Dunhuang and JiayuguanMay 15, 2016 in China
The quirks of the Chinese train system meant that our next stop on the Gansu silk road was at the far western end of the province, further from Lanzhou than our next destination, Jiayuguan. We arrived in Dunhuang after a lengthy sleeper train journey and got picked up from the station by our hostel, which had, like many in China, been bought by non English speakers who were still riding on the previous owners' good reviews from foreigners. The drive to the hostel in the oasis town was beautiful, with views of stunning sand dunes Luckily, a friendly Taiwanese cyclist was there to translate. Once we'd settled into the hostel and had our first showers in too many days, we caught a minibus to the Mogao Caves, the most famous Buddhist artwork in all of China. Entering the state of the art visitors centre, we saw a surprisingly informative film telling the story of the caves' development from small shrines for silk road travellers into elaborately decorated private halls of worship for leading families in the area. We then saw another film, which was a 360 degree view of some of the most significant of the caves, which provided more insight into the changing symbolism of the cave art during different dynasties. After watching both films, we caught a bus from the visitors centre to the cave site. We queued outside the caves, which externally are not particularly impressive as the exterior decoration were mostly destroyed by an earthquake in the early 20th century. We, along with a pair of French tourists, were assigned an English speaking tour guide and we began our tour. We visited around 7 caves, all ornately decorated and often filled with sculptures but sadly not photographable due to their fragility. Highlights included a very early Zhou dynasty cave which fascinatingly combined Chinese and Indian Buddhist art, with Buddha's disciples and angels appearing as males, unlike later more Chinese art that depicted them as largely female while at the center of the cave lay an Indian style stupa. Later Chinese caves also had more prominent sculptures of the 'Happy Buddha' - the fat gold man found in Chinese restaurants, apparently a manifestation of future Buddha rarely found in Indian Buddhist art. We also visited a Tang dynasty cave, which contained a giant reclining Buddha, surrounded by exquisitely carved arhats (guardians), with the cave walls depicting Chinese visions of paradise. While the caves open to the public rotate to ensure the art is not too damaged by light and oxidation, tour groups always visit the small library cave, where in 1901 Aurel Stein bought thousands of priceless manuscripts from the caves' caretaker for a pittance, much to Chinese chagrin even to this day, with many of the manuscripts now held at the British library and other foreign institutions. The tour finished with the Grand Buddha (the only section of the caves that was for public, not private use), in some ways more magnificent than the one in Leshan as the colours had faded alot less, as it was partially covered. Once we'd thanked our very informative tour guide, we caught the bus back to Dunhuang, via the caves' gift shop, had a fairly average meal and then headed to bed.
Waking up late as usual, we rushed to buy our train ticket for that evening to Jiayuguan at the local train ticket booking office, before catching a local bus to the Singing Sand Dunes. Unwilling to pay an entry fee for what was a totally natural landscape, we attempted to sneak into the dunes, however as we wandered past the camel stables and further and further from the entrance, we began to realise that the dunes were better defended than the US - Mexican border, with miles of high fencing, peppered with frequent motion sensing security cameras which yelled at you if you came close. Defeated, we returned to the entrance and enquired about the ticket price and whether we could get a student discount. Unfortunately we couldn't, and the obscene £15 entry fee was beyond our budget, especially considering we only had time for a few hours there. Admitting defeat we returned to the town centre, where we enjoyed surprisingly tasty local speciality Donkey with Yellow Noodles. We then got a taxi to the train station, arriving with plenty of time for once, for our 5 hour journey to Jiayuguan. The journey was to prove entertaining, with high school kids from a coal mining town near Jiayuguan, along with other curious travellers, quickly surrounded us, asking questions about our lives, with the high school kids translating for the other passengers. Highlights of the journey included; a friendly older man who was fascinated by our passports and foreign coins spontaneously offering me his daughter's hand in marriage; a lovely middle aged guy from Qinghai (a neighbouring, very remote and mountainous, province) who gave us loads of tasty cured yak meat while imploring us to visit his homeland and Theo defeating all the high school students in an arm wrestle. All the attention and photos did grow wearing after a while, so we were relieved when our train arrived in quiet Jiayuguan at around 11pm. We had booked into a cheap business style hotel as there is no hostel in Jiayuguan and luckily our female taxi driver (common in Western China, hardly ever seen elsewhere) knew where it was, so we were quickly rushed along the town's Pyongyang style wide boulevards to a comfy bed with luxuries such as free tea and shampoo.
Things did not feel so luxurious the next morning when we woke up to a power cut, which sadly also put the showers out of action. We then spent much of the morning trying to find the train ticket booking office, walking along roads lined with shops with generators whirring outside - obviously power cuts are common in this steel producing centre. Eventually, we gave up and coughed up for a taxi to the train station. Train tickets to Urumqi for that evening in hand, we travelled through the identikit Soviet style apartment block suburbs, painted the blue of the local steel company to the Jiayuguan Fort, a large citadel that marked the end of the Great Wall. The Fort had an amazing setting, looking out over endless mountainous desert, although the black fog of incredibly dense heavy industry near the town meant it was best to keep looking in one direction. We strolled along the ramparts admiring the Fort's grand gates, which people exiled from China had been kicked out of in centuries past. After soaking up the frontier vibe of the fort, we stopped by its museum which had some interesting exhibits on the history of the Great Wall. We finished our sightseeing by hiring a taxi driver to take us to the Overhanging Wall, which, though slightly tackily restored, afforded amazing, evocative views over vast desert planes, as well as a Chinese military base swarming with tanks and mobile artillery. Savouring our last steps on the wall, we headed down slowly to our taxi which returned us to town where we enjoyed a tasty meal of Lanzhou fried noodle, before catching our sleeper train beyond the realms of traditional Chinese civilisation, to Urumqi in Xinjiang....Read more