03.09.2013 - 15.09.2013 31 °C
Hello again! I hope everyone is well. Lachlan and I have spent the last week in northern China, but we are making our way west and south by degrees. Right now we are in Tianshui, which is a city with a population of about 400,000 people, situated about 200 kilometres south-east of the bigger city of Lanzhou, which we passed through yesterday on the train en route from Jiayuguan. Lanzhou is situated on the Yellow River at the geographical centre of China...so we are pretty much in the middle of this enormous country (around the size of Europe itself!) now. And, finally, we are in greener country! Tianshui's rainfall is between 400 and 500mm per year and there is forest on some of the slopes!
In general, the landscape during our last fortnight of travel has been very dry. The whole way between Kashgar and Jiayuguan we did not see a single tree, unless it was in a river bed or in a place where water had been used to irrigate the land by man. This part of China receives less than 100mm of precipitation annually - Kashgar and Jiayuguan get about 64mm and 85mm respectively. I don't think I have ever been somewhere where it is so dry, and yet people actually live in towns and cities.
The towns and cities can exist because of the rivers that run through the dry landscape, carrying snow melt from the high peaks in the Tian Shan mountains on China's northern border (with Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia) and the Pamir mountains to the west (on the border with Tajikistan). Within the cities there are even some street trees in towns, and some parks, although the leaves of the trees tend to be very dusty as they rarely get washed clean by the rain, and the streets feel dusty despite being swept daily by hand (with long brooms of bunched brush or straw). Outside of the cities, crops are grown by using flood irrigation on flat areas or in man made ponds, where the earth has been built up at the edges to stop the water escaping. The water is channelled by gravity to the crops, using open ditches. We saw corn, cotton and trees (poplar - for timber, and a scrubby type of willow) grown in this way. Both in the country side and in the suburbs on the outskirts of cities, buildings are built from sun-dried mud bricks, typically with a flat roof (no need for drainage if there is no rain) made of mud slopped over wood and branches. When we see buildings in ruins or abandoned, often the roof will be caved in whilst the walls still seem to be standing fine.... it must be hard to build a strong roof when there is not much timber about.
The mountains that rise up out of the river valleys are ridiculously steep, rugged and wrinkled in appearance, with some of the ridges and spurs like knife-edges - there is so little rain that the surfaces have not been smoothed down by water eroding them away. Whilst we were still in Kashgar, we took a weekend trip travelling south to the town of Tashkurgan on the Karakarom highway, passing by the Khongurshan and Muzlagata peaks on the way. At 7719m and 7546m, these are only about 1000m lower than the famous K2 peak situated 300km further south on China's border with Kashmir. The peaks were impressive, but it was also rather hard to envisage the height properly as we were at around 4000m ourselves. So they only looked about as big as Mt Egmont does in New Zealand, when we are looking at it from sea level. Or four Mount Loftys (for an Adelaide perspective )
Tashkurgan is only a small town about the size of Mount Barker or Katherine but 85% of its population are Tajiks, making it home to most of the Tajiks living in China. I had not thought about what Tajiks look like before, but after weeks of seeing people with dark skin and dark eyes, all through Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan and also in Kashgar in China, it was a surprise to find some blue-eyed, brown and blond haired children when we chanced upon an evening of children's dance performances on an outdoor stage in the park. Most of the dances seemed to have some traditional elements. The more typical 'Han' Chinese children did a dance with fans in their hands, which they folded and unfolded to make patterns as they moved around the stage, whilst the smallest, littlest Tajik dancers wore elaborate two piece suits with a jacket and pants in bright blue for the boys and a skirt and jacket costume of bright orange for the girls, complete with boots to stamp their feet in and handkerchiefs to wave. After having been in more conservative areas with a high proportion of muslims, it was refreshing to be surrounded by friendly, curious faces. The kids spontaneously came up to us to say hello and tell us their names or sit near us and look at us. There was a distinct lack of parents though, which we found rather puzzling, and led us to wonder whether the children might go to boarding school in the town while their parents are labourers elsewhere - possible working on the highway, which is an ongoing construction effort owing to the frequent landslides of rock, and huge swashes of gravel, pebbles and boulders that come down the valleys with melt water.
We have been using mostly train travel to get around, stopping off for a couple of nights here and there. At Jiayuguan we visited a fort museum situated on the western-most bit of the Great Wall of China. On display were a number of 'now' (2000's) and 'then' (early-mid 1900's) photographs showing views of sections of the wall at many different localities in China. In some places the wall has been restored, with forts and watchtowers rebuilt, but in other places the wall is in increasing disrepair, becoming more overgrown by vegetation. At some localities bricks of the wall have been removed over time when needed for other building activities nearby. Where we saw the wall, it was positioned across the narrowest gap between the eastern end of the Tian Shan mountain range and the northern extent of the Tibet plateau. Here the wall was of mud and the fort was positioned at that point (in AD 1372) on the wall because there was a spring for water. The observation towers on the wall, near the fort, were 17m high, with the wall itself about 12m high.
Here at Tianshui we stopped off to visit the Mai-ji Shan (haystack mountain) which is a conglomerate stack in a valley, where a series of grottoes (alcoves) have been carved in to the cliff face of the stack, 100 - 200m up from the ground. The grottoes contain statues or effigies of buddhas and boddhisattvas built from clay covered wood and straw, and painted with colours. The effigies were mostly made between AD386 and 581 so they are faded and broken in places due to age and earthquakes (restoration ongoing....) but very impressive all the same. It is not clear how the grottoes were created and then accessed, considering they are so high up the side of the stack, above the valley floor. Nowadays, to view the grottoes, tourists climb up a series of staircases that are built onto the face of the cliff for that purpose.
Tomorrow we get on the train again, heading for Nanjing (near Shanghai), where we hope to spend a few days.