Situated at the edge of the Taklamakan Desert, Kashgar has been a major Silk Road hub bristling with activity for more than 2000 years and is still a center of regional trade and cultural exchange in China’s westernmost Xīnjiāng province. Central Asian culture is still very much alive in this Uighur homeland, from the irresistible smell of lamb kebab to the sound of the call to prayer from the neighborhood mosque, in “China’s Turkestan” craftsmen and artisans still hammer and chisel in the small alleys, traders haggle over deals in the boisterous bazaars and donkey carts still trundle their way through the crowds.
After the Pamir Highway with all its deprivations, Kashgar seemed for us like a food paradise 🙂 We spend several days strolling through its overflowing night market offering numerous types of kebab, fried dumplings, bubbling vats of goat’s head soup and all different kind of spicy noodles.
Lanzhou and Bingling Si
As we have only one month visa for China (with the hope for getting a one month extension) we chose to don’t cross the vast desert, but instead sending our bikes via cargo train to Lanzhou, Gansu’s province capital and around 3000 km away. (Shipping the bikes was an unexpected convenient procedure since they came with a big van to our hostel to pick up the bikes). Unfortunately we couldn’t ship ourselves with the train as well and therefore had to take a bus which took – thanks to China’s Golden Week holiday where whole China is on travel – believe it or not 72 hours!
After spending some recreation days here to recover from the nightmare bus trip, enjoying a walk along the famous Yellow River and strolling in the park watching locals having dance classes, as well as visiting our first “real” Chinese temple, we were finally setting off with our bikes southwards direction Chengdu. And to give you an idea about China’s dimension, simply leaving Lanzhou, which is a rather small city with a population of only 2.17 Million, it took us more than half a day of fighting our way outwards through 35km of confusing suburbs and endless industrial areas before we eventually let “civilization” behind us and started slowly making our way up the spurs of the East Tibetan high plateau.
Already at our first night in the wild we got a foretaste of how difficult communicating with locals gonna be as we, despite our Point it picture dictionary and smartphone translator, completely failed to make a family in a small village understand that we would like to pitch our tent in their garden. In the absence of any alternative we spent a lousy night right next to the street and the next morning welcomed us with the next pleasant surprise when ten Chinese were staring at us as we opened tour tent. They were just sitting around our tent without uttering a peep, simply watching us having breakfast, packing our tent and getting ready for the day. And this incident shouldn’t be the last on of this kind on our journey through China…
Biking up and downhill through vast potato terraces, we reached the Bingling Si Buddha caves, our first stop on our Gansu highlight tour, a collection of more than 180 sculptures and niches carved by sculptors dangling from ropes into the porous rock of steep canyon walls, surrounded by the waters of the Yellow River reservoir and hemmed in by a ring of dramatic rock citadels.
150km further south and deep inside the bleak landscapes of the high plateau, the next highlight was waiting for us: the Labrang monastery! The Tibetan monastery is a broad complex of golden-roofed temple halls housing dozens of extensively decorated golden Buddha statues illuminated in a yellow glow by strong-smelling yak-butter lamps, hundreds of living quarters for about 1800 monks and an endless line of squeaking prayer wheels (3km in total length) with an omnipresent deep throb of the Tibetan trumpets resonating from the surrounding hills. And as we were wandering in the endless maze of the the mud-packed walls, sharing the holy kora path with dozens of Tibetan pilgrims, listening to the throaty sound of sutras being chanted behind wooden doors, we were really soaking up the esoteric atmosphere of this mystique place.
Right at the border between Gansu and Sichuan province, high on the East Tibetan plateau, we spend some days in the small village of Langmusi. Nestled among steep grassy meadows covered with praying slips, crumbling stupas, piles of mani stones and snow-clad peaks, the village is home to hundreds of young monk students who fill the alleys with robes in all different kind of dark red. Countless red and white monastery buildings, golden-roofed temples and multicolored praying flags flapping in the wind are spread al over the village. And the mesmerizing sound of chanting monks is ever-present, especially when they are all gathering at twilight in the big temple hall to pray together with the numerous Tibetan pilgrims.
The climate at this high plateau is hard and winter is coming early as we experienced firsthand. As soon as the sun sinks, temperatures are dropping significantly. Already in October nights are freezing cold, leaving the golden rolling hills (and our tent) with a sparkling cover of frosty rime in the next morning. Together with most of the local nomads who were folding up their yurts and herding their cattle to warmer regions, we were therefore heading further south, direction Sichuan and Jiŭzhàigōu, China’s most famous national park!