There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Saturday, 2 August 2008

Jiayuguan, A Total Eclipse and The Last Fort Under Heaven: Part 2 of the Chinese Silk Road

The Yellow River, the Huang He (or Hwang Ho in my old school text book), tumbles out of the Tibetan massif and has its first major brush with mainstream Han civilization at Lanzhou. If it then took a straightforward route to the sea it would be a long but not a great river. With one eye firmly on its position in the league table (usually sixth at around 5500 km) it sets off on an immense northerly detour, reaching deep into Inner Mongolia before turning back south. A thousand kilometres later, some hundred kilometres east of Xi’an, it becomes bored with aimless wandering and turns east and then northeast on a respectably direct route to the sea.

Although both Xi’an and Lanzhou lie in the Yellow River Valley, it is obvious why the connecting railway does not follow the river. At least it does not follow the Yellow River, but sets off west along its much more modest tributary the Wei He.

The track traverses a strange flat plateau between low hills. The land is heavily cultivated and although we passed few centres of population, we saw many people labouring in the fields. The work was hard and manual, power being supplied by animals more often than tractors. For many miles the Wei He runs in a small gorge some hundred metres across and ten deep, as though a slit had been cut through the land and the river dropped into it. When occasionally the gorge meandered or widened we could see cultivation continuing right down to river level; any land that could be planted had been planted.

The Wei He in its nrrow gorge
Eventually we left the Wei He, and without a noticeable rise or fall found ourselves in the Yellow River valley at Lanzhou.

There are hundreds of cities in China I am not entirely sure I have heard of, and then discover they are home to several million people. Lanzhou is one such city. Thirty kilometres of industrial ugliness smeared along the riverbank, the capital of Gansu Province looks like most other Chinese cities, and its railway station could be anywhere, particularly as there are very many pinyin advertisements for Mogao Wine, and precious few signboards saying Lanzhou in any script.

Half an hour later, the train pulled smoothly away and for a while we ran beside the Yellow River which, despite its name, was muddy brown. Although large, it barely hinted at being one of the world’s great rivers.
The Huang He (Yellow River) near Lanzhou
Our route followed the Hexi corridor, the main access – or in our case exit - to the Han Chinese heartland from the wilds of Central Asia. As night fell we entered the Gobi desert, the change from well-watered farmland to scrub passing unseen. We were asleep as the train thundered towards what the Chinese once thought of as the very edge of civilization, yet not very deeply asleep – our arrival at Jiayuguan was scheduled for a few minutes after four o’clock.

We were awake before the carriage attendant came to warn us. Our Japanese companions slept, or pretend to sleep, through the inevitable disruption. Clearly, they had succeeded in booking direct to Dunhuang.

Jiayuguan is a small, modern city with big wide streets on the inevitable grid plan. They were empty as Mr Lu drove us to our hotel on the southern edge of town. ‘The whole city is only forty years old,’ our guide Orlando told us. ‘Never mind,’ we said, ‘we’re only here for the eclipse’.

Version 1 of our itinerary had taken us, like our erstwhile Japanese companions, straight to Dunhuang. Then I learned that in early August a total eclipse would start in northern Canada, stretch over Greenland, Russia and Mongolia before cutting a swathe across northern China. The NASA website showed that our journey was not only three weeks too early, but largely too far south. We changed the dates and introduced a stop in Jiayuguan, just about the only town we would pass through that was inside the path of totality.

Orlando looked perplexed. She gave the impression that she was unaware there would be an eclipse. My disappointment in her might have been less had I known she had spent the previous day escorting an Indian couple from Dunhuang to Hami and had arrived in Jiayuguan only a little before us. We had had little sleep, she had had none.

Orlando seemed a silly name for a young woman. She had told us her Chinese name, but to me, with my wooden ear and stiff tongue, it was unpronounceable. Fortunately, like most Chinese who come into regular contact with Europeans, she has an adopted western name. But why Orlando? It seemed rude to ask, but our daughter had taught English in a Chinese kindergarten and part of her job was assigning names. She had one class with all Welsh names, little Chinese Rhiannons and Gethins, and another named after the characters in a particular long running soap opera. Doubtless Orlando’s teacher had something in mind when he or she parcelled out the names, and it was probably not their charge’s future career.

Our hotel was new and wanted to be smart, looking better than its three Chinese stars, but was let down by attention to detail. The receptionist was lounging in the foyer when we arrived; she climbed over her desk and checked us in.

Several hours later after an attempt at sleep and a cold breakfast – nobody had put lights under the warming dishes – we met up again with Orlando. I had been worried after our earlier conversation that we might be in the wrong place for the eclipse, but we had breakfasted with a dozen or more Germans all earnestly talking astronomy so confidence had been restored.

Having rested and spoken to a few people, Orlando was more clued up. She suggested that around six o’clock we should drive out to some sixth century tombs in the desert to see the wall paintings and then stay there for the eclipse. The desert, she explained, was absolutely flat and although the sun would not be very high, we should have no visibility problems. We agreed a price for the jaunt and wandered off to explore Jiayuguan.

It was now rush hour and the big wide streets were still deserted. South of our hotel a forest of cranes was throwing up yet more apartment blocks with the usual Chinese haste. Beyond this we could see the desert rising to an area of heavily eroded badlands and beyond that the snow-capped Qilian mountains.

Cranes, badlands and the Qilian Mountains
Our hotel was beside a wide boulevard. On a road off to the north we spotted a mosque, not the first we had seen in China, but the first built in Middle Eastern, or at least Central Asian style. We crossed the empty boulevard and headed towards it.

This almost equally wide street was lined with weeping willows. The shade was pleasant although the air was much drier than in Shanghai or Xi’an and the heat was agreeable rather than oppressive. Dry or not, there were several clouds above us, and more over the mountains; if they moved across they would seriously threaten our view of the eclipse. The pavements were awaiting construction and covered with rubble, but walking in the road was hardly dangerous. Being used to the population pressure which defines most Chinese cities, it was strange to walk round a town which seemed, if not empty, at least under-populated.

Before reaching the mosque, we were seduced by a market laid out on a side road leading towards open spaces and an area of low-rise dwellings. Melons, peaches, squash, tomatoes, a whole variety of cabbages, strange elongated aubergines, leeks, spring onions and the freshest plumpest ginger roots imaginable were arranged along the roadside, the stallholders sitting on the ground under tatty umbrellas. The quality looked good and there were a few people buying, but business was hardly brisk.

Looking back towards the mosque, Jiayuguan
Gone are the days when foreigners were routinely stared at in China; large clumsy people with round eyes and huge noses are a common sight on the streets of Beijing or Shanghai. Jiayuguan is different. Some people seemed so interested in us that I began to wonder if we were the first westerners they had seen. Their interest, though, seemed friendly and the staring never felt hostile. We waved at children playing in the street and their parents smiled and waved back.

At the end of the market was an area of clean, narrow alleys with long rows of single storey barrack-like buildings. A caged songbird chirruped above every front door and bunches of chillies hung drying in the sun. We were being allowed a rare glimpse of an older China, a China that existed before the rush to modernisation and the mania for building high.
A glimpse of an older China, Jiayuguan

Beyond the houses we were we found another broad empty boulevard and beside it the unusual sight of a Christian church. Recently built, its style combined English parish church with American town hall, whilst strongly suggesting the designer had never actually seen either. It sat beside the road in mildly embarrassed incongruity.

Church, Jiayuguan

Modern Jiayuguan is pleasant enough, in a rather characterless way. Keeping a watch on the gathering clouds and attempting to will them away, we tramped the streets looking doggedly for the Great Wall Museum marked in our Rough Guide, but never found it. The centre, slightly perversely, is on the western side, well away from the huge steelworks that dominate the north-eastern corner and explain why this ancient and once remote village is being developed into a modern town. Jiayuguan is a work in progress, but for the moment, it is welcoming, relaxed and mercifully free of crowds and beggars. The air, too, is clean by the standards of Chinese cities, although current developments may yet see to that.

The centre of modern Jiayuguan
The Wei-Jin Underground Gallery is twenty kilometres east of Jiayuguan. Leaving the town we first passed through fields of crops, Mr Lu negotiating his way round tractors and donkey carts, but soon reached the Gobi desert. It was as flat as Orlando had promised, a vast plain of grey grit stretching away to the distant mountains. The heat of the day was beginning to moderate, and the sky had become mercifully clear.

The eclipse was not until seven so we arrived just before the six thirty closing time of the so-called Underground Gallery, which is not a gallery at all, but a tomb. Over a thousand tombs were chiselled into this bleak landscape in the Wei and Jin period, but only one is available for public viewing.

The ‘Wei and Jin’ period, over fifteen hundred years ago, was the first time Jiayuguan had been incorporated into an entity which we would recognise as China. For 400 years, the Han dynasty had ruled a united China based on Xi’an that stretched south beyond the Yangzi basin and north along the Yellow River, but never this far north or west. When Han rule collapsed in 220 AD, China entered a period of disunity known as the ‘Three Kingdoms’. The kingdoms engaged in semi-continuous warfare, but around 265 AD the Jin dynasty emerged in Wei, the northernmost kingdom, and by 280 had largely reunified China and extended their rule to include northern parts of what is now Gansu province around Jiayuguan.

The Jin dynasty lasted until 420 in eastern China, but Turkic invaders took their northern and western territories and in 386 set up the rival Wei dynasty, not to be confused with the Chinese Kingdom of Wei a century earlier. China was again divided, and would remain so until late in the 6th century.

The Wei-Jin tombs were constructed between the late 3rd and 5th centuries. ‘Wei’ here refers to the Turkic Wei dynasty, not the earlier kingdom. To add further confusion, the 12th century would see another, unrelated, Jin dynasty.

None of the other thousand tombs are visible to a casual glance, but the one we were to visit is easily spotted as it is crowned with a hut with a corrugated iron roof. The tomb keeper opened up and we descended a well-lit flight of stairs some four metres into the ground. At the entrance painted tomb guardians warned us off, but we took no notice and boldly entered. The tombs are built of flat, creamy coloured bricks, which form a complex vaulted ceiling. The sides of the two chambers are lined with bricks set on their edges, each one bearing an individual painting, hence the name ‘galleries’.

Photography was no allowed so I have 'borrowed' this picture from the website
of Chinese tour company Visit Our China in return for this free publicity
The brickwork is of a remarkable standard for the period; the paintings are too, although they are often negatively compared with the Buddhist paintings at Mogao and Bezeklik. They are certainly less complex and the use of colour is more limited, but they perform a different function. The Buddhist paintings are entirely religious, and although it would be difficult to maintain that artwork in a tomb has no religious connotation, the Wei-Jin paintings are largely vernacular. There are no flying apsaras, representations of the Buddha or denizens of the underworld, instead there are dozens of vigorous line drawings showing aspects of daily life in the 5th century. We saw them ploughing, cooking, butchering a pig and playing musical instruments. The essentials of life have changed little in one and a half millennia.

We were still looking at the pictures when Orlando shouted down that the eclipse was starting. After her apparent indifference earlier, she now seemed beside herself with excitement. After delivering her Indian clients to an official eclipse viewing sites she had thought she was going to miss the event. The government had laid on a viewing area for some twenty thousand people at Hami, but although they had made great efforts to package and sell the eclipse, not even the Chinese Communist Party could actually own it. ‘Ownership’, as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon would have reminded them, ‘is theft’ and you cannot thieve an eclipse.

Using our eclipse glasses we could see that moon was just starting to overlap the sun. Mr Lu had used his lighter to smoke a piece of broken glass and was looking at the sky through that. The eclipse glasses were not only safer but more efficient so to general excitement we passed them to Mr Lu and then to Orlando and onto the tomb-warden. Our group of five was joined by three young men on bicycles, students from Lanzhou University on a cycling holiday. They also had no equipment for viewing the eclipse so our glasses were passed round the newcomers who made suitably awed noises.

Lynne shows Mr Lu her attempts to photograph the sun
Wei Jin Tombs, Jiayuguan
The moon made slow progress and without using the glasses it was impossible to tell that anything was happening. A sneaky glance at the sun – medically inadvisable, but impossible to resist – showed nothing but the usual ball of fire; looking away, the desert seemed to be bathed in the normal quantity of light for seven o’clock on a summer evening.

The eight of us stood around chatting, taking turns with the eclipse glasses and admiring the photographic equipment owned by one of the Lanzhou students; you need - as we were shortly to discover - a camera of some quality to take meaningful pictures of an eclipse. We, sadly, have none.

The field of view was excellent, the sky was clear and the evening sun was not so high that we had to crane our necks. By the time the moon had achieved two thirds coverage and still nothing seemed to be happening, except through the eclipse glasses, I was beginning to wonder whether an eclipse was all it was cracked up to be.

So there is an eclipse happening -- could you tell from this picture?
 To the unequipped observer the climax would have come almost without warning. As totality approached the light suddenly dropped, blackness overwhelmed the sun, except for a halo of fire, and from a single point on the circumference there was a sudden blaze of light, the so-called ‘diamond ring effect’. Eight people's simultaneous intake of breath was easily audible.

The earth was dark; the sun a ball of infinite blackness hanging in a dark sky. The world slipped into a profound silence.

Despite our different backgrounds, we were all twenty-first century people, with the usual blasé approach to apparent miracles like cars, computers and digital cameras. We all understood the essentially very simple trick of nature we were watching, yet our common reaction was one of total awe. I can only imagine how the sudden darkness must have felt to our unsuspecting ancestors.

Totality lasted little more than a minute and then the world returned unhurriedly to its usual self. I found myself breathless and disorientated. I looked round to see seven other faces, Chinese and European alike, struggling back to normality.

What do you do or say after the greatest free show on earth? None of us seemed to know, and for a while we stood in silence. We returned to normality more slowly than the world around us, but eventually we took leave of our new friends from Lanzhou and, although it was well past official closing time, the tomb warden invited us in to see the second chamber.

The two coffins and the grave goods had long been removed, but there were more paintings to admire. When the tomb was completed and occupied, a candle had been lowered through a small hole in the apex of the vaulted ceiling. Then the hole was closed. By the time the candle burned out the corpses were sealed in an inert environment. I am not sure what use that was to the dead, but it was good news for the archaeologists some fifteen hundred year later. The grave goods and other artefacts are in various museums, including the one on the site - not that it was open. A less systematic grave robbing had taken place in earlier centuries, sometimes so neatly done that it has been suggested tomb builders and tomb robbers were actually the same people.

Next morning we dropped in on The Last Fort Under Heaven in the northwest of the city. There has probably been a fort here since Han times and the original settlement of Jiayuguan served the fort and was dependant on it. The current Ming structure was completed in1372.
Lynne at the Last Fort under Heaven

Two courtyards are surrounded by sturdy walls and surmounted by the standard flamboyant Ming gatehouses and guardhouses. There are quarters for the commander and a Buddhist temple for his spiritual needs. Just outside the fort is the new location of the museum we had failed to find the previous day.

The Commander's private temple
Last fort Under Heaven, Jiayuguan,
According to legend, the builders calculated they required 999,999 bricks. One million were duly delivered. The spare brick can be seen sitting on a ledge above the inner courtyard. You may believe that if you wish; easier to believe, given the pristine condition of the fort, is that it has been the victim of heavy-handed restoration.

The Last Fort Under Heaven

Inside one courtyard a squad of Ming soldiers – students with holiday jobs - were being put through complex drills. From a distance, they seemed to be slashing at each other with deadly weapons.....

Comples weapon drill
Last Fort Under Heaven, Jiayuguan

..... but close up the blades were reassuringly flimsy, the weapons little more than overgrown cutlery.

On guard with oversgrown cutlery
Last Fort Under Heaven, Jiayuguan

From the battlements the importance of the fort is obvious. At Jiayuguan the Hexi corridor bottle-necks before opening out into the Gobi desert. The Great Wall can be seen stretching out to the Qilian Mountains in the south and northwards to the smaller Mazong Mountains. The wall here is simple mud brick, not the elaborate structure it is near Beijing, but it does not need to be. No army or trade caravan approaching China from the West could pass the fort unseen. The Last Fort Under Heaven had total control over the frontier between civilization and barbarism.

The Great Wall stretches away to the Qilian Mountains

At various times, Chinese power and influence have spread several thousand kilometres west of here – as they do today. In those days sections of wall reached out into the desert to remote forts, now levelled by time or reduced to stumps in the sand. Later, when the Chinese withdrew into their heartland, this was their final frontier. Even today, beyond Jiayuguan the Han are a minority and many of the people could not be described as ethnically Chinese.

We walked through the fort and out the far side through the Last Gate Under Heaven. The Chinese call their country Zhong Guo, The Middle Land. Once through this gate, you were very much on the edge and no longer under the protection of heaven. Here weeping loved ones said goodbye to those bound for exile, and it still looks a frightening prospect today. Beyond the gate, there is nothing but desert, a bare, flat wilderness bounded only by the distant horizon. Only a gang of boys, each holding a camel on a lead and touting rides, brought any humanity to the scene. We walked back in, through the First Gate Under Heaven.

The First Gate Under Heaven
It is a fine fort, the walls and guardhouses more delicate than their heavier cousins in Xi’an, but it is recognisably from the same source. By the fourteenth century, Chinese civilization was far more developed than anything in Europe or anywhere else in the world. They were so far ahead that they confused their achievements with perfection. They sat snugly, and indeed smugly, behind their wall and treated the rest of the world with disdain – if they bothered to think about it at all. A trip round any major museum will show that the incredibly advanced porcelain they were producing in the eleventh century was still being made in the seventeenth; that Chinese landscape painting became so stylised they seemed to be forever repeating the same picture. When you have seen one Ming palace you have seen them all, and their forts and their tombs. Once perfection is achieved, there can be no development. The Qing dynasty (1644-1911) saw some slight changes in fashion - furniture became a little heavier - but no change in mind set. By the time the Chinese looked over the parapet again, it was the twentieth century and to their horror, they found the barbarians had not only caught up, they had raced on ahead. It is only in the last three decades that the Chinese have woken up to what has happened. The current headlong rush for modernisation can only end with China playing a more important role in the world, a role that befits a nation with vast resources and a quarter of the world’s population.

It was eleven o’clock and Orlando suggested we go for lunch. We protested. ‘It was too early,’ we said, ‘wouldn’t it be better to set off for Dunhuang and find something on the way?’ Orlando said there was nothing on the way. In urban China it is difficult to walk a hundred metres without tripping over several restaurants, I found it difficult to believe we could drive several hundred kilometres without finding one, but Orlando was adamant.

We sat in a restaurant, nibbling watermelon and waiting until our stomachs said lunch would be acceptable. Around us, the staff were clearing up after a Chinese coach party. There was an incredible quantity of waste and they were dumping whole plates of food, some of them completely untouched, straight into big buckets on the floor. There was no doubt that when we were ready to eat we would again receive enough for six. Orlando was keen to order for us, but we had already primed her not to hold back on the chillies.

The meal, when it came, was as big as expected, the spicing mild, to say the least.

Lunch for two, Jiayuguan

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