Because Emma won’t take any pictures of me
Emma has an article in this weekend’s Sydney Morning Herald Travel section, on page 3 (she did graciously mention me once or twice). Make sure to pick up a copy or two if you’re near a newsagent, and if you’re overseas or otherwise can’t pick up a copy, you can view her story online by clicking on “Wall to wall adventure.”
The other day my mum asked us why we don’t post stories about our daily routine with photos of us doing everyday stuff. Here’s why . . .
Walnut-soybean-oatmeal porridge, mmmm
That’ll teach her to ask questions.
We have been aware that we neglect the day-to-day a bit. Some of this is because a lot of our daily routine is less than photogenic – if you think the picture of Brendan eating breakfast is scary, you should see him before he’s properly woken up. And some of it is that, to us at least, our day-to-day experience is, well, day-to-day.
Except that sometimes we can’t make breakfast when it’s -15C at 7 am because someone forgot to oil the pump cup and the stove won’t light, or we can’t brush our teeth because the toothpaste is frozen, or I have to remind Brendan not to step off the cliff next to our tent when he goes out for some fresh air and starlight at 2 am . . .
Okay, so maybe our everyday routine’s not quite that boring, but when you live it for months on end, even a once-in-a-lifetime adventure can occasionally seem like a daily grind.
Walking through the first snow of January
The overwhelming fact of our life right now is that it’s cold. Not actually as cold as we’d expected – in fact, on sunny days when there’s not much wind, which is most days, the temperature’s usually about 0 to 3 degrees Celsius and the hiking is downright pleasant.
Mornings and evenings are another story. Once the sun goes down the temperature usually drops to -10 pretty quickly. For the most part we can stay comfortably warm in those temperatures by rugging up and burrowing into our sleeping bags, but the cold does present a few challenges when we’re doing camp chores.
Ice crystals form on the inside of the tent and fall on our bags overnight
The most significant challenge is water. After the first morning of waking up to rock-hard water bags that didn’t thaw during the day, we experimented with a) sleeping with our water bags b) putting them in our backpacks overnight c) keeping them in the tent wrapped up in clothes overnight d) boiling the water before going to bed and e) pouring water in the pot before going to sleep and heating it up in the morning. “E” won out.
Winter also means the rivers are frozen, which is great for crossing but not so great for collecting water in the absence of a village. Occasionally there are holes dug in the ice for the sheep to drink from, but rather than elbow our way through a herd of dirty, thirsty sheep, last week we chose to scrape the snow off a frozen river to boil for drinking water – that is, after first scraping the film of dirt off the top of the snow.
But aside from a few alterations, winter has brought very few changes to our regular schedule – in some ways, the cold is easier to deal with than the 40+ temperatures of summer.
First task of the morning, boiling the water
Second task, washing up
As soon as we’re packed, we’re off
Due to our rehabilitation schedule, mornings are not as rushed as they used to be. We are still limiting the number of kilometres we walk each day to around 20, which means we tend to leave camp around 10 am in order to reach our next campsite close to sunset. We do this mainly for safety reasons – though camping out here in rural China is probably safer than camping in most parts of Australia, we still don’t want to expose ourselves if we don’t have to, so we usually wait until all wanderers and shepherds have gone home before setting up our tent.
Once we have settled down for the evening, I use the satellite phone to send our GPS coordinates back to Australia. This is part of our emergency protocol – if we haven’t been heard from for more than 36 hours, having our last coordinates at hand will be a huge advantage for anyone wanting to track us down.
Evening task, send coordinates
At the moment we’re walking seven hours a day, 50 minutes on followed by a 10-15 break. It’s sort of like a job where you have a fantastic corner office with an amazing view. The only thing is, your corner office suite is on the 100th floor and there’s no lift. So, you begin the day by walking all the way up the fire escape stairs, and when you get there, you have some water and a snack, then go back down and walk all the way up again. And do that all day. Every day for a week. Then go to town on the weekend and order a banquet of Chinese food.
The good news is we have covered around 1600 kilometres and are approaching the half-way mark. The bad news is we have now hit the canyons and hills of Shaanxi, which are merely a taste of the hills and mountains to come. But don’t throw a pity party for us just yet – the weather has been clear, the mountains very beautiful, and we’ve just mailed back a bag of unnecessary belongings, so our backpacks are each a whopping one kilogram lighter.
Setting off into the Shaanxi hills
The Yellow River near Shapotou in August
For better or worse, rivers and irrigated agriculture gave rise to most of the world’s great ancient civilizations. The oldest agricultural civilization, Mesopotamia, developed along the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates; the Nile gave birth to Egypt, and ancient India came into being in the valley of the Indus.
In China, the Yellow River – Huang He – is known as “the cradle of Chinese civilization.” At 5464 kilometres, it is the second longest river in China and the seventh longest river in the world. Even more than the longer Yangtze, the Yellow River is central to Chinese history. The oldest distinctively Chinese civilizations developed along the Yellow around 3000 BC. China’s ancient capitals of Chang’an and Luoyang were both situated on its tributaries. Long sections of the Great Wall were built expressly to protect the fields watered by the river.
An old irrigation canal. Sometimes we walk along canals when there are breaks in the wall.
For thousands of years the Yellow River has been a “working river,” to use the Australian jargon for rivers whose natural attributes have been sacrificed to production. Its primary use was irrigation, and the primary means for getting water from the river to the ditches above was an ingenious contraption known as the waterwheel.
Reconstructed waterwheels in Lanzhou
As you can see from the photo above, a waterwheel looks like a narrow version of a paddlewheel on an old steamboat, but unlike a paddlewheel, it does its work without the assistance of a steam engine. The river’s current pushes the paddles on the waterwheel so that it turns continuously. Meanwhile, buckets built into, or attached to, the paddles scoop water from the river. When the buckets reach the top of the waterwheel, they spill into a flume.
Emptying the load
Before the invention of modern pumps, there would have been thousands of waterwheels, large and small, along the Yellow, but today most waterwheels are reconstructions for tourists, like those pictured above. However, along the smaller canals that transport water from the river to the fields, there are still a few in use, like this one near Zhongwei.
This waterwheel delivers water to a small orchard
Irrigation remains the main use of the Yellow River today, but in the last century or so it’s had to take on a number of extra jobs – hydropower generation, industrial use – and today it is a thoroughly overworked river. Demand for the river’s water is such that it has sometimes failed to reach the ocean in recent years, and with China’s rapid industrialisation, the Yellow has become one of the most polluted rivers in the world.
A modern concrete-lined irrigation canal
A hydropower dam near Qingtongxia
Despite its problems, the Yellow is still able to manage a bit of fun and games. At Shapotou, where dunes from the Tengger Desert spill down to water’s edge, there is a large amusement park. When we were there on August 5, the day I broke my foot, the place was a madhouse, with throngs of tour groups pouring out of buses, camels milling around in the 35 degree heat, and children dripping ice cream all over themselves and anything within reach. On our return in November, the atmosphere was more subdued, but that just made it easier for the big kids to have a turn.
Me going for a new sand speed record
Emma at the helm
The Chinese have a greeting that translates as “Have you eaten?” Not “Hi, how are you?” or “Nice to meet you”, but “Have you eaten?” In Chinese, this is “Ni chi le ma?” (This might help to explain why Brendan and I haven’t lost much weight so far on our hike.)
Wanting to be polite, we often find ourselves agreeing to a break in our walk to join a kindly stranger, along with friends and families, for a bowl of noodles. Which always seems to turn into several bowls of noodles.
So it’s good to walk through the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region and try out the food of the Muslim Hui (pronounced “HWAY”) minority. The food is still heavy on the noodles but with a few welcome additions to traditional Chinese fare.
Eat, drink, man, woman
Meet Mr Chu and his wife, Mrs Zhang, who live in a tiny one-room house near the banks of the Yellow River. We had just taken a rest stop, put our backpacks back on and started walking when Mr Chu appeared on top of the wall.
“Have you eaten?” he called from above. “Have you had something to drink?”
And finally, probably because we were wearing hats and sunglasses: “Are you a man and a woman?” (One thing the Chinese are not known for is their tact.)
We really didn’t have time to go with him, but he was so insistent that we at least take some apples that we finally agreed. After all, his house was right on the other side of the wall.
How ’bout them apples?
If it weren’t for the Hui, the bread situation in this part of the country would be pretty dire. Unlike the majority Han Chinese, the Hui can really make bread, lightly cooked with spices, garlic and egg, and finding Hui bread in towns is always a real treat for us. So when Mr Chu’s wife, who was rolling dough when we walked in, started making us bread, we didn’t protest too much. She cooked it for a few seconds in a skillet on their coal stove and it was some of the best bread we’d had. But after the second huge piece we had to sincerely protest. This was washed down with a few glasses of Eight Treasure Tea (ba bao cha), one of our favourite new finds, which is tea made with walnuts, goji berries, jujubes or dates, sesame seeds, raisins, longans, and rock sugar.
Hui to go, Mrs Zhang!
Ningxia is one of the smallest and poorest regions of China, with a population of about 6 million. Though this is a Hui autonomous region, the Hui make up 2 million of the population, the rest being Han and other ethnic groups. Throughout the nation there are nearly 10 million Hui.
A mosque near Yinchuan
Ningxia became an autonomous region in 1958 in recognition of the cultural background of the Muslim Hui, who are the descendants of the Middle Eastern or Central Asian Silk Road traders or of people who were converted to Islam by these traders. Though most of the Hui are similar to the Han Chinese in looks, they are distinguished by their practice of Islam and their avoidance of eating pork. The men wear white caps and the women often wear shawls (in this part of the country we have never seen a woman in a veil). Our language skills are not good enough to ask about their religion and whether there is any practice of Sharia law.
Mosques are often decorated with Arabic script
We met a group of men in Yinchuan who stand on the street every day selling Eight Treasure Cake (ba bao gao). They were from the province of Xinjiang and were obviously of Central Asian origin. Though we thought they might be Uyghurs, an Islamic people of Central Asian descent in Xinjiang, when asked they said they were Hui.
Ai bu bu la (possibly a Sinicisation of “Abullah”) from Xinjiang
Negotiating a price on a slice of Eight Treasure Cake
In the same way that Hui bread is always going to be fresh and tasty, we have come to recognise that Hui restaurants are nearly always a safe bet for a place to eat.
The cheery bunch of cooks at a Hui restaurant in Yinchuan
Chinese restaurants in this part of the country can often be dirty, noisy and smoky places to eat; the Hui restaurants, on the other hand, are usually run by families and are a fair bit quieter, especially on Saturday nights. The food’s a bit heavy on the mutton, but you usually know it’s fresh (don’t ask how).
Just look at those rosy cheeks
It seems to be a universal human impulse to decorate blank vertical surfaces with art. In the 1930s, lonely Basque shepherds in the western United States carved images of women from their hometowns in Spain into aspen trees (see “Mystery of the Arborglyphs,” one of the first articles Emma ever published). In cities ‘round the world, the words of spraycan prophets are written on the subway walls. Here in China, there are thousands upon thousands of cliffs, boulders and steles embellished with the striking characters of the Chinese script.
Stone tablets on the sacred mountain of Tai Shan in Shandong province
And in the mountains above the Yellow River, the ancient inhabitants of Ningxia carved thousands of images into the walls of the canyons they traversed as they moved between the Yellow River plain and the deserts of Mongolia. The Helan Shan is home to one of the richest concentrations of rock art in China. Since the 1980s Chinese archaelogists have discovered dozens of sites scattered among the valleys on the eastern slope of the range, and there are probably many sites still to be discovered.
The only one of these sites that is practically accessible to tourists is at Helan Kou, 58 kilometres northwest of Yinchuan, where there are over 5000 images carved into the rocks along a permanent watercourse. Accurate historical information on the site is a bit hard to come by (like much of what we see) – according to the interpretive signs at Helan Kou, the carvings are between 3000 and 10,000 years old, while a Professor of Chinese Art at Rhode Island School of Design contends they are mostly between 2500 and 1500 years old (see “Writing the Landscape: Petroglyphs of Inner Mongolia and Ningxia Province (China)”). Well, at least that rules out the years 500-2007 AD.
“Hey Rocky, watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat.”
Whatever their age, the carvings deal in some of the time-honoured themes of rock art worldwide, namely wildlife, domestic animals and scary faces. Unusually, there are also a handful of carvings with an agricultural theme.
A hunting scene, with what appears to be a tiger
Two goats running from their pen
A head of grain, possibly millet
The carvings are fantastic in their detail, their degree of preservation, and in some cases, the delicacy of the carving. We don’t actually know anything about rock art, truth be told, but we do seem to spend a bit of time wandering around deserts where rock art is found, and whether in the American Southwest, Australia or here, we’ve rarely seen rock art carvings with lines as fine as these.
One of Yinchuan’s gargantuan malls
At the eastern terminus of the Silk Road in old Chang’an (present-day Xian), the capital of Tang Dynasty China (618-907 AD), there were two great markets – the East Market (Dong Shichang) and the West Market (Xi Shichang). The East Market specialised in local luxury goods – jade and silk – while West Market merchants dealt in foreign goods – cockatoos from Indonesia, medicines from India, jewels from Turkey. It was said that between Dong Shichang and Xi Shichang you could buy anything from anywhere in the world.
Thus the origins of the Chinese phrase mai dongxi, which, translated hyper-literally, means “buy east-west.” In everyday usage, it means to buy things, or to go shopping.
Mai dongxi. The Chinese love to go shopping, and with the Chinese economy continuing to boom, more and more people have the wherewithal to go shopping more and more often. You’ve probably seen the numbers, but they are so staggering they bear repeating. China has averaged around 9 percent annual growth since 2000; last year growth was over 10 percent. According to the Economist.com, from 2000 to 2005, per capita GDP based on purchasing power parity (i.e., adjusted to reflect differences in the prices of goods across countries) rose from US$3980 to US$6292. Chinese wallets are more than a bit fatter these days.
Impressive as the statistics are, they don’t quite convey what the boom feels like at the retail level. Shopping in China can seem like a contact sport at times. On weekend afternoons in the major cities, giant pedestrian malls are packed with consumers rushing from one popular Chinese chain store to another – Dancing with Wolves for casual wear, Li Ning for sporting goods and clothing (motto: “Anything Is Possible”), and Hisense for white goods and consumer electronics.
Yinchuan’s main pedestrian mall
The giant shopping malls filled with Western retailers are less crowded, as Western goods come with Western price tags, but the array of brands is amazing. Ground floor: Revlon, L’Oreal, Maybelline, Lancome. First floor: Pierre Cardin, Esprit, Gucci, Nine West. Second floor: Nike, Adidas, Puma, Columbia. And so on, all the way to Floor 6.
Ground floor at Yinchuan’s nicest mall
Assuming you haven’t blown your paycheck on the top six floors, there’s a mega-supermarket in the basement
And that’s not even taking into account the innumerable stalls on the streets or in warehouse-style shopping cities selling cheap knock-off brands and knick-knacks.
The crowds outside Yinchuan Shopping City, where small merchants sell their wares
The Christmas decorations stall in Yinchuan Shopping City
In this frenzied atmosphere, it’s hardly surprising that Chinese merchants are pushing Christmas, and in a big way. So what if the holiday is entirely devoid of religious content here when there’s potential for a huge retail spike every December? Besides, as our Beijing friend John said of China and Christmas: “It’s a perfect match. You can eat and drink all day, give and receive gifts, and everybody gets to wear red!”
Sheng dan lao ren (Old Man Christmas) and his helper
. . . a nomadic people known as the Tuoba group of the Dangxiang were threatened by the neigbouring Tibetan Empire. In 799 AD they agreed to submit to Tang China in return for protection, and moved away from their home on the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau to the Ordos Plateau in the great bend of the Yellow River.
Over the next two centuries as the Tang Dynasty fragmented into smaller, quarreling Chinese dynasties, the Dangxiang grew stronger, and by 1038 the Dangxiang were able to establish their own kingdom, known to the Chinese as the Western Xia. For the next 190 years the 10 kings of the Western Xia ruled over a state that encompassed much of present-day Shaanxi, Ningxia and Gansu, until they were overthrown by Genghis Khan and the Mongols.
The story of the Western Xia probably would have been long forgotten by pretty much everyone were it not for one thing – upon their deaths, eight of the Western Xia kings were buried in massive tombs at the foot of the Helan Shan. Today those eight tombs stretch across roughly 40 square kilometres of foothill country, and are probably the most important tourist attraction in Ningxia.
Two tomb complexes and the Helan Shan
The easiest way to see the tombs is simply to get a cab from Yinchuan to the area developed for tourism, but unfortunately, like many Chinese cultural heritage sites, it is somewhat marred by unnecessarily huge concrete pavilions built to accommodate the summer crowds. To see the tombs in a more evocative context, you can walk cross-country about three kilometres to the southwest of the main tourist area, where you can wander around the perimeter of two well-preserved tomb complexes (they are, appropriately, fenced off), with only you and the wind to discuss what might have motivated the Western Xia kings to build these giant beehives.
Looking across the undeveloped tomb sites as stormclouds roll in
That’s not to say the main tourist area isn’t worth a visit, though. For one thing, you’re not restricted to the perimeter of the main tomb complex, so you can get right up close to see just how much dirt went into laying these kings to rest.
Brendan in front of Tomb No. 3
In addition, the museum at the tourist site is well worth a look, with nicely lit exhibits and informative signs in Chinese and English on the unique Xia script, which superficially resembles Chinese but in fact is quite different, the history of the Western Xia kingdom, and the mostly Buddhist iconography of the Xia. You can also have a look at some truly huge statues outside the tombs, which – though the interpretive signs don’t mention it – might just perhaps have as much to do with ancient fertility rites as with Buddhism.
Don’t go looking for the milk of human kindness from these two