Friday, 14 June 2013

Across Asia With A Lowlander: Part 2k: Jiayuguan

world-map jiayuguan


And after our short Turkish interlude we’re back in the Middle Kingdom, or to be more exact, the absolute back sticks of the Middle Kingdom, a small town where there’s very little to do beyond snorting white powder and looking at lingerie.

Not too different from home then.

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 



30th July, 2002 – Jiayuguan, China

Having decided to stick around in Jiayuguan for some time, there was no need to rise early that morning, so rise early we certainly did not. It was elevenish before I eventually stumbled out of bed towards the kettle, and little before noon before we made our way down the sweltering street to a pleasant restaurant where we dined and played backgammon, (four nil to Matt, very good). It was only then that we decided to do something, but the question was, what? Jiayuguan's two big attractions, the Great Wall and the Jiayu Pass Fort we had of course, already seen, and it was too late to go far afield. After a quick dive into the guidebook, the answer was soon discovered in the shape of the city's Great Wall Museum, which itself was built in the shape of (what else but...) the Great Wall! 'Perfick' as that jolly man Pop Larkin would say, so we hired out one of the rather cool looking yellow cyclos, (with yellow tasseled canopy), that were circulating the streets, and made our way to the Great Wall-esque Changcheng Bowuguan.

jiayuguan14 Jiayuguan cyclos

I suppose that we should have guessed. After Yinchuan's museum had been closed, and Lanzhou's too being well and truly, not operational in a displaying historical relics capacity, then... But stupid as were eternally are, we were of course surprised to find that the Chinese Communist Party's obvious 'Shut Down the Museums' Drive had got as far as Jiayuguan too. The building stood there, as castellated and fort-like as ever, but instead of being crammed full of the nation's heritage, it was instead now full of mobile phones, its new function apparently as a retail outlet for those handy means of communication. Where were the relics? Housed in a brand new, not yet open museum situated by the Jiayu Pass Fort that we'd visited the day before.

Undeterred, we two intrepid sightseers once more plunged into the pages of the guidebook in true tourist fashion and fished out the locality's last remaining tourist site, Xincheng Weijinmu, as a means of passing the hours of the day. Now this Weijinmu thing was not really ideal, being almost twenty kilometres away from the town which would mean a hefty taxi fare, but it did sound quite interesting. The name, which in English means 'Art Gallery' is somewhat misleading since although a place of paintings, no Louvre was this. What it was in fact, were some tombs and a museum of these tombs, which contained lots of paintings dating from the Wei and Western Jin Periods. And according to the book, the Wei and Western Jin Periods were from approximately AD220 -420 which is really, quite a long time ago. Besides, there was literally nothing else to do, so off we went.

Half the pleasure was of course, the drive out there. Beyond the city limits there was nothing, just a huge flat expanse of stony desert, the infamous Gobi. What surprised me however, is that all the roads out there are not only dead straight, but also tree-lined. Quite why the authorities should plants thousands of trees by the roadsides I couldn't quite figure out, and the Lowlander, who it turns out is quite an expert regarding the world of trees, bushes and flowers, was equally bemused, partially because according to the Zeeland Dweller's Book of Tree Wisdom, just one of those green monsters drinks around one hundred and twenty-five litres of water, daily. And where would one find such quantities of H20 from? Well, whatever the case, they did look rather nice, and one could even imagine that we were driving through provincial France if it had not been for the harsh wasteland beyond the trunks.

And talking of the view beyond those trees, it was on that journey that I saw something that I'd never seen before, and that quite took my breath away. There on the horizon, shimmering in the heat, was a mountain. Except that it wasn't a mountain, as it had been there the day before and next to it was a real mountain. When the two were side by side, the difference was clear; this new mount was in fact a mirage, a real life desert mirage. Wow!

Unfortunately, when we reached the Xincheng Weijinmu, that was far from spectacular. The entry was a hefty Y30 and the relics unspectacular. The tomb was a polystyrene reproduction and the whole place so overgrown that we couldn't resist taking a photo of the 'Keep off the grass' sign, with towering weed garden behind it. Disappointed, we trudged back to the taxi, but to our surprise instead of taking us back to the city, the driver instead took us further out into the desert. Then the light dawned, the museum was just a warm up, and we were now to see the real thing, one of the thousand or so tombs.

jiayuguan06 Xincheng Weijinmu

The museum may have been uninspiring, but the tomb itself was well worth the trip. Down the steps we descended, into the bowels of the earth where the air was cool and pleasant, the thermometer registering twelve degrees celsius, which was far more preferable to the thirty-five or so outside. The tomb itself was fascinating, three arched chambers of mud bricks, each decorated with fabulous tiles, upon which were painted scenes of everyday life from the time of the deceased. Hunters hunted, traders drove camels, wild horses roamed across the desert, bakers baked, cooks cooked and there was even a rabbit and monkey getting in on the act.

On our way back we asked the driver to pull in at what looked like a large green-domed mosque in the middle of the desert. Upon closer inspection however, it turned out to be not a house of worship, but a graveyard for the city's Muslims, the green-domed building being a sort of ornamental tower in the middle. The burial ground itself was still largely empty, perhaps because it has only been legal to be interned in such a place for a decade or so. We wandered around the peaceful resting-place, before returning to our hotel to while away the sunny hours, playing backgammon, reading and eating fresh watermelons.


jiayuguan05 The graveyard in the desert: not well-tended

That evening, after the temperature had dropped somewhat, we ventured out with the masses to take a volta, and around the corner from the post office we found out where the action was; a huge square complete with firework illuminations and an enormous fountain. We couldn't believe it, there was water everywhere, all this in one of the driest places on earth! It was like the city authorities were boasting to the Gods that their new atheist and technological regime could procure water wherever, and throw it around in abundance.

We watched the fountain for a while, and all the locals who were playing badminton under the bright lights, before retiring to a nearby bar to enjoy some local beer. The bar was incredibly long, extremely thin and in true Asian fashion, exceedingly cheesy; 'Hello Kitty' and other cartoon characters adorned the walls, whilst the ceiling was covered with sprigs of plastic trees and tinsel. The crowning glory however, was the ultra-violet lights which we used to great effect by pulling out our credit cards and the Lowlander's passport and discovering all the emblems and messages hidden therein, (I recommend that you try this someday). And after finding secret national symbols of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Russia in the visas, the Dutch lion in the passport itself and a large 'M C' on the MasterCard, we were well satisfied and thus a pleasant evening was concluded.

31st July to 1st August, 2002 – Jiayuguan, China

I knew that something was wrong that morning when I arose at ten with a sore head. Not very sore mind, but far worse than it should be after only three beers. The fact was, that I was out of practice dreadfully, the beers with Ryan in Beijing being the last time that we'd seriously touched alcohol, and even then we didn't have a lot. No, it certainly wasn't good enough, and it also meant that that morning I didn't feel inclined to do a lot, which in a way was fine, since we had absolutely nothing to do anyway.

Actually, that wasn't exactly true. We had decided to go on a trip the following day to Jingtieshan, a mountain over five thousand metres high, (Everest is eight thousand something), and only three hours away by train, so after a leisurely hour or four reading in bed and dining at our restaurant, we took a taxi to Jiayuguan's other railway station, Luhua.

But before I tell you about that, I suppose I should mention 'our' restaurant, a fine establishment which went by the name of the 'Ying Guang Dining Room'. After our first, somewhat unsuccessful foray into Jiayuguan's limited world of eating establishments, (remember the two pepper with brown sauce creations), we'd then struck off along a different street and come across the Ying Guang, easily recognisable by the two huge (plastic) elephants flanking the entrance. Quite why the elephants were there we never quite worked out, there was nothing remotely African or Indian about the place, but the food was excellent and thus we decided to make the place our regular haunt. Very regular in fact; twice a day, everyday that we were in Jiayuguan, we made our way down to that be-elephanted home for diners, sat at the same table by the window, and picked a different dish from the menu. The food was excellent, the waitresses friendly and the tea free flowing. What's more, with my basic knowledge of Chinese characters we rarely made any disastrous menu mistakes, although on one occasion, the expensive White -Something-Duck dish that we'd pointed at with relish, turned out to be a plate of steamed duck's feet in a white sauce. Hmm, well, nobody's perfect and at least the kitchen staff got a good free meal that evening.

jiayuguan15 The Ying Guang Dining Room

But back to the station from where our train was to depart. Well, that was the theory anyway, although when we arrived it plainly looked like nothing was going to depart from there in the near future. The place was deserted save for some pieces of wood and tins of paint that had been deposited in the obviously soon-to-be-renovated waiting room. We wandered up the stairs and chanced upon a uniformed gent who may or may not have been the stationmaster. He took us into his room and explained patiently that taking a train to the mountainous south was not an option at present and that we would be far better asking at the bus station.

Considering our last bus experience (Xiahe), and the fact that we weren't that bothered about seeing a five thousand metre high mountain anyway, we decided to leave it, bade the man goodbye, and headed out into the open. We stopped at a local store where we searched in vain for beer snacks that looked edible but came out with naught but some shampoo with a happy healthy-haired Oriental gent on the front.

Apart from the momentous trip to the railway station, quite what we did in Jiayuguan is now a bit of a blur. Needless to say it wasn't a lot. The days consisted of rising late, drinking tea, reading or talking in the hotel room, buying those little essentials, wandering the streets of that nondescript yet pleasant little town and dining at the Ying Guang.

jiayuguan09 Purchasing essentials in Jiayuguan market

One way that the Lowlander found to pass the time, was to head down to the market and buy melons which were large, juicy and ridiculously cheap. These he would take back to the room, and slice with his Swiss Army knife, whereupon we would sit and munch them whilst discussing subjects as diverse as Dutch football, the history of Islam, the philosophy of Ayn Rand, China's One Child Policy and Bill Clinton.

The evenings however, were a different affair. Whilst living for a while in a typical Chinese provincial town, we thought that trying out a bit of the provincial nightlife might be a good idea. Of course we had already 'done' the fountain square and the long thin cheesy bar, but that didn't stop us from repeating the experience every night. However, surely a city of over a hundred thousand souls must have something else to offer? We started with a safe bet, the cinema, thinking that watching a cheesy kung fu movie in Chinese might be quite funny, but alas only love films were on offer and we weren't really in that sort of mood. Next up we tried, (the Lowlander reluctantly, I enthusiastically), what the Chinese call 'Kala OK', and were directed by the hotel reception staff to a certain establishment, which upon arrival turned out to be the long thin cheese bar, and sadly, karaokeless.

So, with no films to be seen and no karaoke to be sung, perhaps the only option left was to dance? Besides, small town discos are the best, playing the chirpiest of tunes and devoid of that class of folk who take it all far too seriously. We pointed at 'disco' in the phrase book and the reception staff nodded enthusiastically. Yes, there was one, and yes it was very good, open nine till dawn and called 'Space Disco'. Sounded good, and so after a few drinks at the long thin cheese bar, we headed out to where the action was.

Or so we thought. Yes, we found the 'Space Disco', yes it was very spacey, (planets and rockets everywhere), and yes, it was open. Well, just about. The place was as quiet as an Old Trafford crowd and the lights just as dim. Instead, the hard core of the city's hardened alcoholics sat around the bar drinking beer and spirits and waiting till morning. Still, they were friendly, and so we settled in amongst them, refused the offers of cigarettes, accepted the sunflower seeds and drank the beer on offer until about two in the morning when we called it a night and left, wandering through the streets back to our hotel, stopping to marvel at an apartment block construction site with scores of workers in full toil and an Internet Cafe jam-packed full of the computer-orientated. So that's what they do at night here! Email friends and build blocks of flats. And if you're really cool, sit in an empty disco and drink warm beer.

And people say that Stoke on Trent is bad!

Actually, the longer that we stayed in Jiayuguan, the stranger we noticed the place to be. Take the hairdressers for example. All day long the hairdresser stayed open, with a customer or two to keep him busy. Yet go past at midnight and the place was packed full of people requiring perms, shaves and trims. Ok, so I know that the place isn't exactly kicking but surely going to the hair salon for your evening's entertainment is a bit much? The Internet Cafes too were always full, whilst the long thin cheese bar, (which appeared to be Jiayuguan's only bar), was normally deserted.

Perhaps because of the strange nature of the place, (or perhaps because we were screwballs anyway), we seemed to get weirder and find more off-the-wall ways to keep ourselves amused. We put the baby milk powder to good use by pouring it all out into a huge mound and taking hilarious coke snorting photos. Or another time we decided to try out all the different breads and sausages from the supermarket, (big mistake, all disgusting). Then there were the trips to the market to pick up items like a GG Little Chickie lunchbox, or spoons with zodiac signs on them, and after that, that the old standby of taking humorous photographs next to lingerie advertisements, and the less common option of capturing on film, the city's grid covers.

jiayuguan11  Bored out of their minds in provincial China, Uncle Travelling Matt and the Lowlander descended into Class A drug use…

jiayuguan13 … and fantasising about girls in underwear ads.

No, this town was seriously starting to affect us, and what's more, we weren't the only ones. The three Chinese guys in the room next-door did nothing but sit in that said room and play cards or watch TV for the whole time that we were there. After they saw the coke incident they decided to invite us in for a chat, (solidarity amongst screwballs I assume), and when we asked if they were there on business, they replied in the negative. “Holiday,” the beaming Chinaman announced. Now that was too much, could you get sadder? Yes indeed. Take the only other foreigners in our hotel for example, a French family. Not only had they chosen Jiayuguan as their dream holiday destination, but they'd bought their dog along with them! This was serious, and that night we decided that we were leaving the next day.

Next part: 2l: Dunhuang

1 comment:

  1. Well done ! You are so brave and adventurous! These are great pictures of the Great Wall! Which reminds me... I should go through my India pictures and post some. Having read this I thought it was rather informative. I appreciate you finding the time and energy to put this article together.

    I once again find myself personally spending a significant amount of time both reading and leaving comments. But so what, it was still worth it! In return, I also found a great blog of Great Wall travel tips, I'd love to share it here with you and for future travelers.