Silk Road Diary: Dunhuang by Henry Guyver
We woke up in Dunhuang, an oasis in the Gobi desert. It was a place along the Silk Road where weary travellers would replenish supplies, trade goods, and switch out for fresh camels. This was my favorite stop of the entire trip. As we got in the guide said it was a small town at only 180,000 people – funny how it really is all about perspective. The “town” is surrounded by dunes. Huge, beautiful soft sand dunes in every direction. That morning we had free time before our group lunch, so Nick, Tracy, Jiang Laoshi, and I set out for a bit of a stroll. The sun was just coming up and you could see the dunes rising up in the distance through the crisp, cold air. We went through the main shopping/pedestrian mall but everything was closed. We strolled on and went along the river. We started hearing gunshots and were a bit bewildered (and mildly concerned). We looked for the source and across the bridge, along the riverbank there was a long path with little stops for sitting or little exercise stations. At two different spots with open space there were men whipping! The first man had a long Indiana Jones style whip with red cloth braided into the leather in some places. He was doing these incredible cracks. We stopped and asked him what it was for, he said for health (we knew that already – anything weird anyone does in China is for health). He said it was a good full body exercise. I asked him if he could teach me and he said that it was impossible for me to learn haha! I laughed and asked if I could try anyway and he said ok. It was hard, I never did make much of a good noise.
We headed on down the river where there was another man doing it, but the first 5 feet of his whip were double linked heavy steel chain! After that it was 3 feet more double linked steel chain, just a little smaller, and then about 6 feet of half inch thick rope. You could actually feel it in the air when he cracked his whip – that is what we’d heard from so far away. It was easily as loud as a 9mm handgun. He was a strong looking guy, maybe mid 50s. We asked him what the deal with it was and he said that he was retired and had been doing it for about a year now, that it was a good way to start the day, good exercise, and that he had friends that he did it with. He was much nicer and more fun than the first guy. I asked if he could teach me and he said yes, but that I shouldn’t be discouraged if I didn’t get it, as it took him about two weeks to get it down. He handed it to me and my hand comically dropped – the thing was crazy heavy!! I was already locked in at that point though, so I stood in the middle of the area and dropped all but the handle. It fell like a medieval knight’s mace, I tried to wrap my head around what I was supposed to do. He said to get it helicoptering around my head and then “when I felt it” to rip it back the other way with my whole body. It was totally unnerving to have heavy chain going over my head and even more so to think I was going to try and kill all of its momentum with one jerk. It was scary! I put my sunglasses on so I wouldn’t take an eye out and went for it. It quickly came right back at me and not gently wrapped all the way around me. This was very funny for everybody – including me, and I tried again, this time making a pathetic clipping sound. Nick tried and actually managed to do a couple of pretty good ones. The girls were alllll toooo happy to give good advice from the sidelines but got a reality check when they picked the thing up. Jiang Laoshi gave it a try and didn’t manage to get it spinning over her head – one feel of how heavy the thing was was enough for Tracy. We thanked the man and agreed we’d all get whips and then walked on.
We went back to the hotel and geared up to head out for lunch with the group before heading to the dunes. The specialty in Dunhuang is donkey meat, so we had slices of donkey meat with a spicy, oily sauce, and donkey meat noodles for lunch, among other things. Apparently there’s a saying that goes something like “Dragons are in heaven but on earth there is donkey meat.” I thought that was funny, it actually was all very tasty though, and we were hungry. Next we got on the bus and headed to the Singing Sand Mountains. Apparently at some point in time someone got over 200 people to slide down the dune at the same time and it made a loud singing noise, so that spot is named thusly. This was something I was really excited for, it was an hour-long camel ride followed by a short hike up, a slide down a bit further on an inner tube, and then hop back on the camel and loop around. Riding the camel was a lot of fun. As the Gobi gets incredibly cold, they were Bactrian camels, we rode between the humps. It was surprisingly comfortable. I found the best method was to get one leg up like you were trying to sit cross-legged and then to have the other leg down to the side. I felt like I could ride for a long time like that, other people fought the motion of the camel’s gait and looked hilariously uncomfortable.
The night previous I plotted with Nick and some of the others to ask Fu Laoshi’s permission to split off from the group, hike higher and watch the sunset from the top of a dune (they go as far as the eyes can see and are each veritable mountains), she said yes. We were intent on having a quiet, peaceful experience, so we kept our plans under wraps and managed to recruit Jiang Laoshi to come with us. She has a wonderful spirit of adventure and really wanted to do it. After the camel ride, sliding down part of one of the dunes, and checking out the small lake oasis we snuck off from the crowd and started the climb up.
Climbing sand mountains is such hard work. It takes energy to even lift your leg, it feels like you’ve taken two steps while your efforts are only worth half a single step. We got to the top of where the adventurous tourists go and talked to an old man who works there picking up trash. He said that it would take us an hour and a half to climb a dune I pointed out – one of the tallest around and closest to us. We really wanted to see the sun set on the Gobi from the top of a dune. The group was Nick, Jiang Laoshi, Jesse, Tracy, Julie, and Stuart. I convinced them that the old man’s hour and a half was hiking at old man pace and that it would take roughly 40 minutes (it took 35). They were up for it so we started trudging on.
We hiked and hiked and sweated, despite it being quite cold. We were mostly silent as we climbed and I thought about things. Chinese people love chengyu’s -little sayings, usually four or eight characters, little pieces of wisdom. I wanted to make my own chengyu so I thought about it while we climbed. Stuart and I led the pack. We made it to the false summit (got to hate that), and headed on to the true peak. Finally we made the last few quad busting steps to the top. It was a spine, you could straddle the dune. It was unnerving in some ways because if you tipped at all you were going to fall 5 or 6 hundred yards to the bottom, but it was absolutely breathtaking. The dunes ran forever in every direction, leading in the distance to mountains. The Gobi Desert. It was so hard to think about what it was like for the travellers on the Silk Road down where the camel ride was and the inner tubes and the tourists smoking cigarettes next to the no smoking signs on the top. On the top of this dune, which we had struggled so hard to climb, we felt like we could see the Silk Road. We could feel the despair of endless desert while at the same time the welcome sight of the lake and the trees. I don’t need to write these things down to remember them, but I will. The wind was incredible, it tore the warmth from you but one by one we sat down at the top, squished together, and watched as the sun went down, lit up, and night fell. on top of the sand dunes, waiting for sunset
Before we left I shared my chengyu. We sat in silence and thought about it for a little bit. I wrote it in my book later, so I could remember it and so I can reference it when I need to. I said, “You’re going to get sand in your shoes, and that’s alright.” I like it. Everyone bought these bootie things to keep sand out of their shoes and I told them that they could tie them up as tight as they wanted, they were still going to get sand in their shoes, but they still paid the 15 kuai and when it came time to take our shoes off their river of sand was no less than mine. I knew it was going to be like that. It’s true though, no matter how much you do to protect from the uncomfortable things, some sand is always going to get in, but that is ok. You just have to dump it out.
We walked home in the dark, mulling things over, smiling and conceding that we were dying of thirst and starving. We marched down out of the Singing Sand Mountains and walked the streets until we found a cab that could take us to the food street. We ate in total silence and all sat back in our chairs. Everyone equally exhausted, sandy, and satisfied. That night we all slept like babies.
The next morning we headed to the Mogao Grottoes, another area where Silk Road merchants commissioned large carvings into cliff walls and even the man-made hollowing of cliffs. They carved into the cliff wall and filled the caves with beautiful paintings on the stone and large ceramic figurines. It was very interesting. The highlight was a 100-something foot long reclining Buddha guarded by several incredibly fierce looking demons. Some day I want a couple of those outside my house. outside the Mogao Grottoes
After the grottoes we headed to the airport and took the only plane at the airport to Xi’an and then connected a flight home to Nanjing. It was almost strange coming back to Nanjing. I hadn’t realized how different, how diverse China is. I thought I had some sense of it having been in Nanjing but now know that I know little to nothing about China. My Chinese improved a lot over the trip and I’m looking forward to learning more so I can be a more effective traveller. For now though, heaven is high and the emperor is far away.
P.S. My whip should arrive within the next 5 days.