2006- China

 

The Silk Road Trip
August 29th - September 21st 2006

We met the other members of our group at Heathrow, including what turned out to be our exceptionally excellent guide, Angie Carpenter. 

Angie's diary of the entire Silk Road Trip is included, in blue, at the end of this part of ours which focuses on the Chinese leg of the journey - after Uzbekistan and Kyrgystan.
 

 

Wednesday 6th September 

The journey from Kyrgystan to the Chinese border went on, and on, and on.  We had hoped to reach the frontier by 11 but it was 30-45 minutes later before we did so. Then we found that this was just the first of 3.  A few minutes of passport inspection and then on for another 70 km to the next frontier. Much more serious this time with exit customs forms, long delays and warnings by Angie that we needed to be quiet. The border post was (obviously) extremely remote.  It had been built (once!) but nothing had been done since - everything was broken and filthy from the broken flight of steps into the building onwards. 

We then changed coaches to the CITS coach - the driver and guide had bee waiting for over 6 hours for us!  We went "like a bat out of hell" to reach the border.  We were all pretty scared as we moved so fast on the unsurfaced road with some occasional skidding.

By  contrast with that of Kyrgystan, the Chinese border about 7 km later was a smart new building equipped with a scanner and a machine to take our temperatures as we stood in front of it.  The staff were good as it was now 9.00 pm and they had closed 2 hours earlier.  There was nevertheless great bureaucracy.

Further furious driving including through villages until we gained a tarmac road and then a 6 lane road and road toll.

We reached our hotel at 11.30 p.m., exhausted and unable to face sitting down to a meal.  The staff greeted us with a band and dancing.  We felt their time would have been better spent cleaning this elaborate old former British embassy.  Our room boasted not only very elaborate plaster work but dirt from the historic past and also cockroaches.

Kashgar - This is not a typical Chinese city.  It is part of Xinjiang province (pop. 3m) with 60% of its 380,000 population being Uigars.  These are an ethnic minority who are not Han Chinese and are entitled to additional privileges such as being allowed 2 children.  A permit to become pregnant is still needed and breaches of the rules means no schooling or state support for the child.  The working mother and her workmates are penalised and pension rights are reduced.

The population is largely Muslim and the people and their way of life is much more akin to that in Uzbekistan and Kyrgystan than China.  Many people do not even speak Chinese although children now have to learn it at school.  They are part of the Turgic people who spread across central Asia and share common elements of  language.

 

Thursday 7th September

We were given time off for good behaviour and did not have to leave the hotel until 10.30 a.m.  Our first stop was at the main square where a quite enormous statue of Chairman Mao still failed to dominate. 

We visited a kindergarten where a group of children up to 6 years of age gave a remarkable performance of singing and dancing for 45 minutes - truly amazing for such young children.  Some stay there for all 3 meals a day whilst others board on a weekly basis whilst their parents work out of town.  There are 83 staff for 400 children. 

In the afternoon we headed out into the desert via a narrow road, often dirt, and through villages.  The houses are adobe or mud brick, often with timber lying on the roof. The roads are lined with poplar trees which gave welcome shade.  At times a framework was established across the entire road and grape vines grown.

The villages were more reminiscent of what we had seen before in China.  There were many donkey carts and signs of a life that had changed little - such a contrast to parts of Kashgar with wide streets, modern shops and new buildings.

The road being closed for repair, we took another route, the driver asking for directions from time to time.  We ended up winding through the stony desert near the railway line to an ancient pagoda and stupor.  In reality these were now just two large mounds of clay. The drive was reminiscent of our journey into China although over even bumpier terrain.

 

Friday 8th September

The following day we returned to the main square to visit China's largest mosque, part of which dated back to the 9th century.  This was followed by a wander through a street of craft workshops.

Our next stop was for fruit and tea at a private home before moving on to lunch at a restaurant in an orchard.  Unfortunately neither of us felt well enough to eat much.

The remainder of the afternoon was spent in an enormous non-tourist market in a market hall. This had very wide aisles compared with normal, and this, combined with traders who largely left us alone and certainly did not pester, made it a much more enjoyable experience than is often the case.

 

Saturday 9th September

We left this hotel with few regrets and arrived at an enormous modern station with maybe 100 people waiting outside some still in sleeping bags.  This is very much a country of contrasts.  We entered via a side gate and were transported to a different world - a private train which was clean!!! Adrian in particular had been nervous of how good this might be, but the 12 coach Chinese Orient Express proved magnificent.  It was helped by the relatively small number of our group, now 40, enabling us to have 2 compartments each.  This meant that the wash room between became exclusive and the toilet at the end of the carriage was for use only by us and one other couple, James and Lorraine.  As well as the lounge car there was a dining car with white starched linen table cloths and napkins.  What a treat after the filthy towels of the last hotel.  All the cabins and corridors are mahogany lined.    

 

Sunday 10th September - a special day for Adie!

We set off shortly after 9.00 a.m. across the Gobi Desert!  We had begun to realise the previous day that this arid region was transformed by  water.  There is less than 4 inches of rain p.a. but there are a number of rivers bringing run off from the high mountain regions plus artesian water.  With irrigation, large areas we had seen over the last couple of days supported trees, vines and other vegetation.  From the train we could see that the newly constructed line is bounded by reclamation works.  These initially bind the sand then are planted with grasses and ultimately with bushes and trees.  It was really strange to see one moment desert and then quite lush greenery.  Periodically a few tents showed where the workers lodged and from time to time there were more permanent buildings.

Neither of us was well and so both saw the doctor.  Armed with 3 yellow pills of Chinese medicine 3 times a day we set off on our 3,400 mile journey to Beijing.

Desert as far as the eye can see. Occasional greenery either natural or where part of the reclamation.  Now a long section with poplar trees, maize, cotton bushes even grapes.  People hand picking cotton - usually they look up as we pass.  A few donkey carts - no sign of cars here.  Occasionally a cow.  Much less frequently a few buildings.  It is a long time since we saw any larger settlement.

We left the train around 10.30 and were led past another small welcoming band to the outside of the station.  This proved somewhat like a cup final with seething masses of people.  Add to this buses, minibuses and street traders and the resulting chaos is somewhere near the mark.  We learned that September and October are the cotton picking months and hordes of people descend to make some extra money picking cotton.  It is a hard, back-breaking and hot job.  We are not clear whether it is compulsory for any, as in Uzbekistan.  Later our guide spoke of when she had done picking for a week whilst at middle school .  We seemed to be of even more interest to them than they were to us.  Not too many western tourists here.

We set off for some Buddhist caves dating from the 10th -12th century and decorated with wall paintings.  Unfortunately these had been desecrated by Islamists in the 16th century, and covered in clay that could not easily be removed. Then a German explorer carved some out and shipped them back home.  Some are in the British Museum.

We then visited an ancient city which had been abandoned in the 13th century.  To reach this we passed through a barrier of more persistent traders than we had encountered so far.  Then we competed for donkey carts that took us up the long slope in the dust and heat.  The whole exercise of getting the carts was accompanied by much angry and excited shouting amongst the drivers who were competing for the prospect of much cash.  We also felt guilt and unease about the poor donkeys.

The ruins themselves would have been much more interesting given more time, a coherent explanation and some guidance and to which parts to visit.  Instead a short word from our pleasant but rather boring lady guide and "15 minutes spare time"  made the whole thing rather a disappointment.

Neither of us were eating much as we were still far from well, but the others had lunch!!  We then set out again, this time to see some irrigation works from the 13th century.  The aridness of the area (less than 4 inches rain a year) had been alleviated by use of one river and a water aquifer some 15 - 75 metres below the surface.  Miles of underground tunnels had been constructed and still carry 30% of the area's water.

 After more market stalls we returned to the Oasis Hotel where we had had lunch and had our evening meal.  Adie was given a lovely book about the Silk Road, a musical "Happy Birthday" playing top and a cake before departing for the 2 hour coach ride back to the station. In the dark at 10 pm the place seemed more chaotic than ever.  Outside there were people everywhere, many asleep, often in sleeping bags, whilst mayhem surrounded them.  The interior of the building which we had not seen previously was like an ants' nest,  and was crammed with people waiting, pushing , and chattering. It was a real joy, but also slightly embarrassing to our views of equality, that after some 10 minutes we were ushered through to an empty platform and our private train. 

 

Monday 11th September

After a better night's sleep we left the train at its next stop and travelled for 2 hours across the Gobi desert to Dunhuang.  This was one of the more extreme deserts, with less than 2 inches of rain a year.  The heat brings the minerals to the surface by capillary action and the iron then oxidises to produce a black crust to the soil. 

After some 70 km we stopped to look at 2000 year old sections of the Great Wall.  These stand in the midst of nowhere, unattended, unmarked and probably largely unvisited.  They are adobe yet one section still stands probably 20 feet high.

Another stop was made shortly after this to see some cotton picking at close quarters.  The small group of men seemed surprised at this group of 40 westerners descending on their little patch of cotton bushes but soon indicated a welcome and interest at the photographs. 

Lunch was at the Dunhuang Hotel where we were to stay for 2 nights.  Immediately we felt we had moved up in grade of hotel and also in the amount of tourism. [Dunhuang is a city of 380,000 with annual tourist numbers of 700,000 - though very largely Chinese]. Now we were less an object of curiosity and more a source of income.  This was especially so when we visited some huge sand-dunes in the afternoon.  Run almost as a poor man's theme park, it offered first the usual tourist market stalls, then camel rides, dune sledging, quad bikes and even a microlight!  We chose the camel ride and joined many others in a long trek up the sand dunes before dismounting to see the view from the ridge.  Then we picked up our numbered camels from the camel park!  The train of 4 was reconfigured so that the 2 Chinese who had been part on the ascent were replaced by Angie our tour guide.  We descended to a natural lake beside which had been built a lovely pagoda, dating back as far as to 1994!  We spent a total of one amd  half hours riding the camels.

Then more market stalls led us back to our coach and so to the hotel.  This provided our first hot water for 3 days and therefore an opportunity to wash not just our clothes but ourselves.

After our evening meal we looked around the hotel shops and bought some carved name stamps for Kevin and Carol in English and Chinese.

 

Tuesday 12th September

After breakfast we left at 9.00 for our visit to Dunhuang caves.  Carved by Buddhist monks out of sandstone they date from the 4th century until the 13th. They exceed 490 in number and were originally each decorated with  a Buddha statue plus murals.  The murals are painted on a coating of mud and straw - rather like wattle and daub or cob.  The statues have at least partial use of wood and of iron nails to deal with limbs.  These are then also covered in mud and straw.  Unfortunately nature and man have damaged many of the murals and statues but a  large number remain in good condition. 

The whole site appeared well managed as it copes with a large number of visitors.  Initially we visited a museum that gives an overview and even recreates 6 or 8 caves to a reduced scale. This did not prepare us for the sight of the first cave.  This contained a Buddha 35 metres high that filled most of the depth of the cave.  As a result we were straining our heads back to look up at it. 

We saw a total of 10 caves.  Several dated back to the 4th century and had not been restored. Still the colours were bright and the overall impression breathtaking.  In some cases the gold details had disappeared or the red lead faces had oxidised and turned black, yet much remained that was still bright and in good order with much turquoise and lapus lazuli.  The paintings were of Buddhas or of traditional stories or in some cases scenes of life.  The Silk Road brought not only the materials to decorate the caves but also the styles  used and the beliefs themselves too.  The early caves show Indian looking people but later these become more Chinese.

It is impossible to describe this adequately except to say this must rank alongside the Great Wall and the Terracotta Warriors as one of the wonders of China.

We followed our visit with a late lunch at a local CITS restaurant and then spent a few hours back in our hotel room where we even managed a short sleep before the evening meal at 7.00 p.m. at another hotel in Dunhuang.

At around 8.30 we set off for the night market where we wandered up and down for some while.  Finally we returned to our own hotel with our purchases - a plastic camel, to remind us of our ride, a brass dragon, a map of the whole of China with both Stans that we'd visited also, and a packet of coasters for Robin and Janet Child. 

 

Wednesday 13th September

We headed back across the desert towards the train.  At one stage we found the road blocked.  It seems a car had been involved in an accident in roadworks on a bridge.  When we arrived, a tow truck was in front of it and beside it (blocking the road) was a coach stuck in the unmade surface of this section of roadworks.  After about 10 minutes the coach was freed and we were able to move on.

We rejoined the train at Lijuan and set off at around 11.00 a.m.  Today, for the first time since day 2 of the holiday, we both felt pretty well normal and raring to go.  Hooray!!!

In The afternoon we set out for Jiayuguan Pass - a fort dating back to 1372.  It controlled the Hexi Corridor between the mountains which varies in width down to 400 yards.  "To the east of the pass is China and to the west the boundless sweep of desert that was the beginning of the barbarian western regions of ancient times".  Our guide informed us that 50 years ago there was nothing here except the fort.  Now there is an industrial city of 130,000 people - quite unattractive with many rows of blocks of flats, steelworks, factories and chimneys pushing out smoke. At night it becomes more attractive with many illuminations.

The fort proved fantastic with large courtyard areas, wall walks and decorated buildings having the elaborately carved roof ridges and gable ends we have seen so many times elsewhere in China and Japan.  It had been largely restored which is good in some ways as we can see a little of what it would have been like, but it other ways it has disadvantages.

 

Thursday 14th September

A day of rest - in the train.

In the morning a question time on China with our national guide, Stephen, who is 26 but very fluent in English and easy to listen to.  After a good lunch, still vegetarian to be on the safe side, a video.  The video was 2 hours long and boring but we enjoyed the scenery from the train and the chance to read.  Then an hour of entertainment by our resident pianist.  All very enjoyable and civilised, especially when combined with so many opportunities to chat.

We came out of the Hexi corridor and followed the river valley (Yellow River?) towards Xian.  The land has been lush with maize, cabbages and many smallish plots being hand cultivated.  Occasionally the hillside has been carved away for minerals.  At times there has been the sight of a distant range of high mountains.  All very interesting and much very attractive.

Our last evening meal on the train concluded our day.

 

Friday 15th September

Wake up music at 4.45 am!  This being on holiday business is great!!

A short coach ride took us to the Axa Grand Hotel in Xian - just opposite the east gate and the city walls.  Our executive suite on the 9th floor made this already attractive hotel seem even more so.  We had a splendid view right across to the South Gate (Nanmen) and wall.

We had a couple of hours before leaving for the day and had our best breakfast yet.

The morning involved a visit to the Terracotta Army that we had visited before with Lynn and Christian in 2001.  The whole complex of buildings was extremely well laid out and accommodated easily the visitors.  Apparently 7-8 million people visit each year.  Tourism accounts for 17% of Xian's income.

The warriors were very impressive.  The sheer magnitude of everything is overwhelming.  720,000 men spent 38 years 2200 years ago preparing this tomb for the first emperor of China (Shi Huangdi) - the one who also started the Great Wall.  Each warrior is different.  Two bronze chariots discovered a little after the initial discovery in 1974.  There is immense detail in the harnesses and the mechanics of the chariot.   Even the pole holding up the umbrella over one of the chariots had elaborate patterns in inlaid silver and gold. The chariots and horses were stated to be 1/2 size although they seemed smaller than that.

We stayed for a good lunch at the restaurant on site and then returned to visit a museum of Tang Dynasty costume and art and calligraphy.  We walked by the Big Wild Goose Pagoda built for the Buddhist writings brought back by  Xuan Zang in 652 AD. 

Zhang Quian had been the first to travel the Silk Road (returning 125BC when sent by the Emperor Wudi to recruit the Yuezhi people to help defeat the Huns who had been raiding China).

The Great Wall abuts the fort.  This section goes  back 2000 years but was largely re-built and strengthened in the Ming Dynasty.  Our next stop was to walk a section that was rebuilt in 1989 and is so steep that it is known as the overhanging wall.  It was a very strenuous climb with 541 steps plus some inclined sections.  We both made it to the top guard post and  were very pleased.

 

Saturday 16th September

The day began with a new adventure for us - riding a tandem on the city walls of Xian!!.  Having never ridden one before, we ran into the cycle shed in the first 50 yards but thereafter managed to cycle probably half a mile or more each way along the cobbled surface, returning when the wall turned through 90 degrees.

 

The compulsory visits to factories seem less prominent but we did stop at a jade factory where a short explanation was a prelude to the real business of selling to tourists.  We bought a jade ball set but have no idea of how they are made.

 

In the afternoon  the group went to a mosque and we opted out and went instead to a sort of souk.  Then, as a complete contrast, ventured into an underground shopping complex, packed with perfume counters and designer labels shops - it could certainly be London, or anywhere!   We had already noted that dress generally in this part of China is entirely western.  Then the Tang Dynasty show in the evening before returning to the train for midnight.  The show was spectacularly colourful and the food excellent.

 

Sunday 17th September

Our late evening was followed by a 6.30 a.m. departure to L  a former capital of China and now a city of 2m serving a hinterland of 6m.  Again  we started with breakfast at a hotel.  We then set off for the   Caves with our new local guide Stephen who proved quite hard to listen to and relatively formal. 

The complex comprises 2000 caves carved internally and externally with numerous Buddhas.  These date back up to 1500 years.  The largest Buddha is some 35 metres high and the whole site is very impressive.  Unfortunately the whole group was by this stage totally exhausted, the short night and the rigorous regime having taken its toll. Some were also still suffering from stomach upsets.  Indeed, David and Anita stayed at the hotel so that she could see a doctor at the hospital.  This was achieved within the hour on payment of 5 yuan (33p) and purchase of medicine at about £7.

We lunched at a somewhat indifferent restaurant, still maintaining our vegetarian approach. 

Following this we spent an hour at the local museum but again tiredness limited the benefit of this.

Then onto the earliest Buddhist temple in China dating from 67 AD but none of the usual succession of pavilions seemed to be remotely near this in age.  The temple is still active and there were many saffron robed monks mixing with the tourists.  In this city we were not quite the only European tourists but were definitely a source of interest to a number of the Chinese and during the day were photographed by some.

Our final visit of the day was to a cave dwelling supposedly still occupied by a 96 year old woman with bound feet.  In fact we later found that she no longer lives there all the time.

The dwellings are formed by digging a large pit that forms a courtyard and from which tunnels radiate out and form rooms.  The courtyard therefore appears as a large square perhaps 20 feet below the ground surface.  The caves are lined outside with mud and straw mix and this is also used to line the inside of the cave. A proper wooden door gives access to the cave and there is also a somewhat makeshift supply of electricity for light and TV.

On our return journey we noted that life in the countryside had not moved on as fast.  We particularly noticed much more 2 wheeled traffic and the 3 wheeled bikes or motor bikes with pick up truck backs.  Grain was spread everywhere to dry and be threshed - this often involved use of the front yards of houses and even of side roads and car parks where the traffic did the work. We saw our sole example this trip of the use of a yoke to carry 2 pails of water and also our sole example of the  rotavator type transport with trailer which we had seen so much in Asia.

Due to our train having a defined schedule that has to fit in with other traffic the times were often inconvenient.  So today we had several hours to kill.  The guide suggested we do a photo stop at the city walls but not go into the old town as it was dangerous.  In fact people went through the gateway and everyone was ecstatic that here they met the local people and saw the real China.  We had gone in a short distance and then come out again to trace some live traditional singing before returning to the coach to rest. Possibly the cause of most excitement was the ability of our group to buy beer at the local price of 2 yuan (14p)!

Once more a visit to a hotel provided a very good dinner and (for us) use of the internet at a much more modest price (10 yuan - 70p for 1/2 hour ) compared with that price for each 5 minutes in Xian.   

Once again it was a late return to the train - this time for a 11.30 p.m. departure - but we were virtually asleep by then!!

 

Monday 18th September

A welcome day of rest on the train. 

The agriculture is still on a strip basis and with a total absence of machinery although we had seen tractors on the roads.  There were large quantities of maize and cotton with lesser amounts of cabbage and lettuce.  All the time a small number of workers bent over in the fields. 

A train on a parallel track on its way to Shanghai showed us the crowded dormitory sleeper accommodation and pretty dirty conditions of some of the travel.

As we got closer to Beijing, industry increased with the occasional big town and rows of  blocks of flats. However, large areas of maize remain and also cotton.

We arrived 2 hours early and had only 15 minutes warning of this so it was a scramble to clear our things, say goodbye and have a quick speech by James to thank all the train staff.

We made our way by coach from Beijing West station to the Gloria Plaza Hotel (opposite the old royal Observatory and beside one of the city's five ring roads.  The road system is very impressive but extremely busy.

We had an evening meal in the hotel and then walked out to the shops but at 9 pm these were all closing.

  

Tuesday 19th September

After breakfast we took the coach to go to Tiannamen Square for a group photo.  The others then went on to the Forbidden City but together with James and Lorraine, who had done the same China trip as us a couple of years earlier, we queued up to see Mao Tse Tung in his mausoleum.  This was interesting for several reasons.  A guard said we must deposit our bags in an office on the other side of the wide and busy road.  He led us across at speed and then accompanied us back and demanded 100 yuan £7 per couple.  Not knowing quite what this was for, we duly paid and he left us at the end of the queue - a nice little earner for 7-8 minutes free lance work!

The long queue moved quite rapidly and within 30 minutes we entered the mausoleum where many placed single yellow tulips before Mao's statue, bowing reverentially.  We then entered the central room where Mao's body lay, his face glowing eerily.  Then at some speed it was all over.

We left James and Lorraine and headed for the National Museum on the eastern side of the square.  This, like so much in Beijing was in the throes of refurbishment with the result that only about 170 exhibits were on display and these really added little to what we had already seen elsewhere.  However, there was an excellent photographic exhibition of people and sites not just in China but around the world.

Taking a taxi, we went to the silk store where our group was due to arrive after their trip to the Forbidden City.  We were an hour ahead of them and had ample time to buy a silk duvet and some clothes for Jill.

We remained with the group for the rest of the day, visiting the Summer Palace, an area of Hutongs and a "snack street".  The Hutongs included a rickshaw ride and a visit to the home of a 60 year old ex factory worker,  It was clear that many hutongs are being demolished.  The courtyard style living is great for community spirit but younger people dislike the usually small accommodation of these 100-150 year old houses and also the communal toilets and washing places.  As a result the population is 60% elderly. 

The snack street was much better than we expected.  The long street of stalls were manned by uniformed people and the food appeared clean and well presented, even if locusts and other insects etc were not to our taste. 

A late evening meal then rounded off a day that had been exhausting especially as Adrian now had a full blown cold that had been doing the rounds of our group.

 

Wednesday 20th September

We were delighted not to have the 6.30 wake up call and the 8 am departure of the group as they headed for the Great Wall.  After a very leisurely breakfast we walked to the Friendship Store and the Silk Street indoor market.  This latter involved running the gauntlet of the good natured traders but even so this soon proved tedious. 
Jill entered protracted negotiations for a top and silk pyjamas securing them for 335 yuan from a starting figure of 1200!

We had a snack lunch and then headed back to the hotel for a rest and to pack. 

In the afternoon, we summoned up energy to go to ride the subway for the experience of having done so.  We found it to be no great problem as all the station signs are dual language and even the announcements are in English also.  We rode the three stations to Tiannamen Square and once there managed go secure 2 Olympic baseball caps for 1 dollar before taking the subway again back to our hotel.

The rest of the group had arrived atypically early at around 4.30 p.m. which gave them some respite before we all set off at 7.45 p.m. for our Peking Duck Dinner.  This took place in the same restaurant as the same event on our last trip in 2001 and was an enjoyable experience with James giving a masterful vote of thanks for Angie in poetic form.

We then collected our group photograph from our Chinese Guide, Stephen (100 yuan) and bought a gold engraved plate of the Great Wall at our hotel before retiring to bed.

 

Thursday 21st September

We left the Gloria Plaza Hotel at 8.00 a.m. for the airport, following our wakeup call at 6.15 a.m.  It had been a rigorous, hectic, exhausting but enjoyable experience.  Certainly not a holiday but nonetheless a valuable insight into life in three very different countries.

We arrived back at Heathrow at almost 3.00 p.m.

 

 

SILK ROAD TOUR BY PRIVATE TRAIN:

29.08.06  - 21.09.06
(Angie Carpenter's Diary)

With Uzbekistan Airlines we flew to Tashkent.  Late arrival but met by VIP private coach to the Immigration where we received our group visa number and patiently stood in line. 

Luggage, some came, some came later but finally we arrived at the domestic terminal, where Lisa and Norman joined the VJV family for our Silk Road Tour.

Boxed brunch, boarding passes, coach to the plane and finally we were on our way to Bukhara. 

On arrival we walked directly to our waiting coach, luggage followed and transfer to the Bukhoro Palace Hotel our home for two nights. Our National Guide Maarat escorted us and Gulya our local guide took care of us, in this ancient City.

No time to waste, quick lunch and we were off.

The Summer Palace and Gardens, the colourful rooms, beautiful ceilings and the exotic gifts from China and the Far East all on display. We watched the newly weds as they carefully descended the stairway from the platform overlooking the pool, they acknowledged us as we took their photos and smiled as they went along their way. We learnt about Suzannas, (a Persian word) the beautiful silk stitching and stunning colours, Margaret couldn’t resist and made her first holiday purchase, the shop owner was determined to make his sale.

Dinner in the old Madrassah near Lyabi Square, with musicians, folklore and a fashion show, Despite our long day, this was the perfect start to our holiday.

Relaxed and under clear blue skies with warm temperatures, we ventured on our full day City Tour of Bukhara.  Gulya made us feel like Ancient Pilgrims as we visited the Ark Fortress with the carefully carved interior, some took her advice and walked three times round the exterior silently wishing for troubles to be removed from their lives.  Would it really work???? We learnt about the healing water in the nearby Well of Job, then listened to horror stories of the Bug Pits and the Dungeons.  The Domes of Jewellery and Hats, were old Madrassahs now used as modern trading areas, the Mosque of Magoki Attari and the Architectual Complex with silk carpets sellers and more.

We closed our sightseeing with the two important, although no longer used, Madrassahs of Ulugbeck & Abdul. 

Our adventure had truly begun. Our photographs were many - would we remember all the names? We met the locals at the flea market and the young hawkers along the way; we smiled and politely said “Not today!” to their wares.  

Tonight we joined the special celebrations of Independence Day at the Stadium, where some had front row seats for the colourful and spectacular never ending performances by dancers, musicians, singers, military parade, sportsmen, fashion wear, ladies in national costumes and much more. We were honoured today to be guests at this special event.

Time to say our goodbyes & thanks to all in Bukhara and we boarded our coach for the 350kms journey to Samarkand.

At Gizduan we visited a small family workshop to learn about the ceramics, once traded along the Silk Road; but today we bought small gifts and souvenirs in traditional colours to take back home. Lunch in Samarkand, no time to rest as we visited the famous Observatory and the amazing Acropolis Shahi Zunda - the street of tombs decorated with majolica tiles.

Samarkand had much to show us; we visited The Gur Emir Mausoleum of architecture from the 15th century. The Bibi Khanin Mosque beside the Bazaar, where many mingled with locals and explored the rows of market stalls.

The highlight for some - Registan Square with soaring minarets, the domes of glistening turquoise and cobalt blue, we stood in awe and breathed in its history.

Dinner with a local family, traditional food and a special atmosphere, our evening closed with the Sound and Light Show at Registan Square.

Boxed lunch and all aboard, as we travelled the five hour journey to Tashkent, driving past arid landscape, cotton fields and mountain ranges in the distance.

Hotel Uzbekistan, our home for one night.  Late afternoon Orientation Tour, with its many parks, the memorial statue to the fallen heroes, Uzbek Parliament and more. 

Morning airport procedures delayed as our flight to Beshkek was not on time. Plan B – we waited at the airport since Jill felt pretty unwell whilst others visited excellent Municipal Art Gallery before our flight.

Arrival in Kyrgystan met by Adele. The Ak Keme Hotel our home for one night. Dinner in the roof restaurant, champagne and birthday cake for three but only Victor and all the guests made the celebration – one cake had been for Jill but she was ill in bed, even though it was her birthday. 

Early start as we explored the city square of Bishkek, The Parliament, the music and dancing for the last morning of Independence celebrations in the square. Decorated yurts, local sellers and we watched the goose stepping soldiers - Changing of the Guard -at nine.

Then our true long adventure took a different style.

“All aboard!” our leader calls.  With plenty of water, packed lunches, charcoal pills and a few goodies in the little red bag, we started our journey in an easterly direction. A short stop at Burhana, to climb the tower, visit the museum and the little store where we bought a traditional hat for Roger. We viewed the 6th-8th century memorial stones & the huge memorial books holding history in their pages.

The Russian Holiday Camp beside Lake Issyk-Kul where the ladies in white coats served us lunch and dinner. Were we really still on holiday?

Very early morning, breakfast and once more we joined our waiting coach – at 2.30 a.m!

Wrapped up for low temperatures we ventured forth.  A long day our leader warned, rough roads, great scenery, yurts and rugged countryside, we saw it all. The road, then no road, the dust and more dust, the trucks, the small village of Naryn, we had already travelled four hours..  Onwards, dusty, onwards, more dust, pit stops, more pit stops; someone asked “Is it far?” silence was the reply! Coffee time - Adele and Angie brewed and our waiter Julian served, all appreciated the beverage, no milk and sugar but lots of dust added to the flavour.

Sad news, too late for the border crossing so beside the stone eagle we picnicked under the midday sun, we were the true VJV explorers! Just another few hours, then a few more, slower and slower our coach brought us to the border post, then another border post and sadly time to say goodbye to our Kyrgestan team, as we passed our luggage across the border to join our China escorts. 

Passport control, border posts, checks and more checks and finally wearily we arrived at the Seman Hotel in Kasghar, where dinner and hot showers awaited us.  We met our fellow travellers, arriving from Urumqui and our family for the Silk Road Tour was now complete. 

Well rested we joined our guides both Mohammeds and visited the important Abakh Hoja Tomb with the small mosque in the garden. The children at the Kindergarten entertained us and we dined at George McCartney Residence for lunch. En route to the Buddhist Moer Pagoda, the earliest in China and part of the Lost City of Hanoi, we drove through small villages and learnt about farming life in the area.

We visited the Great Id Mosque and learnt about Islam in this Autonomous Region. The handicraft street, the traders, the musical instrument stores, we mixed with the locals and many found bargains along the way. Into the narrow alley way we passed and as a group we were guests at a family home, where the tables were laden with fruits and bread to welcome us. We learnt about Kashgar family traditions and met some of the ladies of the house.

Sunday market on a Friday, did it really matter? The narrow lanes, the variety of local items and Margaret bargained hard for our towels for the train.

Met Steven our National Guide and the VJV group travelling Westbound, we exchanged tales of our journeys in both directions, and wished each other luck.

Today was another highlight, as we joined the China Orient Express at Kashgar Station, and found our compartments on this special train which would be our home on wheels for many days. Finally relaxation, as we chugged out of the station the next part of our adventure had begun, Unpacked, settled in, a short orientation briefing then lunch is served.  Now this feels like holiday time for a while. Communion before dinner and an early night for most.

Gentle music drifts through the carriages, this is the new style of wake up call.

Turfan station our morning stop. We all disembark quickly and joined our local guides Gu Li Nuzer & Gui Le Nisha.  The stunning Flame Mountains, the backdrop of our route for many miles, changing colour in the different morning light. 

The Bezeklik Buddhist Grottoes, rock hewn caves, with the simple and sadly destroyed paintings on the ceilings and walls. 

We continued to the Ancient City of Gaochang, where we rushed for our donkey carts and all jumped aboard. The short ride was bumpy and dusty, but fun. We learnt about the history of this ancient city and wondered why it was suddenly deserted; so long ago. We learnt about The Karez Irrigation System, and followed the spiral staircase underground to view the narrow channels flowing with crystal clear water. We tasted the local wine as we relaxed under the vines, then raisin tasting in a family courtyard, where we shopped from their little stall. The raisin drying houses where we met workers hanging the grapes to dry for the season.

A long but interesting day and we returned to a bustling train station where cotton pickers were waiting the arrival of their late night train. We shuffled with the crowds towards the platform and finally exhausted  we re boarded our private train and it pulled out of Turfan Station before midnight.

Mid morning we disembarked at LiuYuan Station, met by Lilly &Kathleen for our two hour drive to Dunhuang through the stoney Gobi Desert.

We took photographs of the remaining small part of the Great Wall in this area and some picked cotton with the locals in the fields along the way. 

The comfortable Dunhuang Hotel our home for two nights. The Ming Sha Mountain a true sandy desert area, with high sweeping dunes in all directions.

Dressed for the occasion many chose to travel by camel train along the edge of the dunes to high areas for excellent views of endless desert terrain. We climbed the wooden steps for even better views, then once again in the saddle the camel lunged forward, backwards and once more forward until it was upright, all we had to do was hold on tight.

John and James did afternoon exercise as they climbed the longest route along a wooden stairway to the top of the dunes ¨Were the views really worthwhile?” we asked ¨Very much so” was the reply.

The electric carts took others to view The Pagoda and The Crescent Lake.  We all had fun today on this wonderful holiday.

The Magao Caves of Dunhuang with the three large Buddhas and hundreds of rock hewn caves covered with exquisite paintings from floor to ceiling. We were in awe as we moved from cave to cave with amazing giant sized statues standing tall and strong over the centuries, we truly had found unique history today.

Evening foot massage and culture show for some completed our day.  Back to our “Palace on Wheels” as we continued our journey to Jiayuguan where Alex gave us a warm welcome to his city.

First we visited the Jiayuguan Fort and a guided tour around the inner and outer ramparts; then a visit to the well displayed museum.  “Time for evening exercise!” Alex advised as he pointed us in the direction of the Great Wall. With enthusiasm we headed forth and step by step we ventured onwards, upwards, slowly we progressed and finally we reached the summit, with good views across the desert below. Some returned via the steep step route. Others returned the safer way.  Back to the train late evening, past the brightly lit square.  Only a few years ago this was the Gobi desert. 

Finally a full day on the train, relaxing, catching up on sleep, chatting, lunch time drinks at the bar as the pianist played some of our favourite tunes.

Very early morning start as our train pulled into Xian. Met by Lindy an excellent local guide. Comfortable rooms and breakfast at the Castle Hotel.

The amazing Terracotta Warriors, the 360 degree film telling the history, we stood in awe in Pit No 1, as we looked upon this magnificent army, found by three farmers in 1979 when digging for a well. Each face different, rank upon rank, horses, warriors, high ranking officers, each one to protect the Emperor in the after life. Pits No 2 & 3 - the headquarters, kneeling archers, weapons, more warriors and the two bronze chariots. Today was a highlight for us all.

Many closed their day watching line dancing in Xian square.

Early start for some to the Small Wild Goose Pagoda.  We learnt about Buddhism and the miracle of the earthquake which broke and repaired this special leaning Pagoda. We listened to gentle music in the park, and watched the retired folk making morning exercise - Tai Chi, Sword and Fan dancing, this was a tranquil start to our day.

The City Wall of Xian, standing grand despite the renovations.  Some had fun as they peddled on bicycles and tandems along this cobbled way.

The Jade centre, where we learnt about the importance of jade to the Chinese.

The Tang Dynasty Art Gallery, with the bubbly guide, who taught us about this important period in Chinese history and showed us the basic skills of calligraphy.

The Provincial Museum, with its excellent display of artefacts - classed as one of the top museums in China. The Tang Dynasty dinner and show at the Xian Theatre with colourful costumes from the Tang period, music and dance reliving stories of this ancient time.

Almost midnight and once again met by Linda at the station gates and escorted back to our travelling home.

Another very early morning, met by Steven our local guide in Louyang.

Breakfast in the revolving restaurant of the Peony Hotel, with hazy views to nowhere. The busy Longmen Grottoes where we learnt more about Buddhism and walked from cave to cave viewing amazing sights. Small and large Buddhas standing tranquil over the centuries, looking outwards to the lake. The small museum and floral show, then the granny’s cave where a family of three generations warmly welcomed us below ground level to view their home.

Granny was in her 90s but had a friendly smile, sadly she had suffered foot binding in her younger days.

The active White Horse Buddha Temple, where we watched the believers burning incense and making offerings in the prayer halls.

The Ancient City Wall and gate, this truly was rural China, we wandered through the arch way and stepped into daily life of the city folk.

We photographed, wandered, felt the atmosphere, and some just sat in the square - with beer at 2 yuan this was surely time to relax.

Our final day on the train to enjoy the scenery, a leisurely day, lunchtime drinks with friends at the bar and finally an announcement from Steven - Good News we are arriving two hours early! Scramble, pack, ready, goodbyes to Linda and her team and we joined the throngs of travellers at Beijing station as we headed towards our coach and our final city on this special tour.

The Gloria Plaza Hotel, our home for three nights.

Early start, we walked on Tian An Men Square - the biggest in the world. Through the Emperor’s Gate some entered the Forbidden City, then courtyard upon courtyard we followed our guide, learning its history with every step. The throne room, the hall of supreme harmony, the examination room giving a chance to the brightest pupils to be in the top three. The roofs of yellow with small figures on the eaves and the deep red walls, colours used only for the Emperor.

We learnt about silk, bought duvets and beautiful outfits for some.

The Summer Palace with the painted corridor and the marble boat. Aboard our private Dragon Boat we crossed the Kuming man-made lake with excellent views of the park and the Marco Polo bridge. 

Hutong, old Beijing, the narrow streets and homes painted in grey, the family and the busy street of bars near the lake followed by Snack Street with the horrendous items on offer!

Our final day on tour. We strolled along the Sacred Way where stone figures - some sitting, others standing, guarded our route.   The Ming Tomb with its museum of treasures from Emperor Jodi’s underground Palace.

Finally the Great Wall of China  at Badaling standing in all its glory as the narrow steps snaked their way into the hillside and beyond. The challenge awaited us all,  we stepped onto this mighty way and slowly joined visitors from all over the world to follow its route.  Originally 6000 kms long, built to protect this mighty country, China but today we would walk only a short part of its sloping way.

Tonight our farewell duck dinner at the famous Quanjude Duck Restaurant  a speciality of Beijing - with laughter we will join our fellow travellers in the final toast to our Voyages Jules Verne Silk Road Tour.

Then it will be memories, photographs and new found friends, but this truly has been a special journey, travelling this ancient route, by air, road and aboard the China Orient Express  Time for me to say my farewells, thank yous and like butterflies you will fly away but I am sure we will meet again on a VJV Holiday.