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Changji English Lesson and a Tourist Sand Trap

We landed (perhaps surprisingly) safely in Urumqi after a pleasant enough Uzbekistan Airways flight. I wanted to check into the more expensive youth hostel, but Yann got his way and we ended up in a cheapie by the train station (which, other than its very healthy population of cockroaches wasn't too bad), with great views of the concrete jungle surrounding the hotel. We didn't have much to do in the city other than recover from Uzbekistan and plan the next leg of our trip. We headed out to a nearby city, Changji, to meet up with Jochen, a traveller we met in Bishkek in the summer, a teacher at the local college. With more time, Jochen's apartment would have been the ideal place for lazing, with his friendly roommates Kerimjan and Liu Bing Bing, and great cheap food all over the neighbourhood. But, we just didn't have time to stick around and we contented ourselves with a dinner and breakfast together and a trip to Jochen's classroom where we watched his energetic students debate over global warming. We took a night train to Dunhuang, a Silk Road tour group hot spot where we had planned for a day or two of sight seeing. We planned to spend sunset at the Echoing Sands, a 'mountain range' of sand dunes just a few kilometers from the city, with the highest dune over 1700m high. We hopped on a local bus until the dunes appeared towering above us, along with throngs of tourists wearing bright orange 'sand boots', riding ultralight planes, tobogganing down the dunes or riding camels across them. We're used to Chinese tourism, and none of these things bothered us, in fact I was getting excited for a toboggan ride. What bothered us was the 120 yuan entrance fee to the dunes (that's twice times the entrance fee to The Forbidden City in Beijing!) The cost allowed you to enter the large wooden archway built at the base of the dunes and set your feet in the sand. Any of the aforementioned activities most likely required the payment of another large number of yuans, but we wouldn't know, because we wouldn't pay the admission. We walked around for over an hour, through farmer's fields and down dirt roads trying to find a way onto the dunes. A fence is erected around the dunes for a few kilometers with signs warning of a 100-200 yuan fine for climbing over them. We considered climbing them, the fine was almost the same price as the admission ticket, if we were lucky, maybe even half price. The next day we took a bus to the Mogao Caves, a collection of hundreds of caves carved into the side of a cliff, some as long ago as the 3rd century. In the guise of conservation, ticket prices are high and only a handful of caves are open each day (on rotation), with visitors requiring a mandatory tour guide. The cost to visit twelve caves was 180 yuan (three times the cost of the admission to the Forbidden City), we made the decision to invest for our cultural and artistic betterment. We joined a French tour group, because there weren't enough English speakers at the caves to form a group. The adorable old-timers embraced us with open arms when they noticed we were tagging along at the back. The tour starts with the three most impressive caves and then pretty much goes down hill from there, unless you are really an ancient Buddhist art enthousiast. The caves were small, poorly lit, we were all crammed together trying to understand our tour guide through the echoes and the Chinese tour group tailing us and hovering loudly at the cave entrances (you would think they could stagger the tours a little bit better). After three hours, and a lot of repetition on the part of our guide, we had visited our dozen caves and were underwhelmed (for half or even two thirds of the price we might have felt more content). And we weren't the only tourists feeling disappointed, we poured through dozens of disgruntled messages in a traveller's advice book of a local cafe (even the more mature French tourists seemed to be getting pretty bored as we got to the last caves). So we left Dunhuang for Langzhou, wishing we had taken the direct train there in the first place and not wasted a full day in overpriced Dunhuang. On a brighter note, the Chinese tourists were absolutely loving every minute of their Dunhuang visit, handing over their money like they had just won the lottery. Watching them was the highlight of Dunhuang tourism.

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