A Day Of Two Halves

8th September 2017

Meeting of Silk Road and Great WallAt least our overnight train was a soft sleeper and so we were in four berth cabins with doors. The train was much more comfortable than the previous one from Xi’an and I was woken by the door being unlocked from the outside by the ticket lady to ensure we were awake(ish) and ready to disembark into the Gobi Desert.

Best view of the FortJiayuguan is a modern city in the narrowest part of the Hexi (pronounced hershee) corridor, situated between the Mongolian Table Mountain and the Tibet mountains. The town was only built in 1958 when the steel industry sprung up due to the discovery of iron ore. The reason we are here is that the same geographical features meant that in the days of the Silk Road a fort was built here to protect China’s western frontier and monitor the trade between East and West.

Overlooking inside the FortSadly, the original fort from 1327AD has not fared well over the years and has been mostly rebuilt and is now a Disney like tourist attraction full of too many tourist groups with each tour leader trying to talk louder (with microphone and portable speaker) than the next. The barbarian hordes are now of Chinese tourists with their selfie sticks snapping many photos. We were soon overwhelmed and glad to find a quiet corner to contemplate what we were seeing and try to envisage what it used to be like all those years ago.

Bored staffJust in case you needed something else to photograph there were bored young lads dressed in ancient soldiers armour who marched through the Fort and guarded the entrances. More interesting was the maze of routes through the Fort complex designed to confuse the enemy and divert them from the true entrance to the inner courtyards. The outer walkway was also for the passing merchants to pass by without access the inside.

A walk along the Overhanging Ming Great WallEscaping from the melee our next stop was the Western end of the Great Wall built in 1540 known as Overhanging Rock, which is also mainly a rebuilt rather than restoration. We had hoped that being so far from Beijing this part the wall would be less touristy, but we were wrong. The numbered tour groups following the correct flag or number were here too, but luckily only the adventurous few made it to the top.

A dry ski slope out here?There were over 400 steps along/up the wall to the top lookout tower. This gave views out over the Gobi Desert with town and the Steelworks one way and a dry ski slope the other. Sadly, also at the top was a small stall where locks could be engraved and left on the railings. Is nowhere sacred???

Deserted At least this morning we had managed to be the only tourists at the tombs of the Wei-Jin Dynasties which date back to 220 to 420 AD. This turned out to be a fascinating visit in the middle of nowhere with the open expanse covering many underground tombs which have not been excavated. It reminded me of the area in Peru where we saw open graves of mummies.

TModel of the Tomb chamberso elaborate, we entered a small, unprepossessing hut and descended a flight of steps into a chamber lined with bricks and covered in the original wall paintings depicting everyday life. This leads onto two further chambers from which two wooden coffins had been removed and now can be viewed in the onsite museum.

Copies of the paintings from the tombsThis is the tomb of a wealthy couple from approx. 220AD, but any treasures buried with them were looted long ago. Luckily we are a small group of ten, and we only just squeezed into each chamber as they got progressively smaller and luckily we know each other well enough to inelegantly crawl/stoop between the chambers. Sadly, we were not allowed to take any photographs inside the tomb and so had to make do with the replicas in the shop and the museum.

Tall WesternerThe nearby museum is through a low reconstructed arch and comprised of one small room. It is quite informative and well presented with the coffins on display and also details of the burial site with a map showing the surrounding area. It is unusual to have a museum shop where the prices were very reasonable and not inflated for tourists. The main items for sale were replicas of tiles in the tombs depicting scenes from the everyday life of families. Given the good pricing, they seemed to be a good addition to our (neglected) fridge magnet collection.

Lifesize camel sculpturesTalk about the opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of size of tourist attraction, commercialisation and number of tourists. The tombs and the fort could not have been more different. We much preferred the quieter and less pretentious nature of the tombs – if only more sites could be more like them.

Enjoying a spot of dinnerTo end off the day, it was a trip to the night market for some street food. Hmm, not what we expected as the market was half a dozen stalls and the street was a wide walking precinct with tables down the tree lined avenue served from the restaurants along the sides. We had a great meal – kebabs and grilled meats rather than the traditional Chinese dishes we have predominantly had until now. We also provided much amusement for the locals enjoying a Friday night get together on the surrounding tables and the children occasionally approaching us to practice their English.

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