Cross China Road Trip 09: The South East Silk Road to Altai

img_5733aTo Visit or Not to Visit? That is the Question.

From the beauty and hospitality of the Tibetan region of southern Lanzhou, via a two day trip across the Qilian Mountains (YouTube), I finally connected with the beginning of the South-Eastern Silk Road aka The Hexi Corridor. Hand on heart though, I have to admit that the next few weeks were a mixed bag of emotion.

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1: Mati Si or Horse Shoe Temple

img_5482aimg_5515This is an hour’s drive south of the sleepy town of Zhengye back towards the Qilian Mountains (YouTube). Photos you’ll find online suggest an ancient structure way out there in the countryside, undisturbed for years with eagles circling in the thermals above. The truth of the matter is, the area is a rapidly developing tourist town. Do not expect anything authentic here. They say that the main attraction is being restored, though the work is so extensive that looks like it’s been just built from scratch. Maybe it has. I guess everything was new in the first place though so you can’t moan. In one hundred years they’ll be able to say, Mati Si was built over a century ago with the use of pneumatic drills and arc welders and so on. There are intrusive CCTV cameras everywhere, including inside the temples and a single Buddhist monk at the ticket office. There is also a row of the least spun prayer wheels in China. Be careful taking a hired car to the site. They drive really fast and I saw one head on crash where the passengers clearly had not made it. Take the bus is my advice. Countryside 10/10. Authenticity 2/10

2: Jiayunguan Fort

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The waxwork figures depicting life in the fort were pretty damned lifelike

Moving on north, Jiayu Pass known as the ‘mouth of China’ marks the beginning of the Great Wall. The Silk Road itself is a wide expanse of rocky desert with the mountain ranges far away on either side stretching on for hundreds of miles. Like most famous places brace yourself to become part of the masses. Once you’re in there are thousands of people all excitedly snapping away.

3: July 1st Glacier

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From Jiayunguan it takes around three hours back into the Qilian Mountains to visit the July 1st Glacier. I must admit that I was glad to be driving a Land Cruiser to get up there. Most of the road is in disrepair with landslides, unprotected hair pin bends and perilous drops. Once you’re there, you have to wait at the ticket office until there is a sizable crowd before they open the gates. After that you can drive for another mile or so then do a two to three hour hike to the glacier. You’re at altitude so will be mostly out of breath and in need of lots of water. Take a water bladder in your pack. The glacier itself is nothing to write home about. Well, I’m just being honest. There are a couple of guys up there to help out exhausted tourists, especially if the weather changes. The experience as a whole, especially the scenery, is just amazing though and deffo gets a 10/10. You can jump in a private minibus organised from your hotel. Just brace yourself for a whole day with a Chinese tour party though. Good luck.

4: Dunhuang

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The night market is stunning

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Home to the largest collection of Buddhist artifacts, I was really looking forward to seeing the famous Mogao Caves though by now I shouldn’t have been surprised at all when the police stopped me at a check point. They said that I should go back to the huge tourist centre, leave the Land Cruiser and join a tour group on a bus and buy a ticket. Honestly, as you may have gathered by now I absolutely can’t stand tour groups so blew it out. Aside from that, the best side of Dunhuang is the night life, particularly the dazzling display of beautiful fountains at the river and the night market. By far one of the nicest cities to visit along the way.

5: Hami: Mo Gui Cheng, The Evil City

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Moving on from the Gansu Province, Hami is the first city of note in Xinjiang. Not much going on here at all. As it was a public holiday, wifey had decided to join me for a week on the trip and booked a room right next to the train station. The hotel was heaving with ‘security’ and we’d always be sharing the lift with at least four or five uniforms towering above us. The breakfast area would be filled with black uniforms every morning, all having a whale of a time enjoying the free buffet. To cap it all, the place was decked out with purple, white and silver decorations for a wedding so bring those elements together and it sure made for a surreal start to the day. If you’ve got easy access to transport then head for a drive to the Tian Shan Mountains or the Evil City between Hami and Turpan. It’s not actually a city and certainly not evil, just some interesting weathered rock formations in the desert. Tickets to get in and lots of noisy families throwing rubbish everywhere.

6: Turpan: Ancient Jiaohe Ruins

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I was so tired from driving I can’t remember much about Turpan. In a blur, the missus wanted to go shopping in the department store on Monday morning; another surreal experience. Just out of town is the ancient ruined city of Jiao he. Quite amazing to see the original walkways and layout still intact. Buy a ticket and take a tour bus for ten minutes to get there. Don’t go at the weekends.

7: Urumqi

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The capital of Xinjiang, it’s yet another sprawling Chinese city of millions complete with shiny new high rises in the centre. Definitely worth a visit is the amazing Erdaoqiao Market. Take plenty of cash and treat yourself as you can buy anything from scarves, shoes, to medicine and musical instruments. You name it! Directly opposite the Grand Bazaar  is another indoor clothes market miles better. There is an entire floor dedicated to selling leather jackets for both men and women at great prices. Haggle to your heart’s content.

8: Altai Region: Kanas Lake

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From Urumqi, heading north to Altai seems like the natural direction to be going in. I really wanted to go camping up in the seclusion having done the same in Mongolia on the other side of the mountains ten years earlier. From a comfortable stay in Altai (nice alpine feel about it) the drive takes you through the pleasant town of Buerqin and then up into the mountains. Maps.me says its 100 miles and three hours but with heavy fog, a blizzard and treacherous icy roads make it five. There is a single petrol station half way in the weird ghost town of Chonghu-er. On arrival be prepared for the largest ticket office in existence, with hundreds of coaches and tourists. You need to get on a bus as part of a group to go through or pay 1,500RMB to take your own vehicle through (that’s not a typing error btw). There are touts everywhere trying to get you to stay in their guesthouses. In the end I was so pissed off I did the whole journey back the same day, arriving at Buerqin at 9.00pm in a state of exhaustion.

Driving in Xinjiang

landcruisreIf you’re non-Chinese and decide to drive in Xinjiang, remember that you need a Chinese ID card to get petrol. This means either taking a Chinese passenger or like me blagging every single fill up. You need to show your card before you can go in. Passengers have to wait outside. ‘Security’ may well check your vehicle. You then need to swipe your card once you are in before you can fill up. For me this was a two or three times a day chore over three weeks that often involved altercations with the staff. Sometimes I would take the keys out of the Land Cruiser and walk away from the vehicle leaving a queue of irritated motorists behind me until they let me in. Staff usually swiped their own cards so I could fill up. The most helpful people were the police who could never see what all the fuss was about.

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26 replies

    • Thanks Cindy. BTW do you ever do presentations with other people’s photos? I have a number of cormorant shots I took on Stone Island in Lake Khovsgol, Mongolia. Its a sanctuary for the cormorants and was a very rare opportunity to get out there and see them. I cant think of a space anywhere on my blog for them. Maybe you know someone who can use them?

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  1. What an adventure you’ve had. Thank you for the photos and I must admit I had to fast forward most of the youtube vid of harrowing mountain passes on to your more stunning takes of glaciers, etc. I went on the great ocean road in Oz last year, driving a 4×4 solo through Victoria state and came across coach loads of mainly Chinese tourists at the more publicised stops and learnt to avoid these for lesser known quieter spots.
    Keep posting as I look forward to reading your blog when life treats me a break.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hiya Sally. Oh the bliss of solo driving a 4×4. Life doesn’t get any better now does it. I’m addicted and cant wait to get behind the wheel again. Thanks for dropping by my YouTube channel and look forward to your next visit 🙂

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  2. What an amazing trip Andy and stunning pictures. You are one brave soul! Sorry that it took me this long to check in on you. How are you doing? Your site appears to have gone about as quiet as mine. Hey, what does blagging mean?

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      • Same here Andy, with much going on. Bought a house in Mexico and just moved in a few days ago. Hope to return to blogging soon. Need to get internet set up. My one finger pecking on phone doesn’t cut it! Glad you are okay.

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      • Heyyyy Ev > Mexico???? Wowowowow. Sounds amazing. I thought you were permanently on the road. Was that part of the plan or something that just happened? All ok here > just busy > tired and than busy as per usual. Glad your ok too mate 🙂

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      • We had actually done quite a lot of traveling before we sold our house last year. We traveled full time for 2 years 2010-2011 and again for a year in 2014-15. I think I just finally got burned out and we came across a wonderful location in Mexico and decided to hang up our sombreros. You can see pictures on my last post.

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      • Yo Ev > That’s the only drawback with travelling. I guess there is a limit to everything. Will you go travelling again? Will deffo check out where you’re at 🙂

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      • We will most likely explore farther south in Mexico next winter for a bit. And I do have a goal of one last big hurrah but must get in much better physical shape for that so we will see.
        As I am writing this, I decided to quickly list out the places I have been from Feb last year to January this year and it came to 8 Caribbean islands, 14 US states, and 8 countries. Not bragging Andy but now I know why I am burned out!

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      • Hiya Ev > Wow your place looks so beautiful. I am mega envious to the power of 100. I couldnt comment on your post though. No where to leave one. Absolute heaven. What are the locals like?

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      • Hi Andy, The Mexicans are wonderful people and they are one of the many reasons we like it down here so much.
        I have noticed that if I access my blog from a smartphone that I can’t see comments either but if I turn the phone horizontally, I can. Try that next time.
        We are over the moon at our fantastic find for an affordable price. Being here is being on vacation every day so for now there is no urge to travel. Although next month we do need to drive up to the US and get our things from storage and also apply for Mexican permanent residency.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Hiya Ev. Have you grabbed all of your things then? Are you learning Spanish? I guess you’ll be going on vacation around Mexico. Have you still got your camper van then?

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    • Hiya Sartenada and its great seeing you come by here. Thanks for your kind comments and yes, Altai is a really amazing place. Just green and more green. Made a change to the desert that’s for sure. Wishing you a wonderful weekend 🙂

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