Eclipse Chasing in China-Delights and Dilemmas

August, 2008

Most people would question why anyone would travel half way round the world to see a total eclipse. But then most people have never experienced a total eclipse. One way to find out is to ask, and if the response is something like, “Oh my God, YES! Awesome! blew me away!” then this person has seen one. If on the other hand the response is, “Oh yeah, I think I did once, but I don't remember if it was total or partial, but I think it was almost total.”,  then this person surely has not seen a total eclipse. Compared with a total eclipse, a partial eclipse of the sun is, well, ho hum. 

Travelquest had offered a variety of ways to see the eclipse - in Russia, China, on a Russian icebreaker, or on an airplane, each combined with various travel packages. (Totally serious eclipse chasers could choose to arrive the day before and return home the day after.) The clincher for me was the Travelquest Silk Road package, a jaunt across China on the Orient Express, something that is not available to an ordinary tourist. Even though the World's Worst Tourist usually does not do travel packages, I could not resist this once of a lifetime 12 day combination. I congratulate the people who conceived it and made it happen.  

Leaving Los Angeles on Air China at 1:40 AM on 24 July put us in Beijing, after 13 hours flying and a 15 hour time difference, at 5 AM on the 25th. We were impressed with the service, comfort, price, and total competence of Air China, the largest airline in the world. Unlike most American airlines we had excellent, free food (two full meals plus a snack), free wine and beer, movies, and, best of all, lots of leg room. 

I had been to China twenty five years ago when everyone dressed in blue and rode bicycles. The Shanghai airport terminal, serving China's most progressive city, was a one story building and they turned all of the airport lights on and off for each plane arrival. What has happened to China since then is unfathomable. Besides seeing a great eclipse I witnessed the most amazing transformation of an entire country beyond anything I could have imagined. 

From the first day on, Travelquest packed in a continuous stream of activities that included visits to pagodas, temples, museums, shops and interesting cuisine. In the interim, friendly local guides provided historical and cultural information that added interest to what we were seeing. Each day of the trip presented us with delights, frustrations, curious cultural quirks, and fascinating learning experiences leaving us with an overall feeling of fulfillment at the end of the two weeks. 

After a lengthy layover in Beijing we flew directly to Xian, home of the famous terra cotta army. Three days later we traveled by train across China to the Gobi Desert with stops along the way for the Great Wall, Caves of a Thousand Buddhas, a camel ride, the eclipse, and finally the Northwestern city of Urumqi. Like China itself, however, the story from here on follows a non sequential, non linear format. Two major categories are “delights and dilemmas” (or learning experiences), each of which is equally important in making such a trip worthwhile. Some things were exciting, fascinating and beautiful while others were fascinating, puzzling, thought provoking, and sometimes frustrating. For me a successful trip needs both. 

A Delightful Eclipse

On August 1, we left our Hotel Jiageda in Hami at 8 AM and began a 4 hour bus ride to Yiwu where the eclipse site had been prepared by the Chinese government.  After two plane flights, hundreds of miles on the railroad and a long bus ride we found ourselves sharing an umbrella with four other eclipse chasers, sweltering  in the Gobi desert with a few hours wait before the main event. The site had been prepared to handle thousands of people, and I believe they all showed up.  A sky dotted with large patches of clouds moved threateningly around the sun, adding to the suspense and reviving the question “Was this worth the effort?”   Each time a cloud covered the sun we enjoyed  the shade, and at the same time became more nervous with the probability numbers we began to hear. Probability of a good viewing had started at 75% and gradually dropped to 50% as the time neared.  

While waiting we peeled and shared fruit we had purchased the night before and finished off parts of the box lunch we had received on the bus. Having received the lunch boxes we were advised “if you can't cook it and you can't peel it then don't eat it”, which described most of what was in the box.  The avid astronomers adjusted telescopes and cameras, some read, and I painted the unfolding scene before us, a desert scene sprinkled with umbrellas, telescopes, and distant mountains for a backdrop, and oh  yes, a beautiful, sky full of clouds. One by one we all made our trips to the makeshift one star toilet (star rating to be explained later) to eliminate any issues during the critical two minutes we had all come so far to see. (One could choose to walk a quarter mile to a three star toilet.) 

First contact began about an hour before totality, and from that time until totality we could view the small blocked crescent area through special glasses. Without these it would be impossible to know anything unusual was taking place, since the sun is too bright to look at directly right up until it is totally covered by the moon.

Viewing the pre eclipse period through glasses


Shortly after first contact this began to be more typical of our view of the sun. 


The Village at the site constructed especially for the event contained memorials, plaques, a large sun dial, and bleachers set up for VIP's who arrived in a caravan shortly after first contact. Security was so high that getting into this place was like getting into an airport. 


Sun dial memorial 


When the sun is about 95% covered the first obvious signs of something unusual begin to happen. Because our eyes adjust for reduced light, we begin to notice subtle changes. Colors begin a transformation and the reduced light reduces the contrast of shadows, allowing us to see details inside shadows. This effect becomes more and more obvious as totality approaches. 

Seven minutes before totality a large cloud moved directly over the sun and hearts began to sink.

The sun's appearance seven minutes before totality. 


We could see the edge of the cloud's shadow and bright sunlight on a nearby hillside. A few people grabbed as much of their carefully aligned equipment as they could carry and ran for the sun. We could see, however that the cloud was moving in that direction, so we crossed our fingers, prayed, and sat tight. Two minutes before totality, the cloud moved away from the sun granting us a perfect view. Thousands of people cheered, now knowing the day would not end with disappointment. We now knew for sure that this would be worth our effort in getting here. 

From here on things happen quickly. Although this totality would last two minutes, it is a common homily that all eclipses last eight seconds; It always seems so. 

The terrain and the cloud filled sky provided a unique backdrop for this eclipse. The first major wave of excitement began when the moon's shadow rose up before us, like a massive, threatening dust storm and raced towards us at lightning speed. The time interval between bright sun and darkness is surprisingly short. Just before darkness that last glint of sunshine produces the beautiful diamond ring effect for a second before being swallowed in darkness. When the diamond ring appears everyone knows to remove glasses and filters and enjoy the next short period with the naked eye, comfortably staring straight at the sun. 

In this interval and the two subsequent minutes there is so much to see, so much to experience, so much to remember to do, so much to feel, and so little time. If you haven't rehearsed it before now, you will miss a lot. 

The air cooled down instantly, the wind picked up, the dark sky now had a black hole in it surrounded by a beautiful solar corona, which is too dim to see on a normal day. We were surrounded by an orange sunset, the edge of the moon's shadow, fading into a deep violet and then black overhead. Stars that weren't there before suddenly pop out into clear view. There stands Venus near the sun as bright as the corona.   

We could hear voices of awe and delight in the dark, night-like surroundings. People were mostly quiet, almost whispering as if not to wake anyone, but now and then enthusiasm would burst out in a scream of delight. I had promised myself to enjoy the experience and not spend valuable time taking photographs. Photographs cannot come even close to representing what we were seeing and feeling. They can only serve to remind us that it happened. I took a few photographs but mostly just looked and looked and soaked it all in, trying not to forget to see everything around me and hoping that the clock would stop for a while.  

Totality begins


Here you can see Mercury nearest the sun and Venus at 10 o'clock. 


The horizon looks much like this over a full 360 degrees. 

Once again the diamond ring appeared and a thousand people gasped and roared with delight. The main event was over.


The Diamond Ring (Photo by John Brinegar) 


It is interesting to imagine the reaction of a society who had no previous knowledge of eclipses if suddenly they were faced with the experience, for example, prehistoric man or even people in the middle ages. It could have been terrifying to be standing in bright sunlight at one instant and in the dark the next.  In such a society, the knowledge and ability to predict total solar eclipses would have given its keeper tremendous power over those who were ignorant.


Architectural Delights and Dilemmas 

The Beijing airport provides a clue both to China's growth and to it's approach displaying a new image. It is huge, ultra modern, and as impressive as they come, complete with fully operating, high tech equipment at every turn. Terminal 3 - if considered an airport on its own - would be the largest airport in the world in land size and one of the world's largest in capacity and land size (approximately 986,000 square meters). It is nearly 20% larger than London Heathrow's 5 terminals. Designed by an international consortium of architects, it was completed in February, 2008, at a cost of nearly 4 billion dollars. Intermingled with such an amazing feat of modernism is a twenty minute bus ride through narrow, crowded city streets to get from Terminal 2 to Terminal 3, illustrating the dilemma of integrating the ultramodern with the ancient.   

View from the third level of about half of the reception area for Terminal 3. Note the Starbucks.


Terminal 3C, one of three satellites of Terminal 3 where our flight left, is a city in itself and is accessed by tram. 


The Olympics would start a few days after we left China, and there were many signs of preparation. I had the feeling that a major part of the large cities we visited had been built in the past few years. New high rise buildings, offices, hotels, and apartment buildings were everywhere.   

Signs of the upcoming Olympics were everywhere. 


Our first hotel, a Howard Johnsons in downtown Xian, was our next intimate encounter with architecture. Like the airport, the new five star hotel is equipped with everything, including internet and electronics that automate everything…..and it all works. Located near the South Gate of the ancient city wall, it provides easy access to the inner city. Nevertheless, all we could manage for the rest of the day were drinks at the rotating piano bar and an attempt to recover from over 24 hours of traveling to get to this point.

Howard Johnson's Ginwa Plaza, our first hotel. (Copied from the HJ website, I would speculate that someone photoshopped in the blue sky.) 


Our room had a panoramic view of the ancient city wall………eveloped in a sea of smog, one of the dilemmas of Chinese progress. Some parts of this wall were constructed with sticky rice as a building material. (Unless I misunderstood the guide.) Much of the architecture and construction layout, both modern and ancient, is based on Feng Shui, a system for making the cosmic energy, or qi, flow properly. 

 View of the Xian inner city from our hotel room. The panoramic view from our room showed us the city wall and temples enveloped in a white smog.


The longest, oldest complete city wall in China surrounds the inner city across the street from our hotel. The original wall was built before 1000 AD.


This is how the sun appears on a typical day. They refer to it as weather. “Xian never has a blue sky”.  Beijing was even worse. 


The contrasts in architecture (and almost everything else) between the old and new served to emphasize the gap.  Our first bus trip took us past shacks on the one hand and the brand new Xian Technical University, a beautiful architectural masterpiece on the other. We drove on brand new freeways and interchanges and saw horse drawn carts on mud side streets. It was not uncommon to see a little old lady sweeping the freeway with a straw broom. Large areas of old housing apartments were under demolition beside large areas of high rise apartments under construction.

Xian Technical University 


High Rises in Urumqi. Ten years ago the tallest building in the city was seven stories. 


The Urumqi Cultural museum. Fantastic collection of mummies.


Downtown Urumqi


The Terra Cotta Army

On the second day in Xian, after paying our dues at the jade factory, our buses took us to the nearby (45 minutes) Tomb of QinShihuang in XiYang village in Ling Tong County, one of the most spectacular tourist attractions in the world. First discovered in 1974 by a local farmer, the terra cotta army making up part of the tomb has created a huge tourist industry. Since it is a major reason why many tourists visit Xian, the Chinese have constructed a new highway to reach it.  

We arrived to find an entire city and park integrated with the exhibit.  Before entering the exhibit we lunched in a large restaurant designed to handle droves of tourists. After lunch we walked through a small city of curio and souvenir shops and then through a park to a series of large buildings that covered the various parts of the archeological site.  

QinShihuang became China's first emperor as a result of uniting (Actually, he kicked their asses.) all its factions over 2000 years ago. Realizing how great he was, he rounded up herds of people and says, “Hey, I need nearly a million people to show up for 30 years to make me a terra cotta army to guard my tomb, and by the way, the job has a great retirement plan. When we get finished you will be killed so you won't tell anyone where this place is.” (I paraphrased his decree. I doubt if he told them that last part.) 

Within a few years after the discovery of the site, the Chinese constructed three huge, well lit buildings over different digs that allow tourists to walk around and look down on the digs and photograph the soldiers. Gawkers, three or four deep, completely surround the digs. Yet another large building houses a gift store and a continuous movie panorama exhibiting the history of the soldiers. The gift store features the old farmer, who discovered the site, in person, autographing books about the site. People are asked not to photograph him since it upsets him.  My guess is that photographs might disclose that he is many men, who will continue to boost book sales as long as people think he is still around. 

The Chinese lease spare terra cotta soldiers to museums all over the world for special exhibits. It is a huge industry. It left me wondering if there wasn't some secret factory hidden back in the woods where they stamp these soldiers out by the thousands and age them in some kind of special oven before renting them to museums. In fact, you can buy the full size replicas. 

In Las Vegas you have to walk through the slots to get anywhere in the casino. Here you had to walk through a city of souvenir shops to get to the museums. 



Terracotta Army in Building one


Looking from the side 


Looking from the back. New soldiers are constantly being reconstructed from remnants produced from the dig


Building number 2 houses higher ranking soldiers, horses, and carriages.  


Building Number 3 houses a brass chariot 



Delights and Dilemmas of Shopping in China 

For tourists in China like me, there are essentially three types of shopping. The first and the most fun is just going out where all the other Chinese go and wandering into the many tiny shops that line the streets. These appear to be family owned stores, and my impression is that people live in some of them. We always stirred up interest and drew a crowd of curious onlookers who wanted to see the transaction. People were extremely friendly and helpful and it appeared that everyone, including the Chinese, enjoyed it. None of them spoke any English but our common numbers, pencil and paper, and body language were completely adequate for our objectives. 

In Hami, our guides discouraged us from going out, suggesting they would take us to the best stores later. As a minimum they asked us to go in large groups. Five of us went on a shopping spree the evening before the eclipse to pick up a few goodies for the following day. Almost immediately we drew curious stares and friendly smiles. In one store the ladies bought some cloth. A crowd gathered to watch with one lady holding up her baby for us to see or possibly it to show us to her baby. People loved having their pictures made with us. 

It became pretty clear that prices were really low in these stores. In one store I bought a beautiful leather belt for five dollars. John, one of the organizers of this minitrek, bought a pair of foldup chairs for three dollars. A few doors down I bought two nice mangos for a dollar. Pauline bought a three day supply of fresh baked cookies in a tiny bakery for about two dollars. We were all impressed and happy to see one person handling the money while a separate one handled the cookies.  

In another small store I purchased a few bottles of Chinese brandy with a whopping 118 proof alcohol content for a few bucks. 

Pauline purchased white cloth to place on the ground to serve as an eclipse projection screen. 


In Urumqi we spent a few hours in the international bazaar, a second type of shopping. This clearly is a place designed for lower level tourists, selling curios, art, jewelry, clothes, and musical instruments. Prices are good and haggling is the norm. The bazaar covered four large floors in side and outside. Each floor would contain a hundred small shops many of which sold exactly the same thing as the neighboring shop; that one puzzled me. Maybe all the shops are owned by the same guy? 

Everyone seemed to be having fun, and I couldn't resist buying a replica of a strange stringed musical instrument (about five bucks). Fred bought himself a nice leather jacket and hat for about a fourth what he would have paid in Chicago where he lives. 

In downtown Urumqi, next door to our hotel, beneath the street level, I discovered a brand new, huge department store, a super duper Wal-Mart type of store that sold everything. Prices also seemed reasonable, and I couldn't help but wonder what would happen to the hundreds of tiny mom and pop shops that surrounded this mega store.  

Someone bought loaves of bread from this shop (Heavenly Lake) and passed samples around the bus. 


Across the street from the tourist “Jade Factory” some of these local shops were just beginning to open.  


The International Bazaar in Urumqi 


An ice cream shop at the international bazaar (Urumqi) 


Near Turpan is China's equivalent to Napa Valley, where grapes have been grown for over 2000 years. The bulk of these are turned into an endless variety of raisins, all of which were sold in roadside stands and shops where we made purchases. We had the dilemma whether or not we could safely eat these raisins that had dried while hanging in local drying rooms. (“If you can't peel it or cook it don't eat it.”) Ever try peeling a raisin? Ultimately we accepted a suggestion that we wash the grapes and raisins twice in bottled water before eating. Apparently that worked okay, not to say it was necessary, however. 

Grape Valley 


Drying Room where grapes are transformed into raisins 


Raisin Market in Grape Valley near Turpan.


Shopping in Grape Valley 


Pauline and Michel enjoying watermelon at Grape Valley 


Shops along the roadside near Turpan 


Any tour that involves a local tour guide always comes with a shopping spree designed especially for the high end suck….I mean tourists. The standard speech informs the group that the stuff in the local shops and bazaars is either fake or low quality. Buy it for your friends. To shop for yourself the guide always knows the best place to go where the stuff is authentic, high quality, government regulated, good value, and so on. You can buy a ten dollar jade bracelet in the bazaar or you can buy a 200 dollar “high quality” jade bracelet in these places.  And there is usually a fifty percent discount especially for this particular group. You would never see a local purchasing anything in such a store. They can be easily recognized by the large parking lot in front to accommodate tour buses. Another way is that, unlike every other site seeing location, the tour bus leaves the tourist store “at no particular time. Just when everyone is ready”. You are allowed twenty seven minutes at the site of a 2000 year old pagoda and an unlimited stay at the carpet factory.  That said, they aren't all bad, because they serve free tea and have four star toilets.  

In Xian it was the jade factory, a place where a lot of cash on the bus gets replaced with carvings and jewelry.  In Jiayuguan it was the luminary glass factory where glassware is made from the local stone, which appeared to be serpentine. In Urumqi it was the ”government approved” carpet and jewelry store. The tours began with the guide describing the amazing craftsmanship, beauty, and rarity of the product while a few token master craftsmen grind on a piece of rock or work on a carpet. I figured this guy has been grinding on that same piece for the last 10 years while most of the stuff in the store comes from a sweat shop in Shanghai. Even these stores are usually divided into the high and low class categories, or perhaps the antiques and the new stuff.  In the front of the store a necklace costs 50 dollars. In the back it costs 1000. Nevertheless, I couldn't resist bringing back a luminary tea service (After the 50% discount and some haggling, I stole it for 150 bucks.)  

In these kinds of stores there are usually more clerks than customers. Every customer gets a clerk who follows you around constantly handing you something to look at. It was not easy to enjoy looking around in these stores. Visit them for the tea and four star toilets, and settle for the “low quality” stuff at the bazaar.

Xian Jade shop set up especially for high end sucke….I mean tourists. The jade to dollar ratio on the bus increased drastically after the visit to this store.


You could take this jade Buddha home for a mere 2 grand.


Or you could put this set of jade cups in your gift bag for 2 grand 


Small book store in Xian airport with four staff and no customers. Walk in there and one of them immediately joins you and starts handing you books.

The Pedestrian/Traffic Dilemma 

On the first morning in Xian, after our first good night's sleep in two days, Pauline and I ventured across the street to the city wall, the moat park and into the inner city. Our first real cultural challenge involved the difficulty of getting across the street. The Chinese system for dealing with pedestrians is to make a game out of staying alive while crossing the street anywhere. Crossing a street in Xian can be likened to crossing the San Diego Freeway with an entire family at rush hour. Although we occasionally saw subways and pedestrian lights, some still under construction, these are rare. 

Our guide warned us that a red light means that red taxis may go, yellow light means yellow buses may go, green light means anyone may go. Marked pedestrian crossings appeared meaningless.

Xian Traffic and pedestrians, a sort of Russian roulette 


Finally we managed by following an old man pushing a baby cart as he challenged the oncoming traffic.

Without the aid of this old man we would have never made it across the busy street.


After overcoming this dilemma, we enjoyed a walk along the moat and into the city center. In the moat park we watched people doing Tai Chi, playing various board games and just relaxing, and we amused ourselves trying to understand some of the unusual signs that illustrate a different way of thinking.

The Chinese have a very open mind about sex. We saw signs like this throughout the park. 


Chinese pedestrian crossing-Urumqi street scene shot from a taxi ride. In a twenty minute taxi ride we had four tourist near misses, one with a bus, and an even nearer collision with a Mercedes. 


Typical Chinese Pedestrian Crosswalk


Delightful Ancient Walls and Tombs

In addition to the Great Wall the Chinese built a large number of other impressive walls. We walked the ancient Xian wall on our first day in Xian.

The defensive towers are spaced so that all of the territory outside the wall is within bow and arrow range.


Walking the City Wall 


Never out of range of a good scene to sketch.


Bicycling would be the best way to see the wall. Unfortunately we were short of time for this. 


Our tour in Xian included a visit to the ancient Wild Goose Pagoda. 


The Wild Goose Pagoda, one of the tallest pagodas in China was built around 700AD. After recent earthquake damage tourists are no longer allowed to climb as they did previously. 


Typical Chinese ancient architecture


Many spectacular carvings and sculptures such as this laughing Buddha surround the temples at the Wild Goose Pagoda. 


Leaving Xian would take us to our first stop to visit the mother of all famous walls. After riding the train for about 18 hours, which included and overnight sleep, we stopped at the city of Jiayuguan. Jiayuguan, today the second largest city in the province, is primarily a steel producing city with less than a million inhabitants, small for China, which has over 100 cities with populations of over one million. A five minute bus ride took us to the Chang Cheng (Long Wall) Hotel near the center of town. Jiayuguan was one of the first towns to be opened to the outside world after Shanghai and Xian, apparently because it was close to a major tourist attraction, the west end of the Great Wall.  We stopped at our hotel only long enough to have breakfast since it was too early to check in. I had the impression that we took the hotel by surprise, since the breakfast, consisting of rice, soup, meat and vegetables, looked more like a left over dinner from the previous night.  

 At the Jiayuguan Pass, where a major fortress outpost was manned at the western end of the great wall, the Great Wall Museum now traces the history of the great wall. The weather was extremely cooperative. Just as we completed our tour of the museum a light rain started. By the time we arrived at the hotel the rain had picked up.  

Jiayuguan Pass -The Western end of the Great Wall of China


The Great Wall was constructed of local materials, in this part, clay.


Structures in the fort at Jiayuguan Pass


In addition to the structures the new Chinese approach to development appears to pay attention to flowers and trees. We saw a great deal of nice landscaping around the new sites.

Silver Burch Trees and Flowers at Jiayuguan Pass 


The fort is nicely set up for tourists with soldiers guarding doors and marching about. On the walls, various stations are set up where tourists can try their hands at shooting the enemy with a bow and arrow. 

Guards at the fort in Jiayuguan Pass 


Back at the hotel most of us were so tired we were ready to go horizontal. It was raining too hard for a walk so we called it a day. A few people went for massages. You could get foot massages, back massages, everything massages, all in a wide range of variations. One member of the tour group, who got the works, showed up the next morning with a back that looked like had gone through a meat grinder.  

On the first Wednesday, 30 July, we were up at 5AM, had breakfast at 5:30 left for the train station at 6 AM and were on our way to Liu Yuan and DunHuang at 7 AM.  We arrived at Liu Yuan at 11:40, mounted the buses with an overnight bag, and headed for Dun Huang, a two thousand year old city that lies on the southern edge of the Gobi Desert.  

The Oriental Express arrives at Liu Yuan where we mount buses and head for Dunhuang, a two-hour bus ride that would put Disney's Indiana Jones ride to shame. 


Like a two-hour roller coaster, this was one of the roughest bus rides I have ever experienced. Adding to the difficulty of the trip, Chinese tour buses will never win awards for comfort with their hard springs, uncompromising shock absorbers, tight seating pitch, and no toilets.  The road crossing the desert apparently suffers badly from the temperature extremes leaving a wavy surface impressed with a washboard surface. Since the waves in the road are not perpendicular to the road, the wheels of the bus hit the peaks at different times causing the bus to rock so severely I thought we were in danger of capsizing. 

Upon reaching Dunhuang we were treated with the best lunch yet while being entertained with local singers.   From there we headed straight for the Mogao Grottoes, otherwise known as the Thousand Buddha Caves, a system of 492 cave/temples that were constructed nearly 2000 years ago. Now a national park, the caves contain some of the largest Buddhas and the greatest repository of Buddhist art in the world. One contains the second largest Buddha in China, a statue that exceeds 113 feet in height. Another one contains a giant reclining Buddha.

Entrance to the Cave housing the second largest Buddha in China 


The entire mountain face has been walled in.


The Mogao Caves provide a good example of how tourism ruins a national treasure. One can only imagine how amazing these sculptures appeared in their natural state, where they were open for viewing from the land facing the cliffs. One of the problems with this, of course is that they were exposed to the elements and were being damaged by exposure to rain and sunshine. To deal with this and convert it into a tourist site, they walled up the caves and put doors into them. Entering one of the doors the tourist faces a darkened room while a guide with a flashlight points out the details.  

Clearly, a sixty foot Buddha is not meant to be observed from up close, so a lot of neck stretching and back bending takes place. It is like having a first row seat in a wide screen movie.  No cameras were allowed in the park “because of the damage that flashes will do to the frescos”. Visitors were metered to prevent overcrowding. Even then, every cave we entered was stuffed with tourists. 

In each of the caves multiple guides describe the sculptures to two or three different groups in multiple languages and the cacophonous echoes make it impossible to understand what the guides are saying. Fortunately, one does not really need a detailed explanation when he is standing in a cave before a 100 foot Buddha surrounded with beautiful frescos. Hopefully some day they will work out a better way to show this national treasure. 

As always, Travelquest had a lot more in store for the day. Leaving the Magao Grottoes we then visited the towering sand dunes and took camel rides to the oasis. The Chinese have come up with a variety of ways to enjoy the huge sand dunes like climbing them and sliding back down on a large disk.

A camel ride to the oasis at Dunhuang 


Oasis at Dunhuang


Slides down the dunes. Note people carrying the sliding dishes back up. 


The Silk Road Hotel at Dunhuang. This hotel appeared to be about two weeks old. 


Notice Sand Dunes behind the hotel 


The Chinese have been undertaking massive construction projects for over 2000 years, and the Karez irrigation system is one of the most amazing. The system is a series of manmade underground tunnels, up to 20 kilometers long, as much as 75 feet under the surface, to bring water from the snow melt in the mountains. The tunnels are connected to the surface by wells that also provide ventilation and maintenance access. That men could have constructed such a system by hand is almost unbelievable.

An access port (like a manhole) that allowed access to the underground, manmade tunnel that conducted water for 15+ miles. 


Delightful Productions

In Xian, Dunhuang, Turpan, and Urumqi we were treated to colorful operas and lively dance productions. 

Wonderful and unusual sounds entertained us at a dinner show in Xian. 


The Xian show included amazing costumes, lights, music, and acrobatics.


The red things in the air are called diabolos. These young ladies do the impossible with these things.  It is not hard to see why the Chinese did so well in gymnastics in the Olympics.


Beautiful Women with elaborate costumes


Chinese Opera in Dunhuang.  A large screen translated the Chinese opera into English. 


Folk Dancing in Urumqi. The dance troop invited members of our group to join in. 


The Orient Express and the Silk Road

After two days in Xian we mounted the Orient Express at 11:30 AM for our three day trip to Hami, the nearest city to the eclipse site. The train trip itself was a major highlight of the two weeks. We had great lunches, lectures, drinks, tea, coffee, new friendships, and just gawking out the window at the Chinese countryside to keep us entertained throughout the trip. 

The mahogany lined rooms shared a washroom between each pair and a toilet for each car. Each car had a waiter who brought tea or coffee on request. A club car, equipped with a piano, served drinks of every variety.

We could sit comfortably in our elegant, mahogany lined room, reading, napping, or trying to photograph scenery. One trick was to photograph the names of towns as we passed through the stations.


Great meals with newly made friends as the China country side whizzed by. 


Life on the Orient Express. Note the piano in the back of the club car. 


Chinese Countryside Scenery from the Orient Express


Chinese Countryside Scenery from the Orient Express 


Chinese Countryside Scenery from the Orient Express 


Sleeping on a train is an interesting experience, unlike sleeping anywhere else. Imagine lying in bed asleep with someone standing next to the bed constantly shaking it just enough to keep you aware the bed is shaking while randomly shaking it at larger amounts every minute or so to wake you up. At some point I reached a state of consciousness where the only way I was sure I was asleep is because I was dreaming. In one dream, I was in an airplane that was preparing for a crash landing. I jumped out and clung to a wing and ask the pilot to drop me over water if possible. Shortly afterwards I was in a hospital being checked for broken bones. (There were several.) Then, to my surprise, I was released and allowed to walk out of the hospital without any further treatment.  

Time is another strange phenomenon in train sleep. After going to sleep at midnight, I awoke, having felt that it had been a rather long night. A quick look at my watch revealed that it was only 3 AM. Pauline, realizing that I was awake suggested that I look out the window. When I did, I was greeted by a totally black sky full of beautiful stars, the first stars I had been able to see since coming to China. The next awakening came at 6:50AM with music piped through the train, announcing that we had arrived at Jiayuguan a few minutes early and should arise now and leave the train as soon as possible. 


The Toilet Dilemma-A Toilet Rating System

The range and distribution of toilets by a society is an interesting phenomenon that provides a dilemma for almost everyone. Because China has such a wide gap between the old and new, and all of us need one several times a day, everyone is forced to compromise when it comes to toilets. It would be hard for the average American, who has not traveled outside America, to comprehend how bad the public toilet situation can get or how those who live nearby learn to accommodate and accept whatever is available. 

Soon after the trip began we observed a wide range of toilet facilities and maintenance which prompted a toilet stars rating system from one to five. On one extreme, five star western styled toilets in the airport and most hotels were brand new, extremely clean, complete with paper, soap, warm water, and an attendant who washed the sink, floor, and facility after each usage. On the other extreme, a one star toilet was a hole in the ground that one could squat over and apparently is never cleaned. A half star toilet, not actually a toilet, per se, was where men went on the right side of the bus and women on the left. (Actually, these were often preferred because one at least could breath.) Four star and above toilets usually had western style flush commodes while  lesser star toilets were Eastern style with a hole with two foot places to straddle and squat. Breathing in a one star toilet was the most difficult part of the experience, while keeping ones shoes acceptable on the bus was a close runner up. 

If the Chinese are true capitalists, as they claim, then eventually the truck stops and service stations, most of which now offer one star (or less) toilets, will soon discover that the decision to stop or not often depended on the toilet star rating. At Heavenly Lake, we were informed that the toilet in the lower parking lot was a two star while that at topside near the lake was a four star. By this time everyone realized that a four star really was worth waiting for. Strangely enough, the vendors below have not figured out the consequences and are still wondering why the topside vendors sell a lot more souvenirs. Eventually, Chinese will have to add toilets to  their buses. I was rather amazed that we got by without them as well as we did.

It is interesting to imagine how a society evolves to the mindset where the attitude is that "Hey, I sell gas (or whatever). Your toilet needs are not my problem."  And the result is something pretty awful that people must use. The good news is that, in China, I never saw a "Customers Only" sign on a toilet.  I think that a major reason why McDonalds has done so well everywhere is that people come for the toilets, and express their appreciation by ordering a Big Mac.

A two star toilet like this one could have been a two and a half star if it had ever been cleaned. A few people chose to go around behind the building rather than stand inside it.


Tourist toilets were usually well designated with sign language. We were not sure if smoking was mandatory or not. 


One half star toilet…Men on the right, women on the left. It got the half because you could breathe easily while using it.

A two star toilet in great demand near Yiwi. Gas masks would have been helpful. 


Heavenly Lake

Our last full day in China included a delightful trip to Heavenly Lake. When I first heard that it required a four hour bus ride, I had decided to forfeit this trip and hang out in Urumqi. Fortunately I learned that it was more like a three hour trip, which I considered a threshold. I would have been sad indeed to have missed such a great day. The trip took us through beautiful countryside and mountains where we could see the temporary homes of the Kazakhs, a nomadic people who live in huts, called Yurts, which were moved seasonally.

Yurts along the riverside. 

Upon arriving trams took us the last few miles up to the lake. We then took a boat trip on the lake.


Heavenly Lake-I painted this scene.


View from the boat. 


After the boat ride we had an hour of free time to hike, shop or watch a folk dancing show. I elected to sit by the lake and paint the scene before me. 

We had an option to ride the lifts back to the bus lot and this was the highlight of the entire day. The scene from the lift was amazing with mountains surrounding us, rivers, mountain lodges, and the valley below. We were greeted by cars on their way upwards and the Chinese in these cars waved and shouted “Hello”. 

Pagoda seen from the lift


An enthusiastic “Hello” 


Delightful Food 

A typical meal incorporated a lazy Susan in the center covered with dishes of all varieties of Chinese food. When the lazy Suzan was completely covered dishes were stacked on top of those already present. Meat dishes included chicken, pork, fish, and beef and sometimes lamb. We almost always ended with watermelon. Although excellent food, after a few days the tables began to look the same everywhere. It will be some time before we dine at a Chinese restaurant back at home. In fact, our last meal in China was in the Beijing Airport Burger Chef where I had the best tasting hamburger in the world.

After eating three large meals a day for two weeks I had dreaded getting on the scales again back home. To my amazement, I lost two pounds, a positive note for the health of Chinese food.

Typical Chinese lunches included about a dozen different dishes. 

In Xian we were treated to a dumpling meal. Each dumpling has a unique shape. Notice the duck. They all tasted pretty much the same, though. 


The last things to come were usually two soups and then water melon. The soups were the most widely varying dishes. 


The Blue Bus Group….minus me