Ngaire Phillips

I'm an environmental scientist with a passion for exploring.
Living in: Hamilton, New Zealand
  • Day19

    Farewell my Concubine

    June 3 in China ⋅ ☁️ 3 °C

    As we left China behind us we made a list of the things that we thought had flavoured our experience of China, grouped into the serious stuff and the not-so-serious stuff. Overall, an amazing place on so many levels.

    The serious stuff
    1. It's a big country with big plans to accommodate its burgeoning population. We saw numerous large scale roading and infrastructure developments everywhere (and anywhere). Watch out America!
    2. Well managed tourist attractions, although perhaps a bit too managed!
    3. Constant noise - even in the middle of nowhere.
    4. Friendly and obliging people (for the most part).
    5. Police in riot gear and metal detectors in shops as a normal part of life (at least in the west).
    6. "Food is heaven" and the "starvation mentality"(eat as much as you can, while you can).
    7. Well-used public exercise facilities and a yet a constant stream of cigarette smoke as you wander down the street.
    8. Beautiful and well-thought out parks and gardens.
    9. Plastic - it's everywhere and there is certainly no obvious interest in reducing it.
    10. Poor planning and the encroachment of urban areas on farm land (displacement of people).

    The fun stuff
    1. Instant toileting solutions for babies and toddlers- pants slit front and back (saves on nappies)
    2. Bring on the bling. They don't do things by halves.
    3. Dodgy plumbing, hard beds.
    4. Humungous floral artworks.
    5. Crocheted, woven and lacy motorbike covers.
    6. Face mask labels.
    7. Piled high auto-rickshaws.

    And the consistently funniest....Eglish translations of Chinese instructions.
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  • Day17

    Islamic influences

    June 1 in China ⋅ ☀️ 29 °C

    A large statue of Chairman Mao dominates Kashgar's physical city centre. However, it would seem that the Ida Kah Mosque provides it's spiritual centre. One of the largest mosques in China, it was probably built in 1738 but apparently stands on the site of a smaller, 15th century mosque. With a definite Central Asian, rather than Chinese, architectural style, the mosque was badly damaged during the Cultural Revolution. Our visit was a reminder to me of the tragedy in Christchurch. The denigration of such a tranquil and contemplative place belies belief.

    According to our guide book, Islam arrived in China around the 9th century, about 200 years after Arab sailors landed in southern China. There are now more than 13 million Muslims in China, concentrated in the Xinjiang province in north western China (including Uighur, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Tajiks, Tatars and Uzbeks), as well as Chinese speaking Hui, who are scattered around the country. Islam became dominant in the Xinjiang region by the 15th century and Kashgar became an important Islamic centre.

    It was here that we also learnt from our guide that the entrance price for tourist attractions in China generally reflects the age of said attraction (price increases with age)!

    The Aba Khoja Mausoleum is another must-see on the Kashgar tourist trail. Considered one of the best examples of Islamic architecture in China, the mausoleum is the burial place of the family of Aba Khoja, a celebrated Islamic missionary. Built in the 17th century it retains much of its original tiling. Exquisite colours - blue, green, orange - adorn the exterior. Inside, blue-glazed tiles decorate the cradle-shaped tombs of family members. Tiny tombs tell sad stories of young ones lost.

    The mausoleum is also known as Xiangfei's Tomb. Xiangfei (or Ikparhan as she was known) was a descendant of Aba Khoja and had been forced to become the concubine of the Chinese Emperor. Depending on which story you believe, she refused to submit to the dastardly fellow and was either murdered or committed suicide. Or she may have lived to old age. Regardless, the story goes that after she died she continued to smell as sweetly fragrant as she did when alive, and so became known as the Fragrant Concubine. Two coffins were used to transport her from Bejing to her home in Kashgar, with one being constantly filled with fresh roses to maintain her perfumed state. Apparently it took 3 years for the journey. I feel sorry for the poor fellows charged with refreshing the roses around her rotting body!

    A nearby Friday (or Juma) mosque offered more insight into the Muslim world. Individually carved pillars detailed beautiful floral emblems and are considered amongst the finest examples of Uighur wood culture.

    Kashgar is a city of old and new and we spent time exploring the older parts of town that had undergone restoration to enhance their old world charm. A short distance from the main street and you entered a world of children playing in shared courtyards, old men and women sharing stories perched on tiny chairs, colorful doorways and ornate detailing. A wonderful contrast to the constant noise, the dusty air and the human shuffle.
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  • Day17

    Kashgar markets

    June 1 in China ⋅ ☀️ 29 °C

    As the meeting point of the northern and southern Silk Roads and the gateway to the west, Kashgar was once a place of great significance. Established as a Chinese garrison in AD 78, the city didn't become part of the Chinese empire until the 18th century. Entering this city felt very much like entering a new country and our poor Chinese group leader William struggled at times to communicate with the locals!

    Our prime reason for visiting Kashgar was to visit the bazaar and the now separately located livestock market.

    Packed with Uighur men (and the occasional woman), the livestock market buzzes with the sounds of humans and animals alike. Fat-tailed sheep, super cute goats, donkeys, horses and cattle compete for the attention of would-be buyers. You didn't need to understand the language to see when the relative merits of an animal (or herd) were being discussed or when deals were being made. A handshake, a quick smile - all done! Animals are transported on anything from serious cattle trucks to motor scooters and even the odd donkey cart. And of course as largely a food animal market, there are plenty of opportunities to sample the potential goods!

    In contrast, the bazaar is the place to buy just about anything else. From stockings to large pots to medicinal herbs to brocade curtains, this is where the locals shop. Mind you, other than watermelon to quench our thirst in the sweltering heat, we resisted the temptation to add to our souvenir collection, preferring instead to pace our purchasing across the 3 additional countries on our schedule.
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  • Day15

    Flamin' heck!

    May 30 in China ⋅ ☀️ 19 °C

    With temperatures in the mid-30s it seemed crazy to be heading to the rather ominous-sounding Flaming Mountains, also home to the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha caves - another Buddhist monastery carved into the mountainside.

    Famous as a place where eggs can be baked in the sand, the Flaming Mountains proved to be spectacular but more for their size than their colour (or perhaps we'd been spoilt by the Rainbow Mountains?). An impossibly steep pathway reached to the mountain top, while the way down appeared to be facilitated by way of a slide - clever thinking!

    The Bezelklik caves, once decorated lavishly in much the same way as the more extensive Mogao Caves, had suffered at the hands of European and Japanese explorers, with statues and entire frescoes having been removed to far-away museums. As with all of the Buddhist monasteries we'd visited, it proved to be a place of tranquility and contemplation, even with a horde of Chinese tourists waving flags and sporting matching white outfits with orange caps!

    A 20 minute walk to visit Imin Ta turned into an hour-long slog in the uncomfortable heat. But it did give us a bit more of a look at the Muslim section of town. Constructed in 1778, the beautifully decorated minaret rises like a chimney beside the mosque. Clever brickwork creates a complex pattern that contrasts with the plainer mosque. Solemn cradle-like unmarked tombs formed rows in an adjacent cemetery.

    A quick trip to the impressive museum, complete with a rather gruesome but nonetheless fascinating collection of mummies excavated during highway construction, then it was back to the station for our final overnight train to Kashgar.
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  • Day14

    Turpan

    May 29 in China ⋅ ☀️ 31 °C

    The oasis city of Turpan is located in the region of Xinjiang. Sharing borders with 8 countries, the region is primarily desert and grassland, fringed by some of the largest mountains in the world. Oasis towns are scattered along the Silk Road that skirts the northern and southern edges of the Taklamakan Desert.

    The predominance of "minority" ethnic groups (and especially the Uighur people) resulted, in 1955, in the declaration of the region as the Uigher Autonomous Region. The 15 police stations we observed on the 30 minute journey from the train station to our hotel reminded us, however, that we were still very much in China. Indeed it was rather disturbing to see police walking around the streets in full riot gear, as if this was a normal part of life.

    Turpan itself lies in the Turpan depression - one of the lowest points on earth. This was really the first place where we'd seen the influence of the Silk Road on ethnic diversity, with street and shop signs written in both Chinese and Arabic. The local people, their faces, their food, the architecture - all reflected the long history of the Uighur in this region. And of course there was plenty of lamb (and no pork)!

    The Jiaohe city ruins lie a short distance from the city centre. Founded as an administrative centre and garrison town by the Chinese in the 2nd century BC, it came under the influence of the Uighur people in the 6th century. While mostly comprised of ruins, it is still possible to appreciate the complexity and especially the building methods used to create this impressive place. Located on a steep plateau, many of the structures were created by digging down into the rock (rather than building on top) - a mammoth task! At its peak it supported about 700 households, mainly Buddhist Uighurs.

    Turpan is famous for its grape growing. Grape vines are everywhere, as is a great variety of fruit and vegetables. Grapes are dried in specially designed rooms, often located above houses. The area is truly an oasis and a complex aqueduct and irrigation system (known as a karez) supplies much-needed water to support the extensive agriculture we observed. There was some debate about the origin of the system, and perhaps this is a good example of the success of the Silk Road.

    The influence of the Turkic culture was also evident at our lunch at a local winery, where we were entertained with dancers in fabulous costumes. How they managed these energetic activities in 30+ degrees escaped us! Luckily there was plenty of local beer for us to quench our thirst.
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  • Day13

    Mogao Caves and the Gobi Desert

    May 28 in China ⋅ ⛅ 25 °C

    The main purpose of our visit to Dunhuang was to view the rather impressive Mogao caves. Dug into cliffs that rise out of the otherwise flat and featureless desert landscape, the caves reveal Buddhist paintings dating as far back as the 4th century. For more than 700 years Buddhist monks from far and wide excavated the hard rock and painted exquisite testaments to their faith. More than 2000 painted stucco figures and around 45,000 square meters of murals remain.

    We were unable to photograph any of the interiors but a few external images also remained. Of more than 600 caves that survive, about 20 are open to the public. Of the 8 we were shown, what struck us most was how vivid the colours remained after such a long time. They were truly beautiful. There were apparently also 1000s of manuscripts but many of these were taken by 19th/20th century explorers and reside in foreign museums.

    In addition to the cave paintings there are also two more humungous Buddha, one reclining and the other sitting. The external structure to the cave entrance gives an idea of the size of the sitting Buddha (around 35m).

    Of course no visit to the desert is complete without a camel ride! Only a short distance from town the sand mountain Mingsha Shan rises impressively. Camel riding in orange sand boots is a must, as is viewing the spectacular Crescent Moon Lake.

    We happened upon a fabulous theatrical production set in an equally impressive underground theatre. Entirely in Chinese, our guide thought we were a bit crazy, but it proved to be one of the highlights of our trip. Loosely based on the story of the loss of the Buddhist manuscripts from the Mogao Caves, the sounds, sights and sheer creativity of this production blew us away.
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  • Day12

    Dunhuang

    May 27 in China ⋅ ⛅ 24 °C

    After a long drive we arrived in the rather pleasant city of Dunhuang. With a population of only 200,000 it's virtually a village by Chinese standards. An oasis town set amidst the stark Gobi Desert, it once served as the last stop on the Silk Road before the leap into the unknown. After settling in to our hotel we headed out, relishing the rare opportunity for independent exploration.

    We'd observed outdoor exercise parks elsewhere on our journey and Dunhuang was no exception. Indeed, it is very common to see adults and children alike exercising in these communal settings at any time of the day.

    An impressive "river" runs through the city, offering mid-river picnic spots, a fantastic fountain display, dragon boating and more. We really liked this city!

    Our destination was the White Horse Pagoda (or Baima Ta), set within a very modest Buddhist temple located in a rather down-trodden (but soon to be upgraded) part of town. The pagoda was built in memory of a horse belonging to a Buddhist monk who'd passed through the area. He clearly made an impact! His horse died at the temple in 384 AD.

    After rejoining our fellow travellers we spent a pleasant few hours observing the locals, partaking of the local beverage and enjoying the stunning light show.
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  • Day11

    Jiayuguan and the Great Wall

    May 26 in China ⋅ 🌬 15 °C

    Jiayuguan City is the access point for the great fort of Jiayuguan. Our hotel was located opposite a lovely park, featuring wonderful sculptures and beautiful gardens. The Chinese certainly know how to create beautiful public spaces.

    Built to mark the end of the Ming Great Wall, the fort was considered as the limit of Chinese civilization and the beginning of the outer barbarian lands. Anyone exiled beyond the gates of this fort faced a life among nomadic strangers, as well as the wind-blasted wastelands of the Gobi Desert. Not surprising then that it was the least popular station in the entire empire! Apparently even today some Chinese associate this area with exile and despair.

    Completed in 1372, much of fort has been rebuilt and is in great condition. The fort is strategically positioned near the entrance to the Hexi Corridor, a narrow passage through the mountains linking China and the West. It was therefore important for both military and trade activities. It's also the western edge of the Great Wall.

    Nearby is the Overhanging Great Wall, a long stretch of the wall which heads up into the mountains. Finally got to climb a bit of the Great Wall of China! And did it with a great bunch of people too.
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  • Day10

    Rainbow Mountains

    May 25 in China ⋅ ⛅ 16 °C

    Danxia National Geopark is a relatively recent addition to the tourist trail in this part of China. Apparently known to the locals for years, the area was promoted through a Chinese action film in the early 2000s. The spectacular scenery has since attracted national and international attention.

    It truly is a beautiful place. It's just a pity the Chinese authorities who created the impressive visitor facilities saw fit to install speakers everywhere. The constant advertisements and elevator music detracted from any thoughts of communing with nature and was a reminder of what we had observed elsewhere - the need for constant noise.

    We visited the mountains in late afternoon and then again early morning. Sun rise over the mountains is apparently quite spectacular when the sky is clear. Unfortunately the cloud persisted and the colours were muted; nonetheless it was still worth the effort of the early morning, even if just to avoid the crowds and the music! The sound of the wind was a symphony by comparison.
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  • Day9

    Zhangye

    May 24 in China ⋅ ☀️ 24 °C

    Our first sleeper train proved to be more comfortable and and a lot more fun than I'd expected. With 6 of us crammed into a tiny space, cooperation and some basic acrobatics were required. With no curtains we presented something of a curiosity show to fellow passengers seated in the narrow hallway during dinner and breakfast.

    Zhangye is a "small" city of about 1.5 million people. Once an important stopover on the Silk Road, one of its main claims to fame now is that the Dafo Si (a Buddhist Temple) houses the largest reclining Buddha in China. At 34 m long this large clay fellow is breathtaking (unfortunately we weren't allowed to photograph it). While at first appearances it may seem he's simply having a rest, we were to find out later that this pose indicates that he has "gone to paradise" or "reached nirvana". Which basically means he died.

    Various other buildings form the temple complex, all set in beautiful gardens. An impressive display of translations of Buddhist text (originally in sanskrit) brought to China by Buddhist monks, included intricate woodcuts prints and even some of the original wood cut blocks.

    Also of interest was a large stupa, which is basically a Buddhist shrine where relics of some sort may be kept. It provides a place of worship.

    The local markets are great places to observe the shifts in climate and culture that are slowly revealing themselves as we travel along the Silk Road. Fresh and dried fruits, fabulous fungi, eggs - black, white, blue and spotted, even yak meat. Which makes for wonderful (and rather large) meals!

    Zhangye's other attraction is Danxia Geological Park, known more colloquially as Rainbow Mountains. But I'll save that for another day.
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