Dunhuang: Sand, Camels, and Grottoes

The oasis town of Dunhuang is one of the most important stops on the Silk Road. It is the place where the road splits into the Northern Silk Road and the Southern Silk Road. It is also the first (or last, depending on your direction) major stop for ancient merchants.

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Camel Caravan at Minsha Shan

The above photo is from Minsha Shan, a sand dune park-type area in Dunhuang. Visitors can ride on camels, sled down the sand dunes, and visit the fascinating Crescent Moon Springs, which is a small oasis in the middle of this desert. The spring has been providing water for the town for hundreds of years.

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The Crescent Moon Springs

But what Dunhuang is most famous for are the Mogao Grottoes, a series of caves that houses thousands of Buddhist art and sculpture. Photography is not allowed inside, so the most famous image of the grottoes is the facade.

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The Mogao Grottoes

Visitors are given a guide with the entrance fee, who takes them to visit around 8 caves. Be prepared for crowds, as this is the biggest attraction in Dunhuang. Also, since it’s outdoors, make sure to bring some sunblock and hat, as the sun is pretty strong. And since you’re in the middle of the Gobi Desert, it’s also hot and dry.

If anyone is interested in the Silk Road, Dunhuang is a must see.

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Xinjiang’s Tianchi (Heavenly Lake)

Xinjiang’s Tianchi (Heavenly Lake) is quite heavenly don’t you think?

Tianchi, or “Heavenly Lake”

The lake is about 28 miles outside of Urumqi, the capital of China’s Xinjiang Province. For those who don’t know where that is, imagine China’s shape as a giant rooster. Xinjiang would be the rooster’s backside. It’s the largest province in China, and was the entry point for the Silk Road for Eurasians.

Tianchi is surrounded by the Tian Shan (Heavenly Mountain) mountain range. That’s the mountains in the back. The lake is 6000 ft above sea level and about 1.9 square miles. You can take a boat cruise around the lake, and there’s even a monastery on it’s banks.

Damuo Monastery on the banks of Tianchi

Our 14 and 16 day Silk Road tours take you to see this beautiful lake, along with a plethora of other places. For more pictures of what you’d see, visit our Facebook.

I’m eating popsicles in -20°C weather: I’ve gone crazy

So today was the day for the Snow Festival, located right across the street from the Ice Festival in Taiyangdao Park (literally,  “Sun Island”). Although the day was technically colder than the day before, it felt warmer, mostly because the sun was out.

To give you an idea about how ridiculously cold it was in Harbin, our driver showed us a bottle of water that he left in the bus overnight. It was completely frozen. Our guide then pointed out that a normal freezer is usually set at -18°C, and that it was -25°C outside. We were basically living in a place that’s colder than a freezer. She went on to say that most households in Harbin basically stop using their freezers and fridges in the winter, and just put their perishables on their balconies, as the balconies have no heating and so everything stays cold.

Anyway, we make our way into the park grounds to see the snow sculptures. I have to tell you, I liked the snow much better than the ice.

 

The Mona Lisa
The details are amazing
You can actually get coffee in here.

Again, we spent 2 hours there. Any more and we would’ve been frozen into popsicles. The Snow Festival had a lot less people than the ice festival, which was a good thing since most of the time at the ice festival I was lining up for things like ice slides.

There’s actually an international snow carving competition every year. We got to catch one of the entries getting worked on.

Competition Entry

China’s entries got its own section, while I think everyone else was put in the same section. Doesn’t really matter though, all the entries looked fantastic.

After looking at all the sculptures (and sliding down a snow slide on a one person and 2 person rubber tube with my guide for 60RMB), we all gathered together and headed for lunch.

 

I shocked the table with my desire to eat fish head.

The president of the local tourism agency that we used even came out to greet us. It was a really nice gesture from them and the entire group appreciated it.

We got some time afterwards to walk around Zhongyang Pedestrian Street, which Harbin’s main commercial street. The Russians built this street back when Harbin was developing, so you see a lot of European influences in the architecture.

 

Zhongyang Pedestrian Street

I also got to try the epitome of Northern China candy bingtanghulu, which are basically a bunch of hawthorns dipped in sugar syrup. It’s very sweet and sticky, but very good. I’d only had it prepackaged before, which tasted pretty nasty. But these were very very good.

 

Delicious

I also dug into Russian style cheese bread and a milk popsicle, which I found out had to be eaten together and that girls tend to eat popsicles outside in the -20 degree weather. I also jealously watched my guide buy about 5kg of sausages (Harbin is famous for it’s sausages) to take back to Shanghai. I tried a sample; it was delicious and at that moment I wished with all my heart that customs didn’t exist.

Afterwards we went for dinner.

 

These were like sweet potato fries.

Then it was back to the hotel and time for bed. We were going to catch an afternoon flight to Shanghai the next day, where we’d have a free day to ourselves before heading back to the US.

Harbin, or “I can’t feel my toes” land

So today was the big day: we were on our way to Harbin for the Ice and Snow Festival. Our wake up call was at 8 AM; we met up at 9:30 AM to take the train to Harbin. Again, the train only waits for 2 minutes at each stop, so getting on the train was slightly more rushed than last time. Our seats this time were also more cramped: there was a lot more people going to Harbin than last time.

The trip took again around 2 hours. Getting off the train, I was met a blast of freezing cold air and I instantly knew that the cold here was going to be a total different animal than the previous two cities. To quote Anthony Bourdain, who in his show No Reservations went to Harbin in the dead of winter, “it [was] so @#$&*@ cold.” I couldn’t feel my toes while standing at the platform, although when we started moving I warmed up considerably.

Exiting the train was an ordeal in itself: much of the ground out and around the train station is tiled, and in the dead of winter these tiles become slippery death traps of doom. So if you ever decided to take the train to Harbin in the dead of winter, careful leaving the station.

We got to our bus and head for lunch. Lunch was quite good and hearty, less oily than the last night’s dinner.

 

Lunch time

Also, if you happen to be traveling with us in the month of your birthday, you get a delicious surprise at one of the meals.

 

Happy Birthday!

After filling ourselves up on food, we headed to our hotel to change into warmer clothes. Since this is the on-season in Harbin, all of the 5-star hotels are full up already, so we stayed in an older, but centrally located, hotel. The rooms weren’t as nice as those in Shenyang and Changchun; it was definitely showing wear. But the room, thankfully, wasn’t as stuffy as the ones in Shenyang and Changchun.

After changing into snowboarding pants, my super warm down coat, and two pairs of socks, I was ready for the ice festival.

 

Me, shivering to my toes

The festival was a half hour drive from the hotel. Once there, I bundled myself up in my scarf and extra wool coat, and ventured out into the -20°C weather.

I have to tell you, in the 2 hours I was there, my eyelashes and scarf froze. I couldn’t feel my toes for an amount of time, even though I put hand warmers in my shoes (I think they actually froze). Our guide’s hands froze in her mittens; I gave her a pair of hand warmers later to warm herself up. My hand survived because I had put hand warmers in my gloves, but my right thumb was colder than it should be.

 

The centerpiece of the festival

Ice Sculptures

The ice was beautiful, and there were ice slides to go on! My guide and I went on 4 of these slides; it’s a lot of fun and everyone seemed to have enjoyed themselves despite the freezing cold weather.

 

Ice Slide

Getting back on the bus, I felt my face defrosting but my skin felt very dry. Our local guide Nancy advised us that if we ever feel our skin get dry and itchy to not put warm water on the area as it would cause welts. Instead, use lotion or lip balm to moisturize it.

We had dinner that I found to be good enough, although by that time I was pretty tired from the festival and didn’t have much of an appetite.

By the time we got back to the hotel, it was approaching 9 PM. The next day’s wake up call is again at 8 AM. This time we’re going to the snow part of the festival.

Frozen China: Jilin and Changchun

So we left for the train to Changchun at about 7:30 AM. Our wake up call was at 5:45, but since I was jet lagged anyway I was awake by then. The train ride was enjoyable enough, we took what’s called a dong che (动车), or “D” Train, which are the second fastest trains in China. The entire trip took around 2 hours. The train was very comfortable and clean. I managed to get a seat by the window, so I took a few pictures of the snowy countryside.

 

The snowy countryside

We got into Changchun at 11:14 AM. Trains in China are very precise and on schedule, and they only wait 2 minutes at each station, so make sure to get on and off the train as quickly as possible. Changchun was a lot more industrial than Shenyang; you can tell by the quality of the sky. I saw a lot more haziness in that city, but it was charming enough in its own way.

 

Statue in the haze

We had lunch at a dandy little restaurant before going to Jilin City. The food was good, although the room was a bit cramped for 13 people.

 

Lunchtime

Then we got on the bus for Jilin City, which is an hour and a half drive from Changchun. Jilin City is famous for its massive Beishan Park and a section of the Songhua River. Beishan Park was very pretty, and it started snowing when we got there! Although a lot of the other members on the tour thought it was really really cold; I enjoyed the time we spent in the park, just strolling around taking pictures.

 

Gate to Beishan Park

Beishan Park

Temple roof in the park

We then continued on to an attempt to see the famous trees along the Songhua River. Because it’s so cold in Jilin City during the winter, the water in the Songhua River sublimates upon hitting the air. These ice particles then stick to the trees that line the river, giving off the impression that the trees have white leaves.

 

The river at night

This is actually a photo of a photo.

Sadly, we didn’t get to see any of these trees. Our guide told us that it was because the wind tends to blow the ice away, so there’s only a specific amount of time to see this phenomenon.

So instead of seeing these trees, I found another interesting sight.

 

Yes, that is deer fetus.

In the north, people believe that different parts of deer are good for different parts of your body. In this case, deer fetus is supposed to be good for girls, particularly their skin.

Afterwards, we boarded our bus back to Changchun and headed to dinner. The food was alright, although it was a bit greasier and saltier than many of the people were used to. Northern Chinese food is known to be oilier and saltier than food in other areas of China; the oil and salt keeps the people warmer at night. Portions are also enormous, again to get people full and warm. So if you’re at all health conscious, this area of China would be a bigger red flag food-wise. I personally enjoy the food, but every person has different tastes.

Once done with dinner, we headed to our hotel, the (hotel name). The hotel was beautiful! The rooms were spacious and the bathroom was amazing with its modern design. I loved it a lot.

 

A Standard Double

Sadly, I found out that the lock to my suitcase broke. After an hour of clawing and digging at it to get it open, I had to call our guide for help. She couldn’t open it either, and had to call the front, who sent people over to break open the lock. Now I have no lock.

Anyway, I had a really good night’s sleep in the hotel’s comfortable beds. The only drawback to the room was that it was way too hot. I tried to turn the heat off, and even tried to turn the air on, but still the room was a bit stuffy all night.

In retrospect, I think that I enjoyed my time in Shenyang a lot more than my time in Changchun and Jilin. But the Changchun Hotel really is to die for.

Frozen China: Shenyang

Hi all.

Today is my second day in the Dongbei area of China. I got in last night at around midnight. Our tour flew  out from Los Angeles on China Eastern Airlines at 11:20 AM. We arrived in Shanghai and transferred to our flight to Shenyang at 9:40. Two hours later, we arrive in the largest city north of Beijing.

The weather here has been cold, but bearable. This morning, temperatures were at -9°F but went up to 18°F in the afternoon. So all in all not too bad, although my legs were shivering a little and my feet were cold in my boots (I ended up putting feet warmers in my shoes later on).

Our first stop today was the Shenyang Mansion of General Zhang. General Zhang Zuolin and his son Zhang Xuelin were two warlords of Manchuria during the early 20th century. General Zhang Zuolin was actually killed by the invading Japanese army, who thought that his son would be more sympathetic to their cause (they were wrong). The two are national heroes in China for their services in protecting the country. General Zhang built this enormous complex for his wives and children.

Statue of General Zhang
The Main Building in the mansion complex

The complex has some very beautiful scenery. I’ve posted more pictures up on our Flickr for you to see.

Then we went for lunch, which was very filling and warmed us up considerably.

 

Just a small peek at the food we ate

After lunch we got back on the bus and made our way to the Shenyang Imperial Palace. It’s much colder at the palace site, so bundle up some more when you go. Qing Dynasty emperors spent some of their time here at the palace early in their rule. It’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

 

Entrance to Shenyang Palace
One part of Shenyang Palace

Afterwards, we headed to a tea shop and then back to the hotel to rest. We met up for a dumpling dinner at 5:30. Shenyang is known for their dumplings.

 

Our smorgasbord of dumplings

After that, it was time to go home. Tomorrow I begin the day at 5:45 AM to catch a train to Changchun, where I’ll go to Jilin from there. I’ll update again soon.

If you want more pictures, I have some uploaded onto our Flickr. I’ll put them up on Facebook also, once I’m back in the US and have access to it again.