Sunday, June 26, 2005

and now we play the waiting game

lanzhou is where dreams of great trips through china come to die. xiahe is where those dreams are reborn.

but first, an explanation of a small change in plans. we decided to cut out the fat of the xinjiang section of our trip, and so arrived in dunhuang about a week ahead of schedule. so that week has since been transferred down south to the land of very spicy food: sichuan. so all you out there tracking my trip on your wall-sized map of china please take note.

lanzhou might be the crappiest city in china. it's down in this valley along the yellow river, surrounded by these huge cliffs. but since the city has exploded in size much like everywhere else in china, it has stretched to about 20 miles long and only a mile wide. also, the drivers of the public buses seem to earn a commission or something, because all the conductors lean out the windows and try to convince people to ride the bus. it's also hot and polluted here.

but we managed to escape three days ago to xiahe, in gansu province, which is probably the best place in china (like anyone could ever know that). the small town is located in a river valley in the mountains that step up to the tibetan plateau (the tibetan plateau, and tibetan people, actually stretch far outside the boundaries of "tibet"). the monestary is the size of a small town, and is the second most important pilgramage point for tibetan buddhists outside of lhasa. the town is full of monks dressed in red robes talking on cell phones, eating out with friends, going to play basketball, etc. we took a tour of the monestary and got to see huge murals made out of yak butter, the monestary's medical school, and the grand hall, which was full of monks meditating (at least the older ones; the younger ones were more content to talk and point at the foreigners on the tour).

we also hiked up one of the mountains that rise up out of the river valley where we kept running into prayer flags tied up in trees and the remains of previous buddhist rites and ceremonies. after we got to the top, we had to run halfway down the mountain again because these five-minute thunderstorms kept rolling through. other highlights: seeing a bunch of monks having tibetan buddhist band practice down by the river, eating yak youghurt, rocking out to phil collins in the hotel restaurant last night, and meeting a monk who wanted to know how many pictures of the dalai lama we had (zero).

right now we're killing time waiting for our train to chengdu, where we might meet up with jeff of beijing and shanghai fame. we're not exactly sure what we're gonna do there, but seeing giant pandas is high on my priority list.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

"look out! he's got a uyghur knife!"

dunhuang seems like a place that promotes blog posts. we rolled into town (and back into china proper) this morning into what must be a pretty substantial desert dust storm. there is no one out on the streets, the sky is brown, and my mouth tastes like dirt. so going out into the desert seems like a bad idea right now. the main draw of dunhuang is the ancient buddhist art in some nearby caves, and we're planning to go check those out tomorrow.

the karakoram highway was pretty amazing, and lake karakul itself was also nice, but nothing particularly special. we stayed with a family of khyrgiz people who make up most of the population up there and stayed in their yurt for two nights. i got pretty sick the first night up until we got back to kashgar, so unfortunately i wasn't able to go out hiking. but clark and tyler did, so they can tell you all about it. the lake itself is at about 3600 meters, which is almost 12,000 feet. so not the highest i've ever been, but enough to knock the wind out of you that's for sure.

on the road up there is this crazy place called sand mountain, which is right when the road levels off at the top of the mountains. at that point the river the road follows spreads out into this enormous wet plateau, and on the other side are these sand dunes that tower probably another few thousand feet up these icy mountains. it's like nothing i've ever seen. so i made sure to take some pictures.

back in kashgar we hit up the sunday market, which, i will have to agree with durrell, was a little overrated. it's a great place to do some tourist shopping, but doesn't even compare to hotan's market in terms of crazy central asian market fervor. funny story: we bought a few decorated uyghur (WEE-grrr) knives and then discovered while trying to get on the train that we weren't allowed to carry knives that big. but luckily we bothered the police enough that they let us stuff them in the bottom of our packs. luckily nobody on the train was attacked with a uyghur knife that trip, or we might have been in trouble.

not-so-funny story: we were split up in our hotel in kashgar, and i stayed with these two scottish guys. the first time i ran into them later that afternoon back in our room, i discovered that they had a substantial amount of money stolen from their packs. at first they understandbly suspected me, but i convinced them otherwise and we established that it was probably someone who worked there, etc. whatever. that's why i carry all my money on me, lock up my valuables, and don't leave more than a thousand english pounds in my backpack, even when i'm not staying in a dorm room.

so after two nights on the train we're in dunhuang, waiting for the weather to clear.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Summer Travels

Well it has been a while since my last post, and I am sorry that I have let you loyal fans down. But, after having a great semester in Hangzhou, I am no on my summer trip across western and southwestern China. Last week was the start of my trip and it included travels around xinjiang. I went to 4 cities. Urumqi, Turpan, Korla, and Kasgahar. Out of all the cities I must say I like Turpan the best and Kasghar was just ok. I have to say the Sunday market is way overrated. While, right now I am in Dunhuang getting ready to explore the Famous Buddha caves here and then I am off to the desert for some surfing on sand dunes. If I have time later I will tell you all about it. Well I am out, 100.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

i'm dreaming of a pastrami sandwich

muktar of turpan is the craftiest devil this side of baghdad. he immediately sized us up for what we were and then took us down. we went with him up the turpan grape valley, which was a pretty cool place, considering it was in the middle of that blazing desert basin. they dig these underground tunnel systems all through the mountains down to the ground water, then run them together down into the valley, where they grow a bunch of grapes.

anyway, muktar drops us off at the top, where we go in and find the suckiest part of the valley. we tell him that we want to walk to the bottom, which was beyond the scope of our original 100 yuan agreement. so tyler strikes this ridiculous deal with him: if we make it to the bottom in an hour and a half, we pay 130 total, if not, we pay 150. well needless to say, muktar was more clever than a barrell full of jackrabbits. as soon as that hour and a half pulled around he tore as up the valley to find us. once he found us, he tapped his watch and said, "i waited an hour and a half at the bottom for you." sullen and beaten, we rode in silence back into town. but we have to hand it to muktar, he's smarter than a bunch of foreign college students.

a lot has happened since i last wrote. we spent two nights in turpan, relaxing at these beer company sponsered fun squares at night. we were in urumqi for a day, then did a 22-hour bus ride across the taklamakan desert (second biggest in the world) to dusty hotan. in hotan we check out the large sunday market, which should pale in comparasion to kashgar's. then we headed over to yarkand, which sucks a lot, before arriving in kashgar today. much has happened, and more than i can/want to write here. highlights include: seeing every single part of a goat being sold on the street in hotan, climbing around the ruins of an ancient city called gaochang, and seeing a bunch of little chinese/uiygur kids doing coregraphed minority dances under a mao statue in people's square.

what lies ahead? first off, tomorrow we head up the karakoram highway, which enters pakistan, to check out the extreme mountain scenary (we stay on the chinese side, of course). then we get back in time to hit the kashgar sunday market, which is the biggest and best in all of asia. afterwards, it's off to the mountains in northern xinjiang. way far ahead includes tibetan monestary towns and possibly chengdu before heading down to yunnan.

thanks for reading.

Thursday, June 09, 2005


we made it as far as turpan at least. we just arrived at the second lowest place in the world early this morning, and have been walking around the town a bit since. it just got about too hot to handle, which isn't bad considering that it is now 10:45 (beijing time) in the morning, or 8:45 am by any standard notion of time. we arranged with a cab driver named "muktar" to take us to some places tomorrow, so we'll see how that goes.

according to tyler, a anthropology major and our resident expert on chinese minorities (he studied it for his one-on-one, though what he came away with was that all the minorities in china like to sing, dance, and love their chinese masters) xinjiang is made up mostly of hui and uigyers (that's almost definitely spelled wrong), both muslim minorities. we wandering into a market to get something to eat, and asked some guy what was in the pastry things he was making. he shouted "meat!" after we asked what kind of meat, he seemed to swell up and with a sweep of his arm shouted "lamb meat!" i guess it was more ridiculous if you were there, though the things tasted pretty damn good.

how has the trip been so far, you ask? just fine, i say. xian was actually a pretty efficient and cool city as far as i'm concerned. we saw the terra-cotta warriors, wandered around the muslim quarter and the city mosque, walked along the walls, and saw the forest of steles musuem, which is a collection of stone tablet-books. they also have a really well-developed sex industry, at least around our hotel.

our train ride from xian to turpan was pretty amazing, with a drastic change of scenary from cultivated planes, to what looked like northern nevada, to the biggest flat piece of earth i've ever seen. also, apparently none of the trains to xinjiang have air conditioning, which made for a lot of laying around being lazy. not like there's anything else to do on a train for 36 hours.

that's it. sorry no pictures this time around. maybe later.

Saturday, June 04, 2005


so this it folks. one part of my time in china ends and another begins. our graduation ceremony was this morning, and the language pledge ended, whereupon i discovered that our resident director has an incredible southern drawl. besides a speech by the representative of the university's international institute that included overt references to our studying in china helping develop china's economy, the ceremony was actually pretty nice, with an excellent dvd/video/picture slide show thing that documented our semester.

and what a semester it's been! as you can tell, clark, my co-author of this blog, was attacked and killed by a rare chinese land shark shortly after our arrival in china. this prevented him from ever making a blog post. a few weeks ago we also lost durrell during a trip to shanghai. last we saw of him, he was driving off in a cab with some french girl and a brick of opium the size of a mini-fridge. china weeds out the week, and only the strong can survive to sit in internet bars and post to some rarely-read blog. but on a more serious note, we all had an absolute blast this semester, and it's an experience that will affect us for the rest of our lives. i couldn't have been luckier than to be able to come to china this semester and make the friends i did. i'd just like to send out a big, official thank you to my mom and dad, whose seemingly bottomless pockets when it comes to my education and endless love and support made it all possible.

so what's up next for your fearless author? well i'll tell you. tyler and i are skipping town tomorrow and heading to xian for a night, then off to xinjiang, where the women flock like the salmon of capastrano, or so i've heard. in fact, if you mention any place in china, chinese people will tell you that the women there are very beatiful, except in hangzhou, where west lake eclipses all. after xinjiang, tyler and i are going to skit around the edges of tibet, down in sichuan where we split up and i venture into yunnan all by myself. afterwards, i'm off to hong kong for a few days, then i'm flying down to vietnam to meet everybody's favorite communist duc! then i'm back home on august 2nd. whew!

what does that mean for you, gentle readers? sporadic updates, no gaurentees about pictures until i get to kunming around the 4th of July, but some wild and crazy stories nevertheless. so stay tuned, and send me some e-mails to keep me entertained while waiting for buses and trains in dusty desert outposts. also, if you want anything from kashgar, the craziest market town in the world, let me know and i'll think about it.

yours, etc. BEN

p.s. here are some pictures of our last ping-pong class where we held a tournament. the first is me devestated after coming in dead last, and the second is our class (with our coach on the right) after clark directed us to look "really happy."