Fangpan Castle

Beyond the Yangguan Fort towards the Han Wall


The End of the Han Wall

Anyone crazy enough to come this far west to get round the wall isn't going to be stopped by this exhausted effort.


The final stop was to observe the geological features at Yan Dan. They were attractive enough in a bare and stark sort of way: but I'm not much interested in such things, so having to spend an hour wandering about the desert was a bit tedious for me.
On the other hand I did manage to cover myself in glory at that spot. As we were preparing to leave one of the girls got on the bus distressed that she had lost something and really had to find it. It seemed a pretty hopeless proposition given the amount of featureless desert that one can cover in an hour but we all piled out of the bus and wandered about scouring the gravel. I wandered off towards where I had seen her squatting and photographing the sunset for quite a long while and I was indeed rewarded by the discovery of her mobile phone. She was very, very happy to have it again.


Ya Dan


Ya Dan
I am a seeker


So eventually we got under way again and with only a brief stop to admire the stars in the freezing dark we got back home very late. Since we'd all been getting on so well, we decided to go to dinner. That was also good. I did not disgrace myself with the chopsticks. Of note was a warm drink we all had which tasted like heated coca cola: I thought it was pretty awful.

Vera and Friends
Trial by phone shake







Today i thought I'd do some research on hotels and tours that could be useful later, so I started by heading to Charley Johng's Dune Guesthouse. I thought it would be a pretty classy place but it was even tattier  looking than where I am right now. So I stopped in at a few real hotels on Ming Sha Shan on the way back, but they had no one who could speak English there either. It's a bit off that a hotel advertises itself as 'International' but is really not equipped for international guests! I'll only be able to check these places by email I guess.
While I was doing that I found my way to the museum. This was much better. It had notices in English Japanese and Korean as well as Chinese. Moreover the notices were actually informative, and the museum was quite well-stocked and thorough in its coverage of the history of the area. One of the figures it mentioned was the imperial envoy Shang Qin to the Western regions in the early Han under Wu Di. I saw a statue of him in Yang guan yesterday, so I really should find out. More about him: he sounds pretty significant.
I spent the rest of the day at Shirley's across the road from CJ's cafe. Same bunch apparently. Free wifi as always. China 's pretty good with that.