Back to blog index

The Leshan Giant Buddha 乐山大佛


I like to think as an Australian I have a degree of expertise in large things, because my home country takes a particular pride in its ‘bigs’ – the Big Apple in Tasmania, the Big Prawn at Ballina, the Big Sheep, the Big Cow, the Big Mower (at Beerwah). I’ve climbed to the top of Big Pinepapple and ridden on the Macadamia Nutmobile (eight giant brown nuts weaving through the macadamia trees!), and walked through the middle of the Big Banana in Coff’s Harbour…the list is endless. Kitsch they may be, but they’re colourful and hey, they’re BIG.

我喜欢像一个澳大利亚人那样来思考,对于大的东西我都有一定程度的专业知识,因为我的国家特别引以为豪就是众多的大个子塔斯马尼亚岛的大苹果,巴利纳大对虾,大绵羊,大牛,大割草机(在比尔瓦)。我爬过巨大的菠萝灌木,乘坐过澳洲坚果的列车,穿梭在的巨大香蕉树丛中,由于不断的有新的大个子出现,这个名单也是没法列完整的。


All this big-ness expertise, though, left me unprepared for one of China’s bigs. Turns out the Chinese have been doing big since AD713, when monk Haitong at Leshan had the idea of carving a giant seated Buddha into a cliff facing the confluence of two rivers, a site with powerful currents and lethal for boats. He hoped the Buddha would be able to tame the savage waters.

虽然有了这些专业知识,然而出乎我意料的是中国的一项大工程。从公元713年起中国人就开始做这个大工程,当时,乐山的海通和尚有个想法,想要在悬崖中雕刻一个巨大的坐佛,面向着两江汇流处,这个位置处在汹涌的河流交汇处,对过往船只的安全影响极大。他希望佛陀能够驯服汹涌的河流水域。


The Buddha is best seen from the water amid those exact same savage waters, but we don’t initially know this and decide to tackle the Buddha head first so to speak, climbing up moss-covered stone stairs through a lush green rainforest to the cliff top temple, level with the top of the Buddha’s tightly curled black head. 

When we reach the top though we can see bugger all – there are around two thousand people here on a weekday morning. Over the heads of the crowd I can glimpse his right eye and his nose but little else, and photo touts have commandeered the only viewing platform, charging 50 yuan to have a photo of yourself taken standing on a stool and appearing to pinch Buddha’s nose. Classy.

Thank goodness we didn’t try to visit during Golden Week (China’s main national holiday, in the first week of October) as had been our original plan – we would have been crushed to death by the enthusaistic crowds.

最好的观佛的位置是在河流上,但我们最初不知道这一点,我们起先决定爬到佛像顶部,我们穿过茂密的热带雨林中覆盖着苔藓的石阶,攀登到在悬崖顶部的寺庙,在这里我们可以看到佛像紧密卷曲的黑色头型,右眼和鼻子,仅此而已。有承包了观景台的人在兜售拍照, 收费50元可以照出自己捏佛像鼻子效果的照片。路上的游人摩肩接踵,大家排一个小时的队去观摩佛像的剩余部分沿着石阶走下,穿过他的肩,肘,搭在膝盖上的他的手,最后到他巨大的脚,每个脚趾有一辆小面包车那么大。


Everyone is thronging to join in the hour-long queue to see the rest of the Buddha – to climb down stone steps on the inside of the cliff he’s nestled into, past his giant shoulder, his massive elbow, his hand resting on his knee, then lastly his enormous feet, each toe the size of a minibus.


The queue snakes back and forth between eight rows of barriers and eventually we reach the front, only to find we are now pushed forward on a see of people dangerously jammed into a tiny viewing platform where we can barely breathe. We can see below us to the next platform where children and the elderly are being squashed sideways by the surging crowds. 



After the taking of this photo – over the heads of four Chinese women pinned between the railing and us – we hold a brief and urgent family conference, held under the armpit of a large Chinese man who is trying to clamber over us, and decide to give up and view the Buddha from the deck of one of the less crowded boats we can see below us.

在八排栅栏间队列如蛇形迂回,最终我们到达前面,才发现,我们身处危险,被挤进一个很小的观景台,可以看到我们下面的下一个观景平台,儿童和老人被汹涌的人潮挤到一边。经过短暂的家庭会议后,身旁就是一个魁梧的中国男人,他试图插到我们前面去,于是,我们决定放弃,同时看到的下面有很多船只,我们觉得在船只甲板上也可以观看佛像。





The boat is a much better plan, even though we have to hand over another fistful of money to get on one. There are even, unusually, lifejackets, and we can’t board until we are each wearing one. Once we reach the Buddha though, battling against the swift current at full throttle in order to stand stationary for a few minutes, our fellow passengers abandon the ugly padded orange lifevests so their photos look better.

This outfit may actually have been improved by a lifejacket….

The view from the river gives you an idea of the full majestic height of the Buddha – his ten giant toes, truly like ‘ten minibuses parked side by side’ according to my daughter. 

The huge elegant hands rest gently on his knees and it seems amazing that this was accomplished with human hands alone more than 1200 years ago. As the boat finally overcomes the strongest currents and we head back upstream I catch a last glimpse of  the Buddha’s beatific face, calmly serene despite the ant-like humans swarming past him in a never-ending file, and the turbulent waters rushing past.

选择船只绝对是一个更好的计划,使你对佛像雄伟的高度有一个完整的认识他有10个巨大的脚趾,按照我女儿的想法真像是十辆并排停靠的小巴。巨大优雅的手轻轻地放在他的膝盖上,这看起来太不可思议了,这居然是1200多年前完全依靠人类的双手完成的。当船终于越过强劲的河流返回上游时,我最后凝视着佛像喜乐平和的面庞,尽管蚂蚁般的人群永不停歇地拥挤穿过,尽管狂暴的河流在它面前汹涌奔腾,他的面容依旧安详从容。



Leshan Giant Buddha 乐山大佛

Leshan, Sichuan Province

Open daily 8am – 5.30pm
Admission 90 yuan adults, 45 yuan for students, under 1.2m free

Boat rides
70 yuan per person

The Chengdu Spice Market 成都香料市场

 

You can smell the Chengdu Spice Market from way down the street as you pass the Wukuaishi Bus Station, thronging with tiny Sichuanese farmers from out in the country come to Chengdu to look for work – baskets filled with belongings on their backs, or rucksacks made from worn denim, wearing the farmer’s uniform of a worn brown suit jacket, rolled up navy blue suit trousers and rubber-soled khaki gym shoes.

当你穿过成都五块石汽车站的时候,远在街道的尽头就能闻到成都的香料市场,这里聚集着从乡下到成都来找工作的四川农民工——背上背着装满东西的筐子,或由旧牛仔裤做的帆布背包,穿着农民工特有的制服,一身很旧的棕色西装外套,卷着边的藏蓝色西服裤子和一双卡其色胶底运动鞋。

Traffic is mayhem at this spot as bus passengers with bags and boxes weave in and out between vehicles and buses, taxis cut in on one another to vie for passengers, and three-wheeled modi taxis crowd the pavement, calling for fares. There are a lot of horns honking and raised voices, and between all this street vendors have carved out their own slice of pavement and are selling roast sweet potatoes, corn-on-the-cob and spicy cold noodles in cardboard tubs. It’s complete chaos.
Then suddenly the astringent smell of Sichuan pepper goes right into your nose and hits that spot reserved for wasabi or horseradish, clearing your head, and you keep walking.

这里的交通看起来就像是被蓄意破坏过,拎着大包小包的旅客在车辆和公车间迂回前进,出租车彼此加塞争夺乘客,聚集在人行道上的三轮摩的,不停地讨价还价。喧嚣的喇叭声和大嗓门,在这条街上的小贩们已经开拓出他们自己的那片区域,卖着香甜的烤红薯,玉米棒和快餐纸盒装的辛辣凉面。一片混乱。然后突然四川辣椒的呛味儿会进入你的鼻子,芥末和山葵会触碰到的那个敏感点,使你的头脑一下子清醒,接着走下去。

It’s great to be back in Chengdu (and back on the road) after nearly two weeks of sitting still in Shanghai waiting for the campervan to be repaired. I’m not that great at sitting still, preferring to keep moving, keep doing, keep seeing new things, a trait that is exhausting at times for me and everyone else. For once I really needed some quiet downtime to recover from the previous couple of months of very rugged and challenging travel, and you know, eat some familiar foods. Wear clean clothes. Have coffee with friends. It was delightful.
We arrived in Chengdu feeling completely recharged and re-energized, and ready for new places, but before leaving town I wanted to visit the Spice Market where I’d heard Sichuan’s famed hua jiao pepper and chillies are bought and sold. It’s a massive place taking up a whole block, divided into sections for chillies, peppers, dried spices, dried mushrooms, dried seafood and fresh garlic and ginger. 
It’s an Aladdin’s Cave for lovers of spice, and I spent hours there chatting with the vendors and wiping my streaming eyes.

在上海呆了两周,待房车修好后,再次回到成都(回来的路上)的感觉太棒了。我不擅长静坐等待,更喜欢继续前进,继续做点儿什么,继续看到新的东西。有一点我和其他人一样,有时候会感到筋疲力尽。这一次我真的需要一些安静的停工期,从之前几个月的颠簸和刺激(挑战性)的旅途中恢复,而且你知道,吃一些熟悉的食物。穿着干净的衣服。和朋友一起喝喝咖啡。这确实令人心情愉快。我们回到成都,感觉完全充满了电,注入了活力,准备去新的地方,但在离开城市之前,我想参观的香料市场,我听说在那里买卖四川著名的花椒和辣椒。


The main hall of the market is a vast space stacked from floor to ceiling with bags of chillies – from Xinjiang (curled and crinkled), from Hebei (straight and dark) and from Henan (straight and plump). Each has a different taste and degree of heat, although if you really want to maximize the heat you can also purchase sacks of chili seeds (above).

 The air is full of the acrid smell of dried chillies and it makes your eyes water and your nose run. I developed a tight cough, the kind you get when you fry chillies at home and the kitchen fills with the aerosolized chili vapour. The chili vendors (and their children) seemed completely immune to it though – playing cards, eating lunch and gossiping amongst the red-filled sacks.

市场大棚下地方很宽敞,从地板到天花板堆积了大包小包的辣椒 有来自新疆的(表皮皱且形状卷曲),来自河北的(形状直且色泽深),来自河南的(外形笔直且饱满)。每种辣椒都有不同的味道和火辣感,但如果你真的想体验最大限度的热辣,你也可以买上几包上述几种辣椒的种子。空气中充满刺鼻干辣椒的辛辣味儿,它使你不停地流眼泪和流鼻涕。我会很紧凑短促地咳嗽,就是那种当你在家里炒辣椒,厨房里充满了辣椒雾气的情形下,使人产生的那种咳嗽。辣椒供应商似乎完全不受它影响在装满红辣椒麻袋间打牌,吃午饭,闲聊。

The Sichuan pepper hall was next – hua jiao 花椒 (flower pepper) is the tiny outer husk of the seed of the prickly ash bush, and for those who’ve never had the pleasure of trying it, sichuan pepper is unique for its mala or numbing spiciness. Not numbing in the way eating raw chillies numbs your mouth, but truly numbing, in an anaesthetic sort of way. 
Chew one sichuan pepper and you taste a pleasant, peppery, slighty citrus medicinal flavour. After a minute the tip of your tongue feels a little numb and there is a pleasant tingling on your lips. Eat two or three and the rest of your tongue and lips now feel quite numb. The effect is fleeting and not unpleasant.
Sichuan pepper is used with enthusiasm is Sichuan cooking for flavouring soups, hotpots, braises and more. Until I visited the market I was unaware that in addition to the red variety, Sichuan pepper also comes in a dark green variety (qing hua jiao 青花椒) with a slightly different tatse and more powerful numbing properties.
接下来是四川花椒大棚花椒(花椒)是美洲花椒灌木的种子,有着很小的外壳,这些东西没人有兴趣尝试,四川花椒由于它的麻而独树一帜。吃生花椒来麻木你的嘴的时候不会感到麻,但以麻醉的方式食用会感到真正的麻。嚼一个花椒,感觉还不错,有点辛辣,略微的柑橘类药物的味道。一分钟后,你的舌尖感觉有点麻木,嘴唇有舒服的刺痛感。吃两个或三个,你的舌头其余部分和嘴唇,会感觉相当的麻。这种感觉是短暂的,不会不舒服。花椒被使用的非常广泛,在四川烹饪中,调味汤,火锅,炖煮等等很多。我走进市场才知道除了红色品种,花椒也有一个品种是深绿色的(青花椒),它有一种略为不同的口味以及更强的致麻感。

The dried spice hall was extraordinary, filled with intoxicating smells of star anise (above), cassia quills (below), bay leaves (used extensively in Chinese cooking – a surprise to me), turmeric, dried ginger and cloves. It’s the first and probably last time I will see someone purchase 10 kilograms of cloves at once! There were so many more I couldn’t begin to name, trying to guess their uses by their smell.
干香料大厅真是不可思议,充满着醉人的香味,八角(上方),肉桂(下方),月桂叶(在中国烹饪中用途广泛我很吃惊),姜黄,生姜还有丁香干。这是第一次也可能是我最后一次看到有人一次购买10公斤的丁香!还有很多我叫不上名儿的香料。

The last hall holds dried goods like mushrooms (forty varieties) and seafood – tiny translucent dried shrimp, flat tentacled squid bundled together like cards, silvery dried sardines. 
最后一个大棚装满干货,像香菇(40个品种)和海鲜微小的半透明虾干,像扑克牌一样捆绑在一起的扁平触手的鱿鱼,还有银色的干沙丁鱼。

The vendors of the spice market are its lifeblood, a hard-working, cheery bunch who toil seven days a week. Chengdu people are very friendly, but the vendors at the spice market are almost overwhelming in their enthusiastic friendliness, and it’s a place that sees few foreign visitors.

A group of chili vendors trailed me around the market, explaining to everyone who I was and where I was from. (Australia? Wow! Lives in Shanghai huh? Ooh. Interested in Chinese food? Of course!) I was delighted by their hospitality and good humour – I think my eyes streamed as much from laughter as from the chillies.

If you’re ever in Chengdu, yes, be sure to see the pandas, but don’t miss the Spice Market. It’s unforgettable.

香料市场的供应商是它的生机的来源,这群活泼的人努力工作,一周7天辛劳的工作。成都人都很友好,但香料市场的供应商在热情这个方面几乎是力压群雄,这里几乎很少看到外国游客。在市场里 A组的辣椒供应商一直跟着我,和每个人解释我是谁,从哪来。 (澳大利亚?哇哦!住在上海吧?嗯?哦。对中国菜感兴趣吗?当然!)我很高兴他们的热情和良好的幽默感我觉得我笑出来的泪水和辣出来的泪水一样多。如果你要去成都,没错,一定要去看看大熊猫,但千万不要错过香料市场。这绝对是个令人难忘的地方。

Chengdu Spice Market 成都香料市场


2 East Saiyuntai No 1 Road, Chenghau District, Chengdu (about 500m from the Wukuaishi bus station)
Open seven days 8am-4.30pm

成都香料市场
成都市赛云台东二路2
赛云台东一路(距离五块石汽车站大约500米)

开放时间 一周七天上午8下午4点半

Driving Around China: The Nuts and Bolts (but mostly the nuts)

Little campervan, I miss you!

I’m sitting here in Shanghai waiting for the call from the mechanics in Chengdu telling me our campervan is fixed and thinking, what can I write about?

The travels have been suspended for over a week now while they work on the damage caused by months of shaking and rattling on Chinese roads – the popped welds on the water tank, the leaking sink, the cupboard doors that unscrewed themselves and fell off.

Driving through Aksu, Xinjiang: dustiest town in China

Not to mention the damage caused by weeks of driving in high-dust desert conditions – the clogged spark plugs, the blocked exterior locks, the shrivelled windscreen wipers, the floor that continues producing its own volumes of dust every day from unseen reservoirs, so when we lift the carpet we find an even layer of pale silt thick enough to sweep into small hillocks.

Then there’s the damage caused by none of these things – the bathroom roof vent smashed when a tyre mechanic was up there ‘just having a look’ and put his foot straight through it, the extractor fan splintered when a branch fell into it from a nearby tree.

Worst of all, we have somehow sheared off the two outlet valves underneath the van for clean waste water and dirty waste water (er….sewerage), so now the waste goes straight through onto the road like a Chinese train toilet. Not good. Certainly we can’t use the toilet whilst parked anywhere, and using it while moving is logistically difficult on very bumpy roads. We don’t even know when or how it happened, but probably a rock was involved, or bottoming on a huge pothole.

The wily Mr Chen tells us over the phone this is definitely not covered in our insurance policy:

‘It’s an accident if you hit a car, yes. But not if you hit a rock.’

It seems unnecessarily specific, but then, I know nothing about Chinese insurance policies. Is it OK if you hit a cow, for example? Or a fence? But not a telephone pole? He doesn’t come outright and say it, but I know what he’s thinking – that we got under there and sawed off those outlet valves ourselves with a hacksaw, then claimed it was an accident. Foreigners are sly like that.

So as I sit here waiting and waiting I think: I haven’t written much at all about what it’s really like driving around China. And this is definitely something you need to know, should you ever decide to let go of your good sense and drive around this country.

So here it is: the no holds barred, bumpy truth.
I advise you to do as the sign says:

1. The Roads

Mountain road with snow, for added difficulty. Sichuan.
Imagine you’re climbing a steep mountain pass, a precipitous drop to your right with no barrier to guard the plummet downwards should you stray too far to the edge.

Just as you near a blind uphill hairpin bend, the three-wheeler truck behind you (an unusual breed of small cheap blue conveyance beloved of Chinese farmers) overtakes you towards the hairpin. At that moment a passenger bus full of people overtaking a petrol tanker rounds the bend from the opposite direction on your side of the road. It looks grim. It’s a narrow two lane road and there are no less than four vehicles battling for space between the mountain and the drop-off.

But something miraculous happens – instead of a major collision and a fatal fall down the mountainside for one or more of you, the tricycle truck zooms into the space in front of you created when you moved as far to the right as possible, the bus slides into the small space left by the tricycle truck, and the petrol tanker, having pulled on the brakes a little for good measure, gives everyone involved a friendly toot on his horn as he rolls past down the mountain. After all, he’ll repeat this scenario every few minutes on his journey.

This is just a normal day on country roads in China. Character building. You’ll get used it.

The roads themselves are a different matter. Graded into national (guodao 国道 – G), provincial (shengdao 省道 -S) and county roads (xianxiangdao 县乡道) the number of lanes and quality of the driving surface decreases accordingly. Most maps fail to include my own grading – mud trails (B – for bog risk) goat tracks (C – for carnage, as in when you run into one of those critters) and corrugated potholed dirt roads (T – for tractors only).

What I’ve come to enjoy is the sheer novelty value of some of China’s roads – like this dirt track in Inner Mongolia. For reasons known only to the locals, a 2.8m height barrier was necessary right here in the middle of nowhere, preventing trucks and buses (and campervans) from passing. 

Then they just went and made a barrier-free side road, for everyone else. Does it make sense? Of course not. Did it make me laugh? Yes.
2. Tolls
Every decent road – and despite what I’ve said there are quite a lot of them in China – has tolls. Every time you come to a provincial border or a highway intersection there’s a toll booth. Charge depends on vehicle size and distance travelled, as well as road quality (a new bridge will have a higher toll than an old highway, for example) and which province you’re in.

It varies from the cheapest at 6 yuan (Qinghai) to the most expensive at 33 yuan (Shanxi) for every 100km travelled.

The toll booth operators have usually never seen a campervan before, so we’re used to a protracted Q&A before the correct toll amount is assigned.

‘Are you a goods truck?’
‘No, a campervan.’
‘A what? A bus?’
‘No, a campervan.’
‘A what??? Let me see your vehicle registration licence.’
(now on radio to friend in next tollbooth) ‘Xiao Wang! Get a load of this! It’s a CAMPERVAN!!!’

3. Road Signs
Road signs on all major roads are usually helpfuly bilingual, although this gets less helpful in places like Inner Mongolia where the two languages are Chinese and Mongolian and the signs look like this:

Can you read this? I didn’t think so.
In Xinjiang, far western China, the road signs are bilingual in Chinese and Uyghur and look like this:
Still can’t read it. But there is something coming in 11km, then nothing for another 251km.

China also has the best road safety signs in the world:

And sometimes the message is the same but the Chinglish differs:

4. Police

To be honest the one thing I was really worried about, like, waking up at night worried, was Chinese police. I had heard dreadful stories about unprovoked police brutality, about bribes, about deaths in custody. Custody was one place I had tried to avoid all my life, and I didn’t want to find out if the rumours about police custody in China were true.

So the first time we were pulled over by the police I was understandably anxious. We were diverted off the highway in Inner Mongolia into a lay-by filled with policemen and women. A senior officer approached the driver’s window and looked at us with a stern face, his eyes narrowd, his posture ramrod straight.

‘Licence’ he requested, briskly.

My husband handed over his licence, a small navy blue plastic holder with the licence inside behind a clear plastic cover.
He took it with his white cotton gloved hands and tried to open it, but the gloves were too slippery and he couldn’t get a grasp on the edges of the smooth plastic. He sighed.
He handed it back to my husband, who was about to put it away.

‘No! Wait! Let’s try that again’ he said.

‘Pardon?’ I said.

‘Hand it to me again.’ he said, taking off his gloves and putting them in his pocket.

‘Licence’ he requested again. I wasn’t sure what the hell was going on.

Then I realized we were being filmed by a three man film crew. We weren’t in trouble – we were part of a police training video for highway patrols.

We did one more take, all smiling this time.

Then the entire film crew and all the police took a tour of the campervan.

I’d like to say this has been our only experience of police in China, but in fact we’ve now been pulled over dozens of times for licence checks or vehicle registrations. The police presence in Xinjiang is impressively oppressive, with bunkers, camouflage gear and gun-toting batallions of police manning every checkpoint, of which there are many. At these points, you must complete a registration (dengji 登记)and show your passport as well as your licence. Spot vehicle inspections are common.

In other parts of China there is a lack of manpower in the police force, made up for with these:

Police Officer, Inner Mongolia

5. Fuel

Fuel stations are magnificent entities in China. The best are in the east and north, where they span both sides of the highway and encompass acres of grounds, a restaurant, a supermarket, a souvenir shop, a motel, public toilets and a place to buy petrol. Giant hot water canteens dispense boiling water for all your travelling tea and instant noodle needs.

In other places, the fuel stations sell nothing but fuel. They’re so remote the staff usually live on site, and behind the fuel pumps is a vegetable garden where they grow vegetables when they’re not pumping gas.

Prices are pretty fixed across all of China, given that most fuel stations are state owned.

Some handy fuel phrases:

Petrol = qi you 汽油
Diesel = chai you 柴油
Fill ‘er up = jia man 加满

6. Water
I never thought that our biggest problem with the campervan would be finding water. The van has a 120-litre capacity water tank for showers, washing, and flushing the toilet. Divided by four people, 120 litres doesn’t go very far and we usually need to fill our tank every day.

At home, and in other countries, this would be accomplished with an outdoor tap and a hose, available at every single fuel station. Right?

But this is China. After finding that only tap in most fuel stations is indoors, inside the manager’s private bathroom, we often manage to convince staff to run our hose from it to the van by parking close to the building like this. It doesn’t always work, but mostly the staff are terribly helpful and only too happy to oblige.

We have to disconnect if the manager wants to use the bathroom though.

In drier parts of China where rain is scarce we usually have to buy water, from a roadside jiashui 加水 (add water) stall. These take many forms, and the water might be trucked in, pumped from underground reservoirs, or from nearby canals. The well water is best and technically drinkable. Canal water is usually dirty and undrinkable. The price for 120 litres varies with demand – the cheapest is 5 yuan, and the most expensive, in the deserts of western Gansu, is 20 yuan.

Roadside Add Water, Xinjiang
Cave house Add Water, Shanxi

Satellite Add Water, Hebei


7. Mechanical Assistance
What exactly do you do if you break down in the middle of nowhere?

Luckily for you China has a system of roadside assistance as complex and provincial as you might imagine. Here’s how it works:

Roadside assistance is tied to your insurance policy, so the first thing to do is call your insurance company’s 24 hour assist number – if they have one – and get them to help. If you don’t speak Chinese, you’re stuffed. They will then contact the local roadside assist provider to come and help you, usually a guy in a minivan with a few tools. One of the worst possible places to break down is on an elevated highway, where there may be an emergency parking lane but you’ll be sitting in the baking sun for hours while you wait with no way to get off and find food or water.

If you’re on a smaller road help will be available close to a fuel stop, and China is absolutely riddled with vehicle mechanics in little shacks just like this.

Mechanic’s shop, Inner Mongolia
Please don’t be put off by the ramshackle appearance of these mechanic’s shops. They can fix anything, and they manage to keep all of China truck fleets going from one end of the country to the other. 
For the sake of simplicity, when we’ve had breakdowns (not many, thankfully) we’ve kept insurance companies and roadside assists out of it and just used what’s available nearby, like this tyre repair tent on the road from Xinjiang to Qinghai. The tent is spray-painted optimistically with the characters for ‘shop’.

It sure didn’t look like much but but when we had a tyre blow-out and couldn’t get the hydraulically-tightened wheel nuts off the wheel, the tyre shop tent mechanic could and did. Repairs are also inexpensive: the standard rate for a tyre change across China is 50 yuan. 

Once the flat tyre is removed you can then take it to a different kind of shop – a butai 补台 – tyre patch -shop like the one below inside a cave house in Shanxi, and have on-the-spot repairs in the middle of nowhere….
….by these guys, the tyre patch men. They’re just sitting around highways all over the country waiting for your business. 
Makes you want to go right out and get a flat, doesn’t it?

So there you have it. All the helpful information you might need for a road trip in China. Should you be going on one, I happen to know where you can get a campervan reeaaal cheap. Call me.

Yu’s Family Kitchen, Chengdu: A 34-Course Feast For The Senses

After weeks and weeks in the remote wilds of western China, riding camels, sleeping in yurts, trekking through bazaars and witnessing unusual sacrifices, we finally made it across Xinjiang, Gansu and Qinghai to Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province and city of spice. 
It was a complete and utter shock as we tumbled frizzy-haired and wild-eyed out of the campervan and into a major centre of civilization, a place with clean sheets and freshly brewed coffee, without yak hair blankets or animals grazing outside the door of our room. And people spoke Chinese there! No surprise really, given that Chengdu is in China, but so are Xinjiang, Qinghai and Gansu – and yet we went for days at a time without meeting a single person who spoke anything but the local Uyghur or Tibetan language.
Chengdu is smack-bang in the middle of China, a fine city with parks and tree-lined streets where the entire population is obsessed with food and eating. I’d been preparing for our arrival by researching the best places to eat and snack, and the best districts for streetfood (a great place to start is Jenny Gao’s blog Jing Theory). The list was very long indeed, and very spicy. You can smell the zesty fragrance of Sichuan pepper as you walk the streets, where every second doorway is a snack stall or a tiny restaurant with their chili-drenched wares displayed outside on the pavement.
I decided we should just dive right into Chengdu’s civilised food culture and eat at Yu’s Family Kitchen, with a 34 course degustation menu from one of China’s most talked about chefs, Yu Bo.
Belying its humble name, Yu’s Family Kitchen is set in a restored mansion house in one of Chengdu’s most vibrant street quarters, the revitalised Alleys district.
The entire meal was a study in new and interesting flavours and contrasts of taste and texture. I have only a limited understanding of Sichuan food so I approached the meal purely on the basis of taste and appearance. Those more knowledgeable about the culture and history of food in Sichuan would no doubt find more layers of meaning and reference in the dishes, but fortunately for me the flavours and tastes were strong enough on their own to make this a memorable experience from start to finish.
After being ushered into our private dining room on the upper floor – a simply furnished library full of cookbooks – Yu Bo’s wife introduced the meal to us, patiently helping me with the Chinese for any dishes I didn’t understand. 
To commence: sixteen cold vegetable appetisers. Cold dishes always start a Chinese meal, preparing the palate for the more complex tastes to come. These were spanking fresh and perfectly reflected the season, some served unadorned but cut into exquisite shapes, others with simple dressings.
From top, L to R: fresh beans with ginger and soy, smoked tofu, braised eggplant, bitter greens 
Pickled baby ginger, quail eggs with quivering jellied whites, red and green peppers
Wood ear fungus with curls of burning chili, tiny perfect red tomatoes, steamed pumpkin, bamboo shoot
Cooling xi nan hua, xi hu gua, sweetened peanuts, spheres of foshou gua (alligator pear)
Then came the slow procession of the next eighteen courses, taken as slowly as we needed, with plenty of time to talk and watch the street life below from our private balcony.
Left: a tiny egg and truffle cake topped with a sliver of truffle and gold leaf. It looked beautiful but sadly the cake was dry and the truffle lacked punch. The night’s only minor disappointment.
Right: A single clove of hei suan – black garlic – slow-roasted in its skin, then smoked and cut open like a delicate lotus flower blooming. The garlic was soft and rich with the texture of chocolate fondant and a deep, sweet, smoky taste. I’m still thinking about this single small culinary feat.
Ginseng root, two slender pieces, crisp and dry with a taste like fresh-baked biscuit, and powdered sugar.
Yu Bo’s signature dish – calligraphy brushes made from crisp pastry filled inside with pork floss, dipped in a sweet tomato ink. Spectacular and clever.

The little details that add to the experience: every dish is served in a different vessel, beautiful fine porcelain, hand-painted. Had I remembered to take a photograph before leaping into this abalone on cubes of richly spicy mung bean jelly you would have seen the inside rather than the outside of the dish.
Hairy crab meat and roe in crab shell, encased in a fine sheet of soft pastry. Served with aged warm Shaoxing huang jiu – rice wine, flavoured with slivers of ginger, and with a traditional accompaniment of vinegar with fine grated ginger, and a cup of chrysanthemum tea.
Left: a single butterflied shrimp, crisp fried in a crunchy batter and topped with nutty, fiery green salsa.
Right: All I caught when this dish was announced was ‘yu’and ‘tang’ – fish soup. So I dipped into the rich milky broth expecting to find flakes of fish and instead found something I couldn’t initially identify. It tasted like fish, but had a much firmer texture and in one bite could have been squid. Hmmm. I quickly did a search on my phone dictionary and showed Yu Bo’s wife when she returned. She nodded, smiling, because it was in fact eyu 鳄鱼 crocodile, farmed in Guangdong province. 
Smoked fish, pastry twists, and roasted chili dipping powder

Left: pumpkin puree with tapioca balls, smooth and warming
Right: Jiangxi bamboo shoot braised with sichuan pepper, the only very spicy dish of the evening
Served on a calligraphy brush stand and looking a little like a butcher’s shop at the market with cuts of meat hanging in the breeze, this was a dish of pink and tender tea-smoked duck slices with small steamed buns, scallions, and home-made hoisin sauce. Delightful and just too much to finish by course twenty eight.
A masterpiece of dumpling art – a hedgehog dumpling filled with red bean paste, two tiny black sesame seeds for eyes. And so began the dian xin or dimsum. Some sweet, some savoury, all six intended to lightly end the meal.

Zong shuijiao – two folded dumpling crescents with a light pork filling and a rich soybean sauce
Left: beef noodles with braised mushrooms
Right: taisui baicai – white cabbage in a light chicken broth
Left: sweetened, soft glutinous rice jelly rolled in peanut starch powder. The coating had a slight oily crunch as though the rice jelly had been flash deep-fried before being rolled in the powder. I don’t know how that would be possible but if anyone can achieve it, Yu Bo can.
Right: huajiao pingguo three globes of just-in-season apple, poached in a syrup scented with the light fire of green huajiao or sichuan pepper.

And the very final dish: a perfect white porcelain teacup decorated with two lucky goldfish and filled with ripe, luscious globes of pomegranate.

What a meal to remember, and so wonderful to see local, seasonal produce at its finest. I hope you get a chance to visit someday and experience this wonderful place for yourself.

Yu’s Family Kitchen 喻家厨房

43 Zhai Xiang Zi, Xia Tong Ren Road, Chengdu
 喻家厨房 四川省成都市青羊区下同仁路窄巷子43

Open daily for dinner between 5pm and 9pm. Bookings essential.
0086 (028) 8669 1975

Cost for a set 30-34 course degustation menu depends on number of diners attending:

1-2 persons: 1000 yuan ($150) per person
6-7 persons: 600 yuan ($100) per person
8 persons: 300 yuan ($50) per person

Waiting for the Living Buddha

‘We’re all waiting for the 活佛 huofo‘ the young woman told me. I nodded, pretending I had any idea at all about what she was talking about.
We were at the De’er Monastery in Gansu, drawn in by the enormous gathering crowds we’d seen as we drove past. 
‘It’s a fair!’ the girls said from the back of the campervan, seeing a line of tents and some smoke in the distance. 
一个年轻的女子告诉我"我们正在等活佛的出现。"我装作听懂了一些她所说的话,点了点头。我们正在甘肃的德尔隆寺,途中看到拥挤的人潮,我们的车就在人流中缓缓开动。房车后面传来女儿们的声音"是集市!"我看到远处有一排帐篷,炊烟袅袅升起。人们骑着摩托(车上至少骑着四个人),开着拖拉机(至少载着六个人),或是敞篷三轮卡车(没有至少,每辆都达到了最大载人量)从四面八方赶来,看起来就像是赶集。

It certainly looked like a fair – people were arriving from every direction by motorbike (minimum four to a bike) by tractor (minimum six to a tractor) or by open-backed tricycle trucks (no minimum, or for that matter, maximum number).
Those arriving were dressed in their finest and most splendid Tibetan dress – long woolen coats lined in silk brocade or fur with sleeves that hung almost to the ground, velvet jackets, silk tunics in bright colours, red silk sashes, belts studded with rows of raised silver discs, heavy coral and turquoise earrings, heavier strings of amber and coral beads, felt hats and leather boots. And that was just the men. 
The women were dressed even more ornately with heavy silver tassels hanging from their belts, their black hair parted and plaited into two long plaits falling down their backs. Those with insufficient hair of their own supplemented their plaits with coloured silk, plain black wool or black yak hair.
那些赶来的人们都身着最好最隆重的藏族服饰人们穿着以丝绸或是织锦滚边的羊毛长大衣,袖长几乎触地;天鹅绒夹克,丝绸束腰上绣着绚丽的云朵;红色的丝制肩带,腰带上镶有成排的银质圆点;戴着厚重的珊瑚石和绿松石耳环,以及更重的琥珀和珊瑚石串,头戴毡帽足蹬皮靴。而这仅是男子的装扮。女子的装扮更为华丽,她们的腰带上悬挂着银质流速,黑色的秀发被分编成两股垂在背后,头发不够浓密的女子们则用彩色丝线,黑色的羊毛或牦牛毛装点秀发。

Spectacle doesn’t begin to describe the procession of rich colours, textures and decorations. Most arrived in extended family groups with grandparents, parents and children together carrying bags of apples or jujubes, with picnic rugs and umbrellas.
Whatever was happening, it looked like a lot of fun. Could it be the inauguration of a new temple building? An annual harvest festival? It’s tricky though, when you don’t speak the local Tibetan language and you really have no idea whether this is someone important’s birthday party, or a very upbeat funeral.
We could figure this much: the focus of the event was definitely the temple, and the crowds were beginning to seat themselves on the ground radiating out from the central low temple building decked with orange, white and red flags. Something might be about to happen!
色彩之灿烂,质地之丰富,装饰之繁复难以绘制于笔端。大部分人都是祖父母,父母和孩子一大家子出动,带着成袋的苹果,枣子,还有野餐的毛毯和伞。不管在发生什么,场面看起来都乐趣无穷。这是不是一所新寺庙的落成典礼?一场年度丰收庆功宴?尽管很微妙,但当你不说当地的藏语,你就不知道这到底是某位重要人物的生日聚会还是一场乐观的葬礼。
或者,都不是。我们找到一小块空地坐下,就像摇滚音乐会上一样,观众们满怀期待地等着,而不知道乐队已醉倒在别处酒店的房间里了。
我边等边寻找线索(十名僧人突然出现走向高台!这意味着什么?),同时给坐在我们身旁的华美生动的藏族家庭拍照。天知道他们眼中的我们在做什么。我们能推测出:活动的焦点毫无疑问是寺庙,寺庙的低矮建筑装点着橙色,白色,红色的旗帜,拥挤的人群正陆续围绕寺庙席地而坐。即将发生一些什么事情了!


Please somebody, tell me what this happy occasion is?
Or….not. We found a patch of ground to sit on, and waited expectantly, like being at a rock concert where the audience are as yet unaware that the band are passed out drunk in a hotel room elsewhere.
I passed the time looking for clues (a sudden movement of ten monks towards the upper platform! what could it mean?) and taking portraits of the wonderful and beautiful Tibetan families seated near us. Lord knows what they thought we were doing there. 
然后我们的运气来了。在两万名极少有人会说汉语的藏传佛教徒中,有一位来自邻近城镇的十五岁女孩发现了我们,她找到我们然后和我们练习她有限的英语,她的老师让她这么做的。她很高兴我们会说汉语,然后给我们提供了即时的事件信息,那可帮了我们大忙了,因为我们对眼前的情况仍一无所知。
"活佛来了!"在我绞尽脑汁想这是什么意思的时候,她又说了了一遍,最后我只能放弃,掏出了我可靠的苹果辞典,上面说:
活佛:活的佛陀。
现在你可能会认为,我们已经在青海和甘肃的藏区呆了数周了,活佛听起来那么重要,我们应该知道活佛是什么。但是我们仍然没有头绪。他是一个婴儿吗?我问道。他年龄很大吗?我的丈夫问道。他带着王冠吗?我的女儿问道。藏族女孩笑道:他就出来诵读一段很特殊的经文!我环顾四周,人们都满怀期望地注视着寺庙,四周洋溢着兴奋的味道。
那么……你知道他具体什么时候会做这些呢?我问。哦,非常非常快!她回答。因此,为了目睹一些极不寻常的事情,目睹一位活生生的佛陀,我们等了下去,等待,再等待。……还要等多久?几个小时以后我问道,我并不想在如此虔诚的场合表现出不耐烦的迹象。但是在海拔那么高的地方,烈日炎炎,我们渐渐感到饥肠辘辘。



Then we got lucky – one of the very few Chinese-speaking people in the assembled crowd of twenty thousand Tibetan Buddhists, a fifteen year old girl from a nearby town, spotted us and sought us out so she could practice her few words of English like her teacher had told her to do. She was delighted to discover we could speak Chinese and began to offer a running commentary on what was going on, which was terribly helpful because we still had no idea.
‘The huofo is coming!’ she said again, as I racked my brain to think what it might mean and finally gave up and pulled out my trusty iPhone dictionary. It said:
Huofo 活佛 :  Living Buddha
Now you would think after several weeks spent in this Tibetan part of Qinghai and Gansu we might know what a Living Buddha was, and he certainly sounded really important. But we were still embarrassingly clueless.
‘Is he a baby?’ I asked.
‘Is he very old?’ my husband asked.
‘Does he wear a crown?’ my daughter asked.
‘He comes out and reads a very special sutra to the people!’ she laughed at us.
I looked around me. People were expectantly watching the temple. There was a building sense of excitement.
‘So…do you know what actual time he will do this?’ I asked
‘Oh, very, very soon!’ she said.
So in anticipation of seeing something quite extraordinary, a real live Living Buddha, we waited. And waited. And…..waited.
‘Um…how much longer will he be?’ I asked after a couple of hours, not wanting to seem impatient in the presence of such devout attention. But we were getting dreadfully hungry and very sunburnt at that high altitude.
‘I think we should just go’ said my husband. Now, he has a habit of leaving right before something really exciting happens. We once left a town in Thailand just two hours before the arrival of the KING, something people in that town had waited for ALL THEIR LIVES but we couldn’t wait TWO HOURS for. 
‘You mean we’ve just waited for three hours to see the Living Buddha and now you want to leave FIVE MINUTES before he appears?’ I hissed under my breath.
My husband turned to our young friend. ‘When exactly will the Living Buddha appear?’ he asked, rather bluntly I thought.
‘Today. Or tomorrow. Or the next day!’ she replied.
‘This goes for THREE DAYS?’ said my husband.
‘Three days!’ she said, smiling happily.
Well that certainly put a different spin on things. Three hours, OK, but three days might be a little long in anyone’s books, even for a Living Buddha.
We made our polite excuses about miles to go and roads to be covered etc etc and left. We stepped over the feet of hundreds of families settled in on picnic rugs and under umbrellas, with babies and small children, their faces full of extreme patience. We bustled past thousands of people standing on dirt paths, on the edges of walls, and in ditches, faces turned towards the temple.
I felt really, really bad. And very un-something. Un-zen, I think. Certainly im-patient.
我丈夫说:我觉得我们该走了。现在,他有一个习惯,就是每每在一些真正让人兴奋的事件发生前就离开。我们曾经在泰国的一个城镇,就在我们离开后两个小时,国王光临了那个镇子,镇子上的一些居民等了一辈子就为了见国王一面,而我们却连两个小时都等不了。
你的意思是为了见活佛我们已经等了三个小时,而现在你想在活佛出场前的五分钟离开?我咬牙切齿地说道。
我丈夫转向我们的年轻的朋友问道,活佛究竟什么时候会出现?我觉得他的口气太直率了。
今天,或者明天,或是后天!她回答。
这要持续三天?我的丈夫说。
三天!她开心地说道。
那就有点问题了。三个小时,好的,但是三天可能在任何人的书中都有点长,包括等待一名活佛。我们小心翼翼走过人群,离开。我们跨过数百个家庭铺好的野餐毛毯,穿过他们的阳伞,还有婴儿和小孩子,他们的脸上充满了耐心。我们匆忙穿过数千站在泥土小道上以及站在墙边和壕沟上的人群,面朝寺庙。我感觉非常糟糕,一无所获,我觉得自己没有慧根,当然也很没耐心。



We reached the far edge of the field and had just opened the doors of the campervan when I heard it, a sudden profound hush in the crowd followed by the deep, throaty sound of a single chanting voice. I spun around. On the far, far, far-off platform of the upper temple building I could just make out a tiny crimson speck. 
It was the Living Buddha, and we had MISSED him. My shoulders sagged.
‘Onwards and upwards?’ said my husband, trying to soften the blow.
‘Onwards and upwards’ I sighed. And off we went.
当我们走到场地的边缘处,刚打开房车门,我听到了一个深沉的咏诵声,以及随后人群中突然爆发的欢呼声。我转身,在遥远的寺庙上部建筑的平台上,我仅能分辨出一个深红色的斑点。
那就是活生生的佛陀,我们错过了活佛。我一下子就垂头丧气了。
勇往直前?我的丈夫试图挽回点什么。
勇往直前。我叹息道,然后我们离开了。

I wait three days for the Living Buddha and just when I go to get a sandwich he decides to appear! Damn!

Labrang Monastery – Sorting my Karma from my Mantra

I wake up after yet another night of catastrophic dreams brought on, I tell myself, by the high altitude – which seems to do all sorts of odd things to your perception as well as your breathing – rather than the genuine and quite real worry of some unsolveable problem happening to us in a remote place where no-one speaks Chinese, let alone English. 
It’s freezing cold and raining when I wake up in the small town of Xiahe in southern Gansu province, part of the Amdo Tibetan region spanning three provinces outside of Tibet itself and full to the brim with Tibetan people speaking their own distinctive local dialect. It’s high in the mountains, reached by a hairpin descent from an even higher mountain pass winding up and through the clouds, and down again into a broad alpine valley filled with small farms and fast-running mountain streams.
Today we need to be up early to catch the English language tour at Labrang Monastery on the western  edge of Xiahe – a sprawling miniature city surrounded by a wall and bisected east-west by a road. The tour is the only way to see inside any of the monastery’s gold-roofed buildings and I’m intrigued to see the place where more than 1400 monks live, work, study and worship.

The monks are all of the Yellow Hat (Gelupga) Sect of Tibetan Buddhism, named for the striking yellow headpieces worn during ceremonies. The Yellow Hats originated as a school around six hundred years ago and you might have heard of their leader – he’s a well travelled fellow called the Dalai Lama.

At the monastery gates we meet our guide – a young crimson-robed monk who giggles at everything we say- a little disconcerting – and speaks in such heavily accented English it’s practically impossible for us and for the French couple joining us to understand a word. It’s made worse by the confusing array of names and terminology which have Tibetan, Sanskrit and Chinese variations, and rapid-fire delivery of these in quick succession. I decide to learn with my eyes, because my ears are failing me.

Crimson-cloaked monk are everywhere, going about their daily routine. It’s helpful to think of the monastery as a school or college, full of men being educated in philosphy, Buddhism, astrology, traditional Tibetan medicine and of course theology. The monks are all ages, from small boys to old men, all dressed alike.

For large Tibtan families (unrestricted by the one child policy) having one son attend the monastery is reasonably commonplace, and we see many young monks attending to chores, rushing to class or doing what young boys do best – horsing around, whipping each other with the ends of their robes made wet in the rain, and laughing at each other’s jokes. But only when the senior monks aren’t looking.
Our giggling guide takes us through a series of smaller halls, each one filled with the smell of smoking fir branches, incense and burning yak butter candles, and surrounded by worshippers doing their clockwise daily kora, or pilgrim path. The halls – squat tan and ochre buildings with simple circular designs in black and white – have different purposes but are often places of combined worship and learning. Our guide shows us a sutra, written in Tibetan script, from which the monks study.

The multi-purpose nature of some of the halls is eveident when we visit one housing the precious stone encrusted stupas of four famous and long-dead lamas. Around the edge of the candle-lit room are twenty monks eating their single meal of the day. All the while there is an endless stream of worshippers weaving their way in and out of the hall with candles and food, and small knots of visitors with guides, like us. Between all these come lines of benefactors with small bags of ten yuan notes, passing them out to each monk in turn. It feels like a cross between a temple, a school, a canteen and social club as the monks greet their benefactors in turn. No photography is permitted indoors, so you’ll have to imagine the whole yak butter-scented scene for yourself.

We make our way to the Grand Sutra Hall where the monks are now gathering for morning prayers, called there by the sound of long Tibetan horns. Outside are black yak fur-lined black boots, discarded at the door. Inside gilt statues of Buddha and hundreds of yak butter candles line the outer perimeter, and the main part of the darkened hall are rows of heavy columns and line after line of low coloured cushions, on each of which a monk sits cross-legged, chanting.

It’s a low guttural sound, reverberating through the darkened candle-lit room, rhythmic and mystical, repeated mantras echoing from the columns. Time passes slowly. The monks’ breath can be seen in white puffs in the cold air.

We’re permitted to stand quietly on the hall’s perimeter. Between the rows young monks arrive to pour bowls of hot tea for their elders, keeping hands warm. I look outside through the main door where it is still pouring, to see the last few monks arrive late, robes pulled over their heads to keep dry.

In this day and age seeing a sight of massed faith like this is not a common sight, nor is the thought of so many young men giving over their lives to religion. But here in Xiahe it’s just the way it is.

Later that afternoon once the freezing rain has stopped, the clouds on the hills above Xiahe clear to reveal a sprinkling of fresh snow – the first of the season. I go out to walk my own kora around the monastery, now I’ve thawed out after a bowl of hearty hot Tibetan dumpling soup.

The kora winds its clockwise path past the back of the golden prayer hall when I suddenly hear the murmur of distant chanting, and far below the path is a semicircle of monks seated on the ground, praying together. It’s a most extraordinary and uplifting sight.

Labrang Monastery
Xiahe township, Gansu Province

Admission and English language tour 50 yuan adults, children free
English tours daily at 10.15am and 3.15pm.

Passing the Point Of No Return 不能反悔的关键点

Today’s post is short, because, well, it’s been a tough week of rough roads, high altitudes, low spirits, mechanical problems and illness. For the poor old campervan and for us it seems like everything that could possibly go wrong, has – the brakes, the watertank, the windscreen wipers, the heating, the plumbing, our plumbing. 

But today is an important day as far as The Great China Road Trip goes.

Years ago I watched Pole to Pole, a documentary in which the irrepressible Michael Palin, born-again traveller, is adventuring from the North to South Poles, a hell of an achievement. In the final leg of the journey he must reach Antarctica by airplane from South America in a fifty year old lumbering Douglas DC-6 without cabin service, luggage holds or other such niceties, built to withstand the rugged flight and ice landing.

这似乎是一趟可怕的飞行,气流颠簸很厉害,为数不多的几位乘客在没有座位的机舱内颠来倒去。帕林对着镜头说:飞行员说我们正在踏上不能反悔的道路!那就是一条无法回头的路——我们的燃料不够了,所以我们只能一直向前!"他仍旧很开心,但我们这些电视机前的人很想知道,要坐着一架老旧的飞机横跨广阔的南太平洋,并且深知不论天气多糟糕,引擎有无故障除了向前飞别无他选,因为绝不可能返航,这到底是什么样的感觉。

数年前我曾看过一部记录片,开心但急躁的迈克尔帕林,改过自新后成为了一名旅行者,他从南美搭飞机到南极。他乘坐的是既没有座位也没有其它舒适设备的货机,飞机隆隆作响,航程颇为艰辛。


Some hours into the turbulent flight Palin says:

“We’ve reached what the pilot drily refers to as P.N.R.”

Just as we’re all wondering what that means he continues cheerfully –

“That’s the Point Of No Return – we no longer have enough fuel to get us back to Chile.”

It’s a rather sobering thought, even from the position of a comfortable armchair, as those of us at home wonder what it must feel like to fly in an aging aircraft over the vast expanse of the Southern Ocean, knowing you have no choice but to go forwards through violent storms or engine trouble, because turning back is simply impossible.

That comment has stuck with me for many years, because it applies to so much in our lives – points at which we must take a brave leap forward and continue, because there is no option to reverse our steps.

We reached our own P.O.N.R. this last week – or rather, several points of no return, when after weeks of journeying further and further west in China we reached the westernmost point of our travels, a small Kyrgyz village on the Karakoram Highway. I didn’t really mark it with much thought at the time, being too busy dealing with the high altitude and the practicalities of travel, but I have given it more thought today as we pass the exact halfway mark of our travels, three months and more than 17,000km after setting out.

在我们一路向西的数周后,我们抵达了我们的不能反悔的关键点,在上周我们到了我们行程的最西部喀喇昆仑高速上的柯尔克孜小镇,随后我们会掉头往东,往南进发。在当时,我忙于旅途的诸多杂事,所以并没有真正意识到这点,但是在最近的这周我对此进行了不少反思。

For us it’s nowhere near as dramatic as for Palin – we have abundant fuel, and we could turn back at any time, just park the van by the side of the road and take ourselves off to the nearest airport for flights home. In less than eight hours I could be back in my living room in Shanghai, watching TV, and calling Mr Chen to let him know where to send someone to collect the van. 

And yet…even during the hard weeks like this one, the difficult times, there has always been some unseen force pushing us forward to complete the journey as intended. Partly it’s a wish not to fail, not to admit defeat, but mostly it’s because the travel – as well as being fascinating and wonderful – feels transformative: a test of character, a building of patience and endurance, a revealing of strengths. Not just for me, but for all of us. The gains are too great to turn back now. 

This week we’ve seen what I think is the most beautiful part of China yet – the Amdo region, an area spanning Qinghai, Gansu and Sichuan, and peopled by ethnic Tibetans, most of whom are practicing Buddhists.

信众每天绕着当地的佛教寺庙的朝圣小道步行一周,在今生为来世积功德。你可以在一天中的任何时间从环路的任意一点开始或结束。我曾看过那些人们——年轻人,老年人,病人,残疾人——不分四季,从早到晚,在绕行,在祈祷,在思考,在转着祈福轮。显然,他们的祈祷之路没有终点,只是一种纯粹的信仰。这个星期我们看到了我认为是至今为止中国最美的地区——安多地区,她横跨青海,甘肃和四川三省,居民大都是身体力行信奉佛教的藏民。
Every day the faithful walk a kora – a circular pilgrim path around their local monastery to generate merit in this life for the next. You may begin and end the path anywhere along the circle, but once you’ve begun you must continue until the circle is completed. 


I’ve watched them – the young, the very old, the sick, the disabled – from dawn until dark, in all kinds of weather, walking the circle, praying, thinking, spinning prayer wheels. Ultimately, their long pilgrim path has no destination, but is simply an act of faith and a kind ambulant meditation.


I’ve come to see our circular journey around China as a kind of moving meditation too. I’m learning to let go of the questions I constantly ask myself like ‘Where are we going next?’ and ‘Why are we doing this? What is the purpose?’ There is no definite destination. There is no particular purpose. 
There is only the act of moving forwards, not backwards, of looking ahead, not behind, of keeping an open mind, of time to think and reflect. Of being brave enough to pass the point of no return, and not regret a minute.

我开始反思我们犹如朝圣之路的的逆时针环中国游。没有特别的目的地,也没有特别的目的,尽管路上有不期而遇的困难和生活的挫折,我们的旅程都是一路向前而非后退,我们都抱有积极而非消极的想法去面对,都在思索和应对度过,都勇往直前毫不迟疑地走过我们不能反悔的关键点。


Murder, Madness and Sacrifice: An Ordinary Day in Hotan 杀戮、疯狂和牺牲:和田的普通一天

“Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.” 
– Cesare Pavese, Italian writer. 

There are days on this long journey filled with so many unusual and confronting experiences they leave my head spinning with seismic shifts of perception. The world as I know it seems to have so very little in common with the world in which I now find myself. 

We had travelled for hours through harsh and featureless desert to reach Hotan, a small city far from everywhere on the southern edge of the cruel, vast Taklamikan Desert. Hotan looms out of a dust storm haze like a true frontier town, a tumble of mid-size half-finished buildings and a mayhem of motorbikes, donkey carts and tray-back tricycle taxis, all covered in a fine layer of pale silt. 

We had come to see the weekly market, reported to be the biggest and best in Xinjiang, rivaling all others for colour and spectacle. But the days in Hotan bring a series of unexpected and unrelated happenings, at once disarming and thought-provoking, and the events smack me around the head for days afterwards with the question of what defines normal.

As off-balance as they make me feel, I try and bend and shape the experiences in my head until they fit – very poorly and uncomfortably – into my own view of the world. Normality is, of course, simply a construct with parameters defined according to your place of birth and your cultural background. We’re always trying to find the common in the uncommon as a way of minimising the distance of our human experiences. 

And it turns out that what is extraordinary for me is just another day in Hotan.

旅途中有些日子充满了不寻常的矛盾的事情,它们会萦绕于你脑海间。我是否真的领悟到了呢?

我们在和田待了很多天,探寻不同的事物,品尝美食,目不转睛地盯着各种令人惊叹的东西。



Murder 杀戮


Seeing a severed camel head on the ground, a small pool of blood forming around it, has never in my own experience been an event of ordinary measure. And yet here people were, walking around it carrying bags of shopping, a mere severed head a matter of no note.

I had been with the camels earlier in the day at the animal market on the edge of town, fifty or sixty of the magnificent beasts in a large outdoor yard waiting to be bought and sold. 
Every Sunday in Hotan farmers come from near and far with animals to sell – goats, sheep, yaks, cattle and donkeys. The streets leading in to the market are lined with livestock in makeshift pens, tied to fence posts or the undercarriage of parked trucks. Now and again a skittery animal escapes, careering and butting its way through dense crowds of people and other animals before being captured and tied up again.  

We work our way through the noise, crowds and dust to the inner part of the market. Here, all the sheep are being weighed one by one, bundled like babies into baskets made from old truck tyres resting on sets of industrial scales. The sheep’s weight is recorded in a small notebook by a heavy man sitting on the fence, and once the weight is known, deals are struck quickly and animals are passed from farmer to butcher. The sheep are bleating and panicky. Do they know it will soon be all over for them?

在和田,牲畜市场每天都热闹不已。我们整天都穿梭在市场中心熙熙攘攘的人群和漫天灰尘中。在这里,每只羊都被像婴儿一样绑好倒着称重,户外的秤一头是卡车轮胎做 的篮子,一头是一套工业用天平。旁边一个坐在栏杆上的男人把称好的数据记录在一个小笔记本上。
市场的另一个区域是骆驼区,那里有五六十头宏伟高大的骆驼,安静得好像只有一头动物。这里没有淘气的家伙。他们的皮毛干净顺滑,眼眸明亮,弯曲的睫毛长长的。


In another section are the donkeys, braying and kicking and making it very difficult for any potential buyers to get a good look at their teeth, as potential buyers like to do. Next to them is the yak pen, the well-behaved long-haired black beasts standing around quietly, occasionally shifting their feet slightly.

The camels are in the far corner, tall, silent and imposing. There are no bad-mannered rogues here – the fur of these camels is clean and sleek, their eyes shining, covered with long, curved eyelashes. A chocolate coloured mother and her nougat coloured calf watch me with big dark eyes. I could walk straight under the mother’s chin without stooping.

But there is no room for sentimentality here – these camels are being sold for their meat, as well as for farm work. Camel meat is readily available in these parts and when I return to the Sunday Bazaar that afternoon, there is a severed camel’s head in front of the butcher’s stall, with a severed horse’s head at the horse meat stall next door.  

They look violent and bloody, macabre and unwelcome. I berate myself for being soft – meat is meat, and why is a camel or horse more majestic than a yak or a cow?

But I see the eyelashes on the dead, cold eyes, and the butcher sits by, uncaring.

我看着死去的骆驼冰冷的眼睛上的睫毛,屠夫则心不在焉地坐在一旁。

骆驼出售后供食用,也供干农活使用。当我们当天下午回到周末集市时,有家屠宰摊前放着一只沉默的血淋淋的骆驼头,恐怖而又阴森。




Madness 疯狂

Outside Hotan in the midst of desert lies a small mosque, all but swallowed by the dunes, and the thousand year old tomb of Islamic missionary Imam Asism, covered with flags. 

The mosque openly welcomes the poor, the weak, and the estranged without reservation, and is well known as a place of charity amongst local people. Although it is clearly not wealthy, those needing help are taken in – a situation no longer the case in many other holy places around the world.

Several homeless people are resting under bushes outside the mosque, their belongings tucked about them, waiting for lunch. I notice a young bearded man dressed in a winter coat, far too heavy for the desert heat, carrying prayer beads and speaking loudly to himself as he walks up and down beside one of the tombs.
Earlier someone had asked for a small donation for visiting, and invoked the wrath of the mosque’s Imam who made him return the tiny amount on the grounds that the mosque and tombs should be open and free for all, Muslim or not. 
The young coated man had watched it all happen and now walked back and forth repeating to himself over and over “The Imam said he shouldn’t do it, but he did, he did ask those people for money and the Imam said it wasn’t right. And you’re good Muslims, you’re bringing your daughters here to be good Muslims.” Over and over, with great emotion. Back and forth, in the hot sun, in his heavy coat.
Mental illness is hidden in China. Not spoken of, except obliquely, and not seen. Not acknowledged, not accepted. Yet here in this out of the way mosque were a small legion of men whose madness took the form of religious fervour, and who were accepted and cared for by the local Islamic community without question. 
在和田郊外的沙丘中心有一座小小的清真寺,清真寺四周环绕着沙丘,还有伊斯兰教传教士伊玛目历经千年的墓穴。清真寺犹如一个圣地。迎接着平穷、弱小、远方的人们。清真寺外边的草丛里住着几个流浪的人,他们身边放着卷好的行李,他们在等着发午饭。清真寺是当地有名的慈善之地,虽然不富裕,但却实实在在地帮着受困的人们。有个年轻人,身着与炎热沙漠不相符的冬衣,拿着祈祷面包,沿着一座墓穴来回走动,不停地念着:伊玛目说他不应该这么做,但他做了,他确实做了,伊玛目说不要这样做。你是一个虔诚的穆斯林,你将你的女儿带到这里成为一个虔诚的穆斯林。

Sacrifice 牺牲


Later in the day I’m seated at a busy restaurant stall in the shaded part of the bazaar when I see the most extraordinary sight – a small boy, perhaps two or three years old, completely naked except for his shoes, his back and buttocks smeared with fresh blood. He’s quite happy, and not apparently injured – teasing his older brother and behaving like any normal three year old boy.

I wonder if they are playing a joke with the blood from a nearby fish stall, when I see what’s happening. His older brother, maybe ten, is being told by his mother to take off his shirt. He doesn’t want to do it, but she’s making him. His grandfather is sitting nearby on a low stool in the open area outside the restaurant, a long, shining narrow knife in his hand. Besides his mother and grandfather there is an aunt and a small girl baby.

The boy is told to lie face down on the mat – he doesn’t want to do it, but his mother is pushing him down by his shoulders. His grandfather and the others are crowded around him, the glint of the knife visible between their bodies. I feel a rising sense of panic, but our guide tells us it’s alright. Don’t worry. Sit back down.

But I rise from my seat because I can’t push away the feeling of alarm – the knife, the blood, the unwillingness of the boy – even though we are in the middle of a busy bazaar in broad daylight on the busiest day of the week, and no one else but me seems to have noticed anything amiss. There are at least fifty people in the immediate vicinity, most of them eating, apparently oblivious.

I walk quickly over to the small group just in time to see a grey pigeon taken out of a cage on the ground and passed to the grandfather. He holds it over the boy’s back and quickly slits the bird’s throat,  the sticky dripping blood smeared over the skin of the boy’s back by the hands of his mother and aunt.

He stands now, his back dripping with blood, and comes to sit sullenly in a corner, back hunched over, elbows resting on knees, glaring at me as if to say “I didn’t want to take part in this stupid thing”.

我们坐在集市一家卖家常菜的摊上,看到了一幕很奇特的场景——一个两三岁大的小男孩,光着身子,只穿了一双鞋,他的身上有血污,他是那么的开心,一点都没有受伤的迹象——他和哥哥嬉戏着,就像一个正常的三岁男孩。

我猜想是不是他们在杀鱼(附近就有一个鱼摊),然后用鱼血在开玩笑。然后我看到正在发生的事情。那个看起来有十岁大的哥哥被要求脱下衣服。他不想脱,他的祖母坐在一块黑毯子旁边的小凳子上,拿着一把锋利的刀,他的母亲或是阿姨站在旁边。她的旁边有一个笼子,她们要男孩趴在毯子上——男孩不想这样做,她们拉着他趴下。接着母亲从笼子中拿出一只鸽子,交给祖母,祖母把鸽子放在男孩的背上,划开了鸽子的喉咙。滴下的鲜血迅速弄脏了男孩的皮肤。

他站起身来,背后的血滴下来,他闷闷不乐地坐在角落的凳子上,弓着背,手肘驾在膝盖上盯着我,好像在说我不想参与这件愚蠢的事情的。


With exquisite timing unique to small boys, his little brother walks over and stands with his legs slightly apart and urinates on the ground near his big brother’s feet, daring him to do something about it. He doesn’t.

I have absolutely no idea of the meaning behind what’s going on but I can see now that although the pigeons are in danger, the children are not. I can’t take my eyes away – the baby girl is next, undressed and held face down while the pigeon sacrifice is repeated, the blood smeared again. The dead pigeon joins a pile of its fellows on the mat.

他的小兄弟走过去,靠着哥哥向地上撒尿,好像要激怒他似的。回到毯子处,一个没穿衣服小女婴接着趴在那里,鸽子继续被牺牲掉。残余的鸽血弄脏了母亲的围巾,浪费了很多。然后她捡起死去的鸽子走进了饭店。

The blood of the last pigeon is smeared on the legs of the mother and aunt, not a drop wasted. Then the mother picks up the four dead pigeons by the legs and takes them into the restaurant to be plucked.
Our guide Waheed says the blood adds heat to the body, and for children is especially protective against illness. He tells us some Uyghurs believe the blood is very warming but only when applied to the skin – the meat is ‘warming’ to the body internally when eaten. I find myself wondering if the same principle applies in traditional Chinese medicine, with the emphasis it places on warming and cooling foods.
Now the young boy is sitting on the ground next to our table playing with a toy car, and his older brother has begun peeling a sack of white onions for his grandmother, who stands cooking next to him on the outdoor wok. Ritual over, routine has returned and there is a restaurant to be run.

Except for me, of course – how can I be the same again after seeing an extraordinary sight like that? I struggle to make some sense of it all against my own feelings of revulsion, fascination, and intrigue. Is there something in my memory with which I can normalise what I’ve just seen?

I think of my great-grandmother, dosing us all with a toxic brown ‘tonic’ in the firm belief it would keep us healthy. Was this really so very different? 

Now the three year old is scratching at the itch made by the tightening of the drying blood, crescents of dark dried blood under his little fingernails. He gives me a long, searching look – as though noticing me for the very first time and realizing I’m not a normal part of his daily landscape. Perhaps he’ll later tell his father about the very strange-looking woman he saw at lunchtime, with her strangely dressed husband and children, and the odd way they sounded when they spoke. Normality is all relative.

我们的导游瓦希德(音译)说,鸽子血能为身体增加热量,尤其能保护孩子的健康。维吾尔人相信血只有滴在皮肤上时才会非常温暖。肉在食用时提供热量。我想知道传统中药中是否使用鸽子血。
现在那个小男孩就坐在我们桌子旁边的地上玩着一辆玩具车,他的哥哥开始给祖母剥一麻袋白洋葱,他的祖母就在他旁边,围着户外的锅转。仪式结束了,一切又恢复正常。
除了我以外,当然——在目睹了如此奇特的一幕之后,我怎么能还若无其事?后来,我总结了一下我的感受——反感、魔幻、吸引人。
现在那个三岁大的小男孩,由于血迹干后带来的瘙痒在不停地挠身体,他的指甲盖里嵌着暗红的血渍。他若有所思地看了我一下——不知道他察觉到什么来自于我的兴趣和异常了没有?




“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes” – Proust


Xinjiang: Magnificent Land of Mountains and Deserts

Xinjiang, in China’s far west, is a place of adventure and jaw-dropping natural beauty. Our circular journey through China’s largest province traversed five thousand kilometres, taking us along the Silk Road across deserts, through mountain ranges, and alongside some of the world’s most stunning land formations. dotted throughout with green oasis towns full of colour and life and wonderful local Uyghur people.
I so often write about the food and people of a place, that it can be hard for you all to get a sense of the physical landscape we’re traveling through. I thought it was time to redress that with a series of photos, many taken from the passenger seat of our campervan, of the passing spectacle. I warn you – I’m not much of a landscape photographer, but the landscapes of Xinjiang are quite out of this world.
To put the area in context, Xinjiang borders Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Tibet. Silk Road travelers passed through Xinjiang in both directions, bypassing the central desert.

Here’s the path we followed, skirting around the barren Taklamakan Desert via Turpan, Kashgar and Hotan, following first the northern then the southern Silk Road. The green alphabetical tags refer to the locations of the photos below.
If you would like more details about traveling off the beaten path in this part of the world, a very recently published guidebook by Jeremy Tredinnick – Xinjiang, China’s Central Asia – gives a detailed detailed look at the province and would have been a great help for us but was published just as we arrived in Xinjiang. We’ll definitely be getting hold of it for next time!
A. Gansu/Xinjiang Border
After seeing no-one for miles, suddenly there were four men in a row erecting new wiring, like some extraordinary roadside circus act framed by the distant mountains.
B. The Turpan Basin                                        The Turpan Basin is the lowest, hottest place in China yet thanks to an ancient system of irrigation the area is home to China’s most abundant and tastiest grape varieties. In the arid plains on the basin’s edge, latticed brick sheds are used to dry the grapes in the hot, dry conditions.






















C. Flaming Mountain

East of Turpan lies the legendary Flaming Mountain, where in the epic story ‘Journey to the West’ the Monkey King defeats the flames with the help of a Magic Fan.  ‘After the first shake, the flames of the mountain died out. After the second shake, a cool gentle breeze arose. After the third, gentle rain fell everywhere and the pilgrims proceeded on their journey in comfort.

D. Borto-Ula Pass                                             The G30 road from Turpan to Kashgar passes first through a steep north-south mountain valley, the winding road tracing the path of a dry riverbed between high, magnificent peaks. The midday sun struggles to reach the depths of the valley in places as you wind through bend after bend. 

E. Halik Mountains                                          Flat, salt-crusted plains suddenly heave themselves vertically into impressive corrugated folds. 

F. I still find it extraordinary that anyone could live in a landscape like this one. Treeless, almost devoid of plant life, and yet wild, rugged and magnificent.

G. Kalpinchol Tag  An awe-inspiring sight just east of Kashgar, these rows of multi-coloured mountains actually made me think of something very small, reminding me of the scenes made from layers of coloured sand in a tiny bottle. 

H. Ortagh Valley                                           You’ll see the turn-off to this alpine valley on the Karakoram Highway west of Kashgar. Its green fir trees, fertile meadows and glacial meltwaters are such a stark contrast to the arid cliffs of the Ghez Dariya Canyon nearby. At the head of the valley lies the black ice Ortagh Glacier  (below), cleaving a path between mountains covered with snow. 
I. Kumtagh                                                        The Ghez Dariya canyon climbs higher and higher, past a military checkpoint, until you arrive finally at this unexpected windswept sight. The mountains on the far side of the man-made lake are actually imposing sand dunes of silver-coloured sand rising from the aqua waters – soon to be the head waters of a hydroelectric scheme.

J. Lake Karakul                                             Worth every bump of the long ride from Kashgar and every bit of the high-altitude headache you’ll have when you arrive, Lake Karakul is simply magical. Reflecting the snowy peaks in its crystal clear waters and dotted around its edge by small Kyrgyz villages, it’s a place of clear, clean air, yurts and yaks. Breathtaking.

K. Taklamakan Desert                                    And then there’s this: although the Southern Silk Road doesn’t take you through the formidable Taklamakan Desert it does skirt its edges. West of the city of Hotan it’s about as bleak as it gets with dust hanging heavy in the air, blocking the sun, and dust storms flaring on every bend in the road. If you could see through the dust it would look just like the scene below – flat infinities of gravel and grit.

L. Washed-out Bridge                                         In the parched country south of Cherchen is a winding river bed, filled with smooth, rounded stones suggesting that at some point in the river’s past the water flowed hard and fierce. Not now. Now the river is completely bone dry, but some time recently a raging torrent passed through, tearing away part of this bridge. It was kind of worth driving all that way and having to turn back just to see this scene.

M. Astin Tag                                                        A mountain pass climbing to almost 4000m separates Xinjiang from neighbouring Qinghai Province. It’s spectacularly beautiful, with the colour of the sky and the mountains intensified by the rarified air. A fitting departure from the magnificent countryside of Xinjiang. I’ll miss it.

The Bakers of Kashgar 喀什的面包师

The first smell every morning in the streets of Kashgar is the smell of woodsmoke, followed a short time later by the comforting toasty smell of baking bread.

It’s six am and the bakers of Kashgar have already been at work for two hours, mixing and kneading dough, waiting for the first rising, and getting the waist-high outdoor tonur ovens ready.

Today I’m one of them. My apprenticeship begins at nine sharp and will be over by lunchtime, but today is the day I learn to make round crusty nan bread alongside Uyghur baker Abdrachma and his five fellow bakers. I’m unbelievably excited – my first job was in a bakery, and I feel very at home amongst the heat and the ovens, weaving between the banter and work rhythms of the bakers.

The Bayawan Bakery is down a long lane to the side of the Id Kah mosque, opposite a small Uyghur school. The lane is a busy with children walking to school hand in hand with their mothers, motorbikes ferrying boxes of goods and passengers, old men in embroidered green caps out for their morning stroll and young men and women rushing to work.

The laneway is lined with small businesses, the shops selling tea and medicines just beginning to open with sacks of spices, dried flowers, exotic plant resins and coiled dried snakes lining their entrances. As I walk past the sweet shop the plump shopkeeper is laying out deep rectangular tin buckets of rock crystal sugar and sweet biscuits, attracting small swarms of yellow wasps that he absent-mindedly bats away. Further down is a row of stalls selling dried figs, sultanas, almonds, walnuts and pistachios. Everywhere the air is faintly clouded with smoke from the bakery ovens.

每天清晨在喀什的街上最先闻到的气味是烧木材的烟味,随之而来的是一股令人欣慰温暖的烤面包香味。此刻是清晨6点,喀什的面包师已经工作了两个小时了,混合材料、揉制面粉,待户外齐腰高的烤箱准备好,等待第一次烘烤。今天我是他们中的一员。我的学徒生涯正式始于上午9点,并在午餐时间结束,今天我将和维吾尔族面包师Abdrachma和他的五位同伴学习制作圆形硬皮馕饼。

Bayawan面包店需要沿着一条长长的小巷走下去,在艾提尕尔清真寺的一边,小巷两边有一些小店经营,茶店和药房刚刚开张,他们在入口处摆放着成袋的香料,干花,外来植物树脂和盘绕起来的干蛇。当我走过那个糖果店,那个胖胖的店主正在整理深矩形锡桶装的水晶糖和甜点,吸引来了小群的黄蜂,他心不在焉地驱赶着。再往下走是一排小摊,卖干无花果,小葡萄干、杏仁、核桃和开心果。空气中每个地方都隐约笼罩在从面包店烤箱里飘散出的烟雾中。



Bread is the most important sustenance for Uyghur people, and eating bread marks each meal of the day. Bread is the first thing I noticed when I arrived in Xinjiang, bakeries on every street recognizable by the stacked rounds of bread on tables in front of the ovens. It’s very much part of life and cycle of each day.

There are round nan breads with beautiful patterns and raised edges, sprinkled with sweet dots of onion. There are smaller rounds of thicker bread, Turpan nan, with a thicker layer of onion and black nigella seeds on top. There are giant flat rounds, hemek nan, typical of Kashgar, and small fat bagels, gizhder, shining and sprinkled with sesame seeds.  The Uygher saying goes that ‘baking is a simple business, but you will never be out of work’ and bakers are considered as essential to Uyghur society as teachers and doctors.

面包是维吾尔族人最重要的食物,吃面包意味着一天的每一顿饭。当我来到新疆,面包是我注意到的第一样东西,每条街道的面包店都能通过面包炉前的桌上成堆叠置的圆形面包轻易识别。有一种漂亮花样、边缘上提的圆形馕面包,在上面点缀着甜甜的洋葱粒。有一种更小更厚的圆形面包,吐鲁番馕,在上面有厚层的洋葱和黑种草种子。还有一种巨大的扁平圆形面包,hemek,这是典型的喀什特色面包,还有小胖百吉饼,将芝麻洒在上面,gizhder而且亮丽。维吾尔谚语说的,“烘焙是一件简单的事情,但你永远不会失业,因为在维吾尔族社会里,面包师被认为与教师和医生一样重要。

Inside the Bayawan Bakery I meet Abdrachma, the owner, who will be my teacher for the morning, and I’m surprised to discover he is the younger of the two men standing in the doorway, rather than the older man next to him who turns out to be his father and also his newest apprentice.

Abdrachma is a childhood friend of our guide and translator Waheed, whose real talent is in Silk Road and mountaineering bespoke tours, but can arrange anything – last time I was in Kashgar he arranged for me to visit a local house and learn hand-pulled noodles, lady-style.


After spending three years as a baker’s apprentice learning the trade, Abdrachhma then worked for a succession of bakers before opening the Bayawan – his first bakery – only two months ago. He’s tall and lanky and has the same pale and sleepless look common to all the bakers I’ve ever made acquaintance with. It’s a tough profession working every day of the year from before sunrise until after sunset, and in Kashgar it’s probably tougher than most places – Abdrachhma and the other five bakers sleep in sets of bunk beds in the room at the back of the bakery.


He may be young but he has already developed a reputation amongst locals for the quality of his bread, each batch selling out before the next arrives. He makes six hundred loaves a day and rarely has any left over.

Bayawan面包店我遇到Abdrachma,面包店老板。早上谁会是我的老师?我惊讶地发现竟然是站在门口的两个人中年轻的那一个,而不是靠近他的那个年长的男人,后来才知道原来那个人是他的父亲而且也是他最新的学徒。经过三年作为面包学徒学习做买卖的生活,他开了他的第一个面包房Bayawan­。两个月之前,Abdrachhma还在接一个的面包师的工作。他又高又瘦,有着和我见过的其他面包师同样苍白的面色和失眠的相貌。这是一个艰难的职业,一年中的每一天,从日出之前工作到日落之后,在喀什可能比大多数地方更为的艰难——Abdrachhma和其他五位面包师睡在房间中有双层床的套间里,房间就在面包店后面。他虽然很年轻但在当地人中他凭借自己面包的高质量已经很有名气了,每批面包都能在下一批出炉前卖光。纵使他每天做六百块面包,也很少会有剩余。


Making Uyghur Nan

Inside the bakery the smell of yeast is strong. The workroom has two long wooden benches, one on either side of the room. On one, curved rounds of dough are proving under a light cotton sheet, and on the other two bakers are kneading and weighing dough into pieces. Out back is a dough-mixing machine in the combined bedroom/workroom (‘we used to do it all by hand, but the machine makes it easier’) and sacks of Xinjiang flour stacked all the way to the ceiling.

I watch one of the younger bakers make a nan. He takes a ball of dough, flattens it with his palms first then with a narrow rolling pin, before picking it up to make a raised edge using the thumb and forefinger of both hands. It looks easy but I know it won’t be when I try it later.

在面包店里酵母的气味是很浓的。我看到一个年轻的面包师做一个馕的过程。他拿出一个球形面团,先用手掌拍的略平,然后窄的擀面杖擀平,在拿起来之前用双手的拇指和食指做一个卷边。它看起来很容易,但当我试过之后发现并非如此。接下来,他用tukche将圆形图案印在面团上tukche是一个门把手形的装置配有直钉或鸡毛、鹅毛笔的圆形图案。然后我后面年轻的面包师拿起整张馕,在空气中熟练地旋转,像一个飞碟一样,降落烤箱工作台之外的正确的位置。这个烤箱,整体约和一个男人腰一样高度,有三个的蜂窝状的区域,按着长长的砌墙的顺序放置。狭小通道的上方火苗微闪,橙色光辉从深处而来。


Next he adds a pattern of concentric circles to the dough using a tukche – a doorknob-shaped device set with a circular pattern of blunt nails or chicken feather quills. The holes made by the tukche will allow the bread to cook more evenly without trapped bubbles of air.

Reaching behind me the young baker picks up the completed nan and spins it deftly through the air like a flying saucer, landing in exactly the right place on the oven workbench outside. The ovens, three beehive-shaped pits as high as a man’s waist, are set into a long tiled work counter. Heat shimmers above the narrow opening and an orange glow comes from deep within.

The oven baker takes the nan and smears the surface with juice from chopped white onions, then sprinkles a good handful of the onions mixed with tiny black nigella seeds and white sesame seeds. Then he spreads the nan on a curved cushion, upside down, and using the cushion reaches his arm in and sticks the nan to the side wall of the oven.

This rhythm cotinues for the whole batch – the inside baker presses and shapes the nan, then spins it to the outside baker who add toppings and bakes the bread.

Removing the bread ten minutes later is accomplished with long metal poles ending in small hooks. The baker fishes the bread out of the oven and onto the bench to cool.

While it’s still way too hot we all have a taste – there is really nothing on earth that beats the taste of bread fresh from the oven, scented with smoke, and tasting of sweet little roasted pips of onion and salt. The salt, sometimes seen as dark flakes on the back of the bread, comes from the layer of salt used to seal and line the oven before every baking. It’s one of the other secrets of Uyghur bread.

烤箱面包师拿着囊和将切碎白洋葱的汁水涂在囊的表面,然后撒上一把洋葱,混合着着微小的黑种草种子和白色的芝麻。然后他将馕铺展在弯曲的垫子,翻转过来,用垫子达到他的手臂,将馕撑在烤箱的侧壁。这一整批都按着这个节奏运作——在里面的面包师使馕成型并按压图案,然后将它旋转给外面的师傅,添加配料,烤制面包。十分钟后用尾部带有小钩的长金属将面包取出,正式出炉。面包师从烤箱中拿出来面包并放到长凳上冷却。
虽然它还太烫,但我们都品尝到这样一种味道——在地球上没有一种味道可以超越这种刚从烤炉中取出的新鲜面包的味道,闻着充满香气的烟雾,品尝着微甜的烤洋葱和椒盐的美味。




And This is the Bread Fiona Baked….

Then it’s my turn to make nan. Abdrachhmed watches patiently as I flatten and roll the dough, then make a complete balls-up of the edge, once, twice, three times. It’s much harder than it looks and involves an awkward knuckling of the left index finger I just can’t seem to get. 

As the dough stretches a gaping hole threatens so I resort to laying it down and heaping up an edge with my fingers. Not correct technique, but it works well enough.

I take the tukche and press a circular pattern with a light girl’s touch. ‘Harder! Harder!’ the young bakers tell me, until I’m punching holes like a ticket conductor.

On go the onions, and then straight into the glowing oven. I make another while the first cooks, nervously waiting to see how it turns out.

Not bad! says Abdrachhmed, ignoring the uneven crust and bubbles in my bread. I’m already grinning like an idiot. Nan! Me! Who would’ve thought? 

In my daydreams I own my own bakery, basking in the meditations of kneading dough and making bread, forgetting all about the sweat, the burns, the early nights and earlier mornings, the complete lack of a life outside baking….

I’m never going to be a great baker, and it would take me another three years to get even close to Abdrachhmed’s skill. But when I’m making a succulent roast Xinjiang-style lamb and want some flat bread to go with it, I can have a crack at making my own. 

Here’s a recipe should you want to have a go at it too. I think in place of building your own tonur in the back garden, you could use a very hot oven and a pizza stone!

然后轮到我做了。Abdrachhmed耐心地看我翻卷和压平面团,然后做一个糟糕的边缘,一次,两次,三次。这比看起来的要困难得多,左手食指处于一个尴尬的位置,我看起来很难做到。我拿起tukche并且好像一个女孩般的力度按下一个循环图案。“用力!用力!“年轻的面包师告诉我。撒上洋葱,然后直接进入发光的烤箱。在第一轮制作之后,我又做了另一个,焦急地等待着结果。还不坏!Abdrachhmed,忽略不均匀的外壳和我的面包里的气泡。我像个白痴露齿笑着。馕!我做的!谁能想到啊?I
我的美好梦想就是拥有我自己的面包店,沉浸在揉面和做面包甜美氛围中,忘却所有的汗水,伤痕,忘记的过早来临夜晚和更早光临的清晨,忘记烘培之外的不够完满的生活….我永远不会成为一个伟大的面包师,这将花费我三年时光接近Abdrachhmed的技能。但当我在做一个新疆风格的多汁的羊肉烤肉时,我想要一些平面包去搭配食用,我可以自己试一试。



Uyghur Nan Bread – A Recipe

Uyghur nan is made using a simple yeast dough recipe. Abdrachhma insists that the secret to the best bread is in the flour – he uses only unbleached local wheat flour.

Makes 2 nan

Ingredients

3 cups unbleached plain flour
1 cup warm water
1 teaspoon dried yeast (Abdrachhma uses Turkish brand Pakmaya)
1 teaspoon salt
1 small white onion, very finely chopped
1 teaspoon nigella (kalonji) seeds
1 teaspoon white sesame seeds


Method

Preheat oven to 200C 
Place a pizza stone place in oven to preheat

Add the yeast to warm water and allow to froth
Combine salt and flour in a bowl 
Add water and yeast to flour mixture, mix well
Turn onto a floured board to knead
Knead dough well (at least ten minutes) and separate into two balls
Cover dough balls with a dry cloth and leave to rise, about half an hour

Place finely chopped onion in a sieve over a bowl to collect onion juice
Set juice aside (there will only be a small amount)
Add nigella and sesame seeds to chopped onion, mix, set aside

Using a small rolling pin, roll balls of dough flat to a diameter of 20cm
Cover one round while you work on the other
Now lift dough by its edges and make the raised edge of the nan by grasping and pinch the edges, circling it round like passing a piece of rope through your hands. The nan will slowly stretch an increase in size to a diameter of 30cm

Using a tukche or fork, make concentric paterns of holes in the base of the nan, avoiding the edge
Be sure the holes go all the way through to the base

Spread the surface of the nan with fingers dipped in onion juice
Sprinkle over 3 teaspoons of onion mixture

Slide nan onto hot pizza stone and straight into oven
Bake for ten to fifteen minutes until nan is golden brown
Remove from oven and repeat for second nan

Completely and utterly delicious on its own, or serve with meat , soup or noodles.


If you would like to learn how to make Uyghur nan bread or other Uyghur foods while you are visiting Kashgar, contact Waheed at Silk Road Expedition for more information.

旅行的时候,如果你想学习如何制作维吾尔族馕或其他维吾尔族的食物,可以在丝绸之路探险联系Waheed获取更多信息。