Jiayuguan, where the great wall ends, or starts, depending on your point of view. Here is a map to explain the area clearly, there is a wall going north to south defending the “throat of China” which does not quite connect to the main Great Wall.
Another place with a dodgy hostel as this week was the end of Golden Week, when most people in China have time off and go travelling. With the single YHA hostel full, we ended up in a flat turned hostel in a large estate. The owner had several flats, most much dirtier than the one in the pictures, so after a bit of arguing and two nights reluctantly staying in the dirtiest place I’ve ever stayed, we moved to the nicer flat/hostel for our remaining three nights. For £3 a night each it was three times cheaper than the cheapest hotel which accepted foreigners. It’s a bigger problem the further from the bigger cities and the further west you go in China, a separate license is needed by the accommodation to take non-mainland Chinese citizens, meaning us foreigners sometimes don’t have much choice at all. And I’m definite this hostel owner did not have a license. Although friendly, his main focus was clearly money.
Five nights in Jiayuguan was great, despite many people telling us you could do it in a day. Many people would have missed the dolphin in the eco-tourism lake and not had enough time to spend hours walking behind the overhanging wall. Spending longer somewhere means you can pretend to be a local like going to the same place for breakfast twice making the owners smile, spending a couple of hours in a milk tea cafe writing postcards being served by the owners son practising his English and stumbling across super cheap delicious sichuan style food.
We did not go to Dunhuang and we are not going to Zhangye. This sentence was repeated many times, being the two other tourist cities nearby Jiayuguan. I felt like I had to justify our decision not to go to almost every person we met. This trip is not about seeing everything, that’s simply not possible. Our three week fast tour of Japan was amazing but shattering. I’ve found more happiness in taking a bus somewhere, wandering through streets and parks experiencing food and people along the way, than rushing to expensive crowded attractions. Thinking of our previous interail trips staying one night in most places seems a completely different attitude now.
The Fortress (Jiayu Pass Fort)
The fortress is the main attraction and the only one reachable by public bus from the city centre. Taxis were needed to get between the others and this meant us having to use one by ourselves for the first time in China (and possibly the whole trip). Haggling was fun but frustrating at times. Being obvious foreigners, they would try two or three times the amount expected after we had asked locals what the price should be. We managed to get it down to more reasonable prices, but not always from the first taxi we tried.
The ticket for the three attractions is 120 yuan, allowing access to all three sites in 24 hours. Having decided on visiting the fortress and the first beacon on one day and the wall the next, this meant we had to reach the wall by 11am the next day to get in.
Avoiding paying extra for the bus from the ticket gate to the fortress entrance (this happens a lot in China), we walked 15 minutes and approached a huge building with the sandy/muddy wall jutting into it. (Before this walk there was another 15 minute walk through food and market stalls to get to the ticket office). The fortress had its own internal walls which are climbable and we walked slowly around, learning to be patient with the amount of people crammed up there. There as even a small temple inside and at the back you could ride a camel into the Gobi desert. The view was beautiful, although the pollution was clearly visible, the Qilian mountains can be seen in the distance. There was also a museum here with English information which was actually quite good.
It was here we found a very amusing translation, which travellers in Xiahe had told us to seek out. Check out the last sentence.
The First Beacon
The first beacon (or first strategic post, pass, pier, tower, etc) was a very small lump of earth at the point where the wall hits a canyon. Given the extreme heat and the long walk seen in front of us, we reluctantly bought tickets for the internal bus from the ticket office to the canyon at 12 yuan each. I tried to explain we had already bought our three attraction ticket and that the bus should be included but they didn’t understand, I then tried to explain the word scam but got waved onto a bus. The combination of too many people, the heat and being extorted at attractions makes for a stressful time in China. Perhaps we shouldn’t have spent part of Golden Week here, but we know that for next time.
I’d never seen a canyon like this before, it was really impressive. Because there’s not much else to see here, a museum had been built as well as a mock barracks. We gratefully purchased an ice cream and headed to the metal rope bridge across the canyon. Just at the point we stepped on to follow the people, we noticed a sign saying a maximum of 10 people at a time – it made the crossing a lot more nerve-racking given no one was paying attention to this with at times around 50 people jumping, wobbling and taking selfies along the way.
The Overhanging Wall
This was my favourite of the three attractions. Although obviously completely fake and very small in itself, climbing the 400 odd steps up the overhanging wall brings you in to open hill tops very much looking like something out of star trek. It was covered in stones and people had made their initials, hearts and other symbols. Following one of the many paths heading off into the distance and going higher gave a great view of them from above. It was a shame to see most visitors heading straight down the path back to the entrance, rushing off to visit all three places in one day. We got in before our time limit and spent several hours wandering and sitting, enjoying the view and the landscape unknown to us.
East Lake Eco-tourism Attraction
Last but not least, the large AAAA (four A) attraction contained two huge lakes and a surprisingly nicely designed water feature leading out from a giant dolphin tower – which you could go up for 30 yuan. Deciding against paying for the view, the walk around the lakes was pleasant with trees surrounding the edge and factories in the distance. Probably the largest employer in the city is an iron and steel company named Jisco, hence all the factories. Large buildings donning the name are easily spotted and there are many men wearing the company’s blue workman’s jackets around the city.