grey marble

September 9, 2009

In and around Jiayuguan

It's raining in Jiayuguan. The day started overcast with the threat of rain, and by afternoon drops began to fall. It's not raining hard, but the overcast skies spread a pall over this city of broad avenues and relatively few people. This morning we awoke to music being played from within the public square. We're staying in a hotel right across from it and yesterday afternoon some intrepid individuals were out flying kites. In my sleep-addled mind, I thought I was hearing a morning call to prayer until I realized the tone was wrong. Across the park, schoolchildren seemed to be performing martial arts in tune to the music.

We arrived by train from Dunhuang, a short four and a half-hour jaunt. Two days before, the skies were blue and clear and my mother and I rode camels around the high desert dunes of Mingsha Shan. It was her first time on a camel and she rode like a pro. Ahead of us, two women from nearby rode with a one-year old child. He kept saying the word for "horse" while his mother repeated the words for "camel" all along the ride.

At the crest of one dune, I climbed a set of wooden stairs to the top of another, higher dune for its views of the surrounding desert and the oasis of Dunhuang, just a few kilometers away (from the town itself you can see the dunes rising above). The wind threw sand against my back, which stung me where my skin was exposed. I slid back down on a bamboo sled, where a man asked me if I wanted to ride an ATV. My phone buzzed. It was the women with us who wanted to hurry to catch the sunset by the Cresent Lake.

We rode our camels back down the dunes and around the base of Mingsha Shan. Our camels parked in a camel parking lot, and we walked a short distance to the lake, nestled as it was between the dunes. A pagoda had been erected, cradled in the arms of the lake. Tourists walked about, their feet shrouded in bright orange booties to keep the sand from their shoes. My mother and I had declined the covers, and we're still pouring sand from out of our shoes.

Our first full day in Dunhuang, we hired the taxi driver who picked us up at the train station for a full day's tour around the western attractions in the area. Mr. Li was gracious and suggested he pick us up at 7am to drive to Ya Dan, a geological park noted for its wind-blown rock formations (and featured in Zhang Yimou's Hero, among other films).

At the appointed hour we piled into his taxi and set out into the desert. Soon we left the city behind; desert spread out as far as the eye could see. Mr. Li told us there were animals out in the desert: wild camels, scorpions, snakes, and golden sheep. He had never seen a wild camel, but had seen the sheep.

In the middle of nowhere a gate appeared and we bought tickets for the Han Great Wall and the Yumen Guan, the northern city tower that guarded the silk road. We continued driving into the desert, along a straight sealed road. Some two hours after leaving the city we arrived at Ya Dan. We were the only ones there. The staff ushered us into a room to watch an explanatory video while they waited for other visitors. A small bus arrived, and we were all invited to board a tour bus to take us into the park.

We descended into a basin, pausing at formations that looked like a lion with a person's head, a peacock, and the Sphnix. Along the way, we passed formations resembling a Mongolian Yurt and a turtle. At the end of the road, we stopped at a set of formations known as a fleet of ships heading out the sea before returning to the park entrance.

On the bus, a woman asked my mother if she hadn't brought a camera. She pointed to me and told her that her son had a camera. The woman was surprised. She had thought I was a westerner.

We hopped back into the taxi and went back into the desert. At one point the driver pulled off the road and drove us towards nothing until the ruins of the Han Great Wall appeared before us. A small fence had been erected around one better-preserved area and a tower. We walked along the fence until it ended and found a piece all but buried in the sand. We walked along the straw and mud remains and felt ourselves transported in time.

Another taxi waited along with ours and when we left, they drove in the opposite direction. Mr. Li said they were heading towards Ya Dan, taking the desert road. We drove a little further on a sealed road and then paused at the Yumen Guan before heading towards the southern gate.

A sudden spot of green broke through the monotonous desert and we soon found ourselves in a small grape valley. Mr. Li told us that all the inhabitants of the village were very well off, keeping a house in the village and one in the city. They lived in the village only during the grape growing and harvesting months and did very well for themselves.

Just downhill from the Yang Guan we paused in another grape valley for lunch. We ate under a trellis, where the grapes grew right above our heads. For appetisers and dessert we had but to reach up to pluck their ripe fruit.

Outside the Yang Guan, a newly built garrison town housed a small museum devoted to the construction of the towers and the forts. An efficient guide quickly explaned all the exhibits and then lead us outside the garrison to buses waiting to take us up to the ruins of the tower. The view of the surrounding area was sweeping, and we spent as much time taking in the surroundings as the tower itself.

We drove back towards town and stopped at the western thousand Buddha caves. They were closed, but a Singaporean tour group had arrived just before us and their guide managed to convince the gatekeeper to let us in. We toured the ruins of a few caves before they closed. The gatekeeper said that there once were more caves here than at the famous Mogaoku, but that they had been damaged by the river. The sand was softer here, he said.

The next day we drove out to the Mogao caves. A sign at the front gate said that an additional 12 caves could be seen for 10Y each. I said I was interested and was lead to an office by the ticket gate. An official told me that of the 12 only 8 were available to visit. I asked how much it would be to see them all. He did some calculations and told me it would be 1500Y. I told him I'd think about it.

A guide met us at the front gate and gave us headsets the better to hear her with. She lead us through 10 or so caves, and we spent as much time admiring the ones we did see as wondering what lay behind the many locked doors that hid the other caves. The guide told me that 62 caves were officially opened. A computer told the guides what caves to show on each tour, though some of the major caves were on every tour. She told me the most expensive cave was around 500Y. It was the cave I most wanted to see.

Dunhuang was a pleasant town and I didn't mind spending so much time there. It has a laid-back atmosphere, but it's a town on the move. New pedestrian malls are under construction and the area by the river is being turned into an attraction in and of itself. It's already seen a bit of development thanks to Japanese interests in the area and the fame of the Mogao caves; I'm curious how it will look in another five years.

Posted by eku at September 9, 2009 3:41 AM

Recent Entries