The Hexi corridor
Zhangye Travel Blog› entry 64 of 86 › view all entries
The villages in the mountains remind me of David Attenbrough's penguins gathering in a big circle for protection. The outer walls are windowless, the yards are walled and the houses low. To my ignorant mind it seems there is a harsh but beautifull harmony here. The villages look sturdy and they are suited to the conditions. In the cities this harmony is broken. Nature is hidden beneath layers of concrete, smog and people who have long gone stopped worrying about crops and rainfall and animals. But here i learn, the cities glitzy show of dominance and luxury is only glitzy as long as nature allows. Every so often she will reach into the cities, through everything and shake humanity back to her feet. Because no matter how hard the government tries to convince people this is a beautifull, fertile and prosperous area it is actually, inspite of historical importance, extremely harsh.
We first got to feel how overpowering nature can be here in Zhangye. Luckily we were in a hotel. I wrote in my diary;
" ...Suddenly it got so dark. Not from clouds but from dust. Dust that blew up so high even the 20 storey building opposite disappeared in thick yellow air. People were running for shelter, car alarms were howling and glass was shattering from windows. Sometimes in old cartoons, sandstorms are pictured as a herd of wild ghost horses galloping over the landscape coating everything on their way in invisibiliyty.
But we are in a hotel. In a nice one too, with thick wollen blankets, thick curtains and a shop that sells good local wine next door. People there are huddled round candles and they laughed when they realized i wasn't local. As I unwrapped my shawl and bought our second bottle I explained we don't get these things in the Uk. So what to do...
It reminds me of sitting through a particularily violent thypoon in the Philipines; The roof cracked on our tin hotel and the ground floor flooded. Here too the locals just laughed it off, moved us to a different room and lit candles. And more recently the rainstorm in Uruguay which we sat out in a roadside motel surrounded by the noises of truckers and callgirls, storm and hammering rain, all drfiting through paperthin walls.
The locals always take these things with a smile. They storm proof their homes, light the candles and wait. Sometimes with the homebrew on the go. Then they sweep out the water or the sand, hammer things back into place and carry on where they left of. In places where the weather gets this violent you can't do anything but wait."
And once my fear settled it was ok.We lit our own candles and waited. The dust settled the same evening but left us in freezing temperatures with an icy wind. We rode into the headwind the following morning, with good intentions, but we only managed about 80 km. I was shure the landscape looked like, what death looks like for souls who didn't pass safely. It was so salty and dry so only low shrubs and crippled trees could grow -most of them dead anyway.
We left at 6 am to clear skies and only a light breeze. the mountains stood sharp and the snow on the peaks was glittering. But as soon as the sun rose the headwinds picked up. We continued for 37 km through barren dessert landscape, were even the crippled trees wouldn't stand but the fact that we could actually see around us made it manageable. The village itself was nested in an oasis out of the wind, surrounded by fields and busy farmers. In these places it is almost impossible to grasp that we are comming to a huge dessert and that the environment is completely inhospitable once the sheltering hills are left behind.
But we rode on into howling headwinds, pedaling like mad on the slope down into sandf and rocks... At break we huddled behind the leftovers of a wall. The mountains were now invisible, the village was 18 km behind us and also invisible and around us lay just sand and these ruins of leftover life -this was the dessert that had seemed so unreal only some hours ago.... The weather report had promissed winds of 34 km pr hour and my thoughts drifted to a train that was blown of its tracks out here a couple of years ago.
Most of our ride to Jiayuguan was like that, but eventually we made it. The city was apparently one of the first chinese cities open to foreigners and is rich in history but the city itself is a ghost city; New hotels, wide boulevards, appartmenblocks and a massive park -all mostly empty with a population of about 150000 milling about in a city probably big enough for 1 million people. I think of the western Sahara...it's endless ghost towns. 'The last colony of Africa' it is sometimes referred to... Jiayuguan was by far the biggest town of this kind we encountered but it wasn't the only one. New villages with small houses looking like an attempt to re-create 'the american dream' stand along the roadside, behind neatly planted young trees with dust blowing all over them.
Jiayuguam has however got a beautifull 14th century fortress. From here all silk route trade was controlled and the whole great wall was built as a collective defense system by tribes and kingdoms gathered under a powerfull and feared emporer. The museum praises this strong state of the past and attributes to it, the merging of many small kingdoms for a great common cause. Later, throughout the dynasties people were moved here to both cultivate the land and as military personel..