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Travel Heart

The Wild Wild West

CHINA | Thursday, 16 October 2008 | Views [1211] | Comments [4]

 If there were such a thing as a Uigher cookbook it would have exactly 5 recipes in it -- and 4 of them involve LAMB!  Lamb is good, the kebabs are great (kawap, in Uigher), but a girl can only eat so many sheep! The nan bread on the other hand is fantastic :-) 

Running a Silk Road trip is considered among the crown jewels of tour leading in the China region. The trips are in short supply and everybody wants them; to visit places like Kashgar and Turpan, to eat lamb kebabs and nan bread with locals in dupkah hats and hair scarves, to see where the Great Wall ends and to cross the Takelamakan Highway are all part of the appeal. What’s not listed in the brochures are the marriage proposals, rodeo camels, or verbal brawls! The past three weeks have not disappointed, and I had a great group of pax to share it with which made for one great trip :-)  Geoff and Mary, Ross and Rachel (who were not together, despite my jokes), Ellen, and powerhouse named Dimitra were my unsuspecting travel buddies along the Silk Road.

After the usual sights of Beijing and Xian we stretched our legs and took the first steps along the Road to the Unknown. Jiayuguan was the first stop, and home of the End (or Start) of the Great Wall, depending how you look at it, haha. There is a Fort there that is just awesome in construction, with layers of walls built to defend the center. Getting to Jiayuguan was enough of an adventure, as I nearly got myself married off to a professor’s son! My understanding of Chinese seems to have grown by leaps and bounds the past few months; I can actually have a two-way dialogue and understand the gist of the conversation! Which is fun and helpful, but can get me into trouble when I’m roped into a conversation by someone who finds it fascinating just speaking to a Westerner. I found myself in this position on the train to Jiayuguan, with Mr. Wang, a professor and my future father-in-law (!) hehehe. At first he wanted to tell me all about his work, but then he started talking about his son who would like an American girlfriend…. LOL. I laughed it off, and laughed again when he gave me his son’s email (killlergrant… wow) but I was speechless when he came back and said, in English, “Would… you… like to be…. my daughter?”  :-O  He started busting up too so I just laughed again, whew!

Our next adventure that didn’t involve my marriage status, was a camel trek in Dunhuang. We arrived before dawn in order to see the sunrise over the Mingshan sand dunes,  but the ride out to the dunes was the best part of the trek, because it was like a scene straight out of the Three Wise Men. The sky was thick with stars and there we were in a line of camels plodding across mountainous dunes. Of course we couldn’t go in peace – how boring – no, Dimitra’s camel tried to throw her off! Twice! She was right in front of me and I watched that camel buck like a rodeo horse, but Dimitra held on like a champ. Dunhuang is also where Rachel and I discovered a mutual love of Disney music, and proceeded to sing as many songs as we knew, all the way home :-) I even had a rousing chorus of "It's a Jolly Holiday with Ja-ami!" sung in my honor.

Dunhuang gave way to Turpan, still far and away one of my favorite parts of the trip. In one day tour we managed to see two ancient cities ~ Tuyoc and Jiaohe ~, the Bezlikek Buddha Caves,  the karez irrigation system, and the Flaming Mountains. We had a fantastic local guide named Momin John, from whom I learned SO much about the Uigher people, Xinjiang province, Islam, and many other things I would love to convey here but I’m afraid they’re only interesting in the context of the places we visited. The majority of the Silk Road runs through Xinjiang province, which means “New Frontier” in Chinese, and it truly is. Turpan is the first stop that really feels like a different country, or a different world. The place is a desert but grapevines grow in abundance giving a feeling almost of Tuscany as we walked among the vineyards. The people here are Uigher and Muslim, a world away from most Chinese people. They dress conservatively and women cover their heads in scarves; donkey carts equal the number of taxis in the city, and every face is a photograph waiting to be taken. Unfortunately that’s exactly what we couldn’t do, because of the Islamic belief that any image of a person is a graven image, photos were generally avoided. Not to worry though, we made up for it in the photos of the cities and landscapes. All of my pax really liked Tuyoc, an ancient city over 2000 years old that is still inhabited. It is truly a piece of living history, not to mention beautifully located in a valley of the Flaming Mountains. The karez was equally fascinating, a brilliant irrigation system built on principles of gravity and the local water tables, but nearly 2000 years old as well. <<if you’re interested I’ll explain more about it when I get home >>  

And then there was Margaret….. Margaret wasn’t part of our tour group but I doubt any of my pax will ever forget her, hehehe. We were visiting Jiaohe, which is a city that was ruined in the 12th century; another tour group arrived as we were looking around, and most of them appeared to be about the same age as the city walls, but not as sturdy…. They were wearing name tags and as they passed by us Dimitra says clearly, “Hello Margaret, how are you enjoying your holiday?”  Poor Margaret was so fantastically confused – until her tour leader reminded her she was wearing a name tag, while we were trying so hard not to laugh we were nearly wetting ourselves! You would’ve thought she’d heard a voice from a burning bush, poor woman! :-D  LOL 

~~ When you get a phone call at work, does it ever go anything like this? "Hey Jami, when you get to the yurt camp next week can you make sure they'll still be there in a month for the next group? Cuz ya know, they're nomadic, so they might just pack up camp and head for the hills."  hehehehe, I did actually get that phone call, and I had one of those "This is my job??" moments, LOL.  The yurt camp was... an experience. The tents are situated next to a beautiful lake called Heavenly Lake, they're round like the Mongolian gers I visited, and the insides are decorated with such colorful rugs that I felt like I'd fallen into the Jeannie's bottle from I Dream of Jeannie -- and of course I had to take a photo as such ;-) Our two nights there were pretty much a slumber party. The tents supposedly sleep 12 people, but we were comfortable with 7 in there. For some reason the second night no one could sleep, so at 3am Dimitra and I went outside to look at the stars.... much like the camel trek, the sky was thick with them. We saw three *shooting stars*, so awesome.  The peaceful surroundings notwithstanding, this was the site of my first fight of the trip. Long story short, the yurt owner, a Khazak man named Rashit, tried to rip off my group and jerk me around over the price of a lamb <<again, is this part of your regular Monday morning??>> I didn't appreciate this treatment so I stood up to Rashit, and ended up getting my way after much negotiation, whew.

The crux of the Silk Road trip is a three-day bus ride across the Takelamakan Desert - the second largest sand desert in the world, and yep, that's bigger than the Gobi. We crossed nearly 1000 miles, on a highway straight through the middle of the desert. A camel would take 8 days to cross the same distance. It was surprisingly painless, thanks to my great passengers, awesome driver, and a couple good books. The biggest downside was truck stop toilets.... my favorite was the cardboard box around a small platform -- honestly didn’t smell too bad, but the large holes in the cardboard were very badly located for privacy. Arriving in Hotan after these days in the desert was one of the highlights of the trip. In one fell swoop, we visited a bread maker, a wooden bowl carver, a carpet factory, a silk manufacturers, a water mill, and embroidery shop, and a very local bazaar/market. Our guide Helil was darling, and he told us more about the Uigher/Chinese conflict. (Again, ask me for more info if you're interested).

Our last stop on the Silk Road was Kashgar, the westernmost city in China, bordering Kyrgistan. Kashgar looks like a picture out of the Middle East or Morocco ~ mosques and bazaars and parts of the ancient city swirl around locals and visitors alike. The Sunday Bazaar and the animal market or famous in China and they did not disappoint. The colors and smells, the chaos, the faces ~if I could take a photo of ever face, every hat, every silk scarf, well I'd have a thousand photos instead of 750 ;-)  We picked the perfect time of year to visit this region, not only is the weather perfect, but the Xinjiang melons and grapes were all in season. Oh and the pomegranates! In the bazaar they were making fresh squeezed pomegranate juice that was SO good.

The trip didn’t really end on a high note; I managed to get the police called on me.... ():-) We'd gone to karaoke in Kashgar, but after a frustrating hour and 1/2  in which we couldn't get the karaoke machine to work properly, we left saying we wouldn't pay the full 200 yuan for a machine that didn’t work. We'd still pay for all our beers, 125 yuan, but not for the room. That didn’t go over so well with the owner. He cornered me outside and wouldn't let me leave, but there was no way I was going to pay this creep. He threatened to call the police and I said 'by all means'. So he did, and I explained the whole bloody thing to them in Chinese, and.... they sided with me! Well, sort of, they told us to split the difference, so we paid 160, but to me it felt like a victory. 48 hours later I was in another fight (good lord!), with the hotel front desk, who were insisting that my passenger had broken the toilet seat in her room, and she's insisting that she didn’t. Round and round and round we went, because they didn’t want to give me my deposit back. That situation deteriorated rapidly, but in the end I got my way, even if I had to cry to do it! .... I'm exhausted, hahahaha.    :-) 

Up again and take another, tomorrow I start my LAST TRIP EVER! :-(   Tired as I am of this, I'll still miss it very much. I've only got 3 pax on this trip -- since none of you signed up! :-P I hope it's significantly less eventful than the last one, that’s all I can ask. Once I get myself sorted out at the end of the trip I'll be coming home mid-November :-)   See you all very soon!

Currently Reading: Jasper Fford's 'The Big Over Easy' and 'The Well of Lost Plots'

Tags: camels, desert, fights, silk road, yurts



I am sorry that I am going to miss your trip but Egypt calls me. I hope that you and I will be able to catch up in December if you are so cal.

I have to tell you that there are a few great stories you have posted but one of my fav was The sun'll Come out Tomorrow! I still sing the rest of the song when i see the title. Also the dressing up as pandas was great. There was also the one when you had to cross over to get your tickets to be with your group. I cant remember what the name of that story was but I did enjoy that one.

Have a great last trip. I cant wait to hear why you are leaving China and where you are going next.

Take care and if you forward me your mailing address I will mail you a post card or two from Egypt.

Dawn Marie

  Dawn Oct 16, 2008 3:17 PM


I suppose I like this one, though I have enjoyed them all. I will more than happy to have you home, and hey go ahead tell everyone why you are coming back to the states... I am.... telling everyone that is.;-)~
can't wait to see you face to face again and have fun.... I will see you when you get here.
love Nick.

  Nick Mollenhauer Oct 21, 2008 5:19 AM


Hey Sweetie,

you never cease to amaze me with your writings...but then you know how I feel about that. :) I can hardly begin to remember all of the tales, but I did really enjoy the face plant into the mud! That one always cracks me up. But now, getting the police called? Oh, how will I choose?

I wish I was there on your trip with you.... to see the sights, enjoy watching you teach, and not having to go to work! But I am looking forward to having you back home. Hope this last trip is momumental in some way.... and I look forward to seeing what your future holds.



  Laura Hunter Oct 23, 2008 11:57 AM


Hi Jami,
All of your stories and pictures have been just great. This one is especially good. I could just see you handling all of the situations....what a confidence builder these experiences are!! The $$ pay may not be great, but the training to handle a lot of life decisions is priceless. I am sure you can do anything you put your mind to. It makes me proud and I also get to brag about you to my friends. I can't wait to look at the pictures of this trip. Stay well and we are looking forward to seeing you next month....


  Grampa Hunter Oct 25, 2008 1:21 PM

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