Friday, November 17, 2017

DUNHUANG, CHINA: THE GOBI DESERT SAND DUNES

The Gobi Desert, which covers 500,000 square miles, is the 5th largest desert in the world. There is a dramatic demarcation between vegetation and dunes where this desert borders Dunhuang in northwestern China:


The contrast is simultaneously jarring and sublime:


Saturday, November 11, 2017

DUNHUANG, CHINA: RIDING CAMELS IN THE GOBI DESERT

After our two-day pre-tour tour in Xi'an, we boarded a plane with the other members of our tour group and flew to Dunhuang, a distance of about 1,070 miles, or just a little farther than it is from where I live in Redlands, California, to Portland, Oregon. 

The Dunhuang Airport definitely looks like it belongs in China

The airport had one of those "think happy thoughts" signs like the ones we saw in Xi'an. This one advises, "Create a national civilized city, establish Dunhuang's new image."

There is always plenty to see out the bus window. Nope. We don't have these three-wheelers in California:


Thursday, November 9, 2017

XI'AN, CHINA: SLEEPING, EATING, AND STROLLING IN XI'AN

We were fortunate to start off our Grand Tour of China and the Stans with a night in the Wyndham Grand Xian South. Rated #1 on TripAdvisor among all the hotels in Xi'an, it was definitely one of the top hotels of our trip. I checked the price for a room there in November and found a fare of $92, which includes their incredible breakfast buffet. It's a steal.

The lobby has some fun props for photos:

John loved this terracotta warrior and tried to get the hotel to sell it to him:



Friday, November 3, 2017

XI'AN, CHINA: THE GREAT WILD GOOSE PAGODA

One of the historical figures we knew nothing about before this trip but whom we came to really admire and appreciate was a Chinese monk named Xuanzang (pronounced Schwen-zong) who lived from 602-664 AD. He traveled along the Silk Road and throughout India for sixteen years as he studied Buddhism, and when he finally returned to China, he brought back hundreds of sutras, or Buddhist texts, which he translated from Sanskrit and which had a huge impact on Chinese Buddhism. Here he is:


A five-story, 175-foot-tall pagoda (a tiered tower with multiple eaves) was built in 652 AD to house the manuscripts brought to China by Xuanzang and to provide a place for him to translate them. The original building started to decay almost immediately, and a new 10-story pagoda was built from 701-704 AD with mud and bricks and no cement. However, wars and the 1556 earthquake damaged THAT building, and during its restoration three stories were removed, leaving the current seven-story, 200-foot-tall pagoda that still stands today. This site is a huge tourist attraction for the Chinese people, who were the majority of those visiting the day we were there:

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

CHINA: ARRIVING IN XI'AN AND VISITING THE TERRACOTTA WARRIORS

Traveler beware.

Upon arriving in the Xi'an Airport, we were almost instantly accosted by a smiling young man speaking passable English asking if we needed transportation. He could offer the four of us a taxi to our hotel for just 400 Yuan. At first we were a bit confused, and as a result he latched on to us like a tick. Remembering advice from our tour company, we told him no, that we would talk to the travel desk about transportation. However, he continued to hound us, even when we ceased to respond to him or make eye contact.  He was still there after we used the restroom, and he would not take no for an answer. Ultimately, he finally left us alone after we talked to the travel desk and booked a minivan taxi for 200 Yuan (about $30 for the 45 minute drive to our hotel).

Later, we heard from friends who arrived a day earlier that they had accepted the offer of one the persistent solicitors. They had paid the premium price and then thought they were going to die as their driver reached speeds of what they guessed was 100 mph or more and as he swung in and out of traffic with total abandon.

Lesson learned: Don't use the guys bugging you inside the airport. In fact, don't even speak to them.

We made it safely to the hotel (more about the hotel later), crashed immediately, and got up before the sun rose the next morning to shower and eat breakfast at the buffet before getting on a tour bus at 7:30 AM to travel 30 minutes to the most famous site in China other than the Great Wall: the Terracotta Warriors. It was cruelly early, especially given our previous day of travel, but the tour company's strategy was to be there at the moment the ticket office opened in an effort to beat anticipated crowds.

We were greeted at the site by Emperor Qin Shi Huang (259 BC-210 BC), the self-proclaimed "First Emperor of China" who profoundly influenced Chinese history by unifying seven warring states into one nation for the first time. Qin is credited with building an immense defensive wall that was the precursor to the Great Wall, and it was by his order that the Terracotta Warriors were created. Also, "Qin" is pronounced "Chin," and is the foundation of the name "China." Those are three pretty significant legacies, right? Not bad for a guy with a really bad hairstyle:

Is this the same guy? He has the same wacky hairdo:

We passed this fur seller on our walk between the bus and the warriors. I'm pretty sure this wouldn't go over too well in the United States:

Thursday, October 26, 2017

TRAVELING THE SILK ROAD

The Silk Road. The name has such a romantic sound, much more romantic than "The Oregon Trail" or "The Trans-Siberian Railway."  Who wouldn't want to travel on the Silk Road?

As early as 200 BC, caravans traversed a network of roads on the Asian, Southern European, and Northeastern African continents, spreading not just silk, but many other goods as well, along with the latest technologies, philosophy, art, religion, politics, culture, and even genetic traits. The road went as far east as Java and Japan and as far west as Italy.
The trade route was made possible by the conquests of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC, and later Genghis Khan, Marco Polo, and Kubla Khan were key figures on the Silk Road. 

I must confess that I was astoundingly ignorant about the Silk Road. I knew it went through China, but not much more. I certainly didn't know it wasn't a single road and that it had branches all over Asia and fingers that reached into Africa and Europe. I couldn't have placed the Five Stans on a map to save my life, and I absolutely couldn't have spelled a couple of them.

However, that all changed with our most recent wild and crazy trip, which lasted 24 days and involved, if you count the air miles, enough travel to circumnavigate the globe. It was our longest trip ever in both time and distance. It included seven different airplanes,
From LAX to Hong Kong

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

WHAT TO DO DURING A SEVEN-HOUR LAYOVER IN HONG KONG

On a trip to the Silk Road (China, the Five Stans, and Azerbaijan) in September and October, 2017, we had what we thought was a six-hour layover in Hong Kong after a flight from LAX that covered 7,288 miles in a little over fourteen hours.
My husband and I decided that sitting around for six hours waiting for our second flight was too much to bear after such a long first flight, so we began exploring the idea of a quick trip away from the airport. We read conflicting comments on Trip Advisor about whether or not it was wise to leave the airport, and in the end we decided to go for it. When we landed at 7:00 AM and discovered that we had SEVEN hours, not six, we felt even more comfortable with the decision.

The Hong Kong International Airport itself is pretty unique. For starters, I liked this mother and child bathroom stall:

 You can take a shower here before your business meeting:

There is a pink pagoda in the middle of the airport:

And the airport design is tres chic:

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