In the Gobi oasis town of Zhangye we experience our best meal to date, and we’ve had some good ones, the big wok. Every table in the restaurant has a recessed wood fired hot wok. Into the wok goes a pre prepared rich stock of chicken and pork, ginger, cinnamon, star anise and garlic. Then they add tofu and put the heavy wooden lid back on. This is followed by potato, lotus root, young bamboo shoot, broccoli and Chinese celery. Then the piece de resistance, the local stretched noodles are latticed over the top, the stock is ladled over and the lid goes back on for a steaming. Delicious.
The main attraction in Zhangye is the painted mountains. A freak of nature which over time has left these bare hills looking like they have been splashed and streaked with many colours, mustard, ochre, terracotta, beige and cream. There are many tourists here but 98% are Chinese. The foreigners and expats stand out because of their uncovered skin. No self respecting Chinese woman would ever leave her skin exposed to the sun’s rays. We see almost zero foreigners here which makes us a curiosity with the locals. Many say a friendly hello. An old lady invites us into her garden to admire her vegetables and flock of hens. China clearly has many long term plans. This agricultural region has been designated a tourist destination and many of the old adobe villages and greenhouses lie in ruins. Along the roads there are extravagant plantings of conifers, peony roses and ornamental trees. There are dams and hotels and shops for the expected tourist influx. Water has been pumped from southern China to convert 30% of the Gobi desert into a lush oasis.
Another bullet train ride takes us to Jiayuguan where finds of gold, gas and oil have converted, in 30 years, dry desert land into a thriving, green city. Remembering the cries of the global warming naysayers that they would only adopt sustainable practices when China did, I have to tell them China is doing it NOW. And in a big way. All the villages have solar lighting and hot water services. We pass by a massive solar farm. The street trees in Jiayuguan are lit by solar panels. There are MASSIVE tree planting’s everywhere. It takes us 40 mins to pass a wind farm with turbines 20 deep. China is going. Still the dust from the desert and cement works and coal fired power stations creates a constant haze.
Our hotel in Jiayuguan is a palace. A smart business hotel in the middle of town with all the modern luxuries. Everything here is no more than 30 years old. There are broad tree lined avenues more like Paris than rural China. It is peaceful with many of the cars and scooters being electric powered. Parks with broad cobblestone walks, forests of trees and huge peony beds in full flower. Not what I pictured in this remote Gobi desert location at all. Nearby is a wonderful supermarket with an amazing fruit and vegetable section. Dried fruits are a speciality of this area, the sultanas are moist and burst with flavour. The dried apricots and pistachios are exceptional. My favourite display is the fresh noodles.
The main tourist attraction is the end of the Ming dynasty Great Wall although other dynasties continued it for another 600 miles however some sections have been covered in sand and fallen into ruin. The Jiayuguan fort was in a strategic location at the narrowest point of the hexi corridor. This is a wide valley through which everyone on the Silk Road had to pass. The fort was designed to hold back the Huns, Barbarians and Mongols who rampaged through this section of the Gobi desert. The double wall of the fort was extra protection because after the wall had been attacked arrows would rain down on the invaders from the second wall. We are told Chinese want more than grade 5 (the best ) tourist attractions like the fort, they want entertainment too, hence the archery and Warrior Show taking place inside.
This section of the wall here is made of the local products, mud and straw. Only 5 sections of the Great Wall are open to tourists and this is much less crowded than Beijing. 300 steps saw us reach the top and a dramatic view of how the Gobi is being clawed back into oasis but the real ordeal was the 6 hour bus journey across the Gobi to our next destination, Dunhuang. Genghis Khan and Marco Polo really have my admiration.