From Beijing I took one of the morning planes to Lanzhou, on the Yellow River in eastern Gansu, 704 miles to the west, and then caught the afternoon puddle-jumper on to Jiayuguan, 369 miles still farther west.
In Jiayuguan I wanted to check out the possibility of making a trip to the Mazong (Horse’s Mane) Mountains to the north and Gobi Desert beyond.
The bus from the airport was not running—there were only about thirty people on the small plane and most of them seemed to be locals who were met at the airport by acquaintances. I had to take a cab for the six-mile trip into town. The cab driver was a woman in her mid-twenties. She delivered me to the Jiayuguan Hotel on the main city square and insisted on carrying my bag inside. I had read that the Jiayuguan Hotel was a dump and was going to stay there only because it was conveniently located. The accounts must have been written before a recent upgrade. The place now is quite up-scale and all the receptionists and even some of the waitresses in the restaurant speak English. The listed price reflected the upgrade—400 yuan for a standard room; more than the venerable Yong An, where I stay in Beijing—but this price was quickly lowered to 200 yuan when I showed signs of heading for the door. Mid-April is the off-season in Jiayuguan. All the while the cab driver was hovering by my elbow. Speaking through one of the receptionists she then offered to take me the next morning to the two most famous local sights—the westernmost extension of the Great Wall of China and the Jiayuguan Fort, on the western edge of town. A price was arrived at and we agreed to meet at nine the next morning.
There was some kind of settlement here in this wide corridor between the Qilian Mountains to the north and the Mazong Mountains to the north since at least Han times some two thousand years ago. More than a thousand tombs dating from the Wei (220-265) and Western Jin ((265-316) dynasties are scattered around the surrounding desert. During the Ming Dynasty the fort here marked the western limits of the Chinese Empire. The Great Wall, starting far to the east at Shanhaiguan on the Bohai Gulf, ended here, and in 1372 a fort was built to guard the border. The nearby town become knowns as “Jiayuguan,” which means “Barrier of the Pleasant Valley.” The city now has a population of some 115,000. Cement and fertilizer factories dominate the town, and iron ore and coking coal are mined in the nearby mountains. Although nowhere near as famous a tourist attraction as Dunhuang, some five hours by bus to the south, a fair amount of tourists stop by to see the Great Wall, the fort, and a smattering of other local sights. All serous Silk Roadies make an obligatory stop here because of its importance as a way-station on the Silk Road.
The day I arrived it had been very overcast and I was not able to be see much of the surrounding area either on the plane’s approach or on the drive into town. The next morning I was a bit startled when I drew back the curtains and beheld the glacier-capped 18,000 foot-plus Qilian Mountains dominating the entire southern horizon.
The driver was right on time the next morning. Her name is Chan. She is in her late twenties I would say, very thin, with a finely chiseled face. I quickly discovered she did not speak a single word of English. For someone who works with the public she seemed intensely shy—or maybe she was just shy around foreigners. She would glance at me out of the corner of her eyes for a microsecond and than intently stare straight ahead, as if she had seen something she really shouldn't have. Our first stop is the so-called Overhanging Wall section of the Great Wall, 6.2 miles from the hotel on the city square. From the fort, 4.2 miles away, the Wall runs across flat desert and ends at the top of a high hill.
Among the more notable is Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism, who some sources claim made the first recorded trip through Jiayuguan in the fifth century BC. Lao Tzu was of course the author of record of the Dao De Qing, the seminal text of Taoism. Discouraged that so few people were willing to follow his teachings of The Way he mounted his black buffalo and rode westward. Here at Jiayuguan he left China proper and disappeared into the wilderness beyond and hence into legend. That he was supposedly between 160 and 200 years old when he made the trip brings the historicity of this whole account into question.
Xian in Shaanxi Province to India. I have visited numerous places in Xuanzang’s itinerary, including Lanzhou in eastern Gansu Province; Turpan and Khotan in Xinjiang, Bodhgaya, site of the Buddha’s Enlightenment, nearby Vulture's Peak, where the Buddha taught, and the great Buddhist university of Nalanda, all in India; the Big Goose Pagoda in Xian where the Buddhist texts he brought back from India were stored, and his tomb at Xingjiao Temple near Xian.