What a desert!

Going West: Hiking in Gansu

As I briefly mentioned before, I went to Gansu in May. It took me a few times to write this post, but I’ve finally finished it, and I’ve even dug up some pictures to go along with it. Happy reading!

When my sister told me she was coming to see me for three weeks in May, I jumped at the chance to organize a trip. Because who wants to stay in Beijing for three whole weeks? Not I. A few years ago, I had come across some pictures of this mysterious landform known as danxia (丹霞地貌), a rainbow-colored range of sandstone mini-mountains that ripple across a desert plain in Gansu. Since then I began seeing it mentioned more and more. I didn’t know much about it, but I was sure I wanted to go. It looked vast, empty, colorful and breathtaking. So I mentioned Gansu to my sister and boyfriend as a possible hiking excursion (I really love hiking!), but secretly I had already decided that that was where we were going to go.

A bit on Gansu

Gansu is considered western China, in the sense that it is west of Beijing and it used to be the westernmost point of “China” (see below), but these days, geographically, it is smack in the middle of China’s northern reaches. It is most famous for its Mogao Grottoes (莫高窟), one of three major Chinese sites for ancient Buddhist cave art, in the northwestern city of Dunhuang (敦煌). When I say famous, I mean that whenever I told anyone, Chinese or foreign, that I was going to Gansu, they immediately asked if I was going to Dunhuang. No, danxia, I would reply. What? Never mind, I’m just going to Gansu. The province sits along the old Hexi Corridor (河西走廊), a narrow band of oases that enabled traders and armies traveling along the Silk Road to avoid the dry, rugged Gobi Desert to the north and the high, freezing Tibetan plateau to the south. So, historically, Gansu has been well traversed and an important crossroad for goods and culture (i.e. religion). Indeed, it borders Xinjiang to the northwest (Uyghurs!), Mongolia to the north (Mongolians!), Ningxia to the east (Hui!) and Qinghai to the southwest (Tibetans!). Gansu itself has a very small population of Yugurs, who are related to Uyghurs but are Buddhist, and mostly live around the Mati Temple (see below).

We ended up taking a five-and-a-half-day trip to this desert oasis. Our first stop, of course, was the danxia park, which is located outside a small city called Zhangye (张掖) in the center of the province. Getting there took a whole day: a two-hour morning flight into Lanzhou, the provincial capital, three hours of waiting, then a six-hour train ride to Zhangye. We finally arrived at night, ready to be blown away the next day. (At least, I was. I’m not sure how anyone else felt about it.)

The danxia

Walking the ridges.
Walking the ridges.

The Danxia Landform Scenic Park is a newly minted national tourist attraction, receiving a mid-level rating of AAA. It opened to the public in 2011, and given its short status as a tourist attraction, not many people seem to know much about it. This suited me fine, for it gave us the possibility to discover something still relatively unknown. When we went, the park buses were still clean and shiny, as were the brick paths snaking through the giant park. We arrived on a local city bus along with a few other people, and some more people were also near the entrance when we got there. Environmentally friendly electric buses were available (for $$$) to take visitors to various points in the park; they stop for a few minutes to let you wander around, but if you want to spend longer in one place, you can always catch the next one. By the second stop, we were sick of the organized tour. We wanted to be on our own to wander through the hills and valleys, not hike along freshly laid brick paths. So we abandoned the buses and made our way onto a mountain ridge. It took forever to walk along one small stretch, mostly because everything looked so intriguing, so we stopped a lot to take in the view, and because it was nearing mid-day and we were getting beaten down by the sun. It was ages before we saw another bus come by. But just as the road in front of us turned sharply and began a steep ascent, a bus came chugging up. We flagged it down to carry us 100 meters to the next stop. That’s where we spotted the camels.

These ones.
These ones.

These two creatures are 18 and 20 years old and looked perfectly content with sitting/standing in that spot all day. Mr. An (or Ang; I couldn’t quite tell through his accent, and we were in a rush to catch the bus at the end), a Chinese Indiana Jones who grew up around the danxia, said the camels run free at night, only to come back to find him the next morning. At first, we thought we’d just get pictures on the camels, but then Mr. An told us about all the places he could take us in the park on the camels for 100 kuai each. There were only two camels, though, and four of us — was it possible to fit two people between their humps? Mr. An ignored our question and cackled wildly instead. But he started to bring out the blankets, and said that for the four of us, we could pay 300 kuai total. My sister and I were totally sold.

Mr. An turned out to be a wonderful tour guide, stopping to point out the best spots with the best views and telling us all about the time when a group of photographers from around the world came to the danxia. One of them caught Mr. An and another fellow riding the camels through the hills. His photograph is now part of a calendar somewhere. He led us off the paths and encouraged us to climb the peaks, at one point urging my sister’s fiance to keep going further along an extremely narrow ridge just so he could capture the beauty of the hills on the other side. “They’ll tell you that you can’t climb or go to certain places, but stick with me and I’ll take you there,” he said. He knew the ins and outs like the back of his hand, and he would describe how the sunlight catches the rocks, and depending on your angle and time of day, the colors appear more vivid or different.

At another point, he took us to a rather flat plateau, but we had to climb up the extremely steep side of it first. One slip on the soft dirt, and we’d go sliding down the mountain side. Miraculously (or maybe I am just underestimating our strength), we all made it without any problems, even my boyfriend who was just recovering from a knee injury. Up on top, we got another great vantage point of the rippling land, waves of hills striped in red, yellow and orange. Just beyond us, the hills turned blue and green, but unfortunately we were running low on time and couldn’t go see them. We also saw a former burial spot, still marked with a small urn. According to Mr. An, the dead had to be moved out of the park because the park was a park now. I felt a bit guilty. I don’t think the dead should be disturbed, especially if they had a fantastic resting place on top of the danxia; and here was the government, clearing them all out so this place could be turned into a place fit for tourist consumption. Mainly, I was reminded that the goal is to make the danxia into a full-fledged tourist attraction, and I am very worried about how it will change if or when it catches on with the Chinese. Right now, the park is vast enough that even though there are other visitors, in most places, you can get lost in the nature and finally be truly alone. It is a wonderful feeling, one that you can’t often get in China.

Other places in Gansu

In Zhangye still, we ventured out to Mati Temple (马蹄寺, literally Horse Hoof Temple), a Buddhist monastery built into the side of a giant rock face amongst the Qilian Mountains. Having already been to the Hanging Monastery in Datong, I thought I knew what to expect. But these temples are built into various holes in the rock and sometimes connected through tunnels — either natural or mostly natural and bored — in the rock. It was cramped; even for a tiny Asian chick like my sister and me, we still had to squeeze ourselves to go through certain passages and stairways. The temples themselves were rather rundown, partly from mass destruction during the Cultural Revolution, and partly just from graffiti by visitors. Some new statues are in place, but they have already collected a good layer of dust. Unfortunately, the weather also wasn’t the best that day. With the surrounding hills all verdant and gently sloping into the snow-capped mountains, it would have been a great place to hike if the clouds hadn’t been threatening rain and I had dressed more warmly. The Yugur village below was also a chance to learn about a minority group, one of the smallest ones in China, but it seemed too much like a carnival with no attractions.

The First Beacon of the Great Wall; the wall extends toward the fort and Overhanging Great Wall sections; and Jiayuguan Fort.
The First Beacon of the Great Wall; the wall extends toward the fort and Overhanging Great Wall sections; and Jiayuguan Fort.

In Jiayuguan (嘉峪关), we visited the three main Great Wall sites. The Great Wall here is made from rammed earth, which is just giant chunks of dirt smashed together to form the structure. Built during the Ming dynasty, it marked the westernmost reaches of the empire. At the First Beacon (长城第一墩), you can still see the ruins of the tower — it’s just a mound of dirt now, but there is a “wall” running from it all the way to the Overhanging Great Wall (悬壁长城). There are two branches of this wall, which run along mountain ridges to the tops of two of the taller peaks. They are both within view of each other, but are still some walking distance apart. We hiked one part of it, a relatively short one, and saw only a handful of people there. It’s always nice to be away from crowds, but there was enough poop (including a pile of fresh poop at the top of one of the towers) to remind us that the place was not unvisited. But getting to the top/end of the wall paid off, as we got a nice view of the Gobi Desert stretching out in front of us for miles. From the Fort watchtowers, you can see the towers of the Overhanging Great Wall, which would keep watch of anybody coming in from the desert and alert those back at the fort-city. The Fort itself was disappointing, as it’s currently undergoing a major renovation project for future tourism. This meant that scaffolding blocked a lot of the views of the towers and ruined any photo opportunity, and as we walked around, we could smell fresh paint laced with chemicals. However, the historicity of the place still made an impression on me; it is very cool to see how the Great Wall and Fort were linked to form an ancient line of defense out in the vast and lonely desert.

Jiayuguan Fort from the outside.
Jiayuguan Fort from the outside.

From Jiayuguan, we took the overnight train to Lanzhou, where we spent a day just relaxing from all the moving about and hiking. Lanzhou is, like every other second-tier Chinese city, just a collection of high-rises, and to the uninitiated, there appears to be no local variation to it. It is situated on the Yellow River, which I was excited to see. Unfortunately, the Yellow River is actually a shade of muddy brown in Lanzhou (and probably elsewhere).

Gansu culture

The people in Gansu were by far the most pleasant surprise of the trip. I don’t know if I’m too used to the rudeness of Beijingers, but I really appreciated the kindness that Gansu-ers showed. In Beijing, I hardly ask for help anymore because I am almost certain I will get a rushed/uncaring/wrong response that won’t actually help me at all. But in Lanzhou, for example, I asked a parking lot operator for directions, and instead of just flicking his hand in a general direction, he took the time to direct me to a bus station down the street where I could ask for better directions. Then there was a delightful security guard at our hotel in Jiayuguan who seemed to double as a bellhop. We arrived in the middle of the night, but he helped us out of the taxi, brought our luggage to our room, and even tried to diffuse a situation in which the taxi driver tried to rip us off. The next night, he spent more than 10 minutes to help us get a taxi. Kindness turns up everywhere, usually when it’s least expected, but it seemed to occur with greater frequency in Gansu.

And then there is the famous Lanzhou la mian (拉面), fresh hand-pulled noodles in a spicy, beefy broth. You may know its Japanese equivalent as ramen. We ate a lot of la mian on the trip, at hole-in-the-wall la mian restaurants. It’s cheap, kind of dirty, but pretty delicious. Lanzhou la mian is as ubiquitous around China as chuanr, the barbecue lamb skewers from Xinjiang, but I’ve never had it until I went to Gansu (though I’ve had its cousin, the beef noodle soup,* in less run-down places).

Going to Gansu felt like traveling back in time, to a wilder, drier and more traditional place. Whether that place was China, I couldn’t really say. Obviously, people looked somewhat Chinese, and they spoke Chinese, and every town was more or less laid out according to the usual Soviet-style city planning, but it was not the China of Beijing. It had an air of historicity that still felt alive, unlike in Beijing where history is a thing of the past to be trotted out only for political purposes. Geography’s impact on a place has rarely felt so great. Mostly, I’ll remember it as being a wide open space at the edge of a desert, a compelling mix of cultures in a far-away time, with all the dust and thrills that come with it.

The Overhanging Great Wall.
The Overhanging Great Wall.

* Here, I am talking about the Muslim version of niu rou mian (牛肉面), which is different from the Hong Kong/Taiwanese version (which I’ve also had).

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