Thursday, 17 June 2010

Jiayuguan and Yumen

Jiayuguan 15-16th June
Arriving in The Gansu province was an exciting experience. Jiayuguan is a small town at the narrowest point of the Hexi Corridor, forming a pass and the western-most point of the Great Wall of China.

As the comfortable overnight sleeper train rolled into the station, all around as far as the eye could see was desert. To the east the sun was beautifully rising over the Gobi Desert, marking the start of a new day. In the south-west the harsh ranges of the Qilian Mountains rose sharply out of the desert peaking 4000-meters up with a snowy cap. The landscape to the east and west of the train seemed to be clearly different. Towards the mountains of the south-west the landscape was green. I figure the falling snows and the ultimate thaw from the mountains above were the source of this sharply contrasting vista. Off to the east the endless Gobi desert.

Arriving in Jiayuguan I was eager to view the fort in the morning light and coolness. But carry 25-kilos round a steep fort in the middle of a desert just isn't going to be fun. Trouble is Jiayuguan doesn't have a cheap room- anywhere! After an hour searching and finding 80¥ to be the best I was ready to leave my bag at the bus station, purchase a ticket for Dunhuang and make the most of 5-hours in Jiayuguan before the bus left.

From my right a small slight young Chinese girl politely asked "can I help?". Since I have been traveling in China I have met a number of very helpful Chinese people. Who have so much concern for your welfare. Most find the fact I cannot string more than a few words of Chinese together and my unwillingness to spend more than a few ¥ on anything 'unnecessary' to be a sign I could do with some care and attention. Which can be a little embarrassing, but also it's nice and in many ways more polite to allow them to help you in their country.

5-minutes with my new acquaintance, Rachel and I was buying a bus ticket to travel to nearby Yumen with her boyfriend Andy to stay with her parents for the evening. It was a really nice day ahead. I met the parents, made polite conversation with Andy about football. We ate a delicious home cooked meal. They insisted I had a nap and then a couple of hours later we went for a walk.

Turns out Yumen is the location of China's first oil well. We paid a visit to the very first. Set in a deep gorge with a river running through the narrow passage of the arid, crumbling brown earth walls. After dipping our feet in the cold mountain river and wondering for a while we made our way home.

That evening we had another tasty meal, soup noodles and the remains of the afternoon feast. Then we went to look around the town market, bought some beers and crisps and returned to Rachel's to settle in for the evening in front of the world cup. One fine day!

In the morning me and Andy set out for Jiayuguan. Rachel opted to stay with her mother for the morning as she had not been home in some years. Jiayuguan fort is a quite incredible structure. It has all the hallmarks of Chinese history one can hope for. The pass is constructed of three concentric layers: the central area of the inner city, an outer city section and finally a moat. It is 733-meters long and stands an imposing 11-meters high. At each corner of the pass a turret stands to defend the wall.

Walking along the Walls and looking out into the unforgiving desert surrounding, you really get the sense of power and command. The fort had a fearsome reputation as the last outpost of China proper, before the oblivion of the deserts of the far west beyond. The sense of isolation and hopelessness weighing heavily on those exiled- poets, artists and criminals- ordered to leave through the gates of this fort into the lawless lands of the deserted west is really apparent.

The wall was built during the early Ming dynasty around 1372. Legend surrounds the construction and recounts the meticulous planning of the pass. According to legend, when asked to estimate the number of bricks required, the designer gave him an exact number. The official questioned his judgment, so the designer added one brick to his calculations, which was never needed and was placed on the gates after construction was complete. Over the west tower gate a plaque hangs, the characters read "The Greatest Pass under Heaven".

After a couple of hours Rachel joined us. I hoped in a taxi for the overhanging wall and left them. The overhanging wall is around 10-mins and 12¥ East of the the fort. Passing through the Gobi Desert and into the black Hei Shan Mountains. It's certainly worthy of the journey. It is everything you expect the great wall to be. Huge, imposing, incredibly long and very steep in parts. As you trace the line of the wall along the contours of the mountains surrounding it's hard to believe that such a structure was built 5000-years ago- especially when you consider how much more extensive it was in that age. China is a remarkable empire and the great wall is the pinacle!