Previous Challenge Entry (Level 3 - Advanced)
Topic: Write a Travelogue (11/06/14)
TITLE: China:Slow Trains and Fast Camels
By Lois Farrow
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In the crush of waiting passengers at Lanzhou Station we are thankful to be travelling with family to interpret announcements. Our trip to Dunhuang in Gansu province in China will take 19 hours. There will be temples and towns, rice fields and the distant hills of Tibet to see on the journey, but a camel ride at our destination is my goal.
Six bunks fill each cubicle in our hard-sleeper carriage. Unlike ours, soft-sleepers have doors on their cubicles but the beds are the same, clean and comfortable. Our cabin mates, unused to foreigners in their space, keep mostly out of the way except to sleep.
A long passage on one side allows access. Family groups cluster around small tables with fold-down seats, discarding sunflower seed shells on the floor to be swept up later by an attendant.
Sturdy shoes are a must for toilet trips to the end of the carriage, a typical Chinese squat which I find challenging. A boiler dispenses boiling water into our flasks for noodle dinners or hot drinks.
Our train clickety clacks its way through scenic, ever-changing countryside. The train is fast when on the move but stops often to let other trains pass; aha, that is why it is the slow train. Extra trains in summer must fit around the regular timetable; we must ‘give way’.
We have brought filled rolls for dinner and after a good sleep eat pre-packaged noodles for breakfast. As we near our destination the Tibetan plateau is visible in the distance.
Mid-morning we leave the train and squeeze into a bus for the two-hour trip to Dunhuang past grey, scrubby desert. The sealed road is as bumpy as the waves of the sea. A brief stop on the way allows people to buy watermelons, rock melons, and honeydew melons.
Our hotel is very comfortable for our three-night stay and we have a western toilet. (You can sit, rather than squat over a hole in the floor.) Dunhuang, an oasis town, was a major stop on the ancient Silk Road and is famous for the Magao Grottoes. We explore the massive labyrinth cave system which has intricate murals on the walls, and the Western Thousand Buddha caves which consist of 16 caverns with statues and colourful frescoes.
About 25 kilometres out of town we visit the Dunhuang Movie Set, an area of more than three acres originally built for the historical film Dunhuang in 1987. It is the biggest movie set in northwest China; more than twenty films and television series have been produced here. The boys try out the beds and costumes but look unconvincing as fearsome warriors.
On our third day we get our camel ride at Mingsha Shan (Mount of Echoing Sand). We squash into a taxi for the five kilometre trip where our driver engages in a fierce battle with the gate-keepers over the parking fee. She loses and we pay.
We are thrust into a bewildering maelstrom of people, camels and dust. We make our way to the tranquil Crescent Moon Spring at the foot of the mountain, about a half hour walk. A picturesque temple is serenely reflected in the crescent-shaped lake but it is impossible to get a decent photo with so many people. Toboggans fly down the adjoining sand slopes and our boys join the fun, climbing up the sand with the aid of rope ladders. Coolies carry about eight toboggans at a time to the top.
My husband and I climb onto ornate saddles on our camels. I hand my camera to our driver for a quick photo and snatch it back just in time as my camel rises and takes off. It is the last trip for the day for our driver and he is in a hurry. He whisks us up and down the narrow track, passing whoever is in the way.
My camera swings wildly around my neck, both hands clutch the saddle handle while trying to hold a scarf to my face against the swirling sand. At the top I release one hand to attempt a photo, but my camera zoom lens jams open.
Next day we leave for the return journey. Hotels are comfortable and cheap by our standards. It is a delight to travel with family. Overnight trains are relaxing and enjoyable. But the camel ride? I’ve done that now, I don’t need another one.
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