Among the souvenirs found at Dunhuang market
The panoramic view of Mingsha mountain and the crescent lake
The Mogao caves in Dunhuang are inscribed in the World Heritage list

From modern Beijing to Jinchang city in the Gansu province that’s rich with Silk Road history, Olivia Miwil experiences both new and old

SKYSCRAPERS and infrastructure may be mushrooming in the capital of China but the popular mode of “public transportation” among city folks is still the bicycle

It’s considered public transportation as users are renting it by using a smartphone application developed by local companies.

The mobile application, which is linked to bank accounts, enables users to unlock the bicycles by scanning a the barcode.

The minimum charge is one yuan (about 60 sen) for a duration of an hour but the fee varies according to service providers.

Beijing residents have been using the bicycles ride-sharing service for a few years now. However, the bicycles are now in eye-catching colours to attract youngsters to use them to travel around the city.

The bicycles, which are available almost everywhere in the capital, are installed with a global positioning system for companies to locate each of them.

The technology also enables users to report any damage or malfunction via the mobile application.

I am intrigued to try cycling around the city after seeing many people riding the bicycles, including young women in dresses.

However, since it requires one to have an account with local banks for the transaction, I get a hotel staff to unlock a bicycle for me and pay her in cash.

Despite having to share the main roads with cars, it is not compulsory for riders or even motorcyclists to wear helmets. It is a bit nerve-wracking when I try to cross the city’s major roads but I strictly follow the traffic light indicators and the crowd.

Another public transportation in Beijing that also forces my sweat gland to work is the integrated subway. On average, I walk at least 10,000 steps a day by just talking the subways!

Its subway connects the urban and suburban districts of the city including places of interest such as Tiananmen, Forbidden City, Hutong and Lama temple, among others.

For those opting to take a taxi or the bus, expect to be stuck in a traffic jam lasting several hours especially during the morning and evening rush hours.

Also, the best way to travel out of the capital is by taking its domestic flights.

A FIELD TRIP

So here I am with a media group at the invitation of China’s People’s Daily for a two-week Asian Media Workshop on Belt and Road Initiative. We are on our way to Jinchang city in the Gansu province. As the aeroplane descends, we see a well-planned city with some natural landscape including mountains and desert.

The first itinerary in our programme is Jinchuan Science and Technology Museum, which holds a complete story on how the city prospers to be the largest exporter of mineral reserves especially nickel in Asia.

What amazes me more is the government’s recent commitment in changing the desert into a floral city to provide another livelihood for the people.

We enjoy peaceful views of roads being planted with all colours of flowers as our bus takes us around the city. We know there’s something more beautiful awaiting for us to explore.

True enough, we reach the 380,490-sq-metre Purple and Golden Garden, promoted as a wedding photoshoot venue. Our group is already starting to take pictures the moment we alight from the bus although we know there will be more fascinating views further inside the garden.

The romantic theme is everywhere, from the huge “Love” structure to the wedding square and a magpie bridge, among others.

Since June 2015 until this year, the government has organised three mass weddings here for the locals.

The best place to visit the garden is between June and October when the flowers are in full bloom. Early morning is more comfortable and cooler to visit as compared to later in the afternoon. Other adjacent places with colourful flowers and plantations to visit are the botanical garden and rose valley.

Slightly further from the city, at Yongchang county, a-year-old quinoa plantation area gives out nice green and red hues for good pictures.

Not only do we get to enjoy the floral scenery but during the two-day trip in Jinchang, we also get to taste a colourful Chinese dumpling and noodle dinner.

The dumplings, with different colours and fillings, are presented in designs of flowers and its leafs. For this course, we have to boil them in our own pot of herbal soup.

The colorants are extracted naturally from the plants. Besides turning into food products, the local industry also makes use of some flowers as beverages while some are for fragrant and cosmetic products.

A GALLOPING HORSE

Wuwei city, about an hour by bus from Jinchang, is a place rich with Silk Road history. Also known as Liangzhou in the past, it is considered to be one of the most famous historical and cultural cities of China with plenty of historical and cultural relics. This is where China’s tourism symbol — the galloping horse — comes from.

Knowing the history and significance of the symbol makes Leitai Park more interesting. During the Han dynasty, Wuwei was one of the four important military bases along the Hexi corridor.

In 1969, as locals were digging air-raid shelters due to fears of war with the Soviet Union, they found a chamber which contained more than 200 bronze figurines of men, horses and chariots.

The discovery led to excavations of a three-chamber tomb of a Han dynasty army general.

Further study on the horse indicated that it is a breed from Fergana in Uzbekistan and thus considered as a highly prized status.

The tomb constructed with brick contained some 230 outstanding relics of gold, silver, copper and jade as well as pottery. The funerary artifacts included 99 copper chariots complete with horses and soldiers.

The pathway into the tomb is narrow and we have to crawl at certain places. The area is also dim with a lack of ventilation which is why the number of visitors in one chamber at any one time is controlled.

The White Pagoda Temple, not one but more than 100 of white pagodas, is a testimony that Tibet has been under China’s rule since the Yuan Dynasty.

One of the pagodas worth visiting is a partial one that has survived a strong earthquake in 1927. The pagoda was built in the temple to preserve the body of the leader.

The Buddhist influence in the city is reflected with the construction of Kumarajiva temple to honour Kumarajiva, a western monk who translated 74 scriptures and 384 volumes into concise easy-to-understand materials. Because of his vast contribution. Kumarjiva’s “Buddhist relic tongue” is kept at the tower.

As historical as it is, Wuwei is being developed as a wine city tourist destination holding its annual wine festival since 2013. The wine industry started in 1980s and its first winery Gansu Mogao has become one of the famous brands in China.

We bid farewell to Wuwei after attending its 5th Wine Festival.

A GOBI OASIS

A 10-hour overnight train ride takes the group to Dunhuang city located at the northwestern part of Gansu province.

When the morning breaks, we see desert all the way before the train arrives at our destination. This raises questions among us of how we are going to go through three days in Dunhuang which is actually an oasis amidst the Gobi desert.

We have to carry our own luggage from the train coach right to climbing up to the station’s exit. There’s no elevators or lift. It is heart-wrenching to see an old man fall on his hips on the stairs.

The two must-visit places are its Unesco world heritage sites — Mogao Caves and Mingsha Mountain — located about 25km from the town.

Mogao caves, also known as Thousand Buddha Grottoes, stretches 1,680 metres from south to north along the cliff face. It has 492 caves, more than 2,000 painted sculptures, about 45,000 square metres of murals and five wooden porticos.

The grottoes were first started by a monk, Le Zun, who built the first cave in the second century. Construction continued through the following 10 dynasties. Those caves have undergone a long history of originating, developing and declining periods.

In May 26, 1900, Taoist Wang Yuanlu discovered the grottoes by accident and had sold many manuscripts and silk paintings from the cave to foreigners.

Some of those valuable materials are now in public and private museums and libraries in Britain, French, Japan, Russia and America.

Forty-three years later, the establishment of National Research Institute put an end to vandalism of the Mogao Grottoes while the Dunhuang Academy is responsible for the conservation and research work of the heritage. The grottoes were inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1987 which put it under top-level protection.

The number of visitors per day is now limited to 6,000 people and it is strictly no photography inside the structure due to the fragility of the artefacts.

When temperature and humidity levels are deemed to affect the condition in the caves, the authorities will also close the area immediately.

While the grottoes visit is a bit serious for some, Mingsha Mountain, which means echoing sand, is exciting with sand dunes activities.

It definitely holds good photo opportunities with its stunning desert scenery. Even as we are approaching the mountain, we can see its colourful sand — red to yellow, green, black and white.

Wearing a pair of striking orange socks to prevent sand from getting into shoes, we do not miss the chance to climb the sand dunes. The climb requires one to be fit. Fret not, just catch your breath and take slow and steady steps.

It is rewarding to be on top of the sand dunes. You get a panoramic view of the desert with a crescent-shaped and jade-like colour lake that never goes dry.

The next fun part is to slide down on a wooden board. No safety belt or brake. Just follow the instructions: sit straight, hold both sides of the board, slide down and land safely. Even if you fall, it will not hurt as the sand surface is quite soft. Other activities include riding camels or touring the sand dunes in sand motorsports cars.