Lesson #2 in not holding romanticised ideals of places I’d read about and seen in old photos …
The Crescent Moon lake was an important stopping off point on the Silk Road and the principle reason for the existence of Dunhuang back in the day. Crescent Moon lake … because it’s the shape of a crescent moon … Singing Sands mountains, because the sand makes a long mournful moaning sand when the wind shifts it, said to be the cries of the souls of those who perished trying to cross the desert. Not that you’d hear today as the place is abuzz with camel ride touts, quad bikes, micro-lites and helicopter joy rides.
I wanted to go up mid afternoon, in the 45 degree sun, which the locals told me I was mad to consider. “Go at sunset, that’s when everyone goes there”. That was about all the encouragement I needed to go there and then. It was busy but comparitively quiet compared with what was to come, but with a bit of effort I could still get relatively away from it all. By “bit of effort”, I mean climb a 300 metre high dune during the hottest part of the desert afternoon. Nothing a few litres of water couldn’t put right …
From the top is a view back to the dusty city of Dunhuan and the tourist mecca below. In the opposite direction, endless tracts of massive dunes stretching off beyond the distance. I stayed long enough to watch the shadows lengthen and the colours become deeper, which was about the time the wave hit below and thousands started to pour in. Exit stage left. Time to head into town and try out the lamb’s penis kebabs.
Near to Dunhuang is the UNESCO protected Mogao Caves. Started by a Buddhist monk some 1000 years ago after he came across the oasis here, it grew to over 700 intensely painted and carved shrines hacked into the cliff face.
The level of detail and scale of it is mind boggling, particularly when you think of the crude implements and technology they had at their hands to create this. Amongst this is the now second largest Buddha in the world (promoted after the Taliban blew up the Bamiyan giant Buddha’s in Afghanistan). There’s a powerful sense of history and timelessness inside the caves, hard to put into words.
The miracle of this place is that it survives at all – not from the elements (the bone dry climate here is perfect for preservation). Muslim travellers and local rulers took offence at images of deities and portrayal of human and animal forms (prohibited in the Koran) and promptly gouged the eyes out of everything they could reach. In the early 1920’s, White Russians fleeing the Bolsheviks came down into this region and, having no food or money, began ransacking everything they could lay their hands on – modern day Hun. The newly formed Republican guard rounded them up and, in their infinite wisdom, decided to use the caves as a prison. The White Russians being orthodox also took offence at the portrayal of heretical images of worship and began to destroy the images, also largely motivated by the extensive use of gold leaf throughout. Once they had been dealt with, the first academics moved in and found a hidden cave containing ancient scrolls dating back to the origins of the caves themselves. Lacking any funds to preserve and study the cave, the local commissar promptly sold them off to anyone who would have them at bargain basement prices only to appear in later years in private collections and museums across the world.
An unexpected bonus of Mogao Caves (and something I’m in full support of being spread across the rest of China) are that the ubiquitous tour leader loud hailers are banned here, tour groups have closed system headsets to listen to their commentaries on. The result, a blissful hush everywhere. Fortunately, I was the only honky in town that day so got my own private English speaking guide to show me around.
Photography inside is forbidden, but here are some photos plagiarised from Google to get some sense of the interior (which don’t come anywhere close to the sense of wonder you get walking through these caves but it’s the best I can do considering …).
The bus continues out into the far desert along a rough road. We arrive at the Yan Dan desert area not long before sunset and as a series of thunderclouds roll through.
The low glowing sun makes for some amazing shapes and colours under the dark clouds. There’s a selfie-fest going on with the other members of the bus, but it’s easy to wander a short distance and enjoy the scene unfold in some peace and solitude. The vastness of the desert out here is incredible.
I’ve arrived in Dunhuang, remote outpost of the ancient Chinese empire beyond the wall (ignore that city of several hundred thousand just over there). Frontier country in the old Silk Road days. The Han Dynasty built part of the Great Wall out here sometime back in the 6th Century or thereabout, subsequent emperors retreated due to the fierceness of the climate and the local Hun.
I’ve taken a tour to get to some of the more remote and interesting sites out of town. The heat is on, it’s somewhere in the mid 40’s and things are starting to shimmer.
First stop is to “Old Dunhuang”, the original old walled city. Well, it was until half of it was demolished to make room for a movie studio and the rest completely rebuilt so that anything original is buried deep underneath. Still a good place for a wander, get some sort of idea of life back in the day I guess.
We move out to Yanguang Pass, an old garrison and lookout post (looking out over some of the most unforgiving and relentless desert stretching out into the horizon … leaves me wondering who was insane enough to be riding out across that), and guarding a nearby strategic oasis. There’s still the remains of an old sentry building on top of the hill nearby with commanding views across the sea of rocky sand spreading beyond the eye’s reach. There’s the option of an electric cart to whick you up to the top and back, I opt to just walk up which the other tourists take to mean I’m verging on insane. I want to ge an appreciation for the conditions people endured out here or something … or maybe I just don’t like being herded into sardine can compression under blaring speakers. One of the two.
Beyond that we find an odd pyramidal shaped outpost building overlooking a sizeable oasis in the middle of nowhere, and the final remains of the original Han Dynasty Great Wall poking out like nub ends in the endless sand. Impressive that this was an earth mound wall built 1600 years ago. Wait … wasn’t Jaiyaguan, 600km to the east, touted as the “end of the Great Wall”?
Jiayaguan sits out in the desert or Western Gansu and was either greeted with jubilation or tredidation by the Silk Road caravans. This was the furthest reach of the Ming era Great Wall. Coming from the West it meant at last they were out of bandit territory in the untamed barbarian lands stretching thousands of kilometres to Persia and were now in the relative security of Imperial China, along with all the luxuries of life that an established local trade route brings. Leaving Imperial China, there was a fair chance that this was to be the last bit of civilisation you might see.
The huge Jiayaguan Fort was the garrison where Chinese armies would ride out to more remote outposts and to quell incursions by marauding hordes. I’d seen plenty of photos of the fort, seemingly in a far flung forgotten corner, slowly being reclaimed by the shifting sands and had romanticised having to travel through some wild country on precarious transport to reach there and have the run of the place more or less to myself.
First lesson in not romaticising historic places in China: a bullet train brought me into town at a leisurely 200kmh where I could hop straight into a taxi to whisk me off to the Great Wall and fort where several thousand Chinese tourists had had the same intentions, arriving by the busload with flag waving tour guides and loud-hailers. It’s possible there were more selfie-sticks in operation than there were guards in the Ming Imperial Army. The fort is completely rebuilt, as is the “last stretch of Wall”, the only remnants of the original in view stretched away from the fort towards the mountains, where it’s been bisected by high speed rail links and motorways.
Jiayaguan itself is no dusty village – 300,000 people and a lot of heavy industry. Kind of killed that romanticised ideal as I turned from the top of the Great Wall to gaze out on the lonely desert …
Not far from Zhangye is an area of desert known as the Danxia Rainbow Rocks. No prizes for guessing the origin of that name … take hundreds of metres deep of tightly packed rock layers, paint each a different colour, then bend, shape and sculpt it all into a fantastical landscape. The finshed product is Danxia.
For some added zest, throw in some mighty electrical storms with nowhere to shelter and you make for an afternoon well spent.
Arriving in Zhongye, I’ve quickly realised this is another of those anonymous dusty industrial sprawls that China specialises in so well. A quick manouvre onto a rickety minibus that reassuringly looks like it’s been worked over with a cricket bat and I’m on my way south to the mountains.
Ten minutes into the journey, we pull up behind an empty bus and everyone is ordered off and told to go into the next bus. At least that’s what I presume was said. Lots of shouting and arm waving, I just shrug my shoulders and follow the herd. Trying to work out logic in daily life here is a bad move, madness lives down that path.
Mati Si was worth every effort to reach however. Tucked up on the edge of some very large mountains that form a first barrier to the Tibetan Plateau to the south sits a lush valley with an array of ancient Bhuddist temples carved into the sandstone cliffs starting from over 1,600 years ago with many of the temples accessible only by climbing hidden staircases and vertical shafts in the cliffs.
The people are descended from a mix of Tibetan and Mongol herders, you immediately feel that surrounded by Tibetan prayer flags and stupas on the hills. It’s a blissful world away from the melee of the city to the north. People are relaxed, friendly and seem to have all the time in the world. Life moves at a very leisurely pace up here. And the air is clean and the sky blue – you learn not to take that for granted in China, especially further east where a brown soup sits over much of the country for weeks on end.
I’ve spent the day climbing around inside the caves and up on to the ridge above for some amazing views across the valley and up into the mountains. In the evening I go for a walk up into the meadows and sit for a while with a local herder who seems intent on holding a long conversation with me despite it being fairly obvious that I can barely form a word in Chinese. I suspect that even if I had a good grasp of Beijing mandarin, I still wouldn’t have a clue what this guy was saying, a bit like learning basic Queen’s English then visiting Falkirk and attempting to engage with a drunk scheemy. It’s ok though, it fits in with the vibe of this place.
In the morning I go for more hikes across the tops with more friendly locals and visit the 1,000 Bhudda caves further down the valley where a man oddly attempts to flog me plumbing fixtures. Just what I needed.
I’ve decided to abandon any ideas of travelling the south just yet – aside from feeling like a sauna that’s had someone be over generous with the water bucket, there’s floods and lightning storms as far as the forecasts go.
I’ve flown into Lanzhou in the central north on the edge of the Gobi desert with the intention to follow the old Silk Road as far as the Chinese border. It’s already over 40 degrees in these parts but that’s not as hot as it gets and in any case, I’ll take the feeling of sticking your face into a blast furnace over resembling Victoria Falls in wet season any day.
Lanzhou as it turns out is an unnecessary hour’s bus ride from.the airport (always good to find out at 1am) and sits in a bowl surrounded by mountains. When you factor in over 3 million people and a lot of heavy industry it ends up with some of the worst air pollution in the world. There’s a night market across from hotel which I arrive at after 2am, and it seems to be in full swing still. I nestle down on to my bed made of granite and am lulled to sleep by the gentle thwok thwok thwok of an air conditioner that sounds like a military helicopter coming in to land.
With nothing much to hold me in town I decide to take the first train west and get out of Dodge … which I barely make becausqe a) the traffic moves at roughly 4kph so it takes almost an hour to make the short distance to the train station and b) I’m held at the security scan and told that underarm deodorant and shaving cream are too dangerous to take on a train. I didn’t let that one go, in the end I caused them too much embarrassment and they just tell me to get on the train, deodorant and all.
Travelling with toiletries is the kind of living-on-the-edge adventuring I do. When Mao Zedong raised the revolution cry, no way did he do it with sweaty pits and three day stubble.