Ancient Silk Road
Silk Road went along the northern borders of China, India and Persia and ended up in Eastern Europe. The Silk Road that I explored in June was Silk Road China which include two important provinces of China – Gansu & Xinjiang. The tour that I joined was with Chan Brothers, departing from Singapore to Lanzhou and transit in Beijing. The route that we covered is from east to west, starting point from Lanzhou Gansu and move to Xinjiang.
Why called Silk Road?
The international trade route is named “Silk Road” because Silk was one of the important items traded. In fact, silk cost more than gold in ancient time as the West love silk fabric so much and only the rich and the Royal could afford to wear such elegant fabric.
Who should travel Silk Road?
Silk Road tour is for someone who is very interested in culture and history. You will see many splendid cultural bridge liking the cultures of China, Central Asia, India, Persia, Arabia, Turkey, Greece and Italy. Silk Road is a bridge for the West and East to meet and where all the cultural exchange happen. One need to be physically strong as there are many walking, climbing & many hours of traveling in the bus. You also need to catch the bullet train from Gansu Liuyuan to Xinjiang Turpan. There are many rush hour for you to experience!
Cities in Silk Road route with Chan Brothers
Ancient Silk Road begins at Xian (Chang’an) then by way of the Hexi Corridor and it reaches Dunhuang, where it divides into three, the Southern Route, Central Route and Northern Route where three routes spread all over to Xinjiang and extend as far as Pakistan, India and Rome. However, my recent trip to Silk Road China with Chan Brothers’ tour started at Lanzhou Gansu, proceed to Wuwei, Zhangye, Jiuquan, Jiayuguan, Dunhuang then Xinjiang. The total duration is 14 days. We spend 5 days in Gansu Province and 9 days in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. The 9 days in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region include cities, Turpan, Urumqi, Fuyun, Jiadengyu, Kanas, Burqin and Karamay, you can consider this as an in-depth Xinjiang tour.
Expectation & Preparation for Silk Road China
Here are all the things you need to know before traveling to Silk Road China, what to expect and preparation, including food, weather, toilets facilities, hotel, transport and tour guides.
1. Airport & Custom Clearance in Beijing
Our original plan was flying from Singapore to Lanzhou and transit in Beijing. However we missed our Lanzhou flight. Reason being our transit time was too short and not enough for 30 of us to clear custom in Beijing within 2 hour. China immigration recently has new rules to store all foreigners’ 10 fingerprints and photographing upon entry. There are few steps to store our fingerprints, first put your both thumbs to scan, then the rest of 8 fingers. After the fingerprint san, officer will ask you to aim your eyes at the camera and take photos of you. These steps take roughly about 5-10 mins to clear for each person. Sometimes the fingerprints scan cannot go through easily.
We were told to go to the toilet in the plane, before landing in Beijing which we all did but we still missed our flight by 10 mins. I think we need minimum at least 3-4 hours for custom clearance, 2 hours is certainly not likely to make it.
Step 1 – Catch the Airport Bus
=> Upon arrival, you will need to catch the airport bus which bring you to the airport terminal. You may want to hurry and catch the first available bus in case you are rushing for another plane. Else the next bus will not move until all passengers are full.
Step 2 – Queue to clear custom
=>After clearing Beijing custom, that is to scan your 10 fingers and take photograph of your face.
Step 3 – Catch train to claim luggage
After you have clear custom, go to catch the airport train to claim your all luggage.
Step 4 – Claim luggage from the Belt
Check which number of belt your luggage will be, information from the arrival TV screen in airport then immediately go claim all your luggage.
Step 5 – Go to Domestic Airport to check in
Bring all your claimed luggage and walk to domestic terminal and check in at the domestic counter together with all your luggage to Lanzhou.
Things to note :
- When you check in Singapore Changi Airport, there are 2 boarding passes.
- Make sure 2 boarding passes with your name correctly printed and keep them until you are back to Singapore, just in case for any insurance claim.
- Luggage stickers also needed to be kept well and do not loss it, in case for any luggage claim
- Please keep the second portion of the boarding pass inside your bag and do not put together with the first portion of the boarding pass (Singapore to Beijing portion). This is to ensure you won’t loss it when you hand it over for airport staff to scan the first portion. This is to prevent the boarding passes accidentally dropped out from the passport and losing it.
- Please use toilet in the airplane before landing as there are not enough time if you are rushing for another connecting flight.
- Air China luggage : Economy : 2 pieces only and each piece is up to 23 kg.
- Summary : Airplane landed Beijing=> catch airport bus => foreigner to clear custom with 10 fingerprints and face photo => catch airport train to reach belt for luggage => search for your belt and claim luggage => carry your luggage to enter to domestic airport (by walk) => check in domestic flight counter with your luggage => go to gate to catch your flight to Lanzhou.
2. Hotel Stay
Overall our hotel stay in Gansu and Xinjiang are pretty good. It is about 4 to 5 stars China standard, that is equivalent to 3.5 to 4 stars international standard. Most of the stay are in hotel but two nights in resort style in Jiadengyu near Kanas Lake Xinjiang.
Above picture is hotel stay in Dunhuang, Gansu. Below is one of the resort we stay in Xinjiang.
3. Toilet facilities
There are three type of toilets that we experienced in Silk Road journey.
1. Highway Rest Area toilet – 3 Stars
Our tour buses usually stopped at nice rest area in the highway. The toilets are clean but please bring along your own toilet paper. Most toilets do not provide toilet paper. Usually there is water to flush after used, there are flush button, some at your waist line or some at the bottom of the toilet bowl. You can use your feet to press the toilet flush button if it is at the bottom. Most toilets are squat toilets and not many with seats. In rest area toilets, you may find few toilet seat available, 90 % of the toilets are squat toilet. Most of the toilets are with doors but few are without doors.
We usually stop for 15-20 mins in the rest area. Queue to get in toilet, then rush to find some snacks and drinks. You don’t have to bring so many snacks from Singapore, you can always try out the snacks here. Explore their snacks and drinks. Some flavour only available here and cannot be found back home.
2. Toilet without water = 旱厕 ( 1 star)
You will also experience Hanche/旱厕 toilet during your long trip. It usually located next to the petrol station. Hanche mean toilet without water. Han/旱 meaning no water. Hanche toilet is very stink, be prepared. It is best to wear a mask and spray some perfume to cover your nose and mouth before entering. Hanche toilet setting – you squat at the hole that is already digged up for you. After you finish, there is no water to flush. Do not look down as there are many unpleasant things underneath and you may see worms too. Last but not least, don’t fall…
3. Toilet in the nature – All star.
During silk road trip, you may need to pee in the nature. Well, it is easy for men but not for women. Umbrella is not enough, bring along a big scarf as a second protection. You cannot see me as I am behind the scarf 🙂 Thanks to Connie, one of the tour member shoot this picture while I am doing business at the back of the scarf.
Things to prepare : Dry tissue & wet tissue & face mask.
4. Meals in Silk Road
It did not happen in the first part of Silk Road Gansu province but it happened few times in the second part of Silk Road in Xinjiang. Lunch can be very late from 3.30pm starting and dinner can be as late as 10.30 pm start eating so by the time we finish our dinner it was already 11 pm. Be mentally prepared and always have some snacks in the bus. The delay can be due to many reasons, traffic, roadblocks from police and other unforseen circumstance.
Lamb & Beef
In Silk Road, most of the meals included with lamb and beef in the meals, if you don’t eat lamb and beef, there are also fish and chicken. I strongly suggest you to try out their beef and lamb as these meats tasted fresh and without any foul smell. Beef and lamb is one of the major meat source used in Silk Road.
Lunch & Dinner in Gansu
We have three tables and each has about 10 pax in the round table settings. Usually 10 dishes, which includes fish, pork, chicken/duck, beef, tofu, few vegetable dishes (long bean, fungus, tomato eggs, cabbage, green pepper etc), soup & ramen noodle soup, rice, mantou/bun and beers and soft drink – either Coke or Sprite.
Interesting Dish in Gansu
i.Stone Goose Meat
There are few interesting dish in Gansu. The below is meat with green pepper, onion, chili and with hot pebble stones. You will find many big pebble stones in this dish, please be careful and don’t bite into these big pebble.
ii. Lanzhou lamian/noodle (兰州拉面)
Lanzhou lamian/noodle (兰州拉面) is also one of the famous dish you can find during your meals in Gansu. The noodles are hand pulled noodles which usually comes with beef plus some vegetable as their toppings. The soup base is very tasty too, if you love beef you will like this!
iii. Dunhuang Signature Dish – Camel hoof tendons/雪山驼掌
The dish is meant to serve the emperor in ancient time. After riding the camel in the afternoon, not many of us are willing to try to eat the camel hoof. I tried a little, the texture is similar to sea cucumber when you bite it. It was stew with tofu and some sauces. Everyone should try one bite since the hoof is already served.
We have our breakfast in the hotel before departing. All are buffet style so pick anything you like. The breakfast served are mostly Chinese style which has all type of porridge, eg – porridge with green bean, red beans, pumpkin, quite healthy I find. You eat these porridge with the chinese salted pickles/suan chai. There are also sausages & ham and stir fry dish.
Egg is precious!
I notice a very interesting thing when I was having my breakfast in Xinjiang hotel. You will be given only an egg per hotel voucher when you enter for dining hall for your breakfast. Some breakfast buffet even has a designated staff to guard the egg corner and stopping anyone from taking more than one egg. Why are eggs so important & precious?? From my guessing, this is probably to stop anyone from robbing many eggs and taking out from the hotel. Some mainland Chinese travelers love eggs so much and would just grab few and take away. If everyone brings about 5 eggs, then the number of eggs taken can be very huge. Hence you will have an illusion eggs are precious and needed to be guarded by a person standing next to the egg corner.
Fruits to eat in Gansu & Xinjiang : Melon
Drinks to try in Gansu : yogurt drink
Meals in Xinjiang – Qīngzhēn/清真 Halal Vs Han Restaurant
Most restaurant we dine in are halal restaurant, meaning no pork. In China, they called it qīngzhēn/清真. Don’t even mention the word “pork” in the restaurant. You can replace the pork/ 猪 ( with big 大). You can asked is this “big meat/大肉”? Remember do not mention the word “pork” 猪 in Xinjiang.
We also dine in 2-3 times in “Han Restaurant” during our stay in Xinjiang . Han Restaurant has “big meat”/pork in the meal set.
Xinjiang Top Dish & Drinks
i. Uyghur Polo – Pilaf – 抓饭 (zhuā fàn)
This is a common dish in Xinjiang, similar to fried rice but raisin, carrots & apricot is added in the rice plus some meat. You can never find “pork” in this dish. In Chinese it is named as zhuā fàn/抓饭 because people eat this dish with hands formerly.
ii. Roasted whole lamb / 烤全羊
This dish is served with some Uyghur dance, one of the oldest member from our tour is lucky enough to get picked and feed by the beautiful Uyghur lady. After they have finished dancing and feeding, they will ask for tips. I have given tip RMB 10 ( SGD 2.00). No obligation but I always like to tip them since they bring so much joy to us.
iii. Fried Naan with onion
iv. Burqin grilled fish/冷水鱼
Burqin grilled fish is famous in Xinjiang, the fish are said come from Irtysh River/額爾齊斯河. Most fishes in China has too many bones since they are river fish. However Burqin fish has slightly less bones compared to the usual fish in China but not less compare to the salt water fish. I still prefer saltwater fish but you need to try it out. Just be careful when you eat. I nearly swallow the tiny fish bones but managed to cough it out.
v. Big Plate Chicken – 大盘鸡 – at the far right.
Big Plate Chicken usually cooked with potatoes, chili, onion and plenty of spice, serve in a very big plate.
vi.Signature drink in Xinjiang : Pomegranates Drinks – RMB 15-20 (SGD 3 to 5.00)
5. Bullet Train Experience -> Gansu Liuyuan to Xinjiang Turpan
Since there are two province to visit in Silk Road China, Gansu and Xinjiang, our Silk Road tour include a bullet train ride crossing the two province – Liuyuan in Gansu to Turpan in Xinjiang.
Things to note before catching bullet train to enter Xinjiang :
- Do not bring any knife, including swiss knife in any of your luggage. Many of us like to bring little swiss knife for cutting fruits. I have brought along a swiss knife with me and too bad I have to leave it in the hotel. No sharp object in any luggage be it big suitcases or hand carry luggage. If the security found sharp object, eg swiss knife, they will ask you to open the big luggage and confiscate it. Well, swiss knife is expensive so don’t bring along to Silk Road tour.
- The Gansu tour bus will stop at the bus area, it will not follow you to Xinjiang. The Gansu tour guide and bus driver job end at Liuyuan. You will have to pull your luggage to the bullet train station ( about 3 mins walk) to catch the bullet train to Turpan.
- Before you enter the station, you need to go through the security checks. Very strict security check!
- Be prepared and standby to rush into the bullet train once the door open as you will have luggage to care for. You need to load all things inside the train before the door closes. There is a certain timing, not very long, so stay focus and rush in with your big suitcases and hand carry.
- We encountered police check inside the bullet train again. Police took each of our picture and also picture of our passport.
- There is no escalator and no lift in Turpan station, so you need to carry the big suitcases by walking down the stairs. Be careful of the pushing from the people behind you. The scene can be quite scary, similar to refugee escaping war.
- Report to Police Station upon arrival in Turpan Xinjiang=> Once we arrived at Turpan station, we were stopped again by the police and asked us to report to the police station near Turpan station. We pushed our luggage to the nearby police station, about 3 mins walk from the Turpan train station. Each of us line up and waited for the police to take our picture of us and our passport copies. It was already 8pm but the sky was still bright as it was summer. By the time we reached our hotel and have our dinner, it was almost 9.30 pm. This is still not the latest dinner we had, we experience another late dinner few days later, dinner at 10.45pm.
6. Security Checks in Xinjiang
- Expect a lot of security checks in Xinjiang – you need to walk through the security scan before entering toilets, groceries shop, hotel, restaurants and any tourist sites.
- Bus or any vehicles needed to stop in every checkpoint of every town in Xinjiang to register with passport if you are foreigners. In some check point, we need to physically go down and go through the security scan & checks & finger prints. Some check points are more linear and the polices in full mask & big gun will come up to the bus to check on us. That is quite fast, less than 3 mins. Remember, do not take any picture of the police when they come up to the bus.
- Please make sure seat belts are fastened at all time. If the police found your seat belts are not fasten, the penalty is to stop the bus from moving for half an hour or an hour.
- All vechicle including bus needed to stop to register in each town. Hence quite a lot of times were spent but then it is one of the safest place in China.
7.What to wear and bring to in Silk Road China in Summer?
The weather in Gansu and Xinjiang is very hot in the day and cold at the morning and night-time. The temperature difference between day and night is huge. The heat is different from Singapore. It is very dry and some of us experienced nose bleed. The air you breath in during the day is super dry and warm. The day temperature can go up from 40 to 70’c especially if you are at the Turpan Flaming Mountain.
Suggestion for you :
- Bring along a hat or you can also buy hat at most of the tourist attractions. Hats are selling at very cheap price – RMB 20-35 ( SGD 4 to 7 dollars) each.
- Bring along a big scarf or you can buy at RMB 10-35 ( SGD 2 to 7 dollars). Sometimes it is easier to walk with scarf than using umbrella, epecially if you are on camel ride. Scarf to cover your face and hair work so much better than umbrella in the desert.
- Face mask/protection (like below) can be found at most of the tourist attractions in Silk Road. Get one of these and I am sure you use to cover your neck and face area and don’t bother how people look at you because the heat is just unbearable. Some people encounter heat stroke if protection was not done properly.
- You may want to purchase some gloves from Daiso Singapore to protect your hands and arms from sunburn. Long gloves are also available at most of the tourist spots in Silk Road.
- Bring along sunscreen too or hand fan or small electric fan.
We have two buses for the Silk Road trip. One at Gansu for 5 days and another bus at Xinjiang for 9 days. Both buses are luxury buses but there is a downside of these buses, that is the step to move up & down of bus is very high. Elderly need to be extra careful when going up and down of the buses.
9. Things to bring back home – souvenirs
There are many things you can bring back,such as those little souvenirs. My advice is buy whatever you wanted to buy when you see it and don’t wait till your last stop. The last stop may not have something you see previously.
When we visited the tourist spot, we were told by our tour guide not to look and shop at the small stalls due to time constraint. My suggestion is grab whatever you like and pay for it immediately and go. Of course I am referring to those cheap stuff, eg few dollars hats, key chains, scarf etc.
10. Tour Guides
1. Tour Guide from Gansu
We called him Xiao Huang as his surname is Huang. He spoke a lot of history in the bus but many of us seem to fall asleep due to his monotone voice. Anyway, he did what he suppose to do. Responsible guide.
4 out of 5 stars for Xiao Huang
2. Guide in Xinjiang
We called him Xiao Ma as his surname is Ma. He is the Hui people /回族 so he is a muslim. He don’t eat pork and practice what a muslim does. He is 1.83 cm tall, aged 37, married with one daughter living in Xinjiang. His wife is also Hui people simply it is easier to get along as the culture and eating habits are the same as his. Xiao Ma told us many stories during our 9 days in Xinjiang. He is a great story-teller and good history teacher. He has a good voice and speaks with different intonation which make him a great speaker. I felt he has some professional voice training before.
It is really enjoyable to listen to him and he speaks for hours nonstop, eventually you will fall asleep as being hypnotized.
Xiao Ma also owned a shop selling dried fruits and souvenirs. He has introduced some of the top grade dates and walnuts. He also introduced us lavender oil, rose oil and horse oil. I bought big dates (RMB 60 – SGD 12-13.00) and Walnuts with shell (RMB 60). Buy any 10 packet to receive an (one) additional free. Free packing in box for you to bring back home. The Hetian Xinjiang big dates is a good buy, the dates skin are really thin and the meat is really sweet & thick. It is meant to eat like a snack and not for boiling in soup. The size of the dates is almost your palm size. It is advice to eat one to two a day, don’t overeat as it is very heaty and you may experience nose bleed or sore throat if overeat. The selling is only done during the bus tour ride, it did not take out any of our time.
5 out of 5 star for Xiao Ma.
3.Chan Brothers’ Tour Leader from Singapore
Peter Han is a great tour leader who is very responsible and do all his best to protect our rights and also care for every one of us. Peter lead us from Singapore Airport, 14 days with him help me see the passion in him for his job. In fact most of the important information above were pass down by Peter. Looking forward to join him in another journey!
5 out of 5 star for Peter.
11. Medication :
- Charcoal & vomiting medicine
- Panadol & fever & cold
- Drink probiotic daily before your departure to Silk Road
- Half of our tour member fall sick, some vomiting, diarrhea, fever or coughing simply due to harsh weather and hectic schedule. In fact, my table of 10 pax, 8 of us experienced diarrhea & vomiting & fever.
12. What is the best time to travel Silk Road?
The best time to visit Silk Road is from May to October. The summer is super hot but lesser tourists. It is easier to shoot picture in summer.
Autumn – September onwards would be the best weather as it is more comfortable, scenery would be also more stunning as you will see the changes of leaves in the woods but be prepared of the swarm of local Chinese tourists. Harder to shoot a solo photo in most of the tourist site, most likely will have some photo bomb.
Other to note :
- Bring along many plastic bags to use for throwing rubbish in the bus and also many of the groceries shops does not provide plastic bags.
- Bring wet tissue and dry tissue for toilet use as some toilets do no have toilet paper.
- In China, do not throw the toilet paper inside the toilet bowl! Throw your toilet paper in the basket provided beside the toilet bowl, especially in rural area. This is how the toilet works in China rural area. In Japan and Europe country, do not throw any toilet paper in the basket provided but throw it into toilet bowl. In Japan, US & Europe, you get scolded if you don’t throw toilet paper in the toilet bowl and flushed them away. That’s the culture difference and may be the water flushing system are different too.
- Try not to drink cold drinks too much as you may experience stomach flu when your immune system is low. Bring along a thermal flask and try to drink warm water to protect your stomach.
- Weather in Kanas Lake Jiadengyu is very cold – totally different. In summer the temperature at night can be lower than 10’c. The resort does not have a heater so you may want to bring along a jumper and a coat for morning & night use.
- Best way to dress yourself is with layers. When the weather turn hot, you can just take off the layer of jacket.
- Do not purchase jade & Chinese medicine from the rest area. Beware of scam in rest area, there are actually pretend tourists near the Chinese medicine and Jade stalls who will scam you into the trap. Stay away.
- Shop as you go and don’t wait for the last day to shop. Things in Grand Bazaar Urumqi is not cheap. In fact things in Xinjiang aren’t cheap, the price is similar to Singapore price.
Final thoughts :
We have traveled over 4000 km of Silk Road China with buses & bullet train. The tour can be very rushed and you won’t be able to do many shopping. You need to be quick and immediately pay for what you like at the stalls in the tourist sites. No time for bargain. Anyway, the thing sold there are cheap, few dollars for a hat, scarf, etc. Really no need to bargain.
This trip has helped me to realise to travel while I am still young, don’t wait till I am too old to crawl. Most of the complex are very big and plenty of walking uphill and downhill. There are also many hours of traveling in the bus, there were 2 days that we travel in the bus for more than 7 hours. When you look out from the window of the bus, all you see is deserts & mountains for many hours. Having said that, I think I am still glad to have made it to Silk Road and glad I survived in this harsh climate.