Thursday, July 31, 2008

Jul 31 - Hami

Breakfast today was served Uighur style, outside in front of the hotel. An interesting combination of peanuts, a bowl of yogurt, several other kinds of packaged yogurt, breads with honey, jams, and peanut butter (evidently a big local product), fried or boiled eggs, and fruit. No rice, no vegetables, no steamed buns.

Mike woke up with a slight touch of Genghis Khan's revenge, took a Cipro and a glass of immodium product, and stayed at the hotel.

The group headed off at 10 am Beijing Time (BT) (8 am Xinjiang Time (XT)) for the Hami Melon Research Center and Farm. We learned the illustrious history of the Hami melon through a series of murals, and its spread through the Silk Road to royalty. At some point, melons were grown on traveling carts to satisfy the disbursed customer base. Evidently there are 180 different kinds of Hami melons, and a typical Xinjiang house will have a niche in front to display a melon for good luck. The extensive gardens contained red dates (called Chilan, as opposed to the Arabian date), pears, grapes, flowers, and other plants in addition to melons. There were some more cryptic signs: "Easedecar fully," which we later saw as "Eased carefully," and "Carefully Electrocution."

Then off to the Xiao Nanhu Pagoda, a Tang dynasty shrine also known as the Happiness Tower. Here, a spring has flowed for centuries. Traditional Buddhists have come to the site atop a hill to circle counterclockwise, dring from the spring, then splash water on a tree, and make a wish. There are 51 sites to make special prayers for such items as
Riches and Honor,
Health and Strong,
Good Luck,
Happiness Signs,
Family Fortune,
Go Out Safely,
Cultivate the Paddy,
Embrace the Fortune,
Lifting the Beam by Wrapping the Red Cloth,
Roll One's Hoop,
Prosperous Husband,
Babies in Group.

Mike relaxed and learned that Silk Road in Mandarin is Si chou zhi lu. He also bought a melon from a local uighur who was pushing a cart with a dozen or so Hami melons. The original price seemed to 26 RMB, but after Mike said too much, he offered 2 melons, and bought it.

Lunch was at noon XT (2 pm BT). Special, for the first time, a whole fish! After lunch, the group went to a standard department store mall in downtown Hami for some shopping. Inside there was a free-standing Tupperware store. We got some batteries and bottled water, and a chance to finish up the coin collection. Coins are generally available only at big stores, because it is only there that goods are priced in the fractions of yuan, and so coins become necessary. (There is no sales tax). Anyway, getting the 1 fen and 5 fen coins (a fen is 1/100th of a yuan) and the 1 jiao and 5 jiao coins (a jiao is a 1/10th of a yuan) is really difficult, because these just don't circulate. Occasionally, one sees a 1 jiao and a 5 jiao bill, but transactions are usually in even yuan increments.

Back to hotel. Took a bus back downtown (apx 1.5 km) to refind the bazaar that Carol had been in earlier. The only thing we knew was that it was across the street from the Post Office. We got off at the downtown stop, and were pointed "that way." So we walked along a park-like street. July 28 had been the date of the Hami Melon Festival. Shortly we got to the stand where they had celebrated the official festivities, and viewed posters of "Chiquita Melon" and verdant fields. All of this somehow mixed in with Olympic symbolism. We found a bookstore, bought a 2004 map of Hami showing bus routes 1 - 12, but could not find a Uighur-English wordbook, with western alphabet for the Uighur. Across the street we found the market, and walked through quickly, because we now had only 15 minutes to get back to the hotel by 5:30. There waiting for us as we ran to it was the 14 bus, which we knew went by the hotel. We hopped on, and it turned the wrong way. The bus fare collector said in Chinese: Stay here. So we wandered on a loop through most of the known world of inner Hami. Finally, 20 minutes later (5:40) we were at the hotel, where our tour bus was fashionably late.

At 5:50 we got on the bus to go to a Uighur folk arts museum, where they had plastic representations of the major Uighur foods, along with costumes, musical instruments, etc., and artwork drawn by farmers. Then on to dinner at a countryside site, the Abdurahman Uighur Ethnic something or other. There every tour group in Hami seemed to converge. We sat at one very long table, and one small table (for the three vegetarians) in a courtyard under a grape arbor. We got there by 6:30 or so, but they really didn't start serving until 7:30 or so, so there was plenty of time to wander around and enjoy the plantings and the critters soon to be on our plates. David Peng told us some interesting stories while we were waiting.

At dinner, a band started playing and there was folk dancing. Carol got up and danced with the ethnic Uighurs. Great job. Lots of arm waving, partner circling. The group has lots of pictures, and we supposedly will be sharing photos after the trip. The food was at least sufficiently local that there was a plate of kabobs on long skewers, and yapmak (a dish of lamb shunks and carrots in layers of thin pasta like bread - sort of a lumpy Uighur lasagna). Back to the hotel for 1 hour of internet and sleep.

Jul 30 - On to Hami

We boarded the bus at approximately 1 pm. The route goes north on China highway 215 for about 130 km, then west/northwest on China Highway 312 for maybe 250-270 km. 312 is the longest highway in China, running from the Pacific Ocean across the country to the Kazakhstan border. Had we not taken the train in Lanzhou, we would have ridden on it all the way from Lanzhou to Urumqi. The total length of the road is apx 5000 km.

The road north/northeast from Dunhuang to the 312 junction is mostly flat and straight. It is, however, badly maintained and is bumpy from beginning to end. As a result for much of the road, the bus was able to do only 50 km per hour (32 mph) and that was really pushing the limits of the vehicle. It felt like our morning camel ride. At one point in the desert, we saw a beautiful lake mirage off in the distance.

About 50 km north of Dunhuang, we passed by the remnants of the western extension of the Great Wall, heading west from the Jiayuguan Fort. Apparently off the road to the west of us, the wall is in better shape, but right at the road, there are only fragmentary remnants.

The remaining 80 km were of the "Daddy, are we there yet?" nature, mile upon mile of the same slow bumpy road. Occasionally, the driver drove on the wrong side of the road just to get a slightly better bit of pavement. No rest stop, no houses, no real evidence of anyone on the road at all. Finally, with the junction of 312 in sight, we pulled over for the second rest stop, in the middle of the desert - ladies to the right, and gents to the left.

We anticipated 312 to be a fine piece of road, because from Jiayuguan to the turnoff, it was new 4 lane divided highway. However, this stretch was 2 lane, bumpy, and generally in bad shape. For most of the length, there is a parallel road being constructed, and within several years this will all be a new 4 lane road. But now, it was really slow. It carries a huge amount of long distance truck traffic, and our bus driver spent much of his time passing the trucks.

Not long after we passed into Xinjiang, we had to stop for a toll stop (tolls on this piece of crap of a road!!!), and were waved over by a policeman to show the buses credentials and passenger list. Finally, the driver was allowed to pull forward to a gas station, to fill up. Not much in the way of snacks to buy - vacuum packed hundred year old egg, and various crispy items. Outside, Mike cut up a melon that Charlene had been given by the passengers in another bus. We all had a piece of melon, and we were off.

After another 150 km, another toll stop, and another pull over by the police. As we got closer to Hami, we ran into numerous stretches where the road was under construction, and we were diverted onto a gravel side detour at 10 mph or so.

We didn't get into Hami until 8:30 pm. Our driver dropped us off at a restaurant, where we met our new guide (one per province) and then dropped off our luggage at the hotel, and was immediately back to Dunhuang over that same 7 hour stretch of rough road, at night. The bus was needed tomorrow for another tour, and he had to put in a 15 hour day.

Our new guide, Rana, is Uighur from Urumqi. She speaks Uighur, Mandarin, and English, has a mischevous smile, and a great sense of humor. After dinner, we all got in a new Xinjiang bus (the other was a Gansu bus) for the short drive to the hotel.

Quick check in, and then at 10:30 pm, off to an internet cafe just down the street. To bed close to midnight.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Jul 30 - Dunhuang and on to Hami

Another early start - wakeup at 6:30, breakfast at 7, baggage outside the room by 7:20 and off by 8. We went to the Ming Sha Shan, the singing sand dune park. This is a huge long sand dune, 40 km long. The highest dune reaches 1715 m, perhaps 150 m from the bottom. You pay to enter the park, and then climb the sand dunes and then slide down, then climb and come down, etc. Or you can do as we did, and take a camel ride to near the top, then continue to walk around a bit. Then you get back on the camel and ride to Crescent Moon Lake, a naturally occuring body of water surrounded by green trees and planting. There you get a chance to climb other dunes, and slide down. They take a picture of your camel train and each individual on the way up. The are matted, then sold at a ridiculously cheap price, at 20 RMB ($3 US). So we have a picture of us on the camels.

A camel ride for one hour is only 60 RMB ($9), pretty much the cheapest tourist camel rides in the world. So we did the tourist thing big time, and had a blast. After all, shouldn't everyone ride a camel at least once in his/her lifetime? There must have been 200 camels kneeling, all waiting to be ridden. By the time we returned, there were only about 20 available in the staging area. Strings of camels were all over the park.

On the way out of the park, Mike bought a Hami melon for 5 RMB. When we opened it for lunch, it was OK, but not yet really ripe. Between the park and lunch, the group had 45 minutes to kill, so we visited the Handicraft Factory (an oxymoron if there ever was one) where we saw the making of carpets and the preparation of fine jade objects. The jade cups were so translucently thin that you could see through them, but they were also very expensive, and impossible to carry in our backpacks for the rest of the trip.

Lunch at 12 at the Silk Road Dunhuang Hotel. Left at 1, and got a glimpse of the real residential Dunhuang, as we picked up our guide's ten year old daughter for the trip to Hami. To be continued.

Jul 29 - Dunhuang

Just a few words about clothing. Carol has seen some dresses she would buy off the backs of passers-by: wonderful shaped seams ans fitted clothes. There is also the close -your-eyes approach: pattern doesn't matter.

Back to the narrative... Got an early start - 6 am wakeup call (even though we are going west and the sun is now close to 2 hours past meridian - i.e., the sun is due south at 2 pm), we are still on Beijing time, sort of like being in Denver on New York time. This was the second breakfast at the "terrific food" hotel. Every kind of vegetable, fruit, and composed dish you could imagine. Also a big pot of soy milk to flavor as you wished.

The bus pulled out at 7:30 am, and after two rest stops, and 5 hours of travel on modern roads, first 4 lane interstate standard, then wide 2 lane, we pulled into Dunhuang. First for lunch at our hotel, the Sun Village Hotel, on the outskirts near the new railroad station. (For years, visitors to Dunhuang had to take the train to Liuyang, and then take a grueling (to be explained) 130 km bus ride to Dunhuang. Now plenty of trains go directly to Dunhuang.)

After lunch, we went to the Mogao Caves World Heritage Site. There are apx 735 caves, each containing a Buddha, and most containing original paintings and other statuary. They date from 4th century through the 11th century. Most were built by wealthy patrons who wanted to thank Buddha for granting them safe passage across the Silk Route from China to Venice. Some are quite elaborate. Some have been substantially damaged over time, by an 11th century earthquake, by Muslim visitors, by years of weathering, by tourists, by some 1921 White Russian soldiers imprisoned in the caves, some by modern Sinologists who felt that they should remove some of the statues and paintings from the walls and try to carry them back to Europe.

The entrance is among the most expensive in the world - 180 RMB for foreigners in high season ($27 USD). By comparison, in 2006, Petra was 21 Dinar or $31 USD.

For this price, you get a guided tour to 10 of the 735 caves, open on a rotating basis. The whole tour generally lasts 2 - 3 hours. Our group got Kathleen, this fantastic guide who had worked at and studied at the caves for 15 years. Her English was excellent, and attracted hangers on to our group. We saw the three caves with the huge indoor Buddhas, one reclining. The tallest of these (35 m) is the third largest indoor Buddha in the world.

We saw the library cave, number 17. This cave, sealed off of cave 16, was hidden until 1900, when it was auspiciously discovered by the curator, who opened it. When he opened it, he discovered that is contained a 50000 document library used by the Buddhists active when the caves were active. Fortunately or unfortunately (depending on your point of view), Aurel Stein came by in 1907 and for a pittance, carted off 20000 of these documents. Another 10000 were carted off a year later by Paul Pelliot. Assorted other groups got into the act. Zhou Enlai protected the caves during the Cultural Revolution. These documents are now scattered over the libraries and museums of the known world, and there are efforts now to scan them all on a centralized database, and perhaps bring them back to China.

These caves are so much better preserved than the painted caves we have seen elsewhere, such as Cappadocia or Jordan. These caves sometimes have thousands of painted Buddhas on the walls and ceilings. They also have so many other images, including the Buddhist flying angel, the apsara, and so many others. One image of the smiling Buddha had the feel of Mona Lisa. Another Buddha was in a Christ-like pose. It appears that each cave was painted and sculpted by a different master, and the guide said that artesans were brought in from other countries and around the known world to create these caves. Since cameras were not allowed inside the caves, we contented ourselves with buying postcards.

It was a very rich tour, and the place is worth traveling around the world to see.

Then, at 5:30 pm back to the Sun Village Hotel to check in. At 7:30 to dinner at the Silk Road Dunhuang Hotel, a 5 star Hong Kong based hotel. Then to the Sun Village. On the way back, some members of our group got off the bus in downtown Dunhuang to see an acrobatic show, and others stayed to see the night market. We were tired. Carol went to sleep, but Mike had to send e-mail.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Jul 28 - Jiayuguan

The train tickets are 275 RMB for an upper bed, and 286 RMB for a lower bed.

We shared our cabin with a young Irish couple. He had, in preparation for the trip, purchased a $3200 USD lens, which is carried in a 20 pound metal case. He had managed to arrange to resell it at the end of the trip to someone for 3400 Euros, for a profit of over $2000 USD. The customs at the Beijing Airport was understandably worried that he would sell it in China, so they confiscated it, and it was released later only on the posting of a considerable bond. It seemed that everywhere that lens went, it attracted difficulty, so he had named it "Trouble." We also shared the cabin with "Trouble", uneventfully, it would seem. The cabins have an overhead storage area, adjacent to the upper bunks. We stored our belongings under our beds (they were nice enough to let us both sleep below) and they fitted their stuff above.

To the south of the train are the QiLian Shan, and as morning light came, we could see snow covered mountains to the south. One of those mountains is itself QiLian Shan, over 17000 feet, but we have no assurance that we saw that specific peak.

The restrooms on the train were difficult to use. They were not allowed to be used when the train was stopped, whether in the station or on a siding, waiting. As the room said: "No occupation while stabling." In each car, one toilet was a squatter, the other a sitter. On the sitter, there was a message: "Please drainage develop." (flush)

From the train station, there was a new bus and a new driver, waiting to take us to the 4 star Hua Yuan Hotel on the central town square. There we had breakfast, the best so far. They had 60+ dishes, including hot soy milk, fried twisted bread, fresh noodles, prepared in the hotel room while you watched.

Our rooms were not going to be ready until 10, so we took a short walk downtown. There we found an Internet Cafe which we would come back to twice (2 per hour), several markets, including one where bulk tofu was being sold for 2 RMB per half kg, and all sorts of melons, garlic so fresh from the ground, it was still dirty, sunflowers, etc. were sold. We found a Uighur restaurant but didn't stay. We found a laundry. We got back just at 10.

Up to the room with the baggage, for our much needed showers and changes of clothes. We packed up all of our dirty clothes and went back to the laundry, extracting a promise that they would have the clothes ready by 8 PM that night, not tomorrow, for a price of 65 RMB ($9.75 USD). We got in a half hour of internet, and found a local icewine in the grocery store for 33 RMB, to be handed around after dinner.

Lunch was even better than breakfast. After lunch, we hopped on the best to go 7 km north of town to the Jiayu Fort at the end of the Great Wall. This is a mostly restored building complex. Unlike the parts of the wall around Beijing made of stone, this is made of mud and brick. It consists of a number of beautiful temples, built at the time of the Ming Dynasty, perhaps 1st century BCE. Again we were told that the elevation was 1500 meters or so. I had disbelieved all of this because the Jay Anderson eclipse maps in one of the earlier posts showed the Hexi Corridor at 1500-2500 feet above sea level, not 5000-6000 feet above sea level. However, Ralph Chou got his GPS working and it showed the elevation at 1746 m, or perhaps 5600 feet. No wonder this little bit of climbing yesterday and today was so tiring.

Anyway, this area gets only 8 cm of rain each year (3 inches), and were it not for the water from the mountains, it would be dry as a bone.

Jiayuguan was nothing more than a small fort town until maybe 40 years ago, when the government realized that the mountains had iron ore, coke and lime, and a huge steel industry came to the town. So it is a quite new town.

After the trip, back to the internet cafe with 5 others for an hour. A few minutes in, the entire cafe lost power. We had to change computers, and then 15 minutes later, change again. We finally got in the whole hour, but it was very unsatisfying. We picked up our clothes, so beautifully clean and folded, and then went to dinner.

Dinner featured a plate of roast duck (Yum!!) along with a number of other dishes.

We found another internet cafe just across the street from the hotel, instead of 1+ km away, and are now finishing up. It is 9 pm and Carol is totally zonked. So we are now signing off, anticipating an early start and 5 hours of morning driving to get to Dunhuang, and the famous Magao Caves.

Jul 27 - Lanzhou

Breakfast early. We check in at main floor of hotel at 7:30 am for trip to airport in Beijing. We get in a tour bus. Our luggage is in a small van going separately. We meet at the airport, and go through security. For a local flight in China the standard for liquids in carry-on is zero/nada/zip. No toothpaste. So the toothpaste and the skin creme and the mosquito lotion and the lipstick all goes in the checked baggage. We had to run our eyeglasses through the x-ray separately. We are all through security by 9:15 or so. Our flight leaves at 10:50.

Mike stopped at a small bookstore/variety store/essential airport needs place, and asked for a luggage lock. Lo and behold they had one, and it was only 22 RMB ($3.30). It is not TSA compliant, which means that in Chicago, when we come home, it will probably be destroyed by the TSA, but a TSA compliant lock in the States is at least $10.

We eventually took a transfer bus to the waiting plane, sitting out on the tarmac. The air is so chalky white that we thought of the IQ test you give to the 3 year old: "What color is the sky?" Any three year old knows that the sky is blue, except for Beijing toddlers. God knows what color they think the sky is, but it is most certainly NOT BLUE.

About 10 minutes into the flight the air started clearing up somewhat. The stewardesses on the China Eastern Airlines flight we were on were competent in both Mandarin and English, and all instructions were in both languages.

Between Beijing and Lanzhou, you fly over a whole lot of mountainous, dry land. The Yellow River runs through the land, and we crossed over it a number of times. We landed at Lanzhou Airport, which is apparently some 75 km from town, collected our luggage, and met our new guide, Charlene Li. Even though we had all eaten on the airplane, we went for lunch at a hotel near the airport.

The local beers served at lunch were MONS and Huang He (Yellow River). After a few glasses, we realized that if you turn the bottle around, MONS is really SNOW. You end up drinking a lot of beer because your safe beverage choices in China are beer, soft drinks, bottled water, all of which seem to cost the same. All end up on the buffet table in front of you.

Each of our meals up to this point, and presumably for the rest of the trip, are served buffet style. Lots of dishes are placed on the lazy susan in front of you, and everyone takes for his own plate. For some reason, the last dish usually seems to be soup.

It took close to an hour to drive into town. Charlene told us that we were at 1500 m of elevation, close to 5,000 ft above sea level. The town of Lanzhou (pop. 3,000,000) stretches for miles on both sides of the Yellow (muddy) River, hemmed in by hills. Our first stop was the White PagodaTemple, sitting on a hill on the south side of the river. We got out, climbed up to the pagoda, and looked around. It was original built during the Yuan Dynasty, 1206-1368, and now exists in mostly restored form. The walk up takes maybe 30 minutes. The point of the visit is climbing to a commanding view of the city, which is mostly on the north (other) side of the river at that point. The story is that Genghis Khan built the temple to honor a Buddhist monk. There is a Taoist shrine, and a workshop where small gourds are inscribed with elaborate designs (micro-carving calabashes). We saw several fine mosques from the mountain top.

Then we crossed the river on the Zhongshan Bridge, an early 20th century steel suspension bridge, now entirely used by pedestrians and bicycles. As we looked around at people's faces, we saw diverse ethnic features, and clothing that indicated minority populations (white turban for Huis, beards for Uighurs).

Lanzhou is at the beginning of the Hexi Corridor, a narrow band of land stretching many hundreds of kilometers, bordered on the south by the Tibetan Plateau and the QiLian Shan (Snow Mountains), and bordered on the north by the Gobi Desert, and other stretches of mountains. It was, and is, the only way out of China to the west, and had huge strategic importance. The next town we will visit, Jiayuguan, is at the west end of the corridor.

The last touristy thing we did was to view the famous statue of Mother Yellow River, a 20th century statue along the river.

We drove to the hotel in the town center, where we were to have dinner in 1 hour 15 minutes. We lit out walking, passing numerous vendors with piles of fresh walnuts in the shell. In two blocks we found our internet cafe, where we posted yesterday's posts. (Total price 2 RMB per hour)Then back quickly to the hotel, where we were 15 minutes late for dinner. We had previously requested a taste of niuroumian, the local beef noodle dish. So after all of the other dishes were served, the chef came out, demonstrated the pulling of fresh noodles, and everyone was served a small bowl of this local dish. It is a thin soup made from beef shank, with noodles of different thicknesses and lengths. You are given the opportunity to add red vinegar and chili oil, and also to add chili powder. With the right amount of seasoning, it is quite good.

After dinner, we got back onto the bus for the short ride to the train station. It had been a hot and sweaty day, and we were all quite tired and dirty, but had no opportunity to shower or change clothes. The train station was a mob scene, and Mike got separated twice from the rest of the group. Security at the train station requires that all luggage be scanned, and the lines behind were rather long.

We were taking the overnight train to Jiayuguan, leaving on train T927 at 10:20 pm and arriving at 7:23 am. We had 1st class sleepers (called soft sleepers in Chinese trains), four to a room.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Jul 26 - Part Two

At 2:30 or so, flushed with duck, we headed out into the subway to go to the Big Bell Museum(Dazhong Shi), in NW Beijing. From the Hepingmen station we took the 2 line clockwise six stops to Xizhimen, where we transfered to the 13 line (walking perhaps 400 meters through a winding set of steps. One stop later, we got off at Dazhong Shi, at the Third Ring Road, to walk the 10 min to the museum. On the crowded subways, everyone but us seemed to be 15-25 years old and chivalry was mostly dead.

The TSA had not replaced one of the locks on our bags, so we were looking to buy a small TSA-approved luggage lock. There was a large furnishing market, and they said they had locks on the third floor, but those were for doors. Finally got to the museum at 3:30 pm, really tired and very thirsty. We found out it was supposed to close at 4:30, so we plowed ahead. At least they gave us the senior rate of 4 instead of 10 RMB.

This museum used to be a Taoist/Buddhist Monastery,and has many historic buildings. The museum is filled with big bells from all over China and the world. Each has external designs and most are topped with double headed dragons from which the bells hung. The Chinese have been casting big bells since before 400 BCE. The featured bell is the Yongle Bell from 1420. It is several stories high and has its own building. It has 250,000 tiny relief texts on the outside. Amazing.

We stumbled out at closing time, as the staff chased us. We got two bottles of water, took the bus, subway (with two transfers) to Xidan, a huge shopping street, looking for the elusive luggage lock. We wandered into many department stores, and saw every kind of snack food (candy, dried fruits and nuts, etc.), shirts, pants, and bags galore, (and a store called Locks & Locks, that features plastic kitchen ware that snaps shut), but no locks & no lucks. As we left,we passed two adjacent stores, Bread Party and Toast Box. The latter was a chi-chi eatery featuring square Texas toast lovingly sauteed and topped with pork fizz, etc. (Don't ask.)

Took a 102 bus back to the hotel, arriving at 6:15 pm. Got there in time to find out that the tour beginning dinner was to begin at 6:30 pm downstairs. Carol quickly showered, and we arrived 10 minutes late. We got to meet our tour guide, and all but two of the others (who were up in their room, not having gotten the word.) We got our blue Solar Eclipse shirts, had a banquet dinner, and Carol got to bed by 8:30 pm. Mike didn't get to bed until 9 pm, because someone suggested that the local supermarket might have locks. Of course not, but it was worth a try.

Jul 26 - Beijing

It is Saturday, our first full day in Beijing. We got to bed finally at 11 PM. Carol had trouble sleeping at all. Mike slept pretty well until 3 AM and then both of us were up and could barely sleep thereafter. At 6 AM we were down for breakfast, a 60 item buffet running the gamut from Allbran, Carol's choice, to something called bacon, very much like Canadian bacon, with fried rice, congee, several steamed vegetables, a full salad bar, 4 kinds of juices, fresh fruit, etc.

At 7 we were off to find an internet cafe. The guidebook showed one on Dazhalan Jie, on the third floor. This was consistent with the advice we had been given the night before, when we had unsuccessfully looked around. So we set out for that address, walking through several hutongs. At 7 in the morning, you see the men getting out of bed. There are some who are living in a space no bigger than 2 m by 1 m, with not much more space than is necessary for a bed. They have no running water, no toilet, no kitchen facilities, and no private living space, other than for their bed. We wonder how much one pays for such a room. Of course, on each block there is a public toilet, and some of the landlords (or landladies) provide such amenities, but certainly not all. However, pomegranite trees with fruit just turning red, and lovingly tended trellised squash and melon plants are found along with small patches of flowers.

The hutong slowly turned into a street with hotels and hostels, and more touristy accommodations, and English language signs. We passed an international phone calling store, where you can make your phone calls, presumably anywhere in China. We asked and determined that they also had internet service, at 10 RMB per hour. We thought this might be high, or a special price for us, and so we pressed on toward the address in the guidebooks. We finally got there and found the street under frantic reconstruction for the Olympics, with many of the buildings being rehabbed, being turned perhaps into a modern Williamsburg tourist road. Anyway, nobody knew of any internet anywhere there, so we walked back to the first place, wher Carol noticed that there was a printed sign for 10 RMB per hour.

We took 1 hour and 5 minutes to post our last two entries, and offered 11 RMB, but they refused the extra money(!)

So off to the Temple of Heaven, through as many hutongs as we could find. Carol mad a stop in a public toilet where the "compost" was very rank and squatting took lots of time to find your balance. She finally understood the meaning of the blessing "She-lo asani isha."

We passed one door where the tenant had posted a handwritten note: "To the tourist. Do not believe what your guide tells you about the hutongs. You do not know how we live." We also saw snails on the walls and a crawling turtle.

A little bit on, Carol had another yogurt drink, and we learned that the name was "suan niu," sour milk.

A little further down the street, we passed the "Passion Sex Shop" and "Instinct Sex Toys". The former advertised "Medicine for penis diseases - Medicine for ladys no passion - Quality is more important than sale - Make you sex time long and long." The latter advertised "Sextoys Healthfoods Idealivesthing Adultthing" "" There were a great variety of plastic items and dolls of various sizes within. Carol thought that the stores should have been named "Orifice Depot."

Not a half block further on we saw a lot where all the buildings had been razed with two large tents, and guys walking around - a squatter camp.

On to the Temple of Heaven. After passing some Olympic garden arrangements, another hutong, we arrived at the street that borders the temple to the north. About every 100 feet there were groups of people with Olympic aid shirts standing around gossiping, ready to help any passing tourist who needed help (there were plenty of locals, but they needed no help.) Carol saw the only jogger of our entire stay in Beijing, an older man trotting along slowly. Finally at the Temple gate, we paid the 35 RMB to enter and see all of the buildings within.

This is a series of buildings close to 600 years old, set up to honor the emperor of the day, with all the buildings for animal sacrifices, for good harvest for the coming year, and plenty of places to make those sacrifices for all of the appropriate deities. The park is at least 1.5 km from end to end, and takes forever to walk all of the way through.

It is Saturday morning, and in Beijing on Saturday morning in any park, people are out to celebrate, so we have shape note singers, following a leader who is calling out the next tone with her hand signals. There were also Chinese opera soloists, attracting appreciative crowds, and many kinds of physical activities. We saw Chinese couple dancing, wooden sword tai chi classes, precision paddle ball exhibitions, and two harmonica orchestras backing up singers and dance soloists. Multiple generation families, young couples, and just regular folks enjoying picnics and the outdoors in a historic setting.

We finally finished seeing all of the buildings somewhat after 12, thirsty and tired, and headed off to lunch. A bus ride on the second 826 bus (the first was too crowded to even think of getting on) took us a couple of miles to the Quanjude DuckRestaurant at Hepingmen which has been serving duck since 1852. This is quite the fancy place, but not just for tourists and visiting dignitaries. A properly white toqued chef carefully removed the crisp skin of our duck and sliced up the duck right there in the room. We ordered one whole duck, perhaps a bit much for just two people, but we had fun rolling up the succulent morsels with plum sauce and scallion slices in the thin pancakes. Total cost of 1 duck, 1 large bottle of beer, and 10% service was 270 RMB. Maybe we could gotten have a cheaper duck, but we wouldn't been handed a numbered certificate of authentication or seen the photos of Chou Enlai, Castro, Nixon, etc.

To be continued.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Jul 25 - Beijing

We got to the hotel and checked in at 3:30 pm or so. The clerks at the desk were almost all "trainees," according to the badges, and took a long time finding our names. Finally, we were up in the room (a standard two bed 4 star room). Estimated group room price $80 USD, from the hotel's website.

We had two goals for Friday afternoon 1. change money (already done), and 2. get some bus maps of Beijing (to be done at Wangfujing Bookstore some 2.5-3 mi away). We met Tristina and began walking toward the bookstore. We noted that the sky was so polluted that you could look directly at the sun, and really had to search the sky to find it at all. This was a "sunny" day, mind you. The smog is so bad we had started coughing. Beijing felt like a steam oven, with a grey sky, and limited distance visibility.

We walked past a flower garden , decorated in honor of the Olympics. Everything is being cleaned or is under construction in anticipation of the Olympics, including the trees in this garden area. Large numbers of people are standing around, wearing Olympics tee-shirts and badges, doing what, we don't know. As we were walking along, on the left, were walled off neighborhoods, clearly in a state of destruction, being guarded against entry. On the right were some similar neighborhoods, in a partial state of destruction, but still with inhabitants. These are the hu tongs, the old neighborhoods of Beijing, that are rapidly being replaced with modern high rise construction. Since they originally lacked indoor plumbing, and perhaps even running water, there are public toilets every block or so. There seemed to be outdoor firepits instead of kitchens. In other hu tongs we have seen, people seem to be renting bed space only, and living spaces of 2 square meters seem to be the norm. We exited the various hu tongs, some in better shape than others, and approached Qianmen, the southern gate to Tiananmen Square. It was 5:30 pm, and Tristina decided to go back to the hotel. We pushed on, and maybe .5 - 1 mile farther on was Wangfujing Street, a major commercial thoroughfare.

On the street was a drink place, where we had an exotic green bottled drink for 5 RMB, which turned out to be, when we deciphered the characters, "green tea." We also bought, for 4 RMB, a yogurt like drink (kefir?) in a ceramic pot, with a paper top, and a straw, that we saw several other people enjoying.

On to Wangfujing Bookstore, a huge place. After some consideration, we bought two maps and a street book of Beijing, some of which were entirely in Chinese. All the bus routes were there, and time will tell if we can figure out where the buses run, and what the maps indicate.

It was now 7 pm or so, so we hopped into the Gourmet Center (Eat Street), a basement level mall of 30-40 small eateries. You buy a plastic card, put some money on it, and have at it. We settled on a bowl of laghman (lamb noodle spicy soup) from Xinjiang, and a pickled mixed vegetable salad (20 RMB total). The guy next to us had a cold mug of beer, so we also got a mug of Tsingtao (10 RMB). So the total was 30 RMB ($4.50) for a filling dinner for two. We sat at communal tables with a happy crew of families, couples, singles, kids, etc. The card was returned for the unspent remainder.

We got out at 8:15 pm, and walked back, looking quite unsuccessfully for an Internet Cafe. Several were described for us - go that way and turn left, or some such directions, but no luck. We passed the outside of Tiananmen Square, where crowds promenaded and took pictures under the benevolent gaze of the Chairman. We passed Hepingmen subway station, bought a 4 L bottle of water for 7.5 RMB, passed a number of restaurants with "Old Beijing Food," whatever that is, and finally got back to the hotel. Total walking 5 - 6 miles. Total sweat - one gallon each.

At the hotel, we used 10 minutes of Internet time at 2 RMB per minute (the minimum). They told us it was 11 minutes (we don't believe it). This morning's internet is 10 RMB per hour!
To bed at 11 pm, after showers all around, and in-sink clothes washing.

The Flight Over

Our plane leaves at 7:30 am from Atlanta to Newark, arriving at 9:50 am, from which we connect at 12:10 pmto Beijing (all on Continental). So we get up at 3:10 am, finish packing, close the house, drive to the Chamblee MARTA station, to leave our car for our kids, and to catch the first train to the airport (4:46 am). To airport routinely, and we caught the plane (which was delayed because the crew was time restricted from showing up until 7:30). We met a Chinese Georgia State student who was flying back to China for vacation.

We got in 30 minutes late to Newark, which was fine with us, but hard on some who had tight connections. Waiting for the Beijing flight was a contingent of 15-20 Americans who were going to Beijing to teach folks English for 5 days (and proselytize their version of Christianity). The plane was mostly full, but not completely. As planned, we sat next to Tristina Oppliger, the 27 (?) year old daughter of the tour director. We talked about the Baja eclipse, which she had seen in 1991, and some that we had seen. She had the window seat.

We were served three meals, a dinner meal (fish or "sirloin steak"), a mid flight snack of a hamburger and ice cream, and a wakeup meal (something vaguely Chinese). By far the worst food on an international flight we have ever had.

The flight sort of followed a circumpolar route, so it headed north from Newark, through Vermont, and over Quebec. However, instead of going straight over the pole, or going westerly, it headed slightly northeasterly, over Baffin Island, and extreme northwestern Greenland, across the Arctic Ocean north of Siberia. Then southerly over Siberia, Mongolia, and into the Beijing area. Because it is July, the flight was in the bright sun the entire time. We were asking the question: Since we left at 12:10 pm, and got in at 1:40 pm, was this an overnight flight, or a very long day flight. The answer was clear on the plane, since the flight crew actively discouraged open windows, which streamed in lots of light into an otherwise dark airplane. Gathering to talk in the galleys was also strongly discouraged. They wanted us sitting, with eyes glued on the screen in front of each seat, or sleeping, when not eating.

In the prime seat was a seasoned traveler who was making his 10th trip on this flight. He ran a waste water treatment company, which ran 4 plants in China. His description of China is of a country with 19th century capitalists, ready to cut any corner, and cheat anybody they can to make a profit. He said: Always bargain - otherwise you will be routinely overcharged. He had bothered to learn only two words of Mandarin, so I taught him "tai gui le" - too much/too expensive.

While Mike stuck with Freecell and watching the progress of the plane across the Arctic, Carol watched the wide variety of programming. She thought it was especially neat to view a Planet Earth program "Pole to Pole" right after crossing Hudson Bay. She finally got to see the movie "Mrs. Henderson Presents."

We had to sneak over to other windows to see out, but the sky was clear over northern Canada, so we got to see bits of Nunavut, some open water, and the ice-covered Arctic Ocean. We thought tp try to take a picture of the ice, but by the time we got the camera, it had clouded over. Carol got to see a bit of southern Mongolia, and northern China, as we approached Beijing.

Despite the fact that the informational video showed three forms to fill out, there was only one form. We deplaned, went through customs much more smoothly than we could have ever anticipated, got our luggage finally, changed 400 USD into 2701.50 RMB at a bank in the airport (one RMB is slightly less than 15 cents US), and caught a taxi to our hotel, with Tristina, for 108 RMB. The trip took 45 minutes or so.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008


We are late adopters. For our 1999 trip we were still using a camera with FILM. By 2002 that camera was in terrible shape, so we splurged on a 4 MB digital camera, a Fuji 4800. I came with a 16 MB SmartMedia card, and we also bought a 64 MB SmartMedia card. The pictures we took were generally 640x480, and were called 500KB pictures. There were options to take 1 MB, 2MB, and 4MB pictures also. At the smallest size, we could take 633 pictures on the 64 MB card and 158 pictures on the 16 MB card.

By 2006, the Fuji 4800 badly needed a cleaning. We took the camera in to the shop, and they informed us that cleaning would take 9 weeks (we were leaving in 7) and that for the price of the cleaning, roughly, they had a new Fuji 6800 (6 MB) that they were remaindering. Same batteries, same SmartMedia cards (we got an extra battery - so we now have 3 batteries - and an extra 16 MB SmartMedia card). Great. We went on a 26 day trip, and took 500 plus pictures.

The difference in 2008 is that now we want to try a blog, so we want to be able to upload pictures on the road. We have never done it before. At home, I remove the SmartMedia card, stick it in a slot on the front of my computer, and see all the pictures. The other difference is that our daughter and son in law are lobbying for larger pictures - they don't like 640x480 and want 1280 x 1024, at least.

So I figure that all I need is a USB adapter - in one end goes the SmartMedia card - the other goes in the USB slot on the computer in the Internet Cafe, and all is right with the world. I also thought of buying a 256 MB SmartMedia card, if I could find one.


First, the SmartMedia card is obsolete. We may be able to find some on eBay, or back order them from the specialty shops, but otherwise - unavailable.
Second, there are no SmartMedia/USB adapters. I almost bought a $35 adapter from BestBuy that I would have had to return. I returned one such adapter to RadioShack that said SmartMedia on it, but it was a subsequent version of the card.

Next idea. My camera fits in a cradle so as to charge the battery. There is a USB port of the cradle. Just find a cord. So I carry the cradle to a electric gadget shop in my building. Two USB cords - neither fits. I go to Sears. Two USB cords, neither fits. These cables all come in that despicable plastic shrink packaging that you have to destroy to get at the internal contents, so Sears now has two used USB cables, and no money for it.

Finally, I go over to the Radio Shack and on the second try they pull out a USB cable, which claims to work with Fuji 4800Z and 6800Z. IT FITS. Yeah.

A separate trip to "A Z" gave us a $3 plug adapter for the electric cord into the cradle, supposed to work in China and the Stans. Now we just see if we can make this work in the random internet cafes we will be visiting.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Our Itinerary - Part One

The first 10 days of the trip are on a tour. Here is the itinerary of the tour.

2008 China Solar Eclipse Tour
Beijing—Lanzhou—Jiayuguan—Dunhuang—Hami—Karatoruk—Turpan—Urumqi 10 days 9 nights
Day 00 F 25 July. Arrive in Beijing. Overnight in Beijing 4*
Beijing: Qianmen Jianguo Hotel
Add: No. 175 YongAn Road, Xuanwu District, Beijing
Tel: 0086-10-63016688
Day 01 Sa 26 July. In Beijing, meet the local guide. (D) Overnight in Beijing 4*
Day 02 Su 27 July. In the morning take flight from Beijing to Lanzhou.
Beijng/Lanzhou MU2412 ( 1050/1305 )
Meet the local guide and visit White Pagoda Hill. The mountain stands at the northern bank of the Yellow River and has its name after the white pagoda on top of it. The White Pagoda Hill Park is large and a nice place for strolling, with green forests, scattered pavilions, teahouses and, from its heights, some good views of both the churning river and the city beyond. The nearby bridge, Zhongshan Bridge, was the old crossing point for travelers and merchants who were then to head north on the Silk Road. See Mother Statue of Yellow River, a modern sculpture in Xihu Park. In China, the Yellow River is also called Mother River, because so much Chinese civilization was born alongside it. Iron Bridge over the yellow river (Zhongshan Bridge). Zhongshan Bridge, also called the first bridge over the Yellow River, lies at the foot of Bai Ta Mountain and in front of Jin Cheng Pass in Lanzhou city, the capital of Gansu Province. In the evening take soft sleeper train to Jiayuguan. (B/L/D) Overnight on the train Lanzhou/Jiayuguan: T927 ( 2220/0714 )
Day 03 M 28 July. Arrive in Jiayuguan, meet the local guide and visit Jiayuguan Fortress. Jiayuguan was the end of the Great Wall. Passing through the gates of the Jiayuguan fortress meant leaving Chinese culture behind for the harshness of central Asia. Today the Jiayuguan fortress is a World Heritage site and a truly impressive structure. The Great Wall Museum was the first of its kind to offer a comprehensive and systematic understanding of the history of the Great Wall. Covering a total area of 3 acres, the "beacon tower" styled complex is made up of seven different sections, with the central theme of the "Great Wall". With the help of scale models, diagrams, words and photos spanning from the Warring States Period to the Ming Dynasty (a total of more than 3,000 years), the museum gives visitors a fairly good representation of the life of this vast, snaking wall. (B/L/D) Overnight in Jiayuguan 4*
Jiayuguan: Huayuan Hotel
Add: NO.1 Shuguang Street Jiayuguan Gansu China
Tel: 0086-937-6308888
Web: no website
Day 04 T 29 July. After breakfast drive to Dunhuang. Visit Sand Dune. Dunhuang has a spectacular natural scene: Mingsha (Sighing) Sand Dune. The dune, a sand crusted hill of dozens of meters high, is 40km east to west, and 20km south to north. On fine days, the sand roars like thunder which can be heard in the city, hence the name. When visitors climb up to the dunes and slide downward from the summit, the sand can collapse with them and give out a peal of loud sound. Crescent-Moon Spring lies at the foot of the Mingsha Sand Dune and is named for its shape. It is about 100m long and 25m wide, and has fish and water weeds that are said to be good for the health. The area is often hit by windstorms, which drive up sand to shut out sunlight. Interestingly enough, however, for hundreds of years people have never seen the spring filled up with or covered by sand. (B/L/D) Overnight in Dunhuang 4*
Dunhuang: Sun Village Hotel
Add: NO.1.Middle Airport Road,Dunhuang
Tel: 0086-937-8868588
Day 05 W 30 July. After breakfast visit Mogao Grottos. The Mogao Grottos, commonly named Thousand-Buddha Caves, and praised as "a glittering pearl that adorns the Silk Road", are the most famous grottos in China. Located 25km southeast of Dunhuang County, these caves are carved out of the sandstone cliffs of Mingsha Mountain, extending some 1600m from south to north. Constructed in 10 dynasties from the fourth to the 14th century, its 45000 square meters of mural paintings and more than 2000 color statues are regarded as the greatest treasure-house of Buddhist art existing in the world. Then drive to Hami, meet the local guide and check in the hotel. (B/L/D) Overnight in Hami 3*
Hami: Junyao Hotel
Add: NO.25 Tian Shan North Road, Hami, Xinjiang, China.
Tel: 0086-902-6986666
Web: no website
Day 06 Th 31 July. In the morning visit Hami King Mausoleum (built 16th century with combination of Chinese Uighur architectural style building complex), visit Hami Museum. Lunch will be at local family. In the afternoon visit local Uighur kindergarten where kids show their presentation of singing and dancing; also visit Hami Uighur classic embroidery family. (B/L/D) Overnight at Hami 3*
Day 07 F 1 Aug. In the morning drive to Karatoruk county through the Tianshan mountain and enjoy its gorgeous scenery, drive pass ancient beacon tower ruin. Visit White Stone scenic area, dipping irrigation system, natural salt lake,Tang Dynasty military garrison camps ruins. About 1845 ready for the eclipse observation, and be on the site (it start 2005 to 2045). After the viewing drive back to hotel. (B/L/D) Overnight in Hami 3*
Day 08 S 2 Aug. Drive to Turpan. Turpan depression 154m below sea level, second lowest place in the world after the Dead Sea. Very important cultural and historical town in Xinjiang China, on the way visit Bezeklik caves(4th century), Astana tombs, an ancient burial ground for the nobles and aristocrats. With more than 400 tombs excavated with best preserved artifacts, it has been named ‘underground museum’ by the world scholars. In the afternoon visit Grape Gorge which is a long valley 5km at the foot of the Flaming Mountain to can taste grapes and wine. (B/L/D) Overnight in Turpan 3*
Turpan: Turpan Oasis Hotel
Add: No. 41 Qing Nian Rd., Turpan 838000, Xinjiang, China
Tel: 0086-995-8522491
Day 09 Su 3 Aug. In the morning visit ancient citadel of Jiaohe with history of over 2500 years. The city was built on a natural earth cliff. Still up to now, the outline of the city is well preserved. It is a protective archaeological site by the UNESCO. Visit Kariz under ground irrigation system (one of the three manmade ancient projects of China). Visit Emin minaret (1777 years built). The mosque complex building commemorates the religious head of Turpan. In the afternoon drive to Urumqi. (B/L/D) Overnight in Urumqi 4*
Urumqi: Xinjiang Hotel
Add: No. 139 North Xinhua Road, Xinjiang, Chinaua Road , Urumqi , Xinjiang
Tel: 0086-991-2818788
Day 10 M 4 Aug. In the morning the others take a flight to Beijing, We will be leaving Urumqi on our own. First thing is to get to the Kazakh consulate early to try to get the Kazakhstan transit visa. How long we have to stay in Urumqi to do it will help us design the rest of the trip. If we are still in Urumqi on Tuesday 5 Aug, we will have changed hotels to a 0* or 1* hotel. (Our plans are to cross over to Kyrgyzstan on 11 Aug.)

Tuesday, July 15, 2008


Our planning now is for a flight to Xian, the ancient western capital of China (now in Central China), landing in Jul 23. We will spend 4 days there, seeing the city and getting rid of the jet lag. Thence westward, via Lanzhou, Jiayuguan, Dunhuang, Hami (where we will see the eclipse at the edge), Turpan, Urumqi, then to Kashgar, and across the mountain pass into Kyrgyzstan.

We will need 4 visas, the first being China, then in no particular order Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. The Chinese visa, we are told, is at best a 90 day tourist visa, good for one 30 day visit. If it is granted on April 25, the visit can start any time up until July 24, and last for 30 days after the initial intake into China. China requires you to go to your nearest consulate. We live in Georgia and the nearest consulate is in Houston, so I am planning to drive to Houston on Sunday, May 2, and be at the consulate early on Monday, May 3, to apply.

About April 18, my wife goes to AAA to get her free visa photos. The woman at AAA goes off to the computer and comes back with the announcement that we cannot do the trip that we planned. She takes her pictures and comes home with this news. So we get on the internet and sign on to the Lonely Planet travel blog, called Thorntree. This is a wonderful blog. Even if you are never going to travel, it is a fascinating place to visit - with arcane inquiries like: "I am stuck in Bishkek for a dismal winter. Any ideas on what to do?" or "I had heard that the road from A to B was in bad shape. Any information on its current condition." Also, really useful stuff, like how does one get a Chinese visa.

The story starts on March 10, when China adopts restrictions on its visas: Must apply from your home country; no extensions of current visas, etc. On April 14, the next shoe drops: Tourist visas to China only to those who have tickets to fly in and out (we were going to take the bus out to the west) and have confirmed hotel reservations for each night (we had none). There is a special blog entry on Thorntree which quickly has 500 + posts.

This clearly is not going to work for us - our alternative is to buy a ticket to Xian, and a cheap, refundable ticket from Hong Kong to somewhere, get some reservations in Xian, and lie about what we were doing in China. We seriously considered doing only the Stans part of the trip. We also started looking on the internet for solar eclipse tours.

Of the various tours, one, TropicalSails, has a pretty good tour. It tracks the trip we were going to take almost exactly, except that it starts in Beijing, flies to Lanzhou (no Xian), thence to Urumqi, fly back to Beijing, and depart. The price isn't too bad, compared to other tours. $2388 per person, or $4776 for the two of us. We had been budgeting $100 per day for the two of us.

I e-mailed the director of the tour: (1) would he allow us to leave the tour in Urumqi, (2) would he give us a discount for the flight we weren't taking, and (3) would he make it contingent on our getting the Chinese visa. The answer to 1 and 3 was yes, and the answer to 2 was a discount of $366, and he recommended using in Houston. They would discount their usual $39 fee to $30. I called Mike at MyChinaVisa, who said "no problem." So we decided to take the tour, buy the airplane tickets to Beijing, and send off the visa applications, along with the application fee of $130 per person. We sent our itineraries: (1) take the tour, leave the tour in Urumqi on Aug 4, make our way to Kashgar, and cross over into Kyrgyzstan by bus/taxi on Aug 11. The package got to Houston on April 25, and we got the visa on May 1. It was a 1 year, multiple entry visa! (We now have a tour for $2,022 per person, or $4,044, instead of maybe $1,000, but we will be staying in 3 and 4 star hotels instead of 0 and 1 star hotels, we will actually see the eclipse at the center line instead of the edge, and we got the Chinese visas.)

Several weeks passed (serious mistake). Was trying to find an company to do the applications for the rest of the visas. Finally, we decided to do it ourself, so we prepared the Uzbekistan application. Their fee is $131 per, $197 per rush. Ordinary service is 3 weeks, rush is 1 week. So we send the passports and visa applications off rush, by USPS Express Mail, with a tracking number. They arrive in Washington, DC, at the Uzbek Embassy on Thursday, May 29.

Friday, Jun 6, comes and goes with no passports or visas, so on Monday, Jun 9, I start calling. There is a visa phone number which is never answered and has no voice mail ("Voice Mail not Activated"). There is an embassy number which is almost never answered, but which if it is answered, they forward you to the visa number. Finally, on Wednesday, Jun 11, a woman answers. The gentleman who processes the visas is on vacation, but will return on Monday, Jun 16, and will process them then. No passports on Tues, so on Wednesday, Jun 18, I call and get through to Nadir, who does the visas. He will do them today (18) or tomorrow (19). No visa on Friday, so I talk to Nadir, who says the visas have been issued, but not yet mailed. He will make sure they are mailed today (Fri the 20th). By this time, my wife seriously thinks that they have lost the passports and are refusing to admit it. I am seriously ready to drive to Washington, and show up on Monday AM to pick up the passports and hand carry them to the next embassy. No evidence of mailing by Saturday evening, so I drive up and stay with an old friend in Fairfax that night. The visa office opens Monday at 10:06 AM, and I am the first one in line. Nadir recognizes my face, and tells me that he mailed the passports on Saturday. I call my wife, who confirms that the return tracking number still hasn't been activated. So I wander around Washington a little, have a lunch, and start driving back to Atlanta. The next day they are delivered in Atlanta, having first shown up at the Dulles postal facility on Monday at 4 PM.

Next in line is Kyrgyzstan. I had talked to Bolot at the Embassy, and we had worked out a multiple entry 3 month visa for $110 for my wife ($50 for me because I am a senior citizen). We doubled it for rush (3 business days instead of 10 business days), and sent it off. It was received on Wednesday, June 25. Monday, June 30, is supposed to be the third business day, and no passports on July 1 or 2, so on Thursday, July 3, I call and talk to Bolot. He expresses surprise that I paid the rush fee, so he promises to issue them on that day. They actually are in the mail on Thursday. The post office tries unsuccessfully to deliver the passports and visas to my office on Saturday, July 5, and they are finally delivered on Monday, July 7.

We have added Kazakhstan to our trip when we bought airplane tickets back from Almaty rather than Tashkent (to be discussed in a later post), so we need two more visas, and we have 10 business days left. We had friends who received their passports and visas to visit Iran on a tour by UPS at 7 AM on the day they were leaving, and we were determined not to come close to doing that, so for this reason and several others (also to be discussed in a later post), we cut Tajikistan from our trip, and decided to try to get the Kazakh visas on the road (Urumqi, Tashkent, or Bishkek).

Total costs so far for visas, including the FedEx packages and USPS Express Mail packages, approximatly $1200. We still will have to pay for the Kazakh visas, when we get them.


At this point, we need to discuss reciprocity. After all, you may have been wondering, why are the China and Uzbek visas so costly ($130 and $131, respectively). The answer is "reciprocity." What country A does to (or for) country B, country B does to (or for) country A. Tit for tat.

This sometimes works in our favor. We got 1 year, multiple entry visas to China, why? Because the US is granting 1 year, multiple entry visas to the Chinese, and certainly within a day or two after April 14, there was a high level conversation between the US and the Chinese diplomats which used the word reciprocity several times. So US citizens get 1 year, multiple entry visas. The Brits, Aussies, French, etc., get 90 day, 30 day single entry visits.

On the other hand, Brazil and Chile are now charging Americans $100 for a tourist visa. Why? Because we are charging the Brazilians and the Chileans $100 to visit the US.

My guess is the Uzbeks are charging $131, because the US is charging the Uzbeks $100, and Chinese and others are charging Americans $130.

Oh, well.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Languages of the Silk Road

SURPRISE! Most of the languages of the Silk Road are Turkic (Ugaritic - of the same language family and similar to Turkish). Starting from China, which speaks Mandarin and all the dialects of Chinese, next in Xinjiang (the northwest Muslim territories of China) they speak Uighur, which is a Turkic language.

Then westward to Kazakhstan, where the non-Russians speak Kazakh, a Turkic language. Kyrgyzstan contains people who speak Kyrgyz, a Turkic language. To the west is Uzbekistan, where the language is Uzbek, a Turkic language. To its west is Turkmenistan, where the language is Turkmen, a Turkic language. To the west, across the Caspian Sea, is Azerbaijan, where the language is Azeri, a Turkic language. Then we have Georgian and Armenian, which are not Turkic. Finally, we have Turkish.

My wife speaks maybe 2500 words of Turkish, and we are hoping to put that Turkish to good use on this trip. We still don't know how close Uighur, Kyrgyz, and Uzbek are to Turkish, but a quick perusal of some of the phrase books and dictionaries shows a whole lot of similar words and similar grammar. We'll see.

There are six major language groups in this area: Turkic, Arabic, Persian, Hindu-Urdu, Chinese, and Russian. Generally, the Arabic starts at the border of Iran and Iraq and goes westward. East of that and south of the Turkic belt is the Persian belt. It includes Farsi (in Persia), Tajik, and some of the Afghan languages. East of that are the Hindu-Urdu languages, including some of the Afghan languages. North of all of this is the old Soviet Union, with Russian.

For our trip, I am trying to learn 250-500 words of Mandarin (while we are in China) and 250-500 words of Russian (for the Stans). Because of their history - the Stans mostly became independent in August or September 1991 - anyone in the Stans over 25 years old speaks native Russian. We are still trying to get a feel for how good the Mandarin is for the Uighurs in Xinjiang. Some tell us that everyone there speaks perfect Mandarin. Some tell us that the Mandarin there is so heavily accented that no one can understand it. We will see.

My wife is polishing up on her Turkish, and taking a few steps toward trying to learn Uighur/Uzbek (apparently the two languages are quite similar).

The great unknown is how many folks speak English in any of these areas.


To say hello in Arabic, say "A-salaam aleykum." To say hello in Turkish, say "A-salaam aleykum." To say hello in Persian, say "A -salaam aleykum." To say hello in Uzbek and Uighur, say "Salam aleykum."

To say thank you in Arabic, say "Shukran." To say thank you in Turkish, say "Teshekkur," which is another form of the Arabic word. To say thank you in Persian, say "Rakhmat." To say thank you in Uzbek/Uighur, say "Rakhmat," but "Teshekkur" in Uighur seems to mean thanks, so there.

One, two, three in all of the Turkic languages is very close to Bir, ikki, uch. Bread in most of these languages in Nan, at least a certain kind is called nan.

Of course, coffee, tea (chai) and chocolate are the same in every language. Shashlik and kibab are universally recognized in these areas.

However, most of the words are different, and isn't that the great joy of all of this.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Why A Trip At All - Part Two

The Silk Road/Silk Route is a series of trade routes from China to/from the Mediterranean. Two pictures are



Initially, we conceived naively of the Silk Roads as roughly paralleling a road along the following cities: Xian, China, to Urumqi, China, then west to Almaty, Kazakhstan, then to Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara, Uzbekistan, then to Mary, Turkmenistan, then across the Caspian Sea, through Azerbaijan, Armenia, and across the entire length of Turkey. I figured that we could travel this in 30 days.

I mentioned this to my Silk Road sophisticate friend and he said: "Are you going to Kashgar?" After the first response: "Where is Kashgar?" I did a little bit of looking and found out that Kashgar is at the extreme SW corner of China where China, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikstan all come together. This city of 1.5 million may be the most isolated city in the entire world. It has a Sunday market (animals, and everything else) that is worth traveling around the world for.

So we, of course, had to add Kashgar.

From Kashgar, you can go southwest into Pakistan across the Karakoram Highway at elevations over 15,000 feet, with the Himalayas to the east and the Pamirs to the west and northwest. This is God's country, but you end up in Islamabad, with no real option but to fly out, or travel back to China along the same route. Furthermore, who wants to visit Pakistan, with the possibility of Taliban activity in the lowland portions of this route. That stayed in the background as an option.

The real way to leave Kashgar is to the west/northwest through the Irkeshtam Pass into Kyrgyzstan. This is a grueling 10-15 hour bus ride, with a 4 - 8 hour delay as you leave Chinese customs, and enter Kyrgyzstan customs. It leaves on Mondays (only). You end up in Osh, an ancient Silk Road town with not a lot of history left, right on the border of Uzbekistan.

The easy roads through Almaty are now no longer part of the trip planning.

From Osh, to the west is the Fergana Valley. Aside from the Fergana Valley, rich, lush, and fertile, everything so far is like Arizona and California - hot, dry, desertified, with high mountains (Mustagha Ata in China (close to 26000 feet), the Tibetan Plateau peaks just south of our route (in the 14000-17000 feet range)) and low desert (the Turpan Depression is 500 feet below sea level). Think, for example, Death Valley and Mount Whitney in California. Think of temperatures as high as 115-120 in the hot August afternoon sun, and below freezing in the high mountains. Think of sandstorms whipping across the desert.

The natural route goes through Fergana Valley to Tashkent, an old Silk Route which was totally destroyed in a 1966 earthquake, and is now a modern Soviet city. Then to Samarkand and Bukhara, the gems of the entire trip. Old cities, dating back at least 2500 years, with old neighborhoods, old Jewish populations (most of which have emigrated since 1980), old connections to historic Islamic scholarship and Persian civilization. Off the track, 7 hours to the northwest, lies Khiva, an old city that has become a preserved heritage site.

As one website puts it:

"Khiva may be a small city -- its population barely tops 40,000 -- but its history as the best preserved stop on the old Silk Road gives it a broad appeal for tourists tracing the historic trading route. In the Khorezm oasis of the Kara-Kum Desert, Khiva was the capital of the Khivan Khanate from 1592 until the Bolshevik take-over in 1920.

"Nobody seems to know exactly how old this ancient city is, though the story goes that Khiva was founded by none other than Shem, the son of Noah (of “and the Ark” fame); at the very least, the city dates back to the 7th century, and probably much earlier. Despite its seemingly romantic history as a Silk Road oasis, the city became most notable as Central Asia’s biggest slave trade center." [url][/url]

From there the road goes west into Turkmenistan, with the ancient ruins at Mary [Merv].

We now digress a little about Turkmenistan. Turkmenistan is an ex-Soviet country, which at birth was dominated by a dictator who named himself Turkmenbashi, the father of all Turkmen. All citizens of Turkmenistan were required to read the writings of Turkmenbashi, to view lovingly the huge statutes of Turkmenbashi, to have pictures of Turkmenbashi in their houses, perhaps in a more prominent place than Mohammed, etc. The place was widely ridiculed as "The North Korea of Central Asia." It became fairly clear reading the guide books that one does not get a visa to Turkmenistan without either a personal guide, or a tour.

Even though it makes sense to go west through Azerbaijan, the real Silk Roads mostly continued to the southwest through the Iranian cities of Mashhad, Teheran, and to the west. Iran, while a wonderful place to visit, also cannot be seen by an American without a personal guide, or a tour.

A little practical timing. The eclipse is on August 1. If we land on Xian and take 3 or 4 days to see Xian and survive the jet lag, the trip starts on July 24 or 25, or even earlier. If you are going to the Sunday Kashgar market, and why go to Kashgar if you don't see the Market, then you will be in Kashgar on Aug 10, and cross the Irkeshtam Pass on Aug 11, arriving in Osh on Aug 12. That means that that you can't realistically leave Bukhara before Aug 22. This is already a 30 day trip, and you haven't seen Kyrgyzstan, the Switzerland of Central Asia, at all, and you haven't seen the Pamirs at all.

Ah, the Pamirs. Lying south of Kyrgyzstan is this high plateau, mostly between 12000 and 15000 feet, called the Pamirs. Nearby are some of the highest mountains in all of the former Soviet Union, at close to 25000 feet. This is God's country. It is hard to get into and out of. The usual way to do it is to hire a private driver, and spend 3 or 4 days just driving, stopping for dinner, staying with the locals, having dinner and breakfast, maybe sleeping in a yurt, and then driving again. The Tajiks consider this a sensitive military region, so you need a special permit to enter, and you are subject to lots of military checkpoints, which your driver hopefully handles.

Got to add the Pamirs (5 - 7 days).

So now the trip is: Kashgar, to Osh, across the Pamirs to Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikstan, through Penjikent, another old Silk Road town in Tajikistan, then to Samarkand, etc., finally doubling back to Tashkent, where you fly out.

What happened to the rest of the Silk Road on this trip? Swallowed up by the realities. Can't do Turkmenistan, can't do Iran, couldn't do Iraq or Syria, the next countries on the Silk Road. Turkey, part of the point of this exercise, seems to be another trip now. In fact, most of the western Silk Road seems to be reserved for another trip, time and place.

The tentative trip now goes from Xian to Tashkent. It starts on July 22 and ends on Aug 28 - Sep 1, flying back from Tashkent, with maybe a stopover in Istanbul, Turkey, on the way back. Pakistan, and the Karakoram, are gone, although we may be able to take a day trip up to the Pakistan border. A side trip into northern Afghanistan, suggested by some, is also gone. Too much time, too much risk, too little gain.

What happened to viewing the eclipse? You will notice from the maps that the main road runs along the south line of the eclipse. If you want to see the eclipse from the center line, you have to get off the beaten path, and go into the Gobi Desert (into isolated country). So, even though this was nominally an eclipse trip, we will now see the eclipse only from the edge. We will travel 8000 miles, in order to see a 5 second eclipse. Oh well, we have seen eclipses before, but have never seen this part of the world. And if we see it this time, we probably never will see it again.

Next, the languages and the visas.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Why A Trip At All - Part One

I (Mike) have been interested in Solar Eclipses all my life. My wife (Carol) comes along for the ride.

I saw the eclipse of 30 Jun 1954 in the St. Paul, MN suburbs at sunrise with my parents as an 11 year old, having dragged them out of bed.

As a college student in Boston, MA, I piled into a car with 5 others and we drove 24 hours to Nova Scotia, getting to Halifax on 7 Mar 1970 just before the eclipse was to start, finding the sky overcast, then driving down coast toward the narrow slit of open sky, and finally seeing the eclipse in absolutely clear skies in Brooklyn, NS (look it up on a map). My wife saw the same eclipse in Massachusetts.

We then ignored eclipses for 20 or so years, missing the 30 June 1973 eclipse in Saharan Africa (over 7 minutes long - longest in our lifetime) because we were just married and had no income. I can't remember seeing the annular/total hybrid eclipse in Atlanta on 30 May 1984, even though I was living in Atlanta at the time; Carol remembers pulling off the road to watch the shadow crescents projected through the leaves. We also ignored the eclipse of 11 Jul 1991 in Mexico and Central America (next longest in our lifetime).

By 1997, however, our kids were 16 and 10. Just for the hell of it, we decided to fly to Curaçao to see the total eclipse of 26 Feb 1998 from the north end of the island of Curaçao. Our luck held and although Curaçao had had the first drizzle in many months and was clouded over in the morning, by 3 PM, the sky was perfectly clear with temperatures in the high 80s. The sounds of crowing roosters and barking dogs during totality were memorable.

The next eclipse, the next year, was going to be a family vacation. The eclipse was total on a path from extreme SW England, through northern France, southern Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania, Black Sea, Turkey, etc. For a few months, I traced out a 28 day "country-a-day" trip through Austria, Czech Republic, Germany, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania, that got us to Bucharest in time to see the eclipse, and then back to Hungary and Austria, where we would fly home. My wife's first and final reaction to that was yuk - 7 countries and 6 languages, only one of which we sort of knew. No way. Eventually she found an eclipse cruise that went from Piraeus, Greece, through the Islands, to Istanbul, Constanca, Odessa, view the eclipse in the Black Sea, back through the Bosporus, stop at another Greek Island, and back to Piraeus, all in 7 days. Before the cruise, we tacked on 6 days in Turkey, followed by 6 days in Greece. We added 6 days after the cruise in Sparta and Athens, and we had a vacation. The four of us had a great time. On eclipse day, all of Europe was overcast, except for parts of Romania. We, on the other hand, had an absolutely clear sky. The water was so quiet and the boat so still that the photographers were able to set their cameras up on tripods on the boat deck.

So now we had our family eclipse vacation ground rules: We will try to see every eclipse where we could make a decent vacation out of the trip. We will skip those eclipses where the only point of the trip is to go to some obscure place, travel 2 days to get there, see the eclipse, and turn around and come home.

So we passed on the eclipse of 21 Jun 2001, visible in Angola, Zambia and Madagascar (Angola was too dangerous to visit, and we didn't feel like visiting Zambia). We passed on the eclipse of 04 Dec 2002, visible in Angola, Botswana, Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Australia (right at sunset), and the hybrid eclipse of 08 Apr 2005, visible at sunset in Panama (with an 80% chance of cloudiness).

But the eclipse of 29 Mar 2006 beckoned, being visible on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey. My wife and I love Turkey, and after the 1999 trip, she had started taking Turkish classes. So we arrived in Istanbul on 16 Mar 2006, made our way through Turkey to Antalya. We viewed the eclipse from above the Roman ruins at Aspendos, looking over the countryside, in perfect weather. Then we flew to Jordan on 31 Mar, saw Petra, crossed over to Israel on 3 Apr, and flew home on 10 Apr.

The next major eclipse is to occur on 22 Jul 2009, visible in China from Shanghai, Wuhan, and much of east central China. It is the third longest eclipse in our lifetime, and we plan to go. (I am 5 for 5, my wife is 4 for 4, and this one is likely to be cloudy, but China must be seen.) However, on 1 Aug 2008, there also was a strange short eclipse that would cross Siberia, western China, and ended up in central China at sundown.

The more I looked at the path, the more I realized that to get there, you had to traverse a part of the Silk Route, that ancient set of routes that went from Xian to the Mediterranean. The combination of China and Turkey and the possibility of seeing both on one trip grew more and more fascinating.

Next, planning the trip.