At home we have sand from some deserts that we have visited, including the mother of all arid spaces the Sahara. The Gobi Desert is the worlds fifth largest desert (although the polar caps are #1 and #3, which seems like a loophole.)
The Gobi is huge and getting bigger. It expands several miles south every year, encroaching on imporant Chinese agricultural lands. China has responded with a number of initiatives, including ‘The Green wall of China’, a band of trees planted to slow the desert attack. But like the original great wall, built to keep out the barbarians from the north, it seems unlikely that it will work.
Our life support Buick
We’ve been in the airconditioned Buick mini van for at least 2 hours, and I am really glad that I spent the extra $75 for the hotel’s vehicle. The desert is a hazardous environment, and the minivan is our life-support pod and is worth a few extra bucks over the dilapidated taxi I could get for $40.
Today is a multi destination Gobi desert extravaganza today. We’ll be seeing ancient forts and Great wall sections, unusual geological parks, and adventure rides on the sand dunes. Each activity is scattered around Northwestern Dunhuang county and you have to have a van. And if you do one, you might as well do them all, because it’s quite a drive.
In the middle of nowhere there is a toll booth and large gate. The driver says I have to buy three different tickets to get through the gate. It’s entirely unclear what or why I am buying one ticket, much less three. For $35 they give me a handful of full color rectangular tickets.
Yadan is a word from the Ugyhur language, one of the larger minorities in China, mostly out here in the northwest. Yadan are unusual formations of clay that rise above the desert floor in chunks that look artificial. It’s a geological phenominon that happens when a dry old lake bed of clay is exposed to rapidly running water like a desert rain storm. The clay dissolves easily, and creates these unusual formations.
Lake? Rains? This is a desert, right? Well it wasn’t not so long ago. This area used to be very wet. There are huge numbers of dinosaur bones and eggs here because it was once a sub tropical rainforest. But when the Indian subcontinent began it’s push into Asia and formed the Himalayas, it blocked all the wet storms from the south from ever reaching the Gobi area. It’s called a rain shadow, and is the reason the Gobi is a desert now. This was formed in the transition period. (Click on pic for a large version)
Building for the masses
I gotta take a leak badly and and marvel at the size of the bathroom this deep into the desert. It’s the size of a baseball stadium bathroom. China builds for the masses.
Unfortunately the only way they allow you to see the Yadan formations is by tour bus. As we wander around, looking for cold water to buy, they motion to us that the bus is leaving and we get the hot back seats of the barely air-conditioned bus. Fortunately it’s not a long bus ride through the desert.
In the end, I agree that there is no way you could effectively see the park in the desert heat by walking. They also strictly prohibit anyone (like us) from climbing on the formations. They are fragile and may not even last another several decades because the sand storms from the north wear them down at a rapid rate.
Travel planning kids
This area, north west of Dunhuang, was the outer edge of China for a couple thousand years. Like any border, it served primarily as a military outpost, which when effective, permitted the collection of taxes from the silk road traders and kept undesirable ‘barbarians’ out. Our next three stops include two famous silk road ‘gates’ and a section of the original Great Wall of China from two thousand years ago.
In the car on the way to the surviving section of the ancient great wall, Lily talks about wanting to bring her friend Lena back here when they are both teenagers. Lily, by the way, feels completely better today. She goes on about the itinerary she would plan for them in China, and how it would include a trip to Dunhuang in the desert. Last night Emma composed an email to her friends outlining her trip entitled ‘Yo Peeps’.
It had micro blog length descriptions of each day like this one: “day 8-we got a little lost today when we were trying to find a molsk were islamic peeps prayed but i lost my sunglasses here but luckly we had a back up so I used those. we had lunch at a chinese mc donadles and then at night we saw then light show they do every night and when we saw peeps in the fountin we dicide to come back tomarrow with our bathing suits”
The Han dynasty
In Xi’an, we saw Qui Shi Huangdi’s great terracotta warrior tomb. He was the first emporer, the one that first subjugated the fudal kings and princes into a singluar empire. But it was a short reign, and when he died there was no clear succession plan. War ensued and eventually China was again unified, this time under the Hans, Qui Shi Huangdi’s rivals. Despite inheriting a deeply damaged society, both economically and militarily, they managed to keep this feudal society intact.
For over a hundred years, they would send young princesses to the north to pacify the attacking Huns, they lowered taxes and encouraged pesants to move to the borderlands and very importantly, retained power even during transition of Emporer. It was a critical developmental phase for the Middle Kingdom, and in spite of being a chaotic time, is considered a golden age.
The Han did not govern a stable China, however. The imperial court suffered political drama and intrigue that rivals anything Shakespeare or Hollywood could dream up. Sexy consorts, Daoist priests, large groups of double-crossing eunuchs, fussy dowagers, Confucian bureaucrats and of course Emperors clashed for power.
A mud fort
The sun makes you tired because you get dehydrated and it spends a lot of energy keeping you cool. I think we are all asleep as we pull into the small parking lot in the middle of no where. Lily especially does not want to get out of the car but w don’t let a kid opt out of a travel activity (unless they are seriously ill and she isn’t). For one, we didn’t come this far to have kids sleep in cars. But the main reason is that they often assume they won’t like something, but then do. Lily and I make a deal that I’ll carry her on my shoulders.
The wall here is beautiful, striaded and eroded. It’s a fascninating contrast to the images we have of the Ming Dynasty great wall built in the 16th century with modern engineering. This was not much more than a mud fort.
Yumenguan and Yanguan Pass
From Dunhuang a skil road trader could take the road north through central Asia or south toward India. The building in front of us is all that remains of the structure called Jade-gate that once guarded over the northern road. There would be tax collectors, military and government officials here presumably, as well as basic provisions for the caravans to use. (right)
To the south was Yanguan pass and nothing of it remains today. In is’t place is a large reconstructed fort that has a cultural museum inside. We head inside tentatively, especially after paying $25 each (a very high price for tickets). There are seige weapons like catapults an ladders outside, which are somewhat interesting, but ultimately fake and lacking in detail.
Inside I get an audio tour and it starts with a welcome message like “You are welcomed to the cultural exhibition of the Chinese Han dynasty for your enjoyment, intelligence and beauty. The exhibition has many facets of interesting duplication for the demonstration of the cultural heritage of Han dynasty greatness, fairness and glory to the peoples culture.”
There is a huge statue and some pillars that are not replica’s of anything. In the next hall way there is a costume shop where you can dress up like we did yesterday. And they want to sell us ancient chinese ‘passports’ in calligraphy which we would have needed to travel the silk road.
In the next section, there appears to be a small but of original work, but I can’t tell. We climb on the restored part and see another few acres of fake fort and fake siege engines. The place is nearly empty.
Keeping kids engaged while travelling
Lily starts to whine and mope again. My temper rises. “Lily, cut that crap out. Stop whining and learn to deal with it.” But as much as it bugs me that she has been whiny a lot lately (not always, but a lot)
I try to reason with her. “Lily, you need to join our team, the Creekmore team. When we travel we all do things that other people don’t like as much. Mommy doesn’t like some of the museums. Daddy wouldn’t have gone to the dance show in Xi’an. You need to support the other Creekmores and find a way to enjoy this even though it’s not your favorite. Can you do that? Can you be a good member of our adventure family?”
From the top of the fort wall we stand on, there is a dry open field. We can see horses, donkey carts and a minibus travelling on a dirt road up to some peak above. My heart isn’t in this right now. It’s hot, and I really don’t care much about whatever is up at that peak.
But if Lily will be into a horse ride, that might get her back into this day. “Lily and Emma, want to do the horses ride? Lily is an emphatic Yes. Emma less so, but looks pretty happy at the idea. Score! I have the kids, Lily especially re-engaged.
Sure, if you think they will hold us…
But I don’t have enough money! The rides up the trail are about $12, and I only have $25. As I walk away, not sure what to do, the guy comes up and talks in Chinese. I show him my wallet, which only has $200 Yuen.
He grabs both my bills, and getsiculates in the air that the girls will take a horse and the adults walk. No way! I’m not walking a mile in the desert at 2pm. So he shrugs and motions that we would each share a horse.
Sure. If you think they can hold us…
Our horses don’t seem unhappy carrying us, and need little encouragement to walk the trail. Emma, on the other hand, yelps a little. She and Trish are squeezed into a saddle for one person. We look silly on these small horses, but Lily likes it alot.
At the top there is an original fort, and a replica fort with amazing views north of the desert plains, from which the Huns and later the Mongols would attack. I’m so glad we came up here! I love the surprise element of travel. One minute it seems like things are bad, and the next minute everything gets better. (click for the larger version)
Flying and Camels
We grab some dinner at the hotel. Trish orders something with Beef and it’s gross. My experience here (and South Asia in general) is never order the beef. It’s just not something they do a lot of. Stick with the Lamb, Chicken and of course, Pork, delicious pork.
Back to the Mingsha Shan dunes we go to try a microlight and maybe a camel ride. Yesterday we did that hard walk up the dune and we were too wiped out to do anything else. They do microflights here, which in the tourist industry refers to two seat motor propelled hang-gliders that you can take for short flights. I promised we would go back and do them – and I try hard to honor my promises to them.
We grab a taxi there, it’s only a few minute ride. Lily wanted to take the bycicle for two that can be rented, but I don’t want to come home in the dark on a bike. Near the main gate, Lily crouches down to tie her shoe, and a group of Chinese girls approach her slowly like she is a bird in the wild.
Despite being the more outgoing of our two daughters, Lily has not liked the photographs and attention she and Emma get. As the girls encircle her, Lily bolts away yelling. AND the girls chase her! Lily runs down the sidewalk with a gaggle of giggling Chinese girls in pursuit. She eventually runs out of room and they catch up, insisting on photographs.
The microlights are a blast, although very short. You are really exposed because there is no fuselage, just a seat, a motor, a wing and some wheels. It’s very fun and we plan on doing it again in Cambodia.
Trish says she is glad to have tried it first because she got pretty freaked out on this first ride. The views are beautiful.
From one of the newest forms of travel to one of the oldest, we head to the camel counter and hire some camels. I say ‘320’ in Chinese – my numbers are pretty good by now and he laughs and laughs. In most countries when you try to use the local language there is a real appreciation for the attempt. I have not had the feeling in China.
They think it’s so unusual that it’s almost humorous. This isnt’ the first time I have been laughed at. A German mom living in Shanghai said she found they didn’t try to understand westerners speaking Chinese. Another friend confirmed that there is sometimes a mental block Chinese have about Westerners speaking Chinese – like it can’t be true.
The camel ride, on two hump bactrian camels, is much more comfortable than our one hump journey in the Sahara. Night falls and we get some beautiful views of the desert sands. What a day! We love the desert.