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A journey into the desert

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Adair Cheng





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January 20, 2012

January-February is the time of the winter holiday here in China.  It's also the time of the spring festival, which is an important occasion for the Chinese.  It's a time when the universities close their gates and everybody heads off (goes) home.

Weifang: The journey begins

At this time of year it can be difficult if not impossible to get a train or bus ticket.  The demand for tickets outstrips supply (demand is greater than supply).  Everybody is on the move, travelling.  The train stations and bus stations are crowded.  It can be days before you get a ticket. My journey began at Weifang, Shandong province.  I was heading (going) north to Inner Mongolia.

The fast D train took four and a half hours to get to Beijing south railway station, from where I travelled on the metro (underground railway) and public bus to Beijing west railway station.  They're both huge stations.  Vast .. much bigger than anything in the UK.  China leads the world in fast-train development.  It has more high speed trains and high speed rail track than any other country.  The UK is now considering using high speed trains but, maybe, that would be pointless.  The UK is small and a high speed train from London to the north of England would only 'shave off' (reduce) the travelling time by 30 minutes.

That's somewhat different to China which of course not only has a bigger population, but also is a lot bigger indeed ..  In China, the fast D trains -and the even faster G trains - can shave-off many hours of travelling time.  And did you know ..?  The UK has 7 people per square kilometre whereas China has 5 people per square kilometre.  In relative terms of size and population the UK is the more crowded of the two countries. You could say thge UK is more densely populated.

From Beijing I travelled west on the overnight sleeper train to Hohhot.  That's the English spelling - the Chinese name is Huhehaote - pronounced 'Hoo-her-howw-ter' which is the capital of Inner Mongolia.  The train took 7-8 hours to get to Hohhot.  It isn't a big city as such and it was only a staging post for me - I was only staying there a short  time (overnight) before continuining my journey west.

                             Hohhot: Street and park

Hohhot street Hohhot park

The next day I caught an 8 hour train to Wuhai, which is in Inner Mongolia, on the southern edge.  The landscape changes as the train goes west.   To the north you can see the mountains from the carriage window. The Gobi desert is to the north.  I had intended to visit the Gobi desert.

view from train travelling west to Wuhai Travelling west to Wuhai

Maybe I should got off the train at Linhe, before it turned south to Wuhai. Wuhai is a very small, poor city full of friendly people.  A taxi driver took me to his home.  But nobody seemed to know anything about the desert... which was strange as according to Google Earth, the desert was on the west side of Wuhai, across the yellow river..  There is no way of crossing the Yellow river in the winter.

outside Wuhai station  frozen Yellow river at Wuhai

Outside Wuhai railay station            The frozen yellow River at Wuhai
The bridge hasn't yet been built and whilst there is a pontoon bridge (a pontoon bridge is a floating bridge) that you can walk across, it was 2 hours travel to the north.  I should have got off the train at Linhe.. The Yellow river which flows past Wuhai on the west was frozen.  No way across.


A short distance south of Wuhai are mountains.  It's actually just a short taxi ride from the railway station.  At first glance ( the first time you see it) it looks as though one particular mountain has caves or rooms cut into it at the top.  I climbed up it with my interpreter (she's actually a student who studies English ..  I paid for her to accompany me on the trip).

The caves/rooms are natural fissures - holes created by the wind and the rain.  An interesting climb anyway.

 Two nights in a Wuhai hotel - no train tickets to Yinchuan, the capital of Ningxia province.  So .. a 2 hour bus to Yinchuan north long-distance bus station,  a public bus to the south long distance bus station, and then another 2 hour bus trip to Zhongwei (pronounced 'Jong-way'), south of Yinchuan.

north bus station, Yinchuan  North bus station, Yinchuan

Yinchuan north bus station                       Yinchuan south bus station

Zhongwei is another very small city.  There are many muslims in this area and they are all friendly, polite and helpful, just like the north of China really is.  They don't speak standard Chinese and my interpreter couldn't follow (understand) a lot of what they said.  Muslim restaurants are inexpensive and the food is very good indeed.

I stayed in a Zhongwei hotel for a couple of nights.  There's a desert to the west of Zhongwei and, of course, the Yellow river.  I had intended to 'strike out west' (go west) into the desert but a local taxi driver told my interpreter that it would be better to go to a place called Shapotou, just a few kilometers away.  You can get a bus to Shapotou  at a cost of 5 yuan, or go by taxi, which costs about 35 yuan.

footbridge over Yellow river, Shapotou Suspension bridge over Yellow river, Shapotou

Shapotou is a 'tourist attraction' which costs 65 yuan to get in, though being mid winter and in a holiday there were not many tourists. Shapotou is on the side of a mountain.  It's a giant sized theme-park, really.

Water wheels on yellow river, south Shapotou Tengeli desert north side of Shapotou

Water wheels on banks of yellow river, south side of Shapotou.  The Tengeli desert is on the north side

On the southern side there are camel-rides and further down, a suspension bridge across the Yellow river.  Go across the suspension bridge and you can walk towards the distant mountains or along the bank of the Yellow river.

On the north side of Shapotou is the plateau where the desert is.  The sand ..  the sand ...  It's quite interesting to walk into a desert.  Everything in nature has its own particular beauty.

Bridge over Yellow River, Shapotou

From Zhongwei I took an overnight sleeper train -12 hours - to Xi'an in Shaanxi province.  Xi'an (pronounced 'she-an') is where the terracotta warriors are.  I've been there before, and  I'll probably go there again.  Xi'an -particularly the rail station and the bus station is overcrowded and busy all day and all night.  The city centre is heavily congested with traffic.  Rather than try to get tickets at the railway station, I paid extra at a ticket agent.  There were no tickets available to Weifang, but I was able to 'stagger' the journey to Weifang - go to other cities first to get to Weifang.

I spent 2 days in Xi'an. 

                                 Steles in Huaqing

Steles in Huaqing

The first day I went to Huaqing, which is the site of an ancient palace.  It's also where there are hot springs - which is why the palace was built there during the Tang dynasty.  I guess the emperor liked to wash his feet in warm water ..

  Huaqing entrance

The hot spring at Huaqing and the main entrance

Immediately behind Huaqing is Li Shan mountain.  'Shan' is the Chinese word for mountain.  tO GO UP Li Shan costs 45 yuan (return) in a cable car.  Then you must pay to get into the temple and the beacon tower at the very summit (top).

To be honest, if you ever go to Xi'an, don't bother going up Li Shan.  Xi'an is very polluted with smoke and dust and you can't see anything - you can't even see the  mountain that you've travelled up.  The temple ...  well .. there is a 1200 year old tree there but nothing of real interest.  The beacon tower at the very top ... well obviously at one time there was a beacon tower ... a long tme ago ..

 Steps at the top of Li Shan mountain The beacon Tower, Lishan mountain Li Shan - dusty, polluted.  Can't see much..

Steps and beacon tower at the top of Li Shan. It's grey, murky and polluted - you can't see much

In January 2012 the beacon tower was still being built.  It's modern, and a complete waste of time.  If you go to Xi'an don't waste time and money on Li Shan.

The following day I went to see the terracotta warriors (again).  There's many buses from the railway station at a cost of 7 yuan, and it takes 45-55 minutes to get to the teracotta museum.  This is of course what 'put Xi'an on the map' (made it world famous).  It's a very big complex and well worth the 3-4 hours it takes to walk around.  It's a very interesting place.  Very.  If you only ever visit one  place in China make sure it's the terracotta warriors you visit.

Terracotta warriors, Xi'an Terracotta warriors

The terracotta warriors at Xi'an

Part of the terracotta museum  busy bus station in Xi'an

Part of the terracotta museum  and a very busy long-distance bus station        

The same evening I went to Dayunta, which is more or less in the centre of Xi'an.  Da means big.  Yun (so I am told) is a type of migratory bird.  Ta means tower (or pagoda). Da Yun Ta.  Big Bird Pagoda/Tower.  The area around Dayunta is lit up at night.  Busy ...

It also has one of the biggest water-fountain areas in Asia.  During the summer months the water 'performs' as music plays and there are thousands of people there.  It is still a nice place to visit during the winter.

 Dayunta fountain and tower area

Xi'an has it's own 'local food'.  I went into a restaurant with my interpreter to try the local food...  It cost 20 yuan each ...  The local food is like pastry in warm water with noodles.  Tasteless, horrible..  I couldn't eat it nor could my interpreter. If you visit Xi'an don't go to the corner restaurant opposite the railway station .. or don't try the 'local food'!  It tastes worse than my own cooking ...

If I had travelled from Weifang to Xi'an it would have cost 300 yuan on a 20 hour sleeper train - and the same to return to Weifang.  But of course this time of year is busy and I had staggered my journey.  To get back to Weifang i had to travel on the very fast G train (300 km/hour) to Zhenghzhou, the capital of Henan province.  It was a 2 hour journey.  I just booked into  a hotel in Zhengzhou - no time (or money..) to visit anywhere in Zhengzhou.  The cost of the ticket on the ultra fast G train to Zenghzhou was 230 yuan ... and that was the only ticket I could get..

An overnight stay at Zhengzhou and then a 5 hour D train to Jinan, the capital of Shandong province.  A quick rush across Jinan to get to Jinan east railway station .. and a 90 minute D train to Weifang.  The whole trip took 10 days and I spent 6000 yuan - that was for me and my interpreter. I hope I get paid soon ..

And now that I'm back in Weifang, I have a bag and other gifts to send to the 8 year old daughter of the taxi driver I met in Wuhai.  They aren't a wealthy family.  People are the most important ... right?  We are who we are.

And what is QQ?  Well .. QQ is the Chinese equivalent of MSN Messenger.  Just download 'qq international' .  My QQ number is 1323790487

The photos taken on this trip can be found in a folder called 'January 2012





12:00 AM Jan 21 2012



Hi,I just read your journey from WeiFang to the desert.It sounds fun.

Hope I can have a journey just like yours(by yourself completely)soon after.

And You are so kindly  to give the young girl gifts.

Hope you have a wonderful Spring festival holidays!

More entries: Weifang to the desert (1), From Weifang to Manzhouli, Time Passes Quickly (2), Brass Monkey, Dog Poo and Jump Start (1), From China to England, A couple of Riddles, Oops!, Weifang (2)

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If you're interested in teaching in China, have a look atthe contacts and reports page of my website www.sunchina.co.uk )may be out of date a bit now..). or of course there's always www.abroadchina.org (or is it .com?)

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Writing. you can also read a blog I wrote for students in Weifang university (and download some books in English .. my own book is called 'Easy Everyday English'). Just visit the photospace http://weifangren.wordpress.com