My journey from Chengdu took me northwest towards the Gobi desert, following the silk road through Gansu province towards the edge of civilised China. I’d decided on this route after realising that both financial and time constraints would play a larger part than they had done in India or Nepal; you can only apply for a 30 day visa in China and, though this can be extended, I doubt they’d let me extend it more than a couple of times and I feared they’d think I was taking the piss.
My first stop on the Silk Road, after a horrific 21hr train ride I had to endure sat up straight, was a dirty little city called Lanzhou that was built around the banks of the yellow river (which of course isn’t yellow, but more the light brown colour of sand). The capital of the province was once an important city along the Silk Road centuries ago, but is now more important as a transport hub from west to east and the home to various industrial specialties; this is evident in the fact that just 100m above the ground sits a dense layer of smog (I later learnt that it’s one of the most air polluted cities in the world). Having only stayed in Lanzhou for a couple of days whilst planning my transport further west, I made the most of my days by wandering around some of the local temples and pavilions that sit atop hills following the river banks.
One of the nicer and seemingly less polluted areas of the city is Baitashan park. This giant area of hilly green land lies on the north side of the river and is unmissable due to the Pagoda that sits atop the hill on the east side, the temple that sits on the west, and the cable cars that run up the middle (I’m not sure how much the cable cars cost, but I’m sure if you’re lazy you’ll find out). Walking around the many pavilions scattered throughout the park is a calming experience to say the least, and if it’s a particularly warm day (as I’m sure it will be), there are places to sit and relax with various types of drinks.
After a disconcerting yet humorous 20min conversation with the ‘ticket woman’ at the station, I booked my 120yuan bullet train ticket to my next stop west on the silk road: Zhangye. Now, there was one reason I decided to stop in this city, and that was the Danxia National Geological Park. This relatively small park is famous for its rainbow coloured sandstone rocks (some of which are the size of hills), which create some mesmerizing patterns and formations that truly are unique; I really didn’t believe places like this existed in the world and so couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see them. It costs around 60yuan to get in but the day is yours; if you’re in a rush you can get around in an hour or so, but if you want to walk around the park and take in as much as possible, you really can be there all day long. My time in this Mongolia bordering city was short but sweet; I came, I saw, I left, and I left far happier than I’d arrived.
However, as I moved further west, my happiness soon faded away. The once great city of defence, Jiayuguan, was a place that didn’t seem to acknowledge the arrival of people from outside the city who may be on a budget so, after yet another humorous exchange of google translate created sentences in Chinese and English, I managed to bargain down to a price that was still expensive, but far less than I’d originally been insulted with, and this was in the cheapest place I could find. I had to settle for 105yuan for one night; not only was this twice what I’d normally pay, but the place was like an abandoned set from ‘The Shining’; it was eerie, quiet, and somewhere I imagined would be closed down for fumigation at any moment but, having stayed in worse elsewhere, I checked in and headed out without thinking too much of it.
Jiayuguan is named for the famous Jiayuguan Pass which is the first pass at the western end of the Great Wall, and was a key waypoint on the silk road for travellers coming for the harsher terrain of the further west. What is interesting here is that, back in the 1400’s, anyone who was banished from the city or from China itself, was exiled through the pass and would have to face the harshness of the Gobi Desert; these men would often die of exposure or be murdered by other travellers and bandits- this gave the Pass another fearful name of ‘Gate of the Demons’. The fort at the pass itself is seemingly very simple but at 11m high, nearly impenetrable.
When invaders decided to have a go from the west, they would fear the Jiayuguan Pass and would head to the ‘Black Mountains’ instead, hoping that they would be able to avoid the pass and sneak in undetected for a surprise attack. What invaders didn’t know was that the section of the Great Wall in the mountains was invisible from the west looking east, and so all the effort of climbing over the mountain was met with panic, despair, and the horrid realisation that they were f*cked once they saw the huge wall ahead of them, lined with archers ready to attack their prey. Imagine spending weeks or even months walking through the Gobi from the north or west, thinking you have an advantage, then falling at the very last hurdle due to some clever orientation of brickwork. The silk road continues…
The bleakness of the edges of the Gobi was something I found highly interesting. I’d never really been interested in deserts until I spent some time in the Thar desert in India, but now I seemed to be fascinated with the isolation of it all; the desperation people must have gone through to travel for extended periods of time in order to just trade, and in many cases, just survive. So, Dunhuang, my furthest point west in China, and my last stop on the silk road, was situated in the desert, with the city lying on a pretty flat area of sand, bordered by mountainous sand dunes 100’s of metres high. To the south west were more mountains, almost with a Mordor like appearance with dark clouds over them, and nothing but wasteland leading into the desert; the harshness of it was unnerving.
In the ‘national park area’ you’re pretty much free to walk around anywhere you want (I’m not sure how they can put a fence round a desert), and I did just that. Once you pass the sand boarders and the Crescent Moon Lake, which is beautifully set among the dunes, you’ll be faced with nothing but sand, sand, and more sand. Unlike the Thar desert that was relatively flat in most areas, this was like a mountain range of sand dunes of varying sizes and, once you thought you’d got to a good height, you realised you had to go back down the other side to even start the climb on a higher dune ahead. After an hour or so of walking and drinking water, I realised that I couldn’t see the city and was at risk of getting disorientated if the wind picked up.
Luckily though, it didn’t; my tracks were still visible behind me and, after a hugely sweaty walk back to civilisation, I settled at the lake with some water before heading back to town with the view of having a drink or two.
Oh, how I was wrong! Dunhuang, as well as being in the desert, also offers a pretty decent night market filled with foods of all types and beers galore. I settled with some duck and chicken skewers with a side of Tsingtao to celebrate the end of my ‘Silk Road Tour’ as I’d named it to myself, before being met by a local man who put a beer in front of me and took a seat. He didn’t speak a word of English, but it didn’t matter to him; he wanted to drink and maybe prove something to his friends nearby so, after signalling to neck the drink, I did so, followed by another, and another, and another. In the end, 15 empty bottles were stood on the table and I must say he put up a good fight, but obviously the Chinese don’t realise that they’re messing with a northern Englishman!
Besides embarrassing middle aged Chinese locals, I genuinely enjoyed my trip into the outer reaches of Chinese civilisation. Of course, the Silk Road goes further west, and there are towns further that way but, as mentioned earlier, time is an issue, and so I hopped on my train all the way back east to the ancient city of Xi’an, ready to start another adventure…