Stage V: Wall’s End (Jiayuguan)

Nihao! 你好! Hello!

The pass at Jiāyùguān (嘉峪关) is the Ming Dynasty‘s western end of the Great Wall of China. From 1368-1644, the Ming Dynasty rid China of Mongols and had 16 Emperors. During which time, 168 years of facial lifts have led the Great Wall to it’s current state of appearance. That and some careful restoration work in the 1980s too. The pass lies on the Hexi Corridor (河西走廊 Héxī Zǒuláng) at the narrowest point, which is a plain between the Tibetan & Mongolian Plateaus.

For the afternoon, I visited the Overhanging Wall (悬壁长城), the First Pier of the Great Wall (长城第一墩; changcheng diyi dun) and Jiayuguan’s original fort area. The taxi driver I had selected had agreed 180RMB for the routes and waiting times. The 120RMB tong piao (ticket) allowed access to all three sites. Although at the pier site an electric car is on offer for 20RMB for those wishing to avoid the baking sunshine. The dry hot sunshine is only comfortable for so long!

The Ming Dynasty’s Great Wall’s western end was a slog down a valley to a closed bridge to look up as the river sloshed by heavily. The River Lai fed by the Qilian mountains gave life to many regions but here few plants braved the unforgiving desert earth. After a while I headed to the museum in the 56 metre high cliff face and the final beacon of the Great Wall. The signposts were published in English, Chinese and Japanese. The English mostly resembled gibberish. Although I ascertained that this part of the Great Wall was built around 1539CE across 18 years. With that I went to the Overhanging Wall, next to a huge desert with military operations under way. Best to avoid that. I looked down from the picturesque wall at a ski slope and wondered how such a hot place could ever get snow!

The final stop was the fortified city of Jiayuguan. The Silk Road’s trading and tax station of old. Rammed earth, yellow and sand-like dried mud mixed with rice pastes, stones and straw have been shaped to scar the landscape around this region. The wall, of course, was a defensive garrison and outpost of a nation growing in strength and stature. It could even be said that some sections would blend into the surrounding desert. For unlucky invaders, trenches would lay hidden on approach to the wall, often filled with hazardous death-and-pain-inducing problems. Gansu’s northwestern city of Jiayuguan is named after the pass. The loess and windswept substrate reflected the sunlight up and at you.

After exiting the ancient walls of Jiayuguan, I found the Great Wall Museum was long closed. It shuts at the odd time of 16:30. It being 19:30, I tottered back to my hotel and ate some local barbecue foods on the way. My aching feet appreciated the early night’s sleep.

Following a good sleep at the Railway Station Ibis Hotel and an okay breakfast, I was lucky enough to hire the same taxi driver for 150RMB. I had initially enquired about the July 1st Glacier and mountain park (七一冰川) but was advised the whole area is closed for safety and conservation reasons. So, a new plan was made. First we stopped at the underground tombs of 魏晋墓葬 (Weijin Muzang). Here you could only visit one of nine unearthed tombs. It being far below the surface. The museum is a little underwhelming as most of the tombs had long been plundered. The few artefacts and coffins on display are nevertheless impressive. On, by cart, to the tomb site, and you alight in a wide open space.

I’m in a wide open space. There’s a wooden shelter. Beside that a concrete block the size of a small garden shed. A mound of earth covered in pebbles and grit protrudes. A small metallic vent sits atop. It looks out of place. The aggressive sunshine beats down. I feel out of place. An electric police cart parks in the shed’s shade. It is out of place. The shed’s metal door opens on aching hinges. A policeman gestures for me to enter. He’s the site security man and ticket officer. He clips my ticket and points to a staircase. I slip down underground. A welcome respite from the heated day overground.

The 36C heat of outside fades in just a few steps. Subterranean coolness wraps around me. After a few dozen steps, I’m at a largely concrete anteroom. Here I see a wall and facade of great detail. A small arch allows access to the tombs beyond. I crouch and enter admiring the majestic brickwork entrance.

Inside the tomb’s tight entrance, the dazzling array of colours leap from the four wall. The brick dome overhead looms over my tall frame. I strangely feel no claustrophobia but do feel calm. The air is still and silent. It’s eerily unmoving. The details of the drawings and the colours envelop my eyes. It’s morbid fascination has grasped me. I visit the three tombs in a line ducking through short archways to enter each ancient gallery. No photography is allowed. The light flickers ever so slightly. I reach for my phone to use the torch function. It radiates a deep pocket within the tomb. The drawings stretch into a smaller tube lined with bricks and stones. It’s a magical piece of history. The region has ruins everywhere to see.

Next the taxi driver kindly visited Yěmáwān Cūn (野麻湾村). This village with a sand and rammed earth fortress nestles between corn and other farmland. Watermelons were being grown across the road. I shuffled around the wire protection fence admiring the sparrows and swifts that had made nests in the crumbling ruins. The front of the fortress faces the main road and the rear is less dramatic but well worth a wander. The flooded farm fields next to this barren piece of earth are suitably contrasting. The modern art of survival alongside the old dried and decayed survival walls. All in sight of the snow capped Qilian Mountains many kilometres away!

The Qilian Mountains (祁连山; Qílián Shān) peaks at Kangze’gyai around 5808m (19055′), not the name of the whole mountain range. Interestingly, the uncle of the notorious flying ace Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen (The Red Baron) had once named the almost 800km long mountain range. Uncle Baron Ferdinand went with the local name of Richthofen Range. He also created the name Seidenstraße which these days we know as the ‘Silk Road’.

My silk road following was almost over. The D2758 train at 11:09 from Jiayuguan South will whistled through Zhangye West  on Sunday passing through a place called Mingle before arriving at Qinghai’s provincial capital city Xining for 14:36. The seat I should have been on in carriage 11, had a sleeping individual across three seats on a packed carriage. His snoring was causing perturbation to other passengers. I should him. Nothing. Again. Nothing. I said excuse me in Chinese. Nowt. So, I moved to an empty seat and hoped for the best.

The Qilian Mountains straddled my right hand view. Their snow caps contrasted greatly with the foreground view if rolling desert hills and the northern reclaimed agriculture on a plain once covered in arid nothingness. That’s all for now. Time to enjoy this train journey.

再见Zai Jian/Goodbye

Stage III: Walls & Fences

Dear curious folk and readers,

I am writing from near the seat of the West Xia Kingdom (1038-1227). The city of Yinchuan is about 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) away from the tombs and mausoleum. The bone dry eastern face of the Helan mountain range towers over the mausoleum site. The site spans around 50 square kilometers (19.3 square miles) and approximately 9 imperial tombs, with a huge 253 lesser tombs. They’re still making discoveries to this day.

The tombs are incredible to witness. The museum at the entrance has six very modern galleries full of relics discovered across the site. The lighting, style and interactive nature of the artefacts is we’ll organised. There are plenty of opportunities to visit the a 3D cinema, gifts shops and grab plenty of water for the outdoor experience that follows. From the museum you can walk to a bus transfer. Here we opted to walk to the mausoleums and experience the desert ambiance.

The mausoleum site is spread out, striking and feature-rich. Steles, towers, sacrifice palaces, earth walls, and natural damage by winter floodwater alongside cracks in the earth covered the whole region. Using three-wheeled scooters after plenty of walking, we managed to see huge distances of the area. Sunblock was applied almost hourly, as grasshoppers flew by with clicking sounds and cute Gerbil-like rodents scampered around. With two litres of water, the day was comfortable, but more is advisable in 38 degrees heat! The sun is not your friend.

The day was a great investment in exploring the state’s deep history and culture. A taxi from Yinchuan cost 60RMB and a return Didi taxi car cost 85RMB with entrance fee being about a 100RMB. Just over two hours on the scooters cost 130RMB (but we certainly went off the beaten track).

The following day, Mr Oliver and I set out for the Great Wall. I’d suggested the Ming Great Wall stretch by a place called Sanguankou (三关口明长城). The three passes are about 2.5km apart. We didn’t go there. Mr Oliver found a section using Baidu maps and an overhead satellite photo near to the G307 highway (Ningxia to Inner Mongolia). So, after a Didi taxi car journey we hopped out in searing heat in the mountainous Alxa desert. Having left Yinchuan’s continental arid climate we were now at the mercy of the sun.

We scrambled up a mound of earth to see a watchtower, wandered down the road and looked at the adjacent wall sections. Here we respected every fence and sign. Then we went under the highway and followed a section of wall through fields and over hills. Horses, hares and hawks were frequent witnesses to our hiking. The enigmatic landscape surrounding the wall had so much to offer the eyes.

Fences came and went, so we walked close and far at times. We started trekking at about 10:30am and ended around 19:00hrs. Some sections had the backdrop of a Jeep safari driving range, whilst others had civilian roads with a handful of tourists driving by and saying hello. At some stage though we had to get back to Yinchuan. The map shown a road to the nearby Wuwa Highway and G110 highway. We avoided the military warning signs on a path seemingly headed into the mountains, passing some civilian contractors and wandered (now without any water left) along a bleak ever-expanding straight line slab of concrete. The road was intensely energy-consuming.

Towards the last 3km, just past the tanks, a car with two men gave us a lift to the highway. That journey was curtailed and after three hours of explaining our day’s walking route, photograph inspection and travel document verification we were driven to the village of Minning. The People’s Liberation Army were extremely hospitable. They seemed to understand that we’d strayed into their tank range unintentionally. They appreciated our desire to see the Ming Dynasty Great Wall.

The gate guardsmen gave us hot noodles, a cake and some fruit. And frequent, much needed water. The chief who came with at least three officers and the Public Security Bureau policemen kept apologising for taking our time. It was all rather surreal. We were able to cancel our onward train journey, and hotel for the next night. We also apologised politely and shown our sorrow at wandering into a restricted military zone.

The Public Security Bureau policemen waited with us whilst we tried to get a taxi or Didi car. As it was midnight, nothing was coming, so we spoke with a nearby hotel receptionist. He ordered a car for us. We got in, whilst being watched by the three policemen. They approached then checked the driver knew where we were going. Finally, they checked his credentials and found he was an illegal taxi driver. So, we stepped from the car, “for your safety” and the Police dealt with him. Annoyed by that inconvenience, we started to hike and try to get back. The Police gave up and headed back. Eventually we flagged down a van.

Nestled between chicken feet in buckets, flies on the roof and 400RMB lighter for it, we made it back to the hotel we’d checked out of that day. We retrieved our left luggage and checked-in. All is well that ends well. Our next journey is the 1842 train to Gansu’s Lanzhou city to meet a connection to Zhangye. What waits for us there?

Until next time, goodbye…

Stage II: Shanxi’s Great Wall

晚上好 Good evening (or whatever time it is),

The Great Wall (长城) is massive. It’s length exceeds the distance around the U.K.’s total coastline (I believe). Fact check that at your heart’s content. Heading from Xi’an involved a night train on a soft sleeper bed. The room had old yellowing lights, grim grey walls and no power sockets. It was cost-effective to travel and bunk, than to bunk at a hotel then travel. The selected option had no shower and barely a place to brush your teeth in comfort. The on board restaurant car involved a selection of noodles, room temperature water or baijiu (rice wine).

Having finished Lee Child and Andrew Child’s The Sentinel, sleep was an easy choice. My former colleague Mr Oliver occupied the attention of an enthusiasm kid trying to charge his phone at a busted power point outside our bunker of a room. The lack of ventilation wasn’t so bad because our closest window slid down from time to time. Waking up at 01:30hrs due to a slammer of a man thumping down his suitcase, thrashing his shoes off and generally bumping everything with loudness wasn’t so bad. Until his eruptive snoring. Still, I fell asleep well.

From Taiyuan station we wandered to a bus station, Jiannan Bus Station, bagged tickets and sat down to eat in a Chinese equivalent of a greasy-spoon cafe nearby. The Shanxi pickles were good alongside egg pancakes and eggs. After an uneventful journey with a dab of xenophobia, we arrived at the mining region of Yangquan (coincidentally where I’m writing this now). Immediately a Didi taxi was booked to Niangziguan and the village of ShuiShangRenJia. The water village has multiple bubbling springs feeding babbling brooks and streams. Some pass through and under buildings. Our homestay had such a variety of flowing water over the roof and in the restaurant area.

The above was written yesterday evening and since then there has been an overnight train journey on hard seats. Think little old ladies spitting into metal pans, snoring and general discomfort. On the positive side, some fellow passengers made space for my rucksack and moved from my first seat. Mr Oliver and I drank a few McDonald’s-based beers, pretending to be customers at the American Embassy branch of Taiyuan. It passed some of the three-hour transfer time.

We have wandered through Guguan Pass and Ningzi Pass in recent days. Seeing the old stonework and some newer sections has allowed us to explore a few off the beaten track avenues. Some knee-deep in thorns and prickly bushes, with wasps the size of fighter jets buzzing by our heads. Some horsefly species surely must take their name from that of them being the size of a horse. Scorpions and centipedes have whipped by and so far been avoided. Although mites and spider bites have likely been experienced.

The jagged snaking Great Wall sections at Guguan are far more dramatic than that of Ningzi Pass. The protrusion at the latter have been remade in recent years but sit atop a splendid village and river landscape. At our lodge of choosing, the owners have decorated the walls with photos and artworks of the locality. The waterfall these days is hidden around a river-side theme park and tacky attractions. However, the Great Wall lines an ancient village.

Guguan is an oddity. The wall towers over a fantastic entrance gate. The ground is lined with centuries of horse and cart worn stones. Around the entrance, a highway slides through (under a section of bridge connecting The Great Wall). The scars of industry, mining and the Revolution periods of China’s new era shroud and strangle the Great Wall before releasing it’s higher levels to a combination of wild scrubland and farmlands.

The short stay in Shanxi was a pleasant one with local people gifting us refreshing cucumbers, crunchy crisp pancakes and an abundance of pleasantries. The food was excellent and varied. The people were generally warm and welcoming. The whole visit was delightful, despite the heat! However, I won’t miss the relentless thorn bushes (or the snarling dogs)!

Good night (or whatever time it is)!