After almost 60 hours on the slow sleeper train we find ourselves in Chengdu, home of the panda. We broke the journey by stopping over in Turpan and Xi’an, both historically and culturally rich places. Still, it made for three long train journeys, respectively 24, 32 and 11 hours. Or 4 nights and one full day chugging along the Northern edge of the Taklamakan desert and into the heart of China.
Train travel in China is an attraction in itself. We are traveling in the hard sleeper class, which is not as uncomfortable as it sounds. It is definitely a lot more comfortable than a bus. And certainly a lot cheaper, more environmentally friendly and more of an interesting journey than flying. The trains are easy to book online with the Ctrip app. Still, the check-in times and security procedures at the train stations are a bit like those at airports these days. I have to smuggle my favourite knife on board in my undies or risk having it confiscated, as happens with our dinner knives.
The hardsleeper train consists of wagons where the sleeper compartments are alongside an open corridor. The open compartments each have 6 bunk beds with pillows and blankets and are not harder than the usual Chinese beds. During the first leg, from Kashgar to Turpan, there is layer of fine desert sand covering every surface, including our beds. There is decidedly less spitting and smoking than 16 years ago and the personnel keeps the train tidy and clean-ish. There are announcements on the intercom, the lights go on at 8am, off at 10pm. Sometimes muzak plays during the day (think Celine Dions ‘my heart will go on’ in Chinese). It is quite peaceful really, with most people napping, staring on their phone screens or eating pot noodles. We do the same and get to watch a full series of Fargo, organise our photos, read and sleep a few really good nights sleep. With the aid of sleeping pills and earplugs that is. We are the only foreigners on the train and nobody speaks English. There is not much to see from the train windows. The landscape of the Taklamakan on our right hand is spectacularly boring. An endless expanse of grey gravel with low dusty brush, an equally sandy looking sky, no animals or other signs of life. Some cyclists that we traveled with in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan cycle the road that runs alongside the train tracks: huge respect! We are already bored out of our minds after ‘only’ 40 hours of the same deadening landscape, I dare not imagine what it must do to your head taking a few weeks on the bicycle to skirt the Taklamakan. Go wheelies!
Our bicycles also traveled on the train, albeit a direct one. Together with our luggage they arrived safe at our hostel in Chengdu.
As there is some confusion about the booking in the hostel where we sent our bikes we decide to book into another place. This means we get to enjoy a bike ride around Chengdu straight after arriving. Chengdu is a huge metropolis of 13 million people, but it is also very cycle friendly.
We cycle the 6km to our hotel in a lane with other cyclist and (electric) scooters. Since historical Chinese capitals (such as Xi’an and Chengdu) are organised following Feng Shui guidelines they are easy to navigate. The city plans consist of a square grid, with two main arteries dissecting the city into equal quadrants. As Chinese cities have always had to accommodate cyclists, pedestrians with handcarts etc the main roads have always been wide enough to have separate lanes for slow traffic. The pavement for the pedestrians is equally wide and lined with trees. Therefore it doesn’t feel too crowded, even if the city is gigantic.
I was in Chengdu 16 years ago, but apart from the huge Mao statue on Tianfu square and the smoggy mist there is not much I recognise. For a short while I feel guilty about not recognising the beautiful historical neighbourhood around Wenshu monastery, thinking I must have missed it back then. Then we start noticing signs explaining the extensive renovation works, all conducted after 2000. Whole historical neighbourhoods have been rebuilt, including a complete Buddhist nunnery that is now a flourishing religious center with garish gold Buddha statues, swirling incense and signs in English explaining the ‘renovation’. Renovation in brackets, because here is another example of the Disneyfication of Chinese history: completely rebuilding historical buildings and neighbourhoods, with traditional building methods and based on historical drawings but brand new nonetheless. Signs everywhere explaining the history to Chinese and foreign tourists. Shops and restaurants marketing to same tourists.
None of this existed when I was here before! Wikipedia says Chengdu had quite an intact historical city centre until 1949, when extensive construction started and most got destroyed. This is how I remembered Chengdu, as an ugly, smoggy city full of ‘modern’ Chinese buildings in gleaming tile and glass windows. Todays Chengdu is a pleasant surprise, still full of modern buildings but a lot of history being brought back into the cityscape which makes it a charming megacity. We are looking forward to exploring a few more of the ‘historical’ neighbourhoods in the next few days, such as Jinli street, full of Tibetan shops and restaurants.
Sichuan food culture
Another great attraction of Chengdu is the food. Chengdu was the first city in the world to gain the title of UNESCO City of Gastronomy. There are thousands of restaurants, from dirt cheap street food stalls to exclusive world class restaurants. Every second shop we see is an eatery, and every little restaurant has its own specialties. We are eating ourselves silly, trying as many different places as we can. There is the famously fiery Sichuan hotpot, ‘grandmothers tofu’ mapo doufu, sweet sticky rice snacks, unknown bitter vegetables on rice, barbecued seaweed, a huge vegetarian hotpot buffet at Wenshu monastery.
We are loving it. The ducks heads, pigs tails and snouts and other dubious looking foods we will give a miss though. So, despite the lack of original historical highlights in Chengdu we still get the smug satisfaction of doing something cultural, every time we tuck into another bowl full of culinary surprises.
Factoid: China owns every captive panda in the world. If you see one in a zoo abroad it is on loan from the Giant Panda Research Centre here in Chengdu. They started in 1987 with 6 panda’s rescued from the wild, today they have 83 panda’s. The population in the wild is also growing, it is believed there are now about 2000 wild pandas in China. We will go and try to spot some panda’s at the research centre, which is hard because they are only active in the morning, when they are usually eating bamboo or sleeping. If you pay of lot of money you can cuddle a baby panda, all proceeds go towards funding research.
The city we visit before Chengdu is Xi’an, the official end point of the Silk Road. Or the starting point, from the Chinese perspective. Another city I had seen before, and also changed beyond recognition. Apart from the impressive original (!) city walls, Bell Tower and Drum Tower the whole city feels modern, shiny, ramped up, aiming for the future.
The Hui people of Xi’an
We are staying in a great hostel on Beiyuanmen Lu, aka ‘Muslim Street’. Around the corner are the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower, beautiful structures originally used to tell the time. As Xi’an is an ancient capital and a veritable melting pot as a Silk Road city it is very multicultural. Xi’an is home to many of China’s 10.5 million Hui muslims, who are decidedly different from the Uyghurs. The initial meaning of the word ‘hui’ is non-Han Chinese or descendants of Silk Road travellers, mainly from Persia and Saudi Arabia but also from Europe. Over time it came to mean Chinese muslims who are ethnically and linguistically similar to Han Chinese. The Chinese government recognises them as one of China’s 56 ethnic minorities. As it is the Uyghurs view the Hui as Han Chinese, and the Hui have no issues with the Chinese government since they are completely integrated into Chinese society.
The Hui have developed their own tasty twist on Chinese cuisine, without pork or alcohol. On Muslim Street all the food is being sold at inflated prices to the throngs of (mostly Chinese) tourists, and the smoke from the barbecues hangs heavy over the damp pavement. I think I have been to this street before, but back then there were not so many tourists. Today I am reminded of Amsterdams Red Light District, with it’s festival atmosphere, throngs of selfie-taking tourists shuffling along and high prices for relatively simple food.
The Xi’an mosque is surprisingly peaceful, well hidden behind this busy street. We spend a morning there, slowly crossing from one courtyard into the next, admiring the typical Chinese architecture. There is a wooden memorial gate, several pavilions, rooms full of antiques around the courtyards and a huge prayer hall at the end. All with beautiful gardens, green glazed roof tiles and eaves that elegantly curl skywards. There is a booklet which explains the history really well, as well as the important functions it has today within Xi’an muslim society.
Emperor Qin’s army of terracotta warriors
Xi’ans biggest attraction is the army of terracotta warriors, discovered in 1974 by a farmer who was digging a well. Emperor Qin is considered the first emperor of China, since he waged wars that aimed to unify the different kingdoms. He succeeded, and during his rule over a unified China he commissioned several large projects. One of them is the Great Wall, meant to protect the Silk Road trade from marauding hordes.
Another one is his project for the afterlife which took 700.000 people 37 years to build, until he was buried in 210 BCE. The end result is a necropolis estimated to be about 95 square kilometers. It contains a tomb the size of a football pitch and an army of 8.000 terracotta soldiers guarding the burial site. Apart from the soldiers there are hundreds of horses, chariots, officials, acrobats and musicians. In short, buried with emperor Qin was everything he needed to hold court in the afterlife as he did during his life on earth. The tomb has not yet been opened out of conservation concerns but some measurements and samples have been taken. One striking result is the high level of mercury that has been found, giving evidence to the myth that ‘rivers of mercury’ were flowing through the tomb, matched by celestial ceiling paintings, representing the known world.
The archeological work has been ongoing since 1974. A hangar has been erected over the biggest pit, and we wander around the trenches where the soldiers are lined up. There is also a museum where the gorgeous chariots with horses are on show. It is much busier than 16 years ago, with a shiny new reception area with about 20 ticket counters. When we visit only 5 counters are open since it is low season. Still, large groups mill around, pushing for the best selfie angle, and it’s hard to get a close look without being shoved.
Small Goose Pagoda
We visit one more historical structure, the lovely Small Goose Pagoda. There is a more famous Big Goose Pagoda just outside the historical city centre, but we are happy to stroll around in the quiet and lush gardens of the smaller pagoda. In one corner we find a wooden structure with a huge bell. A sign explains that ringing this bell will let friends and family back home know we are alive and well. This is much better than Facebook so I swing the wooden beam and the bell booms three times.
Next to the pagoda is a museum with a beautiful collection of lively Tang dynasty sculptures and Buddhist statues from the many Buddhist temples that used to be in Xi’an. Today none of these temples remain but the statues are extraordinary. With all the building going on in the city many ancient treasures still being discovered every year.
We were in Turpan only about a week ago, but it already feels like a lifetime ago! We have already experienced so many impressions, sights and smells since we left lovely laid back Turpan. Still, it deserves a mention as it is a truly great place to visit.
It is an interesting town, located just South of Xinjiangs capital Urumqi. The town itself is pleasant enough but nothing special as it is relatively modern. It is most well known for its high quality grapes, and around town we see typical grape-drying structures in the old neighbourhoods. Turpan is still predominantly Uyghur which shows in the traditional courtyard architecture and islamic decoration.
Scattered around Turpan however are the archeological sites of two former capital cities, a village that is the holiest place of the Uyghur people, endless grape fields, a national desert park with sahara-like sand dunes, ancient Buddhist caves, China’s lowest/hottest point at 154m below sea level and a fiery mountain that features in China’s most read book ‘Journey to the West’.
We visit the impressive Jiaohe site and the wonderful Turfan museum by rental bicycle. Jiaohe is located on a plateau with steep cliff faces, a natural fortress embraced by two streams from a river. It is a stunning location. The city has not been built but rather excavated down into the rock surface of the plateau. Streets were dug out and the rubble used to build up the houses alongside to two stories. For more than 500 years, from 100BCE until 450CE it was the capital of the Jushi kingdom. The capital was moved to nearby Gaochang. Jiaohe stayed an important Silk Road city but was eventually destroyed by the Mongols in the 13th century.
The Turpan museum explains the history of the region really well and it has some great artefacts on show, as well as mummified people who were buried in the dry desert. The museum has great English signage, apart from the Chinese propaganda bit which has only Uyghur and Chinese signage. The pictures speak clearly though: Chinese-Uyghur intercultural exchange, happy faces, a prosperous county.
To see the rest of the sights we take a day tour with two other Chinese tourists. One of them speaks English so he explains some of the sights. After my apparently horrible attempts at saying his Chinese names he instructs me to call him Hugo. Hugo is great company and our first Chinese friend, apart from the personnel at our favourite Turpan restaurant.
Visiting Tuyuk village, Xinjiangs holiest place, is a bit of a deception. There is hefty entrance fee but most of the sights are closed. We only get to see some bored locals living their usual village life, a bit like watching monkeys in a zoo. There is no real interaction so it’s a bit disheartening. The site that makes Tuyuk holy is a cave where the man who brought Islam to China lived and preached, but this is unaccessible to us non-Muslims. Chinese muslims who visit Tuyuk seven times do not have to go to Mecca, this is how holy the place is. Another place of interest is a Thousand Buddha cave, but this is under restoration. We do visit the nearby Beziklik Buddha caves which must have been really beautiful. Until early 20th century looters hacked away the paintings and carvings. One of the looters was a German who lived in Tuyuk, and his former house is signposted: this is where the German vandal who destroyed the Buddha caves lived. Apparently WWII bombing, which seems really strange in this far away corner of China, did a lot of additional damage to the caves. Still they are very beautiful.
The first stop we made on our tour was one that didn’t do anything for us but a lot for every single Chinese. The Flaming Mountains are a small reddish mountain range that appear to be on fire when the sun lights them during midday. The mountains appear in China’s most read book ‘Journey to the West’. In the book the Monkey King travels to the West and fights the ‘fire’ of the mountains. He does this by trying to blow the flames out with a fan he receives from a princess. When we see them it is still too early in the day but Hugo explains the story to us and he is clearly impressed.
All this, the sights of Turfan, Xi’an and Chengdu, we saw in less than two weeks. Our heads are already spinning with everything we are taking in. We cannot wait to explore China more, by bicycle!