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Just back from Shanghai Beijing Urumqi to Xian

Just back from Shanghai Beijing Urumqi to Xian

Aug 13th, 2008, 07:04 PM
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Just back from Shanghai Beijing Urumqi to Xian

The number of stops may be daunting but the trip was wonderful. Hope that many others will take the Silk Road before many of its charms/inconveniences will be eclipsed by fewer charms, perhaps & also fewer inconveniences.

Days 1-5 Philadelphia to Shanghai & my beloved was waiting for me with a cab at the airport & it came as a complete & utter surprise to me that in the course of business travel between Wilmington DE & Shanghai he'd become conversant in Mandarin! Well blow me over with a feather but this is truly the way to go, with someone who LOOKS like an American but who is going to very early on make it clear that he's not off the last turnip truck from the USA. Bargaining throughout China was a dream & my beloved made sounds I'd never heard come from his mouth - I'm guessing they were sounds meant to indicate - "hey - I'm not off the last turnip truck to land from America! Let's get real about this price!" And usually the price became very very reasonable after a few of these exchanges...

In Shanghai - do try the Sofitel at Hyland...???-something beginning with HY & it was right on the Nanjing Lu. Excellent value for money, good exercise facility for when those 5AM exercise needs strike; the breakfast is wonderful as are all the services. They have a wine tasting program that would be wonderful if only they had it in a no-smokers area.

Things not to be missed in Shanghai - The Shanghai Museum is truly the most beautiful museum I've ever been in & as I'm a museum junkie this says volumes, BUT pls note that we waited over an hour in 97 degree heat to get in - & most of the crowd were young Chinese people who for once wanted to get the picture of the object rather than themselves in front of the object. Do get to the Oriental Pearl if the visibility is even slightly reasonable, & check out the diorama display of Old Shanghai at their ground level. And for pure awe inspiring gasps from shoppers the world over get to the mall in Pudong - 8 stories or so with many many restaurants overlooking the Bund when it lights up after dusk. Include in your to do list the walk outlined in the DK Guide that takes you through the Yu Yuang Park - & if you like the intricate stone teapots you see in one shop there buy them on the spot as you will likely not see them anyplace else in the usual tourist pattern of travel.

Shanghai food - I have much to differ with previous reviewers & fear for those who do not know just what you're in for in Chinese 'truly ethnic' restaurants. There was a line around the block outside Yu Yuan Gardens for dumplings filled with crab ovaries & glands of intestines, but my Beloved & I said - sorry, gosh, but we had crab ovaries just last night & we don't want to overdo...And so it goes through fish lips & all manner of awful things & please do not tell me I do not have an adventurous palate as I do but I don't want to eat the cat's dinner...Best to ask for the Cantonese menu if you think you like Chinese food because if you've had it at home, it's probably Cantonese & even then...watch out....

So many kudos to the Sofitel Hotel on Nanjing Lu & we were then off to Beijing. All of this is in late July & early August & I beg of you to reconsider going to China in these months unless you grew up on New Orleans or Savannah as the heat & humidity are absolutely unbelievable. We stayed at the Peninsula in Beijing (I knew or at least suspected what lay ahead on The Silk Road as I will shortly relate - to the horror of most of the adult travelers in the audience) & so I booked the best hotel I could think of that I couldn't ever afford at home & that was The Peninsula. Breakfasts were even better than the Sofitel in Shanghai (no slouch on breakfasts, the Sofitel - you can live all day on these breakfasts), & since I was tired already of thinking about the limited appealing choices on the various menus I'd seen in China so far their two restaurants were such a wonderful respite at day's end. And at $10 for an entree that couldn't be beat - what the hey?

NOTE - if you plan to do the Silk Road, & if you also like wine...stop at The Peninsula or similar hotels in Beijing to savor the last palatable drop you will have until you get back on your Air China or United or Air Canada or whatever flight home. In fact, buy several bottles to lay up in your bus or plane or whatever against the day that you return to Beijing as it ain't pretty from Beijing west...I hope you like beer...

BUT!!! Beijing is beyond wonderful & if you have a terrific guide like our Mr Robinson Li, who has been the topic of discussion on these pages from time to time in the past, you can count yourself in good hands. He picked us up at the Peninsula with our English buddy who bunked elsewhere, & the 4 of us went to Tian an men Square, then into the Forbidden City where Mr Li insisted we buy the tickets to go straight through (very good advice!). We admitted we were hungry & in need of a restorative after the awful heat of late July in Beijing & he called ahead to a hutong restaurant to order fresh dumplings in various flavors - lamb & veg & pork & whatever & it was all so wonderful & the dumplings light as feathers & so unlike the things I'd seen in the USA!!! In the afternoon we went to the Summer Palace which was my favorite place in Beijing & if you like Mr Li will point out for you which are the real antiques & which are fakes. He capped off the day with bicycle whatchacallum rides through a hutong, with visits to several individual homes. I was deeply moved at this as my degree is in English Lit & these wonderful people were telling me - without knowing that books are my passion - that they love Hemingway & Dickens & To Kill A Mockingbird & esp Mark Twain - & we exchanged book recommendations which was a precious moment for me!!!

See the Great Wall at Met----whatever as it's relatively uncongested & the gondola up & ride on toboggans down are great fun, but if you are feeling in the slightest bit frail do check out the directions as there are some ways to go to the wall that are not so strenuous & then there are others that in my opinion are meant for training Olympic athletes - the way I took for example went down 100 meters+ & then up 100 meters+ & then reverse it to get back to go...all of it in 97 degree heat & awful humidity...it was a nightmare especially as I was in the throes of a petty dispute with my husband over a failed negotiation for cloissone pottery at a stop just outside the Wall...

I will block my thoughts on our travels from UrumOn to Urumqi & the Silk Road - has anyone any interest in this as I could go on & on??? - with Urumqi (strangely enough pronounced Urumoomoochi - as in "Urumoochichoochoo...won't you choochoo me home..."

But the Silk Road is still nothing to trifle with...one of our company of ~240 died on this trip - of what cause might never be made known to his fellow travellers as a company lawyer stepped in quickly after announcing the man's death with the advice that yes someone had died & that there was no evidence of anything other than GI problems...& HIPPA or whatever precluded anyone from obtaining information on the cause of death...
shedridt is offline  
Aug 14th, 2008, 05:56 AM
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Please, please continue! This has the makings of an excellent report about lands that we do not read much about here.

And if I can't get the hang of Mandarin, I will remember to say, in English, "What? Are you nutz? Do you think I arrived on the last turnip truck from New York? " I love it!!
ekscrunchy is offline  
Aug 14th, 2008, 08:23 AM
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Yes, please do continue! I was on the Silk Road (Beijing to Rawalpindi) in '01, and I'd love to hear how things are now. Urumqi was on the large side then, quite a contrast to the oasis towns, but I'm sure everywhere has grown considerably in 7 years. (Can't believe it's been that long!) I'm also puzzled by your reference to a group of 240??? Was that a typo?
thursdaysd is offline  
Aug 14th, 2008, 08:26 AM
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Loving this post. I definitely want to hear about the Silk Road. Adventure is great, but I do not want to come home in a casket.
lollylo25 is offline  
Aug 14th, 2008, 09:32 AM
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Would love to hear all about the Silk Road, especially Urumoomoochi!
Femi is offline  
Aug 14th, 2008, 10:20 AM
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Delightful report, thanks and please continue with the Silk Road.
Shanghainese is offline  
Aug 14th, 2008, 11:06 AM
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Yes - please do post on silk road - its on my list for the future!
janev is offline  
Aug 15th, 2008, 12:56 AM
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As to the Silk Road - flattery does wonders for my memory & I think I can stretch this out through another session or two of begging for more...

I should reiterate some points about Beijing - first is that the guide makes the experience & this is no point in trying to do these things on your own as you miss too much. Mr Robinson Li does not need me to be a shill for him - I've seen too many posts here or elsewhere reference him as he's been doing bespoke tours for individuals for 25 years or more - but I strongly suggest you contact him well in advance of your trip. His negotiating skills alone will pay his fee. Great sights to see include the Great Wall at Met...whatever, the Forbidden City & Summer Palace, & if you have time the Temple of Heaven. The evening market just to the left of The Peninsula is not to be missed but as a photographic experience only - get your pix of scorpions on a stick here but DO NOT be tempted to eat here as we saw fruit being hosed off out of a stand pipe.

Note that if you do any of these excursions in July you should bring an umbrella to shield yourself from the sun, & swipe a wash cloth from your hotel room - just for the day! - to mop yourself off. Otherwise you'll be pitted out well before noon.

Urumqi, our next stop after Beijing, is the provincial capital of Xinjiang (pronounced Szhinshiahng) which is the largest province in China by area & possibly also the smallest by population - bigger even than Tibet. The area has been almost entirely peaceful until the Olympics centered the world's attention on China & my strong perception was that it's safe to travel here, particularly over the longer term.

The city's altitude is ~4500' so it was cooler & certainly dryer - do I need to repeat myself about humidity in Beijing & Shanghai? - than the eastern cities. Things to do here include (1) starting your journey on the Silk Road in a large city (pop ~2.5MM) & in the last decent hotel you'll see for quite a few days (Sheraton was just 2 years old & comfortable with an amazing staff but the carpets were frayed & to the Beloved Engineer's horror the Emergency Exits were locked - as they were elsewhere in China); & (2) seeing the large indoor market which smacks of the Bazaar in Istanbul but is less intrusive on the senses. It's sort of "Knives R Us" as decorative knives of all kinds & sizes are a Uiygur thing & are available by the thousands. There's a large jade store with wonderful work - all quite high end & expensive. To entice you, I promise to post my advice - garnered only on the last day of our 3 week stay in China - on how to tell which of the many jade types is best in Asian eyes & which are fake - but that might require some coaxing....

Just my little joke! Of course I'll tell you!!!

Outside of Urumqi is the Lake of Heaven which is lovely even in the rain which is how we saw it. Bring warm weather clothes to China just for this experience as it's downright cold up there. If this is your first leg of The Silk Road, the road to the lake will be a good place to get an idea of what is to come.

Back in the city of Urumqi the Museum of Xinjiang Province is just the bee's knees in display & design & the gift shop is terrific so save your yuan for this spot (& do not be afraid to bargain even here) WHICH unlike many places accepts plastic. Be sure to see "the corpses" on the second floor (you will wonder why until you see them & hear their stories, trust me in this & do not see them without one of the excellent guides) & the first floor displays to both the right & left of the entryway are excellent.

Strangely, the Chinese built this extraordinary latest word in technology museum & installed squat potties in it. This was a great disappointment to me. I'd developed an early aversion to Chinese Ladies Rooms & their squat potties in Shanghai & Beijing & determined on first acquaintance that I could not do them unless in extremis & there I was, with three to four hours of hard travel ahead of me into Turpan & no place to go since the hotel I'd left 2 hours before. I am proud to say that although other, weaker women chose the side of the road in preference to the even more awful "rest stops", I stood firm throughout, choosing death before dishonor. The "Gents Loo" was so bad that my husband the Beloved Engineer & Photojournalist managed to take a picture before breaking free of it & truly there is no more squalid site in all of China than a gentlemen's rest stop on The Silk Road.

Still wanting more? I should tell you that the scenery to either side of the bus on these bumpy roads was just wonderful (there were no paved roads from Xi'An to Urumqi until 10 years ago when the project started & it's not yet entirely complete so imagine that you are traveling coast to coast in the USA circa 1935...), with snow capped mountains & lovely deserts & miles & miles of wind farms.

And much more to come on where the Chinese are now - it's centuries in terms of advancement in the 20 years or so since they put away the Mao jackets & gloomy expressions & their cities - almost all of them - have lost much of their historicity as skyscrapers leap out of the ground & progress is king. My favorite Silk Road stop, Dunhuang, has escaped this awful fate...but that is a story yet to be told.

But the people have such an innate sweetness to their natures & the children are so adoreable that you have to fight off urges to swoop them up & cuddle them (even when they have those vented onesies on that allow them to so charmingly poop by the side of the road).

Before closing for tonight I should answer the person who marveled at our going from a group of 2 in Shanghai to 3 in Beijing where we picked up an English buddie to 120 in Urumqi to 240 by the time we hit Hami. Apparently no amateur astronomers out there as we were hell bent for election (or at least my husband & his kind were!!!) to travel thousands of miles for the 1 minute & 58 seconds of totality in the total solar eclipse we saw in the Gobi Desert. It was our fifth total eclipse (never clouded out once!) & I will grudgingly admit that the ~2 minutes of spectacular gasp-inducing totality are worth even such indignities as tinkling beside the road within sight of truckers (if you are weak & feel you must...)if you get to wrap the rest of the three weeks around an unbelievable trip to China. The 240 astronomy nuts & spouses were on a trip organized by Sky & Telescope magazine through their brokered travel agency that specializes in that sort of thing...

More soon...next up Turpan, Hami & Dunhuang (MY FAVORITE SILK ROAD STOP!!!), followed by Jiaju-gone-wahng or something like that & the hotel was so awful that I cannot even bring myself to look up the town's real name, and Xian.

It was in Hami that we picked up the luxury Oriental Express train & managed to lick our travel wounds for periods of time as they WOULD drag us out of the club car to get back on the buses for more road trips...
shedridt is offline  
Aug 15th, 2008, 05:04 AM
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Fantastic!!! Tell us about the jade and whatever you do, keep going!
ekscrunchy is offline  
Aug 15th, 2008, 06:43 AM
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Terrific Report! Please keep it coming! Really enjoy your writing style!
easytraveler is offline  
Aug 15th, 2008, 07:06 AM
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Thanks for the astronomical explanation. Definitely enjoying this - and definitely want to hear your jade advice! And yes, my Jiayuguan hotel was the worst of the trip too - well, aside from the yurt at Tian Chi, which had no bathroom facilities at all.
thursdaysd is offline  
Aug 15th, 2008, 11:12 AM
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Did you try a Hami melon? Heard they are as sweet as honey as the word hami means.
Shanghainese is offline  
Aug 15th, 2008, 03:52 PM
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We are visiting Beijing for the first time in October and are looking for a private tour guide. Can we get Mr. Li's contact info from you? Did he provide transportation?

Your posting was so informative and interesting.
like2travel2 is offline  
Aug 16th, 2008, 10:16 PM
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A very short reply tonight as to Mr Li's contact information - see his website at www.beijingtaxi.com - which says nothing to describe his services, warmth or humor. Try him at his e-mail contact at [email protected] & pls tell him that Don & Debra urged you to contact him after their wonderful time in early August 2008. Note that we engaged Mr Li privately, totally outside of any tour activity that began outside of Beijing in Urumqi & beyond...he was in no way part of our group tour of The Silk Road. I say this to protect him as he had no involvement in our travels outside of Beijing...

More tomorrow as I'm out of it this evening - I need to step back from the group tour experience which was so different from our alone experience that I must reflect & regroup.

Thinking about this Hami eclipse leg of our journey has exhausted me as I find myself overwhelmed with both sadness & outrage over the loss of our traveling companion in Hami, & particularly with the immediate appearance of corporate lawyers from the tour managers urging us to to close out questions from fellow travelers with invocations of HIPPA rights to confidentiality.

Much more to come but reflecting on this part of the tour - in its entirety with loss of life & immediate invasion of the American lawyer etc - I need another 24 hours to get away from it....& hope that you will still be interested Sunday evening...
shedridt is offline  
Aug 17th, 2008, 12:59 AM
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Thoroughly enjoying your report! Your writing just flows and is a joy to read.
marksfour is offline  
Aug 17th, 2008, 09:06 AM
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I would love to visit the Silk Road cities beyond Xi'an. With reference to death while traveling, it is perhaps more common with longer or expensive tours that may attract a more senior clientele (not that any of the clientele was over 30 on your trip of course!). I saw somewhere that one cruise line says the average age of the person doing cruises of over one week duration is 60+, and on an around-the-world cruise is 75.

HIPAA is legislation meant to apply to "covered entities", including health care providers, insurance companies, etc.. To the best of my knowledge private individuals are not covered entities (especially in China!). They also apply to information that specifically identifies an individual. I would not think that a tour company or person that released information without naming a person by name or other such individually identifiable information would violate HIPAA, although consult your American lawyer first!

These laws unfortunately have unintended consequences. I have often wondered how I will ever locate my brother, who is single and rides a motorcycle, should he have a accident and land in a hospital ICU intubated and unable to communicate. If he went missing in the US and I called a hospital to ask if he was there, I would run into a Great Wall of silence. If the same accident occurred in China, I doubt I would have any problem obtaining information, assuming I could speak Mandarin!
Binthair is offline  
Aug 17th, 2008, 11:04 AM
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Thanks so much for the quick response with Mr. Li's contact info. I have emailed him. Enjoy the rest of your trip. Can't wait to hear more.
like2travel2 is offline  
Aug 18th, 2008, 06:31 PM
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Monday evening the 18th August & I think that my sadness & outrage - Death on the Silk Road meets HIPPA - has to subside & I need to quickly put that behind me....the appearance of the lawyer right after the sad announcement of the death of our fellow traveller, was really more than I could bear...

But let us get on. I was plodding away on the treadmill today reading the same book I was hard at before we left on vacation - Simon Winchester's The Man Who Loved China [pub 2008] - a biography of Joseph Needham, Cambridge science fellow who fell in love with a Chinese woman & by connection with the country itself. He explored it stem to stern & published his findings in an incredibly extensive collection of books.

One line from his diary in 1943 seemed to me to be incredibly applicable to our own Silk Road trip follows & here it is now: "I simply had no idea, before I took this northwestern trip, of the sort of thing it would be. Great mountain passes, overwhelming scenery, unpredictable roads, bridges broken down, roads washed away...strange places to sleep in night after night..."

And so it is today but unless the adventurous traveler takes this on, the 'skyscraper seeds' the Chinese seem to sprinkle on an urban landscape, which surge into being almost overnight, will shortly obscure this very special part of China that I felt we were very very fortunate to see.

But where was I in my narrative? Hami! We were there 2 nights & the 2nd day was a complete loss as we were coming back from that bloody eclipse which was in Yiwu & surely there are better ways to entertain BOTH the people who are dying to see every moment of the eclipse AND their spouses who are content to live right up through totality & then want OUT!!! What can I say? It was a 15 hour day & the best parts of it were the drive up to the eclipse site which were right out of The Sound of Music & Americans were saying "it's Montana!" & I thought "When did Montana get yurts & men in costume to herd sheep? This is so much better than Montana!" That 3-1/2 hour road trip into the mountains above Hami was WONDERFUL! Had I been able to have 7 hours of travel + 1 minute & 48 seconds of totality & then been released to go the museum in Hami, or float around its market, I'd have been a very happy girl, but then again I was on a Sky & Telescope tour & there was no provision even slightly carved out for the arts inclined spouse of the astronomy enthusiast. "Never again," said I to the Beloved Engineer with REAL FINALITY this time. We've done S&T trips with Virginia Roth's Scientific Expeditions & then again we've done S&T trips since she retired - & there is absolutely no comparison & our next eclipse trips will take quality into account - we GOT quality with Virginia Roth...

So - Hami has a lovely leafy promenade & a market & a museum - if only the hotel had put a mattress on top of the box-spring it would have been quite nice. And talking in our own way with the local people was MY best part of the two days! They were beyond thrilled to see Americans & were so incredibly kind. I do recommend Hami, but if you stay in the VIP part of the Jia Ge Da Hotel (or similar, as noted in our brochure...she said gloomily) you're better off than you might be elsewhere. Try asking for a non-smoking room but do not rely upon getting it.

Morning after eclipse dawned & we were whisked off - to our incredible relief after all too many hours of bus travel! - to the Chinese Oriental Express train which was to be our home for not nearly enough of the next three days. The first leg took us from Hami "to Dunhuang." I put this in quotation marks because although the Hami train station is indeed in Hami, the Dunhuang train station is 120KM to the west of that lovely town. And what a 120KM it is!!! We sped along a road that put the PA Turnpike to shame for ruts & diversions & sure enough we blew out a tire en route. As the Beloved ME said - better a tire than a - what did he say? something beginning with M - it might come to me but you can only imagine...

NOTE!!! If you are even the least bit suspicious about the efficacy of the repair of a blown out tire on the Silk Road - CHECK AGAIN WITH YOUR CLOSEST AVAILABLE CRANKY OLD ENGINEER (have I said before that engineers make wonderful house pets??? I cannot recommend them highly enough!) & yes the very prototype of the CE is my own Beloved MME who surely saved us from closed coffin funerals when he insisted that our disabled bus would go nowhere - even as the driver & our S&T representative insisted that it would be just fine...The Beloved MME refused to let another person on the bus & thank goodness for that...

Despite it all we wound our way into Dunhuang but could not be ensconced in our - for once absolutely wonderful - hotel before we were trotted out into the desert to ride camels or trek on foot out to the Crescent Lake. Both were lovely experiences but there was a very VERY strong argument to be made to sticking to the published itinerary...which would have had us check into The Silk Road Dunhuang Hotel - WHICH WAS LOVELY!!! - & then allowed those of us who wished to ride camels to do so & let the rest of us who wanted nothing more than some shopping - of which there were plenty of opportunities - a stiff drink &/or a massage before dinner to do as we wished. Even a casual walk around the charming town of Dunhuang - which thankfully has not had skyscraper seeds sprinkled on it & has been sympathetically developed - would have been preferrable to boiling in the sun on poor sad camels...or leaving those of us who opted out of camel rides as I did (been there done that in Cairo) to do as we wished. The organization sadly chose to wrench a draw [not a defeat but certainly not a victory] from the jaws of certain victory.

The wonderful WONDERFUL local culture show in Dunhuang was beyond description. I place this show & the Shanghai acrobats above any over show experience we had in China as TOPS!!! The hotel is an experience in itself as it's all so beautiful & sky observing is great & the shops are wonderful...great shops & pls do not be afraid to bargain as you can get wonderful goods for quite good money here.

The very best of Dunhuang is the grottoes at Mogao - my very favorite part of our trip outside of Beijing & Shanghai (which have charms that are particularly their own & must be individually enjoyed, particularly if you have the Beloved MME as your guide). DO read the aforementioned Simon Winchester book The Man Who Loved China, as this will give you a great introduction to the grottoes & their rape ca 1906 by a Hungarian representative of the British Museum. We were fortunate to have a terrific guide - a professor who is attached I believe to NorthWestern University. There are something like 700 grottoes - some vast, some the size of coffins - & only a few are open to the public.

NOTE TO OTHER POSTERS - Does anyone know of trips sponsored by universities or other organizations that focus on scholarly trips to China, that might focus on shrines & other sites with an intensive historical focus??? I'd be ever so grateful for the advice as I'll be on the next one out...

We spent 3 hours at the Mogao Grottoes & I could have easly spent 3 days to a week. I need a trip to China that is more intensely focused...& hope that readers will help me with this...

Next AM took us BACK 120KM to the Dunhuang train station (note that this is like putting Grand Central Station in Albany...) but getting back onto the Chinese Oriental Express, with its wonderful meals & ammenities, was well worth anything.

Next up - Jiayuguan through to Xi'an. Heavenly landscapes, a wonderful train overnight that made up for an awful night in a Jiayaguan hotel...

And to all a good night...

shedridt is offline  
Aug 18th, 2008, 09:14 PM
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Your writing is wonderful, am devouring every word.

Truly an enjoyable read
Nywoman is offline  
Aug 18th, 2008, 09:34 PM
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In response to your NOTE TO OTHER POSTERS...

Marshall and Merle Goldman lead Harvard trips to China. The "next one out" in September probably doesn't suit you after all because it covers territory that you just covered. Their Sept 2009 SILK ROAD CARAVAN tour goes to many of the 'stans, I believe.

I have read about these trips, not taken any.

I know what you mean about craving more in-depth explanation...

marya_ is offline  

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