Saturday, September 25, 2010

Uncontaminated beauty

Historic buildings, sites, human interaction such as stories passed on between generations that is not contaminated by travel industry is what I call culture. Having been to various places and seeing heavily human-maintained infrastructures like the Eiffel tower, La Familia Sagrada, Ephesus, St.Petersburg, or the Forbidden city yields a very different feeling of history and what culture is. All we know is that the above structures are maintained annually to make sure its colors and structures remain intact so it can attract more tourists to spur economy. One of the things that's amazing on the Silk Road trip is that many sites have little or no human intervention throughout the years. A huge part of this has to do with the very dry climate due to its close proximity to the desert. Our next stop was DunHuang, a trade outpost that was once the jewel of the Chinese empire back in 350AD. The Magao grottoes was a Buddhist stronghold, and 月牙泉 was a Tao stronghold; each having its own distinctive architecture.
There's a severe penalty in place for travelers taking pictures of the one Buddhas or pictures inside the Magao caves since flash photography will damage them. Hundreds, thousands, millions of distinctive colored paintings each telling a story circled us as we entered each cave (I was able purchase a book outside that tells stories and had pictures of these paintings outside at the souveneir shop), and it is very interesting that early Buddhism/火教 was actually a derivation of interaction with India's culture during the Silk road exchange.
月牙泉, was a moon crescent oasis in the middle of the desert surrounding by sand; water in the oasis was possible due to its unique geographic location where air gets trapped in the crescent and creates and upward breeze that pushes the sand back up the hill. One of the kids from another group was trying to walk up the mountain and it was funny to see him make huge steps forward only to see him slide back down. As the locals say, it's better to take 5 puny steps than 1 big step on slipping sand as it'll only make you slide backwards.
To end the eventful excursion on the desert, we were given camels to ride on to a small outpost. Camels were considered as the Bentleys of the desert since they can survive without food and water up to 4 weeks and can act as a barrier against sandstorms in the vast outdoors. They were pretty shy though, and I think my camel was scared at something while I was fixing my camera gear when it suddenly sprung to its feet. The trainer was yelling 抓紧抓紧!!! (hold tight) since it'll be his responsibility if I did fell; and no kidding - the camel actually rose to a story high on its feet and it certainly freaked the hell out of me.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Continuing through the Silk Road

And so, the next stops included cities along and around the Gobi. 天池, was a lake in the middle of the mountains and was highly celebrated in chinese literature, the scenery can be comparable to Lake Louise in Canada. 交河古城 was an ancient city ruins that dated back 2000 yrs ago, and it was amazing that it didn't require artificial maintenance all through these yrs due to the very dry weather. It gave a very solitary and sad feeling as we toured the ruins, and I must say it's even better than the pile of stones from Greece's Ephesus and Patheon (toured in 2k2).
Next were the famous 阳关, 玉门关, 嘉舆关 that formed the great 'impregnable' gates of where the great wall was first built to fend off foreign invaders back in the ancient Chun/Ming dynasty. It was a very majestic sight as we all know that it eventually led to the construction of one of the greatest wonders of the world. On this side, we were also able to climb and take pictures to our heart's content, unlike other parts of the wall where there's a sea of people trying to climb over you. However, the 2000 or so steps we climbed were quite steep and it did tire my kneecaps and hamstring for the remainder of the trip despite the fact I do gym regularly. Although the weather was nice and there were no rain; it was still a very rough climbing experience and only 6 out of the 27 ppl in our group was able to climb to to the top. Some of the other groups were grounded and didn't even attempt the climb.
To end this stop and before we headed onto the Orient express train to the next stop in the desert for DunHuang, we visited the natural grape fields and a local Turpan's home. One of the locals spoke mandarin and urged us to perform traditional XinJiang dances with him; and before I knew it, he isolated me out and asked me to follow his dance steps - it turned out that I was doing a proposal dance for his sister singing the following lyrics in Uyghur dialect: 'I have a grape field, a house, a motorcycle; all XinJiang ladies come to me, but will you take my hand?'

Thursday, September 23, 2010

XinJiang: Urumqi and Turpan

The purpose of this trip was the Silk road, and the northern path that we took was a reversed path from the destination back to the origin. And so, we left Shanghai on a local flight to Urumqi and Turpan; both these cities are listed as 关外 (outside the gate) in ancient times since they are cities not belonging to 汉朝 (mainstream Chinese) and are listed as barbaric tribes. This has changed throughout the years but you can still distinguish the huge difference of architectures and facial features of the settlers here, making this city one of the ones I really want to visit before my trip.
Urumqi had massive riots last year and resulted in many deaths and arrests, and that was the reason I choose to travel in a tourgroup instead of backpacking here. We were told to stay indoors after 8, do not travel alone, and not showing our camera gear which will inform locals that we are outsiders; however, this did not keep my curious eyes and camera from taking snapshots here and there around the city. In the picture to the left, you see that there are fully armed armies almost everywhere in the city which was somewhat uncomfortable. The settlers here live a very humble and hard life with selling cotton, raisins, and fruits as their main income. They live in shacks without doors and open roofs (there is little rain since it's very dry and close to the desert). It makes me feel ashamed when some of the fellow North American tourists complain that the AC was not strong enough and dust was going into the coach bus, while 5-6 locals here commute around sitting on haystacks pulled by a motorcycle.
The hotel that we stayed in is worth to mention about - it was kept the same after 20yrs, and is listed as the best hotel of the city already. It did smell of urine throughout the room with stains on bed covers and sofas. Regardless of this, you cannot really blame about the bad conditions since you know that it really is one of the better places to live in when you see how rough life is throughout the city. It was a very memorable eye opening experience that kickstarted the trip and reminded us how lucky we are already.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Reliving Shanghai after 3 years

As I had been backlogged in updates, I'll be updating my blog starting from SH and working through the memorable points of my trip. I've taken close to 2500 pictures and will have the daunting task in sorting and post-processing through them in wks to come :S
Well, to start it off; Shanghai was my first stop of my Silk Road adventure and is my launching city and I have choosen to extend my stay for 2 more days there. As I touched down, the air, the culture, and fond memories reignited the excitement i had here when I worked as an expat here some 3 yrs ago. I was highly looking forward to to see what may have changed within these few years:

- lots of good looking ppl: I see 10x more pretty girls here in 3 days than 3 yrs in Toronto LOL.
- housing prices have shot up 30% since my previous stay and my ex-teammates were all complaining about the unaffordable price.
- massive infrastructure upgrade as they extended the 4 line subway to a total of 11 now, it mocks the Toronto transit that is going nowhere within the past 10 yrs.
- social structure is getting worst as the gap widens between the rich and poor, locals say it is like an hourglass where the middle classes are getting depleted.
- mannerism is still the same with ppl spitting, rough and sweat jobs, and much streetbums on the streets.
And so, I think i exhausted myself in SH before my real Silk Road trek even started :p Despite this, I feel very much alive in SH; maybe it's because I know the way around here, and coupled with the fact that I'm only a visitor and different from routine worklife?

Saturday, September 04, 2010

New Jorney Awaits: Silk Road

And so, it's been more than a year since I took any personal vacation. I'll be heading to the vast lands of China tomorrow; starting off in Shanghai meeting old friends when I expat there, commute to northern borders of Urumqi, along the cities of DuHuang/DuLuFan along the outskirts, then loop back down to where the Great wall started, along the Gobi desert visiting oasis and ruins that had a direct impact to history of China and how the Silk Road was formed. After various commute on bus, small flights, camels, and trains; I'll be back to Xian and Beijing where I'll return back to Toronto. It'll be a while since I'll update again since China has blocked Blogger, but I'm highly excited for the trip and will definately take many pictures with me to show when I'm back. Cheerios and take care all!