Having left Xiahe we had a road journey back to the railway station at Lanzhou, via the Buddha caves at Binglingshi . On reaching Lanzhou we took the overnight train to Jiayuguan, a nondescript city known to tourists as the western terminus of the Great Wall. It also happens to be in the middle of the Gobi Desert. The satellite map shows it surrounded by sand. It owes its existence to the melt water from the snows of the distant mountains - this source may be in danger as it is melting away too quickly

Our journey from Xiahe took us past both flocks of sheep being taken down from high pastures, and enormous roadside service areas with no customers (central planning at its best.)

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Bingling Buddha Caves and Temple

The Bingling Temple is a series of grottoes filled with Buddhist sculpture carved into natural caves and caverns in a canyon along the Yellow River. It lies just north of where the Yellow River empties into the Liujiaxia Reservoir, and we took a speedboat across the reservoir to get to the Buddha statues.

The first grotto was begun around 420 AD at the end of the Western Qin kingdom. Work continued and more grottoes were added during the Wei, Sui, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties. The style of each grotto can easily be connected to the typical artwork from its corresponding dynasty. The Bingling Temple is both stylistically and geographically a midpoint between the monumental Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan and the Buddhist Grottoes of central China, Yungang Grottoes near Datong and Longmen Grottoes near Luoyang.

Over the centuries, earthquakes, erosion, and looters have damaged or destroyed many of the caves and the artistic treasures within. Altogether there are 183 caves, 694 stone statues, and 82 clay sculptures that remain. The relief sculpture and caves filled with buddhas and frescoes line the northern side of the canyon for about 200 meters. Each cave is like a miniature temple filled with Buddhist imagery. These caves culminate at a large natural cavern where wooden walkways precariously wind up the rock face to hidden cliff-side caves and the giant Maitreya Buddha that stands almost 100 feet, tall.

For me this site was an unexpected bonus. It was spectacular, and worth the journey required to get here. There is a well constructed pathway to follow. And at the end we had a good lunch on a floating restaurant

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From the Buddhas it was back to Lanzhou and another overnight train, this time to Dunhuang. This train was a bit better than the last one, but that may have been illusionary, as we were now more au fait with the Chinese Railways methods of operation

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We left the train and got to our new hotel in time for breakfast

Jiayuguan International Grand Hotel

“Neither "Grand" nor "International" but a perfectly reasonable hotel. We stayed here two nights. It is positioned just opposite the "Dolphin" statue and the large public park. The park makes a nice walk first thing in the morning to watch the Chinese taking their exercise and martial arts classes. There are also 2 interesting cafes in the park

The self styled Grand International hotel is a perfectly adequate, if unmemorable, hotel about 10 minutes walk from the restaurant street area, where you would probably go for dinner- as we did. The rooms are a little tired and the only thing of note was a "dropped in" replacement shower cubicle - one of those ready made units, which filled too much space in the bathroom and constricted your movement in the bathroom.

We were in the annex - and oddly it is an annex, which although it appears to be joined on to the main hotel with the reception, the only way to access the reception and restaurant is by going outside

Breakfast offered a reasonable choice, although you had to navigate your way into and out of, a great many closed hotplates, many of which were in fact empty when you took the lid off. The staff were reasonably helpful, but at heart this is just a hotel you would stay at while passing through the city, with no great expectation of either a memorable nor a bad nights stay. I marked it as "Average" as that is what it is

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Opposite the hotel was a very large public park , complete with a giant dolphin. In addition to being a landmark, the dolphin is a meteorological centre, with a Doppler radar hidden in the ball perched on the dolphin's nose. Scientists there have been nervously watching the snow pack in the nearby Qilian mountains recede for the past 20 years. Here in the parched northwest, Jiayuguan depends heavily on the snow melt for its water supplies, and further warming could be devastating. Droughts are becoming more frequent and the hungry Gobi continues to encroach—the city is planting thousands of willow trees to fend off soil erosion.

Each morning hundreds of citizens are out in the park before breakfast, doing dance routines or martial arts. Maggie and Barbara joined the dancers, Chris and I enjoyed a fruit tea in one of the cafes

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Lunch was at a Muslim owned restaurant - we were told that the Muslims, in the main, kept cleaner premises

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Wei Jin Tombs

20km to the north east of Jiayuguan city. This big tomb group with over 1,400 tombs was built between the 3rd Century and 5th Century during the Wei and Jin dynasties.

The Wei-Jin tombs in fact only have one tomb open to the public, out of the thousands that are predicted to be in the area. This tomb is that of a husband and wife. The tomb has three chambers and contains beautiful bricks that depict daily life. You can see people playing instruments, making bread and drinking tea.

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The "Overhanging Great Wall"

The nearby Jiayu Pass, the largest and most intact pass of the Great Wall of China. In ancient times, many inns were built near the pass. Gradually, more and more people decided to stay there for business and Jiayuguan City was built. Jiayuguan also has a large steel plant built in 1958. But it was not the Steel Plant that we had come to see but the fortress at Jiayuguan, situated at the end of the Great Wall of China which was built by the Ming Dynasty, in the 14th century.

Located about 4 miles to the northwest of Jiayuguan Pass, and about 7 miles from Jiayuguan City, the Overhanging Great Wall is an important part of the defence network of Jiayuguan (Jiayu Pass). It was built to strengthen the defensive capability of the Jiayuguan area. Built on the eastern slope of Black Mountain, it is not visible to anyone looking from west to east. Enemies thought they could enter inner China from here. However, they were totally mistaken. After they went over the mountain with great difficulty, they found a very firm barrier in their path that was impossible to cross. Viewed from a distance, the Great Wall appears very like a dragon overhanging the slope, hence the name. It was built by using local gravel and yellow earth, layer upon layer, and consists of the main path, battlements and three observation posts. This section of wall climbs up the north slope of the Black Mountain, which is 150-meter high and tilted 45 degrees.

The steepness of the ascent made the climb quite challenging, particularly as we had been give a very tight time limit to meet back at the bus.

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Jiayuguan Fort

Jiayu Pass is not only the western starting point of the Ming Great Wall, but also a vital pass on the ancient Silk Road. It's the joining place of the cultures of the Silk Road and the Great Wall (along with Dunhuang, which has some Han Dynasty Great Wall relics). In the Ming Dynasty the Jiayu Pass was a vital area for defence against attack from the northwest. The Great Wall was built across this Gobi Desert pass.

Jiayuguan's fortress is quite impressive, although almost entirely reconstructed today. There is a two-story watchtower on each corner. It has a bailey with three storied-buildings with three-tiered gable-and-hip roofs, inner and outer walls, two gatehouses, a moat, and beacon towers. The bailey has a perimeter of 640 meters and an area of 25,000 square meters.

Jiayu pass is surrounded by towering mountains to the south and desert hills to the north, and an isolated group of hills to the west, protecting a desert valley area about 15-kilometers wide. In the south of the valley, the Great Wall ends on the edge of the Beida River gorge, a natural barrier. Together with the Great Wall across the valley, the fort was an impregnable military defence system. There is a spring in front of the Jiayuguan fortress, which forms an oasis. The spring is one of the reasons why the fortress was built there.

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It was a brisk walk into town for dinner in one of the hundreds of identical places to eat on the "restaurant street"

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The next morning we journeyed on to Dunhuang

On to next town - Dunhuang

Back to Overall Itinerary for Silk Road Trip 2016