There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Dunhuang, Dunes in the Gobi: Part 3 of the Chinese Silk Road

A gentle three hour drive took us from Jiayuguan to Dunhuang; and yes, Orlando was right, there was nowhere to stop for lunch, indeed there was nowhere.

The motorway towards Urumqi passed through desert and the odd patch of scrub with fine views of the increasingly distant Qilian Mountains. After an hour or so we turned south onto a smaller, but still well maintained, road. There had been little traffic on the motorway; there was none on the side road.

The empty motorway towards Urumqi

Approaching Dunhuang, the desert to our left rose into a cliff. Between the cliff and the road were a series of burials, each marked by a small headstone and a metre high cone of earth from which a stick protruded. Each stick, Orlando informed us, had once been covered with paper flowers, which time and the wind had scattered across the Gobi. The first graves appeared maybe twenty kilometres from the town, haphazardly strewn over the long strip of land, their density gradually increasing as we neared habitation.

Beside the road to Dunhuang
Desert towns have a way of appearing suddenly from nowhere; the first sign of Dunhuang was a large tollbooth. Once through, we found ourselves in a small city with the usual wide roads and grid pattern but with remarkably few high-rise buildings, almost nothing over three or four storeys. Life, it seemed, moved slowly here, neither people nor cars exerting themselves under the hot desert sun.

We drove past the hotel we thought we were staying at. ‘It is full,’ Orlando told us, ‘because of the eclipse. You have been rebooked into another hotel, it is better, it is four star.’

This problem was not the quality of the new accommodation, nor the promised views of the dunes, the problem was that it was right by the dunes, four kilometres out of town; a purpose-built luxury ghetto for foreigners.

We parked and Orlando phoned her boss to explain our misgivings. The message was firstly disbelief, then that the town was very full, and finally, in the face of our continued intransigence, that the boss had a cousin who knew somebody who…., I did not listen to the full story. ‘You can see the room if you like,’ Orlando said, clearly expecting we would reject it. ‘Where is it?’ ‘There.’ She pointed out of the window.

It was a bog standard Chinese three star hotel. The room was dingy but clean and had air conditioning and a bathroom. There was no fridge, which was irritating, and the bed was as hard as a board, which was normal, but most importantly it was right by the entrance to Dunhuang night market. It even had a view of the dunes - if you hung out the window a bit. We took it at once.

A view of the dunes from our hotel, Dunhuang

Dunhuang night market covers several city blocks. At dusk, the stalls in the central square are replaced by low tables and comfortable chairs. Food and drink are provided by the restaurants around the edge of the square and a host of portable cookers that appear as if by magic. Although we were now beyond The Great Wall, we were still in Gansu Province and Dunhuang is largely a Han Chinese town. Despite that, and as much by accident as design, we sat down by another Muslim kebab merchant. Had we known what would face us in Xinjiang, our choice might have been different, but lacking the benefit of hindsight, we were happy to eat more kebabs. Beside us a fountain tinkled merrily; on the far side a busker tootled the Titanic theme on a soprano saxophone.

Dunhuang night market
Our kebabs arrived with some cold beers, and we felt pleased with ourselves and our choice of hotel. The busker finished sinking the Titanic, picked up his music and moved across the square. The big ship set sail again.

A few kebabs and a bottle of beer
Dunhuang night market
 Four Chinese lads sat down next to us and ordered beers. After much discussion and some teasing, one of them accepted the dare, turned to us and said ‘Where are you from?’

 ‘We are from England,’ I said, trying to speak slowly and clearly.

‘I am from China,’ he replied earnestly.

There is nothing funnier, particularly after a few beers, then a solemn statement of the blindingly obvious, a fact not lost on his friends. As they slapped their knees and hooted with derision, he covered his face with his hands and blushed a shade of beetroot.

His confusion was covered by a karaoke machine set up where the Titanic man had been. I am not musical, but even I could tell that the singing bore, at best, only a passing resemblance to the tune, or indeed any tune. Then the sax man set himself up by us. I knew what he would play before he lifted his instrument to his lips – he only knew one song. There was nothing for it, we ordered another beer.


Yumenguan, the Jade Fort, is not worth driving 80 km to see. Fortunately, an 80 km trip into the Gobi is worth doing just for itself.

We nearly did not get there at all. At a roadblock near the city centre we were warned that our route was closed. On the edge of the oasis, where green gives way to the grey of the desert, we reached Dunhuang Gucheng - Dunhuang Ancient City - an impressive looking old town which drags the Chinese tourists in by the thousand. Built as a film set in the 1990s for one of the endless torrent of ‘Three Kingdoms Epics’ that flood out of Chinese studios, it held little interest for us, but we were forced to stop at the roadblock at the head of the access road.

We could go no further, the policeman said, the road to Yumenguan was closed and would reopen this afternoon, or maybe tomorrow. Orlando told him we were leaving that afternoon, a white lie. The policeman wavered. She told him that the Olympics were starting and he must be nice to foreign guests. We were on the point of being waved through when a younger, smaller, weasel faced individual came over. He had no uniform and looked more like an angry teenager than the man in charge, but the red triangular armband safety-pinned to his sleeve must have counted for something, as the police officers deferred to him instantly. Our policeman was just a bloke doing a job and, as such, open to a little cajoling. This man looked a different and altogether nastier breed.

Orlando did not back down. The small man’s body language was not encouraging, but she was persuasive. He shook his head and pursed his lips, but still Orlando kept on at him. He waved his arms and made his point with emphatic fingers, but Orlando resisted. Eventually persistence paid off; with a final sneer, he waved us through and we set off into the desert.

At Dunhuang’s eastern edge, the Gobi rises in wave after wave of huge dunes. This may be the popular perception of deserts, but they are rarely like that. Driving west, the dunes dwindled behind us while the Qilian Mountains lined the southern horizon with a blaze of white. We drove down an arrow-straight road over a featureless, monochrome plain. There was little to look at, yet the desert has an austere beauty that somehow commands your attention. After some 40 km we reached what appeared to be a small fort where a chain had been extended across the road. This was the Yumenguan ticket office, and if the road was closed, nobody had told the ticket seller. A kilometre or so later we came across a gang painting white lines. Perhaps the road had been closed for their safety; we saw no other reason. Mr Lu generously decided not to run any of them down.

Two old fools near the Yumenguan ticket office with the Gobi behind
and the white-capped Qillian Mountains in the distance

The road ends at Yumenguan, the stump of a Han dynasty fort standing all alone in the desert. Behind the fort a long, shallow depression is marked by a rare streak of green where an underground river almost struggles to the surface. Birds fluttering through the reeds were the first wildlife we had seen since leaving Dunhuang.

There was little to see and forbidding iron railings surrounded the remains of the fort, yet it was an eerie and atmospheric place. Seven hundred years ago, soldiers posted to Jiayuguan thought they had been sent to the end of the earth. Over a thousand years earlier, an army lived here, in a place too remote for modern humanity to bother with. Sustained by a patch of green, they taxed the passing caravans and provided first response to marauding bands of barbarians. Given their isolation, if the marauding band was big enough and determined enough that first response would probably involve death.

Back in Dunhuang, Orlando recommended a restaurant perched on the edge of town among the cotton fields.

Designed with tourists in mind, it was built round an atrium where three musicians sat bashing together sticks and clanging cymbals every time a new diner turned up. Suitably serenaded, we were ushered into a private room, but declined in favour of one of the tables round the edge of the atrium.
Bashing sticks to serenade new arrivals

The food was not memorable. In response to our requests, there was a little less, but the spicing was no more marked than in Jiayuguan.

We were halfway through eating when the cymbals clanged to welcome a group of Americans. The cymbals kept on clanging and the Americans kept on coming as several busloads of elderly eclipse spotters trooped past the musicians and disappeared into a private area at the back.

We were still eating when the cymbals announced that the Americans were leaving. Some had already wandered out and were browsing in a gift shop, the others were now being chivvied and chased by a group of Chinese guides, trying to act like sheep dogs but appearing more like yapping Jack Russells. Barely five minutes had elapsed between the last entering and the first leaving; they could have eaten very little.

We put down our chopsticks and Lynne went to the toilet while I sat finishing my beer. The Jack Russells were becoming anxious, running all over the place trying to round up the more independent minded of their charges.

Inevitably, we became involved. A guide approached me; ‘Which bus are you on, sir?’ The politeness of his words disguised neither his anxiety, nor his irritation at my sitting there with the air of a man going nowhere in a hurry. ‘I am not on any bus,’ I told him, just a little too smugly. Lynne, meanwhile, was being treated less politely. She found her way barred. ‘Where do you think you’re going?’ she was asked. ‘Somewhere people do not speak to me like that,’ she thought but spoke more graciously. Coming out she was again accosted. ‘Which bus are you on?’

Group travel on an over-tight timetable looked no fun for travellers or guides.

In the afternoon we walked to the Dunhuang museum. It was free because of the Olympics and although it would be unkind to say that was the best feature of the small collection, the scraps of ancient silk and hemp did not delay us long.

We spent some time trying to photograph the city’s symbol, a young lady whose concrete effigy stands on a roundabout in the town centre playing a stringed instrument behind her back. When and why this proto-Hendrix act was deemed necessary we never discovered, but Dunhuang seems proud of her. Given the position of the sun, the tangle of telephone wires and the fussy façade of the post office, finding the right angle proved challenging. We lacked the style of the Chinese family who merely walked out into the traffic and stood in the middle of the road. Nobody seemed to mind, the cars describing slow arcs around the knot of photographers.

Photographing not-Jimi-Hendrix
Afterwards we found an internet cafe to write home. On the news, we read of trouble in Xinjiang. Several policemen had been killed in an attack on a ‘customs post near Kashgar’. Though regretting the loss of life, we assumed a ‘customs post’ would be out near the Kyrgyz border, and hoped it would not affect our plan to be in Kashgar within the week. With the Olympics almost upon us, the Chinese were anxious that rebellious Xinjiang would not descend into the violence seen earlier in Tibet. We feared the authorities might close the area to foreigners, although I suppose that would have been preferable to actually becoming caught up in a terrorist attack.
There's an internet café somewhere on the left
Breakfast was not exhilarating. The cold buffet offered chopped vegetables - cucumber, tomato, celery - prawn crackers and diamond shaped biscuits like Jacob's crackers. The inevitable steamed buns were grey and unappetizing - even to those who like steamed buns. The prospect of thinly sliced cold liver was a little daunting at that hour, but it went down surprisingly well. While we were at the buffet they poured us coffee - glasses of black, unsweetened Nescafe. Ungratefully, we persuaded them to take it away and bring some tea. A little later a cold fried egg appeared – especially for westerners – and a couple of slices of sweetish bread with generic jam and a blob of unhappy butter.

Like Huashan, Mingsha Shan - The Singing Sand Dunes - provided a real Chinese day out.

Mingsha Shan is one of the few major dune systems in the Gobi desert – and impressive it is, too. Given the Chinese desire to package and sell off natural phenomena, we were not surprised to find a car park, a ticket office and an official entry to Mingsha Shan lurking on the desert’s edge. The Gobi is big and presents an insurmountable problem to anyone daft enough to try to fence it off. I am reliably informed that with a little legwork it is possible to reach the end of the fence and enter the desert ticketless. That is not what we did. We paid our money and entered the Gobi through a turnstile. 

Several dozen camels sat quietly in the sand while a similar number of would be riders milled around. Before acquiring a camel ticket, we needed to hire the necessary equipment. This consisted of bright orange knee length boots, slipped on over our sandals. They looked ridiculous, but everyone else was wearing them so why be left out?

Our tickets assigned us to numbered camels but by the time the Chinese families had sorted themselves out among the trains of five, we found ourselves separated and astride camels with numbers unconnected with our tickets.

Lynne models the orange boots, Dunhuang
I have a lot of time for the two-humped Bactrian camel. They are docile yet dignified, and unlike cats, dogs and horses cause no dramatic allergic response in my unnecessarily sensitive eyes. They have an obvious place to sit, which their single humped Arabian cousins conspicuously have not, and they lack their permanent sneer.(For more camel riding see With the Mongolian Nomads)

My camel rose with a mildly alarming lurch and we plodded off into the desert. I found myself riding fourth in line, interrupting a family of four. Mother in front had clocked that there was a foreigner on board and was encouraging teenage daughter behind to practice her English. Suppressing the momentary desire to claim I was a monoglot Frenchmen, I tried to be helpful, but our conversation was limited, not just because neither of us could see the person we were speaking to.
Off into the desert
The route may have been well worn, but the dunes were magnificent. Behind and below, the oasis sparkled green in the sun; ahead the hot yellow sand rose in wave upon towering wave. Ahead of us a line of camels traversing a ridge were silhouetted against the sky. They may have been tourists taking nothing more than a glorified donkey ride on the world’s biggest beach but, with a little imagination, they were a merchant caravan battling across the desert on the ancient Silk Road.

A merchant caravan battling across the desert - not really

Given that nature provides a comfortable chair with a well-stuffed back, little by way of a saddle is required, just a blanket and a pair of stirrups. The Chinese, incidentally, invented stirrups in the fourth century AD. It is difficult to believe that Alexander the Great led his legendary charges and the Roman cavalry conquered the known world riding without stirrups, but they did. On the other hand, the heavily armoured mediaeval knights on their mighty warhorses could never have developed without this simple piece of technology. In a sense, the Hundred Year’s War was a product of the Silk Road.

We reached the camel terminus, a natural bowl a kilometre or so into the dunes. I dismounted and waited for Lynne to arrive on a later train, wondering vaguely how long we would be there and whether I was supposed to catch the same camel back, or just bag a random passing ruminant.

Lynne reaches the camel terminus
A stepladder had been laid up the steep face of the dune on our right, and this was where everybody seemed to be going. Lynne arrived, we paid the small fee and joined them on the long stiff climb that seemed as steep as the ‘Heavenward Ladder’ though through soft sand not over hard rock.

As we struggled higher, I hoped Lynne would not do anything silly, like look down. In places the rungs had sunk into the sand and we had to kick in our feet to make steps. Occasionally we had to use our hands – and discovered the importance of the orange thermal boots. Grabbing a buried rung was one thing, but swift removal of the hand was essential before it fried in the red-hot sand. The climb would have been impossible wearing only sandals.

From the top, the Dunhuang oasis was laid out below us. In Hollywood mythology, an oasis is a circle of palm trees round a small lake. Such oases may exist in the Sahara, but they are unusual even there. Dunhuang oasis covers ten square kilometres and is roughly rectangular with no obvious open water. The town is in the centre, its buildings rising above the trees, and around it are fields of crops, mainly corn and cotton. The town may be hot and dusty, but it is never obvious that you are in an oasis. From the dunes, though, every edge of the green rectangle was visible.
The Dunhuang Oasis...
Beyond, as though looking across the sea, the flat grit of the Gobi stretched away until it met a horizon so distant that the land blurred with sky.

...and looking slightly to the right

Having marvelled at the view and taken the obligatory pictures, we considered the problem of descent. The standard method, available on the same ticket as our ascent, was by sledge. It was a long run, and steep enough for Lynne to be unnerved. Watching others, it seemed that it was hard to make the toboggans move at all, but when they went, they whizzed on down.

Ready to descend, the sledges are down to my right
The ladder we had climbed was full of upwardly mobile Chinese, but there was a second ladder, in poorer repair than they first, used by the men who lugged the heavy wooden toboggans, four or five at a time, from the bottom back up to the top. Lynne started down this second ladder on her backside; a safe if undignified descent.

Meanwhile, I climbed aboard a sledge and launched myself off. Nothing happened. Jerking up and down only managed to dig me deeper into the sand. I tried rowing with my hands, but the sand was too hot. Although gravity seemed more concerned with driving me into the sand than down the slope, I did eventually get going and I soon overtook Lynne shuffle-bottoming her way down. Then I stopped.

After more, largely fruitless, effort I was off again, heading straight at the stationary toboggan of a middle-aged woman. I desperately dug in my right hand to change direction, and just as desperately pulled it out before it started to blister. I thumped into the back of her toboggan, which appeared to irritate her, but at least it got her moving again and the only real damage was to my dignity. When we reach the bottom, she gave me the benefit of a few strong words about, I assume, reckless tobogganing. I shrugged and played the idiot foreigner. It is not a difficult part; it may even be the part I was born for.

We have been in direct sun for too long, and at the stall by the camel terminus we haggled for a much needed bottle of water.

Somehow, we found the right camels and roughly the same people we came up with and headed off round the dune in the direction of Yueya Quan - Crescent Moon Lake.

Somehow we found the right camel
The Singing Sand Dunes failed to live up to their name. I detected not the slightest hum – not even the Titanic theme. Crescent Moon Lake, however, does exactly what it says on the tin. Hemmed in by hundred metre high dunes, it is a curving sliver of water maybe fifty metres in length which common sense says should not exist. It is fed by an underground spring, and the shape of the dunes whirls away drifting sand that would otherwise bury it. It looks like it must be a temporary phenomenon, but its existence has been documented for over a thousand years.

Yueya Qua - Crescent Moon Lake, Dunhuang
Sadly, the growth of Dunhuang has lowered the water table so the spring now provides far less water than is lost by evaporation. The solution was to build an artificial feeder lake in the adjacent gap in the dunes, thus saving the natural lake by turning it into another artificial lake. Chinese officialdom does not understand irony.

The mock-Ming visitor centre did little to enhance the view, but it did provide a cooling drink. Sim pi shray (or so it sounded) - a local speciality produced from apricots - is cool, clear, brown and sweetly refreshing.

We caught a camel back to the entrance and left the desert through the same turnstile as we had entered.

The end of the camel trek
We were hot and had been too long in the sun when we sat down for the third and final meal that Orlando would order for us. It consisted largely of molten lava. The main dish had a little chicken among the chillies; the others were spicier.

I was pleased that Orlando had at last taken us at our word. It was perhaps a touch hotter than is truly enjoyable, but we ate it with relish. A point had been well and truly made.

Next morning we rose in time see the nurses lined up for their morning exercises in the hospital courtyard opposite. They were better than the restaurant staff in Shanghai, but still lacked the military precision of a branch of KFC.

After breakfast, I tried to persuade Lynne to visit the Baima Ta - the White Horse Dagoba. In AD 384 the monk Kumarajiva was busy spreading Buddhism eastward. Near Dunhuang his white horse died and as he turned out to be a Dragon God rather than merely a white horse, it seemed reasonable to build a Dagoba over his tomb. Lynne felt unwell after the previous day’s sun, dehydration and over-exertion, so I went on my own. Outside the hotel I accosted a taxi driver leaning against his cab. 'Baima Ta' I said and he nodded. Once in the car, he asked me where I wanted to go. It is not easy making yourself understood in Mandarin. I showed him the Chinese characters and we set off.

We drove south on the main road, then turned left past the stump of the city wall. The further we went down this rural side road the more I heard Lynne's 'what if' in the back of my mind. ‘What if you get there and can't find a taxi back?’ A kilometre later I thought I would be facing a long trek back to the main road. We turned left again and after another half kilometre duly arrived at the entrance to the Dagoba. I was relieved when the taxi man indicated that he would wait.

The stump of the city wall, Dunhuang
The dagoba was a handsome nine-tiered stupa, the four bells hanging from the top tier chiming merrily in the breeze. I had a good look, walked round it and photographed it from several angles. It was a pleasant spot amid green fields and away from the slow but persistent bustle of the city. It was also, I thought, in remarkably good nick for a building that had been there seventeen hundred years. As I was leaving I read the plaque 'The White Horse Dagoba, rebuilt by Dunhuang City government in 1992’. I felt a tad cheated.

Baima Ta - The White Horse Dagoba - Dunhuang
Outside the driver had left the meter running, my time inside had clocked up a princely 2 Yuan (16p) extra.

Back at the hotel Lynne had perked up, so we headed to the market for lunch. We had earlier noticed a stall offering ‘pot noodles’ in cast iron urns. I chose one with meatballs; Lynne chose slices of meat and vegetables. They poured on stock, stuck the pots on a gas brazier and boiled vigorously; then they were delivered to the table still in the cast iron urn. Apart from Lynne's meat turning out to be fish – which did not displease her - they were very good. On the wall was a large photograph of the Crescent Moon Lake in winter, the sand dunes dusted with snow. It was hard to imagine yesterday’s boiling cauldron in the grip of winter cold.

We met Orlando and set off for Mogao, a few kilometres north east of town. Here over a thousand caves have been chiselled into a cliff beside a dried up river. The statues and paintings they contain date from between 400 and 1300 AD and are one of the most important collections of Buddhist art in China.

Outside the Mogao Caves
Peter Hopkirk’sremark about the romance of the Silk Road ending the day the first British tourists got off their bus at Mogao, may have been snobbish and wide of the mark, but it unfortunately holds some truth as far as Mogao is concerned.

There were indeed many tourists, and many of them in buses, though they were overwhelmingly Chinese. The pressure from tourists and the need for humidity and temperature control mean that a visit is limited to eight caves, different tours seeing different caves. It is theoretically possible to trace the development in religious art through almost a thousand years, but not when the visit is so limited. We joined the foreigners’ tour, which consisted of four Italians and us. The tour was conducted in English, which we appreciated, despite Italian being the group's majority language. Fortunately, one of the Italians was able to translate for his compatriots.

We started with the cave containing what was, until the Taliban blew up the Bamyan Buddhas in 2001, the world’s fourth largest Buddha. Working from the top, the cliff had been hollowed out to leave a huge seated figure. Some of the brightly coloured painting was original but much had been added more recently. It was breathtaking, but after that our visit went downhill. We were shown several caves in which the murals had been defaced or stolen, and the statues mutilated. We finished in the ‘library cave’, which is the dullest cave in Mogao, being only an empty hole in the rock, but is politically the most important. If you want to see the contents, we were told, go to the British museum, the Louvre and the Hermitage in St Petersberg. We were treated to a general slagging off of the collectors – or looters – who came from Britain, France, Germany, Russia and the USA to cart away China’s heritage. The Italians looked smug, but thousands of Egyptian artefacts found their way to Italy, so innocence here seemed more a matter of chance than intrinsic national virtue.

At the end, I felt a little cheated and left with the belief that we had not seen the best that Mogao had to offer. Maybe I was being paranoid, but I suspect the reason was political.

Lynne and a Flying Apsara outside the Mogao Caves

When the Silk Road fell into disuse around 1300, the caves were gradually forgotten and filled with drifting sand. European interest in what was then called Chinese Turkestan awakened at the end of the nineteenth century. In 1900 a wandering monk called Wang Yuan Lu stumbled upon the Mogao Caves and set about restoring them to their former glory. Inevitably this came to the attention of the European collectors.

The landscape in which to the Magao Caves became lost
Mogao, Dunhuang 
Abbot Wang was energetic and devoted, but he was also artistically and archaeologically naïve. He threw out damaged statues and replaced them with replicas; he repaired others as best he could and retouched, even repainted thousand year old murals. He also had no idea of the value of the documents he discovered in the library cave. More than 40 cubic metres of manuscripts, sutras and silk and paper paintings, all over a thousand years old, were tightly compressed and perfectly preserved in the dry desert air. They were in a huge variety of known and several unknown Asian languages; some were even in Greek and Hebrew. Their value was not lost on Sir Aurel Stein a Hungarian born British archaeologist/adventurer who bought a quantity for the British museum. He was only the first of the European collectors to take advantage of Wang Yuan Lu’s dedication.

 During the first two decades of the twentieth century vast quantities of statues, murals and documents from western China migrated to foreign museums. The Chinese would like them back and are focusing on the library cave documents as their ‘Elgin Marbles’.

It is easy to sympathise with the Chinese, but Sir Aurel Stein and the others should be judged by standards of their age and not merely dismissed as looters. If they had not bought the contents of the library cave, the manuscripts may well have ended up as firelighters. In the 1920s the caves were used to house White Russian prisoners, who scrawled graffiti and mutilated statues in the hope of finding jewels secreted in their eye sockets. During the Cultural Revolution only a personal intervention by Zhou Enlai prevented wholesale destruction by the Red Guards – lesser sites were not so lucky. Glossing lightly over the murals Albert von Le Coq took to Berlin and were bombed to pieces by the British in 1944, the Europeans did look after their booty better than the Chinese. But that was then; today the Chinese would undoubtedly be conscientious custodians of their own treasures. Perhaps both sides need to swallow their nationalistic pride, realise that neither has a claim to the moral high ground and find a compromise.

From Mogao we went to the Dunhuang silk carpet factory. We were not yet in the heartland of silk production and it is a small factory where most of the work is outsourced, although two women were operating looms, largely for show. There had some very beautiful carpets, with price tags to match. We bought some small things, then drank tea and chatted to Orlando until it was time to go.
With Orlando at the Dunhuang silk carpet factory

Until recently Dunhuang was 100 km from the nearest station on the Lanzhou – Urumqi line, but now a branch line has been built and Dunhuang has been equipped with a shiny new station.

The car park was not yet finished which made wheeling our cases difficult, but the X-ray machine was definitely up and running. Our suitcases had exactly the same contents as at Xi’an, but this time we were told to open up and they confiscated our scissors and knives. Despite protestations, we were told very firmly that it was the rule and it could not be bent, even for foreigners. Perhaps they had been lax at Xi’an or maybe the rules had changed because of the Olympics, or because we were going into Xinjiang, but we never found out. Fortunately, the stallholder had halved our melon – a present from Mr Lu - and we still had our spoons, otherwise our evening would have been spoilt. We tried to ensure the scissors and knives went to Orlando not the officious X-ray machine operator, but as she insisted on accompanying us onto the platform we have no idea if we were successful.

The train left on time and we waved goodbye to Orlando. We soon discovered that not only did we have the four-berth compartment to ourselves; we had the whole of the 'soft sleeper' carriage. After watching the sun set over the barren emptiness of the desert, we ate our melon, drank our bottle of 'Mogao dry red' (not a great wine, but I have tasted worse) and settled down for the night.

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