See the terracotta warriors and magical caves along the famed Silk Road.
A young novice at Labrang Lamasery, Xiahe. Picture: Alamy
It is an unfortunate start to a trip long planned on the Silk Road across China. We kick off in Beijing, unrecognisable since visiting in 1997, and are returning from a pleasant afternoon wandering Beihai Park with its 17th-century library and lakes covered in blooming lily pads.
Hailing a taxi calls for death-defying gymnastics as we negotiate several lanes of manic traffic. Eventually one stops and we’re on our way back to the Park Plaza Hotel and looking forward to a sunset drink. The driver doesn’t pull into the hotel driveway but stops on the street outside. We hand him a 100 yuan note (about $20), he holds it up and screams “fake”. How can this be? We changed our money at the hotel. We give him another note. And another. On it goes. All fakes, he curses, throwing notes back at us. We’re getting hysterical as we rummage through our wallets. He refuses to drive into the hotel. I push my friend out of the taxi and storm in to the hotel demanding an explanation. The driver takes off.
The hotel checks the CCTV recording of the reception desk handing us yuan after putting the notes through their fake detector. With admirable sleight of hand, the taxi driver has swapped our many legitimate notes for fakes concealed up his sleeve. I want to pretend he’s saving for his daughter’s education.
We gather in the bar to meet the other 18 Australians in the tour group and share some advice to change money only at major hotels or banks (the exchange rate, like the time, is set by the government and imposed nationally) and get only small denomination so if you fall victim to such a scam it won’t be so costly.
Next day, after walking around the crowded Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square and the National Museum, we meet for dinner at one of the city’s most famous Peking duck restaurants, Bianyifang. The food is delicious but alas, it transpires, most Chinese don’t drink wine with dinner (preferring local beer). When they do, reds are served cold and whites warm. Two bottles of each don’t go far among 20 people so our tour leader, archaeologist and Indiana Jones character Ben Churcher, orders more. Bad news. “We’ve drunk their whole supply,” he tells us.
A two-hour flight takes us northwest to Xi’an, a city of nine million and a remarkable example of the velocity of change in China. But it is not the rows of bland 40-storey apartment blocks built to encourage rural families to relocate or the wide roadways lined with immaculate hedges, shrubs and trees that we’ve come to see. This is the start of the famed Silk Road, a vast network of trade routes that, between 200BC and 1400AD, headed in directions determined by the merchandise to be sold, the location of wealthy clients, and the availability of food and water.
It is also home to what many call the eighth wonder of the world, the Terracotta Army. Spread over 2.8ha, the funerary art sculptures of 8000 warriors (each with a different face), 670 horses, 130 chariots, musicians and acrobats are housed in three covered “pits”. They line up in the formation created by 700,00 workers more than 2200 years ago, four columns heading north, south, east or west from the tomb of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang. Discovered in 1976 by farmers digging for water, they are a breathtaking sight. Our local guide, Ivy, tells us every sculpture was in pieces when excavated and had to be painstakingly reconstructed. “Nobody knows what’s left to discover here,” she says. “Anywhere you dig you hit a relic,” she adds before taking us to Xi’an’s oldest dumpling restaurant, De Fa Chang (next to the bell tower), where we taste 14 kinds of savoury and sweet dumplings. The wine is not plentiful.
More than 20,000 people visit the Terracotta Army every day. Most are Chinese nationals free since 1978 to travel between the nation’s 33 states. Keen to explore their heritage and culture, they far outnumber foreign tourists in the superb state-run museums, galleries, monuments and archaeological sites. If only their guides didn’t use megaphones.
With a population of almost 1.4 billion spread out over 9.6 million sq km, China throws up many challenges for the tourist. Our tour by Academy Travel over 21 days and through 10 cities calls for stamina. There are early starts and long journeys through unremarkable desert. The high speed rail is a godsend; linking 29 of the 33 states, it’s the way to go. Travelling up to 350km/h, trains leave modern city stations the size of an international airport terminal; they are precisely on time, clean and inexpensive.
We take the train to Tianshui; wind farms seem never to end and isolated cities zoom by. The first of three grotto sites on our itinerary is greatly anticipated. It’s Maijishan Grottoes, dating to 400BC with 7200 Buddhist sculptures and 194 caves cut into the side of a steep cliff. We wonder if we have what it takes to tackle the stairs zigzagging to the top but we must give it a go. It proves an easy climb, safe and well worth the effort.
On to Lanzhou and a long bus trip and then a fascinating boat ride along the Yellow River. We pass rugged mountains resembling cardboard cut-outs to reach the isolated Bingling Thousand Buddha Caves and the Maitreya Buddha. Well off the tourist track, this is a magic experience. We saunter along a boardwalk winding through a valley and there is the 1200-year-old Buddha, 27m tall and noble. Funded by wealthy traders and constructed over many years, it was a popular stopover for the ancient caravans.
This tour is an adventure full of surprises. We bus from Lanzhou to Xiahe in Tibet through country heavily populated by Muslims and crowded with shiny mosques. Although there is no formal border between China and Tibet, the change in scenery is almost instantaneous. Gone are the tall buildings, tangled overhead electricity wires and heavy traffic; instead there’s a sense of order and peace, with colour everywhere.
By now we’re used to the wine shortage and the novelty of the rotating lazy susans at lunch and dinner is wearing off. A posse sets out to find a liquor store and returns with one bottle of Jacob’s Creek shiraz. We yearn for a gourmet experience but instead get flavoursome fuel, and lots of it
From Lanzhou we fly to Dunhuang and the 1000-year-old Mogao Grottoes, so very different to the first two grottoes. Situated at a crossroads of the Silk Road, the 4500sq m of murals and 2000 sculptures in caves dug out of the cliff face were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1987.
Our introduction is an excellent, must-see film produced by Pan Jin Shi, former president of the Dunhuang Museum. With commendable foresight, she introduced an efficient management system that gives us free-flowing access to the world’s largest treasure house of Buddhist art. It is awesome to stand in any one of the 492 caves and see the walls and high ceiling covered in murals depicting aspects of medieval life. Perfectly preserved thanks to the dry air and lack of direct sunlight, the colours and floor tiles are original. “All my life I’ve wanted to see this,” says an emotional member of our group, “it is even more stunning than I’d imagined.”
Our last stop is Kashgar in the Uighur Autonomous Region. It’s Sunday and off we go to the weekly livestock market. This is village life at its most tangible. Farmers arrive with their one animal (and wife) in the back of a mini ute, children tend rows of placid goats, tethered yaks complain loudly. Buyers and sellers negotiate prices with secret hand gestures; money is exchanged later out of sight. But the famed bazaar in town is disappointing for those desperate for some retail therapy. Aside from a small area selling astrakhan and mink hats, yak wool scarves and silk fabrics, it’s mainly cheap household goods. We leave empty-handed.
It’s a different story in the delightful old town, parts of which have been rebuilt in the traditional style after several earthquakes. The intricate brickwork is unlike any other; the little shops are full of tempting jewellery, leather and wooden handicrafts. We are tired but happy.
“I wouldn’t call it a holiday,” says tour member Ellie as our group sits down to a celebratory last dinner in the historic residence of early British consuls. “Ten or 12-hour days, you need to be fit. But I’m really glad I went. It was mind-blowing on so many levels. And we barely scratched the surface.”
MORE TO THE STORY
Besides being chased into a shop by a creepy sheep (or is it a goat?), the highlight of Xiahe is the Labrang Lamasery of the Yellow Hat School of Tibetan Buddhism. Founded in 1709, it’s home to about 2000 monks and students aged from five to 90. There is an internationally renowned hospital and six schools where Buddhism, medicine, astrology, law and theology are taught. The interiors of the buildings are intricately decorated with fabric, flowers, paintings and books; the odour of yak butter candles makes my eyes water. “Do the children ever have fun?” we ask David, our Tibetan guide. Before he answers, four small boys dressed in saffron robes hurtle around a corner, jumping and whooping as they kick a football. A cheeky teenager sneaks a ride across the square by clinging to the back of a truck, grinning and waving all the way. Most beautiful of all is the 3.5km of prayer wheels that stretch around the vast monastery. The faithful, David says, often take months to walk here. Spinning the wheels while repeating a mantra is said to stimulate wisdom, compassion and a calm mind. We all give it a whirl. I am still waiting to see if it works.
IN THE KNOW
Academy Travel’s next Western China on the Silk Road tour is scheduled for September 2019. Exact dates will be released around September this year.