Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Silk Road: Hand Shredded Lamb

Roasted whole lamb presented to our table with a red bow
You can't go to Xinjiang without eating lamb. Lamb kebabs, lamb dumplings, lamb with noodles and whole roasted lamb.

We had a chance to have the whole roasted lamb in a dish called shou zhua gua yang or literally "hand shredded lamb" at a restaurant in Dunhuang before we watched the show about the Mogao Grottoes.

Lamb roasting in one of many charcoal ovens
Like every other restaurant we ate at during our tour, they were catered to tour groups and this one was not exception. At the entrance to the restaurant were brick ovens powered with white hot charcoal where they had really young lambs that were spread as flat as possible onto racks and then roasted.

They were slow roasted for about two hours so that in the end the skin was very crispy, most of the fat had melted and the meat very tender.

When the lamb was ready, it was strangely presented on a stainless steel platter with leaves in its mouth. It's almost as bad as the glowing red eyes that some whole roasted pork have...

Apparently there is a ritual around cutting the lamb -- where the eldest at the table is given the knife to make the first cut. My uncle was given the knife and he stabbed the lamb... as if it needed to be killed -- again.

Afterwards the lamb is shredded for consumption. Dig in!
The lamb was then taken back to the kitchen and soon afterwards it reappeared on our table completely ripped up into chunks and bits.

Each of us were given a thin plastic disposable glove to grab the meat and dip it into a choice of a few sauces, but really it was fine on its own. The meat was very tender, particularly those near the bone. Some of us licked the bones clean too.

This lamb dish was accompanied by mostly vegetable dishes, like pickled radishes, mung bean jelly, cucumbers with garlic and fried vegetables.

Monday, 30 October 2017

Silk Road: Uyghur Culture

Two musicians playing amazing instruments, a woman on tambourine
After we arrived in Kashgar, we quickly noticed things were much different here in the westernmost city in China and Xinjiang that borders Kazakhstan. All the Uyghurs look very different, some fair skinned, almost European, and others very dark and could be mistaken for being Mexican, much like how the Spanish can have various shades of skin colour.

Our first meal was at a Uyghur restaurant that looked traditional and probably for the benefit of tourists. In the middle was a bar (with no alcohol) and a dancing floor with a platform where three musicians sat playing instruments. Two dancers, a man and a woman performed folk dances for guests.

The woman would also dance with her partner for diners
It seemed like the Han Chinese sat on one side of the room, while the other featured Hui ethnic minority people, who are also Muslim, the women wearing simple headdresses and clapping along with the music.

We were given an array of dishes to eat, like a ratatouille with noodles, a large dumpling filled with lamb, and sweet rice seasoned with spices, and of course lamb kebabs. We were also presented with baked buns with minced meat inside.

The music was fantastic, mesmerizing to listen to -- a pity we were not given an introduction to the instruments! And it was interesting to watch how the dancers interpreted the music through their dance steps.

A bowl of noodles with a kind of ratatouille
After dinner, I wanted to share some moon cakes from Hong Kong with the rest of the tour members -- 30-year-old mandarin peels with red bean paste -- but I needed a knife to cut them.

We asked one of the waitresses in Mandarin and she violently shook her head and waved her hand. Then we thought she didn't understand Mandarin and drew a picture... not the best drawing, but when we showed it to her she again shook her head.

Finally we managed to flag down our Uyghur tour guide to ask for a knife and he said we were not allowed to have one in the restaurant. In the end we had to settle for a spoon which I used to cut the moon cakes into quarters. It wasn't the best solution, but it was the only one.

Sweetened and spiced rice with lamb kebabs and a dumpling
We later found out that Uyghurs are not allowed to carry knives anywhere and they are only allowed in the kitchen, not for guests to use. It's just another of the Chinese government's strict measures to try to control this "restive region" following some attacks in the last eight to nine years, some of which involved knives.

The longer we stayed here, the more we realized how oppressive life was like for Uyghurs -- on a daily basis.

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Silk Road: Urumqi Diwopu International Airport

Urumqi Diwopu International Airport with very strict security measures
Going to the airport in Urumqi -- or any airport in Xinjiang -- is an experience.

We were forewarned not to have any battery charging equipment in our luggage, all electronic equipment in our carry-on, no liquids exceeding 100ml and no sharp objects at all.

When we were checking in, our luggage was screened at the same time so that if there was a problem, we were pulled aside to open the suitcase for inspection. In my case I completely forgot about a mobile phone charger I had in my luggage.

Only after this was sorted by putting it in my hand carry bag was I finally given my boarding pass.

Anyone want a lavender squirrel?
Then we went through rigorous security checks. One tour member was found to have a pocket knife in their bag -- they forgot to pack it in their luggage. It was confiscated.

And we were definitely patted down -- practically everywhere. We even had to take off our shoes and lift our feet off to be wanded in case there might be explosive powder or something on them.

But admittedly after going through this rigorous process I did feel rest assured that our flight would be safe, otherwise these security officers would surely get into trouble...

The airport looks new, but the design is so counter intuitive. Gates are down a flight of stairs -- why not make them all the same level? And all the shops sell the same things at the same prices... it got boring very quickly. How many more dried dates can I buy? And purple squirrels with a lavender smell?

Or how about a book on Jack Ma?
Or you could go to the bookstore (all in Chinese) and get a book on how Jack Ma Yun of Alibaba became a billionaire. Just in case you wanted to know.

You could tell which restaurant was the best just by seeing how many people were there; if there was a line-up that was the one to go to. The others were either too expensive or didn't taste good.

Our flight from Urumqi to Kashgar was about an hour and a half, and when we arrived, we had to walk down the stairs to a shuttle bus that drove us to the terminal. When we got there, there was only one baggage claim. Guess that was ours.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

Silk Road: Tianshan Lake

Tianshan Lake with its water source, the Tianshan Mountains in the back
Most places in Xinjiang get their water source from Tianshan Mountains, and Tianshan Lake is one of them. The lake is 1,907 metres above sea level and is 4.9 square kilometres, and 105 metres deep at its deepest point.

For lunch we had traditional Hui ethnic minority food
We drove several hours to get here, and after going through the ticket turnstiles. we had to board another tour bus to drive several kilometres up a winding road where we saw water rushing down natural gullies.

The bus dropped us off at the base, where we could then either take a golf cart up to the lake or walk up about a kilometre and I did the latter, a steady incline up through a wooded area which was refreshing and cool.

When we reached the lake, we first went to have lunch in a nearby restaurant that served Hui ethnic minority food. The specialty features nine dishes on a large square platter including a tureen of soup and of course some rice.

A panoramic view of Tianshan Lake (minus the helicopter)
The food were delicious, some of them a bit spicy, others not, like stewed fish, roasted chicken, minced meat wrapped in tofu like rolls and sliced thinly, thin slices of beef and glutinous rice.

On a full stomach it was the perfect time to walk around part of the lake. It is quite crystal clear, a deep aquamarine blue colour, and the snow-capped mountains -- the Tianshan Mountains -- in the distance.

The runoff from the Tianshan Mountains rushing down
While we were there, a helicopter seemed to be doing some filming as it hovered over the lake creating lots of ripples, which isn't normally the case. It seemed to be filming a ferry that was completely empty, perhaps for a promotional video.

But I have to admit the view was pretty impressive and reminded us of Lake Louise in in Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada.

The water that flows from Tianshan Mountains is very precious and the Uyghurs were very clever in figuring out how to use it effectively by creating an underwater canal system called karez in Uyghur that dates back to 103 BC. Without this water system, civilization in the area would not exist.

Karez were built to be able to send water at longer distances
Back thousands of years ago, the Uyghurs dug vertical wells for water. But they also built canals so that the wells were linked together horizontally and spread out as far as 5,000km.

They were able to figure out where to dig and how to ensure both ends would meet horizontally to carry water further from the water source. This in turn helped irrigate otherwise parched land to grow crops and also sustain people. As a result, this water system took several generations to build.

In total there were over 1,100 karez, but now only about 400 are functioning -- this will impact Turpan in terms of having enough water for everyone and climate change is also a big factor. What will happen when there is no more melting snow on the Tianshan Mountains? What will people do then?

Water rushing by from a karez as shown through the glass
It's a sad reality, which probably also explains why the water pressure in our hotel rooms were quite low and taking a shower took much longer than usual. But it is a good wake up call not to waste water, and that an impending drought could become a reality in Turpan and the surrounding areas.

Friday, 27 October 2017

Silk Road: Flaming Mountains

Panoramic view of the Flaming Mountains from the Bezeklik Buddhist caves
Next to the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves is the Flaming Mountains. They are called that because the ground temperatures are so high on these mountains -- up to 50 degrees Centigrade or even higher -- that no plants or animals can live here.

The red sandstone also makes the mountains look like they are "on fire".

During ancient times, merchants and Buddhist pilgrims traveling along the Silk Road would avoid the Flaming Mountains and try to find oasis towns nearby, such as Gaochang.

The valleys are caused by erosion of the sandstone.
The Flaming Mountains have also achieved literary fame through the novel Journey to the West, when a Buddhist monk makes a pilgrimage accompanied by a Monkey King who has magical powers. At one point in the story, the monk runs through a wall of flames, a fictionalized (and embellished) account of monk Xuanzang's travels to India to learn more about Buddhism.

In Journey to the West, Monkey King creates a disturbance in the heavens, knocking over a kiln that causes the embers to fall from the sky onto the place where the Flaming Mountains are.

Alternatively in a Uyghur legend, a dragon lived in the Tianshan Mountains and liked to eat little children. As a result a Uyghur hero slayed the dragon and cut it up into eight pieces. The dragon's blood turned into a scarlet mountain of blood and the eight pieces formed the eight valleys in the Flaming Mountains.

Aren't these stories of how Flaming Mountains came about wonderful and creative?

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Silk Road: Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves

A view of Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves at the foot of Flaming Mountain
Buddhism came to China through the Silk Road, and the first contact point was in what is now Xinjiang. Early on the Uyghurs were Buddhists and Turpan became the centre of the religion.

One of the lasting tributes to Buddhism is the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves that are located at the bottom of the Flaming Mountains, 45 kilometres east of Turpan.

There is a range of painting styles that can be found here
These series of caves are quite amazing, in the middle of nowhere, much like the Mogao Grottoes, and whatever is left is quite impressive. The caves were built during the Southern and Northern dynasties or the 5th century through to the Tang, Song and Yuan dynasties or 14th century.

Inside the caves are beautiful murals of Buddha in the past, present and future, along with his disciples and followers painted in various styles depending on the dynasty. Some of the murals still have some vibrant colours with very intricate designs that cover every inch of space.

However around the end of the 13th century Buddhist Uyghurs were converted to Islam during a holy war when the they were conquered by the Muslim Chagatai Khanate ruler Khizr Khoja. Therefore, interest in Buddhism declined, while Islam was introduced.

The skin colour of these figures used to be pink long ago
As a result, these caves became neglected, while in subsequent centuries later robbers cut out and stole entire pieces of murals, or Muslims who were anti-Buddhist came and gouged out the eyes of and mouths of figures on the walls.

It was a pity to only see a few caves -- that are guarded nowadays by Uyghurs to ensure no one took pictures of each -- but you can see why it's so important that these caves be guarded.

Strangely these caves are not considered to be good enough to be national treasures on par with Mogao Grottoes as these ones are some of the earliest known Buddhist art work dating back to the 5th century; the Mogao Grottoes date back to the 4th century.

The intricate paintings are impressive
Some patches of murals can be seen in museums around the world, such as the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Tokyo National Museum, the British Museum in London and national museums in Korea and India.

Apparently some of the best pieces were afixed to the walls of the Museum of Ethnology in Berlin, but during World War II, they could not be removed and were thus destroyed in the bombing of of the city by the Allies.

It makes you wonder how many Uyghurs today know their history with regards to Buddhism and would they consider converting back?

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Silk Road: Gaochang Ruins

Well-preserved ruins still standing tall at Gaochang
Another deserted city is the Gaochang Ruins, about 30 kilometres southeast of Turpan located on the edge of the Taklamakan Desert.

A main storage building in Gaochang, 30km from Turpan
From the remaining architecture, the place looked pretty sophisticated with buttressed walls and arches, and had temples too. It was originally built as a garrison town in 100 BC and was a key point along the Silk Road because travelers could stop here for food and water.

By the 14th century, it was severely damaged from wars between Mongolians and Uyghurs, and as a result Gaochang was eventually abandoned. But some of the buildings still stand and look in pretty good condition, making one wonder what life was like back then.

Gaochang was also known as a sanctuary of culture. The Buddhist monk Xuanzhaung, came here on his way to India and taught Buddhism -- we were even shown the room where he gave his lessons. There were also residents who were Christian and Manicheans, a religion based on good and evil from Iran.

The temple where Xuanzhuang gave lectures on Buddhism
We got to not only see these ruins, but also some tombs down below. One or two had Chinese calligraphy or paintings that looked detailed, featuring portraits of people. It's quite amazing that these items are well preserved and that no one has stolen them yet.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Silk Road: Emin Minaret

The Emin Minaret is decorated with bricks and has narrow windows
At 44 metres, this is the tallest minaret in China, standing next to a mosque in Turpan, Xinjiang. The tower was traditionally used to call people to prayer, but nowadays it is hardly ever used -- the Chinese government declared in August this year that loud speakers could not be used to call Muslims to observe their faith.

The tallest minaret in China stands next to a Turpan mosque
Construction on the minaret began in 1777 and was completed within a year. It was built in honour of a local Turpan general, Emin Khoja, which is why the minaret has the name "Emin".

We weren't allowed to go inside the minaret to climb the 72 steps, but it is made of wood and brick, the latter having floral designs carved on them. The tower also has several long windows at different heights to provide light and ventilation.

Next to the minaret is a mosque that is made with rough wooden beams. It's understated except for the elaborate silk carpets on the floors. For such a grand looking structure on the outside, it is quite humble and simple inside.

Inside the mosque it's bare and humble with wooden beams
However, the minaret is really the standout here, with the geometric designs and texture created by the bricks, and the fact that it's still standing is a testament to artisans over 200 years ago.

Monday, 23 October 2017

Silk Road: Jiaohe Ruins

The tall cliffs that surrounded Jiaohe as natural defenses for the town
One of the first places we visited in Xinjiang was the Jiaohe Ruins, about 10 kilometres west of Turpan.

Established about 2,000 years ago, it was a town of about 7,000 people who were Indo-European speaking Tocharians who lived on a leaf-shaped plateau that was surrounded by two deep river valleys that acted as natural defenses. The river divides into two around the town, which is why the place is called Jiaohe, or "river junction".

What's left inside are ruins from 2,000 years ago
Jiaohe used to be an important site along the Silk Road, which later became part of the Tang Dynasty, while it also became a military post in the west.

The city was considered quite sophisticated at the time, with Buddhist temples and stupas, as well as an area for government, residents and even graveyards that were further away from the city centre, but strangely there was a small cemetery for dead babies closer to the community.

However in the 13th century it was destroyed by the Mongols during an invasion, and the people abandoned Jiaohe, leaving behind ruins that were only discovered later.

Today there are just literally ruins which people can visit, though it's impossible to see the entire site. Also after a while the areas all blur together and it's hard to know what is what.

Near the city is a small cemetery for babies
Nevertheless it is amazing to think some 2,000 years ago a community of several thousand thrived here for hundreds of years and then disappeared, leaving behind clues of their existence.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Silk Road: Riding the Train to Turpan

Train staff checking to see if the platform is clear before moving on
Our visit through Gansu province was over and now it was time to board the train to Turpan in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

The Dunhuang train station looked spanking new -- two years old we were told -- and right at the entrance we had to deal with security checks, showing our passports and putting our luggage through X-ray machines before even getting into the building.

Staff at the entrance have riot helmets and gear ready...
We arrived early so we had time to hit the loo (pretty clean) before heading to our train. Originally our Gansu-based tour guide was not going to join us -- we were going to go on our own and then meet our Xinjiang guide in Turpan.

However, we felt it was best he help us out just in case and we're so lucky he did.

Our second-class train tickets were bought months in advance; in that time period, some people had renewed passports so their passport number was different from the one printed on their ticket.

At least one person had a lot of hassle because of this and in the end had to refund her ticket and buy another one, which meant she could not sit with us. Our guide was on hand to help her out with this.

A high speed train ready to go (not ours)
If that wasn't all, there was the issue of luggage. One would think traveling by train is straight forward, but in China it's not. We easily took the escalator up to go across to the platform on the other side, but when we wanted to go down, there was no escalator, only stairs and a very steep slope to drag suitcases on the far right.

Needless to say it was a complete disaster -- people's suitcases rolled (or slid) faster than their owners and it created such mess that it was just easier, but more muscle work to carry suitcases down the stairs.

That resulted in our tour guide having to go up and down to help many of us bring our suitcases down several flights of stairs which was quite stressful given the sheer number of people also doing the same thing, and having to lift heavy loads.

Inside our train which is quite new
Finally that was sorted and gathering ourselves together we boarded the train, again our tour guide helping put many of the suitcases in the racks above. Some of us sat three to a seat, so six of us faced each other on the right, while on the left there were two seats.

The train started up quickly and we thought the staff would check tickets but they never did, and because there were many free seats some sat in other places. And then after one or two stops more people got on so we had to sit in our designated seats. 

By the way the food selection is quite dire -- there's instant noodles, drinks and chips -- including cucumber flavour. My uncle got soy bean drink with red bean, but it was the powder version which needed hot water and it turned out lumpy. One bright spot was having Haagen Daz ice cream!

One guy sitting near us had a dumbfounded look on his face watching us the whole time. He wore a black leather cap, black vest, T-shirt, glasses and boots. Sitting next to him was a woman on our tour who reported he had terrible body odour!

Finally he got off at one stop, but another man randomly sat next to her and he too stared at us. He didn't seem to belong in that seat, but what can you say? He looked a bit shifty, but that's because he felt uneasy being in a second-class cabin when perhaps he should have sat elsewhere.

Four hours later we finally arrived in Turpan, in time for dinner -- but wait we still had to deal with getting our luggage off the train and down the stairs again...

So that was our experience riding the train. One would expect it to be more convenient than the plane, but having to carry our suitcases up and down was too much!

Friday, 20 October 2017

Silk Road: Yangguan Pass and Yumen Pass

Yangguan Pass is surrounded by a fence
We visited the two westernmost frontiers in China during the Western Han Dynasty in Gansu province near Dunhuang. Well, three to four hours' drive from Dunhuang. They were both important points along the Silk Road.

Yangguan Pass was built by Emperor Wu in 120 BC and was considered a military lookout post, while Yumen Pass, also known as Jade Gate, was used during the Han Dynasty where people went through here along the Silk Road to get to Central Asia.

Visitors can go through Yumen Pass, that's like a fortress
Yumen Pass had a museum that visitors could go through before heading outside to see the actual structure, a giant brick structure that looked like a fortress that you can walk through.

However Yangguan Pass requires a golf cart trip to get to, and then it's surrounded by a fence. Both look like shadows of their former selves... but that's what happens thousands of years later when they fall out of use.

Nevertheless, both are points along the Silk Road that should be visited, though driving to get to both points (north and south) was a slog!

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Silk Road: Dunhuang Celebration

Learning about the story of the Mogao Grottoes through an outdoor show
To extend our Mogao Grottoes experience we got to see a show related to the caves. We didn't quite know what to expect, but then again, what else are you going to do in the evening in Dunhuang?

Our tour guide didn't know the show would be outside, so it did get a bit chilly, but given that an audience of several hundred were packed together, we were able to generate some body heat.

Special effects like these fire-related splashes were a bit much
The stands where the audience sat could move and it turned at right angles around four times to face four different stages. It's described as "luxury live desert theater", but how is it luxurious if you have to brave the natural elements? And the plastic seats aren't very comfortable... are we asking for too much?

The story is about a painter called Mo Ding who works in Dunhuang, painting in the caves. It is highly dubious that he and a princess fall in love, but we suspend our doubts, because there's conflict in that she is betrothed to a warrior leader in order to have peace in the area.

The smitten couple escape and hide for a while, but then the barbarian leader finds her and takes her back -- she apparently later dies of depression! In the end, Mo Ding continues his mission by expressing his love for her on the murals at Dunhuang.

Some of the projections are pretty neat, creating a 3D effect, or at least adding another layer to the production, while other scenes, like in Dunhuang town dancing in the streets and couples standing by windows were irrelevant. There were also some fire special effects used that again were not relevant to the story, but were there to keep the audience interested.

A romantic ending with some 3D projection
The ending was kind of tacky, women dressed in white with the dresses covered in LED lights, while Mo Ding and the princess danced on a huge crescent moon...

Having just been to New York where the performers on Broadway are thrilled to be on stage, the dancers here looked at it as a job, some appeared bored, others managed a smile or two.

The performers stood on or by the stage as the audience left, and a few elderly women pinched some of the young women's cheeks as if to check if they were real or not. Did the performers get this kind of treatment all the time? How bizarre!

It was an entertaining show for the most part, though it's heavily promoted by the government which makes us wonder who gets how much of a cut out of it. Since it's the only show in town, there's pretty much a captive audience every night...

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Silk Road: Mogao Grottoes

The Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang, Gansu province
About 10 years ago when I was in Beijing, I checked out an exhibition that was a replica of the Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang.

There are over 400 caves, but only a handful shown publicly
I didn't know anything about them but it sounded fascinating and was so glad I went. Afterwards I was thinking, I have to see the real thing... wherever Dunhuang is!

It took me a decade to finally go see the place in person and it has to be appreciated on so many levels in terms of art, history, and society. It all started in 366AD, when a Buddhist monk named Le Zun was traveling in the area and had a vision of a thousand Buddhas. He built a cave here in hopes of reaching nirvana.

Others soon followed, digging out their own caves and began decorating them with paintings. It's here in these caves or grottoes that one can see not only the artistic skill that spans over 1,000 years, making it a kind of library of art history of that time, but also how Buddhism was depicted and studied.

Some caves reveal intricate artistic detail and vivid colours
Some pilgrims paid artisans to decorate caves for them, and so it must have become a mini industry in the middle of the desert to demonstrate their devotion to Buddha. Apparently there were some 1,000 caves, but when they were abandoned, the desert sands took over them; there are 735 left, of which almost 500 are decorated.

While most of the caves feature three Buddhas -- the present, past and future, along with musicians and dancers that seem weightless in the sky, there were also more down-to-earth portraits of wealthy patrons, such as the Cao family, featuring women in long robes and make-up. Others captured daily life, such as farming and the foods they ate.

Musicians in flowing robes performing for Buddha
We only saw about seven caves and the ones we saw were not all in good condition. Some figures had black faces, but that's because the pink colour had oxidized over the decades and centuries. Some caves had glaringly empty spots where sculptures used to be and had been stolen, or the "eyes" of Buddhist disciples scratched out because they used to have gold on them.

One cave had a giant Buddha lying on his side after death, his disciples mourning in grief, while another had Buddha standing up 75 feet tall.

Black faces are from oxidation of the paint on the walls
A reminder of foreign theft was shown in one cave that had stored 7,000 manuscripts including the Diamond Sutra that was published in 868AD and were gone, now in the British Library. The caves are individually locked with padlocks which our guide has to use a key to open each one and lock afterwards.

We were lucky to come here just before the Golden Week rush, so there wasn't a massive crowd of people, and we came early in the morning too. We wished we could see more, and the prime examples of caves, but alas, our guanxi wasn't good enough.

But just to have the experience of being in these caves and seeing the majesty of the art work was enough to satisfy our curiosity. Will we come back? Not sure, but at least we saw a slice of it.

Some have large statues housed in them with disciples
No wonder artists like Zhang Daqian came here to copy many of the murals, staying here for months at a time. I managed to see some of his works from his time there in August when there was an exhibition in Macau.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Silk Road: Singing Sand Mountains

One of the giant sand dunes that make up Singing Sand Mountains
China has a lot of different geographical terrain, and while Gansu province has some lush green areas thanks to land being near the Yellow River, there are other areas that seem very parched to the point of becoming desert.

One such spot along the Silk Road is the Singing or Echoing Sand Mountains about 5km from Dunhuang.

A guide leading a string of camels and tourists
When we reached the site it was literally desert with sand dunes. Some of our fellow travelers came prepared wearing masks -- they were worried about possible sand storms, and the mountains get the name singing or echoing because when the wind blows the sand here, it makes an eerie sound apparently.

But the day we went the weather was perfect -- not too hot -- though a hat helped shade from the sun, and there was a gentle breeze.

The tourist site sold bright orange tall boots to cover people's feet from getting sand in them, but we decided it wasn't necessary. Lots of local tourists were taking camel rides at 100 kuai each, and with each guide leading four to five camels strung together, that was big business, as there was a non-stop stream of camels walking along the sand.

Meanwhile there were others who climbed up a giant sand dune, much like hiking up a snow mountain and then riding a sled down the sand slope. It seemed like a lot of work for about 20 seconds of fun.

Crescent Moon Spring has been here for hundreds of years
The site also has a walkway so tourists won't get sand in their shoes. My aunt and I chose to walk the 1km route and along the way we saw lots of greenery amid the desert, which was man made. The washrooms here were very clean -- they even had soap and toilet paper! When we came out we admired the nearby fruit trees and saw they had fruits on them.

They were small, but too tempting to pass up, so I climbed up a pear tree and managed to pick seven or eight of them! I tried them afterwards and they were quite sweet!

The path we walked along led to Crescent Moon Spring -- it really is that shape and interestingly has never been covered up by the sand. Visitors along the Silk Road would stop here for a drink -- it definitely was not a mirage.

Three of the small pears I picked from the tree!
Today there are gift shops and refreshment stands near Crescent Moon Spring... the modern version of freshening up.

We walked in the sand for a bit, and it was very fine, soft and warm from the heat of the sun. What an interesting experience, seeing sand dunes, camels and picking ripe pears.