I'm staying with old friends once posted in India, Penny and Hamish McDonald of the Sydney Morning Herald. They assure me that one fast becomes accustomed to the Beijing air. But hardly have I landed when Hamish whisks me off on a grand adventure: a trip to the Buddhist caves at Dunhuang, situated on the Silk Road in far-flung Gansu. During the Cultural Revolution, Gansu was the province dissidents were dispatched to. Our first stop is Lanzhou, the highly industrialised capital on the Yellow River. Here we meet up with the leader of our expedition, a man of enormous energy and largesse. His carpet factory is designed in the Ming style and boasts the use of only natural dyes, turmeric and indigo among them. We partake of a delicious lunch alongside his workers. "Feeding our workers well is the most important thing," notes another travelling companion, a young jeans manufacturer from Beijing. Come evening, from our train window, the city suburbs look grubby and grim. Plastic-littered lanes remind me of India. By contrast, the train environment is warm and sparkling. The restaurant car is particularly jolly; people enjoy their drinks with steaming fresh fare. I'm impressed by the local beer which is light, palatable and almost as cheap as soft drinks.