The FIRST PART of the journey, from Milan to Bangkok, was brought to end, after ten months, with a surprise.
The SECOND PART – an adventure which I imagined for years, along the ancient Silk Road – started in Hong Kong.
Almost a month, to cross the old path in Yangshuo, explore the Tibetan regions of Sichuan and Qinghai and reach the mythical cities of Turpan and Kashgar … before passing into Kyrgyzstan.
There’s not much left to say.
And I wouldn’t manage it, anyway.
Landing, Hong Kong 🇭🇰
After 3 hours of delay in Milan and 4 in Istanbul due to a storm which buried half Turkey, I thought that even if I could ever get to Hong Kong, I would have been waiting for my luggages for days.
But no … here we are, all of us.
Fresh as roses.
Rainbow Sweater included.
With 33 humid degrees at 9 pm, however, I guess it’s better to wait a bit to put it on … before I really turn it into a sling (as my face already slightly does)
And now … to Hong Kong!
29 July, Hong Kong ◀ Day 305 🇭🇰 – 🇨🇳 ▶
I could have stayed longer than 15 hours.
I could have pedalled a bit along your enormous roads, dodging cars, zigzagging between skyscrapers, tofu and shark fins shops.
I could have enjoyed a beer while staring at your magnificent night skyline from some scenic spot in Kowloon.
I could have visited some of your Buddhas or look for some small piece of water to escape from the oppressive heat.
I could have relaxed a bit more and known some more people besides David, Xixi and Philip and their embarrassing kindness.
I could have spent 30 dollars for one night’s sleep in sardine box.
I could have done that, but I did not.
I need something else right now, and China’s call is too strong.
Forgive me if I’ve spent with you the time I would normally spend at a box office, but you already knew that.
Thank you too anyway, Hong Kong.
Thank you really.
30 July, Yangshuo ◀ Day 306 🇨🇳 ▶
I left Hong Kong in a hurry because, as I said, China’s call was too strong.
Not of all China, of course.
But the one I loved deeply.
This kind of China.
31 July, Yangshuo ◀ Day 307 🇨🇳 ▶
Last autumn, when I stopped at the Yangshuo Outside Inn for 40 days and in the evening, after work, I used to swim in the Yulong River’s green waters, the Chinese used to look at me as if I was crazy.
Too cold for them, though sometimes close to 30 degrees. Simply unthinkable with the winter approaching.
For me, having challenged in the past also the waters of some Dolomitic streams and of the Bajkal Lake, those moments were nothing but pure and magical balm, enclosed somewhere in a fantasy landscape.
I remember a few friends (Simon, Sara, Rita, Winde, Annemiek) coming down with me a couple of times.
“Too cold! You’re crazy!”, the chorus.
Today – in full and fiery Chinese summer – also due to the brown waters of the Yulong River (because of a terrible flood which affected deeply many valleys around, few weeks ago), I discovered for the first time Yangshuo’s main river: the Li river.
With it, the wonderful natural pool the Chinese use for their funny refreshments and pleasant ablutions (for only two months a year, obviously).
And even the Li river, after all, may not be considered as a bad one.
1 August, Yangshuo ◀ Day 308 🇨🇳 ▶
A full day lazing and working with Yangshuo Outside Inn’s old friends (hosting me for a couple of days), trying to recover completely from the jet lag and deciding where to go afterwards (and, above all, how to do it).
Towards the end of the afternoon, then – with a more livable temperature (during the day you would sweat even while lying in a chest closed in a refrigerator) – I walked around Chaolong village and then, for the last time, towards the Yulong River, trying to dive into those images of Chinese rural life which I deeply loved when I was working here last November.
Here are some.
2 August, Yangshuo ◀ Day 309 🇨🇳 ▶
As last image of Yangshuo – which I left today / the pic was taken yesterday – I chose a shot where my hand goes to the side of the two “twin mountains”, from the point of view I loved the most in Yulong River valley.
A bracelet, gift of an important person, on my wrist.
Few numbers on it.
24.7785°N / 110.4966°E are the coordinates of a place that, besides being wonderful, is where the first part of my journey (ten months from Milan to Bangkok, finished at the end of March) crosses perfectly the second part (just started 5 days ago).
The coordinates of Yangshuo, Guangxi, Southern China.
That’s why I wanted to come back here.
Behind me, a well-known, assimilated and already shared path.
In front, an adventure which still has to be lived.
An adventure that is just in my eyes for now, and that sometimes frightens me.
An adventure I still don’t know anything about.
Apart from one thing: that it starts again from here.
3 August, Liuzhou ◀ Day 310 🇨🇳 ▶
The beautiful thing in China, when you travel on land, is that you have 800 million different possibilities to move from A to B, which is also the same number of Chinese people moving around when they go on holiday.
Two days ago I decided to head to Chengdu, in Sichuan; from Yangshuo I could have done it through Xingping, or Guilin, or Sanjang or whatever.
I opted for a city I never heard about before: Liuzhou.
Not much because I was interested in seeing another huge city in China, but because it was the only one which was still selling tickets on a sleeping berth, and not only a seat (distances may be big around here).
So yesterday I took a convenient bus to Guilin and then a fast train connection to Liuzhou, with my Brompton (theoretically blocked for train trips, as per rule for all bikes) disguised as a bag of orchids and me loaded like a donkey.
The bad thing, in China, when you travel on land, is that 99% of the time … you don’t understand a s***.
So it happens that, once in Liuzhou, you find out that you have to change station due to work in progress, pedal for half an hour asking directions here and there, reach the right station as much sweaty as you can be, find it infinitely huge, read only Chinese letters and you suddenly feel like a 2 year old baby in front of a Peppa Pig episode.
But then there is another beautiful thing in China, when you travel (in general): anybody, one way or another, even without knowing how to say “yes” sometimes, do their best to help you. And they smile, in a way that instantly calms you.
Then Peppa Pig doesn’t seem so absurd anymore, and you arrive fresh (almost) and rested (almost) at place number 16, in wagon number 1, on track number 4, after check-in number 2, at Liuzhou station, Guangxi.
Peaceful, because the hard job was done already.
More or less.
Now you just have to wait until you get to Chengdu.
After 26 hours with a bunch of new Chinese little friends.
But at least, lying down.
On the uppest bed.
4 August, Chengdu ◀ Day 311 🇨🇳 ▶
26 hours yawning on a train and I’m here, in Chengdu!
Chengdu, which is “famous” for:
– being the capital of Sichuan province;
– being the largest western city in China (with nearly 15 million inhabitants);
– being the last city left by Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang before Mao and the Communist Party decided their final defeat;
– being a great tourist attraction spot for those who want to meet the pandas and their parks (or “Sanctuaries”).
For me Chengdu – although I’m here just for a few hours and therefore I’m able to tell about it only superficially:
– is a huge, scary, hot city, full of concrete and terrifying buildings;
– despite what I just mentioned, it’s extremely easy and safe for cycling (the train left me at the Eastern Station, 13km from the centre), with cycle lanes which could compete with a Formula 1 circuit;
– looks rich in parks and green areas, where people, used to the heat, practice dances and sports of all kinds;
– is the home of Sichuan chili, delicious cuisine and a fabulous dish, Gong Bao Ji Ding (fried/grilled chicken with leek, fresh chili peppers, dried chili peppers, ginger, roasted nuts and sauces) … which for 2 Euro is one of the most tasty ingredients mix I have ever tasted;
– is the starting point to move towards the mountains of Tibet.
But we will talk about this from tomorrow.
5 August, towards Kangding ◀ Day 312 🇨🇳 ▶
12 hours by bus to make 300 km I had never done before.
12 hours of traffic, trucks, boredom, mountains, apocalyptic buildings and Chinese films.
All of this to arrive late in the evening in Kangding, the gateway to Tibet.
I just hope this Kangding – and what will come next – was worth the effort.
Something tells me yes.
6 August, Kangding ◀ Day 313 🇨🇳 ▶
A whole day in Kangding, who would have said it.
Kangding, the capital of the deceased province of Xikang (dismantled in 1950).
Kangding (in Chinese), Dartsedo (in Tibetan), a place which for centuries represented the border between China and Tibet, where teacup merchants used to come from the East to exchange their treasures with that of the Westerners, wool.
Kangding, which today counts 100,000 inhabitants (half Kham Tibetan and half Han Chinese), where the rampant modern tourism unravels and steals space, day after day, to rivers, prayer wheels, mountains and solemn glaciers.
Kangding, which today is part of Sichuan, but still retains its border town charm to the mythical “land of snows”.
A land that I should start discovering a little from tomorrow, and of which today I have just learned the adorable nuances.
7 August, Tagong ◀ Day 314 🇨🇳 ▶
4000 meter for the very first time!
And Tibet (even if officially Sichuan) all around!
8 August, Tagong ◀ Day 315 🇨🇳 ▶
A four hours hiking between grasslands at 4000 meters and Sichuan Tibetan mountains, to acclimatise to the altitude, to reach a village (Ani Gompa) where only buddhist nannies live and to begin to wonder about the uniqueness of this remote part of China … and of the world in general.
Tagong – Ani Gompa: 3 hours walking.
Ani Gompa – Tagong: 1 hour walking plus 2 hitchhikes.
9 August, Tagong ◀ Day 316 🇨🇳 ▶
Ganzi/Garnze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (དཀར་མཛེས་བོད་རིགས་རང་སྐྱོང་ཁུལ་ in Tibetan) in western Sichuan covers an area of 151,078 square kilometers (58,331 square miles) and is located in the traditional Tibetan region of Kham. It is approximately half the size of Italy. It has a population of 1 million people, with Kham Tibetans making up 78% of the population.
So even though I am not officially in Tibet (you need special permits or organized tours to enter it) … it’s as if I were in Tibet.
Extremely big parts of Sichuan, Gansu and Qinghai provinces are ex-Tibet, before in 1950 everything changed.
Landscapes are Tibetan, mountains are Tibetan, snows are Tibetan, the culture is basically Tibetan as well as most of the population.
Like being in South Tyrol rather than in Austria, to make an example.
Chinese and Tibetan Kham coexist together without apparent problems, though it’s quite clear that the seconds suffer the firsts (especially tourists from other provinces); it is bizarre to note how this is a part of the world where Tibetan traditions are less repressed than in Tibet itself, and how Tibetans enjoy applying to Chinese higher prices than they do to other foreigners.
It’s also an extremely serene and fascinating area, where I’ve been for 4 days and where I intend to spend a little more time.
An area where you can hear Buddhist prayers mixed with the sound of huge trucks carrying concrete, watch Chinese sellers alongside Tibetan taxi drivers, spend hours in the midst of exquisite grasslands and surrounded by imposing peaks.
And know some little stories.
Like that one of Max, Coco and little Karel Yeshi.
Max is 28 and from Prague. He has been living in China for the last 5 years.
During a short holiday in Tagong, 3 years ago, he fell in love with the place and decided to stay. He took over the management of Khampa Café Hostel and after a while he fell in love with Coco, a Tibetan girl.
They now manage the hostel and a brewery here on the plateau, intending to produce local bio-beer and supply all Ganzi Prefecture vendors. For now. Then, who knows.
Meanwhile, together, Max and Coco, had a son: Karel Yeshi, an 11-month-old earthquake who’s almost able to ride horses, drinks yak milk, and in a very short time will be a trilingual expert in Tibetan momos (local dumplings) and bohemian beer.
And tell me if this is not just beautiful …
10 August, Tagong ◀ Day 317 🇨🇳 ▶
Tibetan Grasslands Intermodality:
PS: the picture is from yesterday.
Today I arrived in Ganzi after 7 hours of shared car. Shared with 10 Tibetans.
A car for 6 persons.
Imagine my freshness.
And it rains.
NOTE: 300 km / 130 Yuan (16 €)
PS2: Ganzi, even if with the rain, looks very interesting … but let’s leave it for tomorrow!
11 August, Ganzi ◀ Day 318 🇨🇳 ▶
For sure I’m not the first westerner to come to Ganzi (or Garze) Western Sichuan, in Ganzi / Garze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (in fact).
But today, don’t know why, the feeling – never experienced before elsewhere – was exactly that one.
12 August, Ganzi ◀ Day 319 🇨🇳 ▶
The day I sweat 3 shirts to push my Brompton up to 4000 meters, visit two temples on Ganzi’s majestic mountains and … entertain the Tibetan monks.
13 August, towards Yushu ◀ Day 320 🇨🇳 ▶
14 August, Yushu ◀ Day 321 🇨🇳 ▶
If in Ganzi I had the feeling of being the first westerner to enter the city, in Yushu the feeling became absolutely real.
Maybe it’s because I spent too much energy to get there.
Maybe it’s because the only accommodations were expensive and crumbling.
Maybe it’s because the city – destroyed in 2010 by an earthquake – seems to have been rebuilt by an evil wizard, who tried to embody Tibetan remembrances over Chinese concrete and neon, creating embarrassing results.
Maybe it’s because the morning mist mingled with a general distressing atmosphere, filled with sweat, sorrow and lamenting.
Maybe it’s because I couldn’t see mountains like in Sichuan.
But it is in fact that Yushu, for me, was synonymous with weird discomfort.
Discomfort which I decided to escape from after less than one day … with a direct bus to Xining.
15 and 16 August, Xining ◀ Days 322/323 🇨🇳 ▶
Those cities you just pass through, but which mark a change. Which sign a border, as real as imaginary.
This is what Xining is for me, Qinghai capital.
Something like this happened last year when I went to Ulan Ude, capital of Russian Buriazia; I left behind me the Lenin’s statues and the immensity of Russia, and I was preparing to go down to Mongolia and then to the belly of Asia. It was in Ulan Ude that I saw the first of countless Buddhist temples. It was there that I noticed the true change of physiognomy, beliefs, food and culture between what remained behind my shoulders and what I was about to discover later.
Xining did the same thing.
To the East, China. The very deep China.
Behind me, the mountains and the Tibetan people of Sichuan.
Towards North-West, the Silk Road.
And there’s where I’m going.
17 August, Turpan ◀ Day 324 🇨🇳 ▶
After leaving Xining at dawn, after crossing 1600 km in eight hours of fast train, after passing through deserts, arid mountains, thousands of wind turbines and terribly desolate land, and so after arriving in hot Turpan, Xinjiang province … well … now I can tell you that I really feel far from everything.
In the middle of nowhere.
18 August, Turpan ◀ Day 325 🇨🇳 ▶
Then you arrive in a city you’ve never heard of until recently, Turpan, and you realize – once again – how incredibly vast, disturbingly varied and unknowingly beautiful this absurd country called China is.
19 August, Turpan ◀ Day 326 🇨🇳 ▶
When two days ago I arrived at Turpan Station and wrote that I was in the middle of “nowhere”, actually I still ignored many things about this place.
Located at 154 meters below sea level (it’s curious to think that less than a week ago I was almost 5000 meters above), today’s Tulufan (in Chinese) / Turpan (Uighur) is the second lowest town on the earth (don’t ask me which is the first).
It is the hottest spot in China, and one of the hottest in the world. However, despite being surrounded by mountains and deserts, it is an extremely fertile and vital oasis; extensive grapes cultivations nowadays as well as dozens of historical sites document this fact and also how it was already inhabited in prehistoric times.
Over the centuries it has undergone countless dominions – from Turkish / Mongolian to Tibetan, from Chinese dynasties to Russian Tsars, from Persians to Central Asian tribes – meeting all kinds of influences, including Indian, Japanese and many other.
Today it is officially a Chinese city, in full Uighur territory; local language sounds more like turkish and arabic than mandarin, and it is clear how the Uighur people suffer deeply Beijing’s fist. Blocking points, military controls and metal detectors are everywhere and the Chinese are widely suspected, much more than any other nationality.
In short, an extremely complex city (from Wikipedia, these are the ethnic groups living today in Turpan: Uyghur, Han, Hui, Tujia, Manchu, Tu, Mongol, Tibetan, Kazakh, Miao, Russian, Zhuang, Dongxiang, Iranian), where you can breath inspiring air as well as annihilating one, and particularly rich in history.
I discovered it yesterday visiting Jiaohe ruins, an ancient hub for the merchant caravans centuries before Christ already existing.
For me, simply, Turpan is where my path officially crosses the way I intend to follow, since the day I started this second part of the journey.
This is where – today it can be said – my Silk Road really begins.
20 and 21 August, Kashgar ◀ Days 327/328 🇨🇳 ▶
“Are you sure you’re still in China, buddy?”
22 August, Kashgar ◀ Day 329 🇨🇳 ▶
I stopped, that’s the fact.
Third day in a row in Kashgar, and I’ll stay a bit longer.
No, I didn’t fall in love nor found a job.
Simply, after a quick journey that took me from Hong Kong to Xinjiang, crossing China from southeast to the northwest within twenty days, I needed a little break.
Yes, indeed, a little break for myself and some time to think seriously about the next moves.
About the next countries.
The way to go.
And then I love wandering through the streets of an impressive city which has captured me since the first day, which is China but it’s not China, where Central Asia is no longer a mirage – indeed, it is now a step away – and Middle East seems already around the corner.
Where everything seems to be in its place, and at the same time everything is upside down.
And where truth transpires only in one element, which can not be misunderstood.
23 August, Kashgar ◀ Day 330 🇨🇳 ▶
I felt I was missing something, but now .. now no!
I’m ready to go to Kyrgyzstan!
Forget about Marco Polo … here we try to emulate another mythical character.
Toad, from Super Mario.
24 August, from China to Kyrgyzstan ◀ Day 331 🇨🇳 ▶