We took a 1-day tour of Jiayuguan (Gee-Uh-You-Gwon), the town at the westernmost end of The Great Wall. It was also our coldest day in China yet. We thought it’d be fun to compare our perspectives on the sites today, so here we go with a little He Said / She Said…
We wake up for our only full day in Jiayuguan and its COLD. There is snow on the ground and light snowfall in the air. After a quick breakfast we meet our guide and driver in the lobby, then head off to the Fort. It was a strategic fort placed in a narrow (15 Km wide) corridor between two mountain ranges. From either side of the fort, portions of The Great Wall stretched out to the mountains, forcing anyone coming from the West (and The Silk Road) to come through the Fort. I love forts, they contain so much thought and planning, its not every building where you have to incorporate the fact that people outside the building may try to knock it down to get at the people inside.
It was great to be able to walk the battlements and through the entry maze traps. Parts of this fort are original, and while I believe the guide said it was early Ming Dynasty, I have to admit I was looking at sight lines, and imagining attack or defence plans rather than listening most of the time.
This was our first experience with real cold and snow on this trip. I definitely didn’t dress appropriately. And it was slippery walking around. Got some amazing pictures of the lake and the Fort in the snowy early morning sun. Then my iPhone (which I was using as a camera) died from the cold. My toes got cold. It was interesting walking around the top and seeing The Great Wall on either side of the Fort. My favourite part was going inside to the museum where we saw 1,500 year old horse sculptures that a farmer found beneath his field. Those were really impressive. Made me think of what the Terracotta Army might be like when we eventually see it in Xi’an.
The Overhanging Great Wall
Our second stop was another part of The Great Wall, known as The Overhanging Great Wall. A long flat section makes its way from the river (where they have reconstructed an impressive River Gate) to the base of the mountains. At this point the wall climbs the lower hills of the mountains, up to a pair of watchtowers. I am eager to climb to the top, but the going is treacherous, stone steps worn from years of use are covered in snow, some of them quite steep. I barely get started when Amanda calls up that she hates climbing things and is going to wait at the bottom. Our guide (probably very pleased by this turn of events) elects to wait in the car with Amanda.
I continue on making my way up steep steps and sections that are just a steep slope of stones, quite treacherous. I have to stop for a breather a couple of times, but what a rewarding view from the top!!!!
Well… rewarding if you like looking at a grown man with a beard full of ice, sitting on a stone step gasping for breath, unable to stand because his legs have turned to jelly.
After getting my breath back, I climbed to the top of the second watchtower and surveyed my domain…. snow covered mountains behind, the valley below, and the wall stretching back down the mountain.
Now to walk the mountain path back down, <shudder>.
The weather ruined this for me. There was a spectacular snowy view from the bottom of the hill, watching The Great Wall snake steeply up the hillside. But my iPhone was dead from the cold, so I couldn’t take any pictures. I really wanted to be a trooper and walk up the 450 steps to the top, but it was so windy and cold, with my furry hood pulled around my head, I could only see directly in front of me, and just watched the steps so not to slip.
About 50 steps in I realised I was cold and miserable. The cold air was burning my lungs, and I couldn’t even enjoy the view because I was too busy watching my feet. I stopped and shouted to Zak (way ahead of me) that he was insane, and then decided to head back down. The guide even bailed out and followed me back down, leaving Zak to finish on his own!
When I got to the bottom, and turned to look up, I could see a little grey blob that was Zak climbing, then sitting to rest, and then finally grabbing the side of the wall and going up what looked like sideways. I immediately thought “OMG what if he slips and falls all alone up there, what am I going to do with a dead phone and I can’t physically run up there?!” But then I noticed there were a few more people also climbing up quite aways behind him … so I guess they would help if something happened, right?
Reassured he wouldn’t be totally alone up there, the guide and I went back to the car, where we talked about naming conventions in China vs. America, what to order at the noodle shop that evening, and how she’s teaching her 5 year old daughter English. Much much later, Zak arrived back at the car, very frozen. I don’t regret my choice to bail out on the climb!
Wei-Jin Tomb in the Gobi Desert
Our final stop of the day was one (the only one open to the public) of thousands of buried tombs in this area of the Gobi Desert. It was only found in the 70s, and belonged a wealthy man who lived there 1600 years ago. Its bitter cold on the Gobi, the area of the tombs is totally flat, so the wind gusts across mercilessly. We head into a small building that houses a seat for a guard, and stairs going down about 13 meters underground.
The tomb construction is amazing, three domed rooms connected with low archways. All built with interlocking bricks and tiles, no mortar or cement, just interlocked bricks… holding up 13meters of rock above us. Crude artwork on the tiles, still very visible, shows the daily life of the tomb resident, scenes of BBQing, trading, the wife doing makeup and the wealth they possessed.
While it was a quick 15mins in the tomb, it was still very impressive and to think there are thousands of these throughout this area is amazing.
This was my favourite part of the day! In a patch of Gobi desert near Jiayuguan, there are over 1,000 underground tombs, built 1,500 years ago. Only one is open to the public, so we went in. It was SO cool. You go about 13 meters (40+ feet) down stairs underground, and then enter the tomb which is made of 3 chambers. The arched doorways are really low (just over 4 feet?), but then it opens into a domed tomb. The artwork inside is really amazing, still so clear and bright. The bricks are painted with scenes of everyday life including tending animals, making silk, cooking, a woman applying make-up etc. I love stepping back in history like this, it really makes me think about how similar we all are, across the ages. Technology changes, but the basic things that make up our daily lives are the same.
The Local Noodle Restaurant
Oh yes… dodgy looking local restaurants… and this one was very dodgy looking. It didn’t even look like an active business when we first passed it, but Amanda got the Chinese characters for ‘Noodles’ on her phone and showed it to a rather startled Chinese lady, who pointed us in the right direction. We had it on good authority (our driver) that the food was great here.
On our first visit, we used google translate to try to read the menu, but that doesn’t work so well on food items. I mean what is ‘Sheeps Face Cover’? not something I would choose, thats for sure. We picked the one that translated to ‘Noodles’. The kitchen was staffed by four elderly Chinese women, noodles were hand made to order, gusts of steam would regularly billow out from the hatch. Our food arrived, not exactly what we were expecting. Huge bowls of noodles in a thick red sauce with small pieces of meat and tofu. It was delicious!!!!
So delicious we went back again for dinner on our second evening. This time forearmed with translations of the menu (which Amanda helpfully photographed and then quizzed our guide on). This time we had noodles with a broth and packed with veggies & tofu. I was also intrigued by the cold meat and green chillies that everyone kept ordering from the owner. He would pull a handful from a big tray, weigh it then dump on a load of chillies, this would be eaten along with the hot noodles. While sometimes a little chewy, these tasted pretty good, although Amanda refused to try them (she is scared of getting sick from cold food in weird countries).
I always think that the most interesting meals and experiences are found way down at the local level. And this place did not disappoint.
The taxi driver told us there was a good noodle restaurant to the right of our hotel, but after wandering up and down the block, we weren’t sure which one it was as couldn’t read any of the signs! So I used Google Translate to get the word for “noodles” in Chinese characters, and then stopped a random woman in the street and showed her the word – and she pointed to this restaurant. (Haha, I was thinking of the equivalent in our culture. That I’m walking down the street in London, and a Chinese person stops me and shows me a phone screen which just says “FISH AND CHIPS” really big … LOL)
Anyway, Zak kept thinking I would be really sketched out by this whole restaurant and not want to eat there. But it was fine. Well… it was the only option, and it was acceptable, plus it had been recommended to us (and the hotel restaurant looked really depressing and empty!) The noodle shop had a big window into the kitchen so you could see they were freshly cooking the food, and if you get a bowl of hot noodle soup, it’s all well cooked, so not on my “food poisoning paranoia” list.
(For the record, that list includes things like salads or raw food, any fruit I don’t peel myself, any food sitting out / not freshly cooked, most street meat, anything possibly made with tap water or ice, western food made in a place that shouldn’t serve western food, oh there are probably more…)
We used Google Translate on the menu and ordered the only thing which said “noodles”. A big bowl of thick translucent red sauce/soup with handmade noodles appeared, with little chopped up veggies, chilis, tofu etc. Better not to know exactly what’s inside in these cases, just eat it. And it was good, hot and filling! I was happy to return the second night.