What would China be without its great wall! So far we have seen one or two remnants, but not one that really reminds us of the pictures of the Great Wall of China as we know them. In Jiayuguan we finally have the opportunity to walk on a piece of the overhanging Chinese Wall. Of course we do not miss this opportunity, but as already mentioned in previous blogs, that means that once again we have to climb stairs. From the top of the watchtower we have a wonderful view into the surrounding desert, the Qinlian mountains, the nuclear power plants or so and the infinitely many high-voltage poles. Unfortunately, the view isn’t really superb due to the air pollution! We are a little disappointed by the wall itself, as we imagined it to be much wider and more pompous. Nevertheless, the work that has been done here is unbelievable! In the associated museum we get a lot more information about the wall, the different construction methods of the different regions and much more.
Jiayuguan has a lot more to offer. We look at the first signal tower of the Great Wall of China with its underground observation platform. The surprise is big! From the platform we look at the underground valley: there is a huge gorge with a 56m high escarpment and the river Taolai. There can hardly be a better natural protective wall.
As a last sight we visit the fortress of Jiayuguan including the Jiayuguan Pass. It was called the "Unvincible bottleneck under the sky" and was the outermost large bastion of imperial China. Beyond that, there were only demons and the armies of the barbarians of Central Asia. To the east of the fortress is the Gate of Enlightenment, to the west the Gate of Reconciliation. The latter sent poets, ministers, criminals and soldiers into oblivion. In the meantime we are also west of this gate. Which category do you think we belong to?
After this historical excursion we pedal hard again. The wind blows from behind for a change. That's a completely different way of driving! We manage the 400km to the oasis Dunhuang within 3 days. Despite the tail wind there are long stages we have to cover, so it is not surprising that we are a bit exhausted in the evening. The landscape is not very varied; we have arrived in the desert and drive for hours on the straight road G312, which mostly runs next to the highway. From time to time a couple of trucks passes us, rarely a car. After all, we cannot complain about too much traffic, which is fine with us.
There are fewer and fewer villages, fevery onece in a while we pass a small village, sometimes a gas station. Close to the villages we see many desert graves. The dead are still buried here nowadays. A cone of sand is piled over the grave, a simple gravestone usually stands in front of it. It is very special to drive past all these graves, but there is also something soothing about it.
We manage to drive to the next town every evening, where we also find a place to stay overnight. The arrival in these remote cities ilooks similar: the roads become wider, up to 6 lanes plus bicycle lanes per direction, of course; the roads are lined with beautiful avenues and flowers. At every intersection there is a traffic light - a few vehicles are usually waiting for it to turn green. The closer we get to the city, the traffic increases a little, but it is nothing compared to our urban traffic. We don't meet many people in the streets and alleys. Appearances are deceptive; as soon as it's evening, the streets come alive, people stroll, do their dance exercises in the big squares, go shopping or eat. In Yumenzhen everything is also brightly lit, red lanterns hang in the trees, the buildings light up in different colours, the Chinese seem to like that anyway. It is very special in Guanzhou: here people drive their tricycles to the big central square to watch the dance and singing performances. It looks like a drive-in movie theater. Of course we also join the spectators, unfortunately without tricycle!
In Donhuang we take a break. Despite its remoteness, Donhuang is a rich city thanks to its wind and solar energy systems. Per capita income is among the highest in China. Dunhuang used to be a haven for tired travellers in ancient times. After all, this should also apply to us. You don't notice much of the past in the city anymore. It is a very modern city with many shopping streets, comparable to the Bahnhofstrasse in Zürich or another pedestrian zone of a large city. The night market is reminiscent of the souvenir streets of Mallorca. Local souvenirs are sold here, including countless types of plush camels, Buddhas carved in stone, silver or wood, colored wallets, sunglasses of every color, bracelets, scarves.... Of course there are also many dried fruits, nuts and other dried foods that we cannot find out what it is. Thank God we're not here in high season. We can stroll comfortably through the streets with no crowd of people. There are still a lot of empty stands and many bars; a clear sign for us that things are very different during the high season.
A few kilometres outside the town of Dunhuang there are indescribably beautiful sand dunes. We do not miss this scenic beauty. But we skip the camel riding, which is offered on site. Instead we put on orange overshoes and climb one of the dunes. From above we watch the caravans moving through the desert...... Camels with tourists, of course! But from a distance it looks just like in old times! On the way back we stop at the Silk Road Hotel, enjoy a cool ice wine on the roof terrace and enjoy the peace and the wonderful view of the dunes for a while before we drive back to the city. It feels like a holiday!
Visiting the Mogao Caves is also part of our program. The caves are considered the most important collection of Buddhist art in the world. In its heyday there were 18 monasteries, over 1400 monks and nuns as well as countless artists, translators and caligraphs. Rich traders and important officials were the main financiers for the construction of new caves, as the caravans made long detours via Mogao to pray or thank for a safe journey.
Even though we have already visited some caves, each one is unique, has its own style and history. Many of the Mogao caves are not accessible to tourists, they want to prevent the works of art from being destroyed. Only a few selected caves can be visited with a guide. Since there are hardly any foreign tourists, we almost have a private tour together with an American. This gives us time and above all space to linger inside the caves and look at the details. Our guide tells us that during the high season there is often only 1 minute time to visit a cave, as the next group is already waiting outside. I'm glad we don't have to experience this.
Dunhuang has a lot to offer, including our first sandstorm! After a sunny day we are back at the hotel. Suddenly it gets dark, a violent wind comes up, it looks like a apocalyptic mood. First we think of a violent thunderstorm. But then we look out of the window: sand whirls through the whole city, those who don't necessarily have to be outside stay inside. So do we, of course! We look at the current from the hotel window and hope that we do not experience any more sandstorms, especially not when we are sitting on our bikes!
What we lack during the city tours are the beautiful coffees or tea houses as we know them from back home. Everywhere we can spot small eateries and restaurants, but they are only thought for eating. Maybe we're just looking in the wrong place!
Speaking of food, you wouldn’t believe what we experience! At the breakfast buffet Markus stands at the toaster and wants to put 2 slices of toast into the toaster. He is astonished when a Chinese woman spreads butter and jam on the toast in front of him and then sticks it into the toaster. In another hotel, in addition to chopsticks and dishes, there are exactly 2 knives and 2 forks, just how attentive the hotel staff is.
We leave Dunhuang in the early morning. It is really cold outside. Imagine driving the distance from Zurich to Bern and never having to make a turn. That's our today’s route. As far as we can see, whether we look forward or backward, the road runs straight ahead. After all, we meet 2 camel herds, this time without tourists. This is about the whole highlight of the day and reminds us that we are on the Silk Road. In addition to pedalling, we have another activity in mind: who of us will find a suitable campsite? After a little more than 100km we actually decide to camp and save the remaining 35km to the next town for the following day. We find a nice place in the gravel desert behind a small hill, away from traffic. Here we pitch our tent, eat some Chinese noodle meal and go to bed early. Camping also has its charm, we like it.
We cover the remaining km to Liuyuang quickly, even if it goes uphill a bit. Liuyuang is really really ugly. It is an industrial city, everything seems dusty and dirty, which is not surprising for a desert city. Here we stock up again with food and water for the next stages.