Shanghai Blog

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Visited the famous buddhist Mogao grottoes of Dunhuang, an world heritage culture site located along the ancient silk road. It’s the place with the most buddhist art in the world, in total 492 caves are still left, with more than 2000 painted sculptures and 45000 square meters of mural paintings! It was a center for cultural exchange for a 1000 years, from the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534) to the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty (1276-1386). The caves were all but forgotten after the silk road stopped being used from the 15th century on.
The mogao caves location is today a desert outside of Dunhuang (on the edge of the Gobi desert), but 1700 years ago this was an oasis with water and trees. Dunhuang was actually located in a crossroads between China, Tibet, India and Europe, so it was in a very suitable position for exchange between cultures and countless caravans must have passed through here throughout the history. And so it was that buddhists monks passing by decided to start carving out the caves we can visit today.

Another interesting and very important event was the finding of a huge archive in 1900 by a Daoist monk (Wang Yuanlu). It had been concealed for some 800 years, with over 50000 scrolls, hundreds of paintings along with other artifacts, hidden in cave concealed behind a wall painting (next by cave nr 17). The earliest and complete printed book with an attested date (868), “The Diamond Sutra”, was found here and is today kept in the British Library.

The first western expedition arrived here in 1879. Today a lot of the paintings have lost a lot of details and color or even been totally destroyed from the pollution and exposure since they been opened up during the last hundred years. During our visit only a selected number of caves are open for tourists to visit (on a guided tour in Chinese or English) and you’re not allowed to take photographs inside the caves.

Posted: 14 Feb 2017

Trip to Qinghai and Gansu provinces in Nov 2016. Started by taking a night train from Jinan (I was in Shandong on a business trip) all the way to Xining in Qinghai province. We stayed one day in Xining before heading off to Qinghai lake. We shared a car and driver with two other Chinese tourists which Nara had arranged after arriving in Xining. On the way to Qinghai lake we first stopped by the Kumbum Monastery (塔尔寺 in Chinese). It’s an active monastery with around 400 monks (but before 1958 there were 3600 monks living in this monastery!), and ranks as the most important monastery for Tibetan buddhism outside Lhasa. It was founded by the 3rd Dalai Lama in 1583. This holy site is open to tourists today. Inside the buildings one can smell the very distinct smell of yak butter, used in the candles.

After that we continued on to Qinghai lake which is the largest lake in China. It’s also pretty high up, at 3205 m altitude (it’s part of the Tibetan plateau). We stayed in a hostel next by the lake, and went up early to see the sunrise over the Qinghai lake. This was rather disappointing as it was too foggy to see much of the sunrise.

We left Qinghai lake (with quite a few photos) and next stop was the Chaka salt lake, that is southwest from Qinghai lake. Its a natural crystallized saline lake and part of the largest salt mine in the world. It makes a good spot for taking photos as the salt water reflects light very well and you can catch quite surreal mirror landscape photos. It was cloudy weather when we visited so the conditions for photos weren’t optimal.

From there it was a very long drive to Dunhuang. We stayed overnight in a smaller city. The driver took us to a hotel and we checked in and got a room. We had found out there was a place nearby with hot springs but we hadn’t brought any swimming clothes with us. I decided to look around if I couldn’t buy something close to the hotel. I probably walked for less than 10 minutes (and actually found a shop selling swimming clothes!) but as I was in the shop the local police came in and asked where I was staying. I didn’t remember the name of the hotel, but the police insisted in going there, so I jumped in the police car and we headed back to the hotel. It turned out that the hotel lacked permit for foreigners to stay so we all had to move to another hotel! The police punished the hotel by taking down their business permit to operate as a hotel! The police also informed us that the area of the hot springs are off-limits for foreigners so we could also not go there!

We also visited the Small Fangpan Castle that is part of the ancient Chinese Great Wall, located in the Yumen pass. The castle is actually a command post behind the ancient great wall. It is pretty well preserved today. The silk road passed through this mountain pass so it’s a famous place in Chinese history as travelers from China left the country through the Yumenguan gate (Jade Gate) named from the many jade caravans that passed by it.

We finally reached Dunhuang. We stayed there two days, the first day we visited the Crescent Lake and desert around it. It’s kind of a rip-off for Chinese tourists as it’s really expensive to go inside and not really that much to see. The second day we went to the Mogao grottoes outside Dunhuang (see separate post). This is a must-see and a world heritage site.

After Dunhuang we took a train from Dunhuang to Zhangye. We stayed in Zhangye to visit the Danxia National Park (see separate post). After that we once again took a train, this time to Lanzhou before flying back to Shanghai.

We had a great trip with some really nice sights and also a lot of good food. I really enjoyed the muslim style noodles and some great lamb dishes during the trip.

Posted: 14 Feb 2017

Online shopping of foreign goods across the border has been growing a lot in China, it even got a new name, usually called 海淘 (haitao) nowadays. Bit interesting that the e-commerce platform 淘宝 (taobao) has become so popular that 淘 just means buying in Chinese now. I anyway decided to buy a new watch from an European website. The watch isn’t expensive at all, around 60 EUR excl shipping. As its relatively cheap and a small package I was actually hoping it would just pass throw China customs without anyone bothering about it. That didn’t happen and what I really didn’t expect was just how troublesome the import process to China can be.
The logistics company the European watch company used (Kangaroo International) seemed to have outsourced its service in China to a very small Chinese logistics company. The Chinese logistics company didn’t speak English (so I spoke / wrote in Chinese to them) and they also couldn’t really clarify anything or provide information about the import rules. It all started with them calling me and telling me that I have a package stuck in China customs that needs to be declared. They then told me that the import tariff tax was 60% and sent me a bank account where I should pay it. Turns out this was wrong. I first asked the logistics company if this really was correct (as I thought it can’t possible be), but they then replied me quickly and said this is indeed correct, and I should pay 60% import tax plus their handling fee. My girlfriend continued by calling China Customs and asked about the rules. They said it should be 30% or less, but they couldn’t give a definite answer. Next step was to call the logistics company’s boss, after explaining the situation to him he said he would check with the employee handling my case. I then got an email saying that the China Customs had made a mistake but that it was now corrected to 30% import tax. They then asked me to pay 30% import tax but when I asked for a reference to the official rules and how this was determined they couldn’t provide any information at all.

It’s quite difficult to understand the China Customs rules. The last couple of years they also have a system called “cross border e-commerce”. In this model Chinese companies using “bonded warehouses” could avoid paying any import tax or VAT at all. Basically all those articles were classified as personal items and removed of tax up to a certain limit. From april 2016 they started charging a tax on this business, but it is still no import tariff and only a lower VAT rate. This whole business model seems quite strange to me and I’m wondering why these companies should have a much preferential treatment over private individuals.

So the section about “cross border e-commerce” doesn’t apply to a normal e-commerce order from abroad. In my case it got classified according to the parcel tax of China. This has also been updated recently. It used to be classified in 3 categories: 20%, 30% and 60% import tax. Now they have changed this to only two categories – 30% and 60% import tax. Luxury products will have a 60% import tax for example.

I found a good article that helped clarifying this at:
HKMB: Cross-Border E-Commerce: China Policy Update

Posted: 24 Sep 2016