Part 2, the throat

If the gates of Dunhuang opened China’s mouth to the Western lands,  then the black mountains of Ala Shan to the north and the snow-capped Qilian mountains to the south funnel the mouth into a throat. In between, the string of interconnected oases of the Hexi corridor ensure at least travel westwards from the Yellow River is bearable. But between the mouth and the throat, where the Great Wall reaches its westernmost end, most emphatically, the epiglottis.

Colin is good about this:

‘To the north rose the tormented Black mountains, to the south the Quilian massif floated like an astral ice-field while between them the last of the Great Wall came stumbling in, broken, after its two-thousand mile journey from the Pacific. It crossed the plain in chunks of ramped earth, then heaved itself round the ramparts under my feet, before meandering south to seal the pass under the mountain snows’.

Going up the Wall at the Black Mountains:


From the way down


Well trodden steps


It turns out Colin has the same question I’ve been struggling with: ‘Wait, what WAS the Great Wall for exactly’? As a device to keep out the Mongol and the Hun it failed spectacularly: they breached it whenever they had a mind to, never mind all the bodies built into it to rebuff evil spirits. Apparently there’s an answer: quite a bit of academic capital has been invested in the notion that the the Wall was mostly a demarcation between ‘us in here’ and ‘the others out there’. To emphasize the point, the Ming emperor constructed the ‘First and Greatest Pass under Heaven’, the Great Fort at Jiayuguan as the epicenter of the epiglottis, with this clear intent in mind. I get to see it and I’m in.

Colin is good about this too:

‘But its ramparts still carved a harsh geometry above the desert. Their raked walls and heavy crenellations shone flax-pale in the young light…..Then the weight and the mass of the inner fortress crowded in. Its iron-belted gates were folded ajar…Above the gateways the turrets’ beams were painted with scenes of rural peace, but beneath them the fort turned grimly functional. In the dog-legged baileys attackers would be mown down from walls which loomed vertically for forty feet on all sides. Wide ramps mounted to parapets which became highways for cavalry, five abreast. The entrance tunnels ran thirty-five yards deep’.

None of my photos are going to do Colin’s prose justice.

The Wall and the fort intersect


The watch towers punctuate the massive ramparts


The garrison nestled uncertainly inside


With surgical precision the Ming emperor designed one particular spot – the Runnguan Gate of Sighs – as the tangible demarcation between the ancestral Empire and the outer darkness; it has seared itself into the collective consciousness.

Looking westward we see the long, long road.

Only the brave cross the martial barrier

Who is not afraid of the vast desert?

Should not the scorching heat of heaven make him frightened?

The Gate of Sighs unfolds in three orchestrated stages


Gate the First


Gate the Second


Gate the Third: The unknown emerges tentatively through the double doors


Silk Road merchants passed through voluntarily, others weren’t so lucky.

‘Down its tunnel the flagstones are worn with exiles’ feet. Its ramp lifts to the empty sky and the empty desert. People went out in terror…. the tunnels were carved with farewell verses scratched by shamed officials as they exchanged their sedan chairs for carts or camels, and as late as the last dynasty, common convicts trudged westward with their whole families in tow, their foreheads tattooed in black characters, without hope of return.’

Shamed Madame of the diorama sees the Western desert and evidently doesn’t like it


A camel in waiting


Meanwhile in the other direction some Silk Road likely lads (but not ours, you can tell by the beards)


And lickety spit here’s a tax bill; understandably they’re deeply skeptical


But wait Colin – what’s with this ‘young light?’ If anything it’s more like ‘deeply weary’ – a mere pivot and we can figure out why.

The rather less romantic back-side of the fort


21st century Jiayuguan turns out to be horrendously polluted. The air has a worrying metallic taste and the population are swaddled in scarves and masks up to their eyeballs (I am seriously under-dressed). My room in the highly adequate Jiayuguan Hotel has not one but four sources of water: First, the expected faucet in the bathroom; the second, beside it, is marked ‘potable’. Since the third is bottled water, I deduce the secondary faucet must be for brushing teeth (in an abundance of caution I usually brush my teeth with bottled water, but sometimes if I’m feeling lucky I’ll put tap water in the kettle. However, I’ve definitely got the message that in Jiayuguan no tap water should pass the epiglottis). To reinforce, the floor attendant struggles in with a jeroboam of purified water for the kettle. And frantic hand signals, presumably to prevent me being poisoned

The ever helpful Hotel Jiayuguan. For those of us having trouble orienting to time and place.


Unusually the population are holed up inside eating, meaning I have to commit to a restaurant rather than making a selection based on peering over people’s shoulders.

The night market has migrated indoors so folks can discard their masks to eat.


My strategy is to randomly point at something with the price point I’m interested in. In this case 24Y ($4)

I seem to have ordered tripe (Peter Kadzis this is for you) it was delicious!


Next day the air is even worse and my sinuses are screaming in protest: time to leave town.

Along the Hexi corridor

Let’s sample one of those oh-so convenient oases, and so Zhangye it will be. Convenient it is and also a cozy little market town. The folks at the Silk Road Travelers Hostel are hosts extraordinaire despite their choice of mattresses (tip, next time spring for the full thickness one). They arrange a mammoth 12 hour outing up into the Qilian mountains, to the deep satisfaction of all.

Some of this tour’s companions; unexpectedly the Koreans ‘Brian’ and ‘Wendy’ – we shared a compartment, some cookies and a pleasant nap a couple of train rides ago. He has a bucket list longer than my arm, she has videos of the grand-kids clutched to her heart. Ann-Sophie en-route to New Zealand to milk cows for a year was all the way back in Turpan, it’s starting to feel like the real Silk Road.


Yet more thousand Buddhas, this time it’s do-it-yourself.


Up unsteadily through the cliff


The payoff, right at the top.


A second set with a different, more typically Chinese, vibe


And off we go


Apparently the money means there are Taoist influences


Not sure about the candy


Sorry but there’s got to be a door


Lost in translation. Fish noodles mean noodles that don’t really look like fish, not what they’re served with, which is not fish.


Zhangye is really rather nice, but I’m too old for the fakir experience I’m having on this mattress so I cut out early. Next, a slight detour toward Tibet.


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