I'm not really sure what to make of my rather sporadic posting to this blog of late but whatever it is must certainly account also for my complete failure to maintain my other blog – the photoblog over at www.aworldlens.blogspot.com.
Whatever it is I seem to never be posting as much as I know that I ought to.
It isn't lack of time. I spend most of my free hours sitting at the computer either reading through those blogs that I can still access here, downloading things to watch or listen to or watching and listening to them.
I say "those blogs I can still access" because I can't access anything hosted by blogger and things on wordpress can be seen about ten percent of the time.
I suspect that it's a combination of the relative sameness of the days and my inability to access my own blog and see what I've written that is responsible.
Anyway, let's redress the problem temporarily with a post.
In the post about making plans I said that my trip to Xiahe was off and so it was. I also said there might be a replacement trip to the yellow river which I had done before. Well I've been out to the yellow river a couple of times but this turned out to be different.
Three of the four of us – Aubri being unavailable for the trip – met up with Richard to take a drive out to the river. Richard, you will recall, is the very helpful son of our administrator. There was a car and a driver waiting. It wasn't, as it might have been, one of the somewhat ramshackle taxis that ply their trade in and around Baiyin. It was a modern luxury car with air conditioning and, for once, a driver who didn't scare me half to death with reckless acts of motoring bravado.
We climbed in and set off out of town in a direction I haven't previously explored much. My Saturday strolls have taken me to most places but to the north I have been only as far as the railway line and the tumbledown dwellings that run beside it. We were soon past those and while there does appear to be another section of town that I may explore later predominantly it is industrial and unpleasant. What was interesting was that, as in the centre of the city, spring was coming and things were blooming. Such is the usual sandy bleakness that even this sparse vegetation seemed luxurious and the colour green, so long absent from the views, was striking.
We headed out away from civilization and were soon driving through hills that were initially identical to those to the south of the city. As we cut away from the main road though things started to change. We climbed a winding road and turned a corner to see the hills laid out before us and the road, lined with warning markers, plunging down between them. For thirty minutes we negotiated this switchback and then we arrived at a gate.
It looked more like a military guard post than the entrance to a well known local beauty spot but there were queues of cars and coaches being allowed in one at a time past the chain barrier. We took our turn and started down into the valley. It was breathtaking. The serpentine road twisted down through the cliffs which grew taller and taller around us as we craned our necks to catch the momentary glimpses of the flat and fertile valley bottom.
This is fruit growing country and at the bottom we found ourselves on an unexpectedly grid-like sequence of roads between the trees that led us at last to the riverside.
It was a busy and bustling place. There were plenty of tourists there but we were the only three who weren't Chinese. The tourist experience is well-defined and after that spectacular descent the next step is boating.
Boating as I have never experienced it before. In my travels I have taken canoes and kayaks, been white water rafting, travelled on ferry's and paddle steamers but never have I seen such rafts as these. Bamboo frames approximately eight feet square are lashed to tarred and inflated sheepskins. About a dozen of these skins are what keeps the raft afloat while the boatman steers it down the river.
We took two and set off. In the air-conditioned car I had been aware of the heat in a vague theoretical way but out on the river the sun was fierce. The water was moving quickly but smoothly as we drifted along. The view was magnificent. Towering cliffs gradually moved in towards the water. There was a thin white ribbon of a road at the base which we saw cars move along occasionally but the slow glide down the river on this precarious vessel was far more satisfying.
After an all too brief ride we fetched up on a stony beach at the foot of a valley that ran away from the shore. This was the next part of the tourist trail.
We handed in our bright orange life-jackets and walked a little way up the trail. There were three choices for proceeding – on foot, on horseback or by donkey cart. We chose the donkey carts. They are gaily painted but barely faster than walking and not especially comfortable. Nevertheless, as we bounced along on the canopied flat-bed pulled by a bored donkey and its handler, I reflected that this was the kind of day that makes travel worthwhile. There was a never-ending stream of near identical carts and sometimes they passed us and sometimes we passed them but always the Chinese tourists on the others did a double-take and pointed their cameras at us rather than at the infinitely more interesting rock formations that rose barely yards away.
We waved and smiled.
The bright sunlight etched every shadow and every angle of the rocks in sharply distinguished tones, turned it into a chiaroscuro landscape of contrasting tones.
As with the boat ride it was too soon done and we paused at the head of the trail to stretch our legs before remounting the cart to head down, not to the boats – upriver would be rather more difficult to achieve – but to our waiting car and that narrow road which, on closer inspection, had numerous signs in Chinese, English and rather graphic drawings warning that the cliffs above us were dangerous and prone to crumbling.
They didn't crumble onto us though and soon we were back at the town where we had started.
We ate a splendid lunch and drank a couple of beers in a shaded courtyard restaurant, happy to be sitting out of the direct sunlight as the food, ordered by Richard was brought out to our table along with a bowl of truly delicious local apples.
We had intended to take a walk around the orchards but a slight delay in the valley meant that there was no time for that so when we had finished we climbed back into the car and retraced our route to Baiyin. It was a marvellous on the way back as it had been on the way out and when we arrived in the late afternoon we were all in agreement that this had been a pretty good last minute substitution in our plans.
Xiahe will still be there for another time.