Thursday, September 27, 2007

Dunhuang, Hexi corridor, China

I am constantly amazed by China. A vast land of constrasts whose wonders seem to jump out of nowhere and whose friendly people help you challenge your own preconceptions.

Sorry for the drivel above, I am just practising backpacker bullshit. This is because I am truly one of the scruffy turtle race again. I got here after a 30 hour train journey followed by a 2 hour drive through the desert as the sun rose. As scenic as this seems the drive was a result of a fuck-up. My outdated guide left me unaware of the new train station in this town so I had to get here the old, long and scenic route. Like anywhere in China where money is to be made, frenzied construction is the norm. What this meant for me is that my guidebook is obsolete and worthless.

Hence the true backpacker experience. I had to track down a cheapish yet decent hotel whilst lugging my bags and cursing Chinese entrepreneurs and Lonely Planet writers in equal measure. I then had to haggle down the price of the room despite being obviously ready to give one of my kidneys for a lie down and a hot shower.The joys of the road.

The main reason to go to this small towm in the middle of bugger-all is the Mogao caves. A series of artificial caves, dug and decorated over the centuries by Buddhists. These vary in size and content from the basic 10 square meter, statue and fresco job to huge sitting and lying Buddhas.

The chaps in charge have to balance greed against preservatio so only 10 of the 100 or so caves can be seen. And this only with a guide. All the caves have doors and locks on them in case you feel like ditching the tour and going walksies. To add to this, the staff refused to let me join a Chinese tour despite my insistence that I didn't really care and I had to twiddle my thumbs for an hour untill enough whities could be rounded up. Still worth it though.

The one cave everyone gets to visit is the one where a local chap found a huge stash of ancient documents around the start of the 20th century. These where promptly swiped/bought for paltry sums by explorer types from cannon owning countries. One of last on this list of rogues did make me laugh. Langdon Warner, an American, arrived late in the game as is the custom of his country.Upon finding that more timely Old Worlders had already twocked the best stuff he decided that he was not going to be outdone by effete Yirrupeans. Showing the cultural sensitivity that makes Yanks loved worldwide, he simply chiselled out huge sections of frescoes and nabbed a few statues for good measure. America was now a recognised player in the great game of stealing old and pretty stuff from the poor and coloured of this world.

Why the caves came about is still a bit confusing to me. The guide claims it originated form a vision by a passing monk followed by eons of the residents of Dunhuang celebrating their faith or having fuck-all else to do than dig into cliff faces. Guidebooks claim the main impetus for the construction of these holes was merchants coming back through the Silk Road giving thanks for their safe passage. A vaguely remembered CCTV(China's national telly setup) feature I watched stated that the caves were commisioned by wealthy chaps on their way West to ensure safe passage.

Like most acts of faith, I choose to believe what is most convenient for me even though I know CCTV is about as reliable as a cheap Chinese watch. I like their version better as it makes me a pilgrim of sorts. I like to think that I, like many others before me, have gazed upon statues of the Big B before setting off on the Silk Road.

I know the Silk Road kicks off in Beijing but for my purposes it starts here. Tomorrow I will be in Xinjiang which culturally and ethnically is Central Asian in spite of the best efforts in social and racial engineerring of the Chinese government. Here is where the land of rice, chopsticks and weird creatures wok-fried with MSG ends and the kingdom of the lamb kebab starts. At my next stop I will be amongst those submitted to Allah instead of those who believe a number, colour, age, foodstuff, setting off 20 kilos of explosives over a fortnight or letting a fucking pile of cabbage rot on yur doorstep is lucky for some reason or another.

Before I scoot off I should mention my stay in Shanghai. I guess I did the usual backpacker stuff of watching the BBC, stuffing myself with foods all over the world and catching a choir performance of Beethoven's 9nth. I stayed with my ex boss and indulged myself in some worldly comforts.

One thing worth mentioning is that I went to the aquarium.It's all fish but a couple of things did get my attention. There is a huge underwater tunnel which has a shark, rays, and other large dangerous things section. Once I got there my contemplation was spoilt by some chap who decided to be as loud as possible. I have seen this before in Chinese blokes of a certain age but this time it struck me as odd. Usually it is a face gaining procedure often triggered by the combined presence of pretty Chinese girls and foreign blokes. Was he worried that the sharks will promise the girls a green card and further deplete this country's stock of women?

The other thing that I found amusing is when I got to the area where they have seals playing around. They basically swim in circles and come up to the window. A few couples where there as the girls obviously thinks they as cute as her Hello Kitty umbrella and they hail them as the seals swim by. What they actually say is "hello".

I found this odd but it sorts of make sense once you've been here a while. The logic maybe goes as thus: Non-Chinese are foreigners, foreigners respond to "hello", seals aren't Chinese people hence they are foreign hence speak English. It's weird but frankly it's the best explanation I can muster.

Finally, to illustrate the point of strange leaps of Chinese logic, the Beijing rozzers have kindly furnished me with a recent example. Recently they raided Sanlitun which is the big expat bar area near the embassies. This was a targeted raid. By that I mean they seized every black man they could find, roughed them up and carted them away. If I reapply the law of Chinese logic, the reason for this little exercise in Apartheid police tactics is the following. There are drugs being dealt in Sanlitun (true), the dealers are mainly Nigerian (probably true), Nigerians are black (highly likely) therefore all black men deal drugs. Let's roll!

This might backfire on the local plod as they managed to beat up the son of the ambassador of Grenada. Methinks a few people are soon going to get posted to Inner Mongolia.

Next stop Urumwi, Ulumqi, Wulumqi or whatver they are calling it this week.

Take care,



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