The Edge of Empire
We decided to do something a little different to travel between Turpan and our next port of call, Dunhuang (Gansu Province). Whereas before we had flown between our destinations or, in the case of Urumqi – Turpan driven, this time I had elected to take the train. So many people will (rightly) tell you that travelling by train is one of the best ways to see a country. Regrettably our departure was late in the evening, after the sun had set and the landscape had retreated under its duvet, meaning we saw nothing of the countryside and only the inside of a communist carriage. You may think what you will of me but this was actually the first time I had taken a train in China and, I’m sorry to say, it was rather disappointing. Earlier this year I spent a couple of weeks in India travelling between my various ports of call on India’s vast railway network. The shabby carriages that imprisoned me for the better part of two days (all up) were a highlight of the trip. But on my Chinese choo-choo it was all just a little too, well, clean. The President of The Surly Association of Train Attendants showed us to our cabins and, after a couple of warm beers and some "two minute" noodles we drifted off to sleep in our cells.
As many who are reading this will know, one of the joys of travel are the well-considered timetables of transportation authorities worldwide. We arrived in Dunhuang at 5:30am after, what the Group all agreed, was not the most restful of sleeps. Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. We arrived in a town called Liu Yuan – some 130km from Dunhuang where we were met by our Han Chinese guide Henry. (Dunhuang was supposed to have its own railway station but, despite assurances from guide books, at the time of our visit it hadn’t opened yet.) I can honestly say that the drive was possibly the worst travel experience of my life to date. And I think those more accustomed to the pointy parts of planes probably found the journey excruciating. The road – if you can call it that – G215 is a new addition to China’s extensive road network and was built atop the sand of the Gobi desert. We were thrown around that bus like toys hurled from the cot of a tempestuous toddler. For two hours. And before that Henry gabbed at us for 30 minutes solid, possibly without pausing for a single breath. I can’t fault his command of English but by all the ancestral spirits of China, move over Richard Quest and Lyse Doucet, he may actually have the most annoying voice in the world. Through no real fault of his own you can probably imagine that once we finally arrived in Dunhuang he was as popular as a bakery at a clinic for diabetics.
The two main draws of Dunhuang are the impressively dramatic sand dunes on the outskirts of the city and the staggeringly beautiful Mogao Grottoes. We began our day at the former (after a disastrous and farcical breakfast which didn’t help our already bruised moods) where a few of us rode the short distance to Yueya Quan (Crescent Moon Lake) on camels and the rest were ferried by electric buggy. The soaring dunes around us teemed with other tour groups sand tobogganing, paragliding and lolloping along in their own camel trains. Dad and I had a go at sliding down a dune on a wooden sled with one of us faring better than the other. I’ll leave it to you to decide who it was - but it wasn’t me. Crescent Moon Lake is decidedly unremarkable, and the buildings we saw around the water were reconstructions after the originals were destroyed during the tumultuous years of the Cultural Revolution. Henry was able to prattle on endlessly for 20 minutes when really all that you need to know of interest is that Yueya Quan is first mentioned in documents dating back 2,000 years. The Mogao Grottoes (also known as the Mogao Caves) are without question a must-see in China. Originally over 1,000 caves contained murals and Buddhist artwork and imagery, supposedly dating back to AD 366. There are approximately 600 caves left although many are now closed to visitors. The history of the caves is a fascinating one and would take up far too much space to go into detail here, but I do recommend doing a little independent research. For an additional fee on top of the entry ticket you can be taken around a few of the caves by a guide and this is well worth the money. Our friendly guide was tremendously well informed and spoke flawless English. I was also struck by the way in which tours were conducted. For anyone who has been to China one of the things that strikes you about the culture is the noise. It’s a very loud country and sometimes even the most banal of conversations are undertaken as though the speakers are stood in the middle of a typhoon. But even the larger Chinese tour groups moved through the caves in awed silence. The usual hustle and bustle of daily life in the People’s Republic also melted away and jostling crowds gave way to ordered queuing. It’s arguable that the horrendous journey from Liu Yuan to Dunhuang was made worth it by the few hours we spent looking at the evolution of Chinese art from the Jin to the Ming Dynasties.
The following day we drove the 6 hours to Jiayuguan – the location of the last fort on the Great Wall and the edge of the world in ancient China. Before that there was time to sample Dunhuang’s local donkey delicacy which I found quite pleasing to mine palate. It wasn’t to everyone’s taste – especially not at breakfast – but I was pleased to add it to my list of weird and wonderful creatures that I have consumed joining silkworm and scorpion among others. Mercifully, although long, the road was silkily smooth and we arrived in good time for us to take in the gargantuan fort. It wasn’t hard to imagine how, back in the day, a soldier posted to guard the frontier must have felt he had slighted the emperor. Although now joined by modern factories a bleak and desolate landscape was the vista enjoyed by the thousands of defenders of the Son of Heaven. It had been our intention to travel by train the remaining leg of our expedition, but after the discomfort of our previous experience we changed our plans and decided to fly into Xi’an. Returning deep into developed China, and to one of the more popular destinations on travellers’ itineraries, we bade farewell to Patti (who, by this time was in desperate need of ablution) and Henry and I resumed the mantle of flag-waving tour guide.
“China Experience” Rating (Dunhuang): 7/10
It was worth the trip and I would recommend going before the onset of mass tourism.
“China Experience” Rating (Jiayuguan): 8/10
I wouldn’t bother going unless you have an interest in history because outside of the fort, it’s booming, industrial China in a all its factory belching goodness.