Monday, July 14, 2014

Dunhuang to Jiayuguan to Zhangye to Beijing

I left you hanging as I failed miserably to steer my way through the cultural peculiarities of after-dinner etiquette in China. We were in Dunhang, in the West of Gansu province and I'd spent the day with a Chinese tour group, riding camels and hiking over sand dunes, seeing the spectacular grottos at the Mogao caves and being entirely overfed with lamb skewers and donkey meat.

I woke the next morning feeling distinctly shaky and entirely unable to face breakfast - I am still unsure whether this was due to an equine overdose, or simply the flu. The plan was to take a bus the six hours from Dunhuang to Jiayuguan, but this turned into one of the most trying journeys I've ever made. Sitting in the front of the minibus, I found my legs utterly stuck, rammed up against the plastic dash-board and with no wiggle room. The waves of nausea were already building and I could see my pallid face in the mirror, looking increasingly distressed. 

Other than a single stop, I sat for six hours in this agonising position, dehydrated and with spasms shooting through my legs and lower back, trapped with my hands gripping fiercely to the seat, trying desperately not to throw up, or by this point, explode from anywhere else. On arrival in Jiayuguan I was pouring with sweat from the effort of control and in a hallucinatory state of exhaustion, able only to speak in short sentences, and stare ahead semi-catatonically. It was hot and I was on the verge of collapse.

The plan was to go to the fort at Jiayuguan, but I knew that I was in no state to trip the silk road fantastic, or even to stand up for much longer, so I made my excuses and started along the road, struggling to hold onto my luggage, to find a hotel in which to collapse. After some failed attempts, I took a short taxi ride to a hotel with businessmen shouting and smoking furiously in the lobby, each one trying to speak louder and smoke more voluminously than the others. I paid the deposit and headed to my room to expel and then allow coma to descend. For the next four days I lived in a virtual dreamworld, oscillating slowly from the lobby of the hotel to my bed, buying bottles of water and attempting to eat the occasional pot of instant noodles, sleeping and feeling the endless hours of extreme nausea with podcast after podcast, and pondering whether this was on the verge of becoming a serious situation, alone, virtually unable to eat and wobbly on my feet during my lucid moments. A few moments came and went as I envisioned being found some days later, dessicated and wide eyed, and I pondered what was the appropriate action as I descended from the crest of lucidity.

It took four days to be able to leave the hotel and find something real to eat. My first meal of dumplings was taken with caution but I could feel the energy slowly seeping into my shakey muscles. Overall I lost some five kilos in my time in Gansu and I presume that most of this was lost in my four days of infirmity.

I managed on that fourth day to make my way the short distance to the famous pass at Jiayuguan, the Westernmost outpost of the Great Wall and a very important historical site at the intersection of trade and military power. The sun was beating down as my muscles slowly de-enervated, and I pressed on to look around the structure which I had seen in many photos before. 

It is a feature of many Chinese historical sites that the balance of preservation and reconstruction that the West has become used to is not present. The idea, very often, of simply keeping what is left in as good condition as possible is replaced with the rebuilding of the structure to its once present glory. This is true at many of the most touristically popular parts of the Great Wall and it is true at the Fort at Jiayuguan. In East Asia this practice is not new, as within Japan as well, the modus operandi for temples was to rebuild them every 50 years or so, and so there are actually very few temples which retain any of their original pieces. It is hard to quibble with this from a utilitarian point of view, but certainly from the Western idea of heritage and the importance of the actual bricks and mortar being the substrates of history, rather than the mere facade, it is quite strange to walk around such a rebuilt fort. I hadn't taken this into account before I visited it, but as I saw parts covered in scaffolding and with fresh concrete being mixed to keep the perfect picture of presentation fresh, I became somewhat despondent that I was merely visiting the Disney version of the great fort at Jiyuguan. This view it seems is rather a narrow-minded one and in fact the live-action roleplay of traditional Gansu costumes, archery, artwork and music have the potential to make the experience rather magical, if one can only get over the prejudice that the walls themselves are not Ming dynasty.
I left the fort and headed back for a last night in Jiayuguan, trying to regain as much strength as I could before the next train ride.

One of the main reasons that I chose Gansu as my destination was because of the amazing landforms I'd seen in photos of the South of Gansu, on the border with Qinghai, at Zhangye. These coloured striations in the landscape looked too magical to be real, and so I figured I would just have to check them out for myself, so I took another train, through the day to Zhangye, arriving there in the late afternoon. Zhangye is a small town of some 1.2 million people, one of the smallest cities I've been to in China, but for such a small place (in Chinese terms) it has quite a vibrancy. The taxi system in Zhangye doesn't work as in all other Chinese cities I've visited, but rather the taxi driver will take as many passengers independently as can fit into the cab. The pricing system was not something that I ever quite understood. 

Into my cab came three young Chinese travellers, all living in Xiamen but hailing from all corners of the country. Just as I didn't know where I was going, nor did they and so we decided to find a hotel all together. I had never attempted haggling at a Chinese hotel, but the group quickly taught me that it's the done thing, and managed to get a hotel where we were paying a third the price of what I had payed up to this point. Having dumped our bags we headed out for dinner and a stroll around the city. We made our way to the drum tower, a monument which you will find near the heart of any Chinese city and found ourselves walking through the central parks and meeting points in the heat of Zhangye. 

Family, and the link between the older generation and the younger one is a pivotal part of life in China. Parents are most often both working and rather than leaving a baby or toddler in daycare, the grandparents are usually left in charge. You will find, walking through any city in the mornings and the evenings people in their 60s and upwards pushing prams and holding young kids, playing with them and talking amongst themselves. There seems to be an enormous joy in this connection of the generations which is something which only seems to happen sporadically in most European societies that I've spent time in (though I think that the Mediterranean cultures seem to have more of this link). 

In the evenings in any park in any Chinese city I've ever been to you will see grandparents and grandchildren out playing, along with group dancing with the elderly, all in unison with flag, or swords, or fans, or bats and balls, perfectly synchronised to music blasting out of crackly speakers. It's interesting that the atmosphere feels warm and joyful yet there tends to be little smiling from the dancers, and it seems that this routine is taken simply as the evening exercise, rather than a moment of taking pleasure in the music, though it may well be that the pleasure simply isn't shown explicitly.

I took this video some years back in Beijing as couples danced at the Temple of Heaven in the heart of Beijing:

We sat down in the park and watched the dancers, the parents and grandparents and children, and they watched us back. I would be surprised if there were more than a handful of Westerners in this city at any one time and so the attention I got was pretty intense, though the stares felt more those of intrigue than suspicion. I sat there as a little girl, perhaps five or six, stared at me, then walked up slowly, put her hand on my arm, and her other to my beard and stared into my eyes, transfixed. It was a lovely moment and her mother watched on, smiling and amused at her precocious daughter who simply wanted to discover. I spoke with her and her friends for a few minutes, though they were a little too shy to speak much, and my Beijing accent was seemingly not easy for those speakers of the local dialect to understand. The particularly intrigued girl was the one on the right here.
We spent a good hour in the park, watching and being watched and chatting occasionally with locals who would wander over to see what I was up to there.

The next day we got up early and went to find a driver for the day. Again, I realised that while I have a lot of practice with haggling, I should leave this to the masters and so we quickly got an amazing price for a driver to take us to the two sites that we wanted to visit. The first, was the Danxia geological landform and was the place I'd seen in so many surreal and over-photoshopped images but had caught my imagination from the first time I'd come across it.

It was hot, and the air was dry and we were at high altitude. I was still on my way to recovery from my flu and so the day was utterly exhausting, but truly spectacular in terms of the things we saw.

We drove the hour or so to the landforms and took the bus from the entrance into the park. The landscape is as surreal as it is magical, with the most vivid striations of colours I've ever seen. The land looks like dough mix which his been piled up, folded over and kneaded, so that the layers of colour remain perfectly separated but randomly stratified as far as the eye can see. The variations of colour are remarkable, but not at all constant, and we would go from a region with dark browns and virtual blacks to those with layers of what seemed like browns and blues, greys and vivid yellows.

The bus took us from one lookout spot to another, but I struggled soon to have the energy to climb the hills to the highest points, having to stop regularly to catch my breath. We spent a couple of hours hiking up to the lookout points to see the incredible landscapes, and while mine are not quite as vivid as the photoshopped ones you will see online, it was still a spectacular vision.

Having spent the morning in the sweltering dry air we headed off again, getting some noodles by a roadside restaurant and headed off for another two hour drive to the Mati si (Ma-Tee-Ss) temples, closer to the mountains bordering Qinghai province. These are Buddhist monasteries built directly into the Qian Lian hills. The journey there is spectacular as the snow covered mountains loom ahead and you pass through miles upon miles of potholed roads in the arable farmland which takes up most of the usable space in this part of Gansu.

I have tried to sum up my experience at these spectacular temples, but fail dismally given my lack of photography or ability to pay enough attention given that by this point I was just about running on empty, just about able to drag my still weary legs around. This site here gives a far better description than I can muster. 

I did get a couple of shots, of the temples and from the temples looking out into the beautiful valley which stretches out below the mountains.

Anyway, to draw things to a close, this part of China is generally off the major tourist trail but is well worth exploring. It holds some exquisite countryside, some wonderful food, some very important historical sites, many friendly people and some cities which are very different from those you will find on the East coast. That being said, without being able to speak Chinese, this would neither be an easy journey, nor, probably a particularly fun one, but if you have any chance to explore here with someone who does speak the language, I would highly recommend it.

Getting back to Zhangye, I turned in for my last night before heading back, ready to wake at 5am for my train back to Beijing. The train ride was long (getting on for 30 hours), and punctuated by lots of Chinese businessmen who wanted to drink with me, but thankfully I seemed to escape these invitations without insulting too many people. On arriving back into Beijing where summer had fully arrived with 40 degree temperatures and beautiful afternoon storms, I dove straight into the conference and was back to work...

There will, at some stage soon be a few photos from Beijing, and possibly a few from a recent trip to Slovenia to a wonderful conference on chaos and non-linear dynamics.

I am about to start teaching again and will be teaching both a first year maths course and a string theory course, for the first time. Both of these I am looking forward to a lot and my new routine is something which, after some six weeks on the road, is wonderfully appealing. It's going to be non-stop for the next three months but it should be a good deal of fun too!