Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The End Of The Wall As We Know It

Almost immediately upon leaving Xiahe you leave behind Tibet and its people and find yourself amongst the Chinese Muslim minority, the Hui. So you swap one clothing craze for another: namely floppy jackets with sleeves that reach down to your calves (Tibetans) for thin, muslin skull-caps (Hui). It also means plenty of kebabs and sheep brains for me, yummy! As well as the change in people there is also a dramatic change in scenery. Gone are the lofty mountains and high plateaus filled with yak(s?) of Tibet to be replaced by the dusty scrubland that forms the edge of the Gobi Desert. There is a certain advantage to this though: the Tibetan landscape needed to be watched continuously for any exciting changes that may lie around the corner, but the monotony of the desert is predictable so you only need to look up once every 10 minutes or so, which gives me more time to read my book.

At the moment I'm in Jiayuguan, which is in a narrow stretch of land called the Hexi Corridor in Gansu province, which, I think, looks uncannily like a spaceship. The Hexi Corridor is sandwiched between the Tibetan plateau to the south and the Gobi Desert, giving the province a rather odd shape. Despite its strange geography (or rather, because of it) the area was vitally important to China in ancient times as it was the only route that could be taken by the famous Silk Road that linked China to the Middle East and Europe. And in this strategically important region Jiayuguan was the focal point, as it was here that the Great Wall ended, and although the Chinese empire stretched further west, official protection ended here. To mark the entrance to their empire in suitable style the Chinese built an impregnable fortress across the narrow valley with a wall running south (3km) to a sheer river gorge and north (6km) to a chain of mountains that line the Gobi. The starkness of the landscape also adds to the frontier atmosphere (even though the industrial monstrosities directly behind the fort try their best to do the opposite). You really get a feeling of stepping into a different country, with the added bonus of not having to go through the whole visa and border crossing rigmarole.

For those of you back home who are slightly jealous of all my travelling and have a penchant for schadenfreude I've got a little story to warm your hearts. The road from Xiahe to Jiayuguan is a long one and I had to take an overnight bus, though it seems they were scraping the bottom of the barrel when they were kitting out this one: a juddering suspension, a clapped-out engine that made the whole chassis vibrate like something out of Victoria's Secret, and, to top it all, no blankets! Luckily I still had my sleeping bag with me, even though it is just a one season one (and that season definitely ain't Winter), so I was only mildly frozen by the morning. Though the experience has finally made me take the plunge and invest in a rather fetching pair of thermal long-johns (sexy!). On top of all that everybody on the bus was smoking and consequently they all had horrible hacking, smokers' coughs, so I dubbed the journey the Emphysema Express (I even had a little song in my head to the tune of the classic Marrakech Express).

P.S. Although the Jiayuguan fort is advertised as being the end of the Great Wall, and it certainly was during the Ming and Qing dynasties (13th-20th centuries), in an earlier incarnation the Wall (circa 100AD) stretched another 500km to the west, though because this is effectively in the middle of nowhere it is more expedient from the tourism point of view to make Jiayuguan the terminus as the town has its own train station.

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