Fine China 2: Caves, Graves, and Ivor Misbehaves

Day 371 – Wednesday, April 30th 2014

Panda Day!!! Woop woop!!

Yep, it’s true that we saw the fluff-balls on our way south through China, but why not go and check them out again? It’s not every day you’re in Chengdu now is it?

We’d taken buses to go and see the bamboo munchers to avoid the city traffic, and on our return to the Home Inn hotel we took Lun and set off to another tourist hotspot: The Iveco Garage! Fun for all the family.

We wanted to make sure the wheel  alignment was okay, since we didn’t want to prematurely trash our Thai tyres. Also, a second opinion to confirm that our brakes were indeed okay wouldn’t go amiss. In checking the alignment, the mechanic spotted that some of the ball joints in our front suspension had some play in them. It was nothing too serious, be we’d have to get it fixed before the MOT (or safety) test on returning to the UK. Since they are actually making brand new Ivors in China for military (even though the design is 20 years old), we were lucky to find all of the parts we needed in stock, and the staff knowledgeable about the variants we needed. We wouldn’t have time to get it all fitted in Chengdu but at least if we took the parts we could get another garage to do it later, or even once we were back home – the Chinese parts cost less than 10% of them same item taken off the shelf of a UK Iveco garage.

Back at the shack, Caroline was celebrating a year since she’d left home in San Fransisco, so we went out for dinner at a hot-pot restaurant, where you cook the food yourself by dunking it into a bubbly cauldron of broth, it’s a speciality of the Sichuan province. After we took in a beer or two at the hostel next to the Home Inn hotel where the others were residing, and where we were parked outside of – one of the workers there, Jimmy, had said ‘Hi’ when we first showed up in the parking lot, and had proved to be hilarious on regular occasions since – tonight he was again on top form.

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Day 372 – Thursday, May 1st 2014

Just a big driving day really, it was time to push north – ultimately heading towards Xi’an, Datong, and eventually the Mongolia border at Erenhot.

The next three days were public holidays, so the toll roads were free – running at roughly one Yuan per kilometre, if we covered some big distances over these days we stood to make quite substantial savings. The downside of this free gift from the government was that the highways were not only full, but full of people to whom driving at high speeds on a multi-lane road is an almost totally foreign concept.

Through luck we avoided all of the inter-car scuffles, and most of the resulting traffic jams,  as getting as far north as Hanzhong before it was find hotel/parking o’ clock.

Day 373 – Friday, May 2nd 2014

Lun smuggled us in for a free hotel breakfast – and we were treated to the traditional Chinese fare of watery rice in gruel, hard boiled eggs, and pickled vegetables. It was obvious to all of those in attendance why the ‘Full English’ has taken the world by storm, and the ‘Full Chinese’ has yet to achieve the same status.

The drive to Maiji Shan was a pleasant one, and although we didn’t cash in on the free toll roads for the whole day, electing to take a corner cut through a ‘nature area’, we still got a fair few kilometres in on them. It was good to have Lun travelling with us in Ivor, since we had him on hand to argue repeatedly that we were a ‘family car’ and not a truck, so would qualify for the free tolls. The wily guide had registered us in the first instance in this category, so that we would get the cheaper rates all the way through China.

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What looks like dust on the lens is a swarm of bees. Not a nice place to be stuck in traffic. On a hot day. With no air con and your windows closed.

The Chinese highways do deserve a special mention of sorts, since the constructions are incredibly impressive – and the entire network spanning the country has been constructed in the last 20 years. They have a strict limit on the incline of about 5%, and if it means bridging a valley, or blasting a tunnel though a mountain to achieve it, then it is done regardless of expense. The road we took was an endless string of bridges and tunnels, some of which were over 12km long.

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These things are crazy big

These things are crazy big

With the public holidays we were lucky to find space in a hotel in a tourist town at such a last minute, and even luckier that the parking lot was behind the hotel, backed onto a river valley, and was surrounded by gardens – quite to treat for us car park campers.

Day 374 – Saturday, May 3rd 2014

Lun wrangled us another free brekky at the hotel. Again, the food wasn’t great but the price was okay.

It was only 5km to the caves that we would be visiting, so we decided to cycle up while the others drove – it was a steady climb up to the site, and it was harder work than it should have been. Overlanding does make it difficult to get exercise in regularly, particularly if you’re in a bit of a rush like we had been – if every opportunity wasn’t seized, it felt like we soon would be.

We spent a couple of hours at the caves site, which if viewed face on resembled a kind of classic platform game – donkey kong, or similar. The caves themselves were chiselled out from a cliff face, and a network of platforms connected by a network of stair cases.

The cruise back down to the truck was fun, and effortless. We’d been up fairly early to beat the rush of visitors, seeing as we were still in the public holidays – so we were all packed up and on the road to Xi’an by 11ish.

The road to Xi’an was long, uneventful, and toll free. We skirted the city and after a little trouble hotel searching, parked up on the North East side – near to the terracotta warriors for tomorrow morning.

Day 375 – Sunday, May 4th 2014

So, the world famous gnome army was on the agenda today – a clay militia designed protect a particularly paranoid emperor on his various conquests in the afterlife. Discovered in the 70’s by a farmer out in his fields when he was digging a well, the site has only been partially excavated – to protect those artifacts still buried, and to stop them ending up with more pieces of smashed solider than they know what to do with. Estimates for the total number of figurines settle at around 6000.

There are three pits on the same site, all within a few hundred meters of one another. Our China ‘Lonely Planet’ wisely advised to start at the smaller of the pits – #3, and work backwards, so as to be steadily more impressed, and not increasingly disappointed.

Pit 3….

Pit 2….

Pit 1 …

And a bronze model in the museum

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All of the soldiers seem to have been modeled on real people, since all the facial features are unique. One can only hope that their lives were not terminated when the emperor passed away, just so that their spirits would accompany him to the afterlife as well as their terracotta likenesses.

We took our time with the visit, seeing the excavations, the various exhibits, and indulging ourselves with coffee, ice creams, and a sandwich from Subway at the exit. By the time we got back to Lun, our own little warrior (or worrier), we’d been gone over 4 hours.

Ivor had been waiting patiently while we were having our fun, and now it was his turn – we stopped in at Iveco Xi’an on our way into town so that the new parts we picked up in Chengdu could be fitted. We left him there for the next day or so and caught a taxi into town, checking in at a ‘Home Inn’ hotel.

Day 376 – Monday, May 5th 2014

We had a day off from travelling, so it was one of those getting-stuff-done days. When not checking in on Ivor (and okaying a little extra work), we kept ourselves entertained with laundry, blogging, getting our mobile phone topped up with credit (more complicated than it sounds), and failing to find another hard drive – since we were quickly clogging the ones that we did have with photos.

Mahjong games are played on the street all day

Mahjong games are played on the street all day

Day 377 – Tuesday, May 6th 2014

More of the above really, spiced up by a McDate that we’d arranged with Stephen, who also had a craving for a burger and like Vaughan, took no persuasion at all to pay the golden arches a visit.

Time was up for Ivor’s mini-break at the Iveco spa, so we had to collect him. We’d found that the city bus out to the garage district took the same time as a cab, but cost 40 times less – so that’s how we went to pick our truck up. We’d already scoped out some parking where we could camp up for the night, so we headed straight there and went for a nice dinner – finally finding some good sweet ‘n’ sour.

Day 378 – Wednesday, May 7th 2014

Leaving town we finally took a snap of Xi'ans famous city walls

Leaving Xi’an we finally took a snap of the famous city walls

Spinning tops seemed to be a popular morning pastime on the pavements

Spinning tops seemed to be a popular morning pastime on the pavements

After leaving the city, we met up with the others at the tomb of Emperor Jing Di – who’d had slightly different requirements from the terracotta army Emperor – in Jing Di’s afterlife he would need a true cross section of the community, and even a few farms worth of livestock. Clearly a bit more of a thinking man; what use are an army if there are no farmers to keep them fed?

This guy did have a problem with scale though – with everything made in miniature, you can’t help thinking that the whole settlement would be under threat if the afterlife contained, for example, a small pack of hungry dogs. But each to their own, and by having a greater variance in the figurines and their equipment, Jing Di had left an important legacy, offering an unparalleled insight into life during the time of his reign.

With the highways no longer free, we tried to take the smaller roads where possible. By messing up the navigation a little, ending up on a road with a bridge missing, and getting stuck behind a procession of cars for a wedding we took ages to get to the night stop of Huncheng.

We approached town from the south, coming in through the old town. At a set of traffic lights a girl jumped out of the car next to us, asking if we could pull over around the corner so that we could do an interview for local TV. She seemed so excited at the chance of capturing some lesser-spotted-white-folk on film that we could hardly turn her down. It only took 5 minutes before the interviewer’s vocabulary had reached its limit, and after a quick tour of the trucks living quarters, (which would have benefited from a little cleaning, had we known there was a chance it would appear on Chinese TV), we were on our way to find the hotel of our travelling amigos.

Day 379 – Thursday, May 8th 2014

Again keen on saving our pennies by avoiding the toll roads we were up extra early – it backfired to start with, as we reached a bridge with a height limit well below Ivor’s roof line.

Definitely not an Ivor sized hole

Definitely not an Ivor sized hole

Why wouldn’t they put a sign some 15 kilometres back down a road that only lead to that bridge? Dammit, we were forced to backtrack and saw our toll road using travel buddies at the toll booth.

We took our chances with the small roads again shortly after, and were rewarded with fairly good roads and very little hassle.

The ancient town of Zhangbi was not a big detour from our route to Pingyao, so we paid it a visit. It is famed for the network of tunnels running underground to serve in the defence of the town should it ever come under attack, or be subjected to siege.

With a very limited space in our brains for the facts that tour guides tend to bombard you with, we tend to steer well clear of them – but in this instance we tried to look around for ourselves and found almost nothing of interest – clearly it was time to invest in some help. The girl we had was quite informative, and the first bit of the the tour explained the design of the city – how it was modelled on the superstitions of the time with gates and temples located to appease the beasts that in turn control the elements – dragons dealt with water, a phoenix took charge of fire, and black turtles were involved in some way too. Different areas of it were also formed to represent the constellations that they wanted to have a positive influence on the inhabitants. In short, town planning was a nightmare back in the day.

The tunnels were built on 3 levels, from around three down to about 25 meters beneath the surface. The ones we saw were in good condition considering their age, and the soft stone of the area – but many are not possible to access, since they are now too dangerous.

We got to Pingyao with plenty of time but had some internetting to do, so we left the exploration of the old town to the others – we only ventured inside the city walls briefly to pick up some supplies.

Day 380 – Friday, May 9th 2014

With the trip through Mongolia coming up, we were keen to make sure we had enough cooking gas on board – our bottle was part used when we got it from the old owner, and not checked it once over the last year – it was about time we did! We took a taxi with Lun to go the refilling facility, sensibly located outside town. They couldn’t fill our bottle, but could sell us another one. We hadn’t done our research, so didn’t know if it would work with our stove top; we would have to leave it.

So back to the internet, searching types of gas et cetera, but don’t worry, we won’t bore you with the details here.

Much of the day escaped us as we struck tasks off the to-do list, but we finally made it into the old town with t’others in the early evening for a look around, dinner, and a couple of beers.

Day 381 – Saturday, May 10th 2014

The drive today was mainly on the highway, a little dull but it got the job done – so efficiently that we’d covered most of the distance to Yong’anzhen by lunchtime, with only the short, non-highway section to cover in the afternoon.

Concrete cows - not just a Milton Keynes speciality

Concrete cows – not just a Milton Keynes specialty

We caught up with the others for lunch, and on our way into the restaurant saw that there was the kind of grubby ramshackle mechanics shop to which we normally gravitate just next door. We took advantage of this, and got the guy there to fit a new horn, since ours could now only exhale a measly whimper – the overuse in India had finally taken its toll. Fitted for less than 10 bucks, can’t say fairer than that.

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There was another pagoda to visit on route, and again put off by the entrance price we were happy to view it from outside its enclosure while Coen, Marejka, and Caroline went in for a closer look. With that done, and the obligatory tourist stop ice cream consumed we headed off to Yong’anzhen.

Day 382 – Sunday, May 11th 2014

Another old Chinese thing was on the agenda today, believe it or not. This time a monastery built onto the edge of a cliff. It was impressive, particularly given its age – but the weather was not playing along – the whole night it had been pouring down, and the wind had been so strong that it set off car alarms in the parking lot that had been home for the night, though it was a little less grim when tourist-time came around.

Happy Lun

Happy Lun

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With waterproof jackets on, and the camera locked away in a dry bag we kept the visit brief, and got on the move again towards Datong – the last of the ‘BIG’ Chinese cities that we would be visiting (though since there were still a couple of small cities, and a lot of towns on the way, and the transition from town to city in Chinese is around the half million mark, our journey to the Mongolian border would hardly be through wilderness).

We treated the truck to another Iveco visit – this time for a routine oil change, and then went in search of some cooking Gas. The gas search was fruitless again, with the same story, we’d need to buy a new bottle and regulator – but at least now we knew that the gas would work with our stove, and was safe. We’d accepted the loss of our current bottle, but all of the regulators available were frighteningly cheaply made – perhaps enough for a household environment, but not up to being bounced across the Gobi for a month; pressurised propane is something that should be handled with care.

Day 383 – Monday, May 12th 2014

A morning trip to the Yungang caves was on the cards. Like many places we’ve seen on the trip, they were old, renovated (or in some cases rebuilt), and full of Buddha images. Totally worth the trip, but by now we were getting a little ‘Buddha’d out’, and though the site lacks nothing in scale or quality, if it had been one of the first things we’d seen of that nature, it would have held greater resonance with us.

We had a group McDate for lunch, and set about paying our friends at Iveco another visit. Ivor’s starter motor was becoming reluctant to engage occasionally, and it was getting slightly worse. This is the kind of thing that can easily be ignored back at home, and you might get away without a major problem for ages – possibly even years. But we were about to leave the safety net of Iveco dealers, and as far as we knew the next ones would be in mainland Europe – Germany, or possibly Poland – a gap of some 10000 kilometers, including a crossing Mongolia and the Gobi Desert within it. The mechanics knew the part we needed immediately, and said we could get one fitted tomorrow with the part arriving from Beijing sometime before midday – no need to think about it any further, we just got it done. With the starter motor arranged, we found a new gas bottle and a regulator that looked tough enough for the job.

Coen and Marejka had been to a good restaurant the night before, and were keen to go back for another helping, so we all went as a group – and it was more exotic than the ‘some meat, some vegetable, some rice’ than we’d been accustomed to – they even had these whitish starchy lumps called ‘potatoes’, incredible.

Day 384 – Tuesday, May 13th 2014

It was a bloggy morning while we waited to hear of the motor arriving, which it did at about eleven. We took Ivor straight over, but had to wait a while to have him seen to. It wasn’t too long after our meat, vegetable, noodle lunch that we collected the truck, and were on our way.

We took a break from the drive north to Jining to go and see some remnants of the great wall – whilst no longer all that ‘great’, it was a good spot to pose the cars for a few pics and get a group shot taken as the tour was coming to an end.

In town we got set up at a hotel, and went out for dinner. We were just getting settled and ready for bed when there was a knock on the door. Apparently the hotel wasn’t registered to take foreigners. They often aren’t, but normally don’t make an issue of it. In this case they had tried to register their new guests with the police, and everyone had got a little over excited. A few police cars showed up, and by the time we got into the lobby there were quite a few uniformed officers. The big chief man was yet to arrive, and it seemed no-one could decide what to do with us until he did. One of the hotel staff was crying – it seemed like they stood to get in quite serious trouble for this little slip up. Eventually it was decided that we would just have to move hotels, and we were lead to another that could cope with us foreign people. Just how much of a telling 0ff the original hotel ended up with we’ll never know.

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Day 385 – Wednesday, May 14th 2014

Our last full day, and we’d spend a fair chunk of it on the highway headed straight north through the province of Inner Mongolia. There really was a whole lot of nothing, it was refreshing after the unending sprawl of population – of course there had been quiet moments, but nothing on this scale.

A sign we were approaching the Gobi - road crews sweeping off sand drifts

A sign we were approaching the Gobi – road crews sweeping off sand drifts

 

The road to Erenhot had two things in abundance – wind farms, and large metal dinosaurs. Odd really….

That night Lun treated us to a hot pot dinner in the border town of Erenhot – ordering all the posh things for us to try, it was largely a meat feast with a few sides of vegetables – all things that we recognised except for the plate of sheep’s stomach that we tried, but was just never as appealing as a more conventional cut of meat. With just one more beer (or maybe two) at a small bar near the hotel we called it a night.

Day 386 – Thursday, May 15th 2014

Wow, the last morning in China, that went fast. It had been a good tour, we’d been really lucky to be sharing it with the other guys – we all got along really well, it had worked out far better than our trip out through the country last summer – when certain rifts had appeared in the group that never quite got ironed out.

It was just a couple of kilometres to the border, where Lun dealt with the paperwork efficiently, and we received very little bother from the customs officials. We were free to move onto Mongolia – something that we’d been looking forward to, and preparing ourselves for, throughout a large portion of the trip – we’d heard many crazy stories of roadless plains extending for hundreds of kilometres. Even the name of the country is synonymous with remoteness and isolation. We were all excited, and ready for the change.

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One thought on “Fine China 2: Caves, Graves, and Ivor Misbehaves

  1. We are enjoying hearing of your travels and seeing the interesting photos of life as it really is lived. Keep it up.
    Rick & Sheila.

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