The rice terraces of Yuanyang

The alarm rang several hours before we would have liked, but having only one day to see the wonder of the rice terraces in the mountains, we somehow managed to haul ourselves out of bed. It was dark outside and we converged with the trickle of Chinese tourists on our way to the viewing platform for the Duoyishu scenic area. As we were walking we were hailed by shadowy figures trying to sell us things that we couldn’t quite identify in the blackness.

We paid 100 RMB (about £10) for the privilege of looking at the scenery for a day and filed onto the wooden tiered platform where there was already quite a crowd developing. China’s best amateur photographers were out in force, occupying the prime positions with tripods poised at the ready and making last minute adjustments to settings on cameras with zooms so long they needed counterbalancing.

We spotted two young men we had met on the bus, French and Belgian, and joined them on the second tier. Shortly after, the sun began its glorious ascent. With the first hint of light, cameras clicked and whirred in anticipation. The sun was definitely out there somewhere as we were able to see a little more than before. After a couple of minutes, it became patently obvious that no one would be taking prize winning sunrise photos that morning: the thick white mist that had settled in the valley overnight was illuminated for all to see. The cameras, which had hitherto been pointing hopefully towards the shrouded terraces, sheepishly swung their zooms away, and as if wanting to prove their worth (and who needs another stupid sunrise anyway?), turned their attentions to the little row of four westerners on the platform behind them. We smiled our sunniest smiles and exchanged a little rally of shots with them before filing back out onto the road.

Undeterred, we decided to follow a dirt track that led past a small village and down towards the terraces. The sun began to burn off some of the mist and we got tantalising glimpses of the waterlogged paddies winking in the sunlight. Once below the cloud level, the views got even better and we crept along the edge of the terraces, admiring their snaking formation, and the way the water gleamed like scales of a silvery dragon, as cottony wisps drifted past.

The Hani hill tribe colonised the Yuanyang area around 2500 years ago. In order to eke out a living in this mountainous region, they modified the landscape around them, sculpting the hillsides to create narrow strips of land that curved around the contours of the slopes like haphazard steps. These flat areas could then hold the water needed for growing rice. It was hundreds of years before other civilisations started to use the same technique, which highlights the ingenuity of the Hani people. They still grow rice here to this day, but in spite of the fame of their terraces, the villagers are poor and life here is hard. I hope that a substantial portion of the ticket price for viewing the terraces goes back to the local community.

A smiling Hani woman came towards us, and we paid her for a photograph. Their everyday costume is quite plain; a dark navy smock and trousers and a blue headscarf. She had definitely done this before; she knew how to strike a regal pose! Having exhausted all the photographic opportunities, and feeling hunger gnawing at our bellies, we climbed back up towards the village. Luke stopped to draw some buildings and a gaggle of little children gathered around to peer over his shoulder. After a few minutes an older man came down the path driving a cow. On seeing us, he pointed upwards out of the village, so we took this as our cue to leave. It must be annoying having your village infiltrated by tourists with their fancy cameras when you are trying to go about your daily business.

Back at the hostel, we had a lovely surprise: our wedding photos were ready! Viva La Wedding (my sister Joanna and her husband Guille’s company) had done us proud, and we spent a happy hour browsing through them, reliving the fun of the day, pleased to see the faces of family and friends we are missing so much and marvelling at the stupid faces I can pull!

We joined the family of the hostel owner for a tasty lunch. He spoke excellent English and we were all the more impressed to learn that he was entirely self-taught. In the afternoon, we borrowed bikes from the hostel and cycled along the winding and hilly road to another scenic area, the Bada terraces, which was supposed to be an excellent place to visit for the sunset. People stared as we pedalled past, perhaps because I had my rainbow coloured striped sarong wrapped around my head to protect me from the sun and looked like I was a member of a tribe of my very own. There were lots of women carrying huge loads of firewood, gravel and sand on their backs; sometimes packed into big baskets and sometimes bundled into sacks. Many had the strap across their foreheads. It looked like back breaking work. There was a lot of construction of new buildings going on, and the women seemed to be doing much of the manual labour. Most women were wearing the plain navy clothes, but there were others in colourful beautifully embroidered garments and jingly coin-like headdresses.

Once at Bada, we chained up our bikes and set off for a walk. We headed down a narrow road and Luke stopped to draw whilst I practised my Chinese bamboo flute. A black piglet was snuffling for bugs in the soil at the side of the road, and when I started to play, she came trotting excitedly towards us, snorting and grunting with every step. For a moment, I thought I was some sort of Pied Piper for pigs, but without a sideways glance she ran straight past, so I guess my playing wasn’t that good after all! We continued on down into a village. The road narrowed and became very steep and the houses that were perched higgledy-piggledy on the sharp incline looked like they might skitter down the slope at any moment. A damp mist wreathed the buildings, making the paving stones slippery underfoot. More women with blue headscarves tramped past under heavy burdens, a party of panicked chicks scurried after their mother, two cockerels marched up and down crowing at intervals to announce their presence and a huge black pig slumbered against a wall. Every now and then a couple of cows would wander past. People here were evidently very poor, and I felt a little uncomfortable intruding on their private life, turning their daily grind into a tourist attraction. I also noticed there was a lot of rubbish littering the side of the road; they probably do not have the infrastructure to deal with waste. It is a pity that the scenic sites that attract so many visitors should be kept so pristine whilst the villagers who tend that land live in squalor.

We traipsed back up the road and positioned ourselves on the viewing platform, waiting for the sunset. It did not look promising, as the valley here was also bathed in white mist, but hope springs eternal and we decided to wait in case there was a miraculous gust of wind. The sun occasionally peeped out, but was eventually swallowed by cloud before it touched the horizon, and the vistas of gleaming terraces were nowhere to be seen. The hostel owner had very kindly offered to collect us and the bikes after the sunset, which was extremely fortunate, as the fog hung heavy over the road and there is no way we would have been able to cycle back in those conditions. Visibility was approaching zero and he had to drive with his head stuck out of the window, peering through the haze to follow the curve of the road. It was a bit scary, as we had seen the steep drops on our cycle trip, but I reassured myself with the thought that he must have to do this all the time.

After dinner, we turned in early, feeling exhausted. We had to find our way to the China-Vietnam border crossing the following day so we needed to recharge our batteries! It had been somewhat of a mission to get to Yuanyang, and we were a little disappointed that the weather had not been in our favour, but at the same time, the sunrise/sunset experiences had been rather amusing!


Kunming to Yuanyang

We had planned to go hiking, but were so tired that we slept in. This wasn’t such a bad thing as we both had plenty to be getting on with. At lunch, we took a break to wander around Green Lake Park and sat a while sketching and playing Uno, watching the crowds of delicate white gulls waiting eagerly for titbits. The lake’s edge was lined with people young and old throwing food for them. Every now and then, someone would whoop, sending them whirling into the sky in a frenzy, before they settled back down on the lake like confetti. A man who was passing us stopped when he saw Luke’s pictures. He snatched his sketchbook, flicked through it and then seized his pen and right in the centre of a crisp white page, he drew a rather small and childish looking seagull. I could tell that Luke was rather cross about this, but he did his best to take it gracefully! I couldn’t help but giggle!

That night, Flora and Pan came to the hostel again. Flora arrived on two mini skateboards – one for each foot, not joined in the middle and with no straps to hold your feet in place. We all had a brief lesson in how to stand and move on them and Luke, being a keen long-boarder, was smitten. We then joined forces with other backpackers and played cards and a game called Mafia, which is always great fun. Before we headed to bed, we thanked Flora and Pan for their hospitality and wished them luck in their exams. They gave us a packet of flower cakes, a Yunnan delicacy. They are flaky pastry buns, with a sort of flowery jam in the centre. I can see how some people would love them, but to us it was a little too much like eating pot pourri!

The following day, our bags packed, we made our way to the Vietnamese consulate. It was cramped on the bus, and I was stood next to a lady with a baby who was whimpering and crying. The baby was so surprised to see my strange white face that she forgot why she was upset and spent the rest of the journey peeping and beaming at me happily! So cute! Our passports and visas were waiting for us at the consulate as we had hoped they would be. In our glee at having finally obtained the visas, we got onto the wrong bus, but this was soon remedied. Shortly after, we arrived at the station and were boarding a late bus to the Yuanyang rice terraces, our final destination in China.

This was our first journey on a sleeper bus. Instead of seats, there were two layers of bunks: ‘double beds’ on one side and singles on the other. We had a double on the bottom level. Your feet had to slot inside a metal case, on top of which was a basket for your belongings. Pillows and a blanket were provided. It was quite a comfortable set up, and once we were on our way, we decided to watch a movie on my laptop. Troll Hunter is a wonderful, very funny Norwegian film and perfect for a bus journey. We left Kunming at 7pm and arrived in Xinjie, the town nearest the terraces, at 1.30am. I slept in fits and starts, not being used to experiencing the jolting and lurching of a coach when lying down and being sporadically awakened by the lady behind me who seemed to spend a good part of the journey spitting into the bin.

Luckily, we had had the foresight to arrange a pick up from our hostel, as the village we were staying in was far away, and there were no taxis at such an early hour in the morning. Several other travellers had not arranged transport and so our hostel owner made a tidy profit ferrying them to their hostels too! After about 45 minutes of driving along winding roads in thick mist, we finally arrived at the Grain Inn. We were advised to shower before heading to bed as there would be no hot water in the morning, so we obediently had 3am showers! Bleary-eyed, but clean, we reluctantly set our alarm for 6.30am, so we could be up in time to watch the legendary sunrise over the rice terraces.

Shilin – The Stone Forest

Having made an early start and after two public buses, a sweet omelette bread and a longish coach journey, we arrived at the Stone Forest region around 10am. We had encountered two young Hungarian chaps on the coach who were based in the huge city of Tianjin (near to Beijing) where they were on a scholarship programme learning Mandarin. Like many young westerners living in China, they were also teaching English in their spare time. They spoke excellent English, as so many Europeans do, albeit with a noticeable Hungarian accent! They told us that schools prefer native English speakers, but if you have white skin and can speak English well, then you look convincing enough to the parents. One explained that in his kindergarten class, he didn’t really have to do much – he would mainly assist the Chinese teacher who took the lessons, although photos were taken to show the parents that they had a white person there. For this reason, black or Asian native English speakers may find it harder to secure work and may even get paid less, even though their English is better! Crazy!

It was a beautiful day and so we opted to walk the short distance to the park entrance rather than pay for the shuttlebus. Once we had purchased our tickets, we hopped onto one of the free electric buses that took us on the first loop. We were dropped off by a lake, and then entered the Stone Forest itself. The first section was very touristy, but even drifting a short way up the paths you could escape the crowds. The scenery was extraordinary; I felt like I had entered Jurassic Park, and half-expected a velociraptor to peer around the karst slabs. All about us, huge shards of limestone soared skywards, amidst an emerald carpet of grass and the lush green tangle of the trees. It was so refreshing after weeks of desert landscapes.

There are two main theories as to how the landscape was formed. The first explanation comes from the local Sani people of the Yi minority. They tell of how the gods smashed a mountain into hundreds of pieces to create a hiding place for two young lovers. The second theory is less poetic and a little harder to visualise! I will do my best to explain.

First of all, imagine a vast ancient sea, teeming with life. As the little sea creatures die, they settle on the sea bed and become compacted, layer upon layer. Fast forward several millennia, and the sea has receded. What you now see is a huge rocky landscape, where the skeletal fragments of sea creatures have turned into limestone sedimentary rock, which is composed of calcium carbonate. Limestone, given enough time and the right conditions, is water-soluble. Rain that has reacted with carbon dioxide in the air and in the soil enters cracks in the rock. The weak carbonic acid that is formed dissolves the limestone and the cracks become fissures. Over millions of years, the progressive erosion causes the fissures to widen and deepen until we are left with the karst landscape we see today. At Shilin, it resembles a forest of stone. Karst landscapes can be found all over the world and can vary widely in appearance – the limestone pavement at Malham Cove in England is another example. They can also be formed from other water-soluble rocks, such as gypsum and dolomite.

The limestone at Shilin is around 270 million years old and the region covers an area of 400 square kilometres. The tallest of the rocks is around 30m in height. The karsts vary in topography and the outcrops are given fanciful names that reflect their appearance. ‘A mountain of knives and a sea of fire’ is a Chinese proverb that suggests a dangerous and difficult situation, and in this region the stones were closely packed, jostling together and stabbing their sharp blades towards the heavens, whilst slightly softer forms licked around them like flames. The paths wound around the base of the rocks and sometimes you had to squeeze or duck through the gaps, climb down into a deep gorge or cross a small stream. Every so often there would be a pagoda from which you could look out over the landscape and marvel at the view. It was easy to lose your way in spite of the signs and we encountered one Chinese man again and again. He was on his phone and seemed quite agitated. After seeing him for the third or fourth time, we turned a corner and saw a family also on their phone – we triumphantly waved them together and gave a little cheer!

Some of the tallest rocks were named after characters or scenes from Sani folklore: ‘The Shepherd Wu’, ‘Woman and child’, ‘Woman expecting her husband’. The most famous of these was ‘Ashima’, a beautiful Sani girl who was deeply in love with a young man called Ahei. The head of the village wanted Ashima for his son, and she was kidnapped. Ahei came to her rescue and after a three day long singing match, he was declared the winner and the couple were reunited. However, in a fit of jealousy, the evil son called up a flood, which drowned Ashima and she was subsequently turned into a rock (and grew in height by several metres!). Her namesake stone is supposed to bear a striking resemblance to a Sani girl with a head dress and knapsack on her back. We could just about visualise this one, but some of the so-called likenesses were rather more tenuous! We amused ourselves by spotting our own animals and people and making up stories for them.

As the day wore on, we meandered into less frequented sections and had a picnic lunch at a secluded viewpoint. The karsts were more spread out now and we passed a small lake and some farmland before entering into the Eternal Mushroom zone. This sounds a little like a drug addled episode of the Magic Roundabout, but Dylan the Rabbit was nowhere to be seen. Here, the rocks really did resemble giant mushrooms, with fat stems and bulbous tops. In the distance we could see skyscrapers of a cityscape ranged like the display on an equaliser, and the contrast between the cluster of stone mushrooms and the urban forest on the horizon made me feel like we were at the junction of two separate worlds.

We finished by taking a quiet route back towards the exit and paused a while at the Lion Pavilion, which afforded superb vistas across the park. It was a peaceful end to a wonderful day. We could easily have spent a couple more days there, as we had only visited a tiny snippet, but our time was running short and we had to head back to Kunming.

As the park was only just closing, we assumed we would be in time for the last bus. Unfortunately, we were wrong! An enterprising individual with a minivan was hanging around for stragglers and called out to us that the last bus had just left. Feeling sceptical and like seasoned travellers wary of a scam, we traipsed into the silent station to see whether he was telling the truth. He followed us at a distance and after we had ascertained that he was indeed the only form of transport available, we sheepishly asked for his services. He charged us an appropriate amount for a pair of idiots and took us to a local town from where we could catch a bus to Kunming. As the Chinese say, ‘dripping water can eat through a stone’ – perseverance will lead to success. We feasted on tasty street food whilst we waited, feeling like everything had turned out for the best in the end anyway.

Kunming – the visa mission

The train pulled into Kunming around midday. We emerged into blazing sunshine, and were immediately aware of the unnecessary weight we were hefting around with us. We weren’t going to be needing the legwarmers, body warmers and thick jumpers for a while! We had lunch in a café next to the station and browsed through our travel guide, before selecting a hostel near to Green Lake Park at which to try our luck. We also had to locate the Vietnamese consulate so we could get our visas organised.

The first taxi we stopped held up his hand to indicate ‘seven’ for the price. He had a bit of a swagger about him, so we decided to verify the price by writing it down. He then took the pen and added a zero to the end. This would have been around £7 for what we could see from the map was not a very long distance, so we declined and continued our search. Every single taxi we hailed refused to take us and we had no idea why! We were getting hot and frustrated, but managed to board a bus that seemed to be heading in the right direction, and got off once we were within walking distance. The hostel was great and luckily they had space for us. There was a lively communal area with a bar, restaurant and pool table, and a patio where you could sit out and enjoy the sun. We had spent a long time off the beaten track and so we enjoyed the opportunity to socialise and meet other travellers. Once we had dumped our bags in our room, we set out in search of the Vietnamese consulate. It was important that we handed our passports in as soon as possible as it would take three days to process the visas and our Chinese visas were due to expire soon. We had heard that the address had changed recently, so asked at the hostel reception and a girl wrote it down or us in Chinese, so we could show it to a taxi driver. That was our first mistake!

Once more, we were out on the streets trying to hail a taxi, and once more, no taxi would take us! I was beginning to feel quite irate, but no driver had the English to explain why. We walked in the general direction and showed the address to passers-by and police officers. After umming and aahing everyone pointed us in different directions! One policeman told us to get on a bus as it was a long walk. We did this, and whilst on the bus I noticed a number amongst the Chinese characters: 507. Surely this was the building number! Feeling like we might be getting somewhere, we got off the bus, believing it to be taking us in the wrong direction. We marched back up the busy main road to the area where 507 should have been. All we could see were two enormous banks, so we showed the address again, after which ensued more discussion and gesturing in various directions. After two hours of fruitless searching, we had to give up, as the consulate would now be closed anyway, so we trudged back up the long road (which I was sick of the sight of by now). Halfway there, we treated ourselves to an ice cream, rested our feet, and let our emotions simmer down a bit.

We asked once more at the hostel, and the girl tried her best to assist, but we ended up more confused. Eventually we found an address on the internet which made more sense to us: the address was number 157, ROOM 507! We had been on the right road but were several blocks out. It was so annoying! Regardless, we still had time, and we decided to make our second attempt the following morning.

I collapsed on the bed for a couple of hours and in the evening we had pizza in the bar. We were joined by two young Chinese girls, Pan and Flora, who spoke excellent English. Pan was in her final years at high school and Flora was an undergraduate. They had started to come to the hostel bar in order to meet foreigners and practise their English. Pan was planning to go to Melbourne University and Flora really wanted to move to Canada after completing her studies. They were both very intelligent and a pleasure to talk to. Pan was petite, self-assured and bubbly, whereas Flora was taller, quieter, took more time to consider her opinions and was a little ditsy. She would often open her eyes wide in disbelief and gasp in ladylike astonishment, blinking like an alarmed gazelle. They offered to give us a tour of the Green Lake Park the following day, and we gratefully accepted.

That night I slept SOOO well. I woke feeling refreshed, full of renewed optimism and confident that we would be able to locate the Vietnamese consulate. It was indeed ridiculously easy once we had an address we could read! We also discovered from the receptionist that the taxi drivers did not have an aversion to our custom, but that each cab was marked according to the areas of the city they could drive in, so all was forgiven. The consulate was tiny and virtually empty; just a small room in a massive multi-storey building, with a couple of desks and a glass fronted counter, behind which sat a jovial Vietnamese man. The procedure was remarkably quick. We each filled in a simple form, handed in our passports and photos, paid the fee and received photocopies and a receipt in return. As each hotel in China requires a passport, we were limited to day trips from Kunming until our passports were returned in three days. Sadly this meant we would not have enough time to visit the incredible Tiger Leaping Gorge, but there were plenty of other interesting places nearby and we consoled ourselves by thinking of all the other marvellous things we had seen and done, and were yet to do.

As we were sick to the back teeth of traipsing up and down the same stretch of road, we took a different route back and stopped outside a temple, where a middle aged blind man was playing a double stringed traditional instrument along to a backing track. It was a little like a small cello and played with a bow. A merry little boy of about four years old was fastened to the leg of his stool by a string around his ankle. We tossed some money into the pot and sat down to sketch. The little boy found us hilarious, and every time we waved or smiled at him, he waved his arms furiously and fell backwards in fits of laughter. His dad couldn’t really tell what was going on and I think he started to get a bit annoyed with his irrepressible son, so we tried to be more sensible so he didn’t get in trouble. The sun was so hot that it made the ink in my brush pen expand, and it leaked blobby splodges all over my page. There had already been quite a crowd around the temple entrance, what with the street side food stalls and vendors of incense, but now the focus was turned on us. One woman grunted at Luke and snatched his book from him; looking very stern, she flicked through it. Her friend complimented him on his drawings, but the woman just grunted once more and gave it back. A little girl who spoke a small amount of English came up to me and I showed her my pictures and explained to her how my pen had exploded and that the ink was wet. She was very sweet and flicked through carefully. She told me she was 11 years old and wrote her name in Chinese in my book along with a little love heart. The grumpy lady then came up to me and grabbed my book too, but the little girl explained to her that the ink was wet and that she should be careful and she was better behaved then! I think she was genuinely interested in our sketches, but just didn’t like to show it in a friendly way!

We made a plan to meet Flora at our hostel after lunch. She sent us an endearingly formal message saying that we would meet ‘Miss Pan’ later at the park. When Flora arrived, she had armful of library books – parallel texts (English on one page, Mandarin on the opposite) of Charles Darwin’s ‘On Natural Selection’ and Sherlock Holmes. I felt somewhat ashamed that I had attempted neither of these myself, despite them being in my native language! We stashed the books in our room and meandered our way to the park, chatting away as we went.

The park consisted of a large lake, split into four by picturesque bridges. We passed a lively group of men and women dancing around a speaker, some of whom were in traditional dress. Flora explained that they were from a Tibetan minority. They moved gracefully around in a circle, elegantly waving their arms, stepping forwards and backwards and crossing their feet in time to the music. Once again, we attempted to join in, but could never quite keep step.

A little way along, we came across a beautiful statue of an old man, gazing round with a rapturous expression at the seagulls that covered his body. In the winter of 1985, a small group of red-beaked seagulls stopped here on their migration from Siberia. The people of Kunming were enchanted by these pretty white birds, and none more so than Wu Qinghen. Despite being an elderly and poor man, he spent around half his pension money on food for them and would walk miles to the park every day to see them there. The birds clearly realised what side their bread was buttered on and returned year after year with their young to spend the winter in the sunshine before returning to Siberia in the spring to breed. Wu died, but his love for the birds lives on in the spirit of the Kunming citizens who flock to the lake every winter to welcome their friends back, who now number in their thousands. He is known now as the ‘Father of Seagulls’. I wonder what his previous story was, that he should have found such solace and joy in the birds here.

Shortly after, we were joined by Pan and had a peep into some minority culture stalls. I had a delicious cup of walnut ginger tea and browsed the selection of needlework, textiles and handmade paper. Of course, China is massive and whilst Han Chinese form the vast majority, there are 55 ethnic minorities dispersed around the provinces, each with their own traditions, beliefs and ways of living. Of these, 25 can be found in Yunnan alone. As we wandered, we had a thought-provoking conversation about politics; the girls were very switched on and refreshingly open-minded.

We left the park and went for ‘over the bridge noodles’ at a local restaurant. This is a traditional rice noodle dish from Yunnan province. The legend goes that a woman wanted to cook a special dish for her husband who was studying for his Imperial exams on a small island. She experimented with recipes and would cross the bridge each day to deliver dinner to her beloved. His favourite was a noddle soup and she found that it was at its best when the boiling broth was kept separate from the other ingredients until shortly before the dish was eaten. Another slightly less poetic explanation for the name is that the ingredients ‘cross the bridge’ into your bowl as you add them to the broth.

After dinner, we crossed the road to look at a teahouse. The shelves were stacked with discs of compressed tea, and there was a glass cabinet filled with tea sets and ornaments. On the traditional tea tray, there were some stone animals, which were a little smaller than a chicken egg. They had funny faces and pleasing curves. Pan explained to me that these were ‘tea pets’. They are kept on the tray and you pour the dregs of any tea you don’t drink over them to feed them. Over the years, with daily use, the pet changes from a dull stone colour to become quite shiny. I loved the idea, and purchased a plump little baby dragon, grey in colour and studded with colourful raised dots. If I feed it until I am 90, it should eventually have a pleasant sheen.

Back at the hostel bar, we met two American girls who were teaching English in a rural area of China and were travelling around on holiday for a few weeks. They were Yale University graduates and had been in China for 8 months and were already quite proficient in Mandarin – I was very impressed! They told us about the children at their school and how hard they had to work in comparison to the US. The school day starts at 8am, but many arrive earlier to clear the classroom and prepare for the day. They don’t leave until 9 or 10pm at night! It seems crazy, but they have to study hard as it is so competitive. In China, everything rides on the high school test score, particularly if your parents cannot pay to send you to a university overseas. If they don’t get excellent grades, they are unable to attend a good college and then their future prospects are poor. Well paid jobs are hard to come by and it can be difficult to obtain loans to set up a business as people will not believe you are capable if you didn’t do well in school. With such a large population, you have to be an exceptional student to shine. It is very hard to get a second chance as there is always someone else eager to take your place.

We also talked about Mandarin, the most widely spoken language of China. It is a tonal language, so the meaning of a sound is altered by the pitch at which it is spoken. This goes a long way to explain why we were so often misunderstood when we attempted Mandarin. To illustrate the comedic potential of this, the Americans told us that if you mispronounce the tones in the sentence, ‘can you help me?’ it can sound like, ‘can you kiss me?’ Mandarin has four tones: high, rising, falling-rising and falling. If you think that sounds tricky, Vietnamese has six and Cantonese nine! Add to this that the writing system is not phonetic, and you have one fiendishly difficult language to master. There are around 3000 characters that are used regularly, and you simply have to learn these by heart. Sometimes a character may have more than one meaning, which you must infer by the context in which it is placed. Chinese characters are still used for other languages as well, for instance in some of Japanese and all of Cantonese. They are simply symbols, so you just say the word the character represents in the language in question. If a symbolic script was used in Europe, ‘*’ would be read aloud as ‘star’ in English, ‘étoile’ in French and ‘Stern’ in German. Of course, learning the intricacies of 3000 characters is incredibly time consuming. Vietnam had spent 1000 years under Chinese rule and until fairly recently, had traditionally used Chinese script. However, in the 20th century, the country officially adopted a previously little used phonetic script, which was based on the Roman alphabet, possibly in order to improve literacy. As for the Chinese, Pinyin is the way of representing Mandarin phonetically using the Roman alphabet. This enables people to write in Chinese characters on computers – the Pinyin format is typed in and the computer translates it.

The next day we planned to go on an excursion to Shilin, the region’s famous karst stone forest. We were both looking forward to getting out of the city and seeing the bizarre landscape.

Zigong and the salt of the earth

We got up very early to catch one of the first buses to Zigong. When we arrived, we took a taxi to the train station, bought sleeper tickets for Kunming and looked for the left luggage, but couldn’t find it anywhere. The station was very small. A guard saw us wandering round and beckoned for us to follow him. He led us out of the station to a public toilet, where a stooped, toothless old lady had living quarters between the two blocks. She shuffled up and gestured to her bedroom, where we deposited our bags, paid her and received a small wooden token in exchange. I am not quite sure why, but we had the feeling this might be the safest left luggage deposit of our trip so far.

We spotted a street-side hotpot café that was packed with locals and decided to stop for lunch. The menu consisted of a tick sheet of a list of ingredients written in Chinese. We had no clue, so a waitress led me into the kitchen so I could point at things! The staff were very excited to see us and one girl took a photo of me! I avoided the suspicious looking innards and chose beef slices, pea leaves, other types of greenery and dumplings. Our broth already contained barley and red dates and was soon bubbling away with the additional ingredients. We were in charge of the spiciness this time, so we could be easy on ourselves in preparation for the night on a train! Each table was supplied with a dish of gwadzerr (sunflower seeds), but being slow westerners, we didn’t manage to finish them. The lady thought it funny we hadn’t got through them and emptied them into a bag for us, adding an extra handful for good measure to send us on our way.

We then had to make a difficult decision. Dinosaur museum, or the deepest salt well in the world? I think my six year old self would have been very disappointed in me, but we opted for Shenhai well, as we had never seen a salt well before and we needed to satisfy our curiosity! It was a tiny museum, but fascinating. It was constructed in 1835 by traditional percussion drilling and is the deepest such well to have been made using this technique. It is over 1001.42m deep! I love how they have to put ‘over’ in there, as if the .42 isn’t accurate enough already! There was a huge tower made of bamboo and branches bound with twine, which resembled the scaffolding of a giant wigwam. The tower housed a pulley system that stretched across the yard to where an electric motor drove a wheel which lowered the rope into the well. Adjacent to the motor was the original set up – a huge wooden wheel set horizontally which used to be driven by two teams of men jumping on and off a treadle, and later was driven by buffalo. They mechanised the action in recent years to increase efficiency. The well itself was tiny to look at – a mere 22cm in diameter. The mine is still used to produce salt, and at intervals during our visit, a bell would ring and we were able to watch the process. In true Chinese style, one visitor walked up to the well, peered down it and then spat, just in front of it, so that everyone else who came to look at the well was confronted by his little pile of gob. Nice! We have visited several Chinese tourist attractions with signs that say, ‘please do not spit everywhere’, and this was a little lesson in why this is necessary.

To draw brine from the well, a metal pipe is lowered by rope. As it has to travel 2km, it takes quite a long time to reach the bottom and then surface again! Now the process is electric, it is a matter of minutes; before this it used to take half an hour! There is a valve inside the pipe and a metal hook is used to release the brine into a bucket. It gushes out and is funnelled via tubes (which used to be made of bamboo) into another barn where the salt is extracted. They obtain three types of brine from the well – black brine, yellow brine and rock brine. I never knew it came in different types anyway! Natural gas is a useful by-product and is used as fuel in the extraction barn. They had a selection of tools that were used to perform various tasks at the bottom of the well; for instance, one that is used to grasp objects that have fallen down. It reminded me a bit of endoscopy, only without the camera! There were also the tools that were used to drill the well. As the rocks were broken up by the drill, fresh water would be added to make the debris into mud, which could be siphoned off.

Lastly, we visited the salt extraction room. This was in a beautiful wooden barn, with a high ceiling. Before us were numerous squat vats of bubbling brine, each heated by natural gas fires, from which rose a curtain of steam. The edges of each container were encrusted with salt crystals. It felt a little like we had stepped into a potions lesson at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, although the atmosphere was somewhat more laid back than a class with Professor Snape; the men in charge of the process were relaxing in deckchairs in the middle of the room. Behind us there was a stack of salt sacks; the salt from this well is highly prized and renowned for its flavour. In order to ensure the salt is of the best possible quality, pure water and crushed soy beans are added to the brine. The soy absorbs any impurities, leaving a yellow layer on the surface, which can then be skimmed off. All in all, it was an enjoyable, but rather unconventional tourist attraction, and we left feeling like well-seasoned travellers.

Our final stop of the day was the Wangye Temple teahouse, an amazing 100 year old building on the banks of the Fuxi River and a wonderful place to pass the time. Sichuan is famed for its teahouse culture, and Wangye is thought by many to be the best of the best. The tables both indoors and in the courtyard were full of people, young and old, playing cards, mah-jong and Chinese chess. The rooftop was embellished with beautiful Confucian stone statues, and inside, dark wooden beams, creaking staircases and picturesque balconies enhanced the sense of history. On the opposite bank, there was another temple. The pair had been built to ensure the safe passage of boats carrying salt along the river. We selected a reasonably priced tea (some were really expensive!) and settled ourselves down with our china cups and thermos of hot water to make like the locals and play cards. A quick glance around confirmed that we were the only ones playing the ancient and venerated game of Uno. Luke got a little grumpy because I won nearly every single round, so I had to give him some pro tips.

The tables gradually emptied, and eventually we were the only ones left, so we took our cue to leave and went for a stroll along the river. We were stopped halfway over the bridge by a strange man who spoke good English. He had the strained friendliness of someone who is either trying to sell something or swindle you. The conversation went a little like this:

‘Hello! Where are you from?’


‘Oh! England! You are so beautiful and so handsome! What do you do for a job?’

‘Computer programming.’ –  ‘I am a vet – an animal doctor.’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘I am a doctor for animals. When animals are sick, I try to help them.’

‘This doesn’t make sense.’ ….I tried my best to explain more.

‘Oh. You should learn to communicate better. You SHOULD say you are a doctor for treating animals!’

‘???’ I gave a weak, slightly exasperated smile.

‘You are very beautiful, and you are very handsome.’

‘Er, thanks.’ We shuffled sideways.

‘Do you know god damn? What it means?’


‘It means the Jews betrayed Jesú.’

‘Ah. We don’t say that anyway, it is more of an American phrase.’

‘I know a little about Christianity.’

‘Oh.’ We twiddled our thumbs and glanced about for an escape route.

‘I have an American friend called Michael. Do you know Michael?’

‘No…’ At this point there was an awkward pause.

‘…Okay! Let’s go to the church! The church is just over there; do you want to go for some tea?’

‘Thanks, but no, we just drank a lot of tea and we have a train to catch!’ (It is wonderful when you don’t even have to think of a lie).

‘But you need food first. A café, a burger!’

‘No, we are not hungry.’ Then he turned to Luke:

‘Are you sad?’

‘No, I am happy. Are YOU sad?’

‘Michael is sad.’

‘Oh dear. We really need to catch a taxi so we don’t miss our train!’

He kept trying to restart the conversation, whilst I was waving to cabs and Luke was shaking his hand and pointedly saying it was nice to meet him. Eventually he wandered off and we got into a cab. I think he was probably harmless, but he was very full on and intense and it was a little scary! Thankfully, we were in a public place and I think we didn’t make him cross or upset. Wherever Michael is now, I hope he is happier.

We returned to the toilet block as night was closing in and collected our bags from the elderly lady. We gave her a tip and half a bag full of red dates; she was very pleased with them! Our walk had been cut a little short by having to escape in the taxi, so when we saw a group of women line dancing by the station, we decided to join in. We stood at the back and tried our best to follow the moves. It was good fun, similar to step aerobics minus the step, and predictably, I was terrible at it! I can move in time, but I cannot make my limbs do the things other people want them to do. They are just not disciplined enough, they have their own ideas about how things should be done.

An hour later, we were perched precariously on top bunks of the sleeper train to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province in the south of China. We were looking forward to warmer temperatures and being able to shed a few layers.

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.

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, 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.