The Sound of Music, Kansas-Style

IN THE FLINT HILLS OF KANSAS – Outside the isolation chamber that is my automobile, I’m not one for sing-alongs – but I changed my tune as a full orchestra pushed the melody of “Home on the Range” across the Kansas prairie and 7,000 people began to sing.

The giant Kansas sky crowns the site of the Symphony in the Flint Hills (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

The occasion was the Symphony in the Flint Hills, an annual concert/picnic/party that draws an appreciative crowd into wide-open spaces for stirring music, a celebrity guest performer, a panoramic sunset and that “Home on the Range” sing-along.

It is no small accomplishment to set up a stage, import the Kansas City Symphony, erect pavilions, arrange catering and address all of the other needs of a crowd of thousands, but it happens every summer for a good cause.

That cause is heightening the public’s appreciation and knowledge of the Flint Hills tallgrass prairie, a region of the state that seems big but is only a tiny portion of the prairie that once covered the middle of North America. Of the 170 million acres of prairie that existed before settlement, only about 4 percent remain.

Event organizers think good thoughts all year for a dramatic sunset on the night of the symphony. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

A not-so-simple birthday party was the origin of the prairie concert.  In 1994, a rancher named Jane Koger celebrated her birthday by inviting the public to her Homestead Ranch for what she called the “Symphony on the Prairie.” More than 3,000 people came, demonstrating how a magical union between symphonic music and the prairie landscape can be created.

Ten years later, a grassroots organization (pun intended) formed to increase awareness of the prairie, and it presented the first Symphony in the Flint Hills in 2006. People now come from around the world to experience the magic that began with that long-ago birthday party.

The 2017 Symphony in the Flint Hills is June 10 on the Deer Horn Ranch between Abilene and Manhattan and a few miles south of Junction City. It’s a long way from the Kansas City Symphony’s fancy home, the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City, Missouri. The guest artist is Michael Martin Murphey (singer of “Wildfire,” “Carolina in the Pines” and “What’s Forever For” and a real-life rancher).

Pre-concert entertainment includes jostling rides on covered wagons. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

A special aspect of the 2017 concert is a commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Chisholm Trail, the cattle-drive route from Texas to Kansas in the decades after the Civil War. The lush grasslands of the Flint Hills were the cattle’s destination for some fattening up before becoming protein for a hungry nation.

Of course, there are ways to learn about the Flint Hills and the tallgrass prairie beyond a one-day concert.

·      *   Start at the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve near Cottonwood Falls, a speck of a town with a beautiful courthouse, a surprisingly nice hotel and restaurant (the Grand Central Hotel, built in 1884), art galleries and the offices of the Symphony in the Flint Hills. The Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, which encompasses 11,000 acres of rolling hills where buffalo really did roam, is a unit of the National Park Service.

·     *     Visit the Symphony in the Flint Hills Gallery in Cottonwood Falls for art exhibits, special programs and community events.

·    *     To do more than observe, spend a few days at the Flying W Ranch near Cedar Point, where you can ride horses, drive cattle, hike, marvel at dramatic sunsets and gaze at the stars. Josh, Gwen and Josie Hoy will make sure you understand the importance of the prairie, and they will feed you well, too.

·      *    If your time is short, invest it in the Flint Hills Discovery Center in Manhattan. Through permanent and temporary exhibits, videos and demonstrations, the center explains the geology, ecology and cultural history of the 22-county Flint Hills region.

My idea of the ultimate experience is a stay at the Flying W, a personal exploration of the region using Cottonwood Falls as home base and the rousing finale at the Symphony in the Flint Hills.

I learned that “Home on the Range” is the state song of Kansas, but if I get back, I’m going to request an extra sing-along of “Don’t Fence Me In,” another fitting song for the location:

                       “Oh, give me land, lots of land, under starry skies above/

                       Don’t fence me in./

                       Let me ride through that wide open country that I love/

                      Don’t fence me in.”

It’s a full concert experience at the Symphony in the Flint Hills every summer. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)


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Expert advice: See a bear, make some noise

This bear wandered off before I had a chance to say, “Boo!” I promise. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK — Bill Stiver, a wildlife biologist at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, wants me to do something that goes against every outdoor-loving fiber of my body. If I’m lucky enough to see a black bear, the symbol of America’s most visited national park, he’d appreciate it if I would make a ruckus, startle the bear and make it run away into the woods.

“Can’t I take a picture first?” I implored.

He smiled, didn’t answer directly and repeated what he said earlier about making a big noise.

Stiver, of course, was being theatrical – I think – but his point was clear. He doesn’t want bears to associate humans with anything good, even benign neglect. He wants bears to go the other way when they see a human.

The problem isn’t the bears. It’s the humans who aren’t smart enough, or respectful enough, to keep their distance from bears and understand that they are guests in the bears’ home, not that the bears are there for their amusement, photographic or otherwise.

Stiver explained that the absolute worst thing a human can do is try to feed bears or to leave human food or trash where bears can get to it. That’s especially important in campgrounds and at backcountry campsites in the park and at the vacation cabins that are near the park’s boundary.

“The saying is true that ‘a fed bear is a dead bear’,” Stiver said, explaining that bears that associate humans with food are a danger and that he has successfully lured a nuisance bear into a trap using a single M&M as the bait. Stiver and other wildlife professionals will trap and relocate nuisance bears, but if they continue to return to where they interact with humans, euthanizing them can be the result.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is home to about 1,500 bears spread throughout its 522,000 acres in Tennessee and North Carolina. Even under normal circumstances, your odds of seeing one are slim, and you won’t have much opportunity to be a noisy visitor or to take a photo anyway.

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Whiskey, Wine and Wildlife: Already Preparing for 2018

Jekyll Island’s Whiskey, Wine and Wildlife festival offers a winter break. (W3 photo)

JEKYLL ISLAND, Georgia – The purpose of the Whiskey, Wine and Wildlife festival is to provide a respite from winter, but the just-completed W3 2017 (February 12) proved instead to be a celebration of spring. Temperatures climbed into the mid-70s, sweaters gave way to golf shirts and beachcombers enjoyed unexpected opportunities for sandy strolls.

If the daytime highs had been where they usually are – the low 60s – W3 still would have been a hit, and that’s reason enough to start planning a trip to Georgia next February.

Even normal weather would be fine for a Saturday afternoon of food tastings, whiskey sampling and some up-close and personal encounters with sea turtles, snakes and alligators. (All of the critters had human handlers.)

All animals had human handlers and many admirers. (W3 photo)

This year, visitors got to judge wings prepared by some of the South’s top barbecue masters and to cast votes in a cocktail contest in which bartenders started with Coopers’ Craft bourbon and improvised from there.

Distillers from across the Southeast served samples. ({Photo: Tom Adkinson)

In addition, there were cooking demonstrations (“Not Your Mama’s Pork and Greens” drew a big crowd), a wine tasting presentation from two sommeliers and three sessions about Jekyll Island’s wildlife.

Some of the distilled spirits were central ingredients in edibles. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

As much fun as the guests had, it was the snakes, sea turtles and alligators that actually benefitted from the festivities, along with the historic preservation efforts on the island. That’s because the weekend raised funds for the Jekyll Island Foundation, which works on conservation, education and historic preservation projects across the island.

A quick history: Jekyll Island is a barrier island between Savannah and Jacksonville, Florida, that was known to Native Americans, named by colonizer General James Oglethorpe and eventually used in the late 1800s as an exclusive hunting club by families with names such as Rockefeller, Morgan and Pulitzer. In 1947, it became a Georgia state park, which made it accessible to everyone not named Rockefeller, Morgan and Pulitzer.

Jekyll Island’s beaches were an attraction beyond the food and drink. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

The island has an intriguing mix of accommodations, everything from camping to mid-range hotels to the beachfront Westin Jekyll Island to the historic Jekyll Island Club. It’s the Westin where W3’s Saturday festivities, along with classes, an opening wine dinner and a blowout Sunday brunch, occur.

Dates for Whiskey, Wine and Wildlife in 2018 are February 8-11. Consider getting hungry, thirsty and curious about then.

Desserts fancier than anyone makes at home were a highlight. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)


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Winter Wonderland

Winter storm Helena covered the state of Virginia in a blanket of white on January 7, 2017, and the town of Christiansburg was no exception.

That morning, I hiked the 3/4 of a mile from my new home to the depot in historic Cambria to watch some trains.

This is what I saw.

Cambria Station, covered in snow from Winter Storm Helena.

The morning was still, as most folks had heeded the authorities’ advice to stay home. This allowed me to get some pictures I normally couldn’t capture.

After getting a few artistic shots of the depot, I set up to capture a couple of approaching trains. I didn’t have to wait too long.

The signals at Pelton give a green on main two.

On the western end of the straight in Cambria, at CP (control point) Pelton, a clear signal shone bright, indicating a train was close by.

A few minutes later, westbound Norfolk Southern intermodal train 233 arrived.

NS 233 starts to make its way past the defect detector after cresting the grade of Christiansburg Mountain.

NS 233 stirs the freshly-fallen powder.

NS 233 passes the Christiansburg Depot, partly caked in snow.

BNSF ES44C4 8388 has its nose fully covered in snow as it lends a hand to leading NS 233.

“NS 233, clear, main two, Pelton.”

The containers of 233 make up a chilly wall through Christiansburg.

Well cars and containers of 233 cross Cambria St.

Not long after 233 cleared, another clear signal showed itself.

Snowflakes silently fall as the signals at Pelton await another train.

Not long after, empty coal train 821 hove into sight.

NS 821, with Union Pacific power leading makes its way through the heavy snowfall.

UP GEvo 7695 and an NS cousin lead the coal empties back toward West Virginia.

“821, clear, main two west, Pelton.”

NS 821 takes the bend as it enters CP Pelton.

The coal empties of 821 roll past the former N&W depot in Christiansburg.

The tail of 821 finishes crossing Cambria St.

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Signs for Life in a Chinese Canyon

Three of 12 waterfalls. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Three of 12 waterfalls on a hike in China’s Tongling Mountain National Forest Park. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

WENCHENG COUNTY, China – The forest resembled Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and the waterfalls could have been in Yosemite, but the signs along the trail were pure China.

They told us a bit about where we were, and despite mangled syntax and odd spellings, they made it perfectly clear that if we fell off a cliff, it was our own fault. We’d been warned.

We were about three hours’ drive inland from the coastal metropolis of Wenzhou and in a range of rugged mountains blanketed with deciduous trees and accented by a crashing river we heard long before we could see it.

We were eager to explore Tongling Mountain National Forest Park and begin a promised hike. We had a hint of what lay ahead because of the winding and steep ascent to the trailhead in a tour bus, but that didn’t quite prepare us for our walk down a canyon wall, rock-hopping river crossings and a protracted hike back up a gorge.

Stone staircase to start the trail. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Stone staircase to start the trail. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Timbers underfoot for a portion of the trail. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Timbers underfoot for a portion of the trail. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

The hike began inauspiciously on a solid stone staircase that would have made the Civilian Conservation Corps proud. A sign portended a change. It read:

“It is not my fault to reflect magic

and dangerous with steep and narrow,

it is your fault that forget your safety

while enjoy the sight.”

The translation was clear:

“If you’re so absentminded

 that you fall off the edge,

you’ve only yourself to blame.”

The trail actually wasn’t bad at all, and it was a marvel of backcountry construction. In places, it was a catwalk suspended over open space.

The wide stone steps morphed into circular timbers, then planks of wood and then into steel mesh resting on steel rods driven into the rock walls of the gorge. Handrails were common – and welcomed. The amount of human labor (almost none of this could have been done with machinery) was impressive.

Why did the Chinese go to such lengths? The answer was in the signs – the trail builders appreciated nature’s glory. One sign with three messages offered these thoughts:

“Here, the nature’s uncanny workmanship has created the mountains, rivers, forest and valley.”

“Here, let us make appoint far away with the mortal life!”

“Here, people will be intoxicated by the harmony of the voice of wind, water and birds.”

Again, the translation was clear:

“Drink in the beauty of these mountains. Enjoy a respite from your daily life.”

7-three-part-signWhat surrounded us soon shifted from merely impressive to outright spectacular. The cascading river far across the canyon had blasted out one beautiful plunge pool after another.

It was a thing of pure beauty – a narrow white waterfall crashed into a blue-green pool, which led to another waterfall and another pool, over and over again – 12 times in all.

Waterfall after waterfall. (Photo by Tom Adkinson)

Waterfall after waterfall. (Photo by Tom Adkinson)

Views at every turn of the trail. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Views at every turn of the trail. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

We finally reached the bottom of the canyon, took the obligatory group photo (our Chinese hosts insisted on group photos absolutely everywhere we went), crossed the river on a bridge made of circular stone steps resembling pier pilings and began the climb back up.

Step by circular step across the river. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Step by circular step across the river. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

This time, however, the trail was immediately beside the waterfalls and plunge pools. Signs provided the names of each pool, which the Chinese called ponds. We climbed along Gourd Pond, Belle Pond and Dragon Princess Pond. A favorite was Connect Heart Pond, so named because its outline resembles a heart.

At the top of the climb – after walking across a small dam and admiring a reservoir where golden koi flashed in the still water – was a manmade surprise, a teahouse in the middle of nowhere.

A teahouse in the middle of nowhere. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

A teahouse in the middle of nowhere. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Green tea, peanuts and tofu snacks. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Green tea, peanuts and peculiar tofu snacks. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Green tea, peanuts and peculiar tofu snacks were our reward – along with time to contemplate two signs we had passed:

“Civilization lives with mountains and waters, and harmony coexists with landscapes.”

“Protrcting the environmenr is a responsibility.

“Caring for the environment is a virtue.”

Spelling be damned, the day’s message was clear.

"Civilization lives with mountains and waters."

“Civilization lives with mountains and waters.”

Responsibility and virtue. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Responsibility and virtue. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

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A Very Happy New Year, From All of Us at Travel World Central.

Travel World Central is looking forward to many years of wonderful and exciting things.

From Linda and Willem, here at Travel World Central… along with our fabulous correspondents; Tom, Gavin and Nicki, we wish you all a very happy and safe New Year. May 2017 bring you health, happiness and awesome adventures.


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Super Hiking above Wenzhou


Daluo Mountain’s trail start at this lakeside village. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

WENZHOU, China – Most Americans who have even heard of this city of 9 million know it as a manufacturing and export city, but it is trying to enhance its leisure visitor credentials and has one attraction of major proportions.

Towering above Wenzhou, a coastal city between Shanghai and Hong Kong, is Daluo Mountain, a trail-laced retreat from a bustling metropolis where the best job may be leasing construction cranes. The number of high-rise buildings under construction is almost indescribable, but those manmade towers can’t rival Daluo Mountain.

My group of American and Canadian convention attendees kept looking out the windows as our bus charged up a two-lane road hugging the side of the mountain as the city grew smaller and smaller.

Daluo Mountain is in a region of ridges and valleys. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Daluo Mountain is in a region of ridges and valleys. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

The bus dropped us at a little village tucked into a divot in the mountain just 12 miles from city center. Vendors had lively businesses selling snacks, water and a few souvenirs. Westerners, of course, are unusual here. The trails’ primary users are locals. Especially evident when we visited were college students, presumably from a sprawling campus at the base of the mountains.

East met West on the trail. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

East met West on the trail. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Some local hikers had colorful accessories. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Some local hikers had colorful accessories. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

An hour-long, calf-challenging ascent was primarily on a concrete walkway through bamboo corridors and along ridges of deciduous trees that should have been showing autumn colors but that hadn’t started turning.

As we neared the crest of our chosen trail, views opened to several vistas that showed Daluo Mountain was part of a sizable ridge and canyon region.

Most of the trail was staircases concrete. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Most of the trail was staircases of concrete. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Instead of doing an about-face for the expected out-and-back hike, guides told us to press on. We noticed that almost all of the local hikers who had been with us earlier had returned the way they came.

Our continuation was on a more traditional natural-surface trail, and our reward was a placid mountaintop lake, which popped into sight when we emerged from a stand of trees.

We didn't expect a placid lake on the mountaintop. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

We didn’t expect a placid lake on the mountaintop. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

The descent from the lake put us back on concrete staircases similar to those at the start of the hike, testing a different set of leg muscles. A stream that flowed from the lake provided a soundtrack for part of the downhill walk.

Our hike became almost a full loop. Our motorcoach met us a few hundred yards up the road from the trailhead in the village we had left about three hours earlier.

Urban planners have a grand scheme for cable cars, trams and visitor facilities, but what’s available now works quite nicely.

"Enjoy the excellent journey," indeed. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

“Enjoy the excellent journey,” indeed. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)




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Dancing in the Daylight

(Photo: Tom Adkinson)

(Photo: Tom Adkinson)

ZHANGYE, China — If you’d told me a month ago that I’d wake up one morning in the middle of China and shoot photos of a plump, matronly woman wearing a white mask, red shoes, red gloves, and a red jacket while wielding a gleaming silver sword as she danced before a smiling golden Buddha draped in what appeared to be a Go Big Orange beach towel, I’d have said, “Nah, never happen.”

(Photo: Tom Adkinson)

(Photo: Tom Adkinson)

(Photo: Tom Adkinson)

(Photo: Tom Adkinson)

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Tai Chi for Me? Surely, You Jest

The master was, well, masterful. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

The master was, well, masterful. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

The Smothers Brothers’ “Streets of Laredo,” Chinese version:

Tom Smothers: I see by your outfit that you can do tai chi.

Dickie Smothers: I see by your outfit that you do tai chi, too.

Both: If you get an outfit, you can do some tai chi, too.

WENZHOU, China — I should have known better than to sign up for the tai chi lesson.

I’m living proof that white guys can’t dance. At 6 foot 4 inches tall and packing a Medicare card, I have the wingspan of a pterodactyl and move with the grace of a wounded stork.

At least I wasn’t alone. Fifty or more fellow conventioneers had dragged out of bed at 7 a.m. and donned gleaming white tai chi uniforms that our convention hosts in Wenzhou, China, had loaned us.

"I'm trying, I'm trying."

“I’m trying, I’m trying.”

We assembled in a garden patio outside the Shangri-La Hotel along the Ou River, pointing and laughing at each other – some more nervously than others. The lithe and more graceful among us projected an aura of confidence. I didn’t.

It was clear on which end of the tai chi bell curve of competence I belonged.

Our chatter and selfie-taking ended abruptly when the master teacher and her troupe of fellow exercisers called for order. She looked regal in an embroidered jacket that complemented her bright red tunic and pants. Her followers wore dark green.

The tai chi team spoke no English, but interpreters barely needed to tell us to shut up, watch, and admire a demonstration by the master and her group. They moved in unison to the tinny sound coming from portable speakers. They glided like waves on an ocean, flowing back and forth, in and out, smoothly and gently. It looked so easy. It proved so difficult.

We formed rows and lines, much like a high school marching band or a corps of tentative ROTC cadets trying to learn close-order drill moves, but without a band director with a bullhorn or a glaring drill sergeant to maintain order.

Rows and lines -- like marching band or ROTC drill.

Rows and lines — like marching band or ROTC drill.

My uniform was size 4X. If there had been a breeze, my tunic would have billowed like a sail, and I might have moved more gracefully. At least the sleeves were long enough.

I labored to follow the leader. Her arms were making semi-circles and going clockwise, so why were mine going counterclockwise? Why did I move left when she moved right? Why does she look so comfortable while I feel like I’m in the fourth quarter of a tight basketball game?

In fact, I couldn’t help thinking about long-ago basketball drills. I was in a defensive crouch, but the goal was to relax, not to execute quick moves and achieve maximum reach. I felt awkward, but the music was soothing, and I didn’t see a coach ready to rent the calm morning air with a blast on his whistle.

Suddenly, I felt a hand on my back. One of the green-uniformed helpers had come out of nowhere. He placed his other hand on my abdomen and adjusted my posture – with authority. Apparently, my basketball crouch wasn’t proper tai chi form.

Individual instruction really didn't help.

Individual instruction really didn’t help.

The master instructor smiled sweetly – except when she grimaced with pain – as she watched her neophyte students make a mockery of her ancient art.

She wrapped the session up with a translated pep talk.

“If you do this at home just 20 minutes each morning for only three months, I promise you will get better and feel better,” she said.

Too bad my gleaming white size 4X tai chi outfit was a loaner.

The wingspan of a pterodactyl and the grace of a wounded stork.

The wingspan of a pterodactyl and the grace of a wounded stork.

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Ducking Donald and Hillary

Tai chi in Wenzhou. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Tai chi in Wenzhou. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

The People’s Republic of China shielded me from 95 percent of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign’s final three weeks. For that, I am grateful to the Chinese.

A business trip took me to Wenzhou, a city you’ve probably never heard of, but its 9 million residents have a hefty impact on world commerce. A journey out the ancient Silk Road followed.

CNN and the BBC were on most hotel TV menus, and only occasionally was access blocked to the Washington Post and New York Times websites, but why bother with the acrimony and drama of Donald and Hillary when diversions were so abundant?

For instance:

  • Hiking Daluo Mountain above Wenzhou
  • Admiring the waterfalls of Tongling Mountain National Forest Park near Wencheng
  • Encountering Buddha inside a mountain at the Guanyin Temple
  • Inspecting a street vendor’s produce in Zhangye
  • Laughing at the young couples shakily trying to navigate the city wall of Xian on bicycles built for two
  • Being captivated by the graceful moves of a tai-chi master teacher
  • Riding a camel across the desert dunes
  • Pondering why a cell tower was “disguised” in an evergreen tree in the Gobi Desert

Part of the 5 percent intrusion of American politics came from a 20-something tour guide in Shanghai, who surprised my traveling group crammed into a too-small minivan when she declared, “I tell you joke. You tell me if funny.”

The setup: “Donald Trump and Hillary both fall off a ship in the middle of the ocean. Who survives?”

The punchline (after a perfectly timed pause): “America.”

The minivan erupted in laughter.

Along the Daluo Mountain Trail above Wenzhou (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Along the Daluo Mountain Trail above Wenzhou (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Many Buddhas in Guanyin Temple (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Many Buddhas in Guanyin Temple (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

A waterfall selfie at Tongling National Forest (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

A waterfall selfie at Tongling Mountain National Forest Park (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Bicyclists along the ancient city wall in Xian (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Bicyclists along the ancient city wall in Xian (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Street vendor in Dunhaung (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Street vendor in Zhangye (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Camels along the Silk Road (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Camels along the Silk Road (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Gobi Desert "hidden" cell tower (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Gobi Desert “hidden” cell tower (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

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