My third stop on the Silk Road was Jiayuguan. This is the most narrow section of the Hexi Corridor, so China built a large fort there. Anyone trying to enter the country from the west would need to pass through here, so this was a critically strategic spot to protect China from invaders back in the day. Also, this is officially the very end of the Great Wall (unofficially though, everything is a bit murky as there were various iterations of sections of the wall build by various dynasties, lots of which have been lost to time and decay 🤷‍♂️… Let’s just call this the end 🙂).

This place seemed pretty cool from the guidebook, but the more I read about it, the more disenchanted I felt about it. A lot of the fort has been reconstructed, and so has much of the Great Wall here. Everyone on the Lonely Planet forums likens this place to Disneyland and scoffs at how fake it is. At the last minute I actually tried to skip this entire town, but due to train schedules etc, I couldn’t easily avoid it.

When I went to the fort, let’s just say that everyone was right. Yes, the fort (as you can see from the photos) actually looks pretty impressive, but that’s if you are not looking at it up close. As you get closer, things definitely look a bit fake. Everything is a bit too new looking. To make matters even worse, they have teenage boys dressed up in armor pacing around and “guarding” the fort. They also have archery competitions and other cheesy crap. It really does feel like more of an amusement park than a historical site.

Eventually, I headed back to town, feeling a bit bummed that I kind of wasted a day out of my brief vacation. When I went to get dinner, I wandered into a restaurant, and as usual started peering at the photos on the wall to try to figure out what to get. The server was way ahead of me, and punched some stuff into her translation app to show me: “You want lamb Kebabs?”. I responded with “Fuck yeah!! Gimme 20 of those things!”. Just kidding… I actually just smiled enthusiastically, sat down, and then was a bit shocked when she brought out *20* skewers.

Luckily, the amount of lamb on each skewer wasn’t too crazy, so it actually ended up not being as much of an overwhelming amount of food as I initially thought. The lamb was super good! Very nicely seasoned, a little spicy, and tender. When I was almost done with my million skewers, I decide to ask if they had any vegetables. I’ve been eating pretty much only meat and carbs since I started this trip, and it seemed like the right thing to do. The lady smiled happily and came back with some slices of potato on skewers and what looked like a fistful of chives. Hmmm.. Not exactly what I had in mind, but the lady seemed so happy about it that I just agreed.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, people here not being entirely friendly and seeming indifferent isn’t 100% the case. Some people were really nice and friendly and genuinely seemed happy to help you out. These interactions were always really fun to have and helped brighten things up. Anyways, the potato skewers were good and the greens were quite tasty too. One interesting thing here is that the beer bottles had a weird cap on them. It was somehow halfway between a bottle cap and a pop tab. Pretty cool actually as you didn’t need a bottle opener.

Zhangye #4 – Dinner

After my day sightseeing, I was back in Zhangye and looking for food. It was fascinating to me that I didn’t see any international tourists whatsoever when I wandered the streets. In a couple posts online people had written that they didnt see a single other white person there the whole time. It felt so cool to me that I was this far off the beaten track that I was the only foreigner in town. Just as I was thinking that, I noticed some foreigners sitting at a table. Dammit. Well, I am *almost* the only foreigner in town.

Again, I went back to the same little area that had hundreds or restaurants and stalls, and again I wandered around awkwardly not being sure what to get. I decided to get some fried rice for a change after living off of dumplings, noodles, and stir-fry for days. I went into a place that had several photos of fried rice on the wall. All the photos were a bit blurry and it was impossible to tell exactly what was going to be in the rice. I randomly point to one. As usual, even with just pointing to a photo, there is confusion and she rattles off a bunch of questions to me, none of which I understand. She gives up trying to explain/ask and just motions me to sit down.

After some time, a server brings me this bowl of broth with a few herbs floating around in it. Umm.. Huh? This is clearly not what I ordered. I mean, the photo wasn’t super clear, but it was definitely rice. Did I somehow miss something important when the woman was asking me all those questions? I sit there for a while wondering how to confront them and explain that this was not what was in the photo. To make things worse, I taste the broth and it is completely bland. This is not what I want. I sit for a while, trying to muster courage for the confrontation and start googling translations.

Finally, just as I was about to get up and walk across the room, the server comes back and gives me my fried rice. Ohhhh. I guess the broth thingy was just a bonus that they give you before your meal. Lol… So glad I hadn’t gotten up yet and shamed myself by complaining! In the end, the fried rice was great.

Oh, one other thing I’ve wanted to mention. For some reason, the people here drink beer out of the tiniest tiny cups. They are maybe 2 or 3 shots worth of beer. No idea why the cups are so little! On top of that, all the beers that you get are large beers like a 22oz, so the tiny cups seem even more ridiculous given the size of your beer.

Zhangye #3 – Danxia

The second big draw in Zhangye is the Danxia park. These are China’s rainbow mountains, so called because the multicolored layered sediment forms rainbow stripes. It’s more just the upper half of the rainbow (red, orange, yellow) and not so much the bottom half. It’s considered one of China’s most spectacular natural wonders. The geography here really is super impressive, and it’s very beautiful and unique. Inside the park you take shuttle busses to lots of different Vistas where you can admire different mountains from different angles. I came here the same day as Matti Si (in my previous post). Being able to see these two very different, but both exceptional, places in one day was pretty amazing.

Zhangye #2 Matisi

About an hour outside of Zhangye there are these cliff temples called Mati Si. It was a long bumpy taxi ride out there and the scenery got more and more rural till we were out in the middle of nowhere. This area definitely feels more Tibetan than Chinese and there are lots of Tibetan prayer flags around. I walked up to the first temple I saw and walked inside the courtyard. Tibetan prayer wheels were on both sides of me. I was the only person there and everything was completely silent and still. After a bit, I saw one solo monk circumambulating the temple, around and around. It was a magical moment and one of the ones I’ll remember most from this trip. Just me, the temple, silence, and this one single monk.

On this trip I had planned on avoiding the Tibetan areas of China. Since I had spent a couple weeks in McLeod Gange way back when, I felt like i had already gotten the Tibetan experience and wanted to concentrate on things I hadn’t experienced while I was here. But being here really brought back the magic of the Tibetan world. The beautiful temples, monks, prayer wheels, etc. I definitely feel super drawn to this stuff.

The cave temples themselves are absolutely incredible. They were chiseled into the rock wall probably almost 1,500 years ago. It’s almost unfathomable how people were able to do this back then without machinery. There are a bunch of narrow passageways and stairs inside the cliff that you scramble up and down… some of them very steep. Inside different areas you would find various Buddhas and candles and incense. The pictures really dont do it justice! You’ll see the temples way at the top section of the cliff… That’s how high these crazy internal passageways in the cliff went.

At one point and old lady stopped me to take a photo of me with her grandkid. She was super excited when I agreed. Clearly there are not very many foreigners here, heh.

Zhangye #1

Zhangye was my second stop in the Hexi Corridor. One thing that was obvious right away is that things are much cheaper out here. My hotel room was 20$, more than half the price of the one in Beijing, yet way nicer. I spent some time just wandering around town and exploring when I got the email… Unbelievably, my luggage was found!! And they were sending it to the airport here in Zhangye. Omg. I was ecstatic!! I had 200% given up on my luggage and was already trying to figure out how I would buy all new clothing.

The airport in Zhangye is barely an airport… More like a small military airstrip an hour outside of town. I took a cab there around 5pm… to find the place basically abandoned. There were a few janitors sweeping up and all of the ticket windows etc were shut. Oh man. Did I really take a taxi an hour out here for nothing??!! I searched around for someone and then, lo and behold, someone comes out and hands me my suitcase. Wow. I have never been so happy to see a luggage in my life!! I headed back to town so happy, not caring about the wasted two hours or cab fare.

Back in town, it was time to find some dinner. There is this big area here that has tons and tons of food stalls and little restaurants. I wandered around, up and down each aisle, trying to figure out what to get. To be honest, it was a bit intimidating. As mentioned, now that I am in Gansu, there is *zero* English. Anything I wants to eat or ask for I’d have to get via pointing or pantomime. Looking at various pictures on the restaurant walls and at stuff being cooked, it was hard to tell what it was. What kind of meat is it? What is mixed in with those noodles? What kind of sauce is in this dish? What even is *that* thing?! With a hundred little eateries, it was so tough to choose. What if I got something and it was horrible? Would I have to choke it down? I kept wandering and having difficulty deciding.

Skewers are big here. Yeah, yeah, I know we have skewers at home and everywhere else, but here in China hey are absolutely all over the place. Practically every street sells skewers of various kinds of raw meats. People just point at what they want, the sellers quickly grills them up and then you wander around chomping skewers. You see people wandering around eating skewers constantly. Anyways, I got a couple skewers to eat while i wandered about.

Finally, I decided on a place. I got this dish that ended up being these little riblets doused in chili’s and Sichuan peppercorns and a delicious sauce. So good!

Lanzhou #3 – Trains and noodles

I woke up crazy early to catch the morning train outta Lanzhou. This was going to be my first time (of many) navigating the China train system and I wasnt 100% sure what to expect. The Chinese railway is pretty amazing. There are a ton of routes all over China and a lot of them have high speed trains, some of them going up to 200mph. Again, this is another area where i wonder… why the hell is the US so far behind? Our public transportation is horrible and we have so few routes. The fact that you cant even take Bart from SF to one of the nearest big cities, San Jose, is ridiculous.

Luckily for non-Mandarin speakers like me, there a few websites here where you can buy train tickets online. This is a lifesaver as you need to specify which cities you are traveling between, figure out what times are available, choose a seat type (they have 5 different types ranging from standing room only, to hard seats, to sleeper bunks), and then check availability for each of your choices. Often times i had to navigate this process like 20 times, checking different possible routes, and various options till i found the perfect one. There is no way in hell i could have done this in person when nobody speaks English.

Once you have a ticket, this is only step one in the process. You need to go to the station and pick up your ticket. If you have a Chinese ID, you can use self-serve automated machines, but otherwise you need to queue up at a teller. I get to the station with about an hour to spare, and almost immediately realize that i am screwed. The lines are crazy long and the station is absolutely chaos. It’s a struggle for me to even figure out what line to go in as some lines are for refunds only. I get in a long ass line and slowly wait for it to move. Time is ticking. And ticking. I am starting to panic. Finally I get to the front w/ only minutes to spare. I pick up my ticket, but i still need to find my platform. I look at the display (photo below) of trains and it’s a huge struggle to figure out where to go.

Of course, i miss my train. Now i need to get in a new line to exchange my ticket. There is even more chaos here because everyone who is in this line trying to get an exchange is pissed off and yelling. Eventually, when i am almost at the front, the line closes and now i have to change to another line, starting over again. 10 minutes later, the first line reopens, and once again i am screwed. i miss the next train and the one after it as well. I am obviously pissed at this point, but eventually i get a ticket on the noon train. Good thing i got up at 7am for this.

I haver a little time to kill now. Everyone you ask has nothing good to say about the town i’m in (Lanzhou).. but there is one that it is famous for and that is LaMian, the beef noodles. As i mentioned, this is a Muslim area, so not much pork here, and they make these amazing hand pulled noodles with a spicy beef soup. Seriously, literally every single person that i told that i was coming here, said “ohhh. yes… the beef noodles”. They are *that* famous. These days, you can find LaMian all over China, but everyone says that its not nearly as good as if you get it from this town. Anyways, with a little time to kill, i got to try these world famous noodles. And they were *fantastic*. The texture of hand pulled noodles is so perfectly chewy, and the spicy broth was so damn good. In the end, missing all those trains turned out to be a good thing. Also, for those back home, coincidentally, just a month ago the Sf Chronicle had an article about a new place that opened up in the bay area that actually has a good rendition of these special noodles (in Fremont). Check it out!

Eventually, I was able take my train…

Lanzhou #2 – Night Market

After checking in at my hotel, i went out to grab some food. There is a big night market here with a long string of vendors selling all sorts of vatrious eats. A lot of the people in this town are Hui, who are Muslim, so there is not so much pork here, but lots of lamb. As i wandered the stalls, there was a fascinating array of food. Big bins filled with snails, shrimp, and other seafood. Gigantic cauldrons with crazy skulls simmering away in various liquids. Bones and other mysterious animal parts. It was endlessly fascinating, yet i was pretty hesitant to try any of it. I feel like i’m a pretty adventurous eater, but this was definitley pushing me out of my comfort zone. I eventually got this pita type thing that was filled with a tasty meat/pepper filling, a flat bread (that i thought was just bread but turned out to have somrething, no clue what, inside it), and washed it down with a “refreshing” room temerature beer.

It was a nice introduction to this area. Already, things felt so much different than Eastern China. Also, it was much much cooler here than it had been in Beijing. It was so nice to get out of that crazy heat. If only I had a jacket… it could actually be helpful here 😕.

Lanzhou #1 – flight

My first stop in the Hexi Corridor would be Lanzhou, the capitol of Gansu Province. Being so far from Beijing, i flew there to save time. I have always been kind of fascinated by airplane food. All the little compartments and tiny little packages… and how surprisingly awful the food always is. How do they make it so awful?! On my flight i was handed a tray that had a steamed bun, a weird red packet of who knows what, and a freaky looking vacuum sealed brown egg. Ok, this may be the most random airplane meal i have gotten yet. It turns out that the red packet was filled with pickled bamboo shoot slivers that you can put onto your steamed bun (which was filled with a tasty ground pork filling). The egg, though freaky looking, tasted… well, pretty much just like a normal egg, though with a slightly odd texture. All in all, it was actually pretty good for an airplane meal.

My flight wasn’t super long and soon i landed in Lanzhou. Let the adventure begin!! I went to go pick up my luggage… umm… no luggage. WTF. I waited and waited expectantly hoping that it would come out eventually. I went and checked all the other conveyor belts. But no, my luggage was fucking gone. Unfuckingbelievable. I went to talk to the woman at the counter… who of course spoke no English.

Luckily, she called someone who worked for the airline and then handed the phone to me. I told him my luggage was gone and he said he would try to get it back to me tomorrow if they can find it. The problem is, I wasn’t going to be there the next day. I was taking the first train out of town in the morning and was only passing through Lanzhou because of its airport. Ok, where was i staying tomorrow? Again, problematically, I hadnt booked a hotel for the next town yet, so I had no answer for that either. In the end, he took down my email address and said that if they find it, they will send it to the next town for me to pick up.

Yeah… right. What are the odds of them even finding the luggage. And if they did, i really had no faith that they would actually bother forwarding it on to the right place and then actually contacting me. I was fucked. Truly fucked. Other than being injured, this was a traveler’s worst nightmare. I now had no clothing. No toiletries. I didnt even have my only jacket as i had put it in my suitcase. All i had was my passport/wallet, phone, and camera. If this had happened late in the trip, it may have been at least better… but this was day 4 of 14 days. Crap.

Silk Road

After spending a few days in Beijing, it was time for me to move on to my next stop. My next stop is the Hexi Corridor in Gansu Province. Most people outside of China haven’t even heard of this place, and even people here would look at me quizzically and ask why i was going to this tiny remote province that was well off the typical tourist highlights.

The Hexi Corridor is a narrow little sliver of a path that connects what used to be China in the East and Central Asia in the West. It was the main artery of the Silk Road and is bordered by the huge mountains of the Tibetan Plateau to the South and by the barren Gobi Desert to the North. Because of the brutal conditions in both directions, this narrow passage was the only way for traders to get into or out of China. It was extremely remote (still kind of is) and was dotted with tiny little oasis towns where caravans could stop before they continued onward.

Nowadays, China has spread and owns territory far south, north, and west of there, but back then this was the last stretch for Chinese traders before they left China and were out in the great beyond. The thought of these small caravans, wandering for months in desolate areas, going to places that most people of the time had only heard in legends, bravely traveling beyond anything that was ever familiar to them is so incredibly fascinating to me. Really excited to experience that trail myself!

This will be tricky travel though. In Beijing, very few people spoke English, but in Gansu pretty much nobody does. On a the forums, people warn that if you don’t speak at least some Mandarin, you’re going to be in for a tough time. On top of that, there is an interesting mix of people there… Uygurs of Central Asia, Tibetans, Muslim Hui, and Mongolians… so some of the people don’t even speak Mandarin. But I think I can handle it ( I hope). Excited to explore China’s wild west!

Beijing #12 – Noodles

One of the dishes that Beijing is known for is Zhajiang Mian, a noodle dish with fried ground pork and fermented soybean paste that is topped with pickled cucumber, radish, and possibly other vegetables. Legend has it that while in exile, the Emperor’s eunich servant found this dish by following the scent to a small noodle restaurant. I imagine him flying through the air, following the scent like a character in the old cartoons from back in the day… but that might not be 100% historically accurate.

This was one of the dishes i definitely wanted to try while here, and i had read that there was one restaurant in particular that was popular for it (apparently Joe Biden ate here when he was in China). I set off trying to find it, but again, this is China, so nothing is easy. There was no exact address for it, just a street name and a vague vicinity where it should be. I found a spot that looked right and wander in. It’s a small hole in the wall locals only kind of place. As typical, i am ignored by everyone and just stand there looking confused for a while. I’m feeling super awkward, and a big part of me just wants to bolt and go elsewhere. Eventually, i look up the Chinese characters for the restaurant online and show them to a gruff angry looking woman, while looking questioningly and pointing. She nods. Ok, good. I am in the right spot at least.

I sit down at a table. Some time goes by and i realize nobody is waiting tables. It looks like you need to go to some counter, put in your order, and then pick up your food at a different counter across the way. There is no English menu and no pictures to point at. How am i going to navigate this? Again, i resist the urge to just awkwardly slink out. I do some googling and am able to find the Chinese characters for the dish i want on Wikipedia. I show the disinterested looking guy at the first counter and he nods. Success!

I take my receipt to this other counter. While standing there waiting, i see lots of people picking up these tasty looking dumplings. I want to try some, but have no clue what they are called, nor how i could describe/explain them to the guy at the counter across the room. I was about to resign myself to not getting dumplings, when i have an idea. I get my phone ready, and when i see the next customer pick up some dumplings, i quickly snap a photo of the dumplings, much to her confusion. I then walk back to the first counter and show the guy my photo, and so am able to order some dumplings.

In the end, I was super happy. Not just because the noodles and dumplings were fucking delicious (and only cost 3$ total), but also because i was able to push through my discomfort and didnt give up. I’m somehow guessing that Joe Biden didnt have quite as difficult of a time while getting his noodles 🙂.