Tuk to the Road

The trials and tukulations of Jo, Ants and Ting Tong the tuk tuk and our three-wheeled odyssey from Bangkok to Brighton...in aid of the mental health charity Mind. For more information please see www.tuktotheroad.com

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Ting Tong hits the desert

Dunhuang, Gansu Province, North-West China

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Perfect Desert Road, Xinjiang

At last, after 24 days tukking, Jo and I are having a proper day off. Bliss. Moreover, Dunhuang couldn't be a better spot to have it at. An oasis town, teetering on the edge of the Ganshun Gobi desert, Dunhuang is famous largely for the Mogao Caves. Unless you are an afficionado of Buddhist art or the peregrinations of Aurel Stein, you probably haven't heard of these. And I am slighly ashamed to admit that since the caves need the best part of a day to see, we've opted instead to go paragliding, sand dune tobogganing and sun lounging. I know, total Philistines the pair of us. But if you want to know more about the Silk Road, Stein's looting of the Mogao Treasures and the understandable chagrin of the Chinese then I highly recommend Peter Hopkirk's Foreign Devils on the Silk Road.

In a nutshell however, the caves are one of China's most important archaeological sites and house a vast collection of ancient Buddhist art and manuscripts. When the trading routes along the Silk Road dried up in the 14th century the caves were sealed and it wasn't until 1907 that Stein, a Hungarian secret agent / explorer in the employ of the British Government, heard rumour of these newly rediscovered caves and brought over 7,000 manuscripts back to Britain, where they still remain, languishing in the vaults of the British Museum. Anyway, I won't waffle on about somewhere we haven't even been....

Yesterday was an incredible day on the road. We got up at 6 a.m, ugh, and left soon after. Jo and I are both rubbish at getting up so rising at such an ungodly hour was a feat in itself. Bleary eyed, we packed up Ting Tong and headed for Dunhuang. The spectre of 270 km's of roadworks was large in our minds, but thank God Jack had got in with the locals the night before and heard of an alternative route. So after only 10 km of construction we turned left and headed into the desert. Ting Tong once again proved her supertuktuk powers, trundling through deep sand, along gravel roads, dodging potholes. The km's ticked by - 100, 200, 300... until finally after 330 km's we hit the most perfect bit of tarmac you could ever imagine. Not in my wildest dreams could I imagine that such a road existed in China. Perfect, black, smooth and straight as an arrow. So for the last 120 km's we sped through the desert, sand engulfing our vision on all sides, whooping with excitement at the state of the road. At 9.30 last night, after more than 14 hours tukking, Dunhuang loomed out of the desert sunset; we had arrived - 450 km's and 14 hours later. Although fairly tired, Jo and I felt strangely elated at having completed such a huge distance, across such breathtaking land. There's something about such wide open spaces that really lifts the spirits. We wondered, that if we felt this excited after a single day's achievment, how we will feel when we finally arrive in Brighton. I have tried to imagine it so many times but my imagination fails me, only time will tell.

After unloading TT and checking into yet another identikit Chinese hotel, the three of us pottered down to the night market to have some tiffin. The further west we go, the less Chinese the food and culture becomes, and the market last night was redolent of an Arabian souk as opposed to a Chinese street. Vendors sweated over shish kebabs and nearly all the men sported Muslim skullcaps. Sheeps heads grinned macabrely from tables and soon to be barbequeued fish took final laps of their tanks. Whilst Jack and Jo feasted on various parts of the sheep's anatomy, I ate veggie kebabs and garlic. Garlic - its omnipresent here. At every table is a bowl of peeled, raw garlic and Jo and I have taken to munching through fistfuls every day, enough to kill a herd of Vampires stone dead. I ate 15 yesterday, only about 6 today though. Crikey we must smell.

Today has been such a treat. In 36 degrees heat we've explored the market, bought the sweetest melons and apricots, drunk ginger beer in the sunshine, read, washed TT and done about every sand based activity you can imagine. I'm sitting here now, smeeling quite garlicky, with sand glued to my eyelashes and a fifteen year old hoicking and phlegming enthusiastically on my right. Every internet cafe in China is the same; rammed with sweaty teenagers avidly playing computer games, smoking and spitting on the floor. Nice.

One thing about China that constantly disappoints is the 'scenic spots'. We've been to waterfalls, caves and now sand dunes, and none of them really excite. The Chinese have a special talent for taking a natural wonder and turning it into a plasticised (is that a word?) theme park. Today was a prime example. To see the sand dunes, which surround the city, you have to pay 80 Yuan - about 7 pounds. Then to climb the sand dune you have to pay another 5 pounds to sit on a moody camel. At the top of that dune you fork out another few pounds to toboggan down 50 m of sand. Then if you want to go on a quad bike..which we did, you whip out another 100 Yuan each. Its a rip off by UK standards, let alone Chinese ones. And every 'scenic spot' is exactly the same. By far the most beautiful places we've seen in China are the untouched mountains, paddies and deserts that have flanked our route, uninvaded by vendors and tourists an untarnished by the Government's extortionate entrance fees. However, grumble aside, the dunes were a laugh and ridng a camel down into Dunhuang at sunset was a memorable experience.

Tomorrow we are off to Xinjiang, Jack's province, one of China's five autonomous provinces and home of the Uigur people. I'll write more about it later on as its a fascinating place bordered by: Russia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Mongolia, Tajikstan, Krygystan, Kazakhstan, India, Tibet and Gansu. A true cultural melting pot.

I've added a couple more pics to earlier blogs - one of the landslide and one of Jiayuguan Fort. Enjoy.

xx Ants


Blogger heid_honcho said...


3:06 AM  
Blogger tuktotheroad said...

glad you like it Heid. NW China is magic, a world away from the south and infinitely more interesting culturally and historically. Jo and I in Hami now and its bloody hot, nearly died of heat going for a run in 34 degrees heat this avo. Turpan tomorrow and a day off there so will write blog and post more pics then x us

6:39 AM  

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