Exotic Ürümqi

Can you guess what is in the featured image of this post?

No. No clue will be given You’d need to read our handprint story (see link at bottom of post) for the answer. Heheh. Some way to drive readership traffic to the pages right? OK we try.


Ürümqi. Capital of the vast vast Xinjiang (新疆) province of China. You might read that it is the Guinness holder of being the most remote city in the world. Being at least 2500km from the sea in any direction, it sits in the middle of the continent and was a major hub on the famed silk road. And we were on that road for nearly two weeks. Back in the day tourist facilities were definitely not at its current level (ok someone correct us?).

No toilets in the open desert for sure.

It was easily the journey with the greatest hardship endured by us. And fortunately we got to start it in the relative comfort of this city. We got around the sights that ring the city. Would you like to know more about them?

Here in the middle of nowhere (and we know someone who had that record in Australia), you’d think the sights were just for tourists. Oh boy will you be surprised that it teems with life. Not just wild life but people too. For the region has been inhabited by the nomads for eons.

Why not read all about what one can experience here? Now you know what the featured picture is?

Getting up high with rarefied air

“Come fly with me, come fly away with me…”. Somewhere in that song, a reference is made to the rarefied air when one is up there in the skies. Well, not quite for us. It would be suicidal to be at 30,000+ feet in the air. We probably won’t last long…at least to us non mountaineers. And we probably HAFE at that altitude too!

But at a “lower” altitude of perhaps 10,000+ feet, one could still be actively exploring the space around one. Yep we are talking about the Tibetan highlands. This one though is not in Tibet as the province is defined today, but rather on the western edges of Yunnan province. Ok so we cheated. Sue us lah!

We had taken up the challenge and flew 3000m+ into the highlands to be amongst the first customers of the Banyan Tree Ringha resort many years back. It was supposed to be a relatively relaxing getaway, you know the resort facilities and all… but it turned out to be much much tougher than we thought. Because one needs to be careful with not falling ill at such altitudes from the low oxygen in the air. It will truly cause grief and a holiday nearly lost.

We learnt something about the effect the rarefied air have on our bodies during that journey. And it helped us prepare for future journeys with precautions and preparations that we know WE need. But incredible still it was the journey and you should try out this out too. Take some altitude medications with you though. Read more about our near disaster of a holiday here.

Might find the secret of being youthful forever… Wanna get to Shangrila now?

Crashing waters of the Yellow river

Rivers. They are a source of life with the water they bring. But they can also be a tempestuous beast that taketh away – both property and lives. China’s ‘mother’ Yellow river (黄河) has been both the love and sorrow of the Chinese people over the past few millennia. Like its cousin the Yangtze (长江), the river nurtured a civilization that advanced to magnificent heights. But it also unleashed sorrows when floods wreaked destruction, sometimes leading to regime change.

Thus it was a real treat to set off to see the first large falls of the river in the remote Hukou (壶口) valley. There in the foothills of the mountainous Sha’anxi and Shanxi provinces (陕西/山西) the river channels from a width of what hundreds of meters wide to merely 20-30 meters or so abruptly, leading to nothing but a torrent over a fall!

In fact this surge of waters is so huge that its roar can be heard kilometers away. Ok we exaggerate – one or two kilometer… And back in the day we walked right up to the edge with little more than chain links as a barrier between us and certain doom if one falls over… Bear in mind we were there in the autumn, when the volume of water would be much lower. Imagine the near tsunami wall of water coming through after the spring melt! Or after the torrents of the mid year rains.

You might know that they closed access to the falls in July of this year precisely because of that…

Ok, a little melodramatic. But it was indeed a spectacle that blew us away. Not just because of the sheer magnificence of the falls, but also the fact that it was a hard journey through the mountains where people still live in caves…really.

Got you interested? Read all about it and more in our road trip here from Xian!

How great is the Great Wall?

In a course on social pyschology many years back, Mel learnt about how humans have this tendency to form groups. And these groups frequently distinguish themselves from other groups or individuals. Some will keep to themselves and exclude other ‘non members’ socially. Others will build a wall.


Not walls in one’s mind. Real solid brick stone or mud walls. Perhaps they do that (ie build walls) to keep other non members of their group away physically. Out of sight, out of mind right? Maybe they wanted to cordon off a space to call their own. ‘We dont want to share‘ it seems to call out to us…or perhaps they were scared and wanted to protect themselves. Don’t you wonder what the true considerations were when it came to the grand scale of walls built by the ancient Chinese?

Not built in a day just as Rome weren’t, the walls were built by the many states on the north China plains. It just took a stroke of ‘genius’ to decide that they should be repaired, linked and perhaps extended… building a wall cost money and lives, some modern leader needs to learn.

Today we call them walls ‘Great’. Was it really so? Did the ancient Chinese really tried to build walls to defend themselves as marketed? Or was it building walls to carve out and protect the territories that they snatched from someone else? Historians and experts of antiquities may have a field day debating all of this, so why not ponder over this point as you read of our explorations of the magnificent wall, one that is said (debunked) to be visible from space?

Our climbings are recorded here. Have you been to the wall? Did you climb it and became a ‘good Han’?

Martial arts mountain?

Anyone still remember Wutang clan?

Ok, we digress.

The point is – martial arts. The Kung Fu kind that is. Some might have watched the lego movie some time back. Notice where these martial arts gurus are always living in seclusion in the mountains? Darn the lego bricks keep popping into our minds…

At the end of our Silk road journey, we had ended up in the city of Xian (西安). Formerly the ancient capital Changan (长安). It was such a pity we did not spend more time in the city itself, and instead went far out and away. Well, all reasons to return since there are now direct flights from Singapore to the city!

One such journey was made to the venerable Huashan (华山). It’s a mountain of religious significance and about 120km from Xian. It was also a place where people came to seek immortality, perhaps from the herbs and plants that can only found there. You see, the theory was ; if these plants can survive in these inhospitable environment for such a long time, surely they contain the secrets of living long too?

While we did not climb all the way (yes we had help), we did ascend one of the peaks of the mountain. Wow. Non mountaineers being on the summit at >2100m high. That personal record of us sea-level plebians would only be surpassed 7 years later. Ok, so our record isn’t something to crow about…

If you have already covered all the sights of Xian, what are you to do? Perhaps you need to learn more about what one can do from Xian, get to Huashan.

Read all about it here!

Artsy water towns

Now the climate in the central part of China is one of moderate mild. Whilst the north curls up in a frigid freeze and the south continues to bask in relative warmth, the middle ground that is around Shanghai falls roughly in between. Yeah right. Tell us something new we hear you coo…

Perhaps it is the proximity to the sea. But most probably because of the geography too. This part of China is where the Yangtze (长江) river comes to an end, disgorging a vast amount of water into the sea along with the silt. And all around it are tributaries of water feeding it, on its relentless drive towards the ocean.

Now we all know water is life and where there is an abundance of it, human settlements gravitate towards it. There are many towns all within a drive from Shanghai, home for four years. These spawned from the communities that harvested the bounty of the land, which from period of the three kingdoms were already called the ‘land of rice and fish’. Thus they have a rich heritage spanning many hundreds of years and demonstrates the embarrassment of riches that China was in during the 16-18th centuries.

Before its exorable decline.

Today, it has survived the ravages of recent history and restored somewhat its original grandeur. Perhaps too commercialized. However still a highly recommended journey for visitors to Cathay, especially those residing in Shanghai or surrounding cities for a while.

Join us to re-live the days we spent strolling the old artsy towns of eastern China. Do you think these towns have anything to compare with their contemporaries in Europe?