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The Preparation

The preparation

On Sunday September 1, 2019, ten people divided over three cars left China’s capital Beijing for an 18-days road trip through Southern Gansu and North Sichuan. I was one of them and I will share our adventures with you in this day to day blog.

Such a trip, we have covered almost 7000 km during those 18 days, requires considerable preparation. First, there is the itinerary. The two adjacent regions that I just mentioned are so huge, that you can’t simply go there and then see where you end up. You need to select sites and scenic spots that you want to see. The next task is to identify the best places to stay for the night; cities and towns with suitable hotels. Then you need to literally connect the dots by finding the best roads from one place to another. Roads are generally good in China nowadays, and the navigator function of the Amap app beats Google Maps. Still, it pays to prepare beforehand.

Fortunately, a couple of people in our group were experienced travelling planners (we had travelled with them before). They did the basic planning and even called hotels to ensure that they catered to foreigners. Some hotels don’t like the additional paper work to register foreigners.

Well, this was probably the best prepared trip we made together in China. We actually received a spreadsheet with the cities we would sleep in, the number of kms between each city and even an indication of the height. Height? Yes, one of the salient features of this trip was that a large part of it would be located in places of higher elevation, up to close to 4000 metres. Even when you are not susceptible to height, you will feel it, when you have to sleep in bed higher than 3000 metres above sea level.

Food

In case you didn’t surf to this site from my Chinese culture and food site, I have a special interest in the Chinese food and beverage industries. Whenever and wherever I travel in China, I always keep my radar open for any information about the local food market. Of coarse, I am also human, and need my three meals a day + snacks.

Food is available in abundance in China, but you need to stock up on some of your favourite items, that you may not be able to buy so easily in faraway places. For me, an indispensable item is bread, in particular as an alternative for the Chinese breakfast. Bread is improving rapidly in Beijing, but it will not last for so long. Fortunately, there is Russian bread, known in Beijing as Lieba, a loan word from Russian.

It is a firm type of bread that keeps well for a month, at least according to the bakery. We purchased several loaves to save us while on the road. Then there is coffee. I bought two packs of instant coffee to be sure that I had enough to keep me going. China is a good place for instant beverages, as hot water is freely available at all gas stations. When you say coffee, you almost automatically say biscuits. You can buy them all over China, but I still brought some packs to keep me happy during the first days on the express ways.

Clothes

We had to pack for a several weather types. It would be hot during the first couple of days. Once we would reach the higher elevations, the nights would get colder, but the sun could be quite toxic during day time. So, we needed short sleeve shirts, light sweaters, raincoats, padded coats, hats. We had to pack for summer and autumn.

Driver

I was part of what we would later call Car Nr. 2. This was the car of my sister-in-law. However, she didn’t want to drive such long distances. My wife and myself could theoretically get Chinese drivers licenses, but in practice it is not advised to drive in China for foreigners, certain in such faraway places. We asked a good friend who is working in the hospitality business if he knew a driver who would be willing to drive without a fee, but with all expense paid; a free holiday so to speak. Fortunately, he got us one, and a good one, we later learned.

Stay in touch

China’s mobile phone and internet network is possibly the best in the world. However, it was always possible that we would not be able to call from car to car in some mountainous regions. Through a friend of a friend we were able to get our hands on a set of walky-talkies. This made us (feel as) the best prepared travelling group in China.

Get-to-know lunch

Before starting off with such a large group of people on such a long trip, you need to get acquainted beforehand. The entire group got together for lunch on Friday, August 30, a sweltering day, at Cuimanlou.

By the afternoon of August 31, we were more than ready. We returned to our hotel in time, to pack and turn in early.

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Day 18: Wudi – Beijing

September 18, 2019

Distance covered: 350 km.

Goodbye Yellow River

We had to make this detour to Shandong due to some official business, but one of the good things, apart from inspecting the local Coast Guard, was that we would be able to see the Yellow River flow into the sea. We had seen that river at the very first sight of our trip: Xianglusi at Jiaxian, also the location of our first hotel. We had seen it the third day, strolling along its banks at Lanzhou. The we had seen the beginning, The Yellow River First Bend, high from a mountain. Now we were given the opportunity to say goodbye to the river that is referred to as the Mother of China. It was flowing as rapidly as in Lanzhou.

However, as you can see from the photo, the sight was not really spectacular. According to the couple in our group that had already visited that spot, we should have been at the south bank, so we would have been able to get on a boat, or the watch tower, which you can see in the background. Still, when you look beyond the man-made stuff, this is exactly the place where you can see how the Yellow River got its nickname. The entire scenic area and a considerable part of the fertile soil in this part of China consists of sedimented soil transported by the river. We Dutch can related to that. The main difference is that the Chinese let the river do all work, while we Dutch helped nature by building dams.

It was, once more, a good spot for a final group picture

Locating the lawyer

This header may puzzle you, so let me explain. Our driver also had former army mate who with a legal background. After leaving the army, he had settled as a private lawyer. Hearing that his friend would arrive, again with a group of people including a foreigner, he insisted on inviting us for lunch. We never oppose such an invitation, but the location was rather obscure. We drove and drove, made a phone call, asked for the road, drove on again, etc. We saw a lot of China’s famous Shengli (Victory) Oil Field, with pumpjacks everywhere. We finally arrived at the restaurant which was located in a very new area, so also unknown to our driver. The lunch was good, but we had to rush, which is probably the reason that we have no pictures.

The village

The final venue, before hitting the freeway to Beijing, was the village in which our driver was born and raised. His parents had asked him to pick up ‘some stuff’ for friends in Beijing. You can’t refuse that in China, and we were eager to see the village. Surprisingly, our driver made a few wrong turns and had to ask for directions once, but then we arrived. We didn’t have much time for getting acquainted with the driver’s relatives. It was getting dark and we wanted to get as close to Beijing as possible, before it would get dark. The ‘stuff’, as could be expected, was mainly local produce, like extremely fresh dates. However, one item that stood out was a couple of huge pancakes. Check out this picture of my sister in law with one of them. Apparently, that is one of the specialties of that region.

Separated and (almost) lost

We were doing alright and although it got dark soon, we trusted that we were getting closer and closer to familiar territory. However, that proved to by nothing less than hubris. Just before we reached an important crossing, where we were supposed to go right and proceed on a newer, less crowded, road, only car nr. 1 made the correct turn. We (2) and car nr. 3 remained on the original road. To make a long story short: car nr. 1 arrived in Beijing almost two hours earlier than we did. After a traffic jam caused by an ID check, we moved on quickly, but perhaps it was because we were all tired, we took two premature exits, forcing us to make a detour to return to the freeway. Anyway, we got back at the place of departure after 23:00 hrs and we were back at our hotel just before midnight.

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Day 17: Qinyang – Wudi

September 17, 2019

Distance covered: 637 km.

Breakfast on the road

Look at the distance, and you will appreciate that we not only had to get up even earlier than usual during this trip, we also had no time to look for a cozy breakfast. It was ‘grab what you have left and eat it on the road’ that morning.

Qinyang is located close to the express way, so we were able to speed up quickly. There is not much to say about what followed, until our arrival at the other end of that long line on the map, but that I enjoyed the rapid change of landscape. Henan is China’s main cereal producer. Shandong produces lots of wheat and maize, but also fruits and vegetables. The landscape became greener as we were approaching the coastal region. I like Shandong. I had visited the province many times before and was looking forward to getting to know yet another part of it.

Wudi

It was around 4 in the afternoon, when we reached Wudi County, the home region of our driver. We had to stop there for some business, but he first introduced us to a kind of fast food restaurant specializing in local meat-filled steamed buns (baozi). They were so good, that even the most avid photographers in our group forgot to take pictures.

The next issue was the hotel. As usual, we had booked a hotel by phone, after identifying what looked like a decent place online. However, a local friend of the driver introduced another, ‘better and cheaper’, place. In China, that usually triggers people to go for the local’s advice. Fortunately, the two hotels were located next to each other, so we could compare them and then choose. We selected the local recommendation.

Coast guard

Selecting a hotel didn’t mean that we would be able to get some rest. We had to lock our luggage in the hotel and get in the car again. Our driver’s local friends had heard that a group of people ‘from Beijing’ would come, including a foreigner. They had arranged for us to visit a newly developed port region. The first stop would be the local coast guard. It turned out to be long drive. That was why we had to leave Wudi in a hurry. The port was really a development area. You could see that it would be huge in the near future, but when we arrived, it was still a large patch of land ready for construction. We were allowed to climb aboard a coast guard vessel. Obviously we all vied for a photo in the captain’s seat.

For the first and last time this trip I made a nice group picture with all the ladies of our team

Fishing port

When it was getting dark, we drove back for less than 10 minutes to a village known as Chajian Fishing Port. The port was marked by a big stone.

Unnecessary to mention that seafood was the main food of that dinner. A local fisherman joined us. It was great to meet such a variety of local people. Our driver was one of the few villagers who had made it to the nation’s capital, which gave him an enormous status in his home town. Now he was bringing some of his friends, including a foreigner, to Wudi. This had to be celebrated in style. The coast guard entered with three large bags. Each bag contained two kegs of locally brewed craft beer. According to the label, it was a new brewery using German technology. The beer was good and we finished all 6 two-litre kegs.

Driving in the dark

It was pitch dark when we left the restaurant. We still had to cover a considerable distance back to the hotel. We decided that it was better not to try to stick together and rely on the GPS on our mobile phones, as had been the case during most of this trip. One car took considerably longer than the other two, but we could all turn in just before midnight. We needed that, because the following and final day of our trip would be a long, and eventful, one.

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Day 16: Tianshui – Qinyang

Day 16: Tianshui – Qinyang

September 16, 2019

Distance covered: 750 km

We didn’t even try to find a breakfast restaurant the following morning, our experience of the previous evening had taught us that there was only one restaurant close to our hotel and that it was not up to our standards. The buffet breakfast offered by the hotel was good enough.

After breakfast we packed our luggage in the shining freshly washed cars.

A day on the road

There was not an awful lot to look forward to that day, but driving along express ways. The trip would cover several provinces: starting in Gansu, rush through Shaanxi and ending in the north of Henan, a hotel in Qinyang county. No stunning sights or spiritual places; only asphalt. There were interesting things to see for me, like the cities we passed close enough to get an impression of the how various places that I only knew by name looked like in reality.

An interesting experience was the lunch stop at a gas station just passed the Gansu – Shaanxi border. It offered the largest choice of restaurants I have ever seen at a Chinese gas station. It enabled me to enjoy the local delicy that I like so much: minced beef in pita bread (niurou paomo) and wash it away with coffee.

Countryside luxury

The high of the day was at its very end: the Seven Hotel (Sewen Jiudian). One member of our group used to stay in Qinyang regularly for his work. He was not familiar with this hotel, but it was recommended online as a good, newly opened, hotel. The hotel is not situated along the road. You need to drive through an opening between two buildings and then you suddenly find yourself in a courtyard that is the parking lot of the hotel.

The wow feeling comes when you enter the lobby.

If you think the lobby is grand, the rooms are nothing less than amazing. The are not only appointed with high-end furniture, they are also filled with the latest gadgets, like movement-operated lights. The only downside was that the light would also turn on when one of us needed to use the bathroom at night, waking up the other too.

Foreign dinner

We were in for a hearty dinner. We started roaming the street as always. The first restaurant we passed was offering Hubei cuisine. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but we were in Henan, so . . . After dismissing a couple of other restaurants, we settled for the Hubei restaurant (Hubei Renjia) after all. We didn’t regret it. The food was great and cheap. As we were nearing the end of our epic trip, we made a great after-dinner group picture. The man sitting in the middle celebrated his birthday that day.

Curious about this surprisingly lifely county town, all of us made a stroll through the town after dinner, probably the only time we did so during this trip. Still, most of them returned to the hotel soon. My wife and I wanted to check out a local supermarket to check what goodies were for sale there. To our surprise, we could pick up the type of Mentos gum that we had been looking for everywhere during the past few days.

Excited about our victory, we also rushed back to enjoy the luxury of the Seven Hotel.

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Day 15: Tanchang – Tianshui

September 15, 2019

Distance covered:  350 km.

Less sumptuous breakfast

The following morning, still remembering the great breakfast of the day before, we set out to the same restaurant, only to find out that it wasn’t open yet. As we were in a hurry to hit the road to have enough time to see the only sight of the day: Maiji Mountain, we had to look for an alternative. We settled for a small Halal restaurant that was open. It had a more modest menu, but was good enough for us. After an entire day without driving, we were ready to move again.

Apple country

Towards the end of our trip, we were gradually reaching the eastern edge of Southern Gansu. The central city of that region is Tianshui, a medium-sized city, whose name literally means ‘Heavenly Water’. It refers to the fertility of the region, which is one of China’s main apple-producing areas. After the first mountain ridge of the morning, we passed through a plain filled with apple orchards. It was picking season and local farmers were all selling part of their produce along the side of the roads, targeting the endless stream of road trippers. The ladies among us, half the group, wanted to buy, so we had to stop to stock up on kilos of the fruits.

From road to river

It was an overcast day, with occasional bouts of rain. However, it had been raining considerably in that region during the previous days. After increasing the weight of all three cars with several kilos of apples, we had to pass another mountain ridge.

That sight from the top of the mountain may still be stunning, certainly from the Dutch perspective of people living in the flattest country on earth, but going down, we soon had to pass through the toughest part of this trip. A number of roads were flooded by water streaming down the mountain. It was a good thing that our entire fleet consisted of four-wheel drives, and even then some of the temporary rivers we had to pass were quite scary.

Maiji Mountain

We were happy to reach a flatter region, getting close to our sight: Maiji Mountain, when we found out that the local government was just reconstructing the road to that place. The rain had turned the temporary dirt road into a long stretch of mud, seriously slowing down our speed. However, once we were there, we were glad that we hadn’t given up. Maiji Mountain is a high steep mountain in the middle of a relatively flat area. The slopes are covered with Buddhist carvings. The sight from the foot of the mountain is already stunning.

We decided to spend a little money and hire a guide. He had an interesting story to tell, while walking around the mountain. Doing so, we didn’t have to actually climb it. It was getting late, and we were wary of driving in the dark. Moreover, to see some of the most interesting caves, you had to pay extra, while the guide had a booklet of photos of the sculptures in those caves.

Tianshui – the big city

Before getting on the express way to Tianshui, we had to drive back along the temporary road, still slower than we would have liked. However, when we finally entered Tianshui, it was still light enough to enjoy the first bigger city since we had left Lanzhou. Tianshui is also a city divided in two by a river, the Wei River. Our hotel was a relatively new one, located along the river. It belonged to the Wanda Group, a real estate company that includes the high end hotel chain.

We decided to treat ourselves to a good meal in the hotel, instead of trying a less attractive restaurant further along the same road. While we studied the menu and ordered the food, the three drives had our cars washed in a car wash that we discovered on the other side of our hotel. The final days of our trip would be mainly spent on express ways.

Tianshui by night

The day ended with a small deviation of our tradition. My sister-in-law joined us on our after dinner walk. We didn’t have to walk very far. Several building along the river were lit. Moreover, the old-style construction of the bridge was decorated for the upcoming National Day celebrations, providing a quite spectacular view, great for shooting pictures.

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Day 14 Day in the Guan’egou

September 14, 2019

Sumptious breakfast

This was another day that we didn’t need to pack our suitcases early in the morning. We met in the lobby and started to scan the street for a restaurant offering a proper breakfast. We ended up enjoying one of the most sumptious breakfasts of this trip. The buffet breakfast at the Saiyong Tibetan Resort had been extremely good, but that was something you would expect at a place like that. To find such an excellent breakfast in a small restaurant in Tanchang was a real treat. We would later find out that we needed such the calories for all the walking we were about to do.

A bus for ourselves

You may remember that we had already sorted out the bus we had to take to Tanchang’s main site: Guan’egou or ‘Gully for Watching Geese’. That is a funny name, as we saw a lot of things there, but no geese.

Anyway, when our group had alighted the bus, the driver set off, without waiting for other passengers. We appreciated that. It felt like a private bus.

Grand entrance

The public bus stopped at a large parking place. There we had to buy the tickets and get on another bus that drove us to the Main Entrance of the site; always a great place to take a group photo.

Rain

Meanwhile, it had started to drizzle. We all had brought our umbrellas, but most of us were also wary of getting our shoes soaked. Before starting our walk, most of us purchased a pair of shoe protectors. This was especially useful for me, as I was wearing my sketchers.

Walking

Then we started walking. That walk took several hours. There was a scenic spot around every single bent of the gully. There was a stream constantly offering new backgrounds for pictures. Then there were waterfalls and curious stone formations. Just have a look at a few selected pictures.

It was especially interesting to see that also a tourist spot like this included a number of Buddhist shrines, adding a sense of spirituality to the place.

No bus back

We returned to the main gate around 14:00 pm; exhausted. The rain had stopped, though. For some reason, taking the shuttle bus back turned out to be problematic. Apparently, it was kind of tourist trap: easy to go there, but when you were in a hurry, it was much more difficult to get back to town. We settled for three taxis, that were already waiting at the exit.

The remainder of that day resembled that of day 13: my wife and I walked for a while, exploring another part of town and the entire group met later for an early dinner in the same restaurant.

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Day 13: Têwo – Tanchang

September 13, 2019

Distance covered: 180 km.

Quiet day

This was one of the quietest days of our trip. It started well with a sumptuous breakfast. The hotel breakfast was a genuine feast. Going out to find a breakfast joint was not an option in this mountain resort, but I wouldn’t have wanted to miss this huge buffet breakfast.

However, once on the road again, that road basically took us to our next destination without much to report about, at least not what you already know from the previous days: mountains, valleys  and plains.

Sea of flowers

One valley was called ‘Sea of Flowers’, because in the right season, it is covered in flowers, that give a marvelous view from the top of the nearest mountain. However, this was not the proper season, but we stopped anyway, to have a look an stretch our legs.

Tanchang

We arrived in Tanchang early in the afternoon. Tanchang is a typical county seat: a town big enough to look like a town, but not extremely exciting. A positive feature was the river flowing through the town. Most of this trip took us through rather arid regions, so for a Dutchman it was nice to enter the town crossing a bridge.

Parking

This was the first hotel of our trip that did not provide parking space. We had to find a parking space for each car on the road, as near to the hotel as possible. We were lucky. A car just left, when we arrived, so we did have three spaces in front of the hotel. We needed that luck, as we were to stay in that hotel, the Boutique Hotel (Mingpin Jiudian) for two nights. The rooms were OK, but the big bonus of this hotel was that it had a lift; no need to carry our suitcases up the stairs.

Early dinner

Never change a good tradition. My wife and I went out for a walk, after checking in, while the other stayed in their rooms to rest. Soon after we returned to the hotel, the others came down and we started roaming the main street for a suitable restaurant. That is never a long quest in China. We treated ourselves this time with sorghum liquor from Sichuan, produced traditionally in a clay pot. After dinner we took a short walk as a group, to check out the location where our bus would depart the following morning. We turned in early, because the following day would be one long walk in the mountains.

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Day 12: Ruo’ergai – Têwo

September 12, 2019

Distance covered: 150 kms

We had breakfast in the hotel the following morning, instead of our usual routine of finding a a breakfast place in town. I realise that I have never said anything about my breakfast habits during trips like this. I don’t eat congee like the others, but can usually find something like steamed buns or pancakes, and eggs prepared in various ways. And . . . I always have a stash of instant coffee sachets with me. A steamed bun (mantou), or even better, a baozi, a steamed bun with a minced meat filling, and a cup of coffee is enough to get me on my feet.

Zhagana

The first stop was a scenic spot on the slope of a mountain: Zhagana. We discussed whether we would go up, because it had started to drizzle and the stairs up the hill would be slippery. However, we were there and wanted to take the opportunity to shoot a few photos and then head on quickly. As the photos I am posting show, it was worth the effort and the sight of mountains partly hidden by clouds was actually stunning.

War Museum

Driving on, we reached a spot, Lazikou, were a famous battle between the Red Army and the Japanese had taken place, again during the Long March. There was a monument where we had to stop to take pictures.

A few kilometres further, there was a large and modern museum commemorating that battle and that stretch of the Long March. The most impressive were the lifelike scenes of the life of the local people at that time.

Accident

Then happened what road trippers fear most: an accident; though a relatively small one. I have mentioned before that our car was known as Car Nr. 2 during this trip. While the roads we had chosen were usually of good quality, that morning we had to drive through a stretch of road that was under construction. We were all driving four wheel drives, so we were not afraid of a piece of rough territory. However, there was also some heavy machinery on the road. Those were driven forward and backward without paying attention to other traffic. Paying so much attention to the situation on the road left less time to take care of the other cars. At some moment, we decided to stop and wait for Car Nr. 3 to catch up. It didn’t and finally the walky talky came alive and told us that Car Nr. 3 had had an accident. It was parked behind a construction vehicle, when the latter started moving backward and hit the front of Car Nr. 3. The damage wasn’t big and the car could drive on, but repairing it would cost a bit of money. We decided to drive on to our next hotel first, which we were scheduled to reach after noon, and then decide what to do.

Tibetan resort

We soon arrived at the Saiyong Tibetan Village Resort at Têwo (Diebu), another Tibetan town in South Gansu. This was a more expensive resort-like hotel, but our organiser had been able to book it for a low price, because it was off season. As a real resort, it was a compound consisting of several buildings, each divided in a number of rooms and suites. We stayed in a room, of course. The rooms were fine, but again, no building was equipped with a lift.

The three drivers of our group decided to drive the damaged car to the local traffic police station to try to get a testimony required for the insurance. Most of the others wanted to stay in their rooms to rest. My wife and I, as you could guess, preferred to check out the compound. It was actually quite impressive, as is shown by the photos we took.

You can see that the architect had included a number of Tibetan features. However, the resort also had modern features like a Beer Garden.

Ecological garden

However, the most impressive feature was the Ecological Garden, a large building in the centre of the resort that comprised a garden and the resort’s dining room. Several tables were placed in between the trees and shrubs, making it an attractive place to sit. My wife and I did what we didn’t want to do the evening before: we ordered a bottle of local wine. My sister in law had joined us as well, so three persons should be able handle the bottle. It was my first wine from Gansu, and it was actually quite palatable.

Meeting the manager

While we were sampling the wine and chatting, an elderly gentleman passed, asking us if we were OK. He introduced himself as the father of the founder owner of the resort. He was a retired government official and now helped his son taking care of the day to day management. His wife joined us too.

During the conversation, we learned that he had not been just an official, but the one in charge of the local infrastructure for a number of years. He had traveled extensively and had been to The Netherlands. What we learned while chatting with the manager proved once more that so much of what is printed in the Western media about Tibetans being oppressed in China so far beyond reality.

Change of plans

After finishing the conversation and the wine, the others joined us in the garden. It was getting dinner time and dinner would be served in the garden building. The drivers returned without the document they intended to get. While describing the location of the accident, the local police noticed that it had taken place in Sichuan province, while Diebu was just over the border in Gansu. Driving back was not really an option. Our driver then came up with an idea to ask a friend in the police station of his home town to help. The home town was in the north of Shandong province. We decided to follow that plan and changed the final two days of our schedule. Car Nr. 3 could drive on to Beijing, where it could be repaired properly.

Meanwhile, the drizzle that had been on and off that day had grown into a huge shower. That was no weather for an evening walk.

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Day 11: Zhuokeji – Ruo’ergai

September 11, 2019

Distance covered: 360 km

This turned out to be one of the more eventful days of our trip, including a couple of amazing sites.

Roadside graveyard

No need to mention that we got up and left early; you know the drill by now. Crossing a few mountains and passing through a couple of valleys will also strike you as familiar, so I will directly move on to the first site: a Tibetan graveyard. It was when we drove through a pasture that the person who had layed out our itinerary told us to stop at what at first sight looked like a shabby building behind an equally shabby gate. Further away, we could discern a kind of Tibetan construction, but not necessarily worth stopping for. We were proven wrong. Walking closer, the area turned out to be huge, covered with typical Tibetan grave stupas. Yes, they did not look shiny new, but perhaps exactly therefore very mysterious. Apart from our party, no other human being could be seen. We first walked up to the only new building, a Buddhist temple still under construction. It was completely empty inside, except for three statues.

We then haphazardly walked through the stupas and other small buildings, We had meanwhile spotted a few monks tending to the graves. Our attention was attracted to what struck us as a big colourful tent. It was a actually not one piece of cloth, but lines of coloured pieces of cloth that are so typical for many Tibetan Buddhist structures, all attached to a central pole. One photo tells more than a hundred words.

The centre of the graveyard was a construction best described as a large stupa consisting of many smaller ones. It was a perfect place for a few final pictures.

Tibetan lunch

The graveyard had made us hungry and we started discussing whether lunch or dinner would be the main meal of that day. This was the first, and luckily only, time that our group was completely divided. We decided for lunch. A nearby village turned out to be disappointing, While our choice was shifting to dinner, we saw a resort-like place in the shape of a Tibetan village. The proprietor said that he could prepare lunch and we sat down in a kind of waiting room. It took some time before the first dishes were ready, but they were remarkably good. The manager had mentioned that he had hired a real Sichuan cook and the promise came through.

First bend of the Yellow River

Back on track, our next goal was the First Bend of the Yellow River. This sounds less poetic in English than in Chinese. It is a place close to the spring of the Yellow River, where it meets another river, forming a series of bends, rather than a single one. The sight would not be that spectacular, if there hadn’t been that steep hill from which you can have a breath-taking view over the area. The hill was almost 4000 metres high and it was a hot afternoon. We therefore chose the option to use the escalators for an additional fee. In fact, there were 14 escalators in a row.

On top the view was indeed stunning.

The reason that I am not adding photos of people is that at that height, the sun was so fierce, that we were all wearing hats and scarves to cover our faces. You can burn there in a few minutes. There were no escalators down, but we chose to walk down using the stairs next to the escalators, which were covered to protect people from the sun. It was also much quicker. That same sun was setting and we wanted to arrive at our next hotel before it would be completely dark.

A lively town

That town, Ruo’ergai, looked like the usual suspect, a town as we had seen almost every day during this trip. The hotel was nice, with a lift and a good restaurant, so we took dinner in the hotel this time. An yes, my wife and I hit the town afterwards to stretch our legs and see if Ruo’ergai would look better at night. It did indeed. Ruo’ergai was very lively, with all the shops open until late. The central square was completely lit up and, another familiar scene during this trip, people were dancing together.

 We passed several coffee shops, but didn’t enter, as it was a little late for coffee. We did enter a bar, that looked very modern, to see if we could have a glass of wine. Unfortunately, they were only selling wine by the bottle, as is very common in China. Chinese culture is communitarian and Chinese rarely go to a bar on their own to have one or two glasses.

We did find an interesting item for our road trip in a local convenience store: Belgian Lotus biscuits. I was the coffee drinker of our group and Lotus biscuits are an ideal companion of a cup of coffee.

Then it was about time to return to the hotel.

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Day 10: day in Barkam/Zhuokeji

September 10, 2019

The main objective of the day was a visit to the Changlie Monastery. Another monastery? Yes, and no. Changlie has two distinctive features: it is huge and . . . located on top of mountain at an elevation close to 4000 metres. A fringe benefit was that we did not have to pack our suitcases early in the morning. We would return to our mountain hotel after the visit to have a quiet afternoon.

The road to the monastery took us back to Barkam. We passed the town following the road we had taken the day before. I was still curious to stop there and look around a bit, but among my fellow travellers, I was the only one interested in towns with streets, shops, restaurants, etc. So we drove past again, until we met the sigh Changlie Monastery.

Turning on the road started the drive up the hill that almost took an hour. The mountain is not only high, but also quite steep. You need to meander up, lest a smaller car will give up on you half way.

Greatest view on earth

The long drive was worth the effort. Even before reaching the top, the view grew more spectacular with each turn. Once we reached the monastery, we noticed that the place was one huge construction site.

We had already been told that Changlie was being enlarged, but now we could see the extent of that project: it was huge. Apart from a number of new buildings being constructed, we saw what looked like the beginning of one of the largest Buddha statues in the world. An interesting feature was that the Lamas were apparently raising pigs; an interesting endeavour for people who are supposed to be vegetarians.

Our group, already addicted to taking pictures, immediately started shooting. The best way to describe what the were photographing is showing a picture.

We stayed there for quite a while, also driving one more level up the construction site. Unfortunately, it had been raining during the night, so the soil had become muddy. It was close to noon, when we started our journey back.

We stopped half way to take more pictures, including one of Barkam, far away in the valley.

Cable bridge

The original plan was to have a late lunch in Barkam as the main meal of that day, but driving through we could not decide on a decent place. We moved on and decided to try another restaurant in the leisure area at Zhuokeji town, close to the youth hostel where we had eaten dinner the evening before. It was not as good, actually, but OK.

Most of our party intended to use the afternoon to rest, getting ready for the another day on the road the following day. My wife and I were true to our habits and walked down once more to check out another feature of Zhuokeji: an old cable bridge. That turned out to be quite a photogenetic place. Moreover, our driver had also decided to have a closer look, so the three of us spent some time walking back and forth, taking tons of photos again.

With the setting of the sun, the temperature also dropped and we walked up the hill quite early for our standards. However, while our hotel was already at a lower elevation that then one in Wengda, visiting the Changlie Monastery at such a height started to take its toll. On a trip like that, also considering the illness of one of our companions two days earlier, made us careful to stay healthy. In fact, the following proved to be quite eventful, so worth the extra rest.

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Day 9: Wengda – Zhuokeji

September 9, 2019

The route on this map is hand-drawn, as both Chinese online maps refuse to show the shorter route that we took that day. Distance covered: 268 km.

Goodbye Wengda

Our driver picked us up early in the morning. After loading our luggage as always, we first drove the the Chongqing restaurant for a simple breakfast, that we had arranged for when we had dinner there the day before. Our group was diminished to 6 members and 2 cars that morning. Our very last activity in Wengda was gassing up at a local gas station. Interestingly, I noticed and ad of the Two Sisters restaurant at the bottom of the pillar indicating the prices for the various types of gasoline. Clever girls!

What followed was a relatively monotonous drive through a valley as we had already got used to during the previous days. However, we could imagine that the car that had left the afternoon before would have had a hard time covering the same right in the dark.

Hotel on a mountain

It was almost noon, when we were approaching Barkam, better known to us by its Chinese name: Ma’erkang. Ma’erkang is a provincial town, but considerably larger than Wengda. It looked attractive to spend two nights there, so we could roam the streets in the evening, when the others would turn in early. However, our navigation system guided us passed the city area. I was getting a little anxious already, when I saw a group of buildings with restaurants, shops and inns appearing on our right. Together with a village, it was called Zhuokeji. We thought that our hotel would be part of that compound, but after making a few inquiries, we were directed to a road up the mountain on the left. We were once more glad to be in a four wheel drive car, when we meandered to the top of the mountain, where we saw the Zanglinka Mountain Hotel that would be our home for two nights. We were booked on the third floor once more, still without a lift. However, the rooms seemed OK again. The photo also gives a good look at our fleet of cars.

There were very few other people living there those days. So we had to order our lunch with the manager. Still, food is never a problem in China and we enjoyed a simple lunch. After lunch, my wife and I immediately went down the hill to check out the holiday compound, in particular looking for coffee.

The youth hostel

We met that target remarkably quickly. A few minutes after reaching the holiday area, we spotted a youth hostel, named Kalavinka, advertising for ‘hand brewed coffee’. The two men running the place were completely customerless, so they were happy to serve us with two Americanos. It took a while to make them, but the coffee was worth waiting for.

Long March

Zhuokeji was a station in the famous Long March, a military retreat undertaken by the Red Army of the Communist Party of China (October 1934 – October 1935), to evade the pursuit of the Kuomintang (KMT or Chinese Nationalist Party) army. A small Long March museum was part of the compound and a plaque commemorating the event was carved in the mountain. While we were drinking coffee, we could see our fellow travelers walking towards the museum. We met them when they were already exiting the building; the museum was very small.

Zhuokeji Tusi Official Manor

After having taken the obligatory hundreds of photos around the bridge that separates the holiday compound from the old village, we went up a hill to visit the manor of the former village chief, better known as the Tusi. We actually spent a couple of hours there. I is a big place and remarkably well preserved. Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai had stayed there for a week and after the promulgation of the PRC, the last Tusi had become a local people’s representative. We want to visit the village as well. The local people were not Tibetans, but of the Qiang nationality. However, it was getting late and it started to drizzle, so we opted to go back to the holiday village, perhaps finding a proper place for dinner.

We actually did find such a dinner in the same youth hostel where my wife and I had drunk coffee earlier that afternoon. We had dinner outside, under an umbrella. It was less cold at night, because Ma’erkang (2200 metres) was at a lower elevation than, e.g., Wengda (3300 metres). Dinner was actually good and we chatted a bit with the proprietors, who told us that they were fully booked for the upcoming National Day (October 1) week.

As we had to walk uphill back to the hotel, we saw no need for another nightly stroll and called it a day much earlier that we were used to.

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