Nomological Net

Stray thoughts from here and there. The occasional concern for construct validity. No more logic. Fish.


faults in the clouds of delusion

Thursday, August 09, 2007

The Silk Road Chronicles (Day 4)

I slept much better and woke reasonably refreshed, although my legs were taking their time recovering from the attentions paid to the Big Wild Goose back in Xi’an. As we stepped into the elevator, I noticed that they had changed the carpet on the floor of the lift, so that it now said FRIDAY, which is what day of the week it was. TPB said they’d changed the carpet the previous day as well. I was impressed (and faintly bemused – what was the point?) The breakfast spread was the same as the previous day but this time I made sure to get some of the fresh handmade noodles. Yummy, especially with a drop of chili oil. We again set off at 8:30, this time to the Mingsha Singing Sands and the Crescent Lake. The Singings Sands, just a few minutes south of the city, are reputed to offer “the best picture-book desert scenery” that casual travelers such as us could hope to see along the entire length of the Silk Road. We don’t know whether that claim is true or not, but we do know that what we saw that morning was gloriously beautiful and devastatingly scary. The sands are said to “sing” when winds blow over them – that was something else to look forward to.

A gateway at the end of the road announced the entrance to the Singing Sands, and on the inside off to the right there were bright orange shoe-covers for hire – huge sock-like things that went right up to the knee and had to be laced once on top and once at the ankle. The sand gets into everything, but these may help restrict their advance. Fleets of camels tethered four together squatted on the ground, their operators wandering amongst them, waiting for a hire. Officials sat at desks taking payment for rental, of both shoes and camels. But for the brief concrete of this camel depot, and the trees by it, the landscape on all sides was pure golden sand – interrupted only by a patch of green away to the right.

We had a choice of a “short camel ride” and a “long camel ride”. The short ride would last just five minutes, heading off to the right from the entrance, to the clump of trees that we could see. That’s where the Crescent Lake was, lying hidden from sight. The long ride would set off to the left, instead, at a ninety-degree angle to the direction the lake was in, up towards one of the highest spots on the dunes before turning back towards the lake in a big triangular path. Against Jessica’s advice, we opted for the latter. We paid ten bucks each for the shoe covers, then sixty apiece for the privilege of getting on a camel. We were pointed to two of the beasts. J pointed to one and said, “First, first,” so I motioned TPB to that one and I took the other one. A couple of Chinese gents got onto a couple of camels near us. One of the men was wearing jeans and a t-shirt (with the sleeves rolled up to his armpits), but the other looked completely out of place in a formal half-sleeved shirt and beige slacks, with low-cut office shoes. I realized that the four of us were in a chain, and although TPB had been “first”, I remembered that camels in a chain have to rise in sequence, last first, and so she was actually bringing up the rear. My camel was third. An oldish looking lady (from what I could tell) wearing cloth shoes, dark pants, full sleeved white shirt and a mask and headscarf came and tapped my camel on the nose and said “Hup!”, and all of a sudden it felt like the end of the world. An abrupt jerk that half sent me flying over the camel’s head, then another, even sharper if possible, that nearly topped me backwards, then a third bobble, and I was eight feet in the air. The lady walked off holding a rope in her hand and our camels, tethered, followed.

I’m glad that I had my camera in my side pocket and not in my hand, because I’d forgotten that camels do not rise very smoothly. There was a large metal handle attached to the saddle, and I clung on to it tightly. Slowly, the world settled into a regular jerky rhythm. I’m tempted to use the word “undulating”, but it’s more than that. The ship of the desert does not float on placid waters. I clenched the metal hoop till I realized that my palms were sweating. A few minutes into the trip, I took the liberty of taking one of my hands off and turning around to see how TPB was doing. She seemed okay. I settled in for the ride.

We rocked along in companionable silence, vast expanses of gold and black opening out on both sides, the sky a uniform cobalt blue. The only sound was from the tinkling of the camels’ bells, from our little caravan as well as from others behind and the occasional one we passed coming down from the dunes and going in the opposite direction. At one point I screwed up all my nerve and eased my camera out of my pocket with one hand, the other one clinging on to the metal hoop. Dropping the camera onto the sand would mean that it was destroyed – the sand was too minute, too unforgiving. I shot a few frames one-handed, one of which, of the two of us silhouetted in the sand, fortuitously turned out to be my favorite of the entire trip. The silence was broken by TPB’s doleful voice from behind: “Your guy is crapping.” We rocked on.

After about half an hour we reached a camp of sorts, camels squatting in the sand, a few sheds nearby, and a long wooden stairway ascending to the top of the highest dune in the vicinity. The camels stopped and our leader lady came and asked her in Chinese. We understood nothing so I automatically responded by shaking my head stupidly. She walked back to the head of the line and the camels described a u-turn and started heading back the way we’d come. So we shouted “Excuse Me” to get her attention.

Thankfully for us, it turned out that the guy on Camel #1, the rolled-up sleeves guy, actually knew English. He turned and asked if we want to climb to the top. “Yes!” we said. He said that he and his friend didn’t. That created a bit of an impasse, but before we could actually respond he said that they’ve changed their mind and now they do want to go up, and the lady says that as long as we stick together it’s okay, she will wait here at the camp for us. Next thing you know, Roll-up’s climbing the steps with us, while his friend Casual Friday stays back with the camels.

The stairway turned out to be a sequence of wooden ladders laid end to end on the sand. The climb was long, steep, and slippery owing to the amount of sand on the steps. At times it was hard to see the wood at all. Of course, the Big Wild Goose episode didn’t help very much either. The view from the top was great but not *that* much greater than from the camp below – after all, it’s all desert all the way. It was cool but there wasn’t much breeze – the implication for us was that the sands stayed silent, or maybe they just hummed to themselves. Roll-up offered to take a photo of the two of us in return for one of him, “I help you, you help me.” The one significant sight that we did see was the spread of the green oasis of Dunhuang back from where we’d come. For the caravans dragging their miserable way through the endless sands, *that* was the sight that meant you had arrived; that was the sight that meant you were safe. That was the sight that prompted the outpouring of gratitude manifested in the wonderful grottoes at Mogao.

The way down from the top was much simpler – you sat on a wooden crate and propelled yourself down the incline, somewhat like a sitting breaststroke. Plunging ones hands into the sands, hot enough already at 10 am, wasn’t awfully pleasant. And to top it off my crate went slower than TPB’s. But then Roll-up’s crate went the slowest – so much so that he decided to make the most of it by perching there midway and taking a few shots. For every few tourists who went scratching down the dune side, there would be a local bent double climbing back up with a backload of crates.

Casual Friday was waiting for us at the base; we paid an extortionate 10 RMB for a bottle of water and then got back on our camels and headed for the Crescent Lake. Going downhill was even weirder than uphill – or maybe it was just my camel who was a little weird. TPB’s guy regularly poked his placed head round about my right knee. He didn’t ever touch it, but got his head scratched on occasion.

Crescent Lake also had a camel parking lot – a bigger one than the one we’d just come from. Here we had to navigate amongst crowds of kneeling camels to find our allotted pole, and one such camel barked angrily as we maneuvered past his nose. To our pleasant surprise, Jessica, who we’d grown to like especially after the dinner at the night market, was waiting there for us, and we walked with her to this natural perennial lake in the middle of the desert. It was a little disappointing to me. This may have been partly due to its size – they say it has shrunk alarmingly in recent years and may not even exist a decade from now – and partly due to the artificial “picturesque” pavilion they have built right adjacent to it. We didn’t spend too much time there, and elected to walk the five minutes back to the main entrance rather than camel it. The walk was uneventful except for right towards the end when we were just about to reach the main gate, our original point of departure. A few caravans overtook us right there, from both sides, another one approached so close that I thought we might even get run over, and a few interesting photographs happened.


Lunch was at another of J’s favorite Sichuan restaurants. This one was near the hotel. We’d had the time to shower off all the sand we’d gathered, so that was good. TPB also had the opportunity to slip round the corner into a post office to mail off all the postcards she’d written, and got into a little altercation regarding half an RMB change: the guy hadn’t given it to her so she assumed he didn’t have the change so she gave him another half so that he could give her one, so he thought he’d paid extra change, and so put it away in his drawer while she waited for her one buck, and it took all of Jessica’s bilinguality to straighten that one out.

From there were stepped into what seemed liked a completely empty restaurant, one that consisted of only two tables. We were led to an inside room that had a rectangular six-seater table. On the wall at the far end hung a painting, which at the bottom right corner, instead of the artists’s signature, had, in a signatorial scrawl, in two different colors the words “English” and “sample”. Jessica had brought us here in response to my interest in the local specialty, donkey-meat noodles. She ordered a bunch of other things as well, of which the stand-out was the cold tofu with wheat gluten. The donkey-meat noodles, which took their time coming, were disappointingly normal – thick flat sticky noodles with brownish sauce on top, containing pieces of carrot, mushroom, and various other things. One of these “other things” would have been the donkey meat – I’m pretty sure there couldn’t have been more than a cubic centimeter of the substance in my entire dish. Along with the food I was prompt to order Xiliang beer, for the heat, and to our curiosity J ordered something she called ginger beer (although we had to teach her the word ginger). It wasn’t bad – tasted nothing like the synthetic American crap.

Lunch done with, we got into the car for the long drive to Jiayuguan. This was the furthest outpost of the Ming empire, and for us it actually meant heading back east, i.e., towards Xi’an. J told us there would be one stop, at a town called Anxi. Interestingly, unlike every other place we visited, she did not tell us anything about Anxi – how it had been a site of considerable historical importance for hundreds of years till the Uyghur uprising in the 19th century that was followed by the Chinese massacres in reprisal. Instead, what she *did* tell us was that it was so famous for its melons that they were considering renaming it Melon-City (literally). One wonders why, does one not? We stopped at a farmyard enclosed by a low cement wall, with a shed running along the left side. Three men played cards in the corner while a woman breastfed a baby. We picked a small honeydew melon which the woman sliced open for us. It was the sweetest I have ever tasted. Despite the fact that we were still stuffed to bursting from our lunch, we managed to finish that entire melon. Five minutes, five RMB, and we were off.

TPB fell asleep so with three hours ahead on the road, I unleashed the poodle. But before I could figure out what I wanted to listen to, she was up, so we used the dual earphone splitter to listen along together. She took control and played Abida first but this was so not the right place and time for that; my expression made her switch… to Desert Rain. But that too did not last, and she settled on her flavor of the month – Rabbi Shergill. This I could take, since all morning astride the camel I’d been hearing Rabbi go “Yaar mere” in my head (and the day before it had been “ik geet, ik geet, ik geet”). So we rode down our Silk Road highway with him, and when the album ended she switched to Neil Young’s Harvest Moon. I wondered why but listened along anyway. The next change was handed over to me. I picked Junoon. And that took us almost into Jiayuguan, driving past high snow-capped mountains on the far side of the desert; at one point past a field full of slowly turning white windmills, at another point breaking off from the highway to jolt our way over hard stone and pebble and dust – Jessica and the driver said it was because the road was being repaired up ahead, but we saw no sign of that.


Jiayuguan is today a steel mining, steel making town. I expected an industrial dump. Instead, I saw broad avenues, six lanes plus two additional ones bordered off at the sides for cyclists, wide sidewalks, many many trees, and fashionable stores – all local yet with names featuring Paris, Italy, and New York. After check-in (the carpet in the lift here also told the date), we walked with Jessica to the market for dinner. We waded through a narrow curving lane, very different from the broad avenue it fed off, with small restaurants on both sides and lines of street food hawkers on the sidewalks, to a dingy little dumpling joint that J said was good. The entrance had heavy yellowish plastic strips acting as curtains at the doorway. Most of the restaurants that we’d seen in this vicinity seemed to have similar things, but these were especially broad, about 3-4 inches wide, and especially heavy. J ordered a range of dumplings – one had to pay by weight.

After ordering, the two of them went off to explore the market. I decided to stay put, and people-watched. From a family across the aisle I learned how to eat here. At the side of each table were containers with chili oil, soya sauce, and dark vinegar. Everyone got a small bowl in which to mix these three to their favored proportion. I went extra heavy on the chili oil, TPB did the opposite. Both strategies had their advantages. Mine must have tasted better since the chili was fearsome – so much so that I could just about stand touching my dumplings to the concoction. She got to swirl her dumplings all over her sauce, so she couldn’t have had very much of the chili. No pain no gain. Either way, I’m getting a little ahead of the sequence of events. The two of them took a while returning, and all our various dumplings (all looking alike form outside) had been served while they were away. After a point I couldn’t really wait any more, so I started sampling. The lamb-with-carrot dumplings were absolutely amazing, especially with that sauce. Tear-inducing stuff. The two of them eventually returned, with a dish of mixed Sichuan vegetables and four malpoa-equivalents, and we all tucked in. The entire meal came to less than 20 RMB.

After dinner we drove halfway back to the hotel and decided to walk the rest of the way along the pleasant sidewalk in the twilight. Reached the hotel at 9, and I settled down to update the log. TPB switched the TV on and watched “The Last Boy Scout” (Bruce Willis and Damon Wayans), switching to any of forty different Chinese channels, mostly showing historical fiction, when the going threatened to get violent. Eventually she didn’t watch the movie till its end so I don’t know how it ended. After a while we went off to sleep on our separate beds. This hotel didn’t seem to have any rooms with double beds. And so ended another day on the Silk Road: camels, desert, donkey-meat, and dumplings.


Blogger Szerelem said...

Just wonderin if there is a map or some route you have to follow the path you took...I could work it out on a map, but am really too lazy :D

Btw, how many days was the trip and where did you end?

The camel pic reminded me of a smilar one I took in Corbett. Only I was on an elephant and tve shadow was on grass. Shall put it up somtime.

8/10/2007 3:01 PM  
Blogger km said...

That silhouette is a very cool picture.

And carpets with dates? What's the deal with that? Are the Chinese saying, "Don't just carpet diem, TRAMPLE THE DAMN THING"?

8/10/2007 9:46 PM  
Blogger Veena said...

Me too, Me too has a silhouette picture from camel in Merzuoga!

Also, me too lazy. So how about a map of the route, how many days etc. once you are done with the narrative? Not that a trip is happening anytime soon, but might be useful for reference purposes later.

8/11/2007 11:04 AM  
Anonymous tabula rasa said...

yeah, i'll do a map - was thinking of that as one of the last images of the last post. the trip was ten days, and the furthest we went was lake karakuli, which is just a little hop north of delhi. put up the elephant pic, let's see it!

thankee :-)
and LOL!

and how cool is that?! did you feel as scared as i did while taking that picture? i honestly thought that i'd be jerked right off the camel any moment.
and yup, map will come as soon as i'm done with all this typing.

8/11/2007 12:03 PM  
Blogger J. Alfred Prufrock said...

I liked just about ALL the pics.
Incredibly detailed travelogue. Hope to see the raw stock some day.


8/12/2007 12:12 PM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

thankee :-) yes, you should.

8/12/2007 8:17 PM  

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