Sand, Sand and more Sand

Driving towards Hami

Monday 22 May – Wednesday 24 May 2017

Travelling from Dunhuang to Hami was an unusual experience because the road was so flat, long and straight in places it became soporific. In the far distance we could see snow capped mountains but to either side, front and back of us and the cars was rocky desert. We have been on the outskirts of the Gobi desert for a couple of days and will be skirting around the Taklamakan  desert and Tarim basin and Tian Shan mountains soon to Kazakhstan. Fortunately, the expressway was well maintained and in some places new, so travel was quick.

Driving on the expressway thru desert with snow capped mountains in the distance.

Hami (Kimui) is famous for melons and the growing of grapes was becoming more and more evident as we travelled towards Turpan.

On Tuesday the desert landscape changed in the early afternoon as we neared Turpan, the flat plains changed in to very rugged and jagged rocky mountains rising from the flat sandy plains. Also we descended in altitude from around 1580 mts to finally -80 mt below sea level. It was an interesting day we drove through a mild sand storm which blew drifts of sand across the expressway to driving into Turpan through avenues lined with grape vines.

Ancient city of Jar set on a willow shaped island in a gorge.
Small sand storm on the expressway

This area is one of China’s biggest grape producing areas. They also produce sultanas and as we drove along the expressway we saw rectangular mud brick structures which were used to dry the grapes. The climate here is extremely dry and hot perfect not only for drying grapes but for preserving mummies and dinosaur bones.

Flaming mountains, Astana cemetery with grape vines in distance

We stopped for lunch at the Astana Ancient tombs complex where they found many relics of ancient documents, vessels, fabric etc after excavating the ancient tombs. On display were two mummys which were preserved by the heat and dryness of the environment. Many of the artefacts which were discovered here we also saw at the Turpan Museum, along with several dinosaurs. The Faming Mountains overlook this ancient burial site. Flaming Mountains were visited by the Monkey King on his journey from India to China.

Turpan is a small city and has an irrigation system which enables it to grow delicious grapes and fruit such as apricots. Peter and I visited the Sugong Tower or Mineret which was built in 1777 and has its own architectural style. The decorations and patterns on the clay tower are varied and beautiful. Later in the afternoon, when it starts to cool down we hope to visit the Karez Well system and see one in action.

Sugong tower in Turpan

We also drove to a magnificent site called Jar City which was once a busy ancient trading town on the Silk Road but following years of successive and constant wars the city fell into ruin. The sights and vistas at sunset were stunning and as we walked through the deep alleyways exploring the various buildings, the still blazing sun beating down on our heads, one couldn’t help but imagine the hustle and bustle of camels, traders from all parts of Asia mingling, shouting and selling their wares through out the city. It was a fortress and very difficult to enter because of its location. Now all that is left are the remains of crumbling clay walls, caverns, stupas and Buddhas.

ancient city Jar
Ancient city of Jar – very hot and dry.

Shui Lian Dong and Water curtain cave

16 May TIansui – Lanzhou

The main highlight of today’s drive was a visit to the isolated Shui Lian Dong and Water Curtain Cave. We were able to drive the cars right up to the foot of these amazing cliff paintings and sculptures. As we drove, the landscape was stunning, tall bare weather worn rounded mountains of rock appeared from nowhere. Some slopes were covered with purple clumps of flowers which we found out later as we walked up to the temples and monastery were liliac bushes. The landforms are known as Danxia landforms and form stone like forests.

Three Massive clay sculptures clung to the cliffs – one of Buddha and the other two his first faithful disciples. Surrounding these sculptures were painting of elephants, lions, goats  and asparas – the winged angel assistants. Moving to the other side of the gorge we climbed to the monastery and water curtain cave, passing by liliac bushes and some lovely yellow flowers which looked like banksia roses hanging over the steps and steep pathway we had to climb. At every turn we were able to view the tall Buddha sculptures on the other side of the gorge. The old monastery had a small temple half way up with paintings showing the Monkey King’s journey – remember Monkey Magic? Monkey originally came from India to China and we have come across him and his troupe in numerous places. 

As I mentioned the landscape was now changing every day. We were also climbing in altitude as we drove to the NW.


Views of Snow capped mountains and Taer Tibetan Monestery

17 May Lanzhou to Xining

Tibetan prayer wheels
Snow capped mountains

The woollen jackets came out today as we climbed to about 1800mtsplus to visit the Taer Tibetan monastery. The flags high on the hill were flapping loudly and as the cold wind whistled around the buildings and temples. This is a practising monastery of about 900 dark red gowned and yellow cap monks. Only photos of the buildings on the outside were allowed and not from the inside. Inside one of the halls there was a brilliant display of butter sculptures so delicate that the only way to conserve them was to place them in large refrigerated cabinets. Each hall or temple was lit by yak butter candles which the monks were constantly replenishing.

The Assembly Hall was heavily garlanded with colourful embroidered hangings and banners, as well as sculptures and murals. As we left 2 monks stood on the top of one of the buildings and sounded horns made from yak horn, heralding the monks to prayer. It was satisfying to see young boy monks skylarking and piggy backing each other on their way to prays.

Shui Lian Dong and Water curtain Cave

16 May TIansui – Lanzhou

View from Water Curtain Cave monastery.

The main highlight of today’s drive was a visit to the isolated Shui Lian Dong and Water Curtain Cave. We were able to drive the cars right up to the foot of these amazing cliff paintings and sculptures. As we drove, the landscape was stunning, tall bare weather worn rounded mountains of rock appeared from nowhere. Some slopes were covered with purple clumps of flowers which we found out later as we walked up to the temples and monastery were liliac bushes. The landforms are known as Danxia landforms and form stone like forests.

Three Massive clay sculptures clung to the cliffs – one of Buddha and the other two his first faithful disciples. Surrounding these sculptures were painting of elephants, lions, goats  and asparas – the winged angel assistants. Moving to the other side of the gorge we climbed to the monastery and water curtain cave, passing by liliac bushes and some lovely yellow flowers which looked like banksia roses hanging over the steps and steep pathway we had to climb. At every turn we were able to view the tall Buddha sculptures on the other side of the gorge.

As I mentioned the landscape was now changing every day. We were also climbing in altitude as we drove to the NW.


The Silk Road Begins…

\May 15 2017

Xi’an to Tianshui


The Silk Road finally begins…The long awaited trail of the Silk Road began in earnest after we gathered at the granite sculptures of Marco Polo and his group. Marco Polo had his camels and we have our mighty MG Shamrock which is tackling a huge variety of terrain.

As we journeyed towards to the North West from Xián the landscape began to change. From verdant, lush conifer and mountain forests, the vegetation became more sparse and the colour of the soil changed as well. Ahead of us on our way to the Western border, we have 6 short drives around 300 – 400kms each in distance to significant sites.

The Maijishan Grottoes are in a very isolated place, not far from Tianshui, our first stop. The grottoes are protected by mountainous peaks covered with lush green trees and the calls of unseen birds accompany you as you slowly make your way up a steep roadway and hundreds of stone steps. But the real challenge hasn’t begun to access the grottoes you need to make your way along a maze of narrow twisting stairways which cling precariously to the cliff face. The snaking stairways lead to nearly 194 cave shelters of various sizes, which contain nearly 7200 Buddhist stone and clay sculptures. Some grottoes hold only a tiny sculpture of only 20 cm while other grottoes encase sculptures up to 20 mt in height, surrounded by magnificent murals. All of this was made by hand, sheer faith and devotion to Buddhism, from 384 AD during the late Qin dynasty.

The day we had was clear and we were nearly on our own with our guide who described in detail the differences between the difference construction periods and the sculptures and paintings of the Bodhisattvas, gods, guardians, apsaras, disciples and Buddhas.

It was so peaceful but the wonder of how the monks and devotees constructed this without the use of cranes and scaffolding is amazing.

Up here in the Wild West Shamrock and Peter have taken to Chinese driving like ducks to water. Trucks and cars change lanes changing lanes don’t need indicators because they assume you know they are going to do it and it occurs about 2 metres in front of you. All this happens at high speed ( 100km +). We noticed that drivers’ habits have changed from further down south. More honking of horns and cutting across lanes to reach an exit will be done at the last minute. What is most amusing is how everyone takes photos of us -while driving. They prop next to us , the window goes down phones appear along with smiling faces and cheerful waves – not bad when you are doing 120km down an expressway. The people have been so very friendly and helpful.

Still having trouble uploading photos, some evenings it works quickly yesterday and today it has been ridiculously slow! Very frustrating….

May Day Holidays

Mayday At Hongcun and Mt Huangshan (Yellow Mountain)

30 April – 1 May 2017

Hongcun Village is a UNESCO Heritage World Site, a labyrinth of lanes and alleyways. No  cars either. Most lane ways have little waterways running next to them and tiny shop fronts with one door open to the passing visitors. Selling tea food and knick knacks. Most produce their own tea as well and you can see them drying the tea leaves in large wok like steel bowls over burning charcoal. Some offer exotic liqueurs as well. Each vendor has a speciality to sell BBQ duck legs or Chicken, onion cakes, eggs, biscuits or wafers made from sesame paste so fine they are like tissue paper only crisp and crunchy. Our accommodation was an original guest house Shurentang from the C16. Set in around a courtyard with an old mill stone.

Hongcun is a typical Hui style village with a lake and bridges. Most of the original buildings have been renovated and refurbished, giving you an idea of the social structure of the village. A delightful interlude because we had a lot of time to explore all its secrets.

May Day is another holiday and we drove from Hongcun at the crack of dawn to avoid the crowds at Mt Huangshan or Yellow Mountain. We passed through bamboo forests, tea terraces and agricultural fields. The Mountain is an iconic site for all Chinese to visit. This site is reached by a bus then a gondola lift from which you can explore a series of mountainous places. We were up at a 1640mt then others walked up to one of the peaks at 1860mts. Some walks taking up to 7 hours to complete. One trail is 18 kms long and extremely steep, with ropes and chains supporting the tiny planks of wood which form the pathways in some areas. There are two sides to the mountain and two gondola lifts which access the many walking trails. The stone steps are carved into the wall of the stone cliffs and wind upward to many craggy peaks. The sheer cliffs are home to the famous horizontal cushion pines, rhododendrons and azaleas and eagles. As you climb up and down the hundreds of stone steps you can help but marvel at the engineering that has gone into constructing the various access points. Many a Chinese artist has been inspired by the many outstanding viewpoints, all have imaginative names such as Rhinoceros gazing at the Moon, Farewell Pine, The Dolphin, Welcoming Pine, which has the most famous view.

Unfortunately the tranquillity was broken by the tour guides yelling into their megaphones and people smoking as they walked despite numerous signs prohibiting smoking. Even though we  arrived on the mountain around 8.00am it was already crowded, having opened from 7.00am

Yellow Mountain or Huangshan is a must see location in China and will take your breath away by its beauty.




Old and New – Beijing to Xian

Beijing to Xián

May 10 – May 13 2017


We only had relatively short drives for a couple of days to get to a very unique city called Pingyao. It is modern on the outside and surrounding land, tall buildings and high rise apartments but this masks the walled city dating from 827 – 782 BC. The walls are made of rammed earth which was covered with multiple layers of brick and pockmarked in places by cannonball shots. There are 4 gates which allow admittance to the city which boasts and array of Ming and Qing dynasty houses and courtyards and commercial buildings . The wonderful thing about Pingyao is that active reconstruction and redevelopment is being encouraged to preserve the ancient nature of this city. The perimeter of the wall is about 6 kms and we walked almost all if it searching for an exit gate. The view was fabulous and allowed us to have a clear view of the old and reconstructed buildings. Every thing must be reconstructed in the old style, using traditional crafts and skills. Otherwise most of the buildings would just crumble into piles of wood, clay and straw. No cars are allowed in the narrow streets and alleyways only small electric or traditional carts are allowed. The redevelopment of this city has been encouraged and supported by the Global Heritage Fund.

We stayed in a typical guest house with a delightful internal courtyard. Even had a talking Myn

ah bird. The rooms  main feature is the kang, which is a raised bed which is heated during winter by coals or hot air which is piped in from the kitchen. The room had with authentic furniture.

Temple of City Gods – Pingyao


Highlights of the city were the Temple of the City Gods and the Heavenly Temple and Bell tower. There are many beautiful Buddhist temples scattered throughout the small city. At night you could wander the streets buying food from stalls or exquisite lacquered boxes.

Friday 12 May

Shuanglin Temple

Before setting of on another long expressway drive to Xian we stopped at the Shuanglin Buddhist temple not far from the walled city of Pingyao. Both of these sites are rated as UNESCO World Heritage status.

This ancient temple is over 1500 years old (571AD) and has a collection of over 2000 intricate statues of Buddhas, warriors, gods and teachers of the Buddhist philosophy placed in about 10 halls, around 3 courtyards. The roofs of the buildings are glazed and decorated with detailed dragon figures. It was a serene prelude to the long drive to Xian.

Xian is a bustling city full of the latest shops, H&M, Rolex, Dior sit next to the ancient bell tower, drum tower and wall which runs through parts of the city.

Terracotta Warriors

We spent Friday evening wandering the vibrant Muslim quarter which was frenetic. Stalls lined the streets selling lamb kebabs, freshly squeezed pomegranate juice, coconut or sugar cane juice. The kebabs were very fresh being carved off the whole sheep in front of you and immediately BBQ and basted with chili and other spices, over hot coals. The dull thud, thud, thud of giant wooden mallets pounding toffee sugar, sesame and nuts together to form a delicious sweet can be heard as we wandered the streets. Some stalls were grinding garlic or chilli into pasted by pushing a huge stone around and around. The aromas wafting around us included walnuts being roasted in their shells in huge cauldrons. Other stalls included hand rolled cigarettes, nic nacs and delicious hand made icecreams. Noodle makers entertained the crowds by pulling longs strands of noodle dough  right into the street. Another local delicacy is old yogurt made with sheep milk – very tasty which goes well with the spicy kebabs.  The crowds were unbelievable, and to add to the cacophony of noise was the honking and beeping of scooters, bikes, and motos barging their way through the crowds. The neon lights blinking everywhere added to the spectacle.

You just had to be there….it was so good.

Saturday 13 May

Pingyao narrow street

Everyone has heard of the Terracotta warriors but nothing – not even pictures prepare you for the sheer size of the halls that have been erected over these ceramic marvels to protect them. Add to that thousands of people jostling to take photos of what is described as the eighth wonder of the world. The collection of horses, archers, soldiers, officials, chariots in 5 halls is stunning. To think they have been buried for over 2000 years. Each face of the men is different. All of this to accompany Qin, not really a nice emperor, to the afterlife. At least they weren’t real people. Another must visit place, too magnificent to adequately describe.

Big Beijing

Shanghai to Beijing

5 May – 9 May 2017

We left bright and early(6.30) for our drive out of Shanghai to avoid the peak hour traffic. We had a journey of over 700 kms to complete before arriving in Qufu – the home of Confucius. The kms speed pass as we made our way down the freeways. The tolls are high but are worth the expense. Shamrock is doing well and the service it had in Shanghai has improved the performance. The motoring was fine until we came to a grinding halt on the highway – we waited… and waited… and waited. Nothing moved, people were out walking around chatting to each other so we thought we would have lunch. It was a picturesque spot on a bridge over a river with lots of trees by the side of the road. Fortunately we didn’t move far from the cars because after several tow trucks, police and ambulance whizzed by in the emergency lane we were moving again after only 2 ½ hours. As we passed by the scene of the accident we could see a semitrailer had crashed through the central barrier onto the other side of the freeway.

As we neared Qufu the air quality deteriorated badly and the wind increased so much so we thought we had hit a dust storm. We found out that a severe dust storm, the worst in about 50 years had hit Beijing.

Qufu is the home of Confucius and we visited his temple and mansion the next morning. It was so serene, cypress and juniper trees scented the air. Our guide was very informative especially about the significance of the 3,5,7,9 dragons on the curved roof ends of the various temples. Restoration work is everywhere – repainting the detailed woodwork in the roof and eaves, cleaning and repairing the stone tablets. We were fortunately to see a ‘’Good Luck’’ ceremony at the 9th temple. Much pageantry, flowers and colourful costumes were worn including those of the young students. It really added to the atmosphere of the temples and enabled you to imagine what it must have been like in days gone by. Confucius‘s Mansion was another beautifully quiet place – very large and constantly extended over the generations; which included stunning gardens filled with Peony Roses- China’s national flower. 

It was only a short drive from Qufu to Taishan one of the 5 great mountains but it was so smoggy and dusty we settled for a long walk through to town and a vigorous Chinese massage. The next morning you could see the mountain more clearly but we were on our way to Beijing via Ji’’an, another 500km plus day on the freeway.

Sunday 7 May

Taishan to Beijing

The cars are doing well after their services and coped very well with the 1 hour and 40 minute delay in stop start traffic at a Police check just after a Toll gate. Driving into Beijing was led by Peter who gave clear and concise instructions via the CB radios as we negotiated our way through 6 rings roads to our hotel near Tiananmen Square. Green our guide was with him and had her Chinese Garmin – our maps are pretty useless for some reason. As we entered Beijing the traffic increased dramatically but we managed. The highways and roads are lined with the most colourful and superbly maintained floral displays, mainly of huge blooming archways of roses, inpatients, stocks, petunias, salvias to name a few. The modern towers of housing and commercial buildings stunned us with the innovative and creative designs.

For an enormous city of over 20 million people,  Beijing is surprising quiet. Namely because people are either using bicycles or electric scooters – so you don’t hear the roar of motor bike engines and you only hear the occasional toot of a cars. Cars are new and modern – BMW 5 series, Audis, Benz, Range Rover and other makes but all only up to 4-5 years old. The buses are trolley buses running on electricity. As far as smog it was a little hazy but we saw the moon and stars clearly at night. Throughout China they work on one time zone Beijing time –  same as Perth time.

Monday 8 May 2017

Great Wall and Ming Tombs

No I didn’t buy a tee-shirt with I climbed the Great Wall on it but we did take a few photos after we took the cable car up to the top at Mutianyu. The views are extraordinary from the top of the wall. The massive stone wall snakes its way along the ridge tops of the mountains with towers of different configurations at the peaks of each ridge. You can see how quickly messages could be sent via bonfires across the land. But what an isolated existence for the soldiers who were stationed on these lonely outposts. We hope to see more of the Wall in other areas from other times, so the construction will be different.

Ming tombs were only 70 kms from Beijing but took about 2 hours to get back to the hotel at peak hour were interesting to see the different construction as well. We saw Changling and Dingling’s tombs. Dingling’s tomb was a massive underground arrangement of hemispherical tunnels reached by about 8 double flights of stairs. Changling’s was a series of 9 temples with a huge earth mound – like a small mountain where he was supposedly buried.

Tuesday 9 May 2017

Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City and Summer Palace

I think most of the Chinese population were at the above locations – not really but there were lots of people. Now the authorities are limiting the numbers to around 80,000 – 100,000 a day. The Square is closed at 5.00pm and the journey to the Forbidden City is well orchestrated, with people movement going in one direction only. What I found interesting was that the number 9 was used exclusively by the emperor. The Palace was occupied by the Ming and Qing dynasties from 1368 – 1911. 9 temples, buildings and inner courts and 9 motifs or baby dragons on the ends of the roofs. Each building was given the most imaginative sounding names, such as Gate of Divine Prowess, Hall of supreme Harmony and Palace of Heavenly Purity to name just a few. The Forbidden City is stunning with gleaming yellow/gold coloured glazed roof tiles and intricately painted decorations around the eaves and under them as well.

The Summer Palace is situated around a manmade lake – Kunming Lake and has the longest corridor in the world beside it nearly 800 meters long with a multitude of painted scenes every few meters. The object is to walk to the Marble Boat which looks like a paddle steamer with lead light windows and carvings as it rests tranquilly at the edge of the lake. As you walk you can see various temples and buildings – all built by the Dragon Empress who ruled as regent for her son and nephew in the late 19  and early 20 century.

Once again everything is big – the Square, the Palace, the Wall even the National museum and Mao’s mausoleum is BIG. The wonderful modern architecture is creative and BIG.

Great Wall


Changling- Ming tombs
Dingling- Ming tomb
China’s parliament in Tiananmen Square
Forbidden City
forbidden city – 10th motif is guarding the 9 baby dragons
Summer palace – long corridor
Marble boat – Summer palace
Buddha Temple – Summer Palace
Tiashan at last a clear morning
What do you do in a 21/2 hour traffic jam? check out the engine with your fellow travellers of course

I could write about all the amazing places forever but once again Beijing and its development, history and culture is something one has to see for yourself.