Monday Zhangye to Jairuguan and the last of the Great Wall

Keith and I decided to forego the Rainbow Mountains and the Reclining Buddha for a leisurely start to the day. From the feedback we received the mountains would have been better at sunset and were in deep shadow at sunrise and the reclining Buddha was not one of the best of its kind, so we felt that we had made the right decision.

We sauntered into breakfast where we were, as is becoming usual(!), the stars of the show, and breakfasted on boiled eggs and vegetables. Unusually there were no photo calls.

At 11.00 the troops gathered and we set of for Jairuguan. Out of town things are becoming much more desert like and the earth a greyish scrubland that, every so often, becomes a fertile place of rich green agriculture. In these sections sweet corn is growing and trees are planted, sometimes there are sunflowers. Then abruptly it stops. It doesn’t gradually fade. It stops. Who decides, I wonder, which area is to get the water to make this miracle happen and when the tap is to be turned off.

A long way off to our left snow covered mountains loom in the hazy distance. This is difficult to believe as we are back to fierce sunlight and energy sapping heat. To our right a train line follows the highway mile for mile. Another development is that the landscape is almost bristling with modern electricity pylons. These are obviously carrying the electricity generated by the frequent power stations that we see along the route – far more than the number that I am aware of at home.

Towards the end of the afternoon we reach Jairuguan and the rebuilt fort towards the end of the Wall, that marked furthest point of Imperial China. We left the comparative cool of the moving truck to join the throng of scarf covered Chinese tourists visiting this ‘makeover’ of the original crumbling building. Keith described it as ‘Disney goes to the Great wall’.

The rebuild is not yet completed, but the large section that has been done is immaculate in its reproduction of water towers, gateways and watchtowers. There is even a theatre! As we approached, loud marshal music and the sort of voice I had last heard at the Royal Tattoo (only in Chinese) rang out over what would have been the parade ground within the fort walls. This, we were to realise, was to announce the start of a rolling show of Kung Fu type moves and the acrobatics of a team of exotic ‘silken robed’ performers demonstrating life in the ancient fort.

Setting this aside, and it was not easy, there were some interesting billboards in almost indecipherable English about the history of the Great Wall, the fort and the various historians who had worked on it. I wasn’t surprised to learn that one archeologist who had contributed was quoted as being ‘appalled’ by what he found when he returned to see the renovations. Obviously something of a purist…..

We walked round the top of the pristine ramparts and had the benefit of not only being able to see the entertainment from above, but also to look out on the barren land outside its walls. The original fort was obviously a major landmark for those traders on the SIlk Road as they left ancient China for the unknown lands to the west – apparently there was some sort of Customs Post here. It also marked a terrifying exit for those families that had fallen from grace and were condemned to forever wander the terrifying ‘wild west’.

Having been somewhat cynical about the fort’s upgrade, we could not fault the museum we came across on the way out. This was very well appointed and gave a useful insight into the importance of the fort and what it brought to the area in terms if agriculture and trade.

By now it was 5.30, so we were a bit surprised to learn that we had one more site to see before we set up our camp for the night. A short drive from the fort we came to another piece of highly restored wall (complete with plastic camels) climbing up a steep incline to a watch tower on the top of the hill. I got some way to taking the route to the top and then remembered that in the past I spent 5 days walking on the Wall of China, most of it on the original Wall, and did not need to gain credentials by climbing this bit. So, claiming past glories, I abandoned the attempt and joined the non climbers to await the others’ return.

Our camp for the night was just a few kilometres from the Wall on a piece of stony waste land. By this time the heat of the day had been superceded by a wind that added yet another tension to the tent erection exercise. The stoney ground was rock hard and not receptive to tent pegs, but eventually The Ritz was more or less upright and, light fading, we arranged our bedding for the night with a few boulders on the inside of the tent to hold it down should the wind get any stronger.

It didn’t and we survived the night intact.

Sunday the Reservoir to Zhangye

Up at 6.00 we scrambled to get our bags tamed and get The Ritz stowed away into its bag, thanking our lucky stars that we weren’t on breakfast duty. Eventually (and in our case miraculously) everything was stowed away and we set off.

Our route initially took us around the enormous lake that is the reservoir and eventually over a bridge spanning a narrow gorge with the flooded area shining blue underneath us. The reservoir seemed to go on and on! Leaving it behind, we reached Lanzhou and Yellow River again where we had turned off the main route several days earlier, this time turning left to continue west.

Lanzhou, capital of the Gansu region is very much an industrial city. We saw huge petro chemical plants on both sides of the road and again vast civil engineering projects as they rearrange the landscape to accommodate new roads and railway tracks.

Despite this, Gansu is reckoned to be one of the poorest provinces in China. The road took us along a sort of corridor, with mountains in the distance on either side. These were initially green but as the day wore on became sandy coloured rock. On the valley floor we first saw evidence of different crops – cabbages were a new departure – but still the strip farming we have seen previously. Further along the road there were basic greenhouses with ribs covered by plastic sheeting rather than glass and then a vast solar panel farm (this ran for several kilometres either side of the road). The land was by now belong far more scrubby and desert like, but where it was cultivated the fields were bigger and we saw several small combine harvesters taking over some of the backbreaking scything that had been in evidence. . Next came a wind farm making the most of the breeze that swirls the dust.

Our next excitement was a sighting of the Great Wall again. At first it could just be seen at the base of the mountain range we had been following and then as the plain broadened it followed the lie of the land appearing and disappearing. It no longer looks the high imposing route that it was in Beijing but we are now over 2,000 kilometres from where we walked on it. I think enthusiasm had waned by the time they got to here. I know in the Qing dynasty this was an area officials and their families were sent to when they fell from favour. It must have.been something of a daunting prospect.

The highway eventually breached the wall and we were told we were technically in Inner Monglia. However this did not prove to be he case as we were still in Gansu but it added a frisson of excitement into what has been a long drive.

The guidebook describes Zhangye as a ‘pleasant but slightly bland town’. This seemed a little harsh but it remains to be seen. For us it is really just a stopover en route to our next camp.

Supper was not a great success, but we have hopes of the reclining Buddha

Saturday – Liujiaxia Reservoir and the Bing Ling Cave Temple

After our first camp breakfast of eggy bread (breakfast cereal is apparently like gold dust in China) we wandered down to the waterside to board the boat that was going to take us to the Temple. It is always a source of amazement to me as to how these local arrangements are made and commitments kept in what seems the middle of nowhere.

Anyway we boarded a little speedboat and took off over the reservoir. When I say reservoir, think small inland sea. The brownish water stretches as far as the eye can see to both left and right. Sadly the rubbish that was scattered over our camping area when we arrived (which we cleared) is duplicated on the reservoir and we passed plastic bottles and styrofoam packaging as we crossed towards the rocky ridge on the opposite shore and then veered left down a channel with high craggy rocks either side. Eventually a landing area came into view and the boat scraped on the shallow rocky waters edge. We had arrived.

There were a number of stalls set out and we ran the gauntlet of the vendors who jostled with us but then moved off good heartedly and left us to walk the willow edged path to the Temple.

The Bing ling Cave Temple is about 35 kilometres southwest of the town of Yongjing. The first caves were cut into the rock in 420 AD and further cutting and carving took place for another 1,000 years. There are apparently 216 cave niches on three levels and more than 800 images and mural paintings. Some of the carved figures have been placed in a very well presented museum that forms part of the site. It was interesting to see how the sculptured seem to mix Buddhist and Indian characteristics. The explanatory material we found put this down to the area being a key location on the Silk Road. This seemed difficult to comprehend as the Temple was built into the mountains on one side and had reservoir water lapping at its front. However, it appears that prior to the area being flooded to make the reservoir 30 years ago, the site had been on a major highway.

It is always pleasing to find we are on track and reference being made to the Silk Road, even though the spur up to Xianhe and our camp site represented a detour off the main east/ west route towards the border.

Having enjoyed our morning amongst the carvings, we headed back to our camp. After lunch we settled down to an afternoon of free time. It seemed that within minutes another two brides turned up with the photographic team of the previous day. I am aware of the practice of Chinese couples having the wedding photographs taken on a separate occasion to the wedding ceremony, but seeing two new brides wearing the same outfits being put through the same paces as those previously took some of the edge from the ‘special’ occasion. What was amusing was that obviously our Odyssey camp had been set up on their favourite wedding photograph site but that did not let it deter them. Their vehicle drew up in a cloud of dust between Penelope and the tents and the brides sat unabashed in the middle of us happy campers, being made up and coiffed and at one stage changing their clothes. Couples often choose several different outfits for the photographs – one couple on this occasion had obviously chosen a bohemian theme for their second ‘ensemble’…….

Although we continued to have ‘visitors’ to view us throughout the afternoon, the most outrageous situation arose when a whole family set up camp a little behind us. It had been decided to make a slow cooked stew for the evening meal, so the cooking detail spent time chopping and chipping and Richard started to get a fire going with the idea of letting it get hot and then placing the cooking pot over it on a trivet when the initial flames had died down. To our amazement before the pot was strategically placed, along came about six children with corn cobs on sticks and gaily raked over the fire to accommodate their sweet corn. What fun! Some of our party got a bit waspish with this development but I thought it was hilarious! Eventually the raiding party skipped back to their picnic area chewing on what looked like rather charred corn – but they seemed happy enough. The fire was put back together again and our stew took pride of place over the fire where it was to remain until early evening. It proved to be a very good stew, although no-one seemed able to determine whether it was beef or yak..

An early night was on everyone’s agenda when it was announced that breakfast was to be at 7.00 am and that the truck would leave at 8.00. I think we all had it at the back our minds that before then bags had to be re packed and tents dismantled and the truck reloaded ready for the day ahead in an hour with us still on the nursery slopes of overland travel.

Friday Xienhe to the first camp

We woke to sunshine. A propitious start to our first days camping!

We decided to do our last walk of the Kora. We have now started to recognise some of our fellow early morning walkers. Perhaps because of this we found ourselves feeling outraged by a large group of Japanese tourists stretching out behind a flag waving guide. It felt as if our peaceful ritual was being violated. Probably how the locals feel about us intruding….

Back at the hotel we finalised our packing – why do the same things never seem to go into the bag the same way? – ready for a late morning departure. Our route took us back out of the valley and past Linxia where we had stopped for lunch on our way to Xienhe. A little way past Linxia we pulled off the road to have our first group lunch catered for by the first cooking detail and to be introduced to the catering facilities available on the truck. Much to the amazement of the passers by, a table was produced from one locker, chopping boards and bowls from another, washing up bowls and cutler appeared. A very acceptable lunch was produced as we learnt the various systems and processes that effectively provided efficient, wholesome and germ free food.

It was then back on the road and some Mah Jong training while we covered the remaining kilometres to our first camp site by the side of a large reservoir with mountains behind it. After a lesson on tent erection, somewhat interrupted by a group of motor cyclists who drove up to see what was going on, we collected our tent from its cubby hole. The tents are all named and you retain the same tent for the whole trip. Wait for it – our tent is called The Ritz. I thought it set just the right tone!

Anything less like the Ritz I have not seen! Although it was not exactly up with a flick of the wrist, in a reasonable amount of time we had a respectable looking shelter and were just about to start putting our things inside when a people carrier drove up. With not so much as a by-your-leave it parked between Penelope and the tents! We have noticed the Chinese have no space sensitivity, but this was something else!

We were even more amazed when out stepped a full photographic crew and then, unbelievably, two brides with their respective bridegrooms in full regalia!!! With typical Western sang froid, after the initial pause to see who was going to emerge from the vehicle, we all continued setting up our tents. Around us lighting crews went about their work, make up artists patted away shine from the brides’ noses and a very energetic photographer threw himself down on the grass and took photographs in the most dramatic poses (his not the brides). During the time they were there, each bride had at least two changes of gown. It was hysterical. What added to the whole scene was that while it was an attractive spot, there was a considerable amount of rubbish about which they made no effort to remove!!

Eventually they moved off and as the afternoon wore on we were visited by any number of people – families who drove up, tipped their children out and then arranged themselves around us and took photographs, a group of very stylish young Chinese chaps, an elderly shepherd and his flock of sheep and three chickens(?). It was really funny. It was like being in a zoo!

Dinner was great! A vegetarian Thai curry. We had collected some wood on the way so we had a camp fire and someone produced some music. And so ended another day on the road…..,,