At the mouth of China
Leaving Lángmùsì in Northern direction implied a complete change in panorama, both in natural and cultural terms. Captured by the laid-back, mystical Tibetan vibe and frozen by two days of cold snap with snow and ice, we had refrained from moving on to the monastic town of Xiahé, four hours North of the village, and stayed in Lángmùsì for another three nights after returning from the grasslands.
Our route now brought us through the provincial capital, Lánzhōu, where we boarded a train to the border of China proper in imperial times, the Jiāyù Pass. It is amous for hosting the most Western piece of the Great Wall and also called the Mouth of China, due to its geographical location on the narrowest section of the Hexi Corridor (the Throat of China). A string of oases along the northern edge of the Tibetan Plateau and part of the Northern Silk Road running northwest from the bank of the Yellow River, the Hexi Corridor used to be the most important route from North China to Central Asia for more than 2000 years.
Placed in a desert valley at the foot of majestic Qílián Shān mountain range, the Wall at Jiāyù Pass covers 733 meters in length, stretching and is presided by a fort, lying totally in ruins when discovered in the 1980’s and nearly completely rebuilt today. When arriving by train we saw the combination of mountains and desert surrounding industrial buildings, we felt extremely reminded of Antofagasta in Northern Chile.
The city of Jiāyùguān (where “guān” means “pass”), located at about 8km from the Wall, is however much more recent than the neighboring monument and ows its current size to the booming steel industry covering the whole surrounding area. The city’s architecture is correspondingly modern, but totally functional and lacks any charm.
Tourism around the Great Wall makes up for a quite low share of the Jiāyùguān’s visitors and foreign tourism is even less frequent. Accordingly, most hotels are oriented towards business travelers – which means they are overly expensive – and for the first time in China we encountered hotels who wouldn’t accept foreigners in general (which we had read about, but not experienced so far).
Arriving to the railway station in early morning, we were again lucky to meet two backpacking Chinese students from Guǎngzhōu, starring side by side with us at the giant city map located in front of the station, who saw us a little disoriented and seemed to be worried we would get lost, so they offered us a free taxi ride to a hotel zone close to the long distance bus station.
We just had planned one day for Jiāyùguān and were extremely lucky with the weather. Although the epic view of the mountains was obstructed by blowing dust, it was warm and sunny during the afternoon, while we were visiting the Fort and the Great Wall. As soon as we came back to the hotel, the sky darkened to a strange brown-yellow light and some instants later, a heavy sandstorm broke out. It was as dark as dusk and the strong winds pressed the dust through the smalls cracks of closed windows, so that even inside the hotel room we felt we were breathing the dusty air.
The storm swept up when we were just about to go out for having dinner, starving after the long train ride and the day walking on and around the wall. As we couldn’t get to bed with a growling stomach, we took the challenge, put a scarf on mouth and nose and went out to the food market on the other side of the street. Crossing the street was a real danger, as due to the blowing sand it was almost impossible to open one’s eyes in order watch out for cars – the best technique was actually pulling the scarf completely over one’s head and face.
Thanks to the pictures on the wall we again ended up in a tiny and very local Uighur eatery, ready for some pulled noodles with vegetables and mutton. We must have been the only foreigners who ever visited the place, as the staff seemed to get extremely nervous once we’d sit down. Few minutes after us, a group of five already slightly squiffy men walked in and took the table next to us. First thing they did: each taking out a package of cigarettes and start smoking – obviously not to our biggest joy. They greeted us more than effusively, welcame us to China and offered us cigarettes, too. While our meal was served and I got already pissed that now the taste would be spoiled by the cigarette smoke, one of the five guys suddenly walked out of the restaurant and when he returned five minutes later, he had a plastic bag with two pieces of bread in it, which he offered to us as a present. Because we were visitors in his city and he wanted us to feel well received there. We were absolutely speechless. Anyway, what else would you respond to such a simple and at a time earnest act of generosity, one normally wouldn’t think about doing, even though it doesn’t cost you more than 2 yuan and however leaves a huge impact on who receives it – as it did on us.