23rd September 2017, Shanghai Pudong Airport – After having spent two years in Shanghai and just before relocating to Australia, there I was about to backpack my way solo along the Chinese Silk Road.
Looking in turn at my good old hiking shoes and at my precious camera, I felt nothing short of a modern-day explorer ready for a new adventure. That was until a little inquisitive voice popped into my head and asked: “Are you mad?”
Perhaps I was. As the plane took off, my heart tightened a little. It wouldn’t be long before I reached Kashgar – one of the westernmost cities in China.
Kashgar: A Rich and Diverse Culture
Located near the border with Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan, Kashgar is surrounded for the most part by sheer desert. Walking along the narrow alleyways of the Old City felt like stepping back in time. Minutes later, I stumbled upon the imposing Id Kah Mosque – China’s largest mosque.
As I sat under the boiling sun and marvelled at its yellow tiles, I couldn’t help but people watch. Locals looked so different to the Han Chinese I’d been around thus far. Majorly Uyghur, they wore distinctive headgear, served unique food specialities – such as delicious oven-cooked mutton-filled bread – and spoke a completely different language.
Getting by with maps and tips I had ripped off a large guide book of China, I wasn’t able to communicate with people around me. Instead, I smiled. If only I could have said to them how beautiful I found their architecture, how beautiful I found their features, and how shocked and upset I was by the overwhelming police presence.
It is with a heavy heart that I hopped onto a public bus heading to the airport for my onward flight to Ürümqi.
Ürümqi: Breath-taking landscapes
Did you know…? Ürümqi can be found in the Guinness Book of Records as it is said to be the most inland city in the world – the furthest away from any sea or ocean. Another surprising fact about the city is the meaning behind its name: ‘Beautiful Pastures’. To be honest, nothing about the ride from the airport to the town centre seemed to justify such a title.
But, determined to be proven wrong, I somehow booked myself on a day trip to Tian Chi or ‘Heavenly Lake’. To say that the tour was a struggle would be an understatement. Lost in the middle of a group of 60 Chinese people with a guide who couldn’t speak a word of English, I felt overwhelmed and completely out of my depth. The bus kept stopping for random shopping stops, the food was dreadful and the guide wouldn’t stop mentioning all the ‘add-ons’ we should buy.
But reaching the breath-taking landscapes of Tianshan National Park made it all worth it!. As I walked around the clear and calm blue waters of Tian Chi on my own, surrounded by green meadows, pine forests, and snow covered peaks, I breathed in deeply and mumbled to myself: “everything is going to be ok.”
It wasn’t. The temperate had gone from 35 degrees centigrade in Kashgar to 9 in Ürümqi. I didn’t have a coat. At 10 pm, our bus stopped somewhere in the city. I refused to get off. This wasn’t the same place I’d been picked-up in the morning. The guide wouldn’t have any of it and forced me out. There I was, on the side of a highway with tears rolling down my cheeks. Oblivious to my distress, everyone walked off, everyone but a Chinese man who spoke a little bit of English and offered to share a taxi with me.
What would you have done? Stay in the cold alone or trust a stranger? I decided to opt for the later and was so glad I did. Forever grateful for his help though still shaken up by the whole experience, I considered ending my trip there and then. But, the next morning, against all odds, I decided to persevere. ‘One more day and then we will see’, I thought to myself as I headed to Turpan.
Turpan: At the Heart of the Desert
A short hour and a half train journey later, it is amidst the desert that the small oasis town of Turpan appeared. Also known as ‘Huo Zhou’ which means ‘A place as hot as fire’ and surrounded by the Flaming mountains, Turpan is the hottest city in China.
Once at my hostel, the receptionist greeted me in fluent English. I thought I was going to give her a hug! How warm and wonderful it suddenly felt to understand and be understood. With her help, I met three other travellers – one from Germany and two from Israel – with whom I explored Turpan’s surroundings and tried its delicious grape juice.
On our way back, we stopped in a tiny village called Tuyoq. There, I couldn’t help but notice the movie set that took over the main square completely. Stopped by a couple of staff members until the filming resumed, I gathered the courage to ask them in my broken Mandarin:
“Is this a Chinese or a foreign movie.”
To my surprise, one of them replied: “It is a French and Chinese film.”
“Well, I am French!” I said smiling from ear to ear.
“Okay, then maybe you know this guy…” he replied showing me his phone screen.
I couldn’t believe it! Pinching myself as I walked through the set during their next break, I looked up and there he was standing right in front of me. It is shaking and flushed that I looked at him and muffled in French: “OMG! You’re the first French person I meet in weeks and you’re… FAMOUS!” Incredulous, Eric Cantona, French actor and former international football player, looked straight into my eyes and accepted to take picture with me.
Between this and the breath-taking sunset over the simple yet splendid Emin Minaret, I still can’t quite decide what is my favourite memory of Turpan.
Dunhuang: Timeless Art and other Adventures
A thirteen-hour overnight train journey is ‘all’ that separates Turpan and Dunhuang. Reading The Girl on the Train and sleeping for a while in one of the four surprisingly comfortable soft beds of the cabin I was in, helped pass the time.
Dunhuang which means ‘to flourish and prosper’ was a stop of significant importance along the ancient Silk Road. Remains of the Great Wall and two gates of historical significance Yumenguan and Yangguan can be found in the surrounding Gobi Desert. Difficult to imagine that these desolate sights were once busy checkpoints.
Buddhism was one of the major ideas that travelled along the Silk Road from India to China. Both its presence and evolution can be witnessed at the Mogao Caves, one of the greatest archaeological discovery stories in China. To find such exquisite art in the middle of the desert was absolutely incredible. Curious, I found myself wondering what each character, sign, and shape meant.
The desert around Dunhuang is, without a shadow of a doubt, full of surprises. One of them is the rather small yet incredulously permanent Crescent Lake that can be found inexplicably surrounded by Mingsha Shan or the ‘Singing-Sand Mountains’. This poetic name comes from the sound that emerges when the wind whips off these endlessly weaving sand dunes. And so there I was, at the end of my trip, sitting alone on top of a 200-meter high sand dune wearing bright orange gaiters and wondering… where to next?
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When we think about China, what often comes to mind are gigantic cities, red lanterns, dumplings, and a few others clichés. This solo trip showed me a side of China I didn’t know existed. It challenged my preconceptions, awoke my curiosity and left me longing for an opportunity to explore even more of this incredibly varied country. The challenges linked to the language barrier were by far offset by the beauty of the culture, landscapes, and art. If you too are looking to travel along the Chinese Silk Road, pack your open mind, courage, and curiosity as you are about to witness some of the unexpected wonders the Middle Kingdom has to offer.
About the Author
Solène Anglaret is a world-travelled storyteller. So far, she has lived in six countries (France, Norway, the United States, the United Kingdom, China and now Australia) and has travelled to nearly 50. This life beyond borders is the inspiration behind all of her writing including her first two books: Where to Next? (a travel memoir), Where Are You From? (a children’s story) and her blog www.bebeyondborders.com which is a fantastic resource for world citizen and global nomads alike. Want to read Solène story? Check out her book on Amazon.