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  Issue No. 4 : Mongolian Thrills

This summer I traveled to a lake in remote northwest China that is 29 times the size of Hong Kong. Lake Siliemu is located in Yili in the Mongolian autonomous region of Xinjiang province bordering Kazakstan. I had never been to this part of China before and the journey was at times arduous - transportation is not well developed. It took us three hours to reach the lake by car after leaving the train at the border check-point of Kazakstan Allyshan Kou.

I was invited to Yili with 10 other Hong Kong deputies to the National Peoples' Congress to witness the Nadamu, the annual meeting of the nomads who inhabit the Mongolian grasslands. The week-long festival is an immensely colourful spectacle that shows the traditional customs of the nomads. Tents are pitched along the lakeshore and we watched horse racing and horse trading and wrestling on a huge scale - some 100 bouts happening simultaneously in the arena. 
The lake, which is 2,300 metres above sea level, is the most beautiful I have ever seen; the sky was so blue and the water so green. The scenery is alpine, the startling contrast to the vast flatness of the plains of Inner Mongolia. In Yili there are mountains lined with pine trees and grasslands, and, I was told, even bigger pastures in the mountains.
After leaving Lake Siliemu, we cut across the Kazaks' autonomous region to reach Xiling; from there we traveled to the Nanati grasslands. The area is being developed for tourism, but I was disappointed. The natural attractions remind me of Colorado or Switzerland, but the tourist facilities have no character - they are neither Chinese nor European in style. The development lacks professional planning and ecological awareness. Most annoying are the sightseeing planes that fly overhead, their engines destroying the serenity of the mountains. People should not be buzzing around in planes; the authorities should not be cutting down trees to make runways. Tourists should explore on horseback or by camel, enjoying the harmony between man and nature. 
We noted that the standard of living in this part of China is rather high compared to other regions. Many new homes are being built, some of which resemble European dwellings with roofs that are distinctly Russian in style. Before we left Nanati, the Hong Kong delegation was given two horses as a gift. In Siliemu, we accepted a camel on behalf of the people of Hong Kong. It goes without saying that we left the animals free to roam in their natural environment rather than bringing them back to dodge the Hong Kong traffic.
Returning to Urumqi in Xinjiang province we were impressed by the development that is going on there. The World Bank has been supporting the building of modern highways. The railway coach was the best I have ever traveled on in China - it was as good as any of the new sleeper carriages in Europe. We also noted architectural changes in the Iling region, with European elements now blending with the local Kazakstan and nomadic traditions.
If one were to travel back 700 years or more in history, one would find that many of the ethnic minorities in China are Turkish in origin. When a Hong Kong friend of mine, whose wife is Chinese, visited northern Xinjiang, they found it difficult to converse as few people speak English. However, the husband, who is Turkish, was able to communicate at least to a rudimentary degree. In the mid-1990s, northern Xinjiang was cited as a hotbed of the separatist movement. We did not see any tension, however. It appeared to be peaceful and we were allowed to move around freely.
Politics aside, the tourist facilities of northern Xinjiang did not leave a good impression on the Hong Kong delegation. One hotel was a fine old building - a former Russian embassy - but, sadly, it was poorly managed. Rita Fan and her husband Stephen were given a suite, which would have been nice if the bathroom has been clean.
Included in our hectic five-day itinerary was a visit to the oil fields of Korla. The entourage was supposed to travel by train, but it had been raining so heavily that the track had washed away. The group hoarded a bus only to find that the road had suffered the same fate, causing a 2,000-vehicle jam.
As an alternative, I suggested that we head to my hotel in Turpan. I was surprised and pleased that my plan was eagerly accepted. There was much more to admire in Turpan, particularly the new infrastructure made possible by World Bank money. The highway is much improved and electricity is being generated from Dutch-style wind-driven power stations. The first few were built several years ago as an experiment; now there are miles of these huge whirling fans, which turn a natural feature of the area - the wind - into a valuable resource. 
The area also abounds with Unesco Heritage sites. Ruins of ancient settlements are being protected and developed, both as tourist attractions and for their educational value. The ruins of Gaochang, in particular, can be compared in magnitude to Pompeii in Italy. The latest addition to Turpan is a grape museum, where one can see samples and learn about the history of grapes and vineyard development in the area's gorges.
Prior to the Xinjiang mission, I had enjoyed something of a rollercoaster trip to Qinghai, the province bordering the Tibetan autonomous region. I ascended 4,000 metres by jeep into the Qilian mountains, passing the tree line and almost reaching the glaciers. I then descended to 1,000 metres onto the great plains of the Hexi Corridor. In one day, I had experienced all four seasons. 
I made the journey to see Karakhoto, "the Black Water City", a once-prosperous city that turned to ruins as history past it by. Karakhoto flourished some 700 years ago during the era of the Xixia kingdom (11th to early 13th centuries). It was destroyed by the armies of Genghis Khan. According to legend, local people buried treasure in the hills as the invaders drew near. In the modern era, the story of Karakhoto was first told in the journals of turn-of-the century Russian explorers. In 1908, Colonel Pyotr Koslov led a mission to the Sino-Mongolian border and came across the remains of a fortress in the Gobi desert. He found Buddhist manuscripts, coins, books and paintings and took them back Russia. Some of these relics from Karakhoto were displayed in the Hermitage museum.
Two years ago, an expedition sponsored by the Van Habsburg foundation wanted to visit, but then it was a restricted area as it borders on important China aerospace sites. I am trying to convince the local government to develop Karakhoto as a tourist attraction from the education and preservation perspectives. It is a live museum, with its well-preserved city wall and ruins of two towers that stood on opposite banks of the river. From the ruins it appears that this once mighty city covered an area of five square kilometers. It was here that the traders on the Silk Road between China and Europe branched off into Mongolia and Russia along the so-called "Leather Routes".
Apart from the fascinating history, this visit was interesting for me as I saw a white snake slithering in front of the city gate. In all my travels along the Silk Road, this was the first time I had ever seen a snake. A few minutes later, I saw a great eagle fly through the city gate. I wondered if it was the spirit of one of the great warriors who had died defending Karakhoto hundreds of years ago.  
I believe archaeological research in this area would be of great significance because the Xixia kingdom remains one of the great mysteries of Chinese civilization. So much vital information can be decoded from studies made here. There are many great sites awaiting exploration along the Hexi Corridor. Heroes of the legends retold in the kung-fu books of Hong Kong's Louis Cha once walked this track. Running 1,000 miles from Lanzhou to Dunhuang, along the edge of desert and mountain, it was the only road the early travelers could use.
Karakhoto has great promise as a tourist destination. I suggested to the local authorities that they undertake academic and archaeological research of the city's rise and fall. At the moment, different officials and guides tell their own version of history. Scouring the site for two hours, I picked up some broken porcelain and silk-like fabrics that I mounted for display at my hotel in Dunhuang. I did not find the fabled treasure.
In June, my hotel in Dunhuang played host to 75 vintage cars and their drivers, who had started out from London on a 45-day rally to Beijing. In fact, about 100 cars, along with 20 support vehicles, left London but there were some casualties along the way. The human participants in this great adventure - mostly well-to-do couples from the US and Europe - were undaunted.
I admired their courage in setting off across two continents in cars that were old and obviously much loved. They stayed in Dunhuang for one night and parked in the forecourt of the hotel. There was an amazing array of vintage motor vehicles - Rolls-Royces, Mercedes Benz, the sort that you see in movies from the early years of Hollywood. The hotel staff very shrewdly charged a small fee to locals who wanted a closer view of these stylish old bangers.
It was the second year this group of vintage car collectors had organized a rally; previously they had restricted their drive to the breadth of Europe. Venturing into Asia for the first time, they expressed their surprise about the good condition of the roads. They were less complementary about the hotels in China - except, of course, The Silk Road Dunhuang Hotel!
By Peter M.K. Wong


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