Our train from the South to the North of China was due to take about 40 hours and cover two full nights. The first night we were just so happy to be out of Liuzhou railway station and able to get some sleep that we almost immediately crashed out in our beds. The train was similar to Indian 3AC trains in that the carriages had berths of 6, with beds in the berths in 3-tiers. They were however much cleaner and more modern, and the beds were already made, which in the dark, was a welcome relief to us both. As we settled down to sleep someone came and nudged us. She was the carriage guard and she asked for our tickets. She took them and put them in a ring-binder, and gave us a plastic tab with our berth number on it instead. We had no idea what was going on!
Another difference from Indian trains was that each carriage had a very smartly dressed guard to keep it clean and tidy. They were almost entirely women. Unlike India where we’d seen up to three fully grown men who worked on the trains share a tiny stifling linen cupboard, these members of staff had small cabins at the end of each carriage, with padded benches and a lockable door for privacy.
A more unwelcome difference was smoking. Indian trains were all non-smoking whereas Chinese trains are not. While smoking is confined to the vestibules, the carriage doors are always propped open, so the smoke fills the carriages. The vestibules are also where the sinks are, and where you have to queue for the toilets, and the thick smoke made that very unpleasant. Being in top-bunks was terrible for smoking as it rose and our bags and bedding stank, as well as it actually making it a bit of a challenge to breathe at times.
At about 2am Jay woke up in the middle of one of the intense electrical storms that had so far marked our time in China. Flashes illuminated the sky for seconds at a time, giving brief glimpses of the landscapes we were passing through. Hills, mountains and pine trees loomed, menacing in the brief grey moments of electricity. We passed by towns built up to the railway lines, where no street lights were on. They were lit by the light emanating from the train, passing like a ghost through the charged darkness.
The next morning we found out what happened to our train tickets. The guard came and woke up a guy in a nearby bunk and swapped his plastic tab for his ticket. He got his things together and about 20 minutes later he alighted at the next station. It was reassuring that we definitely wouldn’t miss our stop, despite not being able to read the station names!
The day passed very slowly. We had porridge using the hot water available at the end of each carriage, which was very welcome. There was nowhere for us to sit as our bunks were high up and too close to the ceiling to sit upright. There was a family sharing the bottom four bunks who monopolosed the lowest two, which were where we were all meant to sit in the day. On the opposite wall to each berth were two small seats, but they were tiny and uncomfortable, and meant that you had to move every time anyone walked down the carriage. It was an uncomfortable experience.
Things improved at lunch though, when we found that there was actually a restaurant car on the train. It had tables with wide windows and comfortable benches. The only issue was the smoke from the vestibules. We managed to get across the vegan thing and were treated to some genuinely tasty vegetable dishes and rice, our best meal so far! As the car wasn’t full, we managed to hang out there for most of the afternoon – mostly because the staff didn’t speak enough English to move us on as they were doing with the Chinese passengers, which we pretended not to notice!
We’d been working on the blog over lunch and continued when we got back to the carriage. And here it’s worth mentioning a few things about privacy. It really doesn’t seem to be a concept that is recognised. On the train, people came to look over our shoulders at the screen as we were typing, or at our diaries, although we were fairly confident they couldn’t read what we were writing. Another passenger picked up Jay’s diary and started rifling through it, studying the pictures on tickets we’ve saved from tourist attractions. On another occasion we made some instant noodles, and the family in the berth immediately picked up the empty wrapper and passed it between them, having a good look and discussion about it. It was all very, very odd to us.
A disturbing finding was that not only was there no loo roll on the train, there was no soap either. This, it turned out, is the case in almost all Chinese toilets – we’d just been lucky so far. In India we’d got into the habit of carrying loo roll, so that wasn’t too bad, and we had soap too which we used liberally. But being stuck in a train for 40 hours where few others were washing their hands was a bit disconcerting. We hoped the kitchen staff had soap at least!
The second night was more difficult as the smoke had really built up in the day and hung in a pall over our beds, making our eyes and throats sting. Jay woke the next day with a horrible cough and sore throat, and all our stuff smelled awful. But it was the last day, and in the afternoon after another exciting train meal, we alighted at Zhangye, and were delighted to be met by a driver from the hostel.
We stayed at The Silk Road hostel and were shown into a large double room that was only a few quid more than if we’d had seperate dorm beds with other people. Given that there was smoking in the dorms and the rest of the hostel, we were really appreciative of the opportunity to shut a door behind us and whack the aircon on. The beds were deeply uncomfortable, but it was worth it for our own space. We immediately had a shower and put on a load of laundry to get rid of the stink from our clothes and rested for a while before heading out to explore.
It was very hot in Zhangye, which is a lovely looking city with wide boulevards and leafy pavements. We found a huge supermarket and rummaged around for supplies. Everyone in China carries a thermos flask with a mesh filter for tea, and there is hot water freely available in lots of places, including train and bus stations, and on the trains. We’d wished we’d had some on the train, and so we got a couple, Jay finding one with a small enough mesh for ground coffee. Unfortunately, as we’re still learning, ground coffee is not really a thing here, and so its mostly been used for slices of dried lemon at the moment!
We managed to find a place nearby for dinner, which was actually delicious, and we had plenty of leftovers to take away to last us for a second meal. Then we collapsed in a heap and slept soundly in the quiet of our very own room.
The next day we explored Zhangye further, visiting a local market which was extremely modern and buzzing with chat and excitement. In an enormous park, flowers bloomed everywhere and trees provided dappled shade from the late morning heat. We heard some music up ahead and rounding the corner were shocked to see the most disturbing thing. Small robots were singing and pulling carts with children in. They were really badly finished, and all looked disturbing. It would have given kids in the UK the night-terrors! Nearby an amusement arcade was open, but the lights were all off and it was dark inside, and empty. We came to a small fairground where music blared out from loudspeakers, however no rides moved and no people were there, either queueing for rides or on the stalls. It was eerie, a bit like the rapture had happened.
After being vaguely disturbed and unsettled we reached a lake, covered with beautiful blooming lotus flowers. White marble statues lined nearby avenues and a huge sandpit for kids to play in stretched across its most Southerly end. It was a beautiful thing to have in the middle of a city.
In the afternoon we joined a tour from the hostel to go to Rainbow Mountains. Located near the Gobi desert, the mountains are great crenelations of diagonally layered rock, formed from different minerals which gives the layers bright and incredibly vivid hues. We were excited to see this and hoped to be able to explore the geopark, and potentially to climb some hills.
This was most definitely not possible, unfortunately. Tourism in China is an absolute machine – very rigid in it’s protocols and very tightly controlled. There’s no such thing as going ‘off-path’ and even if you were allowed, hiking as we’d understand it in the UK and Western Europe is not a common pasttime, and is even viewed with suspicion, especially when those engaging in such strange behaviour are foreigners.
To enter the Geopark we first had to join an enormous queue for tickets. We made it to the front and handed over our passports (of course) and cash. Then we piled on to a huge coach packed with other tourists and were delivered to the first viewpoint. The whole process was very carefully managed: the Geopark has four viewpoints and the only way to get to them is on the provided coaches (for which there was an additional charge above the ticket price; you have the option of paying even more for a smaller ‘private’ vehicle, but you cannot walk or drive yourself). At each viewpoint hundreds of tourists poured off the coaches, and most of them walked to the nearest spot where they could take some photos and selfies, then piled back on the coach again. There were huge wooden walkways leading away from each coach stop that led to slightly different views, but the main attraction for us was that the further away you walked, the quieter it got.
Everyone we spoke to said that the last viewpoint was the best, so we moved quickly through the others to get there, knowing we had limited time before sunset and before we had to be back for the shared car. It was bedlam at the last viewpoint, with thousands of people lined up along all of the walkways, and a security guard operating a one-in-one-out policy on to the main platform. We’d seen adverts around the park for hot-air balloon rides, and were very amused to see that this actually consisted of two tethered balloons, which raised up slightly higher than the viewing platform, hovered for a minute or two, then came back down. What a waste of money! Annoyingly, there was also a constant stream of parascenders buzzing overhead, which was even more of a distraction from the incredible view than the thousands of other people crushed in around us.
But the views were stunning. The colours of sunset were vivid, the rocks stripey with red, yellow and orange, and topped with green. As the sun descended shadows shifted across their flanks, sharpening some lines and softening others. After a little while, although the sun had not quite set, the rocks began to lose their colour, so we beat a hasty retreat, trying to get to the buses before the worst of the sunset crowd. It had been magnificent but within the tourist machine it had also felt a little detached.
The next morning we headed to Pinshanhu Canyon for Maeve’s birthday. This Geopark had several walking routes, and we had a long conversation in broken English with a staff member before planning out the longest route we could manage in the time we had before we had to be back1 . Unfortunately, our planning and route checking was based on the maps provided being accurate, and we only discovered much later that the “You are here” logo was in the same place on the signs wherever we were in the canyon! We endured a very stressful 20 mins trying to find the start of our walk before realising that once again we had to board a bus to get to the allotted walkways. We found a friendly bilingual young couple who then helped us with the map and pointed us in the right direction.
As we approached on the bus we could see why the park was referred to as “China’s Grand Canyon” as the vast plain stretched out with towering red monoliths and mountain ranges all around. We dutifully stopped at the first viewpoint to take pictures of the impressively weathered rock formations stretching out into the distance.
The walk through the canyon was beautiful, starting with a steep descent down stone staircases to the sandy floor which sloped gently downwards and was interspersed with short steel ladders. Outside in the sun it was unbearably hot, but in the shade of the slot canyon it was delightfully cool. In pockets and corners you could see hints at where water sometimes ran, but it was completely dry during our visit.
Along the canyon we’d tried to find some solitude, but the sheer number of people meant that it was rare for us not to be approaching another group or being overtaken. But on the whole we walked by ourselves. We reached a fork in the path, with one route marked “Exit” and the other signposted for the “Sky Ladder” which would take us back up out of the canyon. Despite Jay’s trepidation, we opted for the ladder. We had to squeeze through a few tight gaps and clamber over large boulders to get there, and when we did we were astonished (but not surprised!) at the enormous queue! It actually got quite cold waiting there in the shade for our turn to climb the ladder…
Back at the top of the canyon, we realised we still had loads of time – we’d rushed through the canyon because we didn’t know how long it would take, since the maps didn’t have any distances on – and so we decided to go round again! This time we skipped the Sky Ladder so we could explore the other route and avoid the massive queue. Contrary to what the map showed, the route marked Exit was actually much longer! We wandered through seemingly endless gorges, seeing almost no other people. We eventually realised we were short on time and ended up running through the baking heat and up hundreds of stairs to get back to our bus to the entrance.
We went back to the same place for dinner and enjoyed a few beers. At the next table, a group of men were drinking beer and also small glasses of a dark liquid from a bottle that looked like balsamic vinegar! Intrigued, Jay went over and asked what it was (reassured that if this was weird behaviour, they’d just put it down to us being foreign). They duly poured him a glass and handed it over, which he panicked and downed in one. Turns out it was red wine! They insisted on giving us another glass for Maeve, which she sipped slowly. It was pretty nice.
Unfortunately Maeve got sick that night, which put a dampener on things, and meant the whole next day was spent in our room before we left Zhangye the following morning. Jay managed to visit the local giant Buddha statue, the largest reclining indoor Buddha in the world. Again it was a highly restricted experience due to the strict nature of Chinese tourism, however it was still moving. The enormous Buddha reclined in a temple that was dimly lit by candles. His eyes gleamed and you could only wonder what he was thinking. Jay also climbed a massive wooden pagoda which had lovely views of the city from the top, and had coffee in some kind of time-warp of velour and marble!
Overall we really enjoyed Zhangye, however there was one strange feature that we were treated to twice a day at 8am and 12 noon. From somewhere in the city piped out through loud speakers came the first eight bars of Fleur Elise, immediately followed by a fairly menacing gong and an announcement in a robotic voice. We have no idea what it was about, but it made us feel like we were in the Hunger Games every time. It’s a wonder we didn’t try to kill each other with our toothbrushes.
Our next stop was Jiayaguan, where we alighted our train ready to be collected again by our guest house owner. Unfortunately nobody was there. We waited a while before phoning the number on our confirmation, to be told by a gruff male voice that he hadn’t received our acceptance message for his offer of a lift. We held a stilted coversation that ended with Maeve hanging up and saying “I THINK he’s on his way now”. We had onward train tickets to buy so joined the inevitable huge queue to do that. After FOURTY-FIVE minutes of queuing we finally got our tickets, and were wondering where the guy had got to. We phoned him again and he scoffed at us asking where he was and said we would have to get the bus. And it was raining. We made our way over to the Ibis hotel across the road to see if there was any chance we could afford a night there. It was six times the price of the room we’d booked, so that was a no! Then we got a phone call from a woman – a friend of the guy who owned the guest house – explaining in better English that he was out of town and she could come and get us in 20 minutes. We thanked her and walked back through the rain to the train station.
Half an hour later we finally lost our patience. We checked booking.com and selected the next cheapest hostel, and found a taxi to take us there. We called the woman back – who told us she was just leaving to come get us – and told her we were cancelling the booking. She was really nice and it’s a shame she bore the brunt of our frustration, but after the way the guy had brushed us off, we really didn’t want to stay in his house for two days!
Our new hostel had the exciting feature of capsules instead of regular dorm beds – Jay was thrilled! They were “spacecraft” capsules stacked two high in a large room with galaxies printed on the ceiling. Climbing up tiny steps to get in the top capsule, a keycard unlocked the door which slid open. Inside was the option of “white” light, reading light or UV (or a combination of all three). Jay’s Lakeland 100 tshirt glowed brilliantly!
The rest of the hostel was pretty depressing, there was smoking in all the communal areas and animals being treated terribly. An enormous fish hovered under the water filter of a too-small tank, unable to turn around. And next to the sink in the area that passed for a kitchen was a terrapin in a tiny glass bowl with a couple of inches of stagnant water and nothing else. The treatment of animals in China has been expectedly depressing: restaurants with songbirds in tiny cages, chickens packed into crates, and even more bizarrely we’ve seen cats squeezed into cages on the pavement outside shops. But this was the first time we encountered animals which are apparently housepets being treated so badly.
We’d come to Jiayaguan to see the Great Wall, which has its mostly Westerly terminus outside the city. Having learnt from our experience in Zhangye, we opted not to join the shared car from the hostel. Instead we took the local bus, which is always a great experience, and ridiculously cheap! It cost 25p for both of us to get across town to the Fort, which was an impressive building but not particularly moving for either of us. The turrets had expansive views towards the Gobi desert, but apart from that it was more of the same carefully curated and managed crowd control.
The highlight from our visit to the Fort was actually the food. Before going in, we’d scoured the market outside with our vegan translation cards, and found amazing, heavily seasoned fried baby potatoes with fluffy insides. Slightly less amazing was the ice lolly made from peas which tasted a bit floral, but it’s nice to have something frozen anyway! For lunch we combined a local bread with an unusual herby Chinese flavour with some tofu we’d brought with us and cherry tomatoes. We also bought what we thought were two corn on the cobs, freshly steamed, from the veggie stall. We were pretty excited about these, as they’ve tended to be delicious so far, and are a common tourist area treat. We were craving the crunchy juicyness, but something wasn’t quite right. One of them was vibrant yellow, but the other was insipid and pale, like it was anaemic. It was cloying and strange, and lacked all of the things that make sweetcorn good – sweetness and crunch. Jay went to the woman on the stall and using the translation app, waved the two corns at her and asked if they were ok to eat because they looked different. She nodded and seemed confused by our own confusion. So we capitulated and ate the chewy, tastless mass without enthusiasm. As we finished the woman came over with her own translation app. It said “One is fruit corn, the other is glutinous rice corn which is why they look different”. It was an apt, and depressing description, and we’ll be careful to only get yellow cobs from now on! It’s a challenge trying to get across the vegan food stuff, now we have to be wary of strange vegetables too. We had our otherwise lovely picnic beside a beautiful wild flowerbed, in the dappled sunlight under some trees. The improvised sandwiches, beautiful flowers and temperate shade all combined to feel more familiar than anything since we’d been in China, and put us both in a good mood.
Next we went to the Overhanging Great Wall, 8km North by taxi (no local bus goes there as there is no reason for locals to go!). This most Westerly section of the Wall has been restored for tourism, and we duly submitted to the predetermined route up the wall and supposedly 600 steps (Jay counted 510) to the top, then the path back down. It was midafternoon and VERY hot. The mountains to one side glinted in the sun, with the desert flowing toward the horizon on the other side. As with everywhere we’ve been in China outside of the Geoparks, the view was constantly interrupted with industry and new building works, in this case a massive power plant in the near distance, and some kind of sports complex just at the foot of the wall.
When we reached the top the wall abruptly disappeared. The tourist path back down contoured the side of the mountain. Leading off from the end of the wall, dozens of paths showed where previous tourists had gone exploring. All over the hillside was covered in initials and hearts that people had formed from rocks, and there were also padlocks attached to the path barrier left by previous tourists. We wandered away from the wall and tourists along one of the tiny paths, but didn’t stray too far. The heat was getting unbearable and the shale underfoot was very treacherous.
During our stay in Jiayaguan, Jay came to the decision that it was time to shave his head. We’d bought some clippers since we both needed a haircut but only just found the time (and a suitable bathroom!) to use them. After shaving his usual mohawk, we both realised that there wasn’t enough hair to make it work anymore and it was finally time to go bald. Luckily (!) an arrogant bald cis white man appeared in the hostel bathroom, like a shit genie, to advise us how to use clippers and console Jay that it would be much easier now in the shower.
On our final morning in Jiayaguan, we successfully used Didi, the Chinese Uber for the first time, to get us to the train station nice and early, to give us time to visit a cashpoint and assuage Jay’s travel anxiety. About 30 minutes before our train, we queued up for security, sighing with frustation as we realised we needed to get out our passports and tickets just to get into the building. Thank goodness we did. As we got to the front of the queue, the woman in the security booth did a double-take, and then pointed urgently at our ticket, which we inspected again to see the station name: Jiayaguannan. Which is another station across the city. We fought our way, with our massive bags, back through the tightly constrained queue and dashed for the taxi rank. We jumped in a taxi brandishing our ticket (thankfully the station and other details are printed in both Chinese and English), and pointing energetically at the printed time to urge the driver to go fast. To his credit, he drove like a demon, swinging through the traffic, running red lights and hitting 100km/hr on the dual carriageway with a 50km/hr limit. We arrived at a MUCH larger station with 13 minutes til our train and had to rush through TWO lots of security scanners. At the ID check, Maeve managed to sneak in behind train staff and VIPs by pleading and waving her ticket. We raced through the waiting hall and ticket barriers and ran up four flights of stairs to the platform where our train was waiting. We jumped on the first carriage and were immediately told to get off and go down to the other end – the train was made of two trains joined together and we were on the wrong one. We made it to our carriage with a few minutes to spare and collapsed into our seats in a sweaty mess.
Next stop: the Tibetan Plateau.
1. a lesson we learnt across the visits to Rainbow Mountains and the canyon is that we don’t do well on organised tours: we like to linger, especially around natural wonders, so we felt like we were constantly rushing to be back in time. Also other people are annoying.↩