August 1st 2007 – Ninxia
We came from Beijing by overnight bus. Too many tickets had been sold, so we slept with 5 people on the “balcony”. They just lay some extra planks over the top beds in the rear, so instead of 3 beds there are five or six, depending on the number of illegal tickets the driver can sell. The road is very bad and during the night it is raining. Several times I feel the back of the bus breaking out, but we arrive safely. From here we will travel south to Qinghai province. My guide A Hong is a very pretty Chinese woman, 30 years old. She looks like she is 13, but don’t be mistaken. She can stand her ground if that is necessary.
Last night we stayed in Guyan and planned to make a trip in the surrounding before moving on. A local driver will take us into the country side. In the hotel they have told us we have to visit the top of the mountain. So we decide first to drive up fast and then slowly drive down and visit some villages In He Shang Pu - a Han Chinese village - everybody is outside. The combined harvester has come that day and all village people work together to get the corn trashed.
We drive further down to Dawan - a Hui moslim village. Han Chinese and moslims live peacefully together in Ninxia, but they donot mix very much. They all live in their own villages. In the vilage square the butcher is slaughtering a number of sheep. A little boy stands by, playing football with one of the cut off feet. A dog is hanging around, waiting for the men to leave. So he can take his share of the left overs. We visit a number of mud houses, standing together in a small alley. In one of the houses the mother tells us her story.
Dang Xi Mei is 50 years old and has been born in this house. She likes the old mudhouse. It is standing in a nice shady yard with an old persimon tree. There is an even older mudhouse, which was her grandfather's. It must be over 80 years old. It has a new annex, built of briks. She has four sons. One of them married 4 years ago. For this marriage to take place they had to get together RMB 30.000,00 (€ 3000) for paying the family of the bride, building for the new room for her and have it well furnished. For this family a fortune! The moslim population here only owns very small plots of land. There are hardly any jobs for them in nearby Guyan. Their Chinese is just not good enough for that. So the whole family tries very hard to scrape together enough money to pay off this loan. Next to the livingroom there is a small sideroom. It is the plan to have that one refurbished for the second son, so he can get married too. He will still have to wait many years.
August 4th – Xining
We are on the road to Qinghai. From Guyan we traveled on by bus to Lhanzou and from there with a luxury liner to Xining. What a difference with the normal bus. No extra passengers, no extra stops to take on people, pretty hostesses and airconditioning. But we have to watch TV, so all curtains are closed. Sorry for the countryside. A James Bond-Ninja type of film. The more people killed the better, not exactly my cup of tea. Xining is on 2250 metes. At 9 o’clock in the evening it is still warm in the streets. No idea that we are at this altitude already. Agood body massage helps to fight the last traces of jet lag and the stiffness from the trip. My head is feeling better now. Tomorrow we will move higher up into the mountains.
I preferred to visit the Tibetan regions of Ginghai instead of traveling to Tibet to prevent problems with high altitude sickness. I have been over 5000 m before without any problems, but you never know. When you get trouble in Tibet there is no other solution then to leave. In Ginghai you have a choice. The Tibetan region starts around 3000m and goes up to over 4500. So if problems arise you can drive down the road, until you feel better.
August 5th – Tongren.
The trip is only 200km but it takes almost the whole day. The bus has seats for 27 passengers, but animals, sacks and bundles are not specified. The seats are too narrow for most of the passengers. People are more well fed now then in the time the bus was build .Two fierce looking Tibetan herders with their huge coats take a lot of space. They usually put only one arm in their coat and so there is always extra space to stow something in the front. The long sash around their middle prevents that it will fall down. One holds a small lamb in this extra space in front. The other keeps on chewing some food. Two oversized German tourist fill up the front seat of the bus. No way to look passed them onto the road in front. Also the monks are well fed and oversized. The man next to me keeps his luggage at his feet, so it is impossible to sit straight. My photo bag next to me in the corridor is not small either and it helps me to stay in my seat. A child is put to sleep on top of the bundles in the corridor. What looked like a box with an electric rice cooker is a box with three small kittens. Of course they get out and people scramble under the seats to try to retrive the screeming little brats. But it is useless. They keep breaking out. So we all watch out that they donot leave the bus when taking on new passengers. In Tongren it is raining and we have difficulties finding a driver to take us to a hotel. In the end a middle aged Tibetan driver takes us in his car and finds us a place to sleep. As he seems to be a very agreeable man, we ask him if he can take us on a trip tomorrow.
In the evening community dancing on the square in the centre of town, next to our hotel. From my window I have a good view. Mostly Han Chinese women and hardly any Tibetans take part in the dance. Some men try, but their movements are not very fluid. At 9.00pm sharp the music stops.
August 7th, 2007- first trip to the grasslands.
As the firs trip with our driver was succesfull we have asked him to take us a few days more. Yesterday we visited some villages and saw the first festival. Many monks with mobile phones and loud ringtones. One of them Happy birthday. It keeps ringing. Also Swatch watches are popular in the monastry. They are orange coloured and that colour fits with the dress code. The villagers wear their traditional dresses. The women with a lot of silver in their hair. The old men sit together in their black coats and their cowboy hats. Stiff drinking goes on during the whole length of the ceremony.
Today we will visit the grasslands and look out fornomads. The driver has family up there and knows were to go. Reaching the tents is not that easy. They are not far from the road, but you have to watch out for the dogs. They are very fierce. From far away you call out loud, until one of the owners comes out of the tent and keeps the dogs away. Then we are more then welcome. We eat our first tsamba – roasted barley flour kneaded with milk tea and yak butter. Everybody kneads his own portion in his tea bowl. It has a nutty taste, which is not bad. But it is summer now and the yak butter is fresh. In winter the taste will be very different.
The open space proofs to be parceled out to the several families. Although no boundaries are clear, everybody keeps to his own space. You do not walk over the ground of the other. In this way everybody can collect the yak dung of its own animals. Yak dung is needed for heating the stove.
Preparing the butter is a heavy job, but the women have now all got the assistance of electric butter separators. Solar collectors provide the electricity. Now there are also mobile phones to stay in contact if the men go further on into the mountains. I see (and hear) mp3 players and in several tents there are DVD players and TV screens. Not many horses are used any longer. Many of the younger men prefer to use their motorbikes. By bike it is easy to make quick trip into town and have some fun.
These Tibetans only live in their tents during the summer. The tents are placed near the road as this makes it easier to trade the butter, sheep and wool. The butter is kept in sheepskins. One full skin weights around 80 kg’s. Butter, sheep and wool are traded for barley and winter fodder for the yaks. The farmers in the villages down the road grow the foodstuffs the nomads need. In winter the nomads live in their winter homes further away into the mountains. Many children do not go to school.
August 9th, 2007 – Zekog
We moved higher up into the mountains. Zekog is on3500. I feel a bit dizzy.
Zekog looks like a Wild West movie. Only less colorfull. Everything gray, dirty, all paint peeling. The climate takes its toll on everything. Zekog is nothing more then two roads crossing with a pole in the middle and all roads ending on the grasslands. But it is an important shopping center for the nomads. Everything a Tibetan family may need - from horse ropes to jewelry – you can buy it in here.
Whole families are on the move, often 3-4 on a motorbike. Many pick-up trucks too. The back filled with women and goods. Only very few men come on horseback. Tomorrow there is an important meeting nearby, one of the seldom occasions to meet family and friends. Also a good opportunity to sell butter and wool and stocking up the supplies.
We have found a simple guesthouse with a small coal stove in each room. Only cold water in the yard and the ‘other’ facilities are in an other building on the loft. Quit a trip in the night! Our driver warns us not too go out in the evening. Drunken Tibetans are no good company. At 5 pm it starts getting cold and a girl comes to fire the stove with a mixture of dung and coal. We takea quick meal in town and then move safely behind the locked gate for the night.
August 10th 2007 – festival
We will meet friends of the driver on the festival field, so we join the heavy traffic on the bumpy road. Many pick-up’s on their way to the ceremony. The motorbikes take the short cut over the grass. A large parking lot, many tents, several large festival tents, shopping possibilities, small open air restaurants. It is a happy meeting, but you already feel the serenity of the coming ceremony.. Many families arrived already some days ago and put up their tents. Outside the tents small cooking fires. Family members will alternate between the tents here and those further out in the mountains. The animals cannot be left alone. The yaks have to be milked and the butter prepared. But the festival will last for several days.
A group of men is cooking largecauldrons of rice porridge – the festival food for the high officials. They discuss the type of dung that has to be used at different periods during the cooking. Sheep dung gives another kind of heat then yak dung and this is important, as the porridge is not allowed to burn. An important lama will lead the ceremony. A policeman warns me not to take pictures.
We are welcome in the tent of the friends. The dark tent is made of yakwool and has the same shape as the tents I saw in Morocco and Mauretania. My host tells the homemade tents are cheaper, as they do not have to buy anything. All the material needed they produce themselves. Besides they are much warmer then the modern cotton tents. Only inside it is very dark.
People keep coming in and butter tea is served constantly. Today no tsampa, but noodles for lunch. Many people wear their traditional clothing. The women with a lot of heavy silver jewelry. Only the young boys may prefer blue jeans. But even they cannot do without their big coats and the colourful sash. It would simply be too cold.
Then the lama comes out of the festival tent and the ceremony starts. Unfortunately it also starts raining. Everybody out on the field covers himself with plastic. As ‘important guests’ we now also get our share of the rice porridge. It has raisins in it, so really for great occasions only. The sun returns when the governmental officials have left. My host indicates that now I can take as many pictures as I like
August 11th, 2007 – more visits on the grassland
Our host from yesterday has returned to the mountains. We will visit him one more time and he will introduce us to the families that life around there.
His tent in the mountains is also made of yak wool, but much bigger then the festival tent. A large mud stove is build in the middle and also the living area on which they sleep is a rised platform, made of mud. By flooding this area of the tent will keep dry. There is a small home altar with a picture of the Dalai Lama. The smoke of the stove should leave the tent through an opening in the roof, but the weather is bad and most all the smoke keeps hanging in the tent. Sheets of plastic have to help to keep the bedding dry during heavy rainfall.
Again many guest come to visit and again many bowls of butter tea are handed around. As there is an oversupply of milk and not enough water often the bowls are washed in hot milk. When we came it was cold but sunny, but now it is getting very dark. It does not take long before a big hailstorm breaks out. Big hailstones reach deep inside the tent.The whole grassland is covered by hail and everybody laughs. The men run outside on bare feet. Then the sun returns, but the storm gets worse. All men are engaged in securing the tents. The small lambs are brought inside.
We decide to leave early as almost black bad weather clouds are appearing. We reach the paved road just in time before the storm breaks. Heavy rain rages horizontally over the land. On the road more families are returning from the festival. Many have problems with the storm. The motorbikes are overloaded and the plastic they use for keeping dry catches too much of the wind. One of the tents we visited earlier that day could not be secured in time and has collapsed. Life on the grasslands is no summer holiday.
August 12th 2007 – He Nan
We keep moving higher up, but now I am used to the altitude. My headache has disappeared. Along the road families are on the move. They are returning to their winter homes. Other families are moving their tents to another spot. The men are herding the yaks from their motorbikes. But they use the lasso as in old times. Very few are still on horseback.
Not much money seems to be spent on the houses, but brand new motorbikes and mobile phones belong to daily life. Clothes and faces may look a bit scrubby, but plenty of water is used to keep the bikes nice and shiny.
Besides the familiar Tibetan tents we see now also large groups of yurts along the road. We are arriving at He Nan, a Mongolian enclave in Tibetan surroundings.
He Nan welcomes its visitors with two enormous rearing horses in granite. This is an important governmental settlement and probably also army base. The road has been extremely well kept and modern housing blocks are standing along the wide main street with pavement on both side. More horses in front of the governmental head quarters. The shops are well furbished with electric appliances and toys for the kids. Groups of children have just come out of school. They all wear school uniforms with the red handkerchief around their neck. What a difference with Zekog!
We have to sleep in the governmental hotel. It is in the shape of a yurt, built of concrete and completely run-down. Every thing is broken and dirty. Only on one floor there is a toilet half working. But here now water for washing your self. It is not advisable to use the indicated washroom. Only the look of the basin is enough to stay out!
The curtains in my room are torn and the carpet so dirty, that I refuse to take my shoes off. But my room is splendid compared to the rooms of A Hong and the driver. With difficulty we get a hot water thermos, but the cups in the room are too filthy to use. The yurts around He Nan are in the same state as the hotel.
August 14th 2007 – Tongde.
We returned to Zekog and from here we will visit Tongde to see the horse racing. Last year it was attended by 300.000 people. The winner of the race will get 80.000 RMB, equivalent to 8000 Euro. And this is considered a small race. 80 horses will take part.
The happening is difficult to oversee, so we climb a hill to get a better view. On the way down a I stumble and spray my ankle. It feels seriously damaged. In the local hospital in Tongde they can only say that it does not seem to be broken. No x-ray is available. The doctor advises to use Chinese medical herbal plasters to get the swelling down. Fortunately I have a good elastic bandage in my luggage. I cannot stand on my right foot. I send A Hong to buy a very sturdy walking stick to lean on. The driver is very upset and wants to carry me up and down the staircase in the hotel. Not a very good idea. But how to use a Chinese toilet, when you can only stand on one foot?
During the night a make a plan. I have laced leather boots. If the laces are kept somewhat loose they still fit even with the bandage. That will help to steady the ankle. We will leave for another road south in the direction of Lhasa. That will mean two days of driving. So the first days the foot can rest. For the rest we will see later.
August 16th – Wenquan
Everyday the first half hour in the morning the driver puts on his radio in the car and we listen to mantra’s and other Budhist music. A safe and relaxing start of the day.
The road to Lhasa is in repair, 250 km’s building site. The jerking and shaking make my foot hurt, but we move on. We hope to reach Mado the day after tomorrow. We had to make a detour earlier as the road we had planned was blocked by an earth slide.
Many big trucks on the road as this is the main highway to Tibet. Black smoke is coming from the rear. We keep our distance. It is very cold. I am surprised by the number of motorbikes and three wheel tractors on the road overloaded with men. They are looking for work along the road or returning home from working in one of the cities further north. No pleasure to sit in an open car with this weather and in the dust and the stinking fumes. In the night we reach Wenquan, which means Hot Spring, but who hoped for a spa is mistaken. Wenquan is only a dusty and black sooted row of shops and restaurants. The guesthouse has only one room, which we share all three. The ‘facilities’ are on the other side of the yard. I will have to pass two mean dogs if I go there in the night. I may do it the ‘mens way’ and stay between the cars on the parking lot.
Our spirit has not diminished because of the accident. We enjoy the food in the restaurant and make ourselves comfortable for the night. The small stove in the room has done her best. It is warm and cosey inside. A Hong and I do not get much sleep. Our driver sleeps for the better as we may go after his deep snoring sound.
August 17th 2007 – Mado.
Our breakfast place is as beautiful as Wenguan is ugly. Red velvet sofa’s and on the walls large posters of a luxurious European champagne breakfast and a fountain in front of a castle. I have seen many of such posters and I am still curious how they come in places like this. The sofa’s look better then they sit. We visit the hot spring. Not a place to swim. It is used to discard the carbage.
At lunchtime we reach Mado. Again a dusty filthy place – our guest house is no exception. Tibetan people around in a different kind of clothing. Once it must have been beautifull. There is an army base and a prison. The atmosphere in the street is not very friendly. People may be former prisoners who are not allowed to leave the region. They are forced to live here already for many years, without work or income. This can explain the situation.
The source of the Yellow River is near Mado, but we can only reach it by four wheel drive and then we still have to walk a good deal. Not for me unfortunately. I wanted to come to Mado because on the map there are big lakes in the surrounding. I had hoped to meet a great number of nomads here. But the lakes are all salt water lakes and hardly any tents can be found. The grasslands here are very poor. The few nomads around have only a few yaks and a very small herd of sheep. Their tents are of flimsy cotton around the skeleton of the discarded tents from the workers along the road. And Mado is on 4300 meter. There is frost in the night.
A Hong and the driver are now my photo assitants. The driver puts the tripod and camera in place and A Hong has learned to operate the lightmeter. Walking around is still very difficult, especially in narrow spaces. In this way I can stay behind the camera and rest on my walking stick. The driver takes his car as near as possible to where I want to be. He almost drives the car into the restaurant.
The evening meal is as grey as the rest of the town and I have to pay double the price then it was on the menu. I leave it like this. We will leave tomorrow morning early.
August 19th 2007 – Li Jia Xia
We have come down to the planes again. Here it is much warmer. We drive though rice and cornfields. Farmers are taking the harvest in. A Hong knows a Budhist nunnery near here, where we can stay overnight. One of the sisters is a Tibetan doctor. She can have look at my ankle and perhaps help to speed up the healing. The swelling has gone down with the help of the herbal plasters. But the foot looks almost black and is still very painful.
The nunnery is in a national park. Nature here is like a Chinese ink drawing. Round steep hills with small pagoda’s on top. Great views with mountain ranges in a misty distance. The road is very bad and we have to cross several brooks. Then a very steep descend and a river to cross. The road up is just as steep again. Can the car make it.
We arrive in the nunnery. The doctor is at home and we are allowed to stay overnight.
Zha Xi Qing Cuo is 32 and 20 years in the nunnery. The congregation send her to the Tibetan Medical School and she is now the doctor for the Nunnery andthe surroundings.
There are 150 nuns between 6 and 80 year sold. There are enough young girls who want to enter. Their families will support them. As a nun the women have more freedom then in a normal household. Three days a month they sit and pray together. For the rest of the time they mind their own business. Zha Xi has her own small house and her own yard. The house has 2 rooms and a kitchen inside and one outside. She has a telephone connection and TV. In the yard a disk for the TV and a solar heater. Both presents from the German Embassy.
My foot gets a treatment with herbs and the smoke of a smouldring fire. I cannot really follow the treatment. But the foot feels better . A Hong gets instructions to buy a different kind of herbal plasters. The serenity of the place makes me relax after all the jerking, shaking, dust and noise of the last couple of days on the road. We sleep all three next to each other on the ‘kang’ - the big stone bed in the living room. When we are resting, there are still patients knocking at the door.
August 20th 2007 – Xining
This will be the last day with our driver. Today we will return to Xining – our starting point for the Qinghai trip. From here we will leave for Urumqi in Xinjiang. The driver is happy to go home. He misses his family, but he still feels responsible for the accident with my foot. He is not comfortable to let us go. On the road to Xining we see the Yellow River from high above. The perfect spot for a farewell picture. Then we cross the ‘Second Bridge over the Yellow River’. Do the Chinese count all the bridges over this famous river?
August 24th 2007 – Yining
In the night we arrived in Yining on the border with Kazakhstan. Our breakfast place is also the place to ask the first information The people in the restaurant are very curious about what we are doing in Yining. A Hong uses their attention to turn the conversation around and ask them questions instead. She has also already spoken with the driver who took us from the bus to our hotel. This afternoon we will make a small trip in the surroundings. But we first take a stroll around our hotel. Some small streets with many restaurants. It will be difficult for A Hong to get good food. She is veganist. Xinjiang is for a large part moslim and lamb is eaten with almost every meal. At 10 AM the first skewers are roasting already on the barbeque in front of a small light blue restaurant with palmtree decorations along all three walls - a picture of a Hawaian type beach. It is a print on textile, that you can order by the meter. The small stools and tables are painted in the same light blue as the sky in the picture.
In the afternoon the driver arrives with his nephew Ali and a much larger car then ordered. Ali is around 30 years old and a real Adonis. The uncle tells A Hong that Ali is a much better driver and that we will be better of with him. I am not so sure. The big car – a VW Santana - has a lower bottom clearing then the smaller car yesterday. These Santana’s are very popular with the government and many Chinese like to drive in them. But for our purpose they are not ideal. We are not luxury women out on a shopping tour in town. For us a car has to be able to drive on rough roads. But for this afternoon it will do.
The trip in the surroundings goes well. We visit several houses and Ali seems to be willing to assist us. He will get the other car when we take him on for several days. We make an appointment for tomorrow morning 9.00 AM sharp!
August 25th 2007 – Tekes
Sharp 9.00 has a different meaning for Ali than it has for us. A Hong has to phone several times. There seems to be trouble with the choice of the car. Do we really want the other one. Yes we do! But he big one is more luxurious. It will be more comfortable. But less suitable. We made an agreement yesterday. In the end he arrives but then there is other trouble. As we will be out of town for several days we need some new music in the car. So we go to buy music. Ali chooses, I pay. But Ali needs other shoes. This time I have learned my lesson and I stay in the car while he buys the shoes. We really should have lunch first before we go into the countryside. Food is very important for Ali. He takes us to a magnificent restaurant. We have really come into a complete different culture. Last century many Russian tapestry traders and fur traders have been living here. You can still see the grandeur from their lifestyle in many places in town. So also in the restaurant. It would not have been misplaced in Budapest or Vienna. The food is excellent, much better then the Chinese food and there even is homemade ice cream and nice “torten” – cakes. Very well dressedolder women come in for just a drink, a cake and a chat, like every where in Europe. Also groups of men seem to have a sweet tooth.
After all these refreshments it is time to leave for the country side. I have showed Ali on the map the direction I have in mind. As soon as we are out of town the road changes into a mud road. After the first few villages we turn into the mountains and stop! The road is blocked by a landslide. This is the Yiling valley. A number of years ago there was great unrest here and the Chinese government is not interested that people can easily move from one place to the other. Only a few roads are kept in order. After waiting for an hour it is clear that we have to change the plan. Late in the evening we arrive in Tekes. Ali’s brother is living here. He works for the government in the department of agriculture..We are invited to stay in his house. Tea and bread are served. The first problem for A Hong. All bread is covered by a tiny film of sheep fat. She will not eat it.
Tomorrow is Sunday and Ali’s brother is free from work. He will show us around in the countryside.
August 26th 2007 – nomads
Tekes is a big town with all the usual boulevards and big buildings of a `Chinese governmental center. Wealthy Chinese drive in big cars, as do some of the locals. Direct outside the town center the streets look very different. Here the local moslim people are living. After an hour we go again up in the mountains and we start seeing groups of yurts. But these are no nomads. These are holiday and picknick yurts for towns people who want to stay for a day in the mountains. Higher up the yurts are smaller and less colourful. Here are the people we have been looking for.
Luo Er Jiang is a sturdy woman of 27. She is not married but has her own herd of sheep. A small nephew helps with the herding. She is backing bread in a small mud ovn. She only does it on Sunday and then she bakes the bread for a whole week. These breads are usually hard as stone and are soaked in the tea, that is always served with it. The bread is kept in a cloth and as soon as guests arrive the cloth is spread out on the ground and tea and bread is offered.
A bit further on is a very small felten tipi. Luo Ka Si Mu is 61. He has 7 children and 3 grandchildren. He was a schoolteacher for 20 years, but as the government changed the language requirements for teachers, he could not keep his job. Most local people do not speak or write enough Chinese to hold a job in the Chinese government. Only a few jobs are excluded from this regulations. Every time one of the sons wanted to marry Luo Ka Si MU sold a part of his herd to pay for the dowry. Now he has only 10 cows, 20 goats and 2 horses left. He and his wife are very poor. One small grandchild is living with them.
We go for lunch in one of the holiday tents. Ali’s brother orders the food. We can have a picknick outside. There is horse milk for desert. It tastes somewhat sour and is light alcoholic. Much of the food we ordered and paid for I have never seen on the table. It ended up in the rear of Ali’s car. After lunch we return to town and visit several of Ali’s relatives. Ali’s brother can take the next days free from work. He will act as our guide for at least one more day.
August 29th 2007 – back to Urumqi
Last days were a good lesson not to trust everybody. The brother took the lead of the project and got more and more greedy as the days went. Several more meals disappeared in the back of the car. Ali is not bad, but very vain and wants to be photographed every second minute. A Hong does it with her digital camera and we make a lot of fun about it. It was a mistake to stay in the house of the family. On Tuesday it got even worse. On the way back to Yinin the car was more or less hyacked for other family members. With difficulty we were allowed to stay on it too. Next time I will keep more distance.
This morning we decided to return to Urumqi but we ask Ali to take us. On the way we want to make some detours and look out for someMongolian minority settlements. Again trouble about the choice of the car. Ali likes to drive the Santana. He is a showman first class, but not a bad boy.
After some unclear organizational problems we are on the road again. Then a small accident. A sheep along the road bolts out and ends on the front of our car, rolls over it and disappears at the other side of the road. Ali hits the brakes and the car behind us cannot stop in time. No big damage, but we have to wait for the police. The owner of sheep has disappeared. It takes some time before the damage is settled. After a short visit at the repair station we can travel on.
There is good but steep road over the mountains. This is the only connection with the rest of China. On the top the road is in repair again and we have an hour of stop and go as many trucks have trouble to pass. Then we hit the highway from Urumqi to Kazakstan. There is still a short periode of light and we try to make some pictures near the Syaram lake. One small felten tipi, more plastic sacks then felt. It is the end of the season and the weather has taken its toll on the felt. The female owner has the winter to repair it or make a new cover. Her dress is so much in tune with the interior that I decide to leave a part of her body in the picture. Mickey Mouse is also visiting the grasslands.
Then we have difficulties to find a place to sleep. Many holiday camps on the roadside, but all are either full or to filthy to stop. We end up in the official hotel of the department for the fish industry. The manager will only open up one room, so we have to share. The cook will only make a meal for us as he can sell us the largest fish in the fridge. We decline, but now Ali has to drive half an hour in the dark to find us another place to eat. Chinese tourism shows itself from a bad site. Many drunken holidaymakers on the beach.
August 30th 2007 – Jinmuchangmuyebadul
Jinmuchangmuyebadul – who doesnot want to travel to a place with a name like this.
I found an interesting mountain road on the map and we decide to take the chance. There is a good mud road. It goes up en down but never too steep. Many curves and we are full of expectations at every turn. What will lay behind. The earth around is dark red. Then around the corner an unbelievable lush green valley. A small wild river with willow trees and poplars along the road. The people are very surprised to get visitors and then even visitors from abroad. They do not understand the place was on a map.
In several houses we get some fruits, but bread seems to be scarce. This time no restaurant for Ali to phone and order the biggest dish possible. We have to do with some cakes we bought the day earlier. But we all agree the adventure is worth the trouble. Many houses are locked. These are winter houses from nomads and their owners have not yet returned from the mountains.
Near one of the houses a flock of camels. Toaleti – 51 years old – is at home with two of his four sons, his daughter in law and his grandchild. The other sons are still out with the animals. They keep the camels for breeding and for the milk. I get to taste it. Camelmilk is considered a delicatesse and it is very healthy. It tastes a bit strong, but not bad.
The men who have stayed in the valley have to make the hay for the winter. They also grow maze, potatoes and sunflowers. Only near the river the valley is green, higher up the earth is soon eroded, sometimes almost bright orange then again gray and desertlike. I would like to stay longer but there is no place to sleep and the way back is still long. It is already dark when we find a hotel in a nearby small town at the other side of the mountain range. In the hall of the hotel on the wall a very familiar picture in large format. The “Keukenhof”, the famous tulip and flower park of The Netherlands.
August 31th – Da He Yan Zi.
Today we will try to find the Mongolian settlements. We are told we will find them along the road to Bohle. But no yurts to see.Then another place is mentioned. But still no result. In a village a girl leads us to a Mongolian family. They tell us that only very few Mongolians still herd cattle around here. Many have become farmers or are in business. Their children have married Han Chinese people and are assimilated in the Chinese community. But if we drive north into the grassland in the direction of the mountains we might find some herders. But they live in summer houses, not in yurts.
And indeed we find the houses. Ali thinks this the moment to start to wash the car at a small brook and he orders two herders to take us for a trip on the back of their motorbikes. The whole thing is too funny to complain about. When Ali has time to travel on, we get new directions from one of the herders. But something is wrong and we end up in the center of a small military encampment. Two rows of tents and a open air kitchen in the middle. In the cornersa watch tower build of sandbags. Everybody is too surprised to act. Even we think it is best not to ask too many questions. Better to turn around and leave as long as we still get the chance. At the watch tower we wave goodbye and spurt on, away from the grassland.
It has been enough. The Mongolians seems to have disappeared and it is time to move on. We ask Ali to bring us back to Bohle, from where we can take the night bus to Urumqi. A Hong has to settle the financial arrangements with Ali and now he makes trouble. But then he is mistaken about A Hong. She doesnot give in. We have kept account of the kilometers we have been driving everyday. Also we donot find a large tip is in his place. He and his brother have taken the tip already during the trip in natura. Ali looks sad. That women take the role of the boss is a new experience for him. Ahong promises to send him some pictures she took of him during the trip. But even that cannot make him happy. In the back of the buss we have a good laughter. We are not the only ones who took a good lesson.
September 1st 2007 – bus to Kashgar
We have decided to take the bus to Kashgar – for me the mythical centre of the Silk Road. The trip will take at least 24 hours. Again this is the special type of sleeping bus. 3 rows of bunks next to each other and the platform in the back.
A slender man with his corpulent wife have their beds on the platform. But it is impossible for her to get up. Her body is just too wide for the narrow corridor. Stiff as a doll she is standing in front of the platform. Nobody offers to change their bunk. The only thing the man can do is to try to lift her up. He graps her at her ankles and lifts her straight up until her hips can bend and her upper body is horizontal, but even then she seems not able to crawl further. In the end he pushes at the soles of her feet to shift her onto the bed.
Not only the women are corpulent. A number of Uygur men are laying like sausages in their bunks. Their cap and their shoes are both packed in plastic bags and are laying on top of their fat bellies. During the trip they either smoke or snore.
In the lower bunks it is more lively. A lot of chatting and quarreling. Babies are fed and big quantities of food are passed around during the whole trip.
Stop for diner. It is pitch dark. An outdoor roadside restaurant with only a few light bulbs. Many busses stop here and everybody wants to eat quickly. Passenger cry for attention and the serving men scream their orders to the kitchen. Busses that want to leave blow their horn. It is still hot outside. For me it all feels like a mix of North India and Morocco, certainly not Chinese. Many long tables, plates with piles of pilaf, long skewers from the barbeque and large bowls of black tea. Enough vegetables to cook with noodles, but for Ahong it is difficult to get her order through. Too much trouble. If she then also oversees the preparing of her meal, the cook explodes.
The toilets are back in the yard. Just follow the stream. The stench is almost unbearable. No wonder with so many people. The place itself is behind a closed door, but as soon as the women have done their thing, they step out in the corridor with their trousers still around their ankles and all their private parts in full view. I cannot help looking as they slowly start to dress. Many layers of clothes, from very sexy to sturdy long johns, or flannel with roses or little teddy bears. Several trousers over each other. Over that more gold brocate dresses and in between many layers of body fat. They chat constantly while dressing. No hurry, the bus will not leave without them. The last layer is a pair of nylon stockings that reaches till over their knees. This is also the place to store the money. I see several thick bundles of 100 RMB notes.
September 3rd 2007 –Kashgar.
The old centre of Kashgar is all that I had expected. Europe and the Orient meeting Asia. I feel more connected with the Oriental part then with the Asiatic. All the time it feels like holiday in Greece or Turkey. The people look familiar. Some boys with blue eyes and red hair seem to come straight from an Irish pup. The sounds are more familiar but even more the smells. An old teahouse with a balcony on the first floor. Here women are allowed to sit. Downstairs we are only allowed to pass through. The architecture of the buildings is definitely not Chinese. The wooden balcony, the stucco on the walls, the mirrors and the fabric of the curtains. Everything faded and dirty by ages of sunlight and dust. Who has been sitting her before and what did they see passing through the narrow street below? We share the balcony with some interesting old men, talking earnestly with each other. They look like they have been sitting there for years.
A nephew of A Hong is growing cotton in a nearby village. He has come to meet his niece. He does not like this at all. He only wants to drink a cup of tea. Chinese and Uygur people have a deep mistrust of each other and especially about each others food and restaurants. We had already some difficulties over this with Ali. A Hong is more relaxed about it, but even she now and then only wants her Chinese bread and noodles.
We eat breakfast at a Pakistani place. Coffee, yogurt and Pakistani bread! I feel like a little girl in a candy shop. Diner in the most beautiful Uygur restaurant I have ever seen. This is a different grandeur, then the Russian style in Yining. This is more Perzian. The owner comes from the Pahmir mountains. A two floor restaurant with a double wooden staircase in the middle. Tapistry on the floor and on the walls. A small orchestar playing oriental music. What a pity we are only two and A Hong not eating much. I wished I could have tried at least 10 different kinds of food. All plates are fantastic decorated. The table is laid withdamast table cloth and delicate China ware. Why do these teapots look so British?
September 4th. - Taskorgan
We left Kashgar in SW direction. We are on our way to Taskorgan on the Afghan border. This is as far as we are allowed to travel. The Karaköl plateau is on 4500 meters. The gletscher almost reaches the houses. This is again a tourist area but more interesting for foreign tourists. A good place for mountainclimbing and gletschertours. Holiday camps on the roadside, most concrete yurts. But a very good road and the views are spectacular. On the plateau small villages, all mud houses. Also real yurts, but most herders have moved on. It the night is getting pretty cold. Snow is expected every day now. Time to go home.
It is a long day and we reach Taskorgan by nightfall. Also here the Persian/Tadjik influences are clear. The women wear peculiar embroidered hats and all men their black flat caps, not like the Uygur, Kyrgyss, or Kazakh moslim caps we have seen until now. The small restaurant is full of people. Light blue stucco and engraved mirrors along the wall. Even glass chandeliers hanging from the ceiling like in the affluent houses in Yining. Fin de Siecle from the last century. It could be Paris. This is city lifestyle in the middle of nowhere. But Taskorgan once was an important city. The hotel unfortunately again a government hotel, so barren, dirty and very cold. The reception always promises wonders, but as usual I get a concrete hole with a coarse wooden bunk. A toilet in the next building and only cold water in the corridor. I still have difficulties walking, so the trip to the toilet is agony in the night. My neighbours are extremely loud. Four men prefer to stand and talk in the corridor instead of in their room. I get out of bed, open my door and start yelling. At the same time I make gestureslike ‘move inside please”. They are astonished (no wonder), but do like indicated. Angry I smash their door. It helps. Finally I can go to sleep.
September 5ht 2007 – Karaköl
As we are not allowed to drive further we slowly drive back in direction Kashgar. First we pass a few Tadjik villages. In this valley it is warmer. The farmers can grow corn,a vegetables and some fruit. Our driver Erken makes contact with the population but doesnot enter the houses himself. There are only women at home, so that would not be appropriate. Later when one of the men arrives he comes in too. Here we are offered yogurt and bread, no tea. The women all in tradional cloth. A young girl is wearing her bridal crown. It is not yet 6 month since she was married. She still holds a special position in the house. But soon she will have to do the heavy work. The women are very open and I hear a lot of laughter. But it is clear that they do not often come outside their yard.
When you enter the house on both sides there are rooms for receiving guest and trade people. Then there is a bend in the corridor and you reach a communal room and the kitchen. This is the place for the women. From the door you can never look into these rooms. The house belongs to several brothers and their sleeping rooms are all in connection with this common room. All rooms are full of color. The mud walls covered with cheap flower printed cotton or traditional tapestry. Mud benches along the wall to lay down on. Again all covered by tapestry. Red is the main color. In front of the house there is a high mud wall. In the yard the bread is baked on an open fire. A flat pan covered with a lid is put on the fire and hot coles are put on top of the lid.
We move on and have to mount a pass. On the other side a complete different climate. This is the plateau again. The first snow has fallen. Down on the plateau we see flat ‘pancake’ houses, Kyrgyss winter houses. The big flat square is divided in four parts. Each has it own entrance. First a small kitchen and then one big room with a large mud bench to sleep on. A small iron stove in the middle. Light is falling from a small window in the roof. That is all. Again the walls are covered by the flimsy cotton and tapestry on the benches. When I climb on the bench to make a picture the tapestry is soaking wet. The melting snow creeps through the roof made of branches and mud. For these people it is best when the frost comes soon. At least their house will stay dry. In the next house somebody is clearly very ill. The whole family is standing around the bed. So we leave as quick as we entered. The other houses are still empty. Their owners have not yet returned home. Around the houses big pillars of dung, their fuel to heat the stove during the long winter. Also traces of many sheep. That will be younger animals that stayed behind near the house. The herders left early in the morning to let the herd graze and will return late in the evening. There are penns for many animals around the house.
Our driver has a friend in the biggest village. Again we are invited to sleep in his home. I am against it, but it is impossible to refuse. Here there are no toilets at all. You just walk outside the village and find yourself a place. No place to wash either, also no water offered. I brush my teeth with the bottled water that we brought. The women prepare a special meal. Bread made of as much butter as flour. I am so tired that I cannot eat it. Very impolite, but it is just too heavy for my stommage. The husband is a truck driver and came home late. We had to wait for diner until midnight.
September 8th – on the road to Mazar.
We passed through Kashgar and now follow the Silk Road in eastern direction. We are on our way home. The same driver comes with us. He is a nice agreeable men and has a good sturdy car. We plan to visit Mazar on the Xinjiang-Tibet highway, again a very old trading route. Whether A Hong needs a special travel permit is unclear. Yesterday in Kargillick the situation was still unclear, so we decide to drive up the road and try. No luck, we were send back.
We stayed overnight in a village in a private house. It is very warm. This morning we drove back to Kargillick and A Hong got papers with impressive stamps. We try one more time. At the check point again trouble. Down in Kargillick they have stamped the wrong paper. A screaming soldier makes his point very clear. Why do all those foreigners come here. They only make more work for us. A group of Russian young men have disappeared a few days ago. Where that is not clear. But it has ment a lot of trouble and extra work for these important men. At a certain moment it has been enough. He gives in, if only I promise not to take pictures at the other side of the checkpoint. I solemny swear.
Now we really start climbing. The road gets worse. First there are fantastic views on 6 mountaintops over 6000 m. The K2 is just out of reach for us to see. But then it gets more grimm. The gravel on the road is black, slud andsnow are falling.and to my astonishment I see mountainbikers along the road. People from Holland on their way to Tibet! The higher we climb the colder we get. More bikes, they put on more and more cloth. There is a small tent on the roadside. British people that take a rest. Then we slide down into a valley. We have reached Mazar. Nothing more then a group of iron plate sheds that sell cola and batteries for torches. A car repair place and two questhouses. Mazar means grave I am now told. I asked several times before, but did not get an answer. I understand the double meaning.
There is a big onion shaped grave on the side of the river, surrounded by smaller mud structures. The light in this place is unforgettable. Light brown earth, green willow trees, white water in the river. A road “paved`’ withgrey rolling stones, vultures in the air. Death feels omnipresent.
What are people seeking in Mazar. For the truckers this place means home for an hour or so. If there are problems with their cars, perhaps it can be mended. There isa fresh hot meal and hot water to wash, a bunk to sleep, a friendly word and some entertainment. There is a TV in the restaurant.
The sun is still shining brightly, but it is bitterly cold already. We are hanging around in the restaurant as there is nothing else to do. Now and then a trucker comes in, chats with the owner, gets some warm water to wash his face and feet and goes out again. The water is sprinkled over the floor to fight the dust. One guest lays down on the daybed and grabs a kind of guitar. The landlord starts singing. He has a beautiful voice. In the back I hear a baby crying– the grandson of the landlord. Father and son take care of the guest. Both their wives are in the house, but do not show themselves.
We eat noodles with a tiny bit of meat and a few bits of spring onion stalks. Then we just sit to pass the time. For the toilet you must go behind the sheds.” Take the right side of the house” our driver warns us.” At the other side there are the dogs.” Their barking tells me enough.
I go to bed early. It is too cold to hang around any longer. My bed is very hard, but the pillow is hand embroidered with teddybears and flowers. “Sleep well” is written on it – in English andin cross stitches. For a long time I still hear the TV, but in the end I fall asleep.
September 9th 2007 – Mazar truckstop
Early morning I wake up. In the bunk next to me the landlord is praying. Ramadan has started. Never before I heard a man cry out for his God more profound and beautiful. I look whether I can reach my video to take the sound, but I am afraid to make any noise and disturb him. So I just lay down and listen. I feel overwhelmed and priviliged to be here. Later I try to clean my teeth outside, but the water is just too cold.
Breakfast with noodles and spring onion. Then we drive on along the river. There might be a village further on on the road. The gravel is very deep and the car starts sliding in the curves. I decide to turn around. Mazar is beautifull in all its desolation, but it does not need to become our grave.
On the way back we stop one more time to look at the impressive mountaintops. Then we drive down to Kargillick. The driver wants to be home in time to go to the mosque.
September 12th 2007 – soft porno
Today we drive from Kargillick to Hotän. This time our cab is amodern Chinese car and the driver is driving very fast. We have to take care not to get a concushion. Half way the driver puts a CD in the player and turns down my sun screen. I am dozing a bit and take hardly any notice. In the sunscreen there is a small videoscreen andslowly I start realizing what I am looking at. The girlsinger is very losely dressed and showing parts of here body I hadnot expected to see in this scenery.
I wonder what the guy is thinking. Am I supposed to tip him extra for this 'special service'. Does he show this to foreign passengers only. Or is this a treat for the moslem guys who have the money to take their own cab along the road. A Hong is sleeping in the back and I donot want to disturb her, so no questions asked. After a while I turn the sunscreen upwards. Not a word is spoken. At Hotän we say goodbye to our driver. For the afternoon we take another cab into the desert.
September 14th 2009 – Buya
We have to get up early as we have to pass a checkpoint before 11.00 am. Then the road is reserved for the trucks that drive coal from the mines down to the main road. After the checkpoint an army base and something that looks like a prison. After this the roads gets almost too bad to drive on by car. We are on our way to Buya. It is another 20 km. It takes us more then an hour.
Buya’s is a community that stretches out over many kilometers along both sides of the river. There is no road except this one to the centre of the village. A bus comes here only a few times in the week. All other transport goes by mule. The village street is bordered by poplars as in many places in this region. The fresh green a nice contracts in the very dusty surroundings. People come out of their houses when we stop the car. No foreigners have been here earlier. We take a walk around. Many conrete government houses. Many of them are empty. This is part of a housing program to provide farmers with more healthy living conditions. I have seen the same houses in Gansu and Ginghai. No changes are made to adapt the houses to different climate conditions. Also the size of the family is considered standard. Here in the villages the Uygur people have at least 3 children. The government allows this as they are considered.part of a minority. Difficult to live in 35 m2 meters with 3 children. The local homes are mud houses. They stand in a large yard with high walls. Many of them are very dark inside. Light comes only in from a small window in the ceiling. Some larger houses have a small wooden tower on the roof like the top of a light house. In this way more light can enter.
The houses along the river look like castles. Many have big old willow trees in their yard. When we enter the yard, we first are introduced to two of the concrete additions. Much light comes in through the large window, but the building feels unpleasant. Then the patriarch of the families calls out to us. An old but forcefull man, in every inch the head of the family. Also his wife appears, a frail woman very much the opposite of her husband. He takes us to a wooden door in the wall away from the entrance of the yard. This is the house of him and his wife. All children have been born here. A barren room with again only the small light from above. The walls are almost one meter thick. That keeps the house cool in summer and warm in the winter. Also now the place feels comfortable. They have had electric light for a number of years. The appliances are not of a modern standard, but when they were new it must have been a novelty in the village.
In the main street the school goes out. I am surprised by the amount of children that come out into the street. Where must they al live and what work will there be for them. Already now it is not clear how the villagers earn their living. Are they working in the mines. The patches of land are very small. Most men must be herding their cattle in the mountains. For the firs time I see no blue jeans ad T shirts with English text. The boys wear dark trousers and woolen vests, The girls have trousers under their skirts and colorful shawls loosely around their head. The sweetshop next to the school does good business.
We have to return as the way home is long. At the entrance of the mine I ask A Hong about the prison. Yes this is a rehabilitation camp. These people are not bad criminals, they will only stay here for a couple of years. Are they working in the mine. Of course, everybody in China has to work for a living.
September 17th 2007 – Tongguzbasti.
It has taken a lot of organization but we have got the permission from the local police to go into the Taklamakan desert, the most deadly place on earth. The Russian youngsters have not been found. Even a plane from Russia has been here to look for them. Therefore the autorities were not happy to sendtwo women into the sand. But Ahong is not easy to stop, so in the end we are allowed. The police knows the man who will take us. At the last moment again there were hesistations. A sandstorm had broken loose. Our trip was postponed again, but this morning we leave. It will only be a one day trip, as we have to leave for Urumqi tomorrow.
I read about Tongguzbasti in a book on the history on Xinjiang. The village was replaced to the road twice, but the villagers kept returning to the desert. How is it to live in such a place. This goes beyond my imagination. I want to see it with my own eyes.
The first hours there are still trees along the river. Even a landscape that looks like Holland with dykes and water and cows in it. Only the bamboo hats of the people tell me this is not home. Then the sand hills come and the first house like a castle. Old people and a baby. We have brought watermelons – a welcome present. We get tea and bread. I feel the sand between my teeth. Yesterday the storm was very bad, the people tell. It was impossible to leave the house.
We move on, less and less green between the sand. No idea what these people live off and why they kept returning here. Every half an hour a house. We are welcome everywhere for a chat. There is still water in the river. The people complain. The government is breaking more ground south of the main road for cotton fields for new farmers. They all use the same water source. So in the end the people in the desert get less and less water.
The next house is the last one we can reach. Then we have to turn back to reach home before dark. A father, mother and daughter. It is big house with many rooms. For festivities it can easily hold a hundred people. What will such a party be like, who will come. In a room I find shelves in the wall with a large amount of colorful bowls - thin chinaware - not the normal bowls for daily use. They are covered with plastic against the sand. One room has sief on the floor and a number of enamel bowls for washing. Will this be the bathroom?
There is discussion whether one of the family members will drive with us to town to visit relatives. The wife gets easily car sick, so she doesnot dare to come with us. The girl has to stay with her mother. Then the husband decides that he wants to visit his neighbour and will come us for the ride. From the car he sees one of his sheep in the river. He screams, jumps out and runs to the water. But the animal has drowned. Still it is important to get it out of the water as soon as possible as the carcass will poison the river. We all help to get the animal on the high bank. Will they still be able to eat the meat? We have to leave the people and return home. I am silent on the way back. I suck as much impressions in me as possible. This was the last adventure of the trip. But what an ending of a great journey!
September 20th 2007 – Urumqi
We have taken the night bus through the desert. It was still hot and the air in the bus was very stale. Nobody wanted to open a window. All are afraid of the heat and the sand. Every two kilometers there was a parking spot and a place to load water. The sand is kept from the road by walls of concrete and reed. There are also sweeping gangs to keep the sand of the road. The bus left after sundown to give the people the possibility to eat first as it is still Ramadam. We stop at three am at a restaurant – breakfast with big plates of fatty pilaf. The same noise as last time, but now I cannot stand it. I refuse the food. For the first time in China my stomach is seriously upset. And I have a bad cold. I am ill. I left my walking stick in Kuriyä. I used it until the last day, but know the foot feels better and I donot want to take it on the plane. But with the stick also my courage and energy has been left behind.
I start thinking of the pictures. As usual there is the panic that something has been wrong with the camera and I did not notice. But even then I have had a trip that I could not imagine before. Never have I been so free to wander. And in what country! I like to visit borders. At the end of the road you find the most interesting people. Well we have done our best to reach as many road ends as possible. And what a great people we met.
Tomorrow I fly to Beijng and from there home. A Hong flies to Dali in Yunnan. She is a great woman and a great help. During the trip we have kept laughing about Ali. Our Tibetan driver has phoned several times to ask about my foot. He was such a kind man. In the whole I have met so many kind people. I hope the pictures will do them honour.