Gansu Province (the Gobi Desert) 2009

Gansu province is a long narrow stretch of North West China which lies between the Tibetan plateau to the South and the grasslands of Inner Mongolia to the North. Much of it is stony desert (the Gobi) but a string of oases has ensured that most travellers who, since antiquity, have attempted to cross the continent have had to pass this way.

After our brief visit to Xian we took a night train to Lanzhou and met up with our new local guide, Simon. This charming young man explained that since a visit to the historic White Pagoda overlooking the Yellow River was an essential part of our trip, we would take all morning to reach the top of the hill if necessary, stopping as many times as we liked to enjoy the gardens and shrines on the way up. This was a very sweet way of signalling that the one member of our party with some mobility problems was going to get the opportunity to share the view.

As well as our sightseeing at this important (but also heavily polluted) site of the first permanent bridge across the Yellow River, Simon was also in charge of the series of excursions which will make up the next post. However, as we travelled West along the Hexi Corridor by various means: boat, bus, train and, yes, even the celebrated Silk Road two-humped camel, we changed guides several times. It hasn’t been an easy task to sort out my notes for all the notable Buddhist shrines and caves that we visited, especially since photography was not allowed inside the caves, so let’s stick with camels for a moment.

There are basically the two types of camel or, as they say in all the best tea parties, “one hump or two?” (Sorry). There are Dromedaries (with one hump) from Africa and Arabia and Bactrians (with two) from Central Asia but, owing to their extremely long history of domestication, pretty well all of the camels which have worked these ancient trade routes since before recorded history are a mixture of the two. The number of humps is presumably determined by the proportion of Bactrian blood but I can confirm that, in addition to being smaller and far more photogenic, the two humped variety are an altogether friendlier type of beast. Wild Bactrians are another thing altogether, and a sighting nowadays would probably require months of scouting the grasslands and a few tankers of helicopter fuel.

I’ve captioned the various shrine and grotto pictures as best I can as each site is likely to be to be called “The Thousand Buddha Caves”, owing to the tendency of the faithful to add another effigy for each successful pilgrimage or business venture. Since I’ve had to borrow reference pictures for the interiors and I can’t seem to lay my hands on all the various sets of postcards that I bought at the time, the sites have become a little muddled in my recollection. This is especially unforgivable in the case of the Magao Caves whose gorgeous decoration, executed in a whole variety of styles, includes heavenly palaces, winged horses and the lovely flying nymphs called Apsara.

In addition to the myriad representations of the Buddha, large and small, a treasury of manuscripts and textiles was also awaiting discovery, protected by the drifting sands and the arid climate. Their state of preservation is all the more remarkable in view of the fact that later on in the trip we were shown painted caves that had suffered at the hands of a whole succession of despoilers: Muslim iconoclasts, fire-building shepherds, the soldiers of the Cultural Revolution and, of course, the type of latter-day tourist who ignores the signs and thinks that “just one picture can’t possibly hurt”.

The one group of caves that stick in my memory were the ones that weren’t even on our itinerary, and they weren’t really caves either. After complaining that the Hanging Wall attraction in Jiayuguan was over-restored and insufficiently cultural and “No” we didn’t want another shopping expedition or banquet style meal, our tiny group negotiated the opportunity to see something very special indeed. The Wei-Tsin painted underground tombs are really far too fragile to go on admitting visitors for much longer and even the four of us who went to see them had to follow a detailed set of instructions.

These fifth century, corbelled underground structures are reached by steep narrow passages which are not for the faint-hearted. Although decorated with charming scenes from daily life, the bricks do not look particularly secure and most of the tombs excavated since they were first discovered in 1971 long ago collapsed in on themselves. The simple, secular and physically active way of life they depict is in deep contrast to the refined and contemplative style of the Buddhist sites which surround them both geographically and chronologically.

None of the pleas made on our behalf could get us past the unscheduled closure of the Gansu Provincial Museum, though, so I’m afraid the only version of the famous Han Dynasty flying horse that you will see is the replica which Millie is exhibiting in picture 093. It certainly sounds like bronze when I tap it but, as with all souvenirs bought in China, every conceivable type of fake is making its way onto the market. Later on I will explain why I avoided all but the tiniest specimens of jade but in Dunhuang I did meet a little rug that I just couldn’t leave behind (092).

Categories: China, Far East

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