Chengdu – hot pot and pandas!

Our first train was an overnight back to Lanzhou, where I passed the time teaching a little boy how to make a paper crane that flaps its wings and poos. Then we changed trains for a 36 hour journey to Chengdu, for which we had no beds. Feeling like we were dab hands at this by now, we immediately requested an upgrade, but both had mixed feelings when we were finally moved as the people we had met on the hard seats were really fun to talk to. I met an art student called Jiangku who showed me his amazing artwork on his phone and then painted a picture for me in the back of my sketchbook.

Our beds were at one end of the staff carriage, and they worked shifts so we spent the afternoon and early evening in the dark and just as we were going to bed, the lights were turned on! The train pulled into Chengdu in the morning, and we realised neither of us had written down the details for our hostel. We wandered around the station forecourt in search of Wi-Fi and finally got a connection (and breakfast!) at a dumpling café. We located the correct bus and set off on a journey through the city. The weather was warmer as we had travelled a long distance south; more autumnal than wintery. My first impressions of Chengdu were not great! An effort had been made to line the streets with greenery, but the poor bushes and trees were so smothered by grey layers of grime that it would almost have been better they weren’t there at all! I don’t know how they manage to photosynthesise, but they clearly cope.

Our hostel, Hello Chengdu, was lovely, and had a pretty garden and terraced area for dining and a cosy bar. We were worn out from our journey, so spent the day in our room organising our future travel plans. Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan province, which is famous for the spiciest food in China. That evening, we joined a group of other backpackers for a vegetarian hotpot party on the terrace. It was a far cry from Lancashire hotpot! There were two simmering pots sat on stoves on the table. In one, the broth was not spicy, and the other contained a broth that could have you breathing fire. It is common for a choice of soups to be presented like this – it is the Chinese concept of yin yang, to provide balance with opposites. I gamely plonked myself down next to the hot one. First of all we added sesame oil, coriander, garlic and vinegar into our dishes. A huge array of fresh vegetables (including pea plants, which are SO good) and noodles were laid out on a platter and throughout the meal we kept plopping more into the boiling broths.  When ready, we would fish out what we wanted and mix it with the sauce we had made. It was extremely tasty and I thought I was coping rather well with the heat – even the Sichuan diners said the hot one was too hot for them! It isn’t simply the chilli that makes it hot; they also use a lot of Sichuan peppercorns, and these add a powerful tingling sensation that sometimes makes your tongue go a bit numb. However, I was soon to get my come-uppance, when shortly after finishing my meal, my insides decided they weren’t designed to deal with so much spiciness and I got rather well-acquainted with the toilet!

Over dinner, we met two retired Americans, who we recognised from the market in Dunhuang (it is indeed a small world!). Sheri was from Texas and Chuck was from Wisconsin and they were old friends who had decided to catch up and travel at the same time. After the fire in my stomach had settled, we joined them in the bar, ate dates and talked about our respective journeys. They highly recommended the panda tour run by the hotel, which we were booked onto for the following day.

The minibus to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding set off early in the morning, so thankfully we arrived before the big tour groups. We were supposed to spend only two hours there, but we were enjoying ourselves so much, we decided to stay on and get our own transport back. The centre is devoted to breeding pandas – both the giant pandas and also the smaller red pandas. Due to habitat destruction and fragmentation, their numbers have been dwindling in the wild. The aim of the centre is to eventually release pandas back into their natural habitat, and there are plans afoot to enlarge the site by 500 acres to create a naturalistic environment that will act as a stepping stone to achieve this target. Pandas are notoriously difficult to breed in captivity, but the research and dedication of staff at the centre has resulted in it being the world’s most successful panda breeding programme, with over a hundred pandas being born here since its inception.

The enclosures on the whole were spacious and full of lush greenery. Most of the giant pandas were in separate enclosures, as they are naturally solitary animals, but the young adults and babies were housed in groups. They are such wonderfully entertaining animals! They don’t really do much, but that is part of their charm, and makes them wonderful subjects for sketching. Flopping backwards, legs akimbo and reaching languidly for a branch of bamboo to chew on, they appear delightfully lazy. I think most people who visit probably see a little of themselves in the pandas; if you’ve ever had a pyjama day you will know what I mean. Stick a telly in front of them, and substitute the bamboo with some snacks and a beer (or a tea if you’re me!) and you’d be hard put to tell the difference! Especially if you’d had a late one the night before and had the eyes to match! However, we must not be too disparaging of the pandas’ lack of activity. Their diet of bamboo is very fibrous and hard to break down, so that is why they lead such a sedentary lifestyle. If they are sitting in the middle of a bamboo grove, there is no need to run around expending unnecessary energy – they can funnel it into digesting their food. The bamboo they eat does not actually grow on site. The centre has a dedicated team of harvesters, who go up into the mountainous regions and select the choicest bamboo for their fussy charges. They have to travel a long way and carry huge bundles on their backs, but even then, the pandas reject up to 80% of it!

The young pandas were adorable to watch. Unlike the adults, they were playful, roly poly little bundles of fun, tumbling over each other, clumsily falling off platforms and trying to chase and eat the camera lead belonging to a film crew who were endeavouring to get footage of them inside their enclosure. They were like big puppies but possibly with a little less common sense. One little panda had found a very comfortable place to chill out in the fork of a tree, seeming almost to hang by his chin, with a rather glum expression on his face. It is hard to express just how cute they are; all your cuddly baby instincts kick in, but they are fluffy as well! It’s a bit like seeing your favourite childhood toy brought to life.

The red pandas were housed in groups and in several enclosures, there was a walkway through their habitat. They are similar in appearance to raccoons, though a little bigger and with a beautiful russet red coat. They spent most of their time in the trees, but would occasionally saunter along the paths the tourists trod. When this happened, inevitably the poor thing would be surrounded by a crowd of Chinese tourists taking photos and trying to stroke it, in spite of signs advising against it. The pandas were remarkably relaxed about this, but I imagine people get bitten from time to time. It is silly to surround a wild animal and not give it an escape route!

The centre was somewhat of a maze to navigate and whilst we spent all day there, we still did not manage to see everything, although we did manage to sneak in a David Attenborough documentary over lunch! I love how even in China, he is king of nature programmes. I would have liked to visit the veterinary centre to learn more about the role they play in the breeding programme and training of pandas for medical procedures, and of course I would have liked to see the teeny tiny newborn babies too. We could easily have returned for a second day. We have visited a lot of huge cities in China, and given the population of the country it seems they are set to burgeon further. Consequently China gets a lot of bad press about environmental issues (notably the extremely sad recent extinction of the Yangtze River dolphin), so it was refreshing to see the other side, to see conservation in action that really seems to be working.

That evening, we joined the hostel staff and some of the other guests to see an acoustic guitar concert in a small café venue. The guitarist was an Italian friend of Georgia, who worked on reception. It is usual for English-speaking Chinese to give their ‘English’ names instead of their Chinese ones to foreigners. It does make it much easier for us! He was very talented and used a multi-track recorder to loop rhythms and tunes to create a multi-layered sound. It was fun to have a night out, as so often we just collapse with exhaustion in the evenings! They then took us on a night time walk along the riverbank, and we saw the nicer side of Chengdu, with pretty lights dancing on the water, vibrant bars and old buildings. We had dinner in a street-side café, where they chose some dishes for us – some sort of stewed tendon (quite soft and melted in the mouth) and cowheel, which I am sorry to say I avoided. I am still scarred by memories of my mum boiling up cowheel in the kitchen and stinking the house out! I am told it tastes nothing like it smells when it’s cooking, and is actually rather delicious, but the tendons were enough of a culinary adventure for one night, especially after the previous day’s hotpot incident!

We were nearing the end of our China adventure, and were now plotting our route out of the country and into Vietnam. We had to make some difficult decisions, realising we couldn’t possibly do everything we had planned to in the time we had left before our visas expired. Instead of heading southeast towards Guangxi province and the spectacular scenery of Guilin, we continued southwards towards Yunnan, making a short day stop in Zigong, Sichuan along the way.

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Dunhuang, oasis town

We arrived in Dunhuang to clear blue skies. We were quite far north, so it was very cold, but the sun was shining and as the station was situated a few kilometres from the town with the desert stretching out around us, it really felt like we were in the middle of nowhere. The station forecourt was full of taxis and buses ready to ferry people into town, but we decided to purchase tickets for our onward journey to Chengdu first. The ticket hall was empty, and we bought our tickets with no problems, although the second leg of the journey had no sleeper berths left, so we had to get hard seats. Feeling rather pleased with ourselves at how easy it had been, we left the station about ten minutes later, only to find that all the people, taxis and buses had gone! Being a rather distant outpost, Dunhuang doesn’t have many scheduled trains, so they don’t hand around long!

We were beginning to think we might be waiting a very long time for transport to arrive, when the attendant from our carriage walked by. She did a double take when she saw us, and gave us a look which implied, ‘what are you still doing here you fools?!’ She organised for a man who was heading into town on his bike to get a taxi for us and we plonked our bags down and waited by the road. Shortly after, a small group of staff emerged from the station wheeling out a speaker, put on some music and began to line dance. From a distance, puffed out in our many warm layers, we copied their actions and joined in, much to the amusement of the few people who wandered by. This passed the time nicely until our taxi arrived!

We showed our driver the address of our accommodation and he drove to the location, an area out of town and very close to the dunes, which in the high season would be a bustling tourist spot. However, it was very much the low season, and the places we passed all looked suspiciously devoid of life. After much backing and forthing, we eventually located our hostel, which had a deserted feel. We knocked on the door – no answer. The taxi driver phoned the number on the sign – no reply. There was no note on the door and no one around to ask. We had reserved the room on booking.com, and decided there must have been a mistake. We rang all the hostels and hotels in our guidebook and found that all were either closed, or could not accept foreigners. The taxi driver, phoned a few more places and eventually found one in the town centre that could take us! It was a four star hotel, but very heavily discounted due to the time of year, so it actually seemed a real bargain. The room was very nice, but we found that hot water was sporadic or non-existent depending on the time of day, and it was very difficult to understand any attempted explanations as to why or when the best time to shower would be! Despite all this, we were pleased to have found a place to stay!

By this point in our travels we were really running short on clean clothes and were desperate to get some laundry done. We asked at the reception desk if they had a laundry service and were told that they did. We went to collect our dirty linen bag and a very sweet girl who spoke a small amount of English walked us down the road to what looked more like a dry cleaners. The woman at the counter then proceeded to take out each grubby item of clothing one by one to count them all, holding them with the tips of her fingers as you might toxic waste. Every pair of trousers or leggings, every shirt, each pair of knickers and underpants and grubby socks – all were laid out in piles before us, whilst the girl from the hotel and the other ladies in the shop watched. It was pretty embarrassing! After she had itemised everything, she announced that it would cost us 200 yuan, the equivalent of £20! We could have bought a new wardrobe for that in China! All we wanted to do was bundle it into a washing machine. We didn’t want our underwear pressed, we didn’t care if our shirts were crinkly! So we cringingly had to decline, saying it was too expensive (she wasn’t going to budge on price) and pack our laundry back into the bag, hoping that the girl from reception wouldn’t notice when some of the clothes made an appearance over the next few days! It is possible to wash a few items of clothing in a hotel room sink – underwear is easy – but you can’t really do much more than that as there is nowhere to hang things. Luckily, when it’s below zero, you don’t sweat much!

I think the girl, whose name was Lin, felt a bit sorry for us, so when we asked her for a recommendation for a place to eat, she walked us into town herself as she was on a break. There was a fantastic market area full of ornately carved traditional wooden stalls selling spices, nuts, fruit and veg and tourist knick knacks and in a covered area there were dozens of cabin-sized cafés. We chose one of these and had the local beef noodles, Chinese bread (which was like a dense, flat muffin) and beer. Lin left to go home for her lunch, but turned up again just before we finished and paid for our meals – she wouldn’t take no for an answer! We hadn’t been expecting it at all, or we wouldn’t have ordered the extras! She then took us to a bus stop from where we could get the bus to the sand dunes, waved us off and before we knew it, we were in the desert. We hadn’t planned the trip at all.

The entry to the dunes was quite expensive, and there was much hype surrounding the famous crescent moon lake, which is fed by a natural spring and sheltered by a horseshoe of sand dunes. Due to its location, sand blown off the dunes bypasses the lake, which is why it has been able to survive here in this arid environment for thousands of years. I can imagine it would have been a very welcome and emotional sight for the exhausted Silk Road merchants who had traversed the Gobi Desert. However, the water table has lowered significantly in the last 30 years and the lake has shrunk in size as a result. As there was a risk of it disappearing altogether, the government has begun to refill it. I think in summer it would be more impressive as the banks would be surrounded by flowers and greenery, and it would look like a true oasis, but when we were there it was more of a fenced in puddle, that curved around a small temple complex.

The area is a little like a desert theme park, and in high season would be packed with tourists doing camel treks, surfing the dunes and quad bike racing, but it was fairly quiet in winter. We saw a couple of camel trips heading off through the dunes and one or two quad bikes, but most people had come to climb the dunes and see the view of the desert from the top. For this purpose, they had rented fluorescent orange plastic bags, which they tied over their shoes to keep the sand out. Being seasoned dune climbers already, we went without – part of the fun is getting sand in your shoes anyway, isn’t it?

The sand dune we climbed in Mongolia was probably the hardest walk I have ever done, so I had some trepidation about repeating the experience! However, with the regular tourist traffic, the sand along the route was well compacted and so the two steps forward, one step back rule didn’t really apply and we were at the top pretty quickly. There were lovely views of the soft crests of sand, although as we were still on the edge of civilisation, it didn’t feel quite as otherworldly as in Mongolia. It was strange seeing a scattering of snow on the dunes – something you don’t expect to see in the desert! We lay flat on our backs at the top enjoying the whiffling of the wind and the silence, before heading back down towards the temple and the lake.

As we were walking back through town that evening, we passed an elderly man playing a Chinese bamboo flute. We gave him a few yuan and I told him that I also had a bamboo flute. He was very jolly and we had a photo taken together. I resolved to return the next day with my Chinese flute to see if he could teach me some tunes. As I was talking to him, a young man walking past did a double take. ‘Hey, don’t I know you from somewhere?’ Luke and I looked at each other, and then he realised – ‘Pingyao!’ We had met Lu and two friends back in October thousands of miles away in a karaoke bar in the ancient town of Pingyao. They had told us that they were tour guides for the Mogao caves in Dunhuang, but at the time had no plans to go there and had completely forgotten about the encounter. It really is a small world! Of all the millions and millions of people in China, to bump into the same person again seems an extraordinary thing! We made an arrangement to meet later that evening for a drink.

We went to a small kebab bar for dinner, where you paid by the stick. The meat was grilled with a delicious combination of spices and we ate it with Chinese bread and Chinese style naan. When we had eaten our fill, we headed to the bar to meet Lu. It was a lovely place, with a traditional Dunhuang design. Quaint and cosy with embroidered cloths and cushions and a kang bed to sit on in one room. As we entered, we were greeted by a very happy, friendly dog, who seemed to say, ‘follow me!’ and took us through a series of doors to the bar. Lu had brought Wu along, a girl we had also met in Pingyao, so it was a quite a reunion! Lu was one of the English speaking tour guides, but Wu took Chinese tourists only, so her English was limited. We were all delighted by the coincidental meeting! We passed a pleasant few hours catching up, asking questions about each other’s culture, drinking beer and munching on gwadzerr (sunflower seeds). We planned to visit the Mogao caves the following day, but unfortunately it was Lu’s day off so he couldn’t be our guide. Wu said that if she had time, she could meet us after our English tour and show us some extra caves if we liked as she had the keys, so we took her phone number.

The following morning, we took a taxi to the Mogao Caves visitor centre, where we watched two introductory films. The first was a high budget, epic adventure film telling the story of the Silk Road and the building of the Mogao grottoes, with hundreds of extras in period costume, camels laden with wares, galloping horsemen, the odd battle and a sandstorm. It told of how Le Zun, a Buddhist monk who journeyed along the Silk Road through the Gobi desert had a vision of a thousand Buddhas bathed in golden light at the site. This impelled him to make his dreams a reality and he is believed to have built the first of many grottoes. As an oasis town, Dunhuang was an extremely important stop along the Silk Road and a melting pot of cultures. The film conveyed this feeling perfectly. The voiceover was in Chinese, but Luke and I had been given an English audio guide each. At one point, the Aussie man we were listening to snorted with laughter for no apparent reason. Luke and I both fell into giggles at a rather inappropriate point in the film, much to bemusement of all the Chinese tourists. I bet the staff wonder why English speaking tourists always find that part of the film so funny!

The second film was in a huge dome-shaped theatre, and gave you a virtual tour of some of the caves, which had been scanned in 3d. I was mesmerised and found it exciting to be swooping down through the entrance of the caves and able to peer around at the artwork on the virtual walls. I thought it incredibly clever, and at the end, I turned to Luke enthusiastically and asked him what he thought of it. ‘They should have got me to help with their rendering,’ he declared. I should have known that a computer graphics programmer would be hard to impress!

After the movies, we piled into the shuttle bus, which took us on a journey past beautiful sand dune scenery to the caves themselves. We hopped down and crossed over a bridge and there before us, cut into the sandstone cliff face of Mingsha Mountain, were hundreds of caves on two and sometimes three levels, stretching 1600m from south to north. The entrances had all been fitted with doors to protect them from the light and to regulate the numbers of visitors. In summer the caves see up to 20,000 people in a day, so they have to be very careful the high volume of traffic does not lead to deterioration of the paintwork inside. Some caves can only be visited by special appointment, and every visitor must be accompanied by a guide. The usual trip takes in a selection of around 10 caves chosen by your guide. As the only foreigners there, we had a guide all to ourselves, which was wonderful, as all the others were traipsing round in big groups. I think this is definitely a place to visit in winter! Our guide was a middle-aged woman, who at first seemed rather stern, but seemed to warm to us as we showed our interest by asking lots of questions. She was very patient and clearly loved the grottoes. They really were extraordinary and if you are thinking of visiting China (you should, it’s brilliant!), then this should be on your itinerary!

We entered cave after cave and inside each the walls and ceilings were covered with the most exquisite murals. They varied in age from the Northern Wei dynasty in the 4th century to the early Ming dynasty in the 14th century and the designs ranged from maps of a palace complex, to intricate patterns, to stories from the sutras that ran like a comic strip. Caves could be commissioned by a rich individual, a family or an entire village. Some were vast and others modest in size, and some occupied only the porch area of a larger cave. There were grottoes whose designs had been near perfectly preserved and others where lead in the paint had oxidised, turning the white areas black. In some, there were blank patches where paintings had been lifted from the walls by over-zealous foreign archaeologists. Many of the caves contained sculptures set about a central altar. The older sculptures were beautifully executed, but the later versions (which had sometimes been installed to replace those that were stolen), were quite comical, with their garish pink flesh and ill proportioned limbs. The Tang dynasty was a peaceful, wealthy period in Chinese history and so many of the most detailed works dated from then.

Cave painting would have been a lucrative business – many skilled workers were needed to complete one cave. First of all the hollow had to be hewn from the rock, then the walls had to be prepared so that they were perfectly smooth, and then the artists would start their work. There often would have been one person who had the vision of the general design and then a series of lesser artists who would have worked under guidance to produce the finished mural. We spent around two hours wandering through 10 caves, but there were many, many more that we did not see. The volume of artwork there was staggering. One cave contained a large reclining Buddha surrounded by a crowd of disciples, all of whom had different expressions upon their faces, which told you how close each was to achieving enlightenment.

Roughly in the centre of the row of caves, there was a temple-like structure built against the wall. As we entered through the doors, we found ourselves looking at the feet of an enormous seated Buddha (this is becoming a bit of a recurrent theme!). At around 35m tall, we had to tip our heads back to see his face; he was a rather impressive fellow! He fitted snugly into the space and the outer structures gave no hint as to what was inside.

Probably the most famous grotto is the Library Cave, discovered by a Taoist priest called Wang Yuanlu in 1900. It is a small alcove set into the wall at the entrance to a larger and more impressive cave. Sandstorms had obscured the entrance to the main cave and Wang Yuanlu was clearing the site when he came upon a walled up area. Behind this were stacked a huge quantity of priceless documents and paintings; most were Buddhist scriptures, but some were from other religions too. Unfortunately he did not realise their value, and sold off the best part of the stash to foreign collectors for a pitiful sum of money. Now the documents are dispersed around the world; there are even some in the British Museum. The Chinese feel the loss very keenly, and lament that there are so few left in China. Museums are full of items that don’t ‘belong’ there. Some have been purchased, some may have been stolen. It does make you feel sad when you see the effects of looting in situ. Although, however uncomfortable we may feel about this, if the artefacts find their way into a public collection, it does provide a way for us to learn about other cultures and allows people who are unable to travel to get a glimpse of world history. I think I would draw the line at peeling a section out of a painting or chopping the head off a statue though!

We were unable to locate Wu that day as she was so busy with Chinese tour groups, but we had seen plenty to satisfy our curiosity. After the Silk Road fell into disuse during the Ming dynasty, Dunhuang dwindled in size and the caves were largely forgotten. The final part of the visit was a trip to the museum which had excellent displays explaining about the rediscovery of the caves in the late 19th century and also told of the artists who later came from all over China to learn from and copy the paintings. Some of these reproductions were then exhibited in the cities, which helped to spread the fame of the Mogao grottoes. We also learnt a little about how the renovation and preservation work is carried out. There were replicas of a few of the caves, which were quite amazing. As well as being near perfect duplicates in terms of artwork, the artists had painstakingly recreated every crack, every worn surface and each peeling layer of paint.

By the time we returned to town, we were ready to pass out from lack of food, so immediately sought out the market place and steaming bowls of noodles and dumplings. On our way, we passed the old man playing his flute again and stopped for a brief mimed chat.

The next morning, we found there was no hot water at all in the hotel – the taps ran dry. As we had a couple of nights on a train ahead of us, we were eager to have a wash first, so had to boil the kettle and wash in the sink. There was no way I was going to shower; the cold taps are glacial in northern China! We spent the day in a café, writing and programming (Luke, not me, ha ha!) and just before we left for the train station, I found the flute playing man once more and fished my Chinese flute out of my bag. He was really pleased to see us and taught me a tune which we played together. He was just so happy and smiley, you couldn’t help but feel cheerful in his presence! It was a lovely way to end our stay in Dunhuang, and we waved goodbye to him as our taxi pulled away.

A flying visit to Lanzhou

At 6am we were woken by the conductor and forty minutes later we arrived in Lanzhou. It was still dark outside, though the station was already bustling with early morning traffic. We stored our bags and caught a bus into town to find the Gansu museum. Lanzhou is the capital of Gansu, a long and thin province which curves in a north-westerly direction towards the Gobi desert. The museum wasn’t due to open for another hour, but we found an interesting looking building whose doors were open and cautiously crept inside. Inside, amidst the Christmas decorations (long past the 6th January), there was a large architectural model for a new shopping precinct, complete with shoppers and greenery. It looked like it was going to be amazing – soaring glass towers, pleasing curves and grassy areas and trees dotted around the balconies. When we crossed over the road outside, we could see the building work in progress behind. We had breakfast in a noodle bar. Lanzhou is famed for its fiery hot beef noodles, so we braced ourselves for an assault on our taste buds. However, it was not as bad as we had anticipated!

We arrived at Gansu Provincial Museum as the doors opened at 9am and spent the whole day there, leaving as it closed at 4.30pm. Needless to say, there were some excellent exhibits. Gansu lies along the Silk Road, a hugely important trade route that linked east with west, and one section was devoted to Silk Road artefacts.

Zhang Qian is a very important figure in the history of the Silk Road. In 139BC, the nomadic Huns from the steppes of north central Asia (Mongolia) were causing havoc in the Han empire (present day China) and Zhang Qian and 100 men were sent on a mission from Gansu westwards to try and make allegiances with other regions troubled by the Huns. On the way they were captured by the Huns and imprisoned for ten years. However, Zhang Qian was undeterred, and eventually managed to escape and continue his journey across the Gobi desert and into the western regions. There, he found that his diplomatic mission was futile, as the people were quite happy with the state of affairs at the time and did not want to unite in war against the Huns. He returned to Changan (now Xi’an), once again escaping from a brief period of capture by the Huns, but repeated the journey some years later. At this time he had several more envoys, who were sent to the western regions and reported back to the emperor with details of the geography, people and their customs. In this way relationships were built up with around 36 states, and the exchange of culture and trade was accelerated.

The main commodity transported from China was, of course, silk, which was highly prized and easy to pack and carry. Jade, porcelain, bronze and lacquer ware also travelled from east to west. In the other direction came precious metals, glass, carpets and livestock (expensive horses and camels). Food items such as rice and tea from China and spices, onions, carrots and grape seeds from westerly regions were also exchanged. Travelling the Silk Road would have been an arduous journey to undertake, as tradesmen had to traverse difficult roads in harsh climates. Thriving towns grew up around the route where weary merchants could refresh themselves and conduct trade. Eventually, the ‘Silk Road’ routes had created links between the Mediterranean, Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan, India and China. Arabs travelling along the routes into northern China brought with them their Muslim beliefs and a large number settled here, marrying local women. Buddhism was introduced from India and many temples were built along the routes for rest and prayer.

That morning, we had seen a large statue of a galloping horse near to the station. We learnt that it was the mascot of Gansu province, and in the museum we saw the original, much smaller model – a beautifully greened bronze, running full pelt and tossing its head. It had been unearthed near Wuwei in Gansu in 1969 by people under instruction to dig air raid shelters in case of a war with Russia and is thought to date from the 2nd century AD. I felt a bit like I was meeting a celebrity! Luke and I both stood and drew it, but neither of us was observant enough to notice what I have just discovered. The only foot in contact with the floor is in fact treading on a flying bird. The statue is known as the Gansu Flying Horse for this reason.

Whilst still in England, we had been to a talk on Chinese artefacts at the British Museum, and I did my best to remember what we had learnt. The main thing I could recall was that metal boxes, cooking vessels and containers often had faces on them, which were supposed to help ward off evil spirits. There was a whole room full of such items and I amused myself by spotting faces, which were sometimes highly simplified and difficult to recognise, but if you peered closely enough, you could make them out.

There was a large section devoted to fossils and dinosaur skeletons (very exciting!), where a British Walking with Dinosaurs-like series was playing on loop, an exhibition of Buddhist art, a section about the communist movement in Gansu and a huge room devoted to the evolution of pottery design in the region, with some pots dating from 7000 BC!

Our heads buzzing with information, we returned to the train station to catch our night train to Dunhuang, in the northwestern tip of Gansu. Weimin, our Chinese artist friend, had told us that every Chinese artist should go to Dunhuang to see the painted grottoes at Mogao. We hadn’t thought we would be able to fit it into our schedule at first, but after consulting maps and train timetables we had decided to head to the Gobi once more.

Yinchuan

After a 6 hour coach journey, we arrived in Yinchuan, the capital of the north central province of Ningxia. In 1958, Ningxia was designated an autonomous region for the Hui Muslim people, and so Yinchuan has a thriving Muslim community. It was late at night and we found ourselves in a dark carpark outside the coach station. The ladies we met were smiley and friendly and interested to see foreigners in these parts. We felt pretty confident, having reserved our hotel the previous day, and after a conversation with some taxi drivers, we were ushered into a cab. I realised that it was unmarked and had no meter and so we fixed a price beforehand – the driver held up his hand and said ‘five’, which we thought was quite reasonable. However, on reaching our destination, he protested that he had meant five zero, which was much more expensive than the short journey warranted. Feeling a bit cross that we had been had (although I had been anticipating something dodgy when the drivers of the metered cabs insisted we go with him), we nevertheless paid up, thankful at least that we had made it to our hotel.

We had chosen the hotel from the Lonely Planet guide, feeling that this would be a safe bet, and Liangliang had phoned up to reserve our room the day before. However, as we lumbered into the lobby hefting our bags, the girls on reception looked very surprised to see us. We smiled and informed them we had a reservation. They appeared very confused and told us they were fully booked. The whole situation was extremely bewildering, as both parties endeavoured to communicate via Google translate and sign language. I was put onto a phone call with a man who spoke a little English, who told us we couldn’t stay there, but that they could put us in a cab and take us to another hotel. It eventually transpired that the hotel was no longer able to accept foreign guests and the only reason we had been able to make a reservation in the first place was because Liangliang had done it for us. I traipsed around some hotels in the vicinity and found a similar story – all ‘fully booked’. We didn’t fancy being ferried to some unknown hotel, so Luke got onto the WiFi in the lobby and made a booking on the internet. We found ourselves a bona fide taxi with the meter switched on, which as expected cost ten times less than our previous journey, and eventually arrived at a place we could spend the night.

It was a large chain hotel, with spacious rooms and welcoming staff. We had a lot of fun over the next few days trying to converse with them. They spoke no English at all and were unerringly patient with us, but quite often got the wrong end of the stick. The next day we crashed out in the hotel room, eating our way through our stash of food and making a start on the red dates. In the afternoon, we suddenly decided to get our acts together and took a taxi to the North Pagoda, Haibao Temple, for an hour’s wandering before it closed. We stepped from the hustle and bustle of the street through a huge red painted wooden gate, framed by thick red timber pillars. Once inside the courtyard, the city noise ebbed away and we were soothed by the sudden serenity. There was a pretty garden with trees and shrubberies, an ancient well around which cats congregated and before us, the regal 11 storey pagoda reached skyward, each floor slightly smaller than the last, its sandy coloured bricks contrasting beautifully against the clear blue sky. Bells were hung at the corners along the length of the pagoda and they tinkled gently in the breeze. It is unknown when North Pagoda was originally constructed, but due to earthquake damage, it was rebuilt during the Qing dynasty in the 18th century. We entered through the narrow doorway and commenced the climb to the top. The stairway was wooden, steep and somewhat rickety and it was quite dark inside. Up and up we climbed, each flight of steps leading to a small landing with a tantalising glimpse out over the grounds and the city beyond. Not wanting to spoil the surprise, we pressed on to the top. Here, the unusual cross–shaped floor plan could be easily appreciated, and at each point of the cross the late afternoon sun streamed in through large, round latticed windows which opened out onto city vistas. There was a lovely view of the gardens below and we could see a long way across the city. Yinchuan is not especially attractive, but with its myriad of flat-roofed buildings and narrow streets it would be a great spot for free-running! We spiralled our way back downwards and spent some time befriending the courtyard cats and taking ‘pussy in the well’ photographs (as the bells ding donged in background!). On leaving the grounds, we found ourselves in the midst of a game of tig (or tag if you’re a southerner!), as school children raced up and down the temple steps.

We took a leisurely stroll across the city to the drum tower, stopping by a knitting shop to buy some much-needed leg warmers. Every Chinese town worth its salt has a bell tower and a drum tower and they are usually quite striking buildings (get it?!). They are huge, wooden, brightly painted structures situated a street or so apart at the junction of two main roads and in the past were used to keep the time. They are also common features of Chinese temples. When bells are rung, they are often be done so in multiples of nine. As nine is the highest single digit number in base 10, it is considered auspicious, and symbolises completeness and eternity. Chinese emperors were very fond of the number nine and it presents itself in architectural features of many important buildings. For instance, the great gates in the Forbidden City in Beijing contain 81 golden doornails (nine rows of nine), and flights of stairs in the complex usually consist of nine steps, or a multiple of nine.

Our stomachs were rumbling, so we stopped at a fast food noodle restaurant for some warming and spicy noodle soup. We took seats in the window and were amused to see passers-by doing double takes as they spotted us.  We hadn’t seen any other westerners for a good few days by now! After we had eaten our fill, we decided it was high time we headed back to our hotel – then we realised that we had no address and had no idea where it was, having left by taxi. Taxi drivers we stopped had not heard of the hotel. Sheepishly, we returned to the café and asked if we could use the waiter’s phone. Eventually, we found the address on the internet and he was able to give us directions. Silly foreigners!

On our way back, we walked down a wide pedestrianised street, which was punctuated at intervals with captivating bronze statues depicting children playing local games, traditional trades and Yinchuan citizens (Han and Hui) having fun together. We passed through a buzzing shopping centre and out onto a street lined with mainly Hui street vendors selling dried fruits, nuts, breads and sweet potatoes. Even though we were clearly not from these parts, everyone made us feel very welcome and the city had a warm and friendly atmosphere.

The following morning we had decided to plan ahead and book train tickets for our onward journey into the province of Gansu. We wasted a lot of time trying to find the correct bus to the train station (another piece of Lonely Planet misinformation!), but once on it had a pleasant journey chatting to a man who spoke a bit of English and making pronunciation notes in my phrasebook with his help. I finally thought I might be able to make use of it! I then wrote down in picture format and with a little Chinese the exact details for the trains we wanted to catch, thinking that for once we would be good, well-prepared tourists and would be in and out as quick as the locals. I thought it was fool-proof. How wrong could I have been!

At first, everything went swimmingly. The man at the counter seemed to understand the note perfectly and having taken our details, took our passports and card payment and began to print out the tickets. I grinned at Luke, feeling rather smug. Then the man stopped in confusion. HE peered at the tickets and then at our passports. In China, you have to have your name on the train ticket. As he could not read English, he had put our nationality down as our names – then realised his mistake when our names were the same! We tried to indicate which line showed our names. He went off to another window to consult a colleague. The queue behind us grew longer and people peered to see what was happening. There seemed to be quite a discussion going on behind the glass panels, and more and more windows ceased service whilst heads were put together to sort out the conundrum of the foreigners’ tickets. Eventually, the poor man returned, still rather puzzled. After 20-25 minutes, a card refund and a repayment later, we had the tickets we had requested. We couldn’t believe how patient everyone was – those in the queue behind us were quite jovial and understanding. We had passed around our sketchbooks thinking people might need placating, but no one seemed upset anyway. If this had been the UK, there would have been huffing and puffing and sighing and swearing. I guess this might come from living in such a highly populated country – people are used to being kept waiting.

We emerged, triumphantly clutching our tickets, and found ourselves a taxi to take us to Helanshan Yanhua, a site of ancient rock carvings several miles out of town at the foot of the mountains. When we arrived, we realised how remote it was and that our chances of hailing a taxi back would be vanishingly small, so decided to pay our driver to wait for us whilst we wandered around. There was a wonderful museum about rock art around the world with some lovely real petroglyphs, some great replicas and excellent English explanations, some of which were rather poetic. The museum had clearly been put together by someone passionate about their subject and this enthusiasm shone through the exhibits. After seeing extensive sections on cave paintings and rock carvings in what felt like all the other nations around the world, we felt a little glow of something resembling patriotic pride when we came upon a reproduction of Stonehenge, having started to believe that our ancestors were devoid of any sort of creativity.

After the museum, we were taken by an electric shuttlebus towards the mountains to see the real thing. The setting was impressive – craggy mountains towered above us on one side, crowding into the distance, whilst the flat plain stretched out in front. The abrupt change in scenery was quite awe inspiring. Along a canyon on the eastern flank of the mountains, thousands of petroglyphs have been discovered. A concrete path wound around the main sites beside a small river, and we had fun trying to spot the carvings as we ambled past. There were stick-like deer and sheep, occasional hunting scenes, funny looking faces, squiggly lines and patterns.  Many were visible from the main path, but others were situated higher up and we had to climb a little way to see them. The most famous picture is that of the sun god, whose startled monkey-like features gaze eastwards from a vantage point halfway up the cliff. The jury is out as to the age of the carvings, with estimates varying between 1500-10,000 years old. There is something exciting about being in the presence of ancient art in situ – you get a glimpse into the mysteries of past civilisations, and can’t help but picture the people climbing the cliff face to carve their stories. In a few places there were carvings of handprints. This indicated possession or power – a handprint next to deer or sheep is essentially saying, ‘I own this livestock’. One set of carvings containing a handprint was thought to be a contract between tribes, with the pictures showing that one tribe had defeated the other and had taken possession of their land. I noticed a few more recent handprints in the concrete path – evidently someone had felt inspired to leave their own mark!

Halfway along the path it began to turn into an ice rink, and there was a series of fountains spraying water over large wooden blocks, which were gradually getting coated with a thick layer of ice. When we asked about this, they told us they were preparing for summer, when it gets swelteringly hot in the canyon. As the winters are so cold in contrast, they can make their own ice blocks in advance to provide a cooling effect.

As we headed back to find our faithful taxi driver, we felt like we were stepping back out of the past, but a past that we still felt close to. It is incredible to think how long humans have been making art. Some of the sculptures in the museum were 50,000 years old! We often think of art as something frivolous and unnecessary, but it is really an integral part of human nature. I found Helan Shan and the exhibition unexpectedly moving. There is something grounding and almost motherly about ancient art. Similar themes crop up again and again, reminding us that we are indeed part of one big family; we have the same roots, share the same anxieties and sense of wonder. It is fascinating that such ideas developed in parallel in disparate communities around the world, and that the thoughts and feelings of ancient people still resonate today.

We were dropped back at the city centre and after dinner had a leisurely evening walk back through the streets to our hotel. It was a Friday and there were many more stalls than the previous night, their wares spread out on blankets or packed into push carts and the pavements were interspersed with plastic toys that marched and span about. We bought some twisty breadsticks from a Hui baker, who thought it was very funny we only wanted four of them. We said our three words of Chinese and he grinned and shook our hands firmly.

Once back at the hotel, I realised I had lost my journal and Chinese phrasebook somewhere along the way. We thought we might have left them in the taxi and after a lot of confusion, involving texting the taxi company translated messages and trying to communicate with the hotel staff, a taxi driver turned up with a book on Chinese agriculture, in Chinese. I am sure had I been able to read it, perhaps the subject would have grown on me (…!), but decided it best to decline gracefully. I was annoyed to have lost the journal, but luckily it was a new one and I had only been using it for two days. As for the phrasebook, it was fairly useless, but I was sad I would never be able to use the phrase, ‘this coffee shop is very romantic. It even has internet access.’

The next day we crammed our belongings into our bags and just about made it out of the room by the check-out time of 12pm. We had polished off most of the snack food left over from our stay in Ni he gou, but still had a few kilos of dates to get through! As we hauled our luggage out of the room, we were met by one of the hotel managers, who had come up to give us a hand. She was probably about 40 years old and was one of the main people we had been attempting to talk to at the desk over the past couple of days. She took one of our bags and we mutely gestured our thanks and the three of us shuffled into the waiting lift. There was that awkward silence that comes with being in a confined space with a stranger, which was amplified by our inability to conduct small talk and we glanced about and twiddled our thumbs. The lady was gazing curiously at Luke’s bristly, rather unruly beard. She raised her hand, hesitated, and then seemed to make a decision. Cautiously stretching out her fingertips, she gently fondled his beard, as if it was a thing of wonder. Luke’s eyes widened, he smiled goonishly and I bit my lip trying not to laugh, but no one made a sound. Shortly after, the lift doors opened and we filed out, as if nothing had happened. I got the impression she had been wanting to do this ever since we had first turned up, and she saw this as her last chance!

After a tasty kebab from a street vendor (they REALLY know how to do kebabs here), we headed to the train station to store our big bags so we could spend the remainder of the day unladen before catching the night train to Lanzhou. We got talking to some shop owners at the station and I showed them Luke’s sketchbook as a way to explain where we had been. They kept trying to tell us things, but we had no idea what! A young Hui Muslim man came up and joined in our one way Google translate conversation. He had just returned from a short trip away. It was very cold outside when we were waiting for our bus back into town, so we offered him one of our hand warmers. He insisted on giving it back when our bus arrived and he proffered his sleeping bag, which had Arabic writing on it, as a kind of farewell gesture. We thanked him, but explained we already had sleeping bags and waved goodbye as the bus pulled away. If only we could speak Mandarin, we would have got so much more out of our travels in China! We have met so many friendly people who are keen to strike up a conversation, and it would be wonderful to be able find out more about their lives, opinions and personalities.

Once back in town, we did a small amount of shopping for essentials (a new notebook, a sketchpad) and killed time in a restaurant. We ordered tea with our meal – the word is ‘cha’, but no matter how we said it, with inflection up or down or high or low in tone, and despite frantic mimings of sipping tea, no one understood! It was the same wherever we went in China – you’d think it would be easy to get tea in China, wouldn’t you? Eventually, feeling resigned, we showed them the word on our phone, and they predictably said, ‘ah, CHA!’ – as if, ‘why didn’t you just say so?’ It seemed so obvious to us that that was exactly we had been saying again and again, but to the Chinese, we had probably been saying, ‘Dog? Sieve? Potato?’, so they had no clue what we were talking about. The tea eventually arrived and was rather exciting to look at. I think it was what is known as ‘eight treasures tea’ as it was full of sesame seeds, walnuts, large seed heads, red and yellow dates, goji berries and other spices. It was very sweet and a bit like drinking a scented Christmas candle. Each time I drank some, they came and topped it up with hot water, so it was a never-ending cup. Luke didn’t really like it, but they still insisted on adding water to his each time, so that after a while you could see the meniscus forming, but never a drop spilled.

Back at the station, we made acquaintance with a group of medical students who spoke very good English, and shared our dates around. At 10.40pm we were settled in our beds and the train pulled out of the station. We were en route to Dunhuang in the far northwest of Gansu province, an oasis town on the edge of the Gobi desert, but as we needed to change trains in Lanzhou, we had decided to spend a day there before catching our next train.

Ni he gou – Part 2

The next morning we had another massive breakfast, but decided that despite our taut bellies, we really had better make a start on the snacks we had bought from the supermarket as well, so we forced down some tinned pears and some milk. We had brought out the chocolate the night before and were amused by the reception it got. The uncle had never had chocolate before in his life, and nibbled at it cautiously. He clearly didn’t want to offend and managed to finish it, but it was evident it was a bit of a chore! Wu took his piece and surreptitiously left it on the side, untouched. To be fair, it wasn’t very nice chocolate, but the cultural difference did make us laugh.

After breakfast, Liangliang set up three stools in the back of the little motortrike truck and Luke and I hunkered down on the seats with Wu. It was bitingly cold, and whilst we must have looked quite funny sitting on stools in the back of the trike, it would have been much chillier to sit on the floor. We wiggled our toes and jogged our knees all the way to our destination. After a trip up some winding and bumpy tracks, we arrived at a lovely, ramshackle old Buddhist temple tucked away in the hills. It was a weatherworn place of peeling paint and aging stonework and was completely deserted save for a dirty white cat with one blue and one green eye and a stooped, crinkle-faced monk who hobbled around the buildings leaning on a cane and carrying a wicker basket. We asked if we could take a photo and afterwards, feeling like it was a bit of an imposition, I remembered I had a pocketful of peanuts and put a few into his basket. I smiled inanely, then cringed away, feeling that awkward embarrassment that ensues when you have been trying to make a kind gesture and it falls a little flat, seeming somewhat patronising or just a bit odd. As the monk shuffled off, we continued our exploration. Wu went to light some incense at one of the shrines whilst Liangliang and I did a little impromptu dance on the neglected opera stage. At the back of the temple, looking out over the hillside, was a pavilion with a marble table engraved with a Chinese chess board and surrounded by four stools. It would have been a wonderful place to while away a few hours if it hadn’t been so cold!

We headed back for lunch, another meal of gargantuan proportions where we were encouraged to eat more than we thought physically possible! Most days in my life I go through a phase where I feel hungry and think perhaps I should eat something. I never once got to this stage in Ni he gou – we were far too well fed for that! Hunger was always anticipated a good few hours before it was due to arrive. Liangliang took me and Luke out for another trike adventure, this time heading out along the main road, where the sandy canyon towered above us and the threat of rock falls was ever present. Some of the rocks were lined with huge cracks, others had smooth edges and even holes where wind and water had carved them into whimsical shapes. We passed a place where a large tributary joined the Yellow River and watched as chunks of ice jostled their way downstream. After a while, we stopped at the side of the road. There were some steps leading down to the riverbank, but aside from that, it seemed no different from the other stretches we had passed. As we clambered down the steps, we saw a small stone tower for burning incense and a sandstone overhang to our right from which an old bell hung. There, huddled into a cave underneath the road, was an extraordinary little Buddhist shrine. Inside the cavern, there were three Buddhas. They all had new heads, which looked a little incongruous on their aging shoulders, as the original heads had been stolen.  We spent the next hour meandering along the river’s edge, playing a game of hit the iceberg, trying to land stones on the ice as it floated past and Liangliang showed us a couple of old, rusting boats beached at intervals along the shoreline. The sun was sinking lower in the sky and with it what little heat it had brought to the day, so when we reached a wide sandy beach, Liangliang had the bright idea of starting a fire. We collected bamboo, driftwood and tangled weeds. Setting it alight was very easy as everything was so dry. Once it had burnt down and we were a little warmer, we headed homewards.

That evening after the meal, we had more visitors; the village head and another of Wu’s friends. The maotai and beer were brought out once more, as was my flute and our sketchbooks. The village head was a little more serious and reserved than the friend, as was befitting of his station, but he had a voracious appetite for the gwadzerr! We showed them some of the panoramic pictures we had taken on our trip out that day – it was relatively easy to take good photos as the skies were so clear and the scenery so striking. After the bracing fresh air, good food and alcohol, my eyes began to flicker after an hour or so, despite my efforts to stay awake, and they kindly volunteered to leave so we could go to bed.

In the morning, Wu and his friends took us into the village to take photos of the community centre. It used to be a school as well, but there are so few young people here nowadays that it has closed down. He was keen that we document the building with panoramic pictures of the inside. Afterwards, we paid a visit on another friend, whose wife gave us tea, which I managed to pour all over myself, and delicious steamed dumplings.

Liangliang took us out for another long hike before lunch, this time heading in the opposite direction around the cliff. It was clear he was really enjoying showing us the scenery of his childhood – he told us he hadn’t been there for a couple of years, so it was a little like a trip down memory lane for him. The crumbling path wound steeply from the village up the rock face and as we climbed, we could clearly make out the layers of ancient sediment that made up the landscape. Two thirds of the way up, there was a beautiful stone bridge spanning a dry riverbed. When the rains come and the streams swell, it must be a dangerous place with all the loose stones about. The path is quite treacherous at the best of times and must be very difficult to traverse when laden with bags of dates or firewood. Glancing up above the bridge at an overhang of sandstone, we could see what looked like a huge, stern face in profile, gazing out over the village far below. Liangliang told us that this natural carving was thought of as the village guardian, and it was easy to see why. Traversing the clifftop, we watched with envious admiration as a hare nimbly covered the ground before us in a few graceful strides, pinging at angles off rocks and making us feel like lumbering giants. We rested for a while at the top and looking back at the way we had come labouring up the path, we spied a bleating waterfall of sheep and goats flowing effortlessly down a sheer drop. After soaking up the view, we gingerly picked our way back along the track into the valley and I kept my footing all the way, until, just as we were nearing the first cave dwelling and we had waved at the ladies stood outside, I slipped as if on a banana skin and landed flat on my back. I sprang up quickly, as one is apt to after an embarrassing fall and strode onwards, pretending nothing had happened. As we neared the ladies, they came over to greet us. One was Liangliang’s grandmother and she hugged him warmly, evidently extremely pleased to see him and ushered us inside her home. I had been admiring the pile of firewood beside the path – the smaller sticks had been stacked in such a way as to create a brilliant little shelter for the logs. Things like this bring out the hunter gatherer in me and make me want to run off into the woods and build dens. I gallantly resisted this urge and we went to have tea and dates with his grandma, who was very beautiful and happy to meet us, before heading back into the centre. Passing through the village, people crowded round and we said hello to those we had met before and took a few group photos together.

After a hearty lunch, we spent a relaxing afternoon wandering the village, sketching goats and taking photographs. That evening, we were just finishing our meal, when the uncle arrived once more. He had already had his dinner and it was funny seeing the tables turned and Wu pestering him to eat more food, whilst he flapped his arms in protest! It was lovely to see him again before we left, he is such a jolly man. The next morning we had to get up very early to set off for Yulin once more, so we made sure we had an early night.

We rose at 6am to hustle and bustle as we all got ourselves ready for the onward journey. We packed up our backpacks and Wu gave us each a large carrier bag full of red dates each. Around 4kg in total! It was so kind and it was very important to him that we took them as they were his own dates and a regional delicacy. Somehow we managed to fit them into our rucksacks! We tried to leave the supermarket snacks behind for Wu to finish, but he was having none of it, and insisted we take it all with us. The four of us, laden with baggage, crept out into the dark village and made our way towards the waiting bus. The driver was, Mr Chao, a man we had met on one of our first nights in the village. At first we were the only passengers, but as the bus trundled its way along steep winding roads into remote villages we picked up more and more people with their packages, boxes and sacks of goods. One man had a massive stack of eggs, which for a short while was perched next to us on top of a parcel. We were relieved to be absolved of any responsibility for breakages when he moved it onto his lap. As the sky gradually began to lighten, we stopped at a small town and Wu got out and bought us each a date bread roll as a snack.

A couple of hours later and we pulled into the bus station at Yulin. We were collected by another brother in law and taken to their apartment where his wife and Liangliang cooked us brunch. Jiangwei arrived just before we ate; we were so pleased to see him again. He had bought me a Chinese bamboo flute! I was touched by the gesture. It is very beautiful and I have since learnt it has a poem etched into the neck. When I first tried to play it, I made an awful sound! Then Wu got some sellotape and taped over one of the holes near the top. After this it played fine – I have seen a few flutes since and they all have this hole covered with tape or clingfilm. I am not sure what the purpose of it is! Shortly after, Yanjiang arrived and we all sat down to our last meal together. It was a lovely end to a wonderful few days. We had felt so privileged to be welcomed into the heart of such a warm, generous family and were extremely sad to be leaving.

We made our goodbyes to the two eldest brothers and the rest of us squeezed into the car and set off for the coach station. We bought our tickets for Yinchuan, our next destination, and stowed our bags on the coach. Liangliang insisted we sit in the front as I think he wanted us to be near the driver, but we soon realised there was no leg room and moved further back. The coach pulled away and we strained to see our friends to wave goodbye. Unfortunately, they were looking for us in the wrong window and by the time they spotted us it was a little too late. I think this mix up broke a little emotional dam for us both and we found ourselves with leaking eyes. We vowed to stay in touch and hope that we will be able to return one day.

Ni he gou – part 1

We had a wonderful night’s sleep in our swanky room and had a Chinese breakfast in the hotel restaurant before meeting the family again. The other guests stared at us curiously during breakfast – I think they do not see many westerners in this region. At 9am, Jiangwei, Liangliang and their mother, Zhen Fenlan arrived to take us to the village. We piled into the car and set off on the 2 hour drive to Ni he gou. Zhen clasped my hand tightly and beamed at me. She was a lovely lady and very warm-hearted and whilst we couldn’t really talk to one another, we did our best to communicate with grinning and waving of hands.

As the road started to wend its way through craggy hills, we left the city well behind us and we nervously glanced at the cliff face with its precariously perched boulders which loomed to our left. Now and then Jiangwei had to swerve to avoid rocks that had fallen onto the road and not yet been cleared. The road began to follow the Yellow River which was nearly fully iced over in places. Across the waters lay the province of Shanxi – we were in Shaanxi, of course! Dotted about in the distance we could make out small buildings cut into cliff faces, with their entrances all angled to make the most of the sun. It was a beautiful, yet desolate place, with the grand sweep of the frozen river, the azure blue of the sky and the yellow, arid crags.

We were excited to find out what the houses would be like – all I knew was that they were termed ‘cave dwellings’. Soon we swung left off the road and onto a bumpy track. The car was parked on a wide driveway at the entrance to the village, which seemed to act as a congregation point for the villagers and we began to unload our things. Needless to say, we attracted a lot of attention! People crowded round and stared, some seemed a little suspicious, but most were simply curious and laughed in a friendly way when we said, ‘ni hao!’ The village has an aging population as the young people tend to leave for the towns to find work, so there were many elderly men and women with beautiful weather-worn faces. One old man had no teeth, but grinned in such a happy way you couldn’t help beaming back at him. There was a red date (jujube) plantation at the front, with many old, venerated trees, a conventional white-washed brick building which used to be a school and community centre, and then a brick wall ran alongside a path which separated the nearest homes from the orchard. Those closest had two yards full of woolly goats calmly munching on hay and as we walked up the path, we saw a recently slaughtered goat to our right being butchered on benches set up in a clearing. The men stopped their work and gave us a cheery wave as we passed. The date harvest had just taken place, so the trees were bare, with their black, straggling branches reaching to the sky and only the occasional stubborn, wrinkled date left clinging on. The lower part of the trunks were painted white to deter burrowing insects, but also to reflect sunlight and thus protect the trees from dangerous fluctuations in temperature during cold weather.

We rounded a corner and climbed up a short path to a large wooden gate in a tall wall which led into a sunny courtyard. To our left was a sheltered area where tools were kept and to our right were three wide arched wooden doorways. The top half of each door was latticed, and the lattice covered with paper to allow light through whilst providing some insulation. Only two of the rooms were in use and the one we were to sleep in was the central one. Jiangwei’s parents had kindly given us their room for the duration of our stay. The architecture was of the same style to the buildings we had seen from the car, and although this row was not cut directly into the cliff face, a little distance behind the courtyard a bluff of sandy coloured rock rose up. Each room consisted of a living area at the front with chairs, a table, cupboards and a sideboard for storage, whilst at the back of the room was a raised area, the kang bed, which took up about a third of the living space. Along the right hand wall, between the bed and the sitting area, was the stove. We had encountered kang before in Pingyao, but this was our first experience of a fully functioning one. It was a chilly -12°C in the morning and at night, and the kang stove bed was to be our only source of heat. Hot smoke from the coal fire is channelled from the stove to heat a huge block of masonry underneath the platform. It is a great way to conserve the heat from cooking and once hot enough, the warmth is retained throughout the night without the need to keep the fire burning. It was pretty cold inside the room and we all tended to wrap up in our outdoor clothes to eat meals, but once on the kang, we soon found ourselves toasty and warm and on occasion it would get uncomfortably hot at night. Now and then the fumes from the coal fire would be quite strong smelling, but in general it was a pleasant and cosy set up. There was no running water, but there was a large canister in the courtyard which was filled with water from the village well and there were two drop toilets situated at opposite ends of the property, just outside the courtyard walls. Some people might find the idea of drop toilets quite horrible, but there is generally less paddling involved than in some of the squat flush toilets you get in public places, so I much prefer them!

At the house, we met Jiangwei’s father for the first time. Both Luke and I always feel somewhat emotional talking about Wu Liangsheng. He was such a lovely, kind man, full of fun and evidently much liked by all in the village. He had a short, wiry frame and a broad, infectious grin and laughed a lot. He spoke no English and we only had about four words of Chinese, but we got by pretty well with gestures and pointing. He farms dates and used to live with his wife in the village, but now she has to spend a lot of time in working in the city and so isn’t at home as often. Over the next few days, he looked after us so well, cooking delicious meals three times a day, ensuring the kang stove kept us warm and that we had water to wash with, and plying us with strong maotai liquor in the evenings! We were very much guests there, which meant we weren’t allowed to help with anything! This was something we both found a bit awkward at first, but once we realised that it was the norm, we relaxed a bit and tried to make sure we were worthy of the hospitality.

Once we were settled in, we were joined by another relative, a brother in law, and drove to an amazing Tao temple complex, called Baiyun temple. Baiyun means ‘white cloud’ and was so named because of the cloud that swirled around it when it was built, being at such high altitude. It was constructed in 1605 during the late Ming dynasty, and was the largest of its kind in northwest China. We were quite off the beaten track as far as tourism goes, so I count ourselves lucky to have seen this architectural gem. There were many beautiful buildings, all with handsomely carved wooden eaves, colourful paintwork and pretty stone sculptures. Worn stone steps led up into the complex and paths wove around the buildings in a charmingly disorganised way, so that at each turning came a new surprise, including fantastic views over the Yellow River. At the base of the steep steps that led to the main temple building, a man was sharpening his axe. We passed him and climbed to the top, walking under a white archway. In front of the temple was a gorgeous round stone disc, carved with the animals of the Chinese zodiac and their patron saints. It was a wonderful visit, made all the more special as we felt we were part of a rare family day out, and everyone was in high spirits. Just before we left, Zhen bought a bag of some strange roots for us to munch on. They looked a little like fat dried up yellow caterpillars, but tasted really nice!

After Baiyun temple, we stopped at a nearby scenic spot. We walked along a narrow path to reach a pavilion perched on a piece of land that jutted out precipitously as the ground fell away towards a river valley. In the distance, a small town nestled at the confluence of the Yellow River and one of its tributaries. We then drove to the village where the brother in law lived and said goodbye to Zhen, who had to return to Yulin.

They knew we were interested in art, and took us to the home of an elderly lady who made traditional Chinese papercuts. Her family were clearly very proud of her talent, although I think she would rather not have had the attention! We crowded into her small studio, marvelling at her intricate work as she snipped away with her tiny scissors, revealing elaborate scenes of people, animals and plants. The paper was coloured on one side and once finished, would be mounted on a white background. As she sat hunched over her desk, peering through her glasses to make out the pencil lines, we really wished we could speak Mandarin so we could find out more about her craft. She looked to be in her 80s, and had evidently been doing papercuts most of her life. She must have created some masterpieces in her past and it was inspiring to see her still at work and still producing wonderful pictures. Her hands were gnarled and Luke noticed one of her fingers was bent right back; we wondered if this could have been from arthritis. Her children rolled out several enormously long completed works for us to admire; they were exceptionally beautiful and had we been on a shorter trip we would have considered buying one.

A short walk away from her home, we came upon another viewpoint. A wall held us back from an abrupt drop down to the river bed and in the distance we could see an incredible little temple built precariously on a tall stack of sandstone that was linked to the mainland by a narrow bridge. It was so extraordinary that we had to stop and sketch the scene.

Afterwards, we continued on to the brother in law’s apartment for dinner, which was more European in style and very different from the cave dwellings in Ni he gou. There we were introduced to more relatives, including an uncle, a sister, and two children (a boy of 10 and a girl of 3 or 4) – but here we got rather confused about the relationships! Dinner was a wonderful selection of home cooked dishes we could pick at with our chopsticks, and as usual, we were encouraged to eat and eat, so that we were fit to burst by the end! The boy was a keen artist himself and they showed us some of the paintings he had done in traditional Chinese art style; landscapes in black ink with a brush on white paper. They really were very good for his age, and he very kindly gave us one of them. Perhaps one day he will be a famous artist and his early works will be worth a fortune! Luke drew his portrait as a gift for the family. The little girl was very sweet; quite serious when posing for sketches and with a beautiful Cupid’s bow pout. She sometimes forgot herself and lapsed into giggly smiles, but very quickly mastered her solemnity once more as if she posed like this all the time. During the meal, the maotai was brought out, as well as several beers. Luke in particular was encouraged to drink more and more, and downing shots seemed to be the done thing, so he felt quite tipsy by the time we left!

Back at our room, the fire was stoked and we tucked ourselves up in our beds on the kang, feeling blissfully happy, very drowsy from the alcohol and with heads spinning from our whirlwind of a day. We wore several layers of clothing that first night, thinking we would get cold, but found it stiflingly hot once the kang warmed up!

The next day, we huddled around the little table in our room with Jiangwei, Liangliang and Wu and had a warming breakfast of porridge-like bean soup with steamed bread rolls. We wrapped up warm and headed out with the brothers for a wintry walk around the village and surrounding area. It was a clear, cloudless day and the sun was out, but being early in the morning it was bitterly cold and when we weren’t walking our toes began to feel painfully chilly. It was very strange to be in sub-zero temperatures and yet see no sign of snow or frost on the ground. The area gets very little precipitation, and is very close to the desert. Indeed, a photo of the place would suggest swelteringly hot weather, as the sun was bright in the sky and much of the ground was sandy. It is easy to forget that deserts are not all about heat! We passed more cave dwellings scattered around the village, including those where Jiangwei and his brothers grew up and several that were empty as so many people had moved to urban areas. As we headed back for lunch (still rather full from breakfast!), we were able to walk across the small river that bordered the village as it was completely frozen over.

On our return, Wu had some warm sweet potatoes ready for us, and we ate them and watched as he prepared the noodles for lunch. He had a large bowl to which he gradually added water and flour to make the dough, kneading it swiftly into a smooth, elastic ball. He left it to rest for a while and then took out a lengthy rolling pin and skilfully rolled it out until it was a couple of millimetres thick, before slicing it into strips, which he floured and coiled up. Water was added to the enormous wok that sat over the stove and Wu pulled and pushed at the handle to pump the bellows that were built into the fireplace to help bring it to the boil. When it began to bubble, I helped him tear the coiled noodles into 2cm long pieces and we tossed them in to cook. The noodles were then added to a delicious stew, which we seasoned to our own taste with some dried flower heads, flaked chilli and spring onion. The flowers were tiny and brown and looked a little like crispy spiders. They grew in the local area and had a warm, toasted flavour. I would have loved to know their English name to see if we could buy them in Britain.

After lunch, Jiangwei left to go back to Yulin. We were sorry to see him go, but knew we would see him again before we left and we were certain to be well looked after by Wu and Liangliang. It was warmer walking weather by this point, so the four of us headed out again, this time high up onto the sandstone cliffs that towered around the little village. From the top, there were magnificent views over the Yellow River basin. Vast swathes of the river were frozen and chunks of ice were being carried downstream. Even at this altitude there were date groves planted in terraces in the dry soil; they must be extraordinarily hardy plants to cope with such an extreme climate. Most areas are accessible by motorbike or motorised tricycle and Liangliang told us the harvest can now be brought down in the vehicles. However, in the past, people would have had to hike down the steep and crumbly paths with huge bundles of dates on their backs. It would have been a laborious task. In fact, many people still do transport their goods in this way; we saw men and women with large stacks of sticks strapped to their backs making their way back to the village, so perhaps not everyone has access to a bike. We passed more abandoned cave dwellings, including the house Wu grew up in, which had been damaged by fire. It is sad but understandable that people are moving away, as life here must be so tough. However, despite the hardships, I imagine there is an awful lot of fun to be had here as a child. Liangliang showed us places where he used to play; the possibilities for imaginative games would be endless here. They also showed us the graves of their ancestors, and the situation commanding sweeping vistas across the valley is probably the most stunning setting for a cemetery I have ever seen. At the top of the cliff face opposite, Liangliang pointed out a couple of eagle nests and a little further along, we came across a memorial pavilion for those who had died fighting for the Communist cause against the Kuomintang. It is amazing to think how far-reaching the political situation was; even in remote villages people lost their lives. The peasant uprisings played a big role in the Communist movement, but I do wonder how much their lives actually changed. I would love to know what sort of a transition Ni he gou has made over the last century.

On our way back down, we stopped at another cave dwelling to visit some of their friends, a very smiley and welcoming older couple. There were chickens pecking around in the yard, and inside it was brightly decorated and made quite homely with tapestries and colourful blankets. We had a lovely time and the atmosphere was warm and friendly, despite our limited ability to communicate. They laughed at us only being able to say four words and pressed us to eat more and more of the dates and peanuts which they had grown themselves. The man showed us how to split the shells neatly in half so we could pick out the peanuts. Just as we were leaving, he picked up handfuls of them and filled our coat pockets! I was pleased as they were really good!

That evening, we had company for dinner. Wu’s brother came over and between them they cooked a veritable feast using the stoves in both caves. Whilst we were tucking in, they spent some time teaching us the Chinese way to use chopsticks. Luke was a good student, but I couldn’t get to grips with it! My made up way seems to work fine in most situations, so why change? We also learnt a few words for the after dinner snacks. We pronounced them pretty well, but by the next day had forgotten all but ‘gwadzerr’ (pronounce the last syllable with a West country burr), which means seeds. Liangliang was especially skillful at eating gwadzerr and he taught us how to split them to get the seeds out. Even with this expert tuition, our piles of seed husks barely rose above the table, yet his was like a small hill. After dinner, the driver of the local bus service to Yulin also joined us. He was good fun and we had a merry time drinking beer and maotai and invented a game called ‘pass the song’, where we took it in turns to sing a song for the others. Luke and I sang a Scottish song called Mary Mac, which went down well. Wu and his brother had great voices, but their songs were all quite short and seemed to end with cheers and downing of drinks! Liangliang sang soulful, heartfelt ballads. I also played a few tunes on the flute and the one that they liked the best was the Queen’s Lancashire regimental march (L’attaque/The Red Rose); ‘tis a catchy tune! Once the brother and driver had left, we were joined by a second brother. He was quieter and seemed a bit shy, but was constantly smiling, and we both really warmed to him. After a wonderful evening, we collapsed onto our cosy kang, exhausted, but looking forward to what the next day would bring.