Sunday, July 6, 2014

DAY 21 – 6 July 2014; Dunhuang to Hami

Even the manholes had Apsara engravings
With the disappointment of not being able to visit the Mogao Caves yesterday we were determined to be in time for the 9 am English guided tour of the ancient Buddhist caves. The check out was a bit late and hence, we decided to have breakfast after getting the entry tickets at the Mogao caves. The entry charge is extremely steep – Yuan 180 per person. Other than students and the elderly all else have to pay the same fee. Locals and foreigners pay the same; no discrimination here. After securing the tickets and confirming the 9 am schedule we moved to the restaurant and had breakfast of Rice and corn Porridge, a vegetable side dish, Pork stuffed Baozi and boiled eggs. The Baozi was superb and I went in for an extra. The set breakfast consisting of the above cost just Yuan 10 and was very filling. I tried out for the first time, seriously, the use of chopsticks. And I partially succeeded in encouraging myself to try it out more often.

The 9 storey Pagoda
While waiting at the appointed place for the English guide to arrive we were approached by a group of students from Shanghai. Their group leader requested us for responses to a few questions such as how we came to know of the site, what our experiences have been, whether we have been to any other sites similar in nature and what conservation steps we would recommend to preserve such heritage. Later they took photographs with us, by which time Serena, our appointed English guide, arrived to take us around the historic heritage site. Visitors are not permitted to visit the Caves by themselves; they have to be accompanied by a guide. It is said that the Caves remained unknown to the outside world till early 1900. A monk while cleaning a part of one Cave saw a crack on the wall and discovered the library that then housed over 50,000 important manuscripts and spiritual documents. Much of these are now in various other countries and a library in Beijing holds just a few thousands of them. Only a few of the 700 plus caves are open for public viewing. And during the tour just a handful of them are visited to flavor the period significance of the artistry in the Caves. Thus, the tour takes us from the 5th century to the 11th century with commentary of the significance of the sculptures and paintings as well as destructive influences and the efforts to restore some of the important Caves. The sculptures are mostly in wood with clay covering and painting with mineral dyes. The mineral dyes such as lapis lazuli were brought in from far away Afghanistan. The nine storied pagoda that houses the 36.5m seated Buddha is the showpiece. Another Cave that receives a large number of visitors is the one with the Sleeping Buddha. Photography inside the Caves is forbidden and only torches can be used inside to view the art. Serena did her best to explain the Cave art as best as she could, but we found her heavy Chinese accent a bit challenging. The Cave art in Ajanta and Ellora, I must admit, is far superior to the one on display in the Mogao Caves.

In the hurry to get ready in time Lal forgot one of his rings in the room that he had occupied. He said that the ring was a present from a well-wisher to keep his temper in check. (That was motivation enough to try and retrieve it!) Yingchu rang up the hotel and confirmed that the ring was in their possession. We returned to the hotel and collected the ring. The relief on Lal’s face was palpable. The sentiments attached to such gifts make the intrinsic value much more than can be assessed. I remember being in one such situation where I lost a 5 sovereign gold chain given to me by my maternal grandfather. I knew where I had kept it and also who had removed it from there. My open offer to pay what that person wanted did not elicit a positive response. And I lost something that I never should have. I grieved the loss for many years. Even now I feel terrible about the loss for it was the last gift from a person who I so dearly loved. I did not want Lal to suffer similarly.

Chopstick Time!
We wanted to have a cup of coffee before leaving for Hami. We had noticed the Music Coffee Bar the previous evening and decided on a coffee there. Within a short while we beat a hasty retreat as we saw the prices on the menu. I asked Yingchu to take us to the noodle shop she had told us about the previous day. There was one close to where our car was parked. The Zhangguo Beef Noodle shop was busy when we got there. We ordered four portions of the Noodle Soup and extra portions of beef. Yingchu requested the Chef to permit us to see how the noodle was prepared and we got a ringside view of the process. How a mass of dough is expertly kneaded and threaded to make noodles in the flash of a minute is magical. The steamed noodle is then put into beef soup with small pieces of fried beef, radish and fresh garlic leaf topping. That was the second occasion when I used chopsticks this day. There were two reasons for it – the soup was yummy and spoon or fork was not available. The cold cut of beef as an accompaniment was just perfect. Later the hotel staff wanted pictures with us, for it must have been an amusing sight for them with the three of us using chopsticks any which way we could to get the noodle into our mouths!

The G30/G215 to Hami was perfect, except for the initial reach of about 10 kms. Thereafter the highway that permitted 120 kmph helped us reach Hami ahead of the anticipated time. We were in the hotel by 4.30 pm – the distance of over 450 kms was covered in a little more than 4 hours including stoppages for toll and fuel. The landscape was bare with temperature rising with the passage of day. The heat was unbearable. From the 7 degree cold in Amdo just 96 hours back to over 40 degrees of dry heat in Hami the temperature swing was considerable. I felt strange using air-conditioning in the rooms in Dunhuang and Hami, after doing all that I could to keep myself warm between Zhangmu and Geeermu. Between Zhangmu and Hami the price of diesel dropped from Yuan 7.91 to 7.13 per litre. The Jaidun Hotel in Hami was close to the city centre. Yingchu confirmed the booking after ascertaining the availability of car parking and free WiFi in the rooms. The tariff of Yuan 218 per twin sharing room also included breakfast.

Simply for the love of music
The supermarket next to our hotel had many varieties of ice creams. We made a thorough survey of the displayed varieties and chose what each of us wanted. I chose to have a Choco bar, which turned out to be really good. I wished to have another, but the promising protuberance, ill disguised by even an ill fitting T-shirt, kept the pangs at bay. A short walk ahead of the hotel there was a person playing the flute, apparently all to himself. Lal, the artist, was drawn to him like a magnet. Chang played one tune and then another and one more. Lal offered to give him a gift that was accepted after much persuasion. He brought out the Erhu, a traditional wind instrument and played for us a romantic tune. Soon he was joined by his friends. Two of them played the Erhu, Chang his flute while a fourth was the vocalist in the ensemble. So enthused by our interest was the vocalist that he went to his scooter and fetched his hand written songs! In the meanwhile another group gathered there and requested us to visit another square to experience Uyghur dancing. I left Lal and Baiju with Yingchu to enjoy the musical evening further and got back to my room. I had to update accounts, log reports, etc. Close to 30% of the distance estimated in the journey has been covered. In China we covered the Tibetan Autonomous Region, from where we crossed over to Quinghai Province (Geermu), then Ghanzu Province (Dunhuang) and now Xinjiang Province (Hami). In another 4 days the Chinese part of the journey will be completed when we cross over to Kyrgyzstan.
The entire musical ensemble



  1. Sir,, Superb blog and an extra ordinary Journey by the trio, Thanks for keeping us entertained through your blog, My best wishes to you all.

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  3. Dear Suresh sir, what you guys are doing is an amazing and breathtaking task which still remains as a distant dream for the majority. Your greatness is apparent when you decided to sketch it down here despite the very busy shedule and the limited facilities. Thank you very much and looking forward for the forthcoming ones ...

  4. Besides your love for travel, I hope your love for food is also getting equally fuelled - would love to see a book on food spreads of different regions/countries - when you complete your journey. Pls keep posting photos.


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