For the Chinese National Day (October 1st) and the week-long Mid Autumn festival, we decided to do a bit of travelling to the Badain Jaran desert.
This story begins as all great ones do, in World Beer. One of our colleagues and friends was leaving after almost 2 years as Academic Coordinator. He was a well loved boss and an incredible friend, meaning more people turned up for his leaving do than World Beer could hold. I hope we showed him a great night, but having to be awake at 4am for our flight to the desert we left his party early (at 2.30am) to pack and nap before catching a taxi to the airport.
Getting to the airport we boarded our flight to Lanzhou, the home of hand pulled noodles, excited but hoping to get some sleep on the ride. Being an internal flight, we stopped half way for an hour to drop people off and pick others up. It was a strange situation, getting off your flight for a toilet stop before boarding the same plane and sitting in the same seats, and the chap in the seat next to us was a complete liability who had never flown before and had no idea what was going on.
We alighted after 4 hours in Lanzhou, to a McDonalds breakfast and managed to pick up all the tickets for our following trains there. We jumped on our next train slightly sleepy, but without a care in the world. We were on holiday!
Our first train (from Zhong Chuan Airport to the main train station in Lanzhou) was supposed to terminate at 12.30 at our stop. Hell, we could sleep that whole way! Someone was sure to kick us off at the terminus.
We both awoke at 1.15pm (or so) worried that we had missed our stop. How can you miss a terminal stop? Luckily we hadn’t missed our stop, our train was just going super-duper slow. Grabbing our bags and standing by the door, we were mentally preparing for the sprint from train to train; our second train left at 1.40. Glad that we’d picked up the tickets at the previous stop, we were itching to get off, and as the time crawled through 1.30pm, and soon to 1.34, we were sure we would miss it. Ready for the sprint?
The train pulled in at 1.36pm and as the first off we sprinted to the empty exit before hitting a HUGE crowd of people. Battling through, we couldn’t see any signs for our train, and accosting a guard we asked where to go. He looked tiredly at us, pointed at a jam-packed waiting room and plainly said (in Mandarin), “wait a moment”. We were sure we had missed it.
Trying to find a ticket office to change our tickets was difficult, and we were prepared for the battle of “our other train was an hour late! We need a train asap!” but what faced us was unfathomable. Huge hoards of people were everywhere, and being unable to see the end of the line for the ticket office, we asked a second guard what to do. He showed us to another heaving waiting room – luckily our second train was late too.
Standing with three trains worth of people we couldn’t understand that was going wrong. Surely you know how far away the train is, what other trains were on the tracks, and at what speed they were all travelling – we live in an age where you can pinpoint someones location within metres. But nope, the train kept getting delayed ten minutes, twenty minutes, and every time the ETA was within 8 minutes it was pushed back again. What on earth was going on!?
Three hours in a stinky, sweaty, so-crowded-that-when-you-breathed-in-your-chest-hit-someone-else, waiting room (there were five trains delayed on the morning of a national holiday) our train went green. We pushed our way through the crowds knowing that what was awaiting us was a last-minute booking 7 hour standing train journey. Not much better than the waiting room really.
Once everyone was on the train the attendants locked the doors and we were forced to crouch on the floor between the toilet cubicle and a black sack that passed for a bin as the temperature rose. We took off all excess clothing, but with nowhere easy to store it (we had travelled light) it didn’t help much. As people began banging at the bolted windows and doors, the train started, blowing a welcome air conditioning system, and we were off.
We left late, and with an arrival time in Zhangye at 1am we weren’t hopeful of much sleep. Still a little hungover, incredibly hungry, and terrifically sleepy, we made friends with the attendant who loaned us a black sack to sit on and told us to get off in three stops time. He was very friendly, asking what we were doing, helping us chat to other curious passengers, and telling us about someone he knew who was currently travelling Australia.
After the second stop at around 11.30pm we were able to find a couple of empty seats, with help from the other passengers, who found us two floor-dwelling-foreigners very uncomfortable. In China, it is a sign of respect to be physically lower than someone else and so to see us, people who the Chinese hold with a lot of respect (because we are teachers, and because we are foreign) some of them were happy to shuffle around to accommodate both of us. We got chatting to a few of the locals who admitted that they had never seen a foreigner before, and that they were stoked to be able to practice the English they had been studying with an actual English person. They helped us translate with the other curious passengers, and were absolute delights to speak to. One of them, William, was a university student going home for the holidays, and was hoping one day to visit the UK to see Oxford and Cambridge University campuses. Another, Emily, was an English teacher herself, working at a boarding school, going home for the first time in 6 weeks to see her husband and three year old son. She also told us that the train was late because of an earthquake.
Lanzhou and Zhangye experience earthquakes regularly, and so they are built to withstand these. The three hour delay was due to the train carrying on slowly as people set about repairing the rails in front of them.
We finally reached Zhangye at around 1.30 am, and we shared a taxi with Emily and her husband to get to our hostel. We were too tired to see then, but the hostel was beautiful.
Waking late the next morning we showered and set out to find breakfast. Taking a walk around Zhangye, I found it very odd. It had all the people of a large city, it was busy, the people were friendly, there were car park attendants, and China’s equivalent of lollipop ladies, and yet everything looked old. The cars were tired, the buildings grey, the shops small and lifeless. The train we came in on was something out of the set of The Railway Children, and even the people were relaxed and slow. No one was rushing. No one was late, or if they were, they didn’t care. We found breakfast in the form of noodles and rice at a small restaurant, and took a walk through Zhangye’s only park. Even though it was almost deserted, the few people there still manged to worm their way into all of our photos.
A coffee shop and a KFC lunch later we met our guide Martin on the central crossroads of the town, a huge monolith called Drum Tower in the centre of a completely baffling roundabout. Straight away he struck us as a talkative and open chap, as keen to ask about us as were about him, and by the time we’d walked the two blocks to the hired car we already felt like old friends (albeit a friend who insisted on calling us by our last names, as he had confused these on the paperwork). At the car we met the driver, a quiet fellow with no English, and his pride and joy, a very urban looking shiny white 4×4, that looked like it had never heard of a desert, let alone driven across one as we were hoping to.
Reassured by Martin’s charm and easy conversation we were quickly underway, making double time across Gangsu province’s dry but productive corn fields, which stretched away in every direction, with only distant mountains marking the horizon. Those distant mountains soon turned into arid peaks, and before we knew it we were in Inner Mongolia. The border, which looked like a tedious affair for the cars ahead and behind us, was passed with a simple wave from the driver to the police officers manning the checkpoint. He’d clearly done this quite a few times before, and Martin was still regaling us with tales of his adventures around China as a freelance guide. When asked if the police at the border checkpoint needed our passports we were met with a “No, don’t worry, he knows them.”
Before we knew it we’d arrived in a small town of modern hotels that had been purpose built on the edge of the desert to accommodate the fast growing domestic tourist trade. Rather embarrassingly we were dropped at the most expensive hotel in town, where we appeared to be the only guests, and of course the only foreigners. The room was great, although Chinese hotels have a strange quirk of having a clear glass wall separating the bedroom and bathroom, leaving you on full display at all times. Theories vary as to the function of this, from a design fad to a saucy striptease, and we’ve yet to get a clear answer from anyone. Fortunately, this one had a curtain.
Leaving the bag in the hotel, we grabbed some cash and set off in search of dinner. After an hour wandering every street in the tiny town, we settled on the first place we’d looked at, a hot pot restaurant directly opposite the hotel. I’m sure we’ve talked about hot pot before, but it’s probably the best thing we’ve found in China, so deserves a post of its own. This one was excellent, so excellent in fact that as were finishing up Martin our guide walked in and sat down at the table next to us, with a tent and sleeping bag under his arm.
Anticipating an early start for the hotel breakfast, we were early to bed, and sleeping soundly. Hotel breakfast was standard Chinese fare, cold fine noodles, wet vegetables, and hard boiled eggs, nothing to get excited about but enough to set us up for the morning. Martin and Mr Driver picked us up at 8, and we quickly drove around some street vendors to pick up some fruit and snacks for lunch, before heading out on the only other road out of town, into the Mongolian plains that stretch from the mountains to the desert.
The open road lay straight ahead and behind until it was lost in the blown sand and heat haze, either side of us was low rolling sand and dry grass as far as the eye could see. We were both wondering how anything could survive in such a barren landscape, so different from the verdant tropics we are now used to, when a herd of roaming camels wandered past the window. Martin stopped Mr Driver, and we jumped out to get some pics of the completely indifferent beasts, who wandered off down the road thoroughly unimpressed with our foreignness.
Soon we arrived at the entrance to the desert proper, a huge modern building flanked by traditional yurts, where Mr Driver parked up and wandered off to find his desert-faring counterpart. Martin caught up with an old friend he recognised from a previous expedition, and we looked around for the toilet. Before long our second driver arrived, and showed us to a much more rugged looking Toyota land cruiser. We loaded our kit into the back, and hopped in. Our new driver spoke even less english, but was a firm believer in the confidence over competence driving school, so we named him Captain Driver, and held on tight as he launched his jeep at top speed off the first dune and into the sea of sand.
A wise man once said: If you want to go into the desert you take a Land Rover, but if you want to come out, you take a Land Cruiser.
It soon became apparent that our driver’s roller-coaster approach was born of experience, getting enough momentum on the downhill slopes to take us up the face of the next soft dune, and carrying us around the banked curves of crescent dunes where the car was practically sideways – an estimate at a 50 degree angle would not be exaggerating. Unfortunately we couldn’t quite capture this excitement on camera, so you’ll have to imagine our faces. Martin was unfazed, so we soon relaxed and enjoyed the ride, which lasted an hour or so, and brought us to a giant statue of local lad Genghis Khan, a salt lake oasis, and another line of camels, this time dressed to impress and a lot more curious about my camera.
After a quick look round, a few photos, and a sit on a camel, we were back in the jeep rocketing off up another dune. Eventually Captain Driver met his match, and we came unstuck on a particularly steep and sandy slope that had also scuppered another jeep. They’d stopped to let a spectacularly seasick passenger vomit, while the drivers let some air out of the tyres, then we all stood well back as they took another shot with empty cars and a big run up. This time they made it, and we struggled up the dune on foot behind them.
The view from the top was pretty special, and well worth the walk. The lakes we kept coming across are the life blood of the desert, providing watering holes and grazing for the camels, and in turn supporting the nomads who herd them. Exactly how they form is still an open question, but they are broadly the result of rainfall in the mountains being carried in permeable underground layers of rock, and welling up between the permanent dunes. Along the way some of them pick up dissolved salt, which they deposit around their banks, forming the white ‘beaches’ that surround them. With salt being almost as important as water in the desert, the larger lakes all have semi permanent yurts and pens near them, manned by weathered shepherds and enthusiastic dogs.
On to another lake and we stopped for lunch, an all in one, lunchbox sized affair, which used a chemical reaction with water to heat a sealed packet of rice and beef sauce. All very Chinese and overly complicated, but a hot meal was what we needed in the surprisingly cold desert. From our lunch spot we could see the next stop, the oddly named Jade Himalaya, the highest permanent sand dune in the world.
Obviously, we had to have a crack at climbing it. Martin confessed his climbing days were behind him, and stayed with Captain Driver who had started playing poker with some camel herders and other drivers. We set off at different paces, but met up again on a ridge of soft steep sand that seemed to melt away under your feet. It was hands down the hardest walking I’ve ever done, every step you took forwards caused an avalanche of sand that seemed to take you two steps back, and if you didn’t move fast you’d end up down at the bottom. Eventually, we made it to a fairly solid patch, where you could at least stand still and take a photo.
The last 100 meters took me the best part of 30 minutes and I was literally crawling on hands and knees by the end. But I made it to the top, and managed to get a few pictures while balancing on the sharp ridge before it started slipping away under my feet and I had to head back down. Sam couldn’t make it to the top, but made it further than any other women on the sand dune – they had all thrown in the proverbial towel long before. To give you some idea of the scale, Sam took a picture of me from where she stopped on the dune. I am circled in yellow.
Exhausted, but glad to be moving with the sand and not against it, we wandered back to the jeep, for more thundering across the desert in search of a place to sleep. A mountain that took us two hours to climb, took us 15 minutes to descend, and we were happy to give our legs a rest in the car. Apparently our driver had let too much air out of the tyres, as one of them was now flat as a pancake, so he whipped a compressor from his Mickey Mouse backpack and set about filling it back up. While he got on with this, we walked the remaining distance to a tiny temple, staffed by a lone monk, that was over 200 years old. The remoteness of the temple had protected it from China’s cultural revolution, and Martin regaled us with stories of when he had met the monk a few years previous.
We were soon joined by Captain Driver with his repaired tyre, and made our way into the large courtyard of a clay and sand building. Following Martin and Captain Driver through an open door we were met with a warm kitchen that smelled like roast dinners and a beautiful but timid pure-bred Dalmatian called ChuChu. A family who lived here ran a guest house and small restaurant, and were presently cooking staple Chinese food for a handful of guests, one of whom was our own friend Captain Driver. Unfortunately we had been provided with a pot noodle, an apple, and a moon cake for dinner so we sat and ate those with Martin before being whisked off to pitch a tent before the sun set.
The tent wasn’t what we were expecting. For the amount of tarpaulin bags that had been laying dormant in the back of Captain Driver’s Cruiser we were expecting a canvas tent or yurt, that would take a while and co-ordination to assemble. From the tarps Captain Driver pulled two pop-up tents and two heavy duty sleeping bags, and thank god that he did! Quick as you like they were up, one for us and one for Martin, and just in the nick of time. The sun was firmly set as Sam sat and wrote the diary on her phone, and i blew the sand out of my battered camera.
Lying in our sleeping bags with our heads poking out of the tent door, in the bright moonlit desert, was an amazing experience, and when the full moon gave way to a sky full of bright stars we were treated to a view few in China ever see. We slept well, exhausted from the days exertions, but woke early to watch the sunrise, before heading down to the huts in the valley, for a breakfast of tomato, apple and biscuits.
All aboard the jeep for the most exciting driving yet, making our way back in a big circle across dune seas and around lakes, pausing occasionally to grab a photo and admire a view, until we came to a line of jeeps waiting on the top of a high ridge.
Standing atop the high ridge we looked down at a beautiful lake and noticed that there were old tyre tracks heading over the top. We looked at each other in stunned silence with eyebrows raised. This ridge was almost knife-edge, we had trouble standing without slipping and sliding either side on the loose sand. The scale of this dune was incredible; it was high and steep and gave way to an stunning view of a lake named Woman’s Lake (because it looks like a pregnant woman). Before we knew it, someone had jumped in their car, sped up and, cutting their engine, dropped right over the cliff letting gravity and the collapsing sand take them down the terrifically steep slope. Before we knew it, another driver had started his engine, and away he went. Astounded, I looked at our driver. He looked at me. A pointed finger and an eyebrow raise later, Captain Driver had bundled me in the front seat of the car, put my seat belt on me for the first time all weekend, and started his engine. We sped up, quicker than the others, to the top. It’s a strange feeling watching and seeing the ground fall away from you, and even stranger when you realise that you are no longer sitting in your seat. The seatbelt stopped me from falling, but it wasn’t at all scary. It was almost relaxing, being in a controlled fall down a sand dune. By the time I hit the bottom, I was ready to do it again.
Callum and Martin followed us down on foot. It took them a while (it was so high you couldn’t see them until they were halfway down the mountain) but when they reached the bottom, Martin told me I was very brave. A few years ago someone had driven over that very same ledge and the car had rolled, not killing anyone but causing some very serious injury. I mentioned that there was a fine line between bravery and stupidity, and we continued our journey out of the desert.
I wish the photos and the video did it justice, but realistically, you just can’t fathom the steepness of that slope from looking at the pictures.
On our way out of the desert, we stopped a few times for bathroom breaks and further photo opportunities, but we couldn’t drag it out for much longer; Martin had another job that he had to go to, that we couldn’t justify keeping him from. In a neighbouring village was a large orphanage, and he regularly worked for a week at a time there, introducing and helping American couples get to know their new adopted child, before they flew home together. Reaching the entrance to the desert we said our goodbyes to Captain Driver and re-boarded Mister Driver’s white SUV. Vowing to come back, we slept a little as we drove for 4 hours across the barren land towards the town of Zhangye.
Finishing here, we booked into our hotel, showered, emptied ourselves of sand (a week later, Callum is still finding it in his shoes!) and headed out for a scout of the area. We came upon an upmarket restaurant that didn’t use electric lighting, and had a kitchen in the middle surrounded by bamboo. We were sat in a booth with a closed door, lit by the huge windows down one side. The booth had clearly been used for something previously, much to my amusement but not Callum’s. With only one chef, we ordered pizza and slushies, devouring these as if we hadn’t eaten in three days.
We walked the long way back to the hotel, and chilled, reading our books, checking in on everyone else’s holidays (more than a couple had missed their flights after the roaring night at world beer) and taking naps. The weather was pleasant so in the evening we ventured out again to find some food.
Speaking of the weather, it was so nice to be somewhere cold. Fuzhou is so hot, in the sumer reaching over 40 degreesC, and always humid. Even in the winter months, the cold is accompanied by fog. It was so nice to be somewhere that felt fresh, like a winters morning in the UK.
Feeling a little chilly (and not particularly hungry having had a late lunch) we settled on a hot pot place that offered individual hot pots and a revolving table like the American sushi joints. It was strange that there wasn’t a main fridge, but the waitresses were on hand to change around any tired looking veg. One of the waitresses, clearly lacking childcare, had brought her three-year-old daughter into work with her, and the child was having a great time running around playing with the guests. She took an interest in us, stopping to have a chat and telling us which sauces were the best.
The next day we woke late and found some breakfast (a chubba chups lolly and a bag of crisps) before jumping on a coach to China’s Danxia National Park – the rainbow mountains. Reaching the park, we were ushered to a ticket office, through a turnstile and onto another bus which took us to “The Colourful Fairy Observation Deck”, a huge platform built into the mountains, providing views as soon as you entered the park. It was here that we realised that it was too busy to take arty photos of each other, for the other tourists were standing so obtusely that it was impossible to take a photo without a neon sweater or rainbow umbrella sneaking in somewhere. We were forced to take in the natural beauty with our own eyes, without the aid of a camera. It was horrible.
I’m kidding! Of course it wasn’t horrible! The rocks are incredible, striped as if someone had been given a paintbrush and told to finish them before he went home at 5pm. They stretched as far as you could see, peak behind peak, made of different layers in different colours. It is no wonder that some of the most incredible fossils in the world are found here in China.
Although the hills were different at every stop of the bus, the park was much of a muchness when it came to incredible scenery and oceans of tourists so we have just posted some photos for you (I bet you’re pretty bored of reading now as well!) For scale, there is also one with Callum (a Chinese bloke, and a red umbrella) in the bottom left hand corner.
I have to admit that I was a little disappointed that we couldn’t walk through the hills at our own pace, in our own time, with our own thoughts. How amazing it must have been all those years ago when these weren’t a World Wonder, but just someone’s home. There are paths snaking up and over many of the hills that you aren’t allowed to walk on but can imagine shepherds taking their livestock across the mountains to Mongolia, bandits hiding around every hill, and the Western explorers face when he realised he was the first British man to ever see these beauteous mountains. I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone who is visiting China, though don’t go on the busiest National Holiday of the year!
Finishing our day back in Zhangye City, we headed to the night food market to try some freshly made local street food. We started with a bread-egg-omelette type round affair, that was spongey and tasted like naan bread with a fried egg in the middle. Greedily we then bought a grated-potato-mashed-into-squares and fried with herbs. Both were delicious but we were in need of a bit of meat, and so settled on lamb sausage (which I’m sure was heart) fried on a hotplate with onions and carrots. It had the texture of back pudding but taste of lamb, and was soaked in a sour vinegar. We weren’t able to chose a favourite, and so recommend them all! They were definitely the most delicious local-delicacies we have eaten since being here, without a chicken foot in sight!
After our debacle with the 7 hour standing train on the way there, we were over the moon to find the last minute tickets for our return journey were first class. Only fractionally more expensive, but literally twice as fast, and in a huge armchair, we could admire the snow capped mountains as we passed back into China proper. A 2 hour coach ride to the airport, and a 4 hour flight got us back to Fuzhou by 2am, in time for an 8 o’clock start at work the next day. No rest for the wicked, and straight back to it.