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  Friday 2004-02-13 - Groningen, the Netherlands

The big decision

I’m in Groningen this weekend to see my parents and have a belated new year’s dinner with them. Yesterday evening I brought up the subject of travel: last year they’d offered to pay for whatever trip I wanted to take but due to a load of different adverse circumstances I never got away. When the brochures for the new season started rolling in, my eye was caught by the special Marco Polo trip organized by Koning Aap this year: all the way across Asia, visiting many old Silk Road locations and other places where Marco Polo had been. More than two months to cross the continent West to East, from Damascus to Beijing … not just an exciting prospect by itself but it would also make up for the missed trip of last year.

When I asked Aap people about it at the vacation fair in January, they told me they’d already had quite a few inquiries specifically for this trip, so there was a good chance it would actually take place. So after my arrival this evening I broached the subject with my parents: a “double-length” trip, would they be prepared to pay for maybe half of this one, since I didn’t get to go last year? They’ll pay for all of this one!

Wow. I’m actually going to do this!

posted: Wednesday 2004-04-28 20:44 UTC planning, preparations

  Saturday 2004-02-14 - Groningen, the Netherlands

Documentation needed

Today, we went into town for some shopping before the planned birthday dinner. There’s a very good travel bookstore here in Groningen, and I popped in (dragging my parents along) to see what they had to supplement my set of maps and travel guides for the trip.

I have a good set of guides and maps for Central Asia, but nothing for the Middle East, and nothing for China east of Xinjiang. I couldn’t take a decision about travel guides, but ended up with three maps: a very nice one of Syria, an absolutely huge one of Turkey (there don’t seem to be regional maps of the country any more, and this was all they had) and a “Silk Road Countries” map covering Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia: that one will be a handy to take with me (although the bit of Turkey it also covers isn’t very detailed). I’ll keep looking around for more, but I’ll at least take the last map with me.

posted: Wednesday 2004-04-28 20:44 UTC maps, preparations

  Wednesday 2004-03-24 - Amsterdam, the Netherlands

Visa: papers, papers, papers

Filling in the visa application forms (Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and China) wasn’t all that hard — except for working out entry and exit dates, needed for most countries. The itinerary we got just works by day numbers, so I had to count through them to work out where we’d be on which dates. (Well, my parents will want to know that as well.) I added a safety margin either way of about 5 days: I have plenty of experience with all sorts of mishaps that can change a planned itinerary; arriving late isn’t a problem, but arriving early or leaving late could be.

Then when I wanted to staple the passport photographs to the forms, I suddenly ran out of staples. Off to the store…

After lunch I’m off to the visa agency (conveniently in Amsterdam) to deliver my passport with all the forms, indicating that I’ll pick it up myself when it’s all done: I like to be able to make a photocopy not just of my passport (already done) but of all the visa as well; and a quick check if everything’s OK is a good idea, too. (I’ve had incorrect dates entered on a visa — a result of bad form design which confused the public servant doing the visa: half in the group had incorrect data on their visa!)

posted: Wednesday 2004-03-24 19:56 UTC passport, preparations, visa

Jabs - do I need any?

I searched the internet for what vaccinations are currently needed for all those countries we’re going to travel through (Syria, Turkey, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and China). It appears that DTP is needed for all, and mine has expired. Typhus is listed for all the countries, too, if your stay is longer than two weeks. Well, apart from Iran and China it isn’t; but adding it all up is of course considerably longer than two weeks. Malaria should be considered as well for some areas of Turkey and Iran; and hepatitis everywhere (but I already have antibodies for that).

Then I needed to find a phone number for the AMC vaccination clinic (the most convenient one for me: in Amsterdam, and easy to get to with tram and metro); finding their phone number was (still) not easy. When I finally had a number it was late; I tried it anyway to check if it was the right one.

(For those searching for the phone number: last time I looked it was 020-566.38.00 to make an appointment, or 0900-95.84 for information.)

posted: Wednesday 2004-03-24 19:56 UTC health, preparations, vaccinations

  Wednesday 2004-04-28 - Amsterdam, the Netherlands

Documentation complete

I’d seen a Lonely Planet guide for the Middle East; there’s a nice one for Iran, too, with more extensive information about that country, but I can’t bring a pile of books. This one covers Syria, Turkey and Iran (and more for later trips). I went to one of the travel stores in Amsterdam, the JoHo Company, and was glad to find they had this book. I got manageable maps of Turkey and China as well: not too large so I can actually use them during the trip and leave my huge (but very detailed) map of Turkey at home.

My travel documentation is complete now.

posted: Wednesday 2004-04-28 18:59 UTC books, maps, preparations

  Friday 2004-06-25 - Torugart Pass, Kyrgyzstan


We’re leaving at eight for the border crossing over the Torugart Pass - “Much too late” I’m thinking to myself and alas I turn out to be right. First we go back along the 15 km track to the ‘main’ road to China which we follow farther up. The road is very bad, even for an all-weather road, but most traffic here consists only of trucks transporting old iron to China (another export ‘product’ of Kyrgyzstan of which they have plenty with all the factories that were closed after independence while China is eager for it for its growing industry). The rest of the traffic consists of tourists, of course, and precious little else.

In the valley near Tash Rabat I noticed one of the mountains was riddled with holes; nests of ground squirrels, I suspect, but I didn’t see any there. However back on the main road I do see many ground squirrels, mostly sunning themselves on the mounds of sand next to their burrows, not paying much attention to our passing truck. There are two kinds of them here, one a lot bigger than the other — I see a lot less of the smaller ones, but maybe they’re just more shy. I suspect these are the same species that live on the high plains between China and Pakistan but I don’t know the names of these species (yet).

Because of the bad condition of the road it takes us a long time to reach the passport check before the actual Kirghiz border; we finally reach the main building at 11:45 — the border closes at noon! Border formalities at the Kyrgyzstan border post are simple and quick though - seemingly smoother each year. The truck is allowed to take us right up to the pathetic little pillar now marking the border, replacing the original monumental gate building at 3752 m. The landmark gate was taken down by the Chinese a few years ago when they claimed another 7.5 m of territory — a move not so good for international tourism. We say goodbye to our team; on the other side of the gate our Chinese bus is already waiting for us (well, we’re late: it must have been here more than an hour already).

posted: Friday 2004-07-02 11:17 UTC borders, nature, travel

  Friday 2004-06-25 - Kashgar, Xinjiang (China)

Into Xinjiang

After the actual border crossing on the Kirghiz side, it’s a long trip to the building of the Chinese border post — at first over a bad road, alongside it pieces of old iron that have fallen off the truck exporting it to China: enough to fill another truck. Then into a new river valley, a much better road here; the mountains on each side are mostly bare but along the river bed there’s some greenery and we see some (ethnic) Kirghiz nomads grazing their herds here; the bus sometimes has to stop for a large herd roaming all over the road. Later, we see more agriculture, and Uyghur houses shaded by rows of poplars.

Before the actual border post there’s a small building where the quarantine office is housed now; the questionnaire has a question about SARS, and our temperature is taken (with a kind of hand-held scanner). But since we left late by now we’re late here, too; two trucks are before us, with a load of carpets an other stuff that all has to go through the (single) scanner first. When it’s finally our turn, I’m asked if I have any books (of course!); I then have to open my bag to show them — I take out only my travel guides and decide not to show my old Hebrew book just yet, not knowing what they’re looking for. The officer is probably just curious (but officially looking for subversive materials?): he’s trying to figure out what the books are about, looking through each for maps; it’s obvious he cannot actually read any English; he even walks away with my books into an office: I’m getting worried I might have to leave them behind. After a long time, it’s declared “OK” and I can put my books back. Phew! Ouside there are money changers, but we ignore them; we must move on.

When we finally get into Kashgar, it’s late — and we find that not only the banks are closed but since a year hotels apparently no longer are allowed to change money either. So there we are without any local currency. We’re allowed to have dinner at John’s Cafe (now moved to a building on the Seman Hotel’s grounds) at credit, giving our room number: we can pay tomorrow, when we can get money. Well, I hope … tomorrow is Saturday: will the bank even be open? But we can’t really do anything but have dinner on credit tonight. We’re effectively grounded — forget about going into town. I’m not in my best mood now.

posted: Friday 2004-07-16 23:06 UTC borders, travel

  Tuesday 2004-06-29 - Kuqa, Xinjiang (China)

Uyghurs and Han Chinese

Back in Kuqa, Carla and I first walk around the new part of town a little, checking out the shops. In the evening, we all have dinner together: next to the Min Mao hotel is a well-stocked supermarket and next to that is the “Uyghur Restaurant”.

Although this is actually my fourth visit to Xinjiang, here in Kuqa I see for the first time ‘imported’ Han Chinese interacting normally and friendly with the original local population — Uyghurs here. (Original at least when the Chinese claimed this territory; much farther back in history, the Turkic peoples and Tajiks themselves moved into what is now the Xinjiang province of China.) What I saw until now was two different societies living almost completely separate lives, going to different schools, shopping at different shops and market stalls, eating at different restaurants. Here in Kuqa I’m interested to see a mixture of Chinese and Uyghur on the market, a Chinese woman having a friendly chat with an Uyghur woman on the street corner; and here in the restaurant, run completely by a team of Uyghurs serving both Uyghur and Chinese food, both Uyghurs and Chinese come to eat.

This warms my heart: maybe, given time, these peoples can indeed live peacefully together without the Uyghurs giving up their identity.

The atmosphere at the restaurant is very pleasant, and the food is truly excellent so we end up taking nearly all our meals here.

posted: Tuesday 2004-07-20 11:35 UTC cities, minorities

  Sunday 2004-07-04 - Liuyian, China

Facilities on the train

It’s light, but we still have a way to go before we arrive at the station in Liuyian. Our night train today is again a little newer, and nicer, than the one before. And there’s one striking difference: in the bathrooms (two at one end of each carriage) there is a mysterious little net fixed to the wall, a little above the rail you can grasp so you can squat safely even if the train rounds a curve. On closer inspection, I see a little sticker next to the net explaining its purpose: it’s to park your mobile phone in while using the facilities. A nice illustration of how popular and wide-spread mobile telephony has become in China in only a few years’ time!

posted: Wednesday 2004-07-21 19:03 UTC telecommunications, trains, travel

  Sunday 2004-07-04 - Dunhuang, China

End of the known world

The section of this trip covering Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Xinjiang in China was “the known world” for me: I’d traveled in all these countries before and visited most of the places we visited now (with the exception of Mary in Turkmenistan and Kuqa in Xinjiang). Not that that was a problem though: it was great to be back in Central Asia and it provided some ‘mental rest’ during a trip otherwise rich in new impressions.

Today I’m definitely in a new country: neither in Liuyian nor all along the road through the flat desert to Dunhuang is there a single word to read in the Arabic script of Uyghur as was the norm in Xinjiang where practically everything is bilingual. We’ve left the Turkic languages and peoples behind now: I’m in the ‘real’ China at last.

Looking out of the window of the bus that takes us from the station in Liuyian to Dunhuang, the landscape isn’t very interesting at first: just very flat and almost completely bare desert and a very straight road. After about an hour of this, we see a slight dip in the desert ahead of us and when we get close it suddenly gets a lot greener, obviously because the water table is closer to the surface. First, tamarisk appears, always a sign of the presence of a little water; later, we see irrigation channels and fields; even tree-lined roads. Checking my map: this must be the area of the Shule He (He means river, but I don’t know what Shule means). When we leave the oasis behind, the ground stays a little greener than before, until we reach the outskirts of Dunhuang and we see fields and trees again.

Dunhuang, my first contact with a real Chinese town, has a friendly provincial atmosphere, immediately apparent when arrive after the two-hour bus ride. This town (population: 100,000) at the edge of the feared Lop desert was originally at the extreme western border of the Chinese empire — its name means “Blazing Beacon” — and the Great Wall was extended to here.

Our hotel, Fei Tian, is unremarkable but we have a comfortable little room — and John’s Cafe is right next to the hotel’s forecourt, along the street.

posted: Wednesday 2004-07-21 19:03 UTC cities, landscape, travel

Market instead of Internet

After lunch at John’s I asked one of the guys there for the Internet Service; they don’t have it here, he says (and neither does the hotel, as I already found out) but he gives me directions where I can find several Internet cafes; “slow”, he warns. Slow is no problem - I’m typing locally most of the time anyway. First I go to the hotel lobby where I sit down at a table and write a bit more; then, accompanied by Carla, who just wants to walk around Dunhuang, I follow the directions given.

At the first Internet cafe, soon found, I am studiously ignored completely, so I walk out again. Not much farther on is another place, like the first with a lot of work stations, but here they’re more friendly. The young man (who tells me it costs 2¥ (Yuan) per hour) shows me to a terminal and starts up Internet Explorer for me. That’s fine, but I need Notepad as well, I try to explain. He doesn’t understand what I mean, so I just sit down and poke around for a while; it’s hopeless — this is a completely customized shell under Windows 98 (I do find out that much) but all menus are non-standard, completely in Chinese, and in fact there are several virtual desktops, it seems. Notepad can’t be found; it’s probably never used — can one even type in Chinese in Notepad, I wonder? I have no idea. I don’t see Wordpad either; I’m forced to give up after a few minutes. I raise my hands in defeat. “No problem,” gestures the young man when we leave.

I give up the idea of updating the travel blog from Dunhuang, and decide to walk around town with Carla instead. In a nice pedestrian street with a lot of stalls with souvenirs we shop around a little, take a peek in yet another Internet cafe (I recognize the same customized shell, so I’m out again very quickly) and then find a nice vegetable market where we roam around a while, and I take some pictures.

posted: Wednesday 2004-07-21 19:03 UTC cities, internet access, markets

  Monday 2004-07-05 - Dunhuang, China

World Heritage site

Today we have just time for a visit to the Mogao Caves, an enormous complex of 735 Buddhist caves, 492 of them with sculptures and murals (the remainder were bare, on purpose, and were intended for prayer and meditation), located in the Sanwei mountain. It’s only half an hour’s ride from Dunhuang. Entrance is (at the moment) 100¥ (Yuan), plus another 20¥ per person for an English-speaking guide; the site is well worth it.

Our guide, a nice young lady with a cheerful straw hat against the sun and armed with a parasol, speaks English quite well, but with a very heavy accent that takes some getting used to. The whole complex, comprising one face of the mountain, she tells us, originally had murals all along the outside but only a few fragments of this remain: the rest is weathered away. Also many of the (man-made) caves originally consisted of an entrance portal, with a short corridor leading into the inner chamber housing an altar with sculptures of Buddha, disciples and other attendants. Most of these entrance portals, guarded by huge sculptures of armed figures, have disappeared through natural causes as well — the stone of this mountain is quite soft. But otherwise the caves — protected from the elements unlike the murals outside — are in remarkably pristine condition, probably the finest example of such caves in China, and named a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987.

Construction of the caves began in 366 AD during the Qin dynasty and lasted some 100 years. One reason for their excellent preservation is that the region was taken by the Tibetans in 781 AD so it escaped the persecution of Buddhists in China in the 9th century; another reason is probably that the complex was never completely deserted so later archaeologist treasure hunters could not so easily ‘save’ what they found here.

The style of the sculptures and paintings, even the oldest ones, is remarkably refined. Clearly the best artists that could be found were working here. It’s also interesting to see how many paintings have Persian or Indian stylistic elements: with Dunhuang an important location on the Silk Road, artists must have exchanged their skills along the road or even traveled along with caravans to see art work elsewhere.

There are a few quite strikingly large Buddha sculptures. The largest one, at more than 30 m high is not in the original condition: the original clothing was later adapted into a intricately decorated “emperor’s mantle”. Another one is 26 m high and yet completely contained inside a cave; as with the other large figures, the body was first hewn out of the rock, then covered with clothes made from straw-reinforced clay and painted. This one is in original condition. Most remarkable is that the head, itself 9 m high, is very large in proportion to the body: it’s actually designed so that when the sculpture is seen from below the head actually appears to be in the right proportion - a very early example of perspective correction!

posted: Sunday 2004-07-25 10:29 UTC history, religion, UNESCO

Lost, found, and lost again

In the 19th century the Magao caves near Dunhuang were apparently ‘rediscovered’ by a priest called Wang Luan Yu who set himself up as their custodian. In one of the caves (now ‘nr. 17’) he discovered a secret chamber, the entrance covered with plaster and murals, and hidden by sand blown in by sand storm. Inside the chamber he found a huge library of historical, literary and religious texts as well as many paintings that had been hidden in the secret chamber to protect them.

When British archaeologist Sir Marc Aurel Stein heard of this on his 1907 expedition he came here to investigate — and ended up buying over 5000 scrolls and paintings for just 130 pounds. When the French sinologist Paul Pelliot came to the site just one year later, he found a treasure of texts and paintings so large, he didn’t even realize any had been taken.

Most of the contents of the original library is now in the hands of Western museums, much to the chagrin of the Chinese; among them (part of Stein’s load) is the Diamond Sutra, still on display on the British Museum, which counts as the oldest printed document in the world; it’s dated 868 AD. On the site there is now a small museum, recounting how this library was hidden and lost, found again and then lost again. Some scrolls are exhibited here, as well as some quite beautiful paintings but alas most of them are reproductions of originals now in museums in Paris and London.

posted: Sunday 2004-07-25 10:29 UTC culture, history

  Monday 2004-07-05 - Jiayuguan, China

Catching the train

When we get back to the hotel in Dunhuang a little before noon, there’s just time to check out, put our luggage into the bus, and have a somewhat hasty lunch at John’s Cafe. By 13:00 we’re on the road again, with a very tight schedule: it’s a long way to Jiayuguan, estimated at 5.5 hours, but we must be there before seven to pick up our train tickets.

It’s not a pleasant trip but there’s no way around it: we make only two short stops at gas stations to use the facilities — and a two-minute stop every hour to rotate places in the bus (so we all get our share of being shaken apart on the bumpy road) — otherwise we just move on, and have to. At first we progress fast enough and the driver is able to keep a steady speed of 86 km/hr (according to my GPS) but later there are a lot of road works and our speed goes down a lot. There’s also a lot of grit on the newly-covered stretches, and we see many heaps of glass along the road: broken windshields… It’s a worrying sight, but luckily we have no mishaps: we have no time for that! The atmosphere in the bus is unmistakable: everyone is tense and no doubt some of us think back to the flat tire we had near Kuqa.

All goes well though, and a little before seven we arrive in Jiayuguan where — after no more than a glimpse of the famous Jiayuguan Pass, the largest and most intact entrance of the Great wall — we stop at the bus station. Huh? Our driver goes with our travel companion to pick up the train tickets which turn out to be waiting in a tiny restaurant near the bus station. Then on we go to the train station at the edge of town. We have just 6 minutes to board the train which leaves at exactly 20:38. Lights out at 22:30: now we can relax again.

posted: Sunday 2004-07-25 10:29 UTC travel

  Tuesday 2004-07-06 - Lanzhou, China

“Handle be on worth”

At 7:00 we arrive at the station in Lanzhou, on the banks of the Huang He (Yellow River), where we need to change trains. Not immediately though: our next train leaves only at midday so there is time to go to the hotel across the station square: we can park our luggage there and those who want it can have breakfast (I pass and sit and write my diary instead).

In the hotel lobby, next to our pile of luggage, is a desk with a little sign sitting on it; some Chinese characters (which I can’t reproduce) and English words: “Handle be on worth”. Yes, I swear that’s what it said — I’m not making this up — although when we get down from the restaurant after breakfast there is mysteriously a new sign on the desk saying “Assist. Manager” (not that any manager or even assistant is in sight). Sometimes “Chinese English” can provide a surprising insight in how different both languages are, showing how the Chinese language associates and arranges concepts in a way very different from European languages to convey meaning. But possibly as a result, occasionally the Chinese-to-English translation process derails completely, leaving a meaningless arrangement of words. I’m sure the Chinese on the sign was actually meaningful, but I sure can’t parse the “English” phrase…

After breakfast, I go for a little walk around Lanzhou with Carla who actually has a little map even though our itinerary didn’t indicate we’d stop here; alas, it turns out to be not very accurate: the department store we wanted to have a look at seems to have never existed. With my still-painful foot, the Huang He is out of reach, so we stay a bit closer to the station. Still, it’s fun and I take my first pictures of a big Chinese city (including some on the market, of course): Lanzhou has a population of nearly 2 million. We also have a chat with a couple of local young men and discover they speak with a very different accent here than in Dunhuang: they have a sort of twang, not clearly pronouncing the ‘n’ at the end of a word, for instance.

posted: Sunday 2004-07-25 10:29 UTC cities, language

  Tuesday 2004-07-06 - Xi’an, China

A variety of fields

We’re on the train again, continuing after our short break in Lanzhou. Looking out of the windows, the landscape resembles the “Chinese scroll” watercolor landscapes we’ve all seen: green and lush, with rivers flowing in the valleys. Gentle mountains at first, almost completely covered with terraces with fields (no rice though), and more fields in the river valleys. The desert is truly far behind us now.

Gradually, the landscape changes, the mountains becoming steeper and stonier, no longer allowing agriculture, but with a velvety cover of shrubs and small trees; in the valley we see the muddy-yellow water of the Wei He, a tributary of the Yellow River (Huang He), sometimes crossing it but mostly following the course of the river, occasionally taking a shortcut through a tunnel.

Farther on, the valley widens, the railway hugging the mountains on one side, the mountains on the other side far away. The valley is obviously very fertile, completely covered with fields with a great variety of crops grown — but some fields are different. Whereas the Kirghiz locate their cemeteries preferably in a beautiful spot far from the villages, the Chinese here do it differently: this valley is dotted with small cemeteries, at most the size of a field, most a lot smaller. And they’re right in-between the fields with grain, onions, and cabbages: although not inside or close to the villages, the dead are close to the living here, and rest in beautiful spots.

About an hour from Xi’an the scenery gets very urban very quickly; we make a stop in Xianyang, before arrival in metropolis Xi’an at 20:40. We have a very nice hotel here, Jie Fang, right across from the station: we can simply walk there.

posted: Sunday 2004-07-25 10:29 UTC culture, landscape

  Wednesday 2004-07-07 - Xi’an, China

Relaxed metropole

After our long train ride of yesterday, Carla and I make a late start today with a nice plate of noodles for breakfast at the little restaurant around the corner from the Jie Fang hotel. Then we set out to walk to the center of the old city of Xi’an. For a city of millions (6.62 is what I found), the atmosphere here is surprisingly relaxed, reminding me somewhat of Damascus, our first city on this nine-week trip. Traffic is lively, with a wide variety of public transportation ranging from buses (quite a lot) to little red motorized open carts for two to four passengers, a bit like bike taxis except they’re motorized. But no one actually seems to be in a hurry; people don’t walk fast either, the right strategy in this climate since it’s quite hot here. We haven’t walked 100 meters yet and I like Xi’an already.

Although people do look at us strangers, they don’t stare, obviously used to foreign visitors. Still only a few people approach us to speak English to us; very few actually know enough English for a chat, it seems.

When we arrive at the Bell Tower, marking the very center of the old city, we find it’s in scaffolding and closed for restauration. As an alternative we make a short visit to the huge modern department store at the corner of the square: a nice contrast between ancient and modern China. It’s easy to spend half a day or more here, but we have other plans.

After a short rest with some fruit juice in a sort of food court in the basement we leave super-modern China behind for a while and walk on to the Drum Tower. No scaffolding here but although supposedly the tower is in use again, we see no activity. The tower is also a gate building, marking the entrance to the old muslim quarter of Xi’an.

Along the main street, especially near the Drum Tower, there are many souvenir shops and tourist restaurants but when after a while we turn left into a smaller street, in search of the Great Mosque, this abruptly changes: We’re in a normal street in an old town now, a street where people live and work and have businesses catering to locals rather than tourists. This feels like the ‘real’ old Xi’an. I’d like to roam around more here, but my painful foot doesn’t agree.

posted: Saturday 2005-08-13 14:49 UTC cities

Relaxing in the mosque… again

Now that we’ve arrived in the ‘real’ old town of Xi’an, we don’t actually see many signs that this is a Muslim quarter: only a few of the men and women we see actually wear their traditional Muslim headdres, but most don’t (even though most people here may actually be Muslim). Chinese Muslims, although ethnically mostly Han Chinese, are called Hui and are recognized as a separate ‘nationality’ in China.

In Kashgar the Hui go to the Id Kah mosque together with the Uyghurs; this mosque, with all its poplars in the large courtyard, is very Uyghur in style and atmosphere. Here, in Xi’an, there are no Uyghurs (although we occasionally see people from other minorities in the streets). So now, after all the mosques we visited on our long trip, through predominanty Muslim countries, we’re curious what a Chinese mosque will be like. Maybe we shouldn’t have been surprised, but when we finally arrive after a somewhat roundabout route avoiding most of the tourist shops, the surprise is how ‘Chinese’ it looks. It’s actually more like a Buddhist temple than a mosque: we miss the architectural pattern we’ve become used to, with a large central courtyard and a central fountain or pond for ritual washing.

According to historical records carved in stone tablets presrved here, the mosque was set up in 742 AD during the Tang dynasty, and restored and further expanded during the Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. Not surpisingly, the complex boasts a rich variety of architectural styles in the many buldings, platforms, pavillions and prayer halls arranged along five consecutive courtyards. In the fourth courtyard is a kind of pagoda with an octagonal roof serving as a minaret (unlike any we’ve seen before); instead of a central fountain or pond for the ritual washing there is a separate building dedicated to this purpose to the side of this courtyard. The large prayer hall, not accessible to non-muslims, is at the end of the fifth courtyard. Instead of wide open places, the four first courtyards are actually lush gardens; between the old trees and lots of flowers and shrubs there are many places to sit and rest, and enjoy the quiet: here, shielded from the bustle of metropolis all around it, one hears no traffic — only the chirping and birdsong of the many birds living here. In fact, sitting in the shade in this nice peaceful atmosphere, we find it actually hard not to doze off.

We hang around for quite a while, before braving the tourist shops to shop for some presents to take home.

posted: Saturday 2005-08-13 11:05 UTC architecture, minorities

Handicapped in China

There’s no way I’m going to walk back all the way with my by now tired and painful foot. A taxi would be nice — one of those little open red carts we’ve seen even nicer. But apart from ordinary taxis there’s nothing near the Drum Tower. I decide I can still make it to the Bell Tower; but there’s nothing there either, nor along the main street where we see only buses. Finally, we turn right and at the next corner we find a (very) little red cart.

The driver turns out to be handicapped, with two crutches propped up beside him in what is essentially little more than a motorized wheelchair with a backseat that will hold two passengers (just). I show him the hotel card: yes, he can take us there for 10 Yuan, he says. That’s probably too much, but I agree without bargaining: let him have a good day — I’m certainly not going walk much further. So we squeeze ourselves into the little seat and off he goes. We have to hold on to our hats, but it’s fun! He’s fast and very agile in the busy Xi’an traffic, narrowly but surely avoiding taxis and bikes; when the light changes at one crossing even zooming diagonally across to the parallel road on the left. At the same time he takes care to avoid potholes and bumps in the road, giving us a smooth but nonetheless exciting ride back to the hotel — and a very different view of Xi’an.

Our fun drive in the back of a motorized wheelchair makes me think about the position of people with a handicap in China. We’ve seen other carts like this one (most a little larger) serving as taxis, some with a sticker on it with the international “wheelchair” symbol on it; but not all of them carry this symbol — maybe not all of these taxi drivers are handicapped but some clearly are: it looks as though they can get a special license to operate a taxi like this and thus obtain an income.

I don’t have any more hard facts but did make some more observations which suggest that in China handicapped people aren’t totally left to their own devices (as is the case in many other countries I’ve visited). Whether they have (or can have) some sort of social security isn’t clear to me though. I’ve seen people begging, too, although this is officially forbidden. On the other hand, on the corner near the hotel last night was a street musician: a Chinese albino, obviously blind as a result of his condition, drawing quite an audience with his music. Again, at least that’s a way to obtain an income — but could he live on it? One more observation: the sidewalks along (at least) the main streets in every Chinese town and city we’ve been in now are not only paved nicely with tiles, but also have ridged tiles to guide the blind, as well as curb cuts in the sometimes very high curbs: something that wasn’t the case yet in for instance Kashgar two years ago. So maybe things aren’t yet as good as they might be but there’s definite and visible progress. Still, by the time we’re back in the hotel I’m left with more questions than answers about what it’s like to be handicapped in China.

posted: Saturday 2005-08-13 04:45 UTC cities, health

  Thursday 2004-07-08 - Xi’an, China

To the army

In 1974 some farmers in the village Xiang, near Xi’an, while digging a well for their village, suddenly encountered an obstruction: a layer of very hard baked clay. When they finally broke through, they found fragments of more baked clay and bronze arrowheads lying on a floor of blue bricks.

When archeaologists started an excavation that same summer, the importance of the find soon became clear: this was a huge burial vault for the terra-cotta warriors and horses that were buried together with the first emperor of the Qin dynasty — the first emperor to unify several Chinese nationalities in a large feudal state, with excellent organization. It was also this emperor who started building the Great Wall — and this dynasty that gave its name to the present-day country (‘Qin’ is pronounced “chin”).

The site which now comprises three burial vaults with in total some 8000 terra-cotta warriors and horses, as well as more than 100 wooden chariots, is of world-wide importance. It’s been open to the public since 1979 while excavations and restoration of the finds are still going on today.

Carla and I are really looking forward to seeing all this when we get on the #306 bus at exactly 8:00 in the morning. It’s quite easy to get to the site: just take this bus (right in front of the Jie Fang hotel across from the station) and get out at the last stop half an hour later. A lot of merchants are peddling their wares here (rather aggressively) but we’re grateful they’re allowed only outside the gates of the newly landscaped grounds around the buildings that house the movie theatre, the three pits and the museum. We go to the theatre first to see an impressive 360° movie depicting the discovery of the site and its history: at times it’s really as if you’re right in the middle of the battle field, flags waving in your face, clattering arms, chariots racing by.

The museum is next on our program, to get some more background before going to the actual excavations. Here, we find not only a wealth of metal objects found in the pits such as parts of armory, bronze weapons and horses’ gear; there are also the two completely restored bronze chariots that were found in pit 3, each with four horses and driver: every detail — including all mechanics — was carefully reproduced at half life size, each chariot consisting of more than 3000 parts with over 1000 of them made of gold and silver. The museum also gives a lot of background information about the state of technology here during the 3rd century BC, with many intricate fastenings, hinges, crossbows, and even chrome-plated bronze used for weapons: a technology that was discovered in the West only some 2000 years later.

Each of the three pits (named 1, 2 and 3 after the order in which they were discovered) is housed in its own building, simultaneously protecting the uncovered and restored terra-cotta figures and the on-going excavations and allowing the public a view from balconies around and above the excavation areas. Here, too, are excellent displays giving background information and explaining how the process of excavation and restoration works. With the exception of one small area in the museum, all explanatory texts are in Chinese and English. In the building of pit 2 there are also a few glass cabinets housing terra-cotta figures so you can actually see them face-to-face and walk around them. Not only is the amount of detail quite amazing, but literally every figure of this 8000-strong army is an individual. You see young and innocent as well as experienced and battle-hardened faces; clean-shaven, with moustaches or beards, hair done in different styles: all life-size at between 1.8 and 2 m tall. There are generals, officers and warriors, varying in clothing and posture according to their roles. It’s all incredibly impressive, both artistically and technologically.

posted: Tuesday 2005-08-23 11:28 UTC art, history, museums

Last train ride

By 14:00 we’re back in Xi’an, in time for a late lunch of sweet and sour pork with a very good draught beer. Then we go to the supermarket to get some snacks for on the train, and go and pick up our luggage from the hotel storage room and repack a little.

A little before five we walk to the station where we’re allowed into the soft-sleeper lounge again, and can go onto the platform before the masses — thankfully because it’s very crowded here. We find the train for Beijing already waiting; it leaves at exactly 18:00 but by then I find my luck has run out: I have the middle bed on the right — and just don’t manage to climb into it with my still painful right foot which I just don’t dare set on the narrow steps of the ladder (not without my sturdy walking shoes on, anyway). Someone has a brainwave: we swap beds and now I have the middle bed on the left which I can climb into because I can set my right foot on the lower bed, and my left one on the ladder.

posted: Tuesday 2005-08-23 11:40 UTC health, trains, travel

  Friday 2004-07-09 - Beijing, China

Broke in Beijing

I wake up before five; I slept well but not long enough. An hour later the train attendant comes by to wake us up (if necessary) and swap our little cards for our train tickets. We arrive in Beijing at 6:40.

I’m so tired after my too-short night, the first thing I do when we get our room in the Dong Fang hotel is go to bed for a nap — while Carla goes out with Thom to the Forbidden City. We were told that to view the Forbidden City you’d need to walk around some four or five hours, something I’m sure I can’t manage anyway with my still-hurting foot. When I wake up again it’s 12:30. I’d like to go out for a short walk, but first I’ll need some cash: I’m nearly broke. But before that — and before I can go out at all — I’ll need to have my passport (left at the check-in desk for registration), and I can’t get cash without a passport either.

When I arrive in the lobby and ask for my passport, explaining why I need it, a small opera results: our passports are locked away, it seems, and the lady who has the only key (really?) has gone to the bank to get cash, I’m told; she’ll be back in an hour. I insist they just cannot ‘lock up’ their guests by holding on to their passports: the lady with the key should have left that key behind so guests can have access to their passports. Obviously, things don’t quite work like they try to make me believe: apparently no one present has sufficient authority to open the (locked?) drawer with the passports. When I propose the assistant manager (“#0059” says his name tag, he doesn’t seem to have a name) call the lady with the key that seems to give him an opening; he suggests I sit at the lounge bar to wait … and less than 10 minutes later a bell boy appears to tell me my passport is here. Of course the lady with the key (does she even exist?) is nowhere in sight; I suspect they just decided to open the drawer, maybe without proper authorization.

Anyway, that’s really just the short version of what happened; then actually getting cash involves one non-functional ATM (in the hotel), one broken ATM (at a bank) and a bank teller at yet another bank. But I have my passport, and cash, and now I’m ready to explore Beijing a little — at my snail’s pace.

posted: Tuesday 2005-08-23 13:40 UTC cities, lodging

Not the temple I was looking for…

The little map on the back of my hotel business card indicates the location of the Tian Tan temple, which seems to be one of the must-see places in Beijing. It seems close enough for me to manage, so I set out in that direction. The little map is a bit sketchy though, and certainly not to scale; after passing the Friendship Hospital and turning to the right I do end up at a temple but a very different one — quite a find: my travel guide doesn’t even mention it.

I’m finding myself at the Xiannong temple complex, originally from the Ming dynasty period (started in 1420) and used by both Ming and Qing emperors. Offers to the god Xiannong were made here, and they celebrated the ‘ceremony of the planting’ to ensure a good harvest. The whole complex consists of several beautifully-restored buildings, observation platforms and shrines. It now houses the Beijing Museum of Ancient Architectures. I roam and sit around for quite a while (never going inside any of the buildings) before turning back to the hotel.

posted: Tuesday 2005-08-23 14:36 UTC architecture, cities, history, museums

“Beautify the environment, Welcome the Olympic Games”

On the way back to the hotel I’m reminded how fast China is changing. Possibly stimulated by the upcoming Olympic games in 2008, China is becoming quite environmentally conscious. Recycling is stimulated: along the streets, the waste bins have separate compartments for different kinds of waste; spitting in public places is discouraged and frowned upon now; public toilets are much cleaner than they used to be. We’ve seen solar-powered hot water installations. In the desert we saw huge wind parks (one still under construction), as well as cell phone antennas powered by solar cells.

What reminded me of all this was the blue Beijing street sweeper’s cart I saw parked along a street near the hotel; on the sides (Chinese on one, English on the other) it bore the slogan “Beautify the environment, Welcome the Olympic Games”.

posted: Tuesday 2005-08-23 14:47 UTC cities, environment

The opera

This evening we go out with a small group to enjoy a bit of Chinese opera; it’s quite nearby at the Liyuang Theatre, performed by members of the Beijing Opera. Tickets were arranged beforehand and were just 60¥.

Remarkably it’s not just permitted to eat and drink in the performance hall: near the front are seats at tables where snacks are being served, and there are drinks, even draft beer — expensive at 25¥, but most of us take one anyway as an essential ingredient of the experience.

After some introductory music there appears a speaker who (in English) gives a short explanation of how the Chinese opera ‘works’: There is never a set, everything needs to be imagined. Much is symbolic: two horse-less riders on stage may actually depict two armies clashing. Everything contributes to tell the story: music, song, dance, acrobatics and juggling — and of course the costumes and make up of the actors. The 1.5-hour show that follows is exciting and delightful; there’s never a dull moment and no need to understand Chinese to follow the story line. Since photography is allowed, I try to take some pictures, but my film isn’t very fast so I’m not very hopeful.

To round off the evening we dine together at a small neighborhood restaurant, where I have delicious pork in garlic sauce.

posted: Tuesday 2005-08-23 15:01 UTC culture, food and drink

  Saturday 2004-07-10 - Beijing, China

Delicious bread and a knife

Carla and I make a slow start this morning and leave our Beijing hotel without breakfast; we’ll buy something on the way to the Tien’anmen Square, our goal for today.

It’s a pleasant walk, first across the big road over a pedestrian bridge and then through the lively hutongs of the old center in the direction of Qianmen Dajie (Tianmen Avenue), the wide and fashionable shopping street that leads straight to the square and the Forbidden City beyond that. In the hutongs I note — as I did on my solitary walk to the Xiannong temple complex yesterday — that many of the houses have little low buildings tacked onto them, sticking out into the street. It reminds me a bit of what is called a “pothuis” in Amsterdam, where such buildings are built onto a half-subterranean kitchens and used to store the pots and pans. Except there are no subterranean kitchens here, and they all have a low (padlocked) door set into them on the street side. I make a wild guess: imagine an old town without plumbing — perhaps they attach to a bathroom (instead of a kitchen) and house a barrel for human sewage, to be picked up and exchanged for an empty one using those little doors. I remember this was still the practice in some old towns in the Netherlands during the 1950s where there was no mains water. I never find out whether my guess is right, or they are something else entirely.

Soon we turn right in the direction of Qianmen Dajie we find a place where they sell the type of deep-fried round bread with spring onions or other spices that I’m so fond of. We each get one for just 5 ¥ - in a little plastic carrier bag: they’re piping hot, too hot to eat immediately. As we walk on, the old hutong shopping street metamorphoses into a modern shopping street, where we go shopping, bread bags in hand. Here we come across a shop specializing in kitchen knives (nothing but kitchen knives!) and I can’t resist: I’ve long been looking for one of those large Asian kitchen knives to chop vegetables with and they have dozens of models and sizes here. The lady who helps us (Carla buys two as presents to bring home) does not speak a word of English, but firmly and expertly explains to us with some gestures and mime what the different knives are for (I don’t want a meat chopper!) and what is good quality and why: she clearly wants us to leave the store with a purchase we’ll be happy with for many years. The knife I get is heavy (but not too heavy for my small hands) and at 146 ¥ costs a fraction of what a knife of similar quality would cost in the Netherlands. Happy with our purchases, we sit on a stoop in front of an empty shop across the street to eat our bread: still hot but by now at an edible temperature and quite delicious.

posted: Tuesday 2005-09-06 23:30 UTC cities, food and drink, shopping

Day off

Once in Qianmen Dajie (Tianmen Avenue) I’m disappointed that what on the map looks like a straight line all the way up to the Forbidden City (this part of Beijing clearly was designed that way, with a long, clear line of sight) is not actually navigable in a straight line now. But after some detours and underpasses we finally arrive on Tien’anmen Square. It’s quite large and impressiive, and busy with lots of predominanty Chinese tourists, despite the dark, hazy weather today. We walk all around, feeling the space and watching the monumental buildings around it — but also the tourists, ranging from lines of children clothed in modern ‘red brigade’ T-shirts to gaping visitors from the provinces; watching the peddlers selling trinkets and kites (flying some to attract attention), and the little girl running and delighting in her graciously flying string of kites; having our pictures taken for a change and taking a picture of the girl and her mother in return; watching the Chinese snapping away with their cameras (no camera? you can buy them right here, and many do so).

On the way back a girl starts chatting to us (she’s not the first): a lot of students are approaching tourists trying to persuade them to go to their art exhibition. When she gathers we’re travelling with a group (but with no group or tour leader in sight) she asks: “Is this your day off?” It takes a few seconds before it registers what that implies; it’s a nice illustration of the Chinese way of tourism. Our explanation that every day is a “day off” because we’re always free to wander around whenever we stay somewhere meets with a blank stare…

On the corner of Qianmen Dajie we share one (large) portion of duck and one (large) beer: a delicious lunch in front of a window watching the crowd go by. Further on in the street we find a bookstore that has maps. I love maps and can’t resist a (bilingual) map of Beijing and a (Chinese) map of the world. Then we go to our hotel to drop our purchases and give my still-hurting foot a rest.

posted: Tuesday 2005-09-06 23:34 UTC cities, culture, people, shopping

No. 107 isn’t leak-proof

I read somewhere that Beijing’s air is so heavily polluted that one rarely sees a blue sky and Beijing’s children have never seen a starry night. It’s believable: all morning it’s been dark and hazy (although it was much better yesterday — and I now regret not taking a picture of the view from our hotel window then). But when we venture out again after dropping off the morning’s purchases, the sky has become even darker. Our plan is to visit Tiantan: the Temple of Heaven, which I didn’t find yesterday. Just before where we think we should turn right, the sky gets inky; moments later very large drops of rain start to fall.

Together with others we flee to shelter under the overhanging roof of a small restaurant on the corner: No. 107 (I’m not sure whether it has a name or whether that is the name). But the stoop is narrow and the roof doesn’t give much protection: we’re getting wet so we flee inside. The woman who runs the restaurant is calm (as if she’s seen this many times before) and tolerant: she doesn’t come bothering anyone if they want to sit down or eat or drink anything. Carla and I sit down at a table, order a beer, and prepare to watch the fun from our safe vantage point at the window… We soon are reminded of the downpour in Antakya: the road turns into a river, almost knee-deep in places; cyclists suddenly are all wearing rain ponchos (are they always so prepared?), some wading through the water next to their bikes, others managing to cycle through the stream.

Crack! That was a direct hit of lightning nearby — the Friendship Hospital a bit back down the road still has power, but all around it’s suddenly very dark. The wind now becomes stormy, and across the street captures a huge parasol with a heavy foot and drops it in the middle of the street.

Splat! The roof of No. 107 starts to leak — just over our table. We move over to the next one with our beer. Puddles start to form on the floor. Splat! It’s not just water coming down any more: wet plaster is coming with it, leaving white marks all over the tables and chairs near the window. We have to give up our view and move again. At a large table next to us a family is eating together, enjoying themselves and seemingly oblivious to the weather. After half an hour it lightens up a bit and the water level is down, we can see the side walk again: it looks like we might be able to reach the hotel without getting wet feet. For the beer, we only pay 2 ¥ — not sure whether it’s normally that cheap or whether we got a discount for the wet-plaster rain.

Tomorrow we fly back. The Tiantan will be waiting for us to return to Beijing some time…

posted: Tuesday 2005-09-06 23:37 UTC cities, weather

  Sunday 2004-07-11 - Beijing, China


After a goodbye dinner last night at a Beijing ‘hotpot’ restaurant (our tour companion is staying behind to accompany another group) I started preparing to pack for the flight back. The nice but heavy knife I bought yesterday got me worried: I was sure my luggage is seriously overweight by now so I tried to do some triage: what to take, what to leave. But I can’t leave any of the heavy stuff, really: all books and papers, all my rolls of film in the lead-lined bags, my Chinese kitchen knife… It’s not easy.

So after some sorting I didn’t sleep too well, tossing and turning, waking up repeatedly, mentally unpacking, repacking, sorting, keeping, rejecting. I make a few decisions but I stay worried. When I get up I’m not rested — and nervous. When I actually start packing I manage to save a Kg or maybe two (some clothes, toiletries, flipflops); not enough.

posted: Wednesday 2005-09-07 00:19 UTC food and drink, travel

A costly flight back

A bus will take us to Beijing airport; before we leave we engage the bus driver to take a group picture of us at the hotel entrance — with several cameras — and I’m sure he does this more often. At the check-in desk at the airport my worst fears come true: not only is there a weight limit on checked luggage, there’s one for cabin luggage as well: my little backpack with all my rolls of films is twice as heavy as allowed and my bag is (as expected) overweight as well. I have to take out what I really want to take as hand luggage (luckily I have a small bag handy for that) and manage to carry my film rolls — they always go in my hand luggage — and some other essentials; then I convince the clerk she’s already quoted me an overweight on my bag, and shouldn’t suddenly re-weigh and add my now half-empty backpack as well. Still, I have to pay a hefty fee, which surprisingly I can pay with my credit card (they must be dealing with cash-less passengers more often). I shrug it off: compared to the total cost of our trip it’s still peanuts, and I accept it as a necessary cost of my gotten-out-of-hand photography hobby (and those 100 rolls of film in lead-lined bags): others buy more souvenirs, I pay for the films.

The flight back is uneventful; we’re changing planes in Vienna again, this time without being held up. Amsterdam feels strange after 65 days travelling across Asia. Tomorrow I’ll bring my films to the lab.

posted: Wednesday 2005-09-07 00:39 UTC luggage, travel

  Wednesday 2004-07-21 - Amsterdam, the Netherlands

“You’re a tough one!”

I’m back in in Amsterdam hospital to have a surgeon have a look at my broken foot. An assistant talks to me first, and hears my story, how I hurt my foot, and how I walked on it for another month. “Not a good start,” he says. Then the surgeon himself, a big gentle man, joins us, also hears my story, and tells me “You’re a tough one!”

He also explains about the risks of an operation which he prefers to avoid. Just to make sure we understand each other I explain how I missed doing things during the trip, such as the visit to the largely unrestored 10km stretch of the Great Wall near Beijing: I want to be able to do that next year, I say, not just walk in the city on nice, smooth pavement. That doesn’t change his mind: he doesn’t agree with the doctor of the emergency ward last week that an operation would have been necessary: “Let’s see first whether it starts to heal by itself now the foot is supported by the plaster,” he suggests. He gives it four weeks, so he can see me again after his vacation. In fact, I can go on vacation myself, he says — I’d planned a week with my parents in Germany — after all, I can walk on that cast, though not quickly or for very long. The prospect of going on vacation with my aging parents cheers me up though.

posted: Wednesday 2005-09-07 10:54 UTC aftermath, health

  Wednesday 2004-09-15 - Amsterdam, the Netherlands

Feeling naked

Back to hospital again — straight to the plaster room this time to have the cast taken off, then on to radiology again for yet another X-ray, then to the surgical department, where I talk to the surgeon’s assistant, one I haven’t seen before. He wants to hear my story first and I tell him it seems to be slowly getting better — but I’m obviously not there yet: it still hurts every now and then, especially when I walk more than a little. Then he looks at the X-ray and declares he’s satisfied: there’s ossification now and the original 4mm gap even seems to have become a little smaller. Looking at my sturdy hiking boots, he tells me I can go without a cast now, just wear those shoes, and gradually walk a little more. (Gulp!) Do I have to wear them inside, too? “See how it goes,” he says, “and come back in two months.”

Now while that’s encouraging, not having that sturdy cast around my foot I suddenly feel very naked and vulnerable — and extremely aware that it hasn’t quite healed yet.


The first few days I have to literally think with every step I take to carefully place my foot — otherwise it hurts again, almost as much as in China… Gradually it goes better, but I usually feel no warning signal when I put too much load on it: It will just hurt the next day! So, obviously I’m very careful. I do increase the distance I walk, but when it hurts the day after, I give it a rest again for a day or two. And I’d love to visit my parents but don’t dare, since I’d have to travel by train from Amsterdam to Groningen: especially the thought of getting on and off the train (without the support of the cast) scares me right now.

posted: Wednesday 2005-09-07 11:21 UTC aftermath, health

  Tuesday 2004-11-16 - Amsterdam, the Netherlands

China calling

The (Skype) phone rings! I pick it up - and find someone calling from China at the other end: he’d seen my profile, opened my blog in his browser, and seeing I visited China as well, decided to call me!

The caller is an obviously well-educated Chinese, speaking perfect English with only a trace of an accent. The call (fully encrypted, which gives him assurance it can’t be monitored) turns into a fascinating discussion about many subjects, ranging from minorities (no, I didn’t get to Tibetan areas this time, but I was there before and I’m planning to go back soon) and environmental problems in China (lack of clean drinking water in some areas a major concern, as well as the Yellow River being heavily polluted with no plans apparently to clean it up) to technical matters like film scanners (don’t buy Minolta: it may be Japanese but it’s produced in China, he says) and Internet access (professional people, especially those in IT, are likely to have a broadband connection at home, as he has: not nearly everyone is dependent on Internet cafes as I had assumed).

We chat for over half an hour like that - a slight echo every now and then, but otherwise excellent sound quality. I feel like my investment in a (cheapo) headset was a good move!

posted: Wednesday 2005-09-07 14:07 UTC telephony

  Saturday 2004-11-27 - Amsterdam, the Netherlands

Back together again, and making plans

Our second reunion for the 65 days across Asia trip, this time at Carla’s place in Amsterdam. I figure out the shortest route and walk over there in just half an hour — good practice for my foot! We’re all there (even Thom, who arrived back from Egypt late last night!), and the “family” feeling that resulted from traveling together for over two months is immediately back. We exchange presents, and photos that we ordered with each other. Carla prepared snacks and a meal with an Uzbek theme (really delicious plov!), and I was able to make small contribution by bringing the herbs-and-spice mix that I was given by a friendly and hospitable local on my first visit to Bukhara; it turns out not to be just good on cucumber but also on the plov.

Unavoidably, we talk not only about our past trip together and earlier adventures, but also plans for next year. We’d already heard from Marie Josee, our travel companion (who seems to be in Damascus right now), that the Chinese are working hard on the railroad to Lhasa; in fact, it looks like they’ll be finishing it even before the planned date. This railroad is expected to make much of original Tibet and Tibetan culture disappear at an increased pace, mostly by a greater influx of Han Chinese; meanwhile we’ve seen the breakneck speed of renovation in Kashgar, and I expect the same to be happening in Lhasa as well — so I’m not surprised to hear the “four girls” want to go to China and Tibet; they want to organize it themselves. I also want to go to Tibet for the same reasons (like now, before it’s all gone), but I prefer an organized trip (no hassle about transport and lodging, more time to explore) and so does Carla who would like to go as well. We also have the same preference for overland travel instead of internal flights; we’re planning to go to the Vacation Fair in Utrecht in January and we’ll likely be able to agree on a trip and go together! And with a bit of luck (September seems to be the best time of the year) we’ll meet the girls there, too! Nothing firmly decided yet, but Tibet is looking extremely likely now.

posted: Wednesday 2005-09-07 14:22 UTC aftermath, health, reunion, travel

  Wednesday 2004-12-01 - Amsterdam, the Netherlands

Another call from China

Another Skype phone call from China — from a young Dutch woman this time! She lives there, teaches English at a school and was glad to be able to talk Dutch for a change. We have a nice conversation, about life in China, travel in China (she’s been to a lot of places where I have been as well), and more.

I really should add a “Skype me!” link to the site. If I can find a way to display my status online, that is. Later…

posted: Thursday 2005-09-08 02:47 UTC people, telephony

  Sunday 2005-01-16 - Utrecht, the Netherlands


Today is the last day of the big Vacation Fair in Utrecht; I was going to go together with Carla, but she can’t come today; I promise to do good research on trips to Tibet: both of us are interested.

I go to the stand of Baobab first: they have an interesting trip. A plus is they’re planning a three-day hike along a lake near Lhasa; a big minus is that they’re using internal flights instead of (for instance) the train in China. So let’s see what Koning Aap Reizen (Monkey King Travels) has on offer.

Our travel companion of last year’s trip, Marie Josee, had told me she would be there (an exception, she’s travelling most of the year), and indeed she is. We have lunch together (noodles!) and a long chat: it’s really great to see her again after such a long time. Koning Aap’s trip to (through, actually) Tibet looks attractive too: minus: no hike; big plus: completely overland, no flight anywhere except to Beijing and back from Kāthmāndu. I already know that Carla prefers to travel overland as well. Then comes the clincher (for me, at least): when I mention to Marie Josee that the Baobab has a hike she comes up with two good ideas:

  1. she’d like to accompany this trip; and
  2. since we end up in Kāthmāndu we could add an extra week or two and do some hiking in the Kathmandu Valley or near Pokharā — she’d come, too, and she knows a lot of addresses of nice little hotels.

So we make a plan: Marie Josee will tell Koning Aap she’d like to accompany this trip (in September/October), the best time for Tibet, and (if Carla agrees), we’ll book on condition that the trip is accompanied by Marie Josee.

posted: Sunday 2005-09-11 12:33 UTC preparations

  Saturday 2005-09-17 - Frankfurt, Germany


As I expected (and half hoped) we have to go through the most interesting airport tunnel I know: the 270-meter long tunnel from concourse A to B on Frankfurt airport could have been a bore to walk through but they made an artwork of it: there’s indirect colored lighting along the walls, changing colors randomly, accompanied by interesting sound effects, all computer-controlled. The whole effect is quite interesting — and relaxing — but in addition the sounds make an interesting combination with the sound of the wheels of my little suitcase on the moving walkway.

At the gate we board on time but just when everyone is settled in their seats the captain comes on the speaker: there’s a problem with one of the engines, and it needs to be checked before we can depart; he apologizes he could not stop the boarding but suggests we’re better off waiting at the gate: the checkup may take 2 hours. When I go out I overhear a purser saying they found feathers on the engine: apparently they caught a bird…

After only 45 minutes we’re told we can board again but many people actually left the gate. The personnel took their boarding cards which the passengers can get back on presenting their passports. The girls at the gate make a game of it, reading out the names, picking up a stack of cards (stacks alphabetically sorted) and pulling up a card triumphantly. The result is that everyone is smiling and no one grumbles at the delay. Then when we’re back on the plane we sit and wait some more, and are told four passengers didn’t turn up: now their luggage has to be taken off the plane for security reasons. All in all we leave two hours late; a Chinese passenger next to us worries he’ll miss his connection in Beijing.

Meanwhile I feel I have a heavy cold coming up.

posted: Friday 2005-09-23 10:26 UTC travel

  Sunday 2005-09-18 - Beijing, China

Preparing for the Olympics

In spite of the two-hour delay leaving Frankfurt the plane arrives only 15 minutes late in Beijing where Marie Josee, our travel companion, is waiting for us. Great to see her again — I give her a big hug. We’re at the hotel at noon, in a familiar neighborhood: our Rainbow hotel is only one block south of the Dong Fang hotel where we stayed last year (it’s being renovated now). Both hotels are in an area with relatively untouched hutongs: the old neighborhoods of Beijing — once all of Beijing was like this. To us it has a “fifties” atmosphere.

After getting Yuans and a delicious lunch with Carla and Gwendoline at a familiar neighborhood restaurant, The Tian’anmen square is next on our program for the day. We walk there through the hutongs and the modern shopping street Qianmen Dajie. It’s fun because today is a holiday, and nearly everyone has the day off: lots of people walking around, shopping, and just enjoying themselves on the Moon festival.

When we arrive at the square, there’s a difference, however: Next to the square, on the facade of the museum, there’s a huge display counting down to the 2008 Olympics and on the square itself lots of people are at work building enormous displays with sports themes decorated with lots of potted flowers: no day off for these people. China is preparing for the Olympics at a furious pace. The Olympic village is already built and ready — in fact it’s been standing empty for so long already it’s beginning to look dilapidated and will need some sprucing up before the games begin. The Beijing skyline is a wood of building cranes. In lots of other cities renovation (read: destruction of old buildings to be replaced by new ones) is going on at breakneck speed. Hopefully some of the hutongs in Beijing will be spared.

In the evening we go with the whole group to a hutong restaurant (a loose collection of tables and stools out on the street, and different vendors selling different dishes); we have Muslim mutton kebabs (hot!) and garlic kebabs, and a variety of vegetables, accompanied with a nice beer. A delicious meal for next to nothing.

posted: Friday 2005-09-23 10:26 UTC cities, culture, food and drink

  Monday 2005-09-19 - Bejing, China

Imperial Palace

I wake up with a fever: my cold is getting a hold. I still want to go out though: I’m not feeling that bad. Together with Carla and Gwendoline I go to the Imperial palace today (also known as “The Forbidden City”; officially it’s the Palace Museum), right in the center of Beijing. Once we step outside, we find it’s chilly, quite a change from yesterday: we go back to our rooms to fetch a jacket and note most Beijing citizens are wearing long sleeves today as well. The atmosphere in the streets today is clearly different from yesterday when it was a holiday: now we see people going about their business instead of whole families strolling about lazily.

To my surprise we don’t have to pay right at the first gate (the one with the big portrait of chairman Mao above it) but walk right through onto an enormous courtyard, then on through another gate onto another courtyard. Only there we have to pay (60ұ) to go on into the complex.

What follows is quite impressive: one courtyard after another, all large or very large, with marble bridges over a little river and beautifully carved marble stairways; the buildings surrounding the courtyards all have brick-red painted walls and elegant roofs of yellow-glazed rounded tiles, topped by beautiful animals on all corners; the woodwork (especially below the roofs) is beautifully decorated with multi-colored paintings. The effect is quite pleasing, in spite of the enormous size of it all. Lots of potted plants stand around, there’s a pond full of lotus plants, here and there big bronze and marble sculptures of mythical beasts, and big bronze vats (purpose unknown). A few halls have impressive thrones but unfortunately you can’t go near, only peer at them from the entrance of the halls, and it’s rather dark inside.

It’s rightfully called the forbidden city: not only were ordinary Chinese citizens not allowed inside the walls of the palace grounds, but the whole complex — itself just a small part of metropolis Beijing — is indeed big as a city: I reckon he whole inner city of Groningen would easily fit in this area.

It’s a pity the restoration of the complex is still going on: many buildings are still in scaffolding and whole areas of the complex closed to the public. It will surely all be ready before the 2008 Olympics: maybe we should come back in the spring of 2009 to see it in its full glory.

posted: Friday 2005-09-23 12:07 UTC architecture, cities


On the way back from the Imperial Palace we decide to have lunch near Qianmen (south of Tian’anmen square), where Carla and I had lunch last year. I’m not hungry since I already had a bowl of noodles at the Forbidden City so I only have a beer while Carla and Gwendoline share a dish of sliced duck with onions (a kind of long, thin leek, actually).

From our table at the window we watch Beijing coming by.

I note a man coming from the underpass wearing a green surgical mask: not such a bad idea in Beijing with its polluted air, where the sky is rarely blue because of the smog. The sight of the mask reminds me of a comment from a Chinese I noted on an online forum that the TV news coverage of the SARS epidemic was rather biased: we were shown images of people walking around in masks, as if that was all because of the epidemic, while in reality it was already quite common. That brings to mind how the Chinese have had several campaigns to promote hygiene, for instance to discourage spitting in public: it used to be quite common just a few years ago but it’s rare now; no doubt the SARS epidemic helped bring that message home.

Having just arrived at this point in my musings about Chinese hygiene, I see the man unhooking the mask from his right ear, holding it aside, spitting a thick wad onto the pavement, and smoothly putting the mask back into place. It’s an exception. Really.

posted: Friday 2005-09-23 12:07 UTC cities, food and drink, health

Sweeping a waterfall

A while later I note two young men standing outside, laughing, looking up: a waterfall is coming down right in front of the restaurant entrance but we can’t see what’s causing it. A girl from the restaurant goes outside with a mop and starts sweeping the water off the steps — rather futile since the water keeps coming down. Soon she’s joined by a colleague with a broom. Gradually the flood eases a bit and together they manage to sweep away most of the water from the entrance steps — only to have the waterfall start all over again. By the time we leave it’s almost stopped, but the steps are still slippery wet.

posted: Friday 2005-09-23 12:07 UTC cities, people

To the Opera

In the evening we go with most of the group to the Beijing Opera. Unlike last year, we go to the actual Beijing Opera house: a small building that’s over 400 years old, with quite beautifully decorated woodwork inside. A pity we have places on the balcony, on the side: we don’t have a very good view of the stage; also the explanation of the performance is not as good as we had last year. The performance itself is sublime though and the piece after the intermission is especially interesting for us: the star is the Monkey King — after whom our travel organization (Koning Aap) is called.

I know the film in my camera is not fast enough to be able to take pictures in the theater so I didn’t bring it. But a digital camera usually has a much wider range, so I try to do something with my brand-new camera phone. It’s just an experiment, but you never know: just one good picture would be nice to have.

Afterwards we all go and have a beer together in the hutongs before returning to the hotel. All in all a nice and interesting evening out.

posted: Friday 2005-09-23 12:07 UTC cities, culture, photography

  Tuesday 2005-09-20 - Beijing, China

Morning Activities

Many Chinese get up early in the morning and go outside for some gentle exercise. One favorite place in Beijing is the Tiantan Park with the Temple of Heaven, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1998. Although the main temple is closed at the moment and in scaffolding for restoration, we get up early to go to the park for some people-watching. It proves to be quite an experience, well worth getting up early for.

The huge park itself is an oasis in the big city, with many trees and a chorus of chirping cicadas almost masking the music of the singing birds. Although the park itself, laid out in a formal geometrical style, and the buildings within it are quite interesting, it’s the people that really take our interest. People do all kinds of exercises such as Tai Chi (often with a teacher) but also other types of exercise, all gentle, such as a kind of dance with fans, or marching in figures with pompoms and fans as if it’ a band of cheerleaders — except most in the group are actually middle aged… We also see a group being taught western style dancing. Most of these activities are accompanied by music coming from loudspeakers placed at regular intervals but some (such as the cheerleader group) have live music.

Then there are all kinds of ball games, like badminton, or kicking around a kind of feather ball (people kick it at each other and it should stay in the air as long as possible, apparently). There’s also a ball game with a soft ball ans a round racket with which the ball is caught and thrown back (not hit) all in one fluid movement. Other people do stretching exercises, or walk backwards a long way, using a marble strip in the pavement as a guide.

Harmony is important for the Chinese, and one way or another all this is about harmony; exercise can become a kind of meditation, but we see other forms as well: some people are practicing calligraphy writing with big brushes and water on the pavement; I also note a man flying a kite, accompanied by soft music. His mind is clearly far away, too, and he doesn’t notice us watching. Even a choir is using the park for their practice sessions, accompanied by an accordionist.

posted: Saturday 2005-09-24 07:38 UTC cities, culture, people, UNESCO

Pleasure boat

Our bus picks us up at the North entrance of the park to take us to the Imperial Summer Palace on the outskirts of Beijing. After lunch in one of the restaurants near the entrance we go in (30Ұ). We (that’s Carla, Gwendoline and I) walk in the direction of the huge man-made lake that takes up some there-quarters of the the huge grounds where the emperors and their families came to escape the summer heat of Beijing. Although the weather is still gray and hazy today the air certainly is fresher here than in the city: it must have been pleasant here for the Imperial family as well, although the water in the lake is a murky green.

The huge complex is a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1998, especially because it is a unique and intact example of the Chinese art of gardening and landscaping, so different from European or Japanese gardens. Walking along the lake front, we notice along, elegant bridge leading to an island and decide to go there. The bridge, with seventeen arches, is quite beautiful, and we walk across it to the island. On the island is the Temple of the Dragon King, where the imperial family used to pray for rain. Across the lake I see other interesting bridges (I’m a bridge nut!), but they’re too far away for now, certainly too far to walk. Instead, we catch a “Pleasure Boat” (6Ұ), nicely decorated and with a pagoda-like roof, which takes us slowly across the lake to a landing near the palace, where another interesting sight awaits us: a beautifully carved marble boat lies at the landing, as if ready to cast off.

There’s no time to view buildings today, and we’re happy to walk outside in the fresh air anyway. After a drink at a small cafe near the landing, we walk along the waterfront back to the entrance. We’ve only scratched the surface here: we agree we’d need to come back for a whole day to really experience it, rent a boat to row or paddle around the lake, and visit the buildings; in spite of that we’ve had an interesting and pleasant afternoon.

posted: Saturday 2005-09-24 07:38 UTC architecture, culture, landscaping, UNESCO

  Wednesday 2005-09-21 - Beijing, China

Great effort on the Great Wall

Today is the big day. Last year when I was in Beijing I wasn’t able to do the hike along the Great Wall because my foot hurt too much (I only later found out it was broken). Now, with an ankle sprained not a week before we left and a heavy cold still bothering me, I’m not exactly in optimal condition for this undertaking, but I’m not to be deterred: I promise myself to do this and I’m going to: you really haven’t been to China unless you’ve visited the Great Wall, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987.

The alarm goes off at 5:15 in the morning: we have to leave at six! The stretch of the Wall we’re going to walk, from Simatai to Jinshanling is about a three-hour ride from the city, and we’re soon in the middle of the rush hour. It’s amazing just how big this city is: it takes very long before we leave it behind us and see fields from the bus windows. Not so much afterwards, though, a little after eight, the engine suddenly starts to make a funny noise and the driver stops the bus along the road near what amounts to a truckers cafe: some plastic tables and stools outside where simple meals are served. The driver starts checking the engine, borrows a bucket of water at the cafe, brings it back, and declares it’s good to go, so we all get in again. He turns the key and … nothing. All out again. It seems the starter engine is broken. Are we really going to walk on the Great Wall today?

The driver arranges alternative transportation for us (mobile phones are ubiquitous now in China) and not too long afterwards a car and three micro buses arrive, and on we go — with just over an hour’s delay. After we turn off the main road, at 10 km from Simatai, the landscape gets more beautiful; we’re riding through a river valley now. At the entrance we buy our first ticket (30Ұ; every stretch that’s accessible requires a separate ticket, we’ll have to buy a few more). Our hike starts at 10:30.

I’m actually rather worried, my cold makes me feel rather weak, and my sprained ankle is still painful and I worry about making it worse. But Marie Josee promises she’ll stay at the back of the group, and that’s reassuring. Across a little bridge over the river and then up we go along a bit of “fake wall” to one of the towers. I take out my GPS to record where we start: N 40.66188, E 117.27609; elevation 306m.

The first stretch of the wall here is fully restored but it’s quite steep down to a (metal) bridge across the river where we have to buy our next ticket to be able to cross (5Ұ), and from there up a steep incline again. This is especially hard because there are very high steps on the steepest stretches, almost too high for my short legs: I have to literally push myself up and tire quickly. I’m soon the last of the group. But after the restored stretch ends it gets even harder: it’s still just as steep here but now on the broken stones and rubble it gets hard to keep my left foot horizontal to spare my sprained ankle. A good thing I took my monopod which doubles as a walking stick: I really need it here.

All around me is my reward: a landscape of endless rolling steep hills and low mountains, mostly untouched, over which the Great Wall snakes from hilltop to mountaintop with a tower on top of each. And all that in glorious sunshine with a blue sky. With still a long way to go, I can’t stop every moment to take pictures but I still take quite a few. Still, the enormous scale of this defense wall in the landscape is hard to capture in pictures. Tourists are coming by the bus full to look at the wall, and a few of them even walk to a tower and back, but it only really sinks in when you actually feel it with your feet, going from hilltop to hilltop, up and down and up and down. Hikers on the wall are from all over the world, but the only Chinese are their guides. At what I think is the highest point I take another measurement with my GPS: we’re now at N 40.67046, E 117.26532; and 502 m high (later I see the next tower is just a little higher still, but not by much).

Marie Josee worries about my slow pace and asks if I want to go back — but we just left the hardest part behind us: no way am I going back to walk those steep stretches again. So on we go and luckily we hear of an easy shortcut below the wall that will save us a several towers. We decide to take it. All over the wall are Mongolians selling books, postcards, T-shirts and other souvenirs: the Mongolian border is nearby. They can be quite bothersome though: if you don’t say “no” firmly enough they’ll come after you and keep following. When we want to take the shortcut, a Mongolian woman comes with us, and shows the way (obviously hoping to sell us something) — a good thing though since it’s only a narrow trail, at places hard to see, and not at all as “easy” as the people telling us about it suggested. Just when I think we’ve had the hardest part, already close to where the path joins the wall again, I suddenly find myself stretched out along the path flat on my belly! There was a tree root in the shadow that I missed completely… Marie Josee comes running back, and the Mongolian woman wants to pull me up and starts dusting me off. “No, wait,” I gesture, and just sit up first, putting out feelers in my body to see how it feels: no alarm signals come back. Then I allow the two women to pull me up and slowly I stand: I can still walk, but my legs are quite shaky.

The woman offers to take my backpack and camera bag, and Marie Josee starts bargaining with her — she asks 50Ұ: far too much, 15 would be OK. At first she refuses, so Marie Josee takes my bags but later she agrees after all. She helps me over all the difficult spots, too, giving me a hand for support or to pull me up: of course she’s earning some money but she is genuinely caring. After the shortcut, the wall seems easier; I stop every now and then to take pictures again. The Wall and the landscape are still breathtakingly beautiful and impressive.

We have to buy another ticket for the last stretch of the wall and Marie Josee nearly starts a fight with the woman selling the tickets: last year she was in the same spot selling fake tickets but after some to and fro it turns out this time the tickets are for real — and needed.

A little before the point where we have to leave the wall the woman says she has to go back now: the border closes at a certain time and it’s a long walk back. But the last stretch is restored wall again and easier to walk on although I find the inclines harder to walk down than the steps. But Marie Josee is now carrying my bags and I can manage on my own. We find Henk, Carla and Gwendoline have been waiting for us (the ladies are quite tired as well) and with our little group we walk down to the parking place to meet the rest of the group.

We find our driver with a new bus — and just two of the group: the rest has not appeared yet! First we all sit down to have a drink (Marie Josee treats me to a beer) and wait. But soon we get restless: where can they be? If they walked on, they’ll find they can’t go further at one point but will have to walk a long way back: we may be in for a long wait… When they finally appear we hear their story: they did indeed miss the road down to the parking place and walked on to the next tower, spotting us through their field glasses and deciding to wait for us there; when they could no longer see us and we didn’t appear it dawned on them they were too far and went back. Lucky for them (and us) they didn’t walk any further!

Back in the hotel at 9:30 after a long drive through the falling evening, I go out with Carla and Gwendoline to ‘our’ neighborhood restaurant where for a change I have a good appetite: the chicken with cashew nuts is delicious!

Only then, back in my room, I finally take my shoes off and inspect my toes which started to hurt after my fall and are hurting even worse now. There’s nothing to see though: no swelling, no bruise: it can’t be too bad. Hopefully it will be better before Nepal!

posted: Sunday 2005-09-25 14:16 UTC architecture, health, hiking, landscape, UNESCO

  Thursday 2005-09-22 - Beijing, China


I promised Marie Josee I’d take it easy today, and I do: I need it. I sleep late. My toes still hurt and my sprained ankle is still a bit sensitive so I wonder about my plans for walking around Xi’an tomorrow. After breakfast in my room I check out and sit in the lobby of our Beijing hotel writing, and drinking endlessly refilled jasmine tea. Then lunch at the neighborhood restaurant (mutton with onion) and some pictures of street scenes. Opposite the hotel I taste, then buy, some unknown fruit which the fruit seller tells me is called hang zhao (I hope I got that right). They’re shaped like a date but taste a little like an apple — very nice.

posted: Sunday 2005-09-25 14:16 UTC food and drink, health

Back on the train

At 16:30 we leave for Beijing West Station. We don’t have a routine yet but boarding the train goes smoothly. I can sleep on a lower bed (my favorite) in the six-bed hardsleeper compartment and before lights out at 21:30 I’m in bed already. It’s fun to be back on the train in China!

posted: Sunday 2005-09-25 14:16 UTC trains, travel

  Friday 2005-09-23 - Xi'an, China

Living in Xi’an

After a restless night with lots of coughing fits we arrive at exactly 7:00 in the morning in Xi’an. After dumping our luggage in two temporary rooms in the Jie Fang hotel, I go out with Carla and Gwendoline to walk to the old Muslim quarter.

For Carla and me it feels a bit like coming home: not only is the hotel familiar, but both Carla and I very much liked Xi’an last year and we immediately have the same feeling once we walk out. Clearly this city isn’t as rich as Beijing: while people mostly are well-dressed, they’re not as fashionable; there is also far less building activity here. But Xi’an is still a metropolis — and somehow a very relaxed one.

On the way to the center a sudden movement in the corner of my eye draws my eye to the right and I notice a man playing with a cat: Through an arch there seems to be a living quarter. Made curious, we want to walk through the gate, only to be stopped by the concierge. We gesture we just want to have a look around but he clearly misunderstands us and seems to think we’re coming to visit someone. At last he understands and waves us in with a welcoming smile. We find small tree-lined streets with low blocks of flats, potted plants; each building has a big number painted on the wall, and a row of chairs along the main street. Near the entrance are two groups of mailboxes. It all looks very organized but at the same time cozy with a fifties kind of atmosphere. The people, apart from some personnel and two vendors with stands of vegetables and herbs mostly elderly, all smile at us: it’s obvious they’ve never seen a tourist here but don’t mind us at all, on the contrary. We wonder if it’s maybe a pensioners’ complex or whether the younger people and children are simply at work and school. I take some pictures, but it’s hard to catch the atmosphere.

posted: Friday 2005-09-30 05:50 UTC culture, people, town planning

Fake violin

Our next stop is at the Bell Tower of Xi’an: last year it was closed because of restoration, and in scaffolding; this time we can see it in its full glory. We take some pictures but don’t go in: we’ve had quite enough steps yesterday on the Great Wall and our thighs are still hurting. Then we go into the ultra-modern shopping mall on the corner of the square hoping for a cup of coffee in the basement near the golden statue of the Monkey King but are sorely disappointed: not only has Monkey king disappeared to make place for a stand promoting a new cosmetics brand, but they’ve run out of coffee as well. I settle for a can of what I think is juice but turns out to be almond milk — delicious!

We sit, watching the goings-on at the cosmetics promotion. A girl appears, in a beautiful dark red dress, carrying a violin case. Then a microphone is set up on the stage, and there’s a lot of juggling and running around with some CDs. They try several CDs, with different types of music, including a violin concerto which makes place for other music again. Finally, the girl in the red dress climbs the stage, the music stops, and the violin concerto comes on again – false start. They start again, and now she seems to play along, but inaudible: maybe she’s just play backing. Someone gestures she should be closer to the microphone, she stops playing (while the violin on the CD plays on), steps closer, and starts playing again. All very weird, but no one seems to mind. But when she steps down from the stage she doesn’t look very happy either.

posted: Friday 2005-09-30 05:50 UTC cities, people

Hui quarter

Next we walk to the old Muslim quarter of Xi’an, where the Hui (Muslim Han Chinese) live and have their businesses and mosques. The part near the Drum Tower — the entrance gate to the quarter – is quite touristy, but that’s just a small part of the whole area. We head straight for the Great Mosque first (entrance 12Ұ) where you hear no more traffic, only twittering sparrows and cooing pigeons. The complex, with five consecutive courtyards full of greenery, is a beautiful mix of Chinese and Islamic architecture. At one point we also hear music, coming from a pair of speakers, but here and there some old Muslim men, here to pray, are singing along. It’s all very peaceful and relaxing.

Then out we go again, avoiding the tourists’ corner now, to roam around the quarter. It’s even larger than I expected; you can easily spend several hours roaming through the narrow crowded streets lined with local shops and workshops. Almost no tourist in sight: only once do we see a small group of Chinese tourists. It reminds us a little of the souks in the Middle East, with some streets dedicated to particular trades. We come through a butchers’ street, with piles of liver on the as well as stomachs and other animal parts we don’t recognize on display on the counters in the open air; butchers are art work in their workshops open to the street, flies buzzing around busily. It looks almost medieval. A customer comes to a store an asks about the liver; the butcher’s wife cuts off a slice and hands it to her, she takes a bite; apparently all the liver is cooked already. At a shop seemingly selling something else entirely, a little pile of raw kidneys is sitting on the counter. In another street we see lots of sweets ands pastries: they look very appetizing, at least.

When we are tired of walking around, we take a taxi back to the hotel — with the help of a girl that hastily comes to our help to translate: the very friendly driver doesn’t speak any English. He lets us out on the taxi stand near the station: with gestures he explains that he’s not allowed to drop us off right in front of the hotel — and they’re being watched with cameras: they’ll get a big fine if they’re caught.

posted: Friday 2005-09-30 05:50 UTC cities, culture, people

First time Internet

With our busy program in Beijing and the very tiring hike along the Great Wall, I never had time to go to an Internet cafe to write my travel blog. Not that there aren’t enough Internet cafes in Beijing now, they seem to be sprouting up all over again, from little neighborhood places to big halls with hundreds of work stations.

This afternoon I sit down and write out my first stories; then together with Carla I go to an Internet cafe in Xi’an that Marie Josee told us about. Next to a bookstore, up two flights of no-longer functioning escalators is a large room with maybe several hundreds of machines. They have two rates: 3Ұ per hour for a fast connection, or 2Ұ for a somewhat slower machine (good enough for me). You simply pay a fixed amount for a chip card which operates the machine, and when you’re done you get the remainder back in cash.

A friendly attendant helps me to set up a US-English keyboard: impossible for me since the whole interface is in Chinese. First on is Carla, to write an email home, then it’s my turn. I don’t like the keyboard and make a lot of typos but at least I have a spell checker in Squirrel Mail.

On the way back I find some of the group at the restaurant around the corner from the hotel and we all have dinner together, with a delicious draft beer.

posted: Friday 2005-09-30 05:50 UTC internet access

  Saturday 2005-09-24 - Xi'an, China

Lazy day in Xi’an

I’m up late after yesterday’s busy day in Xi’an. I have a light breakfast at the cafeteria downstairs (two delicious balls of vegetables with a spicy sauce but to my surprise they have no tea today!). The rest of the morning I spend checking out, parking my luggage in the luggage room and catching up with my writing.

After lunch I go out with our tour companion Marie Josee to scout out another Internet cafe she spotted in the corner of the square across the street from the hotel. We find it’s very hot inside (in spite of the fans turning on the ceiling) and more expensive than yesterday’s Internet cafe to boot so we go back there. It’s been overcast, very dark today, and just when we arrive at the Internet cafe it starts to rain lightly. After two hours typing and (mostly) catching up I stop: I had planned to walk around anther area of the city that we saw from the taxi yesterday; I’m afraid it will be too dark if I continue typing any longer.

Alas, when I get out it’s not only raining harder but also much darker than I expected. I walk to the old quarter anyway. Once there I try to take some pictures, smuggling with exposure times otherwise it’s impossible to take any. The area is very interesting in terms of town planning: tree-lined streets without real sidewalks but the houses are all built on a much higher level than the streets: the difference of up to two meters is bridges with steps up to the entrances and oblique walls; sometimes there’s a path on the upper level to reach the mostly walled yards. It’s really hard to describe — I hope my pictures turn out.

I give up on my other plan to climb the North gate of the city wall and take more pictures from there — it’s really too dark now. Clearly I’ll have to come back to Xi’an once more: there’s still plenty of interesting things to see and do here.

At nine we go to the station again to catch the night train to Lanzhou.

posted: Friday 2005-09-30 07:16 UTC internet access, photography, town planning, weather

  Sunday 2005-09-25 - Lanzhou, China


Surprisingly for the very punctual Chinese trains, we arrive early in Lanzhou: we’re expected at 7:13 but we’re outside already at 7:00 — our bus hasn’t arrived yet. Last year’s trick works again this year: we go to a hotel near the station where Marie Josee sweet-talks us in and we’re allowed to have breakfast there. As in Xi’an there’s no tea; no problem: Marie Josee simply walks into the kitchen and arranges tea for all.

After an excellent breakfast we find our bus waiting for us, with a very nice Tibetan driver and his wife. We drive out of Lanzhou along a very nice new motorway. The mountains around here consist of thick packets of sediment, very land-slide prone; we notice interesting constructions along the road to prevent erosion but inevitably nature is stronger than man: it’s he end of the rainy season and in two places one side of the road is blocked by a landslide which they’re busy clearing. On the mountains there are also many terraces, some just to prevent erosion many also for agriculture: some fields contain yellow-green ripening grain; bundles of herbs are drying on top of the mud walls. All along the road there are rows of newly-planted young trees.

I’m convinced the Chinese are inventing their own brand of English: Last year in our “breakfast hotel” in Lanzhou we saw an interesting example of what I call “Chenglish”; today, along the road, we see a few nice inventions as well. Although foreigners are not allowed to drive in China, surprisingly nearly all road signs are bilingual — sort of: The outside lane of the road is called a “climbing lane” and we’re warned: “Forbid to chuck jetsam”.

posted: Friday 2005-09-30 07:16 UTC landscape, language, travel

  Sunday 2005-09-25 - Linxia, China

Muslim country

We can’t stay on the nice new road; we turn off onto a secondary road which is narrower and a lot worse. We’ve left Lanzhou and urban China far behind us now. When we make a short photo stop for the landscape, our driver checks his tires and finds he has a flat inner tire. While he changes the tire (with the help of his wife) we have a photo opportunity with the children from a few farms nearby. We’re at N 35.63526, E 103.45063, at an elevation of 2300m already — we’ll get still higher today.

In Linxia we make a lunch stop at a small Muslim restaurant. We taste our first “Muslim tea” here: a mix of green tea leaves, various herbs and fruits and lots of big sugar crystals; it’s delicious and healthy! This is a specialty of this area of China. We also have a wonderful vegetarian noodle soup (with fresh hand-made noodles) and various vegetable dishes.

I hadn’t realized it before we left but this whole area of China is actually predominantly Muslim; Buddhism arrived here much later. Both groups live peacefully together though and mix easily, buying in each others’ shops, Buddhist monks even eating at Muslim restaurants (though not the other way round since the other restaurants are not halal). We see many mosques in a bewildering variety of architectural styles but all somehow a mix of Chinese and Arabic Islamic; a minaret may look like it does in the Middle East or it may look like a Chinese pagoda. The men mostly wear white skullcaps, sometimes beautifully embroidered; women wear a simple white hat, sometimes covered with a headdress of black velvet lace; a flap that normally goes below the face is sometimes flipped up over the head. In one town where we turn off again I see a sea of white-capped heads along the main street.

Along the roads now we see many brick works: they make bricks and roof tiles while smaller workshops make stone or cement decorations — the whole area seems to support the building industry, as is also suggested by some big billboards along the road. The road itself gets really bad now: they’re building a new road but for now it’s just kilometer after kilometer of construction area. We’re being thoroughly shaken: it’s a long and tiring trip this way.

posted: Friday 2005-09-30 07:16 UTC food and drink, landscape, local economy, religion, travel

  Sunday 2005-09-25 - Xiahe, China

Also Buddhist country

The last stretch of the road before we arrive in Xiahe is nice and smooth again. We’re staying at the best hotel in town: the Overseas Tibetan Hotel (Hua Qiao Fandian), owned by a Tibetan. The whole place is attractively decorated in Tibetan style — it seems the paintings were done by some of the monks from the Labrang monastery — and there’s an excellent restaurant with a Chinese and a Nepali cook; our rooms have a private bathroom (with warm water for a few hours in the morning and the evening). Last but not least: in the lobby are three workstations providing Internet access for a reasonable price (5Ұ per hour). The restaurant is busy, it seems to be the best place in town: people staying at other hotels often come here to eat.

From the roof of the hotel one has a nice view of the Labrang monastery, the reason for our stay in Xiahe. Climbing the steps isn’t all that easy though: we’re at 2890m now — and not acclimatized to such a height yet. Slowly, slowly does it.

After dinner, after a long wait (the three stations are almost constantly occupied), I catch up a bit with my blog.

posted: Friday 2005-09-30 07:16 UTC internet access, lodging

  Monday 2005-09-26 - Xiahe, China

Monks and prayer wheels

I decide to go walking around in the morning; first I go to the outside of Xiahe, along a road where I see no tourists at all, and then for a bit along the river from where I can get a nice view of a part of the Labrang monastery (Labuleng Si) complex. Apart from that and a dilapidated children’s playground which seems to be closed, there’s not much to see, so I turn back. I note a monk coming towards me, book in hand, softly mumbling, oblivious to his surroundings (including me): is he praying? When I pass him, I hear: “I have seven cousins.” (Of course, many monks are not only doing their religious duties but studying as well — including English…)

The rest of the morning I spend walking the famous Kora (the pilgrim’s circuit, also called Korla) all around the Labrang Monastery which is one of the six major monasteries of the Gelugpa Buddhist order. The Kora is all of 3400m long and counts no less than 1176 prayer wheels. I do the whole circumambulation, taking in all the little temples, too, circling all in clockwise fashion as one should. The only thing I do not do is turn all of the prayer wheels — I note not all of the pilgrims here do that either: some simply skip every three or four of them. Other people walking the Kora either ignore me, concentrating on their prayers and turning the prayer wheels, or are very friendly and smile at me. Walking around with them, taking in all the sights and sounds, the groaning of the prayer wheels and the tinkling of the little bells driven by some of them, is almost like a meditation: I find myself very relaxed after my 1.5-hour walk.

posted: Tuesday 2005-10-04 04:05 UTC religion

Fun with my camera

There is supposed to be an English-language guided tour through the Labrang monastery complex at Xiahe (which some of the group did in the morning) but when I set out after another hour typing up my blog in the hotel lobby I fail to find the entrance. Instead, I just roam around on my own, walking along the little streets and peeking into the smaller temples instead of the big ones. Again, people are very friendly and in these mostly narrow streets between the monks’ homes I see very few tourists. I’m taking lots of pictures, going into courtyards where I’m allowed (or beating a hasty retreat when I stumble into ones where I’m not).

At one temple courtyard I momentarily step outside into the shade of the gate to put a new film in my camera. An old man, having just delivered something, steps out just behind me to get on his bike parked in front of the steps but suddenly stops when he notices my camera and wants to hold it, almost grabbing it out of my hands. “Wait,” I say, I still have to finish putting the film in; then I hold the camera in front of his eyes. He peers through it, grumbling a bit — it takes a while for me to realize the lens cap is still on. When I take it off, a big smile appears on his face. Now his fingers are looking for the button: he actually wants to take a picture! Well, why not, I think, and gently guide his finger; he aims carefully, and presses. Now he’s laughing aloud of pure pleasure, pointing into the street where a motorbike is parked, two men beside it: that’s what he took a picture of! The men never noticed the little scene on the steps of the temple. Still chuckling, the old man thanks me, we laugh together and I thank him in turn, and he rides away on his bike. Then a young girl, having watched the whole scene from the side steps up to me and asks if she can have a look, too. Of course. That gains me another big smile; she thanks me politely, and disappears into the temple courtyard.

posted: Tuesday 2005-10-04 04:05 UTC people, photography

  Tuesday 2005-09-27 - Bajiao, China

To the Ganjia grasslands

We’re having a slight change in our program: because the weather is rather cold and at times rainy, staying in a nomad’s tent (or army tent, as another group found themselves in) is not really an attractive prospect. Instead, we’re staying another night in our nice Overseas Tibetan Hotel in Xiahe and go for a day trip to the Ganjia grasslands today.

Our bus is on time but we leave a little late; shortly after leaving Xiahe we leave the main road and turn left onto a all-weather road in a narrow river valley. After less than a kilometer the driver suddenly stops, and starts to turn on the narrow road — a rather hairy maneuver, but he has good control of the bus. We wonder if he took a wrong turn but he goes straight back to town and turns into a gas station: he had forgotten to get gas! (Part of the reason is that bus drivers in China don’t carry a lot of money so he couldn’t have tanked before picking us up: they usually have to get the rest for the bus before they can buy gas.)

Then we turn back and turn into the same all-weather road again which takes us over a pass and then into a much wider landscape with grassy plains and hills surrounded by grass-covered low mountains. There are no trees anywhere, only coarse tufts of grass at times interspersed with the plumes of flowering long grass; it looks rather desolate but there is actually a surprising number of villages. The people keep cattle (with some yak blood), large herds of long-horned sheep and sometimes small herds of goats. There are birds, too — at one time I notice a number of pheasants, and on the electricity poles at times we see a big raptor, which at first we can’t put a name on. Then we see one flying up as the bus approaches: it’s a huge buzzard-like bird which Eelko finds in his bird book: an Upland Buzzard (Buteo sp.), much larger than our European buzzards (Buteo) and very impressive. Near the villages there is also some agriculture, mainly grain; people are busily harvesting everywhere.

posted: Tuesday 2005-10-04 05:05 UTC landscape, nature

Prayer wheels in Bajiao

After some two hours we turn right and come to Bajiao, but our driver goes straight on to the the Baishi monastery first, over what is now no more than a trail, with here and there big muddy pools which have to be carefully negotiated. Alas, at the monastery a service is just taking place so we can’t go into the temple, only walk around the buildings a bit. A monk comes out and offers to take us up to the canyon where there is an “open air cemetery” where bodies of the deceased are laid out for the vultures according to an old religious practice. But it’s a long, steep climb — the alternative is to walk back along the trail to Bajiao and spend some time looking around the old town.

Carla, Gwendoline and I don’t feel like a lot of climbing or waiting around for the service to end (possibly for hours) so we set out to walk back along the trail. Just when we sit down at a nice spot to enjoy our packed lunch, the sun finally comes out, making the landscape looking a lot less bleak: it’s actually very beautiful now. Lunch break included, it takes us two hours to get back to Bajiao.

Bajiao is a town of historical interest, completely surrounded by a mud-brick wall of over 2000 years old which has 8 corners — a bit like a citadel except it’s not located on top of a height. Only here, in on spot in the lee of the wall are some trees: poplars, obviously grown for building wood. All the houses inside the wall (much newer than the walls itself but all traditionally built) have a yard surrounded by mud-brick walls, with piles of hay and straw in sometimes ingenious constructions to keep it off the ground; here, too, people are busily harvesting. Pigs are running around the street (which doubles as a little stream flowing through the town) but they’re not too keen on us strangers.

The town is very nice, with visual surprises around every corner because of all the walls. Admission to the town is 8Ұ, spent on nice things for the community. The people are very friendly though, don’t mind us at all while we walk around and peer over walls.

Somewhere we spot some wind-driven prayer wheels on top of a roof and we go find them: we find a small temple, surrounded by a wall; the door is locked though. Soon the caretaker spots us and comes with a key to unlock the door for us: inside is a tiny courtyard full of flowers and a small incense vat. The temple itself is tiny, too, housing a little altar before two big prayer wheels — with a difference: instead of being turned by handles on the bottom like most prayer wheels, these are driven by an ingenious construction with ropes. The caretaker demonstrates: one never has to step inside, simple giving a tug on the two ropes is enough to turn the big wheels which in turn sound a number of small bells. It’s a very nice, intimate and peaceful place — a wonderful experience. We leave a little donation on the altar and thank the caretaker, who locks the door behind us again.

Near a little shop we can observe a modern way of cooking close up: many people in this area of China have a parabolic mirror in their yard (we saw them at monasteries as well); it’s covered with little mirrors and at the focal point is a metal loop on which one can place a kettle or pan to boil water or cook something: free energy as long as the sun is shining, and very useful in an area with almost no trees.

posted: Tuesday 2005-10-04 05:05 UTC history, landscape, religion, town planning

  Wednesday 2005-09-28 - Xiahe, China

Mountains of all kinds

We’re going to Ta’ersi today, a long ride of 9 hours on the bus. The first part of the trip is along the am all-weather road we followed to the grasslands yesterday — only we don’t turn off for Bajiao but keep following the main road. After two hours of all-weather road we cross a bridge and turn onto a much smoother road. The landscape is spectacular, first the wide rolling hills of the grasslands, but then each time we cross a pass, the landscape changes in character. Wide valleys and narrow valleys, mountains of sediment, mountains of sandstone, mountains of granite… the one thing we don’t see is snow-capped mountains: apparently we’re not high enough for that yet. On one of the passes we make a short photo stop and I take some pictures and a measurement with my GPS: we’re at N 36.27385, E 101.97160, at an elevation of 3190m.

There is a lot of agriculture and as before everywhere people are busy with the harvest: sheaves of grain on the fields, drying sheaves of grain (oats?) on the mud-brick walls around the farmyards. I’m not bored for a minute, watching and watching, it’s so beautiful!

posted: Wednesday 2005-10-05 04:06 UTC landscape, travel

  Wednesday 2005-09-28 - Xunhua, China

A bit of Central Asia

On our long trip to Ta’ersi we stop in Xunhua for lunch in a Muslim restaurant. The lunch is a wonderful meal, with Muslim tea, and many different dishes with mutton and chicken, vegetable dishes, and very nice local bread. Our host (we later find out his English name is Andy) also brings some apples, and tells us they’re from the family’s own apple tree, freshly harvested. Every family has one or more fruit trees in their yard, he explains.

Then he tells us about Xunhua: there are about 10,000 inhabitants here, most of them Muslims of a Turkic people who still speak their own language called Tala. Alas, the language is set to disappear: while older people speak it fluently and every day, younger people are already speaking a mix of Tala and some Chinese, in a much simpler form. At school they learn Chines, at the Koran school some Arabic, but there is no written form of Tala.

There is a famous legend about the origin of Xunhua and the people that live here.

During the great trek of Turkic peoples across Asia, this people were coming through here looking for a place to settle. Two men went looking for a good place, with a camel and a Koran, praying to God for guidance. One evening, the camel disappeared; the walked around looking for it until it was dark but still couldn’t find it so they went to sleep. The next morning they went looking again and found the camel — turned into stone, with the Koran sitting on its back — near a spring; this they took as a sign of God that this was a good place to settle.

Of course, the spring still exists, and our host Andy (who speaks excellent English and is also an official tour guide) offers to take us to the Camel Spring. We have time enough,m so we take him up on his offer. The spring water, coming from the mouth of a stone camel head, is somewhat salty and supposed to have healing properties; behind that there’s an enclosure (Andy’s father comes along to unlock the gate for us) with a nice pond and trees and flowers all around. One special type of plant grows here, and nowhere else, Andy tells us. The other flowers were planted by the Chinese who wanted to make a tourist attraction out of this spot — successfully resisted so far by the local Muslims. At the other end of the pond sits a stone camel (the stone camel) but it is much smaller than life-size. There’s another legend about that: each year the camel seems to shrink a little.

Next, Andy takes us to the Camel Spring Mosque, the 2nd largest mosque of the province, which can hold 1,500 people. We’re not allowed into the mosque proper but can have a look into the wash room, where the same camel spring water flows through. Two groups of Muslims use the mosque together: Shiites and Sunnites — the Imam is Shiite — each group prays on their own side of the mosque though. Women are not allowed in the Mosque here, they pray at home. Across the street they’re building a new much larger mosque which will hold 2,000 people.

Andy also tells us that most families here, traditionally very big, now have an average of four children — simply ignoring government regulations. Families used to be a lot larger than that: in his parents’ generation families had nine to twelve children.

posted: Wednesday 2005-10-05 04:06 UTC food and drink, history, language, religion

  Thursday 2005-09-29 - Ta’ersi, China

A special breakfast

Last night when we arrived in Ta’ersi, tired from the long bus ride, the Jin Zhu hotel could not provide dinner for us and the little Muslim restaurant across the street was closed. We found two small Muslim restaurants, each too small to hold the whole group, along the road to the monastery, where we had dinner. This morning the girl at the reception offers to open up the restaurant for us — a little futile since there’s no kitchen personnel. We try last night’s restaurants again, but one is still closed and the other is just opening up but doesn’t have eggs or bread. Finally, we find a little place next to our hotel: it’s open but doesn’t have much in the way of ingredients (nor a menu); the owner is very friendly though.

Marie Josee takes the initiative: first we need tea and coffee: together with the owner she goes to a shop across the street to buy a pot of Nescafe (at 58Ұ very expensive here) and a few bags of tea, which she pays for: the owner has no more than 10Ұ in his pocket. Next they go to another shop to get eggs and tomatoes. A third shop finally provides bread and sugar. Now there are enough ingredients for a breakfast for Westerners! Next Marie Josee needs to show him to mix in the tomatoes with the eggs. The result is a great breakfast, and a smiling restaurant owner who seems to think it all rather fun. In the end, we only pay a pittance for the ingredients the owner provided himself.

The breakfast is extra-fun because one of our group has her birthday today: we sing to her, and she gets some presents from the group and also a bottle of rice wine from the hotel management.

posted: Wednesday 2005-10-05 05:05 UTC food and drink

Temple industry

At Ta’ersi there’s another big monastery of the Gelugpa Buddhist order — the reason for our stay here. Together with Carla and Gwendoline I walk in the direction of the monastery; we note there is still surprisingly little tourism here — at least they’re not spoiled by it yet. There are many shops along this road, some clearly catering to tourists but also selling religious paraphernalia, obviously catering to the monastery and maybe visiting monks. All shop holders are very friendly, no one minds if you look and don’t buy, or simply remark something is beautiful without any intention to buy. No one is pushy or comes after you to sell something. But we see no other westerners in the whole town, only a few Chinese groups.

Along this street we also find a courtyard with some workshops around it where we can watch how the Buddhist temple ornaments are made; a whole set is already on display in the middle of the courtyard and the metal workers are busy making more. Later, in another street, we see many more such workshops; apparently the monastery is large enough to provide them with enough business.

posted: Wednesday 2005-10-05 05:05 UTC local economy, religion

Surprise in the Kumbum Jampaling

The monastery in Ta’ersi (called the Kumbum monastery or Kumbum Jampaling) is indeed very large. Obviously the Chinese are ‘developing’ it as a tourist attraction and a whole new entrance has been built — which we ignore since the old entrance (now side entrance) is simply at the end of the street: there’s an iron gate, half-closed with a chain, which everyone simply ducks under to enter.

At first we can’t find where to buy a ticket but when we try to enter a temple we’re stopped and pointed to the ticket office. Officially there are nine ‘sites’ to visit but it seems one is closed while some other buildings (like the Kumbum Old Monk’s Home) don’t require a ticket at all. Alas at most temples photography is not allowed — except of course when one monk in a nice jacket over his robes asks me to take his picture!

The whole complex is so huge (and the weather so unpleasant with a constant drizzle) that we give up on the idea of seeing each and every building. One highlight we visit is the Dharma Protector temple where on the second floor, around the courtyard, a range of stuffed animals is looking down on us over the railing: a bear, a deer, a yak, etc.: animals that are also frequently pictured in Buddhist paintings.

Another interesting temple is the Kalachakra Mandala temple: while the outside of the temple building is square, the inside floor plan is laid out in the form of a Mandala, with a large circle within the square of the walls and inside that other squares and circles within each other, forming a three-dimensional mandala. Just inside the large circle (which I understand symbolizes the wheel of time) is a text made of individual Tibetan characters standing up, painted in different bright colors and interspersed with small statues of mythical animals. I’m half expecting the row of characters to start marching round — the whole interior of this temple somehow reminds me of a planetarium and I actually look if there isn’t a mechanism there — but no, I see nothing: this wheel of time remains stationary. What is weird is that when you walk around in a clockwise direction (as required) you’re reading the text from right to left (if you can read Tibetan that is) but the Tibetan script is actually written left to right. I wish I could read the text here!

At a third temple (of which the name has escaped me) we find a real surprise: a little gold frame propped up on a Buddha statue holds a portrait of the Dalai Lama with the (unofficial) Tibetan flag as the background. Portraits of the Dalai Lama are strictly forbidden by the Chinese (as is the flag) — didn’t they notice this or are they getting a little more lenient?

After a late lunch at a Chinese restaurant (our dishes beautifully decorated with flowers folded from thin slices of a kind of radish) and a birthday party with a big Chinese birthday cake in one of the upstairs gambling rooms of the hotel, we board our bus again which takes us to Xining.

posted: Wednesday 2005-10-05 05:05 UTC politics, religion

  Friday 2005-09-30 - Xining, China

Shopping day: return the true flavour

Our stay in Xining is mostly a shopping day: tonight we will leave for our long overland trip to Lhasa, getting on the night train tonight and then continuing by sleeper bus tomorrow on the first of October: the national holiday in China. This implies that all banks will be closed for a week so we’ll need to make sure we have enough money for at least a week; we’ll also need to stock up on food for on the bus — there will be no occasion to properly eat during the long ride.

After going to the bank (five stops with bus no. 2 from the small branch of the Bank of China we found first but which does not handle any foreign currency) I go to the food market we passed last night when we arrived, just a block from our hotel. It’s a nice market and I first spend some time walking around and taking some pictures. On a small cart I notice some roots, one cut through to display the interior with red veins; I immediately recognize the “radish” that was used to decorate our lunch in Ta’ersi yesterday. That will be nice to nibble on on the bus but I have a little problem to make clear I only want a small one, not the largest, nicest one they want me to have; it costs all of 0.6Ұ! Back at the beginning of the market I buy some fruit, finding that buying just two bananas isn’t all that simple either…

Across the street from the hotel is a large supermarket where I stock up on other munchies, such as my favorite Chinese travel snack: jelly pudding with fruit. I also find crackers with spring onions (sounds nice) and whole-wheat biscuits, one kind with vegetables mixed in; both are from a brand that apparently specializes in “health food”.

The biscuits provide another nice example not only of “Chenglish” but also of modern Chinese culture: having English text (or just Latin characters) on packaging (and clothing for that matter) is not just for tourists but simply very fashionable. The actual text on my purchases also exemplifies the Chinese marketing style.

My crackers with spring onions are described as “DALIYUAN FRAGRA-ONION SODA BISCUITS” and recommended with:




Now how do I return that flavour? By email?

posted: Thursday 2005-10-06 08:32 UTC culture, food and drink, language

More Chinese Internet

Above the supermarket in Xining is also an Internet cafe where I spend two hours catching up a bit on my blog — for only 1.5Ұ per hour: the cheapest so far. The price is set off by the quality: It’s very smokey here and the keyboards are so dirty that the keys regularly stick, especially the shift key, so it’s hard to type capitals and punctuation. Otherwise no problems after an attendant has installed an English keyboard driver for me. Apart from the fact that (much to my surprise) at one point while I’m busy typing a window pops up trying to entice me to a (Chinese? Japanese?) sex site. No thanks. I had thought that was all thoroughly filtered out in China…

posted: Thursday 2005-10-06 08:32 UTC internet access

Train to Golmud

At 16:00 we leave our Xining hotel to be brought by bus to the train station where we will board the night train to Golmud. For a change we don’t use the soft-sleeper lounge, it’s not all that busy here. This turns out to be an experience in itself: when the train is nearly ready for boarding, everyone is ordered to line up in single file — it’s just about accepted that we stand two abreast but still somewhat frowned upon. Then getting onto our wagon is a problem at first: there aren’t proper steps although the door is open. One acrobatic guy manages to climb up anyway but doesn’t know how to solve the problem; he disappears, presumably to get help; it takes a while before the wagon attendant — she must have been sleeping — appears and folds up a part of the floor to the door: ah! now there are proper steps and we can get in.

Once we’re all seated (all our compartments shared with some Chinese) and the train has left the station, the next problem annnounces itself: there is not only no water at all in the wash rooms but there is no hot water to prepare tea or noodles either: the water still needs to be heated with a little coal stove (the fumes are making me cough). After a long wait the availability of hot water is announced and the attendant starts to fill the thermos flasks for each compartment. Meanwhile the cart with noodles and drinks hasn’t appeared either so we walk along the train to get them from the restaurant car — passing through some very old and rather dirty hard-sleeper wagons.

While this train is as punctual as all Chinese trains are, the service and quality is decidedly worse than on the trains around Beijing.

posted: Thursday 2005-10-06 08:32 UTC trains, travel

  Saturday 2005-10-01 - Golmud, China

Sleeper bus: a new experience

I wake up early because the Chinese woman with her little son on the bed above me are getting up: they leave the train one station before Golmud. It’s still dark outside and the lights aren’t turned on yet but I can’t sleep any more.

At exactly 7:00 we arrive in Golmud where one small bus is waiting to take us (and all our luggage) to our breakfast: there’s no way all 19 of us will fit in there. When our tour companion Marie Josee states we’ll take some taxis for those who don’t fit in, local agent Mrs. How arranges another bus (where did it suddenly come from?); it looks like she’s been trying to save some money — unsuccessfully. The buses take us to a hotel where the breakfast room is opened half an hour early for us (Mrs. How arranged that very well); we find an excellent Chinese breakfast buffet ready for us.

Our hired sleeper bus was already waiting for us when we arrived at our breakfast hotel (no need to go to the bus station). It looks bright and yellow on the outside (we’d been promised a new bus) but inside it’s not all that new. We find three rows of “bed-seats” (I have no idea what else to call them: not seats, not long enough for a bed) and four next to each other in the back, all in two layers above each other, providing a total of 48 places; between the rows there are also mattresses on the floor: normally people sleep here as well. Even though the head rest on one “bed-seat” provides foot room for the one behind it, the length of them is small: people with long legs are going to have trouble sleeping. It’s a good thing we have the whole bus to ourselves (19 of us), so we can park our food, cameras and shoes on the free upper beds.

posted: Thursday 2005-10-06 09:36 UTC travel

The Qinghai-Tibet Highway

I never feel comfortable leaning, so most of the time I sit upright — with the disadvantage that I can’t look out of the window very well, you only can do that from a reclining position. While we leave Golmud I take a measurement with my GPS: we’re at an elevation of 2775m (my book says it’s 3200m), at about N 36.34340, E 094.81511. We’ve embarked on the 1115km Qinghai-Tibet Highway from Golmud to Lhasa.

The weather is overcast and misty, so at first the landscape, near-desert with scarce vegetation, looks very bleak. I notice some tamarisk where run-off water collects along the road, but that soon disappears completely. Still, for the first time we now see snow-capped mountains in the distance; at first with only a very light dusting of snow, later a more solid snow cover. At times some very fine powder snow is falling but it doesn’t even seem to reach the ground.

Slowly the landscape outside the windows changes from a river valley into a tundra-like high plain; there are streams (with occasionally a dam) and pools of water, here and there it looks like a flood plain. Vegetation is still scarce, with small tufts of short grass and herbs.

Gradually, the weather gets better now; the sun brings out the rich variety of greens and browns: it’s not as bleak as it looked at first. Actually, it’s breathtakingly beautiful, this wide, wild landscape. Where the vegetation is a little denser we occasionally see herds of “yak cows” and sheep. One of our short stops along the way is near the Tibetan Antelope Rescue Center: within the fence some antelopes are grazing. Later we see some small herds of Tibetan Antelope, as well as some wild asses. There are birds, too: we note (white) Wagtails, Thick-billed Crows and an (unknown) kind of gull.

Our first high pass is at 5010m (higher ones come later). As long as we are above 4000m and getting higher we’re not allowed to go to sleep — mostly to avoid altitude sickness but it can actually be dangerous: when you sleep your breathing slows down and with the lack of oxygen on the high passes you might never wake up again…

posted: Thursday 2005-10-06 09:36 UTC landscape, travel

  Thursday 2006-08-24 - Amsterdam, the Netherlands

What to do in Beijing? Go hiking!

Since I’ll be on my own for an extra week in Beijing, I’ll have to create my program, so I’m busy browsing around for information. The other day I happened on a fun option: go hiking around Beijing! It appears there is a hiking club in Beijing, and they have a hike at least every Sunday. Checking out their site, I found they actually have two the weekend just after we arrive back in Beijing. And they’re light hikes, no worries about something too strenuous when I’m still tired after 10 days in a straight jacket…

So, today I not only subscribed to their mailing list, but I also sent off an email to the organizers to (hopefully) reserve a place on both hikes. I’m really excited about the idea of going hiking outside Beijing, especially since I saw some tantalizingly beautiful landscapes last year when we were hiking on the Great Wall.

posted: Friday 2006-09-01 09:12 UTC preparations

  Wednesday 2006-08-30 - Amsterdam, the Netherlands

Go hiking or not?

Although I’d received my first issue of the Beijing Hikers newsletter the day after I signed up, I still have no reply on my mail asking if I could join the two hikes on 16 and 17 September in Beijing. Getting worried that there may be a misunderstanding, or confirmation is sent only shortly before a hike (and I probably won’t be able to read my email while still in P’yongyang) I send off another email.

posted: Friday 2006-09-01 11:04 UTC hiking, preparations

  Thursday 2006-08-31 - Amsterdam, the Netherlands

Beijing hikes confirmed!

Today I got an apologetic email back from Huìjié of the Beijing Hikers: it turns out that my first mail was received, and understood, and answered. Except this reply somehow did not reach my mail box.

Well, no need for an apology — it’s not her fault the mail didn’t reach me! But I don’t have a clue why it didn’t arrive: I was using my Yahoo email on purpose so there was no chance of a mail being discarded because of a black list. And I did check the ‘bulk’ folder that Yahoo mail uses to store mails it thinks are spam.

But a seat has been reserved for me for the hike on Saturday and Sunday, the 16th and 17th of September: I’m all set. I’m excited — I’m really looking forward to these hikes; it should be a great way to start off my stay in Beijing!

posted: Friday 2006-09-01 11:04 UTC hiking, internet, preparations

  Saturday 2006-09-02 - Amsterdam, the Netherlands

Lots of paper and a blister!

I have a lot of errands to run today; on Saturday the shops are open in Amsterdam but tomorrow only a few in the city center will be open.

First I bring back the little battery tester I had borrowed from the photographer’s store. Next, I still need a spare battery for my watch. When I find a jeweler’s store that has one I ask if they can also clean my silver necklace and earrings from Nepal; hey can, but it will take a fe minutes, which I spend for my next errand: rubber tips for my monopod (also used as walking stick) which I find in a hardware store nearby. Next on the list: a lot of photocopies.

Carla lent me her “Nagel’s China” — a thick book that is both encyclopedia and travel guide — printed in 1968: just after the cultural revolution in China, when the country slowly opened up to foreign travelers again. She’d been there with her husband in the early seventies. The book is of course too precious (and heavy!) to take along with me, but some sections about Beijing in particular (like an extensive one about the Ming tombs) have good information. That means I’ll take along photocopies — and lots of them. Other information for when I’ll be on my own in Beijing as well as some parts of the manual for my new camera get the same treatment. When I’m done I take a little break with a big glass of fresh orange juice.

Finally, I need more writing materials and plastic envelopes to write my stories and store my collectible and ‘photocopyable’ artifacts (things like beer labels and courtesy shampoo and combs you get in hotels).

When I finally get home after more than four hours, I find my little toe hurts a little. On inspection, it turns out to be blister! Clearly I’m out of training (though I grow blisters all too easily).

posted: Friday 2006-09-15 07:50 UTC health, preparations

  Wednesday 2006-09-06 - Mangyongdae, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

A little farm house

On the way to Namp'o city, 50km from P'yŏngyang, we pay a visit to a small, restored farmhouse in Mangyongdae. When we enter the landscaped grounds, there is soft background music. The house itself is actually more like a little museum: this house is the place where Great Leader Kim Il Sung was born in 1912. In one of the rooms there is a photograph of him at 19 years old, together with his parents, both of which died young while in exile in China, during the Japanese occupation of Korea. Also interesting are the various tools and implements used on a small farm at that time.

After our visit to the birth house, we make a little walk through the park. From the highest point we have a nice view of P’yŏngyang city; directly below us we see Turu island in the middle of the Taedong river and almost in the middle of the city, where vegetables for the city are grown: we see a small village in the middle of the fields, and small groups of houses, each for a work team, the smallest unit of a cooperative.

posted: Tuesday 2006-09-19 13:16 UTC agriculture, history, museums