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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Timewarp in Jiayuguan (Part 1)

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I can’t let my life pass without telling this story. I don’t really care whether you read it or not – that’s up to you. I just want it out there.

    And though I’d dearly love to, I’m not going to tell you all the interesting stuff that leads up to it. Like the fact that twenty years ago, I took a group of 34 avid devotees of Chinese culture on an odyssey through China, not only on the regular tourist trail of places like Guilin, Chengdu, Xian, Beijing and Shanghai, but way, way up the old Silk Route almost as far as you can go in China.

    All the way to a magical place called Urumqi, where the local people, mainly Uighur, wore their lovely costumes daily to market, where women in high heels, stockings and Paris fashions jostled with more modestly covered Muslim women along the dusty streets and .... no, I won’t go into all that.

Expedition route. Jiayuguan, not on the tourist trail, is the centrepiece of this story!
    Nor will I bore you with the story of how the local official forgot to bring all 34 of our passports to the station at Urumqi as we left on the overnight train headed for the oasis of Turfan, how he made a dash four miles for them knowing his head was on the chopping block, and just managed to deliver them by throwing the package of them through the train window as the train was starting to move.

    How we travelled all night in the train, with the sun setting on the moonscape of the Tarim Desert Basin, rockstrewn and barren, and woke after trundling for ten hours to a landscape so similar it was as if we’d been running on the spot all night. How we transferred to coach and proceeded onwards, dozens of desert willy-willys, or mini-tornadoes, advancing towards us, never away, like bandits aiming to hijack the coach and kill us all....

    That’s way too dull.

    No, I won’t go on to say how majestic the Tibetan plateau looked in the distance as we made our way across the stark desert towards Turfan, or how billions of gallons of melting snow from those mountains found its way deep underground over millions of years, gushing up through fissures smack in the middle of the desert, so that when we arrived in Turfan (Turpan) there were wide channels of crystal clear water racing down each side of the street. Where overhead, the ancient grapevines arched across above us all through the city, making the Turfan oasis into the Paradise described in the Qur'an....

    Well, almost. Nothing can beat Heaven as described in the Qur'an, but it’s definitely a vision of Heaven as a desert Arab would perceive it. Let’s not wax too eloquent about the things that won’t interest you in the least. Like the glorious Buddhist cave paintings in the grottoes of Dunhuang that I took the group to see, the blues in the pictures like no other blue on earth.

    I mean, who’d want to be bothered with all that old stuff, really?

    No, this is about a strange thing that happened after we made our way through the desert to the city of Jiayuguan (pronounced Jee-a-you-gwan). All those other stories I’m ignoring are part of a grand adventure that needs its own time and space. Whether we’ll make it that far.... well, let’s see.

    It had been a fairly exhausting but exhilarating time for the group by the time we made it to Jiayuguan. There wasn’t a lot I wanted to show them there – it was more a couple of days to catch our breath. The fact that the Great Wall way out there is nothing like the view of it we get from round Beijing makes it worth seeing – it’s mud brick, not stone (try finding stone out there on a plain covered by metres of dust from the giant loess plateaux beyond) - and there’s some great things in the museums there.... stop stop STOP! This is about people! Us.... and some amazing Chinese characters.

    I’ll put this part up – the part about what the story’s NOT about - so we’ve got a straight ride into this, and then it’s down the home stretch, goal clearly in sight. I must get to my dancing colonels. (continued)

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  1. AMAZING! I wonder if the crystal water still gushes down the street sides in you remember I wanted to tell you about the Silk Road town that was being destroyed by 'modernising' Chinese (in fact many say its' really an attempt to wipe out the old culture..) it's Kashgar! Pictures -I'm going to search for pictures.

  2. Good question, Julie - or is it a sad one? This was 20 years ago, and in the race to be the world's leading power, China has abandoned much. The city of Lanzhou in the centre of the map above was the most polluted place I have ever seen anywhere in the world, even then. The culture of the Muslim Uighurs and the Wei people of Xinjiang province have taken a dreadful hammering. Kashgar we didn't go to, but what a romantic sounding name it is! Maybe I wouldn't want to go back. That was the best o/s travelling trip I ever had.


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