China / Phil

A Trip to the Edge of Civilization

One of the rules of thumb about living in China is that you should never, and not under any circumstances, travel within China during the “golden week” holiday. Having lived in China for more than four years I am pleased to report that I still have not learned this lesson.

October 1 to 7 is a public holiday in China commemorating the foundation of the People’s Republic of China. (And because the Party gave us Thursday and Friday off we have to work Saturday and Sunday… go figure.) This year marks the 62 anniversary of the event and I, along with countless others, decided to celebrate by traveling to what was once the edge of Chinese civilization – Gansu. The two main sites I wanted to see were the UNESCO recognized Mogao Caves located outside Dunhuang, and the Great Wall’s most Western fort at Jiayuguan.

Dunhuang is a small oasis town located on the western edge of the Gobi desert whose only reason for being of any importance is the Mogao caves outside the city. The paintings and sculptors were started in 366 AD and were sealed up some time during the 14 century. As we toured the few caves open to visitors (most are not open for viewing), my tour guide explained the importance of each cave and influences on the artisans at that time. The most interesting example was the presence of of Indian Bodhisattvas in the first caves, where the later caves started introduce Confucian scholars and Daoist priests.

Unfortunately I have no pictures to share because the managers do not allow tourists to take any. This is because the caves have been badly damaged. The site was first pillaged by European explorers (many of the original manuscripts are located in London), later the caves were used as holding pens for the White Russians fleeing the Bolsheviks who vented their frustration by defacing murals, later by tourists feeling the need to pen their names in the walls and by the general harshness of the desert environment.  Fortunately, the caves were spared from the Cultural Revolution by order of Zhou Enlai.

After enlightening myself with the teachings of the Buddha I headed off into the Gobi Desert, on camel back, where I would spend the night. A friend had advised me to spend a night in the desert because it is so unbelievably and peacefully quiet there (Peace and quiet can he hard to come by in China. Right now someone outside my window is laying on their horn for some reason). The sunset was brief, but that night the moon and stars were bright and plentiful. The sunrise was brisk (who knew it got so cold in the desert?!?) but beautiful.

After returning to the city and getting as much sand out of my shoes, clothes and bags as possible I booked a ticket for the five and half hour train ride to Jiayuguan. And so did a lot of other tourists. The train was a throw back from the forties and parts of the train showed it. The biggest inconvenience was the broken fans which left us with a balancing act of opening the window enough for air to pass through and sweating it out with all my closest friends. In the end the people sitting next to me were incredibly nice and one completely random woman walked up to me, handed me four grapes and then walked off without saying anything. The grapes were delicious.

I spent just less than 36 hours in Jiayuguan and that includes the two nights I slept there. Other than the fort and two really good food courts there is not a lot to see in the former desert outpost (there is a massive factory, equipped with its own power plant, that I only discovered when I opened my shades the first morning). That said the fort it self is impressive enough, but all the other National Day Holiday tourists made the whole thing a little overwhelming.

My last stop was Lanzhou, the industrial capital of Gansu. Not much to say about the city that these last couple of photos can’t.


One thought on “A Trip to the Edge of Civilization

  1. Pingback: A Year in Review and an Update | mala with a fork

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