Written by Paul Bacon on 27 Apr, 2006
Prior to departing for China I can distinctly remember sitting on my bed with my guidebook and a map of the country. I was so keen to explore that i spent hours picking out interesting places to visit and plotting them on the map in…Read More
Prior to departing for China I can distinctly remember sitting on my bed with my guidebook and a map of the country. I was so keen to explore that i spent hours picking out interesting places to visit and plotting them on the map in relation to each other. Sat in the comfort of my own home it all seemed so distant and a touch incomprehensible. Some of the places I had earmarked were separated from each other by distances far greater than the full length of Great Britain.
Because of these formidable distances I knew that a great deal of train travel would be involved. I have to admit that this idea somewhat captivated me. I had vast sweeping visions of sitting by the window of a carriage watching China pass by. I suppose I imagined that it would be a quick and easy way to get a glimpse into the country's beating heart.
In part, I was correct. The window of the nhard sleeper carriage offered some interesting views of China. Maybe as something of a surprise I found that the glimpses of urban China to be especially interesting. For instance, leaving Beijing was particularly fascinating as the view differed tremendously from the pristine sanitised version offered up at the main tourist spots. I enjoyed seeing the more rustic side of Chinese living in the shape of antiquated looking apartment blocks or one-storey shacks thrown up for migrant workers.
My idea of watching vast tracts of China scoot by and getting a close up view of the country's heartbeat was, unfortunately, never to be. With China being so large and the cities being so widespread, I do not think I had really taken into account the practicalities of travelling between each. Beijing to Xi'an was eleven hours, Beijing to Shaghai thirteen. In a sensible piece of planning the Chinese scheduled the majority of these trains to run through the night, so as to limit time lost in transit.
I have to say that travelling through the night is no bad idea. It gives you the option of falling asleep just outside beijing and waking up half way across or down the country. The obvious downside to this is that it prevents you from getting a good view of the country; things tend to be less pcturesque in the dead of night.
Our trip back to Beijing from Yinchuan epitomised what can be lost through night travel. Yinchuan is the capital of the semi-autonomous region of Ningxia. To get back to the Chinese capital from there we had quite the journey. Along the way we would skirt the soluthern reaches of the Gobi desert, plough across the Yelow River and cut through the grasslands of Inner Mongolia. It all sounded so exotic and put a drmatic twist on nineteen hours of rail travel. Alas, everything I mention above was lost to the blackness of the Chinese night.
Our train departed Yinchuan at just before 4pm. For the first hour or so we wound slowly through the industrial suburbs. It was only as the sun began to set that we inched out into the countryside. By the time we passed the Yellow River my buddy Oz and I were playing cards and the view from the window was of darkened nothingness; as we neared the Gobi I had turned in for the night and was arranging my bed clothes on my bunk. Then as we passed through the steppe of Inner Mongolia I was snoring pleasantly oblivious to what I was missing.
By the time it drew light and I hauled myself of my bunk we were into Shanxi province and were within touching distance of Beijing. There was till some interesting scenes to be caught, but I could not help but think of what we had missed.
Written by Paul Bacon on 01 Mar, 2006
We were sat in the bar of our hostel in Xian, pondering our next move. The ancient city, home to the Terracotta Warriors and an impressive set of ancient stonewalls, had been fun but time was of the essence and we were keen to move…Read More
We were sat in the bar of our hostel in Xian, pondering our next move. The ancient city, home to the Terracotta Warriors and an impressive set of ancient stonewalls, had been fun but time was of the essence and we were keen to move on. Unfortunately, that was proving to be something of a problem—it was the Chinese New Year and train tickets were scarce commodities. It had taken us 3 days just to get out of Beijing, and leaving Xian was now looking to be just the same.
Lacking the funds to opt for a flight, we decided that our only option was to try for a bus. So, we headed for the chaos and commotion of Xian’s long-distance bus station. The ticket-office stood on the junction of two busy side streets. In front of it was a small, but tightly packed all of whom were jostling combatively for position and thrusting their yuan at the window. The cacophony of arms and legs was somewhere into which I was not particularly keen on venturing, alas if we wanted tickets I had no option.
After 20 minutes of pushing, shoving, and being slightly too intimate with the Chinese farmer next to me, I reached the front; thanks to a combination of my Mandarin phrasebook, broken English, and helpful passers-by, I came away with two tickets to the ancient city of Yinchuan in the northern province of Nigxia.
Xian and Yinchuan are separated by around 500km, and the Liu Shan mountain range. The journey was purported to take somewhere in the span of 14 hours, but we were advised by several locals that because of the snowy weather it could take much longer.
Our bus was set to leave in the early evening, so we arrived around 4pm to be greeted by a heavily dilapidated looking bus. From the outside, we could see that the tires were ever too slightly flat, two of the windows were cracked, and rust was covering the lower half like a nasty rash. Perhaps more worrying than all of those factors was the sight of our fellow passengers, many of whom appeared to have come straight from their farms without stopping to wash or even change their muddied clothes.
We were nervous as we climbed the steps onboard, and unfortunately it soon transpired that we had had every reason to be. We were greeted by the overpowering scent of unwashed humanity, which seemed to be coming from every direction, but in particular, from one hideously ripe pair of feet. To compound matters, long-distance buses require you to remove your shoes for the journey and to keep them in a plastic bag—a stupid idea it seemed.
Since we were covering such a distance, the bus was fitted with bunks rather than seats. Ours were at the very back, over the rear axle. As we took our places, it became clear that it was the man in the bunk next to us who was producing the lion’s share of the bad smell on board. Each bunk came with its own blanket—albeit a fetid one—that was of course except mine, which was bereft of such luxuries. As we inched out of the station, I began to fear that I was in for an uncomfortable night.
We departed Xian in the last glimpses of the afternoon light and headed out towards the darkened Liu Shan. The first few hours were not too bad; the road was flat, and despite being viciously drafty, the bus remained relatively warm. It was around midnight that the temperature outside began to drop, and things began to change as the bus weaved into the mountains. Up until then, I had been happily dozing and listening to my MP3 player, but my peace was shattered by a huge thud as we crashed through what felt like an asteroid-sized crater in the road. It soon became clear that the higher we climbed, the bumpier the road became, and the colder I got. I spent the next 3 hours huddled under a thin, dirty sheet desperately trying to escape the cold through sleep. Alas, the crumbling road meant the bus was shaking and juddering enough to make drifting off impossible. To make matters worse, because my shoes were tucked away in their bag, my feet had become two size-nine blocks of ice.
Thankfully at some time around three I fell asleep and escaped the cold and discomfort, at least temporarily. I woke again at 6am with a jolt, as the first shards of light cracked their way in through windows that had almost a centimetre of ice on the inside pain. I tried to wipe it away, as though it were condensation, but made no impression. My vision was therefore obscures, so I had no idea we had arrived in Yinchuan until the driver ordered us off and I stepped outside and the temperature seemed to rise by 5º.
Written by Paul Bacon on 28 Feb, 2006
Yinchuan is the provincial capital of the northerly Chinese area of Ningxia. It sits on the banks of the Yellow River and 50km or so to the South of the Helen Shan mountain range, which marks the southern border of the Gobi desert. Getting there…Read More
Yinchuan is the provincial capital of the northerly Chinese area of Ningxia. It sits on the banks of the Yellow River and 50km or so to the South of the Helen Shan mountain range, which marks the southern border of the Gobi desert. Getting there is no easy process; even though it is a major stop on, the Beijing to Lanzhou, railway line, train journeys can take 19 hours or more.
Along with its inaccessibility, the local weather can also hinder sightseeing in and around the area. When I stepped off the bus in late January, the temperature was well below zero and it was so misty I could barely see across the street. As my buddy Oz and I trudged away in search of a hotel, almost every local stared at us in disbelief, clearly wondering why we were there at that time of year.
Given that I was shivering uncontrollably, I could see their point. However, Yinchuan is a city rich in history and is well worth the visit—it is probably best to head there in summer though.
Yinchuan grew up as a Silk Road town and as a consequence is still home to a large Islamic population. A reflection of that can be seen in the Nanguan Mosque in the centre of town. The distinctly Arabic architecture, and green décor, set the place apart from much of the remainder of the city.
The capital of Ningxia, though, is perhaps more interesting due to the history you cannot see rather than that which you can. For just under 200 years in the 12th and 13th centuries, Yinchuan was the heart of the Xixia kingdom (often known as the Tanguts) until it was ransacked and destroyed by Chinggis Khan in 1226. At its height, the kingdom covered much of what is now northern China and Inner Mongolia. Yet despite its stature, Xixia met a spectacular end. Chinggis’s Mongols decimated the Xixia’s 300,000 strong army before laying waste to the kingdom. Almost all that remains are a few scattered tombs, and an array of small artefacts.
The Xixia tombs are spread along the foot of the Helen Shan. Our guide told us that in the summer months it was popular to hike amongst them, and to enjoy the passing scenery. Although, considering it was viciously cold and that a biting wind was blowing down from the mountains, he advised us to limit ourselves to the museum and the largest of the tombs.
The main burial site was a large, cone-shaped, structure that reached 50 feet in height. Its sandy coloration almost reminded me of the Pyramids at Giza, only on a far smaller scale. Disappointingly, it is impossible to enter the tombs, so after snapping a few pictures we headed inside to the museum.
Perusing the artefacts was quite a depressing experience. All there was to show for a kingdom that prospered through almost two centuries was a few pots, bits of metal-ware, and the odd broken statue. Even though the building occupied two floors, everything could easily have fit into one room. It seemed to me the entire place served as a monument to Chinggis Khan’s ruthlessness more than anything else