My idea in going over the Silk Road from Lanzhou to Kashgar was to do it all by land travel—no flying. I figured I would go in fairly short hops, and the itinerary that I laid out includes 12 stops along the way including Lanzhou and Kashgar, with three other side trips. So when I got back to Lanzhou on Friday, I went to a travel agency to see about a train or bus ticket to Wuwei.
“Wuwei?” the agent snorted. “Why would you take a train to Wuwei? It’s only a short distance.”
“Well, what times do the trains go?” I inquired.
“Well I don’t even know if they stop at Wuwei. You’re the first person that I’ve ever had ask to take a train to Wuwei. Nobody goes there.”
“Could you look at the schedule?”
“Well, I see that one train arrives in Wuwei at midnight and the other at two AM, so why don’t you take a bus?”
“OK, what station do the buses for Wuwei use, and what time do they go?”
“They probably use the East Bus station and I don’t know when they go.”
“Could you call to find out the schedule?”
“No, I don’t have the number. Why don’t you just go there now, it’s not far, and find out?”
“Thanks very much—.”
With that I decided to eat lunch. No, travel in China is not always easy. Lunch was fine, though and there was another travel agency over by the restaurant so I tried again.
“Could I buy a train or bus ticket to Wuwei?” I asked.
This time the agent immediately looked up the train schedule and gave me the same arrival information.
“OK, so could I take a bus?”
“Yes,” she replied, “I’m sure there are buses to Wuwei.” At least she didn’t snort about my going there.
“Which station would the bus leave from and what times do they go?” I inquired.
“I think it would be the East Bus Station and I don’t know the schedule.”
“Could you call and ask, please?”
She dialed the phone and talked for some time, writing things down as she listened.
“The first bus leaves at 7:30 AM and then they go every two hours until 2:00 PM. But the woman said that they aren’t selling tickets to foreigners. But you could go there tomorrow and see.”
“But if they said they won’t sell tickets to foreigners—?”
“Oh, that was just one woman that answered the phone. You can go tomorrow and see.”
I thanked her and decided to do just that, as I couldn’t imagine that they wouldn’t sell me a ticket because I was a foreigner.
The next morning I left the hotel by taxi at 6:20 AM (remember my mother always preached, “BE EARLY”) and went up to the ticket window. I had asked the desk clerk in the hotel to write the Chinese characters for ‘Wuwei’ in my book, and so I pointed to them while saying “Wuwei” to the ticket person. She shook her head ‘no,’ dismissively, so I went to another. Same thing. So I asked a man who was guarding the exit to the buses.
“Bus to Wuwei?” pointing to the Chinese characters. He shook his head ‘no’ and said something like “Shuganah” and waved his arm toward the front door.
I tried one more agent and she, too, said “Shuganah.”
So I went out the front door and asked a vendor—“bus to Wuwei—Shuganah?”
He pointed down the street and then pointed to a taxi. I tried to confirm by pointing down the street saying “bus to Wuwei, Shuganah?” and he nodded and pointed to a taxi. So I took the taxi, saying “bus to Wuwei, Shuganah?” and the taxi driver nodded ‘yes,’ emphatically.
Off we went and about a mile later came to another bus station which must have been ‘Shuganah.’ The taxi driver called to a young man telling him that I wanted a bus to Wuwei and he immediately pointed to the closest bus and said, “Wuwei.” I got my pack into the bus storage compartment and boarded. The ticket taker pointed out that I should sit right behind the driver and indicated the cost was 40 Y. I gathered that I could buy my ticket on the bus.
I decided to get off again and buy some hard cooked eggs for breakfast from a sidewalk vendor. These were in a brownish sauce (soy sauce?) and when I ate them, they tasted salty.
Then I decided I had better go to the bathroom before leaving. I pointed to the Chinese characters in my phrase book and was directed into the bus station. There, clearly marked, was a WC with a ‘ticket taker’ who gave me paper as I paid my money. It was very busy in the ladies toilet, with no privacy as several women squatted over a cement trench. This I did also—I was of great interest to the women waiting in line—and went back to the bus.
We left at 7:10 AM, going slowly on our way out of town while trolling for passengers; then we sped up and made good time on excellent roads.
This was the beginning of the Hexi Corridor that is a plateau between two ranges of mountains where the Silk Road went so long ago. The Hexi Corridor runs through the middle of long, narrow Gansu Province, and is about 750 miles long. In Han Dynasty times (120 BC) Wuwei was the political and commercial center and in the 4th century became a center for Buddhist studies. By the 8th century Wuwei had a population of 100,000—Chinese, Central Asians, Tibetans, and Indians, as a result of being an important city on the Silk Road. The Great Wall of China also runs through the Hexi Corridor and was completed about 200 BC by the emperor who had the hundreds of terracotta warriors made at Xian.
The mountains were beautiful and the plateau supported a variety of crops. There were many people working in the fields with no mechanization, cutting, bundling and shocking their small grain crops. They used a small curved sythe to cut the grain and gathered up every stalk, it seemed, so nothing was wasted, tying it into bundles using a bit of the stalks of grain.
After about three hours we came to a very long line of about 40 parked trucks with the drivers out on the road. I gathered that there was either a land slide up ahead, or road construction that was blocking the road. The driver turned the bus around, and after a bit, made an announcement to the passengers and they all began getting off the bus. We milled around outside for awhile, then the driver made a call on his cell phone, and then another announcement. At that point all of the passengers picked up their bags (they mostly had small carryons although a few had large boxes) and started walking toward the landslide.
I figured out that he had called his counterpart bus coming the other way and we would get on that bus while those passengers came over and got on our bus. I inquired by nodding and pointing if I should go across and the driver nodded ‘yes’ emphatically. So I strapped on my backpack and walked about a block to the landslide/construction.
Wow! There was a steep hill on the side of the road that we had to climb with not much for footholds. There was no way I could negotiate that with my 30-pound backpack. Blessedly, a young man offered to carry my pack, which he did. I attempted to scramble after him, but still needed a hand up from some men.
It got higher and higher and I was frightened to death! At times I was walking on all fours across a little ridge with a 30 foot drop on one side and a wall of dried mud on the other. When I tried to hold on to the mud, it crumbled away in my hands and fell down the 30 foot drop. By this time the passengers from the other side were coming this way, and we met on this ledge! Maybe this all wasn’t as bad as I now think it was as the Chinese (mostly young men) didn’t seem to have any trouble.
Finally we reached the going down part, which I slid down sitting on my seat (good old jeans) and was back on terra firma once more. My legs were like jelly for a half hour after that!
We boarded the other bus, and an hour later arrived in Wuwei. The young man that had helped me across could speak a very little English. I told him that I needed a taxi and was going to the Tianma Binguan (hotel). He flagged another taxi (he already had one for his mother and him—they were going to visit his grandfather in Wuwei), gave the driver instructions and held up four fingers and said “4 Y.” (The price of the taxi should be 4 Y).
What a nice young man! I never did determine if the problem was a landslide or a road construction blockage as I was concentrating so hard on survival! Now I’m wondering if the reason that the travel agency said that they weren’t selling tickets to foreigners was because of road construction and that this happens frequently, which they didn’t think foreigners would be up to. The path that we went across on did have a ‘used’ look. On the other hand, why would trucks start out if they knew that they would be blocked? A mystery.
The next day I asked the desk clerk to write Chinese characters for the five sights that I wanted to visit in Wuwei, and then got a taxi and set out. I had attempted to arrange a tour, but nobody showed up!
First, on the edge of town was Haizang Temple set in a lovely park with water, bridges and statues. The Temple complex was nice—a series of about five buildings as is typical, where you enter one building that has a big Buddha statue and bodhissatvas, and exit the rear, to enter another building with another statue and altar, etc. Records show that this complex was restored in 1482 and probably many times since as I saw a manhole cover that was marked 1981.
The second site was the Sumarajiwa Pagoda (Luoshi Si Ta) built in the 7th century to honor a Buddhist monk who was half Indian and half Kuchean (I will visit Kucha later in my journey) who lived in Wuwei from 386 to 403 AD. He preached Buddhism and translated many volumes of the Mahayana from Sanscrit to Chinese. The pagoda was impressive, but there was a site plan there showing the restoration project (huge) for the future. A great deal of building was in progress. Apparently many religious sites in China are being restored at the moment, but with mostly private funds.
Next I visited Leitai Han Tomb which was discovered in 1969. The cave had been used for storage by the locals until they found two tombs. They are from Han times (2000 years ago). This is where they found the ‘flying horse’ and all of the horses and chariots made of bronze that I saw in the Lanzhou museum. The ‘Flying Horse’ is reproduced everywhere in these parts, and the whole gang of horses and chariots was reproduced here in life size, and in my hotel in original size (about 12 inches high).
On to the Daytun Temple and Bell Tower, which were famous about 800 AD. There was an informal ceremony in progress which involved two teenaged girls kneeling on a cushion, head to floor, covered with a red cloth before an altar with many lit candles and much incense. Two older women were loudly and raucously chanting while waving a thick bunch of lit incense and symbolically beating them with rolled up colorful paper. One of the women interrupted her chanting when I came in, put down her incense and paper, and came over to me, smiling and talking, then took both of my hands in hers. I wonder what she was saying! Other women clustered around me smiling and talking, as well. Then they went back to their ceremony.
My taxi driver showed me where to climb the stairs to the bell tower to the bell that was many hundreds of years old. It could be heard for three miles and was decorated with flying apsaras.
On this site they discovered the Xixia Tablet in 1809, a kind of Rosetta Stone that gave an account in the Xixia language and a translation on the opposite side into Chinese. The Xixia Kingdom ruled here before the 1200”s when they were routed by the Mongols. The language had been lost since then until this stone was found.
This tablet was supposed to be on view at the 5th of my visits, the Wuwei Museum. If the Lanzhou Museum was the most delightful regional museum I’ve ever seen, this one was the most frustrating. It was set in a beautiful complex of old buildings but most of the buildings were locked. While they had managed to put up signs in English that said things like ‘No Smoking’, ‘No Butts or Paper on the Grass’, ‘Be a Good Visitor’, and ‘Don’t Take Photos’, there was not a single English sign to identify anything or to point the way. I especially wanted to see the Xixia Tablet and after running in circles and asking lots of people, I think I did see it—yes, I’m going to say that what I saw was IT! (Now Carol, why be surly—how many Chinese signs are there in American museums?)
Outside of the Daytun Temple was quite an area of mud brick houses which I think was the norm for these parts until about 20 years ago. The houses are very small and poor looking, and this was probably the mode of building used for centuries.
For lunch I did buy a bottle (they don’t sell it by the glass—honest) of the local red wine at the hotel restaurant. Grapes were introduced here before the 8th century, when a Buddhist missionary commented that the wine was excellent. I’m not sure I’d call it ‘excellent’ but it was drinkable and I enjoyed a half bottle! Marco Polo was here also and found “traders and artisans and an abundance of corn—the best musk in the world, the yaks as big as elephants, and the pheasants as big as peacocks.”
The next day I went on to Zhangye, another town not usually visited by Westerners. The night before it rained all night and I was worried that if there were a landslide and I had to climb over in the mud—well, it doesn’t bear thinking about. But no, all went smoothly. I really liked Zhangye—not a small town but not very sophisticated either. One passenger on the minibus from Wuwei got off on the outskirts at a place where an English sign said ‘Sino American Joint.’
Ah, my first glimpse of the Great Wall of China! About halfway through this bus ride, the road began shadowing THE WALL! Admittedly this part, about 1600 miles from Beijing, was built of mud bricks and looked as though it had been left out in the rain, which it had, of course, for 20 centuries. There was restoration and rebuilding at various times so these ruins may actually date from much later. At irregular intervals there were remnants of watchtowers. While it was all pretty eroded, it was a thrill, nevertheless. The wall ends with a big fort at my next destination, Jiayuguan.
After settling in and walking around a bit, having a sidewalk lunch and beer in perfect sunny temperature, and being near mainly bicycle traffic, I went to see the Giant Buddha Temple. This reclining Buddha, built in 1098 AD, is 113 feet long—the longest in China. The complex of buildings was also outstanding with other art on display, but China is over the top with art, and your eyes do glaze over!
Next day I walked around the town for an hour, visiting a park with flowers, a small lake and a reproduction of Michelangelo’s ‘David’ (!), a vegetable market and then I got tired of walking so I hired a bicycle rickshaw to take me around some more. We visited an extensive Buddhist Temple complex called ‘Silescia’ or something like that. An old high brick and wooden pagoda called ‘the Tower of longevity’ was the centerpiece of a very modern huge square. It was fun just to ride around the streets and observe the people and their lives. One girl was tending a set of huge bamboo steamers that were a dozen layers high. I still didn’t see any Westerners in the city and was stared at by almost everyone.
Wednesday the train to Jiayuguan left promptly at 7:12 AM. I was there at 6:03, can you believe it? The landscape through this area was unrelenting dessert although in recent times the government has planted millions of trees as wind breaks and soil erosion barriers. It was so flat and dry and barren, though—not even any sheep.
In Jiayuguan there are only a couple of hotels that accept foreigners and they’re quite spiffy. I took one bed of a three-bed room, and when I got to my room, I had a young Japanese boy for a roommate. But he was checking out so then I was alone. I had taken the same kind of room in Zhangye, and that room had its own huge bathroom. The first night I was alone but on the second night, first one Chinese girl arrived about 9:00 and then another Chinese girl arrived about 10:00. They were fine and I left before 6:00 the next morning anyway. The room in Jiayuguan had the toilet (eastern), lavatory and shower across the hall.
In Jiayuguan I hired a taxi to take me to the three main sights. First I saw the Jiayuguan Fort, built in 1372, which guarded the pass between two mountain ranges that Silk Road travelers all came through. It was the culmination of the Great Wall, and while China did and does control much land west of here, this was the last main bulwark of defense heading west. In past times up to a million men were conscripted to build and guard the Great Wall.
The fort has now been rebuilt almost completely as a tourist attraction. I noticed the walls were outlined in colored Christmas tree lights, so it didn’t feel so very historical. However, a few original buildings remained that were beautiful.
The second destination was the Overhanging Great Wall. This was originally built in 1539 and rebuilt by students in 1987. It was a short wall with steps heading up the mountain to a lookout. (A little difficult to see the defensive purpose, other than tourist dollars.) I climbed up and up. It said in my guidebook that the views are terrific of the Gobi Dessert, the snow-capped Qilian Mountains, and the oasis of Jiayuguan. Unfortunately the sky was thickly overcast so I only saw the Gobi Dessert and the oasis. In the other direction I also saw heavy dark plumes of smoke coming from industrial smokestacks and a nuclear plant.
The third destination was the greatest! This was what is called the Art Gallery—not an art gallery at all, but an ancient tomb (one of 2,000 in the dessert near here) dating from the Wei and Western Jin period (220 to 420 AD). It was lined with bricks that are individually painted showing activities of daily living such as horse riding, hunting, farming, banquets, etc. The bricks are about five inches by 12 inches and the artwork is so lovely and well preserved. While there were many Chinese tour buses at the previous two sites, there was absolutely nobody here. I bought my ticket, then the taxi driver indicated that I should get back in the taxi and we went out into the dessert about a mile to a little parking area. We got out and I walked toward a funny little building that was locked up tight. Just then a motorcycle with a sidecar came roaring up with two guards to unlock the building. Apparently they only do this on rare occasions when somebody buys a ticket.
There was a cement stairway in the building that went down, down (35’) to the tomb. The tomb was a series of three rooms with low arches (bend way over) between.
I bought some postcards showing the paintings, and then we went back to the museum by the ticket window. There were many interesting things that they had excavated like decorated wooden coffins, a bronze unicorn, pottery, decorative animals, etc. What a treasure. It was one of the best things that I’ve seen in China so far!
This wraps up Jiayuguan as tomorrow morning I will head to Dunhuang on a six hour bus ride (the train doesn’t go there).
As you can tell, I’m enjoying China hugely and have been having nice weather—a big contributing factor, I think. I’m also taking it quite easy—at least two days in each place so I’m feeling well rested—important for enjoying traveling.
Thanks for the emails—it’s fun to hear from home!