China 3: Speeding through the Hexi Corridor

The bus slowly made its way through the sand storm until it reached Dunhuang and we were dropped at the town’s bus station around 8pm. Upon stepping out of the bus we were immediately shocked by the change of temperature. Also, the stormy winds were gone, kept out of the city by the tall buildings. It wasn’t exactly summer, but for the first time in days it was pleasant to be outside. Fair enough, while we were on the bus we had descended some 2.500 meters. The weather wasn’t the only noticeable change though. As we dragged ourselves to one of the hostels we had spotted on our phones we realized how much was going on around us: lots of traffic, buzzing restaurants, open stores. We were in a big city, we were finally back amongst the people.

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Dunhuang under the sandstorm

At the hostel we were delighted to see that they gave us a room at the first time of asking. Dunhuang was supposed to be a popular destination and therefore we weren’t expecting much trouble, but one never knows in this country. What we definitely weren’t expecting was to see some familiar faces, but Dunhuang proved much more popular than we thought. In the common area of the hostel we bumped into Stephanie and Dominique, a couple traveling overland all the way from Germany and with whom we had already crossed paths in Dushanbe and Khorog, back in Tajikistan. It was great to meet old road companions after our lonely days on the Tibetan Plateau and we were excited to share our adventures since parting ways in Central Asia. Despite being in great need of a shower we left this and other urgent duties like laundry for later, and we joined them for a stroll around downtown, which inevitably included a visit to the food night market.

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Group picture with Stephanie & Dominique

We finally took a day off. Kashgar had been the last place where we had had a proper rest and three weeks had passed since then. Besides, the sand storm was forecast to last one more day and it made no sense to leave the city in such conditions. Dunhuang didn’t stir up much enthusiasm in us though and a walk around town didn’t change that. Everything in the city center pointed towards mass tourism, with new and shiny hotels in every corner and souvenir shops lining the streets. All of downtown had been renovated; it lacked the authenticity and liveliness of Kashgar.

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Exploring the pavilions near the river
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Horsing around on the river

The city’s main attraction was a lake surrounded by picturesque sand dunes somewhere in the outskirts, where hundreds of thousands of Chinese tourists go every year to have a bit of desert adventure, including quad rides and selfies with camels and whatnot. After seeing it advertised all over town we decided to pass on that. Another attraction was a network of caves scattered over some cliffs and repleted with ancient Buddha statues. We would have gladly visited them if the entry hadn’t been 30€ per person. In the end, we spent the day going through our regular day-off routine: lazing around the hostel, sampling some local food and planning for the days ahead.

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Enjoying a hot bowl of noodles
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When locals take pictures of us, we also take pictures of them

So what next in this never-ending country? Dunhuang marked the beginning of Gansu Province, our third one in China. From there, our plan was to follow the famous Hexi Corridor all the way to the Huang He (Yellow river). Stretching for longer than 1.000km, this corridor is a succession of wide valleys and accessible mountain passes and offers a route from Central Asia to the heart of China while avoiding the Gobi desert to the north and the Tibetan Plateau to the south. This empty and arid region was outside the jurisdiction of the ancient Chinese dynasties, who considered it a natural gate to the wild west. As such, it saw numerous exiled warriors and statesmen leave China while camels pulled caravans carrying goods from Europe and the Middle East in the opposite direction. It was the last stretch of the Silk Road, and during the Han Dynasty the Great Wall was extended hundreds of kilometers westwards to protect this new part of China against the raiding Mongols. While very different from the world-famous sections near Beijing, some stretches of the wall are still defying both time and the vicious winds blowing in this remote desert, and we couldn’t wait to see such a renowned monument.

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Buildings in Dunhuang

As usual in China distances between cities would be long, but the region was mostly flat and the road pretty straight. It was time to cover as much distance as possible and try to win some margin in case things went awry again. We didn’t want to be forced to take another bus to make it to our flight from Chengdu, and the city was still 2.500km away. We were confident 25 days would be enough, but whenever the situation was favorable we had to take advantage of it.

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Amazing river crossings in Dunhuang; people were actually using them!

Next morning we set off in high spirits. Strong winds comings from the west had been announced to sweep the region during the following days and we couldn’t be more excited about it. Finally some wind from the right direction! In a small town we found a beautiful Buddhist monastery, full of colorful flags and frightening statues of the Chinese mythology. Because of the novelty we stopped there for a while, but other than that we just focused on making as much progress as possible, unsure about how long the winds  would last. By the end of the day we had managed 160km without feeling especially tired.

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The first Buddhist monastery
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Chinese cool statues
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Spirit or demon? Buddhist mythology is a bit complicated.

The winds kept pushing us the next day and the day after that and by the end of the third day we had covered the 400km separating Dunhuang and Jiayuguan. We were on the G312, the road we would follow for the next 1.200km. A haze covered the bland landscape but we could see endless wind farms and power lines disappearing into the fog. On the third day we spotted some chunks of the Chinese Wall scattered around the road. They weren’t made of sturdy stone blocks as we had expected but of mud. They were rather small but it was impressive to see such an obviously old construction still standing in the middle of such desolated place.

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Back on the road!
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Power lines everywhere
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The Great Wall!

The first thing that caught our sight were the chimneys of three nuclear power plants, but actually Jiayuguan is famous for a Ming-dynasty fort built in 1372, located a few kilometers outside the city. Once considered the most western Chinese fortification, this fort draws so many visitors that their surroundings had developed into a tourist hub with hotels, resorts, amusement parks, zoos, etc. We cycled around the fort for a while (getting inside was way too expensive), ate some cheap noodles downtown and left the city to cycle a few kilometers more and look for some quiet place to camp.

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The fort of Jiayuguan

It took us another day and a half to reach Zhangye, the second big city of the Hexi Corridor. The landscape was most of the same and the cycling quite boring but keeping Chengdu in mind, we just kept pushing. There were some things to be grateful about: the weather was fine, the road conditions were good and it was easy to find good, cheap food near the road. It was also great to have Youri marking the tempo upfront. Without him we wouldn’t have managed to cover such long distances for so many days in a row. We started feeling pretty relaxed about our flight in Chengdu.

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Hiding from the wind. Camping was less of an issue here
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Dealing with a flat tire

A significant improvement was the police situation. It was great to see that the police controls had completely disappeared, that the number of cameras surveilling the roads had dwindled, that petrol stations weren’t fortresses anymore. In Qinghai we hadn’t had the chance to interact with policemen (or with anybody at all), but in Gansu we found out that they were not asking for our passports anymore. Neither were they interrogating us nor calling superiors asking for orders to follow. Here they were everything you can expect from a nice officer. We did have some encounters with them at the beginning after sneaking a few times into the highway, hoping to shorten our route. Patrol cars always caught up with us pretty soon, but in stark contrast to Xinjiang the officers were all smiles. They were young and chatty, more concerned about taking a selfie with us and making sure we didn’t need water than anything else. Still, they also did their job and reminded us that we weren’t allowed to ride on the highway for safety reasons. They always escorted us to the next exit. As good as the highway was, the G312 was also brand new for most of the way, so after being caught twice in as many days, we just stayed there and braved the bad stretches.

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Nice officers, even willing to take pictures themselves
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Hundreds of kms of Great Wall along the road

Although it was quite early when we arrived to Zhangye, we decided to stay there for the night. The city has many tourists attractions and it wasn’t hard to find a foreigner-friendly hostel. We left everything in the dorm and went out for a walk. The downtown was beautiful, pedestrian streets lined with trees and red lanterns and small shops placed in traditional houses. There was a nice preserved wooden temple with a collection of traditional Chinese art works and a giant sleeping Buddha, all of which kept us busy for most of the afternoon. On the way back to the hostel we wanted to grab dinner, but to our dismay the many restaurants we had spotted earlier were already closed by 8pm. In the end, an already closed place run by a family let us in and served us some cold noodle dish we hadn’t tried yet. It was delicious, as it always is in China.

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Looking for street food around Zhangye
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Some gate in Zhangye

The landscape finally changed after Zhangye. Small forests appeared on the slopes of the mountains and cereal crops near the road gave some colours that broke the monotony of the dusty desert browns. There was a long climb some 150km before Wuwei, the third city of the Hexi Corridor. On it there were construction works and gravel, and this had us looking at the smooth three-lane highway running along us all the way up. As usual, Youri reached the top first and waited there, patiently smoking a cigarette. After catching up with him the three of us considered if we should get into the highway, as there’s nothing more frustrating than a downhill on a bad road. We made up our minds but this time the fence looked solid and there was no way to sneak in. Resigned, we stayed on our road and prepared for the worst, but as soon as the descent started the roadworks ended, the gravel turned into new shiny pavement and we could enjoy a perfect ride, our first decent downhill in China.

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Lovely wooden Buddhist temple in Zhangye
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Youri and Joan. The Buddha behind us didn’t fit in the picture

We reached Wuwei the next day. According to our guidebook its population was roughly half a million, but judging by the size and the number of apartment buildings it could have been many millions. Accommodation is so cheap in China that we decided to stay in a hostel again. Youri had found one in Booking and we headed there, but there was just no way to find it. The idea of a nice, warm bed was too deep in our tired minds already, so cycling out of the city and looking for a quiet spot to camp was a no go. We asked around for help, and two young English teachers were very happy to help us. They started a thorough search calling many hotels, comparing prices, asking about foreign-friendly policies, etc. Tired as we were, we grew a bit restless when half an hour later we were still waiting at the same spot, and we had to remind ourselves that some things just take a lot of time in China. In the end, the wait was worth it because there is nothing like a warm shower and a soft bed to recover from a long day on the saddle.

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Life’s good in Western China
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Sleeping in a cave for the first time, nice and cosy
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Hundreds of kids getting out of school

The further east we cycled, the more people we saw everywhere and it was in the cities where the difference was more striking. Wuwei was much more lively than the other cities of the Hexi Corridor. The shopping streets were crowded until well into the night and the restaurants didn’t seem to close at any time. Loud music was playing in the streets and in every little square there was some sort of dance performed by enthusiastic groups of people following a leader’s moves. This seemed to be a very national hobby among middle-aged women in China (Han Chinese ones, never Uyghur). We had seen some ten or twelve aunties dancing in front of our hostel in Zhangye, but in Wuwei those gatherings were huge. It was very funny and entertaining to watch. After dinner we walked around the food market looking for a treat for our never full stomachs. We bought a big bag of very spicy chips and a few beers to enjoy in our room before resting in our comfy, heated beds.

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The famous gate of Wuwei
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Dancing ladies having a blast

Some kilometers after Wuwei we took a turn-off to visit the Tiantishan Grottoes. The road followed a narrow green valley which was nothing like we had seen in China before. For the first time in the country, the hills around us were covered by dense green grass and we could hear the crickets, the birds and the frogs instead of the traffic. It was beautiful. Even better though were the views we found at the end: a small crystal blue lake surrounded by jagged peaks. Guarding the lake an impressive 27 meters Buddha had been carved in one of the mountains, and there were different caves full of Buddhist art made by some monks a few hundreds of years ago. The whole thing was inexplicably empty and we had the caves and the statue almost for ourselves. We couldn’t understand why such a charming place wasn’t packed like most of the (much inferior) tourist sights we had visited elsewhere, but we appreciated it a lot.

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Lake on our way to Tiantishan
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Hi there, big fella!
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Little Jordi humbled by the size of the Buddha

We rode the same way back to the G312 to tackle the last stretch of the Hexi Corridor, consisting of another long climb that brought us to 3.000 meters. We had reached the last week of October and it was very cold near the top, so we made use of our winter gloves again. From there it was a 150km downhill to the Yellow River. We sped down to camp somewhere warmer but as the light started to fade we were still feeling cold. We passed a small town where we spotted a few hotels and decided to try our luck. On our third try we got accepted in a very basic hotel where we fell asleep early.

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It’s always nice to find something special at the top of a mountain pass. Flags, in this case
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Snow on the mountains to the south
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Fixing the front rack of Jordi’s bike

The next day we reached the Huang He and with it the end of the Hexi Corridor. Over the last days all the elements of civilization had been appearing one by one, and by that point there were no remnants of desert around us anymore. The river flowed unhurriedly through a valley covered with fields and factories, and outside the cities and towns the mountain slopes were covered with lush vegetation. For us, this was the end of a very long stretch. Until that point, China had been a race through remote regions where the main goal had been to cover the huge distance to Chengdu. Now, after speeding across the Hexi Corridor, Chengdu felt manageably close and maybe we would even have some time to enjoy ourselves while on a little detour. The mountains that had appeared in front of us were suddenly quite inviting.

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The Yellow River
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