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Wednesday, August 17, 2005


Dunhuang is pretty much right in the middle of the desert. After my first few stops along the northern Silk Road, and having seen very few foreign tourists, I was not surprised to see a much larger number here. This is a town full of cafes that offer western food and coffee and travel services, where long haired post-grads and Japanese youth gather for journal writings and long chats over Lonely Planet guides about this and that place, and who is going east and who west. It is a small town with a nice atmosphere, although it seems that people do not want to be photographed like people in previous places. The light is amazing, especially in late afternoon, reminiscent perhaps of Santa Fe, New Mexico, or other small desert towns and cities in the American West, where long shadows cut across reddish-orange light, and dust clouds kicked up by passing vehicles blur everything, making edges go softer and less defined.

Yesterday I took in the two main tourist activities here. First came a morning trip to the Mogao Grotto, a series of tombs carved into a cliff wall. The tombs are filled with statues and floor- to-ceiling frescoes that have led people to describe it as the Chinese version of the Italian Renaissance painters. The comparison is fair, as the variety of caves are visually stunning. There are also two seated Buddhas which rank among the top three or four in terms of height in China. They are inside caves and when you look straight up at them, despite the great height, and thanks to architectural ingenuity, the serene face of the Buddha gazes out, visible and clear.

Following this, I returned to town and continued a long conversation with a scientist from Belgium who does theoretical work related to de-mining. We had a nice lunch of mutton curry (yes, more mutton) and then headed out towards the singing sand dunes that are about 25 minutes by bike from the town center. Ides (the Belgian) and his brother were planning to stay out in the desert for the night. As I have no sleeping bag, I opted not to. However, I did go with them as they had learned a way to enter the dunes without paying. This meant not going down to the Crescent Moon Springs which are the main attraction in the dunes (and not that impressive, to be honest, at least from a distance). It also meant a 20-minute bike ride through an oasis area full of fruit trees and corn and small houses. We came to the place we wanted, and then began climbing the dunes. We walked for a good two hours up and down dunes, and then across a desert valley. It was hot; the small dry vegetation cast shadows stretching down sloping hills. We were halfway up a ridge that would lead us to the highest visible peak when the wind started whipping and sand starting climbing up the hills and then flying into the air at the ridge line. We decided after being stung by sand for a few minutes to head back down into a valley and there we rested for awhile. Every so often one or all of us might climb a smaller dune to look into the rolling desert beyond and then run back down the hill, a feeling of freedom and singing sand our reward. At about seven, they decided to venture further in to see if they might fiind a place where the wind was not so strong. I said goodbye and returned to a ridge previously climbed to watch the sun go down. The sunset was nice, as was the occasional chase of a tiny gecko across the sand.

It was when I had almost reached my bike that I ran into the German guy I will meet later today. We rode back into town together and met his girlfriend at a cafe and had a nice dinner and a few beers together. Those were well deserved beers.

I should mention the highlight of the evening, though. While walking our bikes back to the main road, through the fields, men were guiding camels to their pens along the same road. At one point we turned a corner and literally came face to chest with a camel. It looked down at us and then continued on, as did its mates. We must have passed about 30 camels altogether, some of them backlit by the headlight of a motorbike, which created a truly memorable image. All in all yesterday was an excellent day, and as we ate last night and as the Germans talked about places they have been in SE Asia, and as I looked at the map and contemplated possible options for this trip (China to Burma - sorry Natalia, and I don't really know that I will do that, China to Laos - a very attractive option, or China to Vietnam - a country I havent been to, but have heard a lot of negative things about), and as I contemplated the further reaches of the continent, and of the globe, I was struck again by the sheer number of places to go in the world. Despite the ever shrinking nature of our planet, the fact is there is an ever growing number of accessible destinations, each with their beauty or charm, or promises held, and to contemplate what is beyond the next choice of destination, the next corner of the road, is at once a beautiful and maddening exercise.

So off to Turpan, or Tulufan, tonight and what is said to be one of the hottest places in China.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hell yeah man.. big world out there. Soak it up.. you're living the life right now.

And don't listen to your fam and girl-- you know.. make SURE to eat all that weird crap-- that's why we travel!


9:57 PM  
Anonymous Mom said...

beautiful descriptions, Alan
Yeah, eat the food, puke and live (but monitor the news of avian flu coming from Nam).

7:59 PM  
Anonymous dad said...

Your descriptions keep getting better all the time.

8:49 AM  

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