Crossing the Great Firewall of China

I’m not sure where to begin with this blog, China has been a real roller coaster of firewalls, restrictions, rules, regulations and terrible toilets. We crossed blissfully into the country, if not quickly on June 24th. With 80km between the Kyrgyzstani and Chinese borders and numerous check points in between we have our first taste of Chinese bureaucracy, we also have our first taste of the Chinese efficiency. Our visas are processed speedily and we soon arrive in Kashgar ready to explore our first Chinese city in the morning.

With little to do in way of culture, other than eat and explore the market we spend most of our time in Kashgar shopping for warm clothes in preparation for a long stint at high altitudes. Communication is more difficult than it has been in previous countries with very few people speaking any English. More often than not we manage to make ourselves understood and the locals have a good laugh at our expense if we don’t!

Haggling over a purchase in Kashgar

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Food from the night market

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The driving, which has gradually been getting worse as we make our way across the continent, has finally reached a level of insanity which terrifies the majority of us. Zebra crossings fail to have any effect and stepping out into five lanes of moving traffic takes some nerve but by the end of our time in Kashgar we are crossing the road like pros, only a highly trained eye could catch us flinching…

From Kashgar we head to Turpan, the hottest and lowest point in China and the second lowest point on earth. Due to clashes between protesters and police in the Turpan region the already tight restrictions are made even tighter. We are forced to spend the night in a service station. So the police can keep a closer eye on us (whether this is for our safety or theirs remains unclear) we are put up in the service building itself. In a night of chaos we are soon moved again, in the middle of a sand storm, to a disused building. We attempt to move our things, including dinner which is still being cooked, through gusts of winds so strong the smaller members of the truck struggle to remain up right.

With one night in Turpan proper we race from our make shift camp in the service station to the city. We make it in time to visit the Jiaohe ruins. Established by the Chinese as a garrison town during the Han Dynasty it claims to be one of the worlds oldest and best preserved ancient cities. The Chinese should probably visit Ephesus or Athens before making such grand statements.

Jiaohe ruins

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It’s round about here that I feel I should fill you in on the toilet situation. Turpan has some of the worst toilets we have encountered in China alone, and that’s saying something. After three months on a truck and long stints of bush camping, with no toilets or showers, most of us feel like fairly hardened travellers but nothing up to this point had prepared any of us for the Chinese lavatory experience. Brace yourselves, it’s about to get grim! Piles of excrement fill, occasionally spilling over the edge of the long drop, not so much a long drop more of a concrete slab with a hole placed over a pooh filled pit. Holding your breath has little effect on the fumes and as the braver members of the group leave the area gagging most of us decide we are far better off going for a wee in the bush. However it doesn’t often get any better here, for weary Chinese truck drivers are forced to relieve themselves as and when they can. We attempt to dodge the many piles of you know what and find a suitable spot that does not leave us exposed to the road. This, ladies and gentlemen is one of the many things that people will not tell you about travelling!! Decent toilet experiences were few and far between in East China, and I fear it will only get worse.

From Turpan we make our way across the Gobi desert to Dunghuang. Here we spend three nights exploring the desert and sampling the local delicacies. Our first stop is the stunningly beautiful Mogao caves, a collection of over 400 man-made caves that contain an overwhelming number of Buddhist carvings and art work. Even after a painfully early start, in the searing heat the caves are breath taking. Intricate paintings adorn the walls of each cave which contain larger than life carvings of ancient Buddha’s. Unfortunately photos were not allowed inside the caves, however much of the art work and library collections now belong to the British museum so there is no need to venture too far from home if you wish to see them for yourselves. You’ll find the link to the wiki page above if you wish to check them out.

After a late night singing our hearts out at karaoke we head out for a day of fun in the Gobi desert. Now fairly certain that we are going to be able to get permits for Tibet we realise we are not going to get the chance to visit the Great Wall as the route will not allow it. So we decide to go and visit the ruins of the original Great Wall.

With a number of hung over people on board the mini bus the journey is painful but we eventually make it out to the ruins. We buy our tickets and are quickly bundled onto a coach full of Chinese tourists with a Chinese speaking tour guide. Utterly bemused we giggle to ourselves as we try to interpret what she is saying. This is sightseeing the real Chinese way. The ruins themselves are somewhat underwhelming but the trip into the Gobi is well worth it, beautiful red rock formations jut out from the grey sand creating weird and wonderful shapes.

A magical mystery tour of the Gobi desert

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Myself and Andy contemplating a rock formation and / or some very old firewood!

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Group ‘Hangover’ larking around in the Gobi desert

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Upping our culture intake for the day we spend the evening at the Chinese theatre watching an acrobatic show. The show brings to life a story that is told in the Mogao caves. The wonderful agility of the acrobats leaves us beaming from ear to ear. I am only off put by the fact that the Chinese audience feel it is acceptable to take photos and film the whole performance, a large Canon SLR competing with the stage somewhat spoils the ambience of the evening.

An example (not taken by myself!)

Chinese theatre

After 2 weeks in China we make our way to Golmud to apply for our Tibet permits. As we get closer to the province the police and military presence is stepped up considerably. We are subject to a number checks, searches and head counts. We spend half a day holding our breath to find out if we have the permits, sooner than expected we receive a phone call to say that the permits will be in our possession that evening. We are one step closer to the elusive province.

After two compulsory nights in the noisy Golmud we are off, permits in hand, under strict instructions to lie if asked about my profession and under no circumstances must we ever take photos of the army patrols. Let’s hope we make it.

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