Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Jiayuguan Fort - The End of Civilisation

It was about now that we really started to crave cheese.  We hadn’t been able to get any proper cheese since Russia (and calling Russian cheese proper is probably stretching it a bit).  We started fantasising about crumbly cheddar, deep fried camembert, a nice stilton with some hot crusty bread spread with lots of salty butter (another thing you can’t seem to get in China).  Don’t get me wrong the food is amazing, but we love cheese and we miss it.  A lot.

We arrived in Jiayuguan mid afternoon on the train from Xi’an to hazy sunshine.  It was quite chilly as the temperature had really dropped overnight.  
The train journey had been amazing.  As we left Xi’an behind we headed into desert.  It is said that the landscape is quite lunar and it’s easy to see how it gets that description.  The scenery changes quite dramatically the further west you travel.  We really enjoyed the journey and we were also quite relieved to get away from so much heavy industry which you can’t seem to avoid at all in north eastern and central China.  There was still evidence of some industry but not to the extent that we were becoming accustomed to.

The First Beacon of the Great Wall
We stayed in a hotel in Jiayuguan -there are no hostels in the city as it’s a little of the tourist track and most visitors only stay a day or so to visit the famous fort before heading onwards along the Silk Road route.  Jiayuguan is certainly not at big as the central Chinese cities and with a population of only about 1.1 million it is practically a village by Chinese standards!

The hotel was functional but we had no internet access, no bar with cheap beer,  and there wasn’t the usual wealth of information for travellers that hostels provide you with.

We had taken a taxi from the train station which is just outside the town to the centre of town where the hotel was located, conveniently near the bus station.  We managed to arrange with the taxi driver that he take us to the Fort and a couple of other sights around Jiayuguan the next day as we knew it was going to be difficult (if not impossible) to get there using public transport.  A taxi for the day only cost 100 yuan so it’s easy and relatively cheap to do it this way.
Part of the Military Village
After checking in, the first thing we did was buy our bus tickets to our next stop Dunhuang.  Paul managed to do entirely in Chinese and was becoming increasingly confident with his language skills. 

We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around the market near the hotel.  We didn’t eat out, choosing instead to stock up on noodles (again) and crisps and beer.  After that we had an early night as we were up early the next day for our tour of the sights around Jiayuguan.

We awoke to a brilliant clear blue sky and we could see the mountains from our hotel room, but it was freezing outside – a typical autumn day in the desert!  Our driver was early (probably to head off any other taxi drivers that may have had their eyes on his western customers) and shortly before 9am we headed off to visit our first stop which was the First Beacon Platform of the Great Wall. 
The Beacon could easily be considered a little disappointing because, as the Lonely Planet guide book describes it, it is little more than a pile of mud.  But therein lies the dilemma – either China restores its national landmarks to death, or it leaves them as they are and they tend to be a little underwhelming!  Really, they can’t win.

However, the location of the Beacon is worth a visit in itself.  It is situated right in the middle of the desert and the snow covered mountains rising up in the distance form a stunning backdrop.  There is a little reconstruction of an old military village that has recently been built as an added attraction, and all this really does make the Beacon worth visiting. Although the sun was strong there was still a distinct chill in the air which left you in no doubt that you were in the middle of the desert on the brink of winter.
After the Beacon we headed to a restored section of the Great Wall.  Well, to be honest, it was clear it hadn’t so much been restored as rebuilt from scratch in about 1985, but what can you say?  What was lovely about the Beacon and the Wall around Jiayuguan was the fact that there was hardly anyone else about, and we enjoyed a leisurely walk along the steps of the walls without encountering another soul for most of the time. 

The "restored" section of the Great Wall
It was quite a steep walk to the wall tower and when we reached the top we enjoyed views either side and you could also see the onward path once taken by the Wall but which had long since crumbled away (and hasn’t yet been rebuilt but I’m sure it’s only a matter of time).

Finally, we headed to the Fort.  It was a little busier here but nowhere near as busy as the attractions in Beijing and Xi’an – we only saw a handful of Chinese tourists and no westerners.  This too had been restored but much more sympathetically than some of the restorations we had seen so far in China.  It is a large sandy coloured brick structure which basically marks the end of the civilised world as the Chinese considered it in the Middle Ages.  They believed that beyond the Fort to the west lay the land of barbarians!  I suppose it’s all a matter of opinion but the terrain itself beyond the Fort is quite unforgiving really and desert most of the way towards Turkestan.  This is part of the Silk Road route, and camel caravans would tread the route bringing silk and other eastern goods to Europe.  A very romantic image and one that is easy to visualise when you are actually there.

Jiayuguan Fort
We wandered around the Fort for a couple of hours.  The day had warmed up a bit by then and the sky was turning a little hazy again but it was still a beautiful day.  The snow covered mountains were still visible in the background beyond the Fort, adding to the impression that you really were at the edge of civilisation and that travelling further west would be difficult through what appeared to be relatively deserted and uncompromising terrain.  We could only imagine what it was like in the depths of winter!
We were back at our hotel by early afternoon and spent the remainder of the day wandering round the city, realising that we were indeed the only westerners in town!  We didn’t eat out again – it was unlikely we would find anywhere with an English menu and even a picture menu isn’t always the answer – you never really know if what you’re getting barked in a previous life!  So it was noodles again with some crisps and nuts and a few beers before we headed off to Dunhuang on the bus the following day.


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