Along the Hexi Corridor

Posted on 2019-11-11

Jiayuguan is at the end of the Ming dynasty Great Wall, that, in this area, used to protect the western reaches of the Ming empire and the Silk Road. The trade route ran from Central Asia around the Taklamakan desert, through Jiayuguan, and then eastwards along the Hexi corridor, a string of oases between the inhospitable Qilian Mountains to the south and the Gobi desert to the north. Farmer-soldiers were settled in the area to cultivate the land and defend the Great Wall. Jiayuguan also had a fearsome reputation at the time, as people banished from China were ordered to leave through the gate there into the Gobi desert, from where they rarely returned.

The western gateway into Jiayuguan fortress, built to guard the western border of the Ming Dynasty from invasion. The fortress also had a somewhat fearsome reputation as Chinese people who were banished were ordered to leave through Jiayuguan and head west into the Gobi desert, the vast majority never to return.

The western gateway into Jiayuguan fortress, built to guard the western border of the Ming Dynasty from invasion. The fortress also had a somewhat fearsome reputation as Chinese people who were banished were ordered to leave through Jiayuguan and head west into the Gobi desert, the vast majority never to return.

Large parts of the Ming dynasty wall have since decayed, but the gate fortress of Jiayuguan and part of the wall nearby have been restored into a very touristy, but still interesting, state. China organises its touristic sites into categories of up to AAAAA - the more As, the more popular the site and the better the tourist infrastructure. The Jiayuguan Great Wall is an AAAAA attraction, meaning it is well maintained, surrounded by a park, with lots of shops, restaurants, electric scooter rental, camel riding and so on. Ignoring all the kitsch, we still enjoyed exploring the main fortress, as well as the Overhanging Great Wall, where the wall extending north from the fortress climbs a steep mountain ridge and ends at the top.

Panorama of the inner city of Jiayuguan fortress. In the foreground, where the fake yurts are, are where kitschy "military" performances are sometimes held. The two pavillions on the left sit atop the gates in the outer and inner walls guarding the fortress from the west (i.e. the western border of the Ming Dynasty, beyond which lies the vast Gobi desert), while the pavillion on the right sits atop the gate to the inner city from the east.

Panorama of the inner city of Jiayuguan fortress. In the foreground, where the fake yurts are, are where kitschy "military" performances are sometimes held. The two pavillions on the left sit atop the gates in the outer and inner walls guarding the fortress from the west (i.e. the western border of the Ming Dynasty, beyond which lies the vast Gobi desert), while the pavillion on the right sits atop the gate to the inner city from the east.

Just outside the western gateway into Jiayuguan fortress, you can now rent a camel and ride off into the Gobi desert, just like the Silk Road caravans used to do

Just outside the western gateway into Jiayuguan fortress, you can now rent a camel and ride off into the Gobi desert, just like the Silk Road caravans used to do

The Overhanging Great Wall, the last section of the Great Wall that extends north from Jiayuguan fortress. The wall climbs steeply up the eastern slope of the (appropriately named) Black Mountain and ends at the top.

The Overhanging Great Wall, the last section of the Great Wall that extends north from Jiayuguan fortress. The wall climbs steeply up the eastern slope of the (appropriately named) Black Mountain and ends at the top.

We then cycled out of Jiayuguan city towards our next major destination, Zhangye. What surprised us in (by Chinese standards) small cities like Jiayuguan was how relatively quiet the traffic was. Car traffic was very calm compared to Central Asia, and many streets have a separate lane for scooters and tricycles (most of which are electric and silent), where we could ride safely and easily. Outside the cities though, the main road through the Hexi corridor was occupied by an endless stream of heavy trucks, constantly blaring their extremely loud horns to warn everybody else on the road of their presence. The road quality was very good though, and we cycled relatively far every day.

The desert landscape we cycled through most of the time from Jiayuguan to Gaotai

The desert landscape we cycled through most of the time from Jiayuguan to Gaotai

Unfortunately, with the cold autumn weather and the smoky restaurants and hotels, it took us only one day of cycling to develop sore throats, and by the end of the second day, when we reached the small city of Gaotai, Heiko had developed a horrible cold. After three nights of rest, Heiko was still not fit enough to cycle, but we gave up waiting and decided to take the bus for the last leg to Zhangye.

Zhangye is an old Silk Road city, with its main sight being the Giant Buddha Temple, housing the largest wooden core, clay covered, reclining Buddha in Asia (or something like that - every big Buddha statue seems to be the biggest of some kind, but at 34.5m in length, this one was quite impressive). But the reason most people come here is for the Zhangye Danxia National Geological Park, some distance outside the city. Also known as the Rainbow Mountains, the park has an otherworldly landscape with multi-coloured rock formations. The photos we had seen online looked digitally enhanced, but when we went there, the colours were unbelievably real, even though it was mostly cloudy during our visit - the colours are even stronger when the sun is low or shortly after rain. We also didn't modify the colours in our photos in any way! Another AAAAA attraction, all tourists are required to take an internal shuttle bus that takes you around four (really large) viewing platforms - which may sound overly touristy, but actually protects the geological park as it keeps the masses of people in predefined areas with the best views.

The largest clay-covered wood-core reclining Buddha statue in Asia inside the Giant Buddha Temple (大佛寺) in Zhangye

The largest clay-covered wood-core reclining Buddha statue in Asia inside the Giant Buddha Temple (大佛寺) in Zhangye

Colourful hills of the Zhangye Danxia National Geological Park, also known as the Rainbow Mountains

Colourful hills of the Zhangye Danxia National Geological Park, also known as the Rainbow Mountains

Colourful hills of the Zhangye Danxia National Geological Park, also known as the Rainbow Mountains. The sign reads "Colourful Danxia".

Colourful hills of the Zhangye Danxia National Geological Park, also known as the Rainbow Mountains. The sign reads "Colourful Danxia".

Colourful hills of the Zhangye Danxia National Geological Park, also known as the Rainbow Mountains

Colourful hills of the Zhangye Danxia National Geological Park, also known as the Rainbow Mountains

From Zhangye, we then set out again on what was supposed to be a four-day ride to the next major city, Wuwei. We cycled along parts of the Ming dynasty Great Wall, just a partly restored mud wall in this area, but still very impressive to look at. Arriving in Shandan, we were turned away from a boutique hotel and had to stay in a fancy "International Hotel", somewhat above our normal budget but the cheaper of the only two hotels in the city licensed to accept foreigners. The next day, after cycling along more stretches of the Great Wall, we reached a small village where a guesthouse was marked on our map - but didn't exist. Luckily, we found a more or less hidden spot next to an old Great Wall watchtower, and set up camp there. It was a very cold night, even in our sleeping bags, but at least the location was unique - how often does one get to camp next to a piece of history?

Remnants of the Great Wall along the road between Zhangye and Shandan

Remnants of the Great Wall along the road between Zhangye and Shandan

Remnants of the Great Wall, next to which we camped, along the road between Shandan and Yongchang

Remnants of the Great Wall, next to which we camped, along the road between Shandan and Yongchang

On the next day, however, Hannah didn't feel well at all, and it didn't help that - for the first time in China - there wasn't any restaurant to be found for lunch. Finally, even though it was mostly a slight downhill, Hannah could barely continue anymore, and we hitchhiked the rest of the way to our destination Yongchang, where we were stuck again for three nights until Hannah recovered. Here, for the first time (but not the last), the police came to our room after we had checked in to register us personally. It also snowed here for the first time for us this season - a sign for us to move south more quickly!

Snow falling around the Bell and Drum Tower in the centre of Yongchang, on the junction of North, South, East, and West Streets

Snow falling around the Bell and Drum Tower in the centre of Yongchang, on the junction of North, South, East, and West Streets

After Hannah recovered, we finally made it to Wuwei, another really old Silk Road city - people have been living here for at least 5000 years. The city has several old Buddhist and Confucian temples, an impressive city gate, and a famous tomb, from which interesting bronze statues have been recovered, including the Flying Horse of Wuwei, the symbol of Gansu province today. We spent a very long day around the city, partly because we got a bit lost amidst all the major construction work (not only in Wuwei, but everywhere so far in China), with which maps just cannot keep up.

Collecting 'magic water' from a well in the Haizang Temple (海藏寺) in Wuwei, said to connect by subterranean streams to a Holy Lake in the Potala Palace in Lhasa. Drinking the water is said to cure myriad ailments.

Collecting 'magic water' from a well in the Haizang Temple (海藏寺) in Wuwei, said to connect by subterranean streams to a Holy Lake in the Potala Palace in Lhasa. Drinking the water is said to cure myriad ailments.

A large replica of the Flying Horse of Wuwei at the entrance to Leitai Park, where the original relic was found in a tomb under the Leitai Temple

A large replica of the Flying Horse of Wuwei at the entrance to Leitai Park, where the original relic was found in a tomb under the Leitai Temple

Our last stretch of the Hexi corridor took us over the Wushaoling pass at almost 3000m altitute, after which we stayed in an almost empty ski resort (it was very cold there, but not cold enough to go skiing yet 😉). The area is part of the Tianzhu Tibetan Autonomous County, and although we couldn't tell the Tibetan people apart, there were many signs in Tibetan script and the houses had a unique style. It was then a long, but relatively easy downhill over two days to the provincial capital and eastern end of the Hexi corridor, Lanzhou. Hexi (河西) literally translates to "West of the (Yellow) River", that flows through Lanzhou.

Wushaoling pass (2980m), within the Tianzhu Tibetan Autonomous County, covered in dense, colourful rows of Tibetan prayer flags

Wushaoling pass (2980m), within the Tianzhu Tibetan Autonomous County, covered in dense, colourful rows of Tibetan prayer flags

View of the Qilian mountains from the Wushaoling International Ski Resort, where we stayed for a night just after crossing the Wushaoling pass (2980m)

View of the Qilian mountains from the Wushaoling International Ski Resort, where we stayed for a night just after crossing the Wushaoling pass (2980m)

In Lanzhou, we spent most of our first day in the Gansu Provincial Museum, nerding out over dinosaur fossils, 8000-year-old painted pottery, and lots of old Silk Road artefacts. We also made a major decision for the rest of our trip: shipping our camping and cooking gear ahead to Singapore.

Heiko and a stegosaurus (his favourite dinosaur), in the Gansu Provincial Museum in Lanzhou

Heiko and a stegosaurus (his favourite dinosaur), in the Gansu Provincial Museum in Lanzhou

Bicycle travel in China for us has been quite different compared to our previous countries. Camping is illegal, and although we have camped once, such opportunities will only become rarer as the rest of our route through China is more densely populated. Camping in Southeast Asia is equally difficult. Affordable hotels, on the other hand, can be found in any city and most large towns, of which there are many. Cheap restaurants with vegetarian options can also be found almost anywhere, so we rarely cook for ourselves anymore. We thus decided that it is not worth lugging all the heavy and bulky gear around for the rare occasion we might not find accommodation somewhere. In those cases, we will just have to hitchhike or take a bus to the next town.

Big foodcourt in Zhangye - definitely in food country now

Big foodcourt in Zhangye - definitely in food country now

So we got rid of 18.5 kg of weight and all our bags except for the now tightly stuffed rear panniers. Sending a parcel from China turned out to be unexpectedly time-consuming, as each and every item had to be inspected in detail before packing. However, it now feels much easier traveling with so much less luggage (although the uncertainty of finding a foreigner hotel each night is still a bit unnerving).

With multiple delays due to illness and winter approaching from the north, we also wanted to fast forward our route south of Lanzhou by taking the train. This required consigning our bicycles ahead of us again, which unexpectedly consumed the rest of our second day. Turned away from the consignment office at the high-speed train station, we had to cycle across the city to the old train station, where they insisted on affixing some bubble wrap to our bicycles (for a fee higher than the actual shipping) - a new "rule" that wasn't required when consigning before. By the time we were finally done with sending everything ahead, we were too tired and it was too late for any more sightseeing, so we missed out on that completely. Our impression of Lanzhou is  thus limited to the beef noodles that the city is famous for - with more than 1000 beef noodle shops across the city, almost every restaurant we saw was a beef noodle shop...

Leaving Lanzhou without our bicycles and with significantly less luggage, we will be switching into backpacker mode for the next few days!