Jiayuguan glided into view with the abrupt bark of a particularly terse train attendant, and we scurried into the early morning. A taxi driver tried it on with us but at his prices I’d honestly rather have walked; after collecting train tickets we caught a bus in search of breakfast.
At the first cafe to catch our eye (eyes? Collective eye, I think), the friendly owner served up three bowls of… green noodle soup? Everyone else was having them. They were actually very nice, with a thick veg-laden broth, but all I could think about was Dr. Seuss.
Jiayuguan Hotel let us check in early and, oh, what a room. Room? No, this was a full-on, honest-to-gods suite. Complete with lounge space, business desk, separate master bedroom and a bath. It leaked, so we only used the shower, but still. I think my favourite feature was a drinking water tap; a luxury I had almost forgotten.
It was the afternoon before we could drag ourselves away from this newfound haven (only £12 each a night!) to the site we had stopped here to see: Jiayuguan Fort, also called the First and Greatest Pass Under Heaven. The Fort – and city – are situated in a mountain pass, in which the furthest end of the Ming Great Wall was built over six hundred years ago.
I remembered coming here with Kieran and Beth, two Mays ago, and while the entire route up to the site’s entrance had changed (bustling street markets replaced by some soulless monstrosity of a tourist centre spanning several blocks), once past the ticket office (half price, thank you Edinburgh) it was exactly the same, albeit more overgrown. The wooden suspension bridge by the brook, on which we’d posed before, was too rotten to walk on; grasses obscured the fort from the bottom of the hill, where before had been a photo opportunity from afar; and the pagoda of which I took a lovely silhouette shot with Kieran and Beth was now a cordoned-off eyesore of flaking paint and broken cornices.
The Fort proper was made of sterner stuff, designed to survive the ages (aided, no doubt, by a certain amount of Tourism Board restoration). It hadn’t changed, but we took a different route through its corridors and gatehouses, walking around the length of its walls until we reached the North Western gate. It is through here that travellers and exiles alike would leave the civilised expanse of China for the Wild West (they mean Xinjiang), along the Silk Road. Desert stretches on for thousands of miles beyond (still Xinjiang).
Today you can ride camels a few hundred metres into the Gobi, led by weathered guides. Having done it last time I was happy to photograph Evie and Kirsten as they were led off on the – frankly miserable – camels. And then it was back along the Fort walls and back into Jiayuguan.
We stopped outside the hotel for baked goods but were all a bit confused. Evie got something that was eventually intolerably sweet, I was disappointed by cold baozi (edible but they’re only good when hot), and Kirsten had some pastry with the unmistakable smell of… petrol? (We have since established that it was not, in fact, petrol, but durian – a hazardously disgusting fruit if ever there was one.) Back in the hotel room, we – or at least, I – flopped.
It was dark when I awoke, and since lunch had been… whatever it was, we headed out in search of tea. This took us to the same warehouse-market I visited with Beth and Kieran before. The owner of our chosen grill was incredibly pushy and kept surreptitiously pushing a 30¥ keg of beer towards us as though it was free (I should note that it was nowhere near big enough to be worth 30¥). The kebabs were good – mutton, potato slices and chicken-something which turned out to be tofu, of all things (I was secretly hoping for some horrifically gross body part). They used the same spices though, so it got a bit dull towards the end.
After one exceedingly comfortable night in the master bedroom suite, we wandered out in search of fruit, aiming for something of a cleanse from all the carbs to which we have been subjecting our bodies for the last three weeks (Chinese food I love you, but dear lord).
We missed the bus to the station, naturally, and chatted to an English teacher while we waited for the second to arrive. The space between Jiayuguan and the high speed railway station has, naturally, decreased considerably since last time due to expansion on an insane scale. Entire neighbourhoods and schools have appeared and aged in only two years.
For the rest of the afternoon, there was nothing else to be done but sit back and watch Northern Gansu roll past, and then Eastern Qinghai, Southern Gansu, and finally Shaanxi province as the light died completely.