We shared the compartment of our sleeping train from Yichang with a crippled fortune teller, whose services the train attendants were very happy to use during the quiet hours of the long ride. The train dropped us off at Guangzhou on the coast of the South China Sea. I remembered just one thing from here: the city market from which I started my previous trip to China, with all the world’s misery in the alleys and all the world’s species in the frying pans. It was a difficult landing back then. Now it looked nothing like that. This time it was beautiful booming city with wide green avenues; even the concrete road overpasses were freshly painted yellow and carpeted with flowering plants. Either Guangzhou changed its face or I changed my outlook, I don’t know. We didn’t stay: we had had enough of Chinese cities, and were leaving China altogether. This was the end of our trip. We boarded a bus to Macau.
. . . → Read More: Macau & Hong Kong
Chengdu was where I finally crossed the path of my previous trip to China. It looked just the same. But then it looked the same as Xi’an, too — all the big cities look alike in China. The only major news was the metro: four years ago it was still under construction, and now it’s running, new and sparkling, filled with excited citizens for whom it is still a novelty. The nearly identical hostels completed the picture. No matter where you go, you’ll have English-speaking staff, a bar, a restaurant and people from all over the world. Sometimes I think it’s too much, all this sameness: you can almost forget which city or which country you are in.
. . . → Read More: Chengdu and the Yangtze River
We landed in Xi’an and transferred to our hostel. Hostels are a delight in China, and seem to get better and better as we go. This one was arranged around three connected courtyards, and featured a colorful travelers’ restaurant, as well as a steep narrow staircase leading down from one of the floors, opening in Alice-in-Wonderland-style into a huge and lively bar, in which every guest in the hostel had a right to one free beer every day. The place was well-staffed, and generally designed to cater to every need of the traveler so that he could not make himself leave.
. . . → Read More: Xi’an
After one day of walking around Lhasa, we were to spend the rest of our trip to Tibet inside a jeep, looking at its views and people through the window: the impracticality of independent travel in this land forced us to settle for a “Land Cruiser tour”. We set off in the morning and started our long drive eastwards. The scale on the jeep’s altimeter topped out at 3000m; there isn’t a single spot in Tibet where this scale is valid, so the needle climbed back to the zero mark and passed it, crawling up on its second round, along with our jeep.
. . . → Read More: From Lhasa to the Himalaya
The first segment of our journey to Lhasa was an 11-hour bus from Dunhuang to Golmud. Outside the window was the flattest landscape on the planet: it looked as if someone had tossed sand all over the place and then flattened it with a ruler. With nothing to look at in that direction, we had to find entertainment within the bus. A TV above the driver was playing Chinese karaoke, and two girls sitting behind us propped themselves on our headrests and sang the songs right into our ears. That was entertaining enough. This musical ride seemed longer than it really was. Towards the evening we arrived in Golmud.
. . . → Read More: Lhasa, Tibet
If Kashgar still felt very much like Central Asia, the trip to Urumqi finally forced us to bid our farewells. The capital of the Xinjiang Uighur autonomous region is sadly not Uighur anymore — the Uighurs comprise a wee 12% of the population, squeezed out by waves of Han Chinese immigration. Urumqi is now a standard big Chinese city with everything that characterises one: high-rise glass buildings, hectic traffic, spitting people, and even the token park with a pet pagoda, like in every other city in this country.
. . . → Read More: Urumqi & Dunhuang
There’s no sense that etches stronger into the human memory than the sense of smell. As we were walking the streets of Kashgar, the Chinese signs looked familiar, and so did the endless streams of scooters, the people’s faces and their language; it were the smells, though, which really took me back right away to my previous visit in this country four years ago. The dust, the people, the spices in the food — they all combine to create a unique smell fingerprint which stays imprinted in your mind.
. . . → Read More: Kashgar
After the Tian Shan trek we needed some rest. It came in the form of a three-day camping trip on the shores of the Song-Kol lake, which we reached by jeep, the lazy way. The lake, at an altitude of 3000m, is surrounded by green valleys used by the Kyrgyz shepherds as their summer pastures, called “jailoos”. The village dwellers from the lower valleys erect their yurts here in spring and move in for the season, bringing along their livestock. Yurts strewn around the plains, herds of cows and the occasional yak grazing the grass, and horses galloping across the fields all day long: this was the backdrop for our holiday.
. . . → Read More: Song-Kol, and the last of Kyrgyzstan
The Tian Shan, Chinese for “Celestial Mountains”, is a massive mountain system that straddles the borders of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and China. It is a very popular destination for mountaineers, thanks to its glaciers and rugged peaks, but there’s also a lot on offer to amateur hikers like ourselves. We went on a 5-day trek in the valleys south of the city of Karakol, armed with an old Soviet Army topographic map that’s been newly reprinted for hikers.
. . . → Read More: A taste of the Tian Shan
A very comfortable (for a change) minibus ride took us from Bishkek eastwards to the shores of lake Issyk-Kul, and then beyond to the town of Karakol. Long being the base for mountaineering expeditions into the nearby Tian Shan range, this city has seen its fair share of travellers even before the modern age of backpacking, and these days mere backpackers are lost here among the cyclists, trekkers, climbers and other athletic types who flood this area during the summer season.
. . . → Read More: Lake Issyk-Kul