After a brief stop in Jiayuguan I’ve made it to Dunhaung! It’s been a long journey to get from Mongolia to the Xinjiang Province incluing 3 trains and 2 buses. After two good nights of sleep (on a bed!) I’m feeling a bit better. Dunhuang is also a very laid back place which has also helped to raise my spirits.
So, for those of you keeping track I arrived in Hohhot from Mongolia on a direct 26 hour train. It was quite nice and the hard sleepers were a lot like Chinese soft sleepers—only four beds and a door. My compartment had a 19-year old German couple and an Israeli girl closer to my age. They were both going to Beijing and couldn’t get tickets on the direct train from Ulaan Baatar so they got off either at the border at another Chinese town before Hohhot. It was a very relaxing train ride and we were even given a strange sealed package of food. That was included in our ticket price but the tea we were served continously was not.
After all of the Westerns left the train a 13-year old Monglian girl name Anu (Ahnoo) came by my compartment. She saw my sketchbook and asked me to draw her. She had only been taking English lessons for one year but we were able to communnicate and we showed each other pictures—most of hers were photos of her in different trees or her friends at school. When we entered the Hohhot area we crosesd over a bridge an fireworks exploded over the river. This was her first time in China, visiting her brother, and she proudly showed me her new passport which was only valid for one year.
When leaving a Chinese train station someone almost always checks that you have a ticket (keep them handy!) so you’re in a massive pushing crowd of people, some with huge boxes of sacks of potatoes on their heads, all trying to squeeze out through one turnstile. The entire block where the hotels were in my guidebook was torn down so I walked around a bit. One woman told me she would take me to the hotel I was looking for but she had me climb 6 flights of stairs with all of my stuff just to show me a scummy Chinese hotel. I left and went into one of the smaller hotels facing the station. After some bargaining they gave me a 40 yuan room of my own with a TV but no bathroom. The bathrooms were so foul that I had to cover my face when using them and the showers had obviously been used as bathrooms as well judging by the smell.
My plans for Hohhot were to get money at the ATM and eat McDonalds—That’s it. In my research I was told that no other ATMS in Xinjiang would work for international cards (That was proved wrong when someone got money from a Bank of China ATM in Dunhuang). I also spent every day going to the train station, standing in line for about 30 minutes and asking for a ticket to Jiayuguan. Each time they told me no, but to come back later. Eventually I had to get help from the Chinese tour agency in my hotel and they told me there were no sleepers or seats for the next five days. I was pretty upset but ended up buying a sleeper bus to Yinchuan (there were no seats or buses to Jiayuguan or even Lanzhou) which was only 1/3 of the way to where I wanted to go.
You can understand why I was upset, I was told that because the summer is holiday time and it’s so busy I would probably only be able to get buses the entire way to Jiayuguan. And because it’ so far I would have to stop in Yinchuan and Lanzhou–two stops I hadn’t planned on taking. I only brought photocopied pages of the places I planned to go to in China so I knew nothing of Yinchuan. Luckily, I had anticipated the possibility that I wouldn’t catch the through train from Hohhot to Jiayuguan and would have to stop in Lanzhou so I had a map, but what about Yinchuan? I’d never even heard of Yinchuan.
In-between all of my train and bus ticket checking I walked around Hohhot, spending time in the square watching cute little dogs play in the fountains and eating lunch at McDonalds. When I was standing in line for an ATM a Mary Kay saleswoman came up to me and gave me her card. She pointed to my freckles and I laughed. She wanted to whiten me! I declined but was approached again, twice, by other people the next day.
Hohhot also has nice shady park with lakes for paddleboats and hammock sellers. I saw to children getting their portraits drawn and I decided to get it done just to see how he would interpret Western features. The Chinese kids were made to have pinker skin and wider eyes so I figured he would give me a huge nose. In the end he did a really accurate job. He made mine 3/4 view instead of head on, made me more pink and did not put one freckle or mole on my face. I thought that was funny because my face is covered in freckles right now.
I also went to one of the old temples that has been restored. Chinese tourists usually pay the same as foreighners and prices are high for an average Chinese salary. I’ve been told this keeps the sites better preserved, because if it was affordable too many Chinese would come. Inside the temple I met a 20-something guy who had majored in English in college. He was just practicing with me and had surprisingly good pronounciation. It started to rain and I sat in a courtyard drawing the architecture. Soon I was surrounded by women and children admiring my work and asking to see the rest of the book. They were very nice and even spoke a little English. Outside the temple is an old style Chinese neighborhood. Well, there was one before the government bulldozed all but one street. If you are traveling in China do not get your hopes up of seeing a traditional Hutong anymore, they are quickly disapearing.
My sleeper bus to Yinchuan left the main bus terminal at 6pm but stopped at another terminal to get cargo so we didn’t leave the city until around 6:45. When I first got on it was literally like a sauna and my face was dripping with sweat even while I was sitting still. Once we started going the air conditioning kicked in and we were all a lot happier. Sleeper buses in China are the same width as regular buses which means that three rows or bunk beds are squished into a very small space. The aisles are not wide enough to walk straight down and the beds are only 2″ wider than my hips. I am 5’5″ tall and the bed is about my length. I didn’t manage to sleep much with the frequent bathroom breaks (when the lights are turned on) but at least I got to Yinchuan.
Luckily, the bus arrived an hour earliuer than I expected and I jumped in a taxi to the train station which was about 15 minutes away. I had the Chinees travel agent write, in Chinese, “I want to buy a train ticket to Jiayuguan but if there are no seats to Jiayuguan I want to buy a ticket to Lanzhou.” This was great because I gave it to the taxi driver so he knew to take me to whatever train station was appropriate and I also gave it to the lady at the window to buy the ticket. Although I know enough Chinese to ask for a ticket I was worried with all the trouble I had in Hohhot. It turned out the train to Jiayuguan was not running that morning like I was told so I took the 8 hour train to Lanzhou instead where I ran into more train trouble.