Friday, 7 June 2013

Across Asia With A Lowlander: Part 2j: Lanzhou & Jiayuguan

world-map jiayuguan


One of the great things about posting these travelogues gives one the chance to revisit some of the unanswered questions posed in them all those years ago and in this episode several of those revolve around the decorative lions that stand at the entrances to many Chinese banks and other buildings. Apparently, these sculptures come originally from the Imperial Household and Lu got it wrong: the males rest their paw on a ball, representing supremacy over the world whilst the females rest their paw on a cub representing nurture. And as for the balls in their mouths, well apparently they’re not balls but pearls and they represent purity and perfection.

So now you know!

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Flickr album of this trip

Links to all parts of the travelogue

Book 1: Embarking Upon A New Korea

1a: Toyama to Pusan

1b: Pusan

1c: Seoul

1d: The DMZ

1e: Seoul, Incheon and Across the Yellow Sea

Book 2: Master Potter does Fine China

2a: Qingdao

2b: Beijing (I)

2c: Beijing (II)

2d: Beijing (III)

2e: Yinchuan (I)

2f: Yinchuan (II)

2g: Lanzhou

2h: Bingling-si

2i: Xiahe

2j: Lanzhou and Jiayuguan

2k: Jiayuguan

2l: Dunhuang

2m: Urumqi (I)

2n: Urumqi (II)

2o: Urumqi (III)

Book 3: Steppe to the Left, Steppe to the Right…

3a: Druzhba to Almaty

3b: Shumkent to Tashkent

3c: Tashkent (I) 

3d: Bukhara

3e: Bukhara to Samarkand

3f: Samarkand

3g: Samarkand to Urgench

3h: Khiva

3i: Tashkent (II)

3j: Tashkent to Moscow

3k: Moscow (I)

3l: Moscow (II)

3m: Moscow (III)

3n: Konotop to Varna 




28th July, 2002- Lanzhou, China

We slept well that night, recuperating after all those early mornings and arose at the time of day that God intended Man should arise, that is just in time for lunch with Lu as had been arranged the night before.

Despite how prosperous the Chinese seem to be getting, there was no doubt that Lu's family were well above average level. For a start they arrived in a brand new microbus that his uncle, a businessman, owned, and then proceeded to take us to a rather expensive-looking restaurant where uncle paid for a huge and delicious banquet-type meal for everybody. We sampled a variety of tantalising (and a few not-so) dishes, whilst talking to Lu and his 'sister' who both had a lot to say about the lives of young people in China and the economics and politics of their country.

One thing that had been puzzling us ever since we arrived in the People's Republic were the lions. Wherever one went, pairs of stone lions could be found guarding gateways or entrances. Ok, so that is pretty straightforward, having a lion or two to guard your house makes sense, after all, they're pretty scary creatures, but what interested us was the symbolism of the balls, for one lion always had a ball under its foot and both, a ball in their mouths. 'But what exactly do these balls represent?' the Lowlander asked Lu.

"The lion with the ball under its foot is the female. The male has a baby lion instead."

And the balls in their mouths?

Lu looked lost and turned to his family who seemed equally perplexed. "Sorry," he said, "no one knows."

fu-dogs-front Guardian lions

After the meal we suggested spending some time with our host, but he was busy as 'sister' was due to start university in September and she needed some help with her application, so we bade our goodbyes, agreeing to meet again at the railway station later on, and instead headed into town for a look around the shops. Our first stop was in the large state department store besides the city's main square. In there on the top floor, the Lowlander spied a nice jade tea set at a reasonable price which he decided to purchase. The seller's delight at having sold something so choice, soon turned to delight when this foreign barbarian insisted on taking every article out of the box and checking it thoroughly, demanding that defective cups were replaced with perfect ones from other sets. And when at last this tall infidel pronounced himself satisfied and she thought her woes over, it was back to square one when his portly and slightly shorter yet equally alien companion decided that he too wanted the same.

Having spent our money, we sat in a cafe overlooking the square and drank cans of pop whilst playing backgammon and watching a very cheesy spaghetti kung fu film full of wizards and warriors. And that done, we then took a taxi to the post office to get rid of that jade that we'd just acquired, so as to keep our bags as light as possible, but were disappointed to discover that under no circumstances would they send it.

“But why ever not?” we asked, more than a little puzzled.

“Breakable,” came the reply.

Now quite why it was their problem that something might crack or smash en route to Europe, I for one cannot fathom out, but here in China, rules are rules and under no circumstances can they be bent, so annoyed at the thought of all that unnecessary weight in our baggage we left and headed for the railway station.

For some reason, Lu never did make it to the station as arranged, and so we waited but two, before boarding our train and settling down for the night. Once again, the bad manners and mood of the train staff were quite legendary, but we were getting used to train crews with a temper by now, and just ignored them, instead reading a little of Mao ZeDong: Man Not God, a book that I'd bought in Qingdao, thinking it to be a biography of the Great Leader. Instead though, it turned out to be a collection of sycophantic anecdotes by his bodyguard, detailing his favourite meals, smoking habits, amnesia and such like. Oh well, something different at least I suppose, and it kept me occupied until lights out came and I curled up to sleep.

29th July, 2002 – Jiayuguan, China


For some reason that night I did not sleep well and it was early the following morning when I arose. The landscape outside was flat and barren; quite simply mile after mile of nothing, fertile China now being far behind. We headed down to the dining car for breakfast, but sadly that only made matters worse, since we were promptly served up with what must be the most repulsive on board meal that I have ever had the misfortune to eat. Firstly, there was a big bun, complemented by some of that purple bean soup that the Orientals so adore and I so loathe, followed by a disgusting concoction of spicy vegetables. Tired, feeling sickly from the food and bored by the landscape, we got out the backgammon. I lost. Perhaps this was not to be my lucky day?

Jiayuguan turned out to be just how I'd expect an Arabian Gulf city to be; wide straight boulevards, flanked by nondescript modern buildings on either side. It was clean and functional, not particularly full of character, but somehow not unpleasant either.

jiayuguan08 Jiayuguan city centre

Our chosen hotel, the Xiongguan Binguan, turned out to be on an intersection of those two wide straight boulevards. It was cheap at Y78 a night for the two of us, though the view out of the window was definitely the poorest that we'd come across so far, with there being only a metre or so between our pane of glass and the blank concrete wall of an adjacent building.

jiayuguan view A room with a view

Once settled and freshened, we set out into the town in search of a restaurant for a bite to eat. Unfortunately however, those said establishments appeared to be somewhat thin on the ground, (it later transpired that we'd been walking away from the city centre). When we did eventually find somewhere and picked out two meals from the menu, we were presented with two remarkably similar dishes; one beef with peppers in a brown sauce and the other chicken with peppers in a brown sauce. The Lowlander was not impressed. “Just because we are foreign, it doesn't mean that we are absolutely stupid,” he grumbled. “They've given us whatever they had left over and just changed the meat.” Always ready to give the batsman the benefit of the doubt, I was not so sure, since in my experience a lot of Chinese foods tend to taste pretty similar anyway, but needless to say, we never went back there.

Having eaten it was of course now time to sightsee, and the biggest of Jiayuguan's must-see sights are of course the last section of the Great Wall, (well, that's what they claimed, although several hundred kilometres further on in Dunhuang they were claiming the same thing, and the mighty Jiayuguan Chenglou or 'Jiayu Pass Fort'.

We were especially interested in seeing the Great Wall since having viewed it much further down the line at Badaling we had something with which to compare this desert section. Not that Jiayuguan's piece is original mind. That had all but crumbled away to dust and this was a 1987 reconstruction, built by students who were paid a fen per brick that they laid. Nonetheless, it was interesting. Whilst basically the same design as the wall at Badaling, here of course different materials were utilised – those that they had close at hand – mud bricks.

Unfortunately, be they made out of mud bricks or stone, Great Walls have a tendency to be very steep, and despite several stops, I felt like death warmed up, (very much warmed up actually, we were now truly in the desert and it was bloody hot), when we got to the end of the reconstructed section. And up here it was plain just how reconstructed that section was. Whilst at Badaling, beyond the showpiece mile or two, the wall was ruined and crumbling, at least it was obvious that a wall was there. Here however, one simply could not even tell where the wall used to run, there was no trace whatsoever! I remembered Ryan in Beijing telling me about a book that he'd read by an Englishman who'd walked the entire length of the Great Wall, but here I wondered just how that was possible since for vast sections there was absolutely nothing to follow? I imagine that for the vast majority of his time he was not rambling the ramparts, but simply wandering through the desert and mountains with a compass and old maps, trying to guess where his wall once went, for I'm sure that there was little on the ground to help him.

jiayuguan great wall 1 jiayuguan great wall 2 The Great Wall at Jiayuguan

Back at the bottom of the wall we noticed a small temple on a nearby hillside with all its coloured flags flying, so we strolled over to have a look. What we found was, in my opinion, the pleasantest religious sanctuary that we visited all trip. An old man tended a small garden at the front whilst inside scary and benevolent deities stared down at us. This place was tranquillity indeed, and I for one was glad that we'd made the detour.

jiayuguan great wall 3 The temple near to the Great Wall

The Jiayu Pass Fort built in 1372 and titled 'Impregnable Defile Under Heaven' was the last major Chinese stronghold to the west. Like the Wall, it had been well and truly renovated in recent times, which helped us get a feel for how it must have once looked, but conversely made it lose some of its atmosphere. We wandered beneath and upon its mighty ramparts and imagined ourselves to be travellers of yore, setting out upon the Silk Road to Europe, before having our fill of history and returning to our hotel on the intersection.


 jiayuguan03 The Jiayu Pass Fort

Back at the Xiongguan Binguan we encountered yet another of those little mysteries that China seems to be full of. Having been travelling about for some time now, we'd naturally acquired quite a bit of dirty laundry, so we asked for laundry service and sorted out what wanted washing.

“These no!” said the lady, pulling out the socks and pants. It had been the same in Beijing and would later turn out to be the same in Urumqi too. For some reason, Chinese hotel laundry services will wash aught but underwear. Yes indeed, strange but true.

That evening we walked into town, (the right direction this time), dined at a nicer restaurant than before, emailed the world, and headed down to the market to replenish my depleted tea stocks. I was in luck with the teabags, finding a box of the excellent Golden Sail Brand Tea, which is apparently exported to more than a hundred countries and regions, (me suspects more likely regions, since I've never seen it elsewhere). Whilst this tea tasted good, its prime attraction was the box which featured a hilarious Bill Oddy lookalike enjoying his cuppa and for some inexplicable reason, weighing his teabags. Classic! (Or maybe you had to be there?) Whatever, lucky with tea we were, but less lucky with the milk powder to go in it. That turned out to be for babies and therefore watered down and sweetened. Yuck!

And so it was that we settled into life at the Xiongguan Binguan in Jiayuguan, with plenty of tea, soon some clean clothes, (we did the underwear ourselves), and not a lot left to see. Oh well, we'd find something and true to form, in time we did, but that evening all I managed was to finish Quan Yan Chi's Mao ZeDong: Man Not God, which turned out to be as inspiring as the view from the bedroom window.

Next part: 2k: Jiayuguan

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