The Great Wall really is great. (September 2014)


We arrived into Jiayuguan on the overnight train from Lanzhou, after another sleep deprived night.

We had been put on the slow train that stopped at every station. We later discovered that there was a train that left half an hour later than ours and arrived two and a half hours earlier.

Vickie, our guide, was there to meet us and after another quick breakfast of beef and noodles we were back into the site seeing.

Our first stop was the Jiayuguan Pass, or Fort, and the Great Wall Museum.

The weather was warmer and the tourists fewer.

There was a choice as to how you could see the fort, one was by ultralight – we chose to walk.

The fort is located at the western end of the Great Wall and is historically one of the main passes through the wall. It was built during the early Ming dynasty, sometime around the year 1372.

This part of Western China is in the Gobi Desert and has been designated as an expansion area. Soil has been moved here in order to grow trees along the roadsides. The water comes from natural springs that have their origins in the nearby mountain range of Qing.

For millennia Chinese dynasties have been trying to tame this harsh environment. When this particular part of the Great Wall was constructed soldier/farmers were brought here both to defend the frontier and feed the growing population.

With the protection that the Great Wall offered, the Silk Road expanded and the area around Jiayuguan became a melting pot of multiculturalism.

Not only goods were traded but so were ideas.

From the fort it was a short drive to the Overhanging Great Wall. This is another part of the wall that has been renovated and gives you a good idea just what an enormous feat of construction the Great Wall was.

As we discovered in the museum, there is more than one wall that makes up the Great Wall complex. Successive Chinese dynasties have added to it according to their defensive needs.

The Great Wall, stretching from Dunhuang in the west to beyond Beijing in the east, was built over thousands of years and is estimated to have been 21,196 km in length. Considering that the circumference of the equator is 40,075 km, it really is great.

In the afternoon we made the long drive to Dunhuang and really got a feeling for the surrounding desert environment. There were patches of fertile farmland interspersed amongst a flat barren landscape. Ever present were the high tension power lines stretching as far as we could see.

We also passed two of the largest wind farms I have ever seen. There weren’t hundreds of turbines, there were thousands.

The Chinese don’t do anything on a small scale. Even the toilet block at one of the motorway rest stations had more urinals and cubicles than you would find on the entire Hume Highway.

Strangely the car park was empty so I guess they are looking to the future.

Dunhuang is an oasis in the Gobi Desert producing fruit, vegetables and grapes. Like the rest of China, it’s a work in progress, with cranes dominating the skyline and construction at every turn.

The next morning we were off to the Dunhuang Yardang National Geopark, which is about 180km from Dunhuang.

The rock formations in the park were formed by water and wind erosion over a 700,000 year period. This is the largest park of its kind in China.

The temperature was warm but the air was still hazy, a byproduct of China’s industrialisation, even this far west.

We them went to another outcrop of the Great Wall. This one was made of straw and mud, yet was still standing after 2,000 years.

The day was to be spent driving around the Gobi Desert and, as we discovered from Vicky, there are many colours of the Gobi. These depend on the makeup of the soil, there’s black, white, yellow and red. And when it rains and the grass grows, there’s even a Green Gobi, however this doesn’t happen very often, as the average rainfall is only 24mm.

A visit to Yumen Pass and Yangguan Pass completed a long, warm and dusty day in the desert.

Both these passes were important gateways on the Silk Road, joining Central Asia with China.

Day three started with a visit to the Mogoa Caves, made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987. Before we went to the actual caves we had an introduction in the ‘Digital Caves’. This was a high-tech, audio video explanation of the cave’s origins.

There were two video presentations, one explaining the geological origins of the caves and the other showing the caves in detail. The last video was in a 360 degree theatre with high resolution graphics that recreated some of the main imagery contained within the caves.

The Mogoa Caves are also known as the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas and contain 492 temples carved out of the sides of a steep river bank.

It has documented over a thousand years of Buddhist history in art, painting and sculpture.

Situated close to Dunhuang, the Mogoa Caves were of religious and cultural significance to the Silk Road travellers. They were abandoned in the eleventh century, a result of the spring feeding the river drying up.

In 1907 a Hungarian-British archeologist, Sir Marc Aurel Stein, discovered the ‘Library Cave’. This cave contained a wealth of religious and historical documents.

In the tradition of archeologists before him, he cheated the locals and plundered the treasure.

More treasure hunters came from France, Russia, the US and Japan. Resulting in most of the library now being held in foreign capitals.

Our last stop for the afternoon was the Singing Sand Mountains and Crescent Spring.

Here giant sand dunes dwarf the natural crescent shaped oasis. There is a pagoda next to the spring that was built in the 1990s. It replaced an old Buddhist temple that was destroyed by the Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution.

The facilities at all of the tourist sites we have visited have been amazing. They aren’t there for Westerners but for the Chinese, who are avid travellers.

Another long day was coming to an end, so it was back into the van for a two hour bumpy ride to Liuyuan to catch an overnight train to Turpan.

Our travelling companions on this trip were Alfred and Annamaria from Switzerland.

Alfred, discovering we were Australian and believed that sharing a cold beer wouldn’t be out of the question.

We did manage to convince the catering staff to sell us two cans of local ale, unfortunately they were warm.

Warm beer seems to be the norm as we moved west in China.

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