From the beauty and hospitality of the Tibetan region of southern Lanzhou, via a two day trip across the Qilian Mountains (YouTube), I finally connected with the beginning of the South-Eastern Silk Road aka The Hexi Corridor. Hand on heart though, I have to admit that the next few weeks were a mixed bag of emotion.
1: Mati Si or Horse Shoe Temple
This is an hour’s drive south of the sleepy town of Zhengye back towards the Qilian Mountains (YouTube). Photos you’ll find online suggest an ancient structure way out there in the countryside, undisturbed for years with eagles circling in the thermals above. The truth of the matter is, the area is a rapidly developing tourist town. Do not expect anything authentic here. They say that the main attraction is being restored, though the work is so extensive that looks like it’s been just built from scratch. Maybe it has. I guess everything was new in the first place though so you can’t moan. In one hundred years they’ll be able to say, Mati Si was built over a century ago with the use of pneumatic drills and arc welders and so on. There are intrusive CCTV cameras everywhere, including inside the temples and a single Buddhist monk at the ticket office. There is also a row of the least spun prayer wheels in China. Be careful taking a hired car to the site. They drive really fast and I saw one head on crash where the passengers clearly had not made it. Take the bus is my advice. Countryside 10/10. Authenticity 2/10
2: Jiayunguan Fort
Moving on north, Jiayu Pass known as the ‘mouth of China’ marks the beginning of the Great Wall. The Silk Road itself is a wide expanse of rocky desert with the mountain ranges far away on either side stretching on for hundreds of miles. Like most famous places brace yourself to become part of the masses. Once you’re in there are thousands of people all excitedly snapping away.
3: July 1st Glacier
From Jiayunguan it takes around three hours back into the Qilian Mountains to visit the July 1st Glacier. I must admit that I was glad to be driving a Land Cruiser to get up there. Most of the road is in disrepair with landslides, unprotected hair pin bends and perilous drops. Once you’re there, you have to wait at the ticket office until there is a sizable crowd before they open the gates. After that you can drive for another mile or so then do a two to three hour hike to the glacier. You’re at altitude so will be mostly out of breath and in need of lots of water. Take a water bladder in your pack. The glacier itself is nothing to write home about. Well, I’m just being honest. There are a couple of guys up there to help out exhausted tourists, especially if the weather changes. The experience as a whole, especially the scenery, is just amazing though and deffo gets a 10/10. You can jump in a private minibus organised from your hotel. Just brace yourself for a whole day with a Chinese tour party though. Good luck.
Home to the largest collection of Buddhist artifacts, I was really looking forward to seeing the famous Mogao Caves though by now I shouldn’t have been surprised at all when the police stopped me at a check point. They said that I should go back to the huge tourist centre, leave the Land Cruiser and join a tour group on a bus and buy a ticket. Honestly, as you may have gathered by now I absolutely can’t stand tour groups so blew it out. Aside from that, the best side of Dunhuang is the night life, particularly the dazzling display of beautiful fountains at the river and the night market. By far one of the nicest cities to visit along the way.
5: Hami: Mo Gui Cheng, The Evil City
Moving on from the Gansu Province, Hami is the first city of note in Xinjiang. Not much going on here at all. As it was a public holiday, wifey had decided to join me for a week on the trip and booked a room right next to the train station. The hotel was heaving with ‘security’ and we’d always be sharing the lift with at least four or five uniforms towering above us. The breakfast area would be filled with black uniforms every morning, all having a whale of a time enjoying the free buffet. To cap it all, the place was decked out with purple, white and silver decorations for a wedding so bring those elements together and it sure made for a surreal start to the day. If you’ve got easy access to transport then head for a drive to the Tian Shan Mountains or the Evil City between Hami and Turpan. It’s not actually a city and certainly not evil, just some interesting weathered rock formations in the desert. Tickets to get in and lots of noisy families throwing rubbish everywhere.
6: Turpan: Ancient Jiaohe Ruins
I was so tired from driving I can’t remember much about Turpan. In a blur, the missus wanted to go shopping in the department store on Monday morning; another surreal experience. Just out of town is the ancient ruined city of Jiao he. Quite amazing to see the original walkways and layout still intact. Buy a ticket and take a tour bus for ten minutes to get there. Don’t go at the weekends.
The capital of Xinjiang, it’s yet another sprawling Chinese city of millions complete with shiny new high rises in the centre. Definitely worth a visit is the amazing Erdaoqiao Market. Take plenty of cash and treat yourself as you can buy anything from scarves, shoes, to medicine and musical instruments. You name it! Directly opposite the Grand Bazaar is another indoor clothes market miles better. There is an entire floor dedicated to selling leather jackets for both men and women at great prices. Haggle to your heart’s content.
8: Altai Region: Kanas Lake
From Urumqi, heading north to Altai seems like the natural direction to be going in. I really wanted to go camping up in the seclusion having done the same in Mongolia on the other side of the mountains ten years earlier. From a comfortable stay in Altai (nice alpine feel about it) the drive takes you through the pleasant town of Buerqin and then up into the mountains. Maps.me says its 100 miles and three hours but with heavy fog, a blizzard and treacherous icy roads make it five. There is a single petrol station half way in the weird ghost town of Chonghu-er. On arrival be prepared for the largest ticket office in existence, with hundreds of coaches and tourists. You need to get on a bus as part of a group to go through or pay 1,500RMB to take your own vehicle through (that’s not a typing error btw). There are touts everywhere trying to get you to stay in their guesthouses. In the end I was so pissed off I did the whole journey back the same day, arriving at Buerqin at 9.00pm in a state of exhaustion.
Driving in Xinjiang
If you’re non-Chinese and decide to drive in Xinjiang, remember that you need a Chinese ID card to get petrol. This means either taking a Chinese passenger or like me blagging every single fill up. You need to show your card before you can go in. Passengers have to wait outside. ‘Security’ may well check your vehicle. You then need to swipe your card once you are in before you can fill up. For me this was a two or three times a day chore over three weeks that often involved altercations with the staff. Sometimes I would take the keys out of the Land Cruiser and walk away from the vehicle leaving a queue of irritated motorists behind me until they let me in. Staff usually swiped their own cards so I could fill up. The most helpful people were the police who could never see what all the fuss was about.