Edge of the Gobi

Trip Start Jun 05, 2011
Trip End Feb 28, 2013

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Flag of China  , Gansu,
Monday, October 17, 2011

Charley sold us tickets for the mini bus to Yandan National Park and Yumen (Jade Gate) Pass. Other stops along the way would include a tiny section of another ruined Great Wall from the Han Period, another Buddha Cave complex and a stop at a "newly built" ancient city. He also scheduled a shared taxi to pick us up in the evening and drive us the 120 km to Liuyuan City where we needed to go to get on the train west to Urumqi at 10:40PM.

We were ready at 7AM and put our packs in the office and waited for the van to pick us up at the hostel. It was still cold and dark at this time of the morning. At 7:25 the driver called to let us know he was waiting out front. From our hostel, we drove to the main hotel street and picked up 5 more passengers from other hotels.  Then of course, the first stop was to fuel up.

China has a lot of natural gas fleets and Dunhuang taxies and tour buses all use it. They asked us to get out of the van go to the curb while the high pressure line was connected. Natural gas is cleaner than gas or diesel. Chevron says natural gas is the cleanest-burning conventional fuel. As we drove off, the driver got a call. Two people were missed and we had to double back to town to get them. Sun was now up and the only thing we could think of was 'we could have slept another hour or two!


The grandeur of the desert didn't look so grand under the gray sky. We were hoping the sun would burn its way through. So far, no luck.

After driving west, then north out of Dunhuang about 70km, to a guarded gate, everyone got out to pay 40RMB each to see the ruin of Yumen guan ( Jade-Gate Pass) which gets its name from its original function as a pass (toll gate) through which beautiful jade was transported into inner China in ancient times. We paid another entrance fee to see the 2000 year old beacon tower (9.7x24x26.4m) made out of clay mud. The walls are made of compressed clay using the rammed earth method of construction.

Rammed Earth Walls: The material is compressed iteratively, in batches, gradually building the wall up to the top of the frame. Tamping was historically done by hand with a long ramming pole, and was very labor-intensive.


After seeing the beacon tower, we drove a kilometer or two to a section of a defensive wall built under the Han dynasty in 101BC. Chinese have been building Great Walls for a long time and this early wall is not the famous ‘Great Wall’ built during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

The Han wall has melted over time and doesn’t look very imposing and must be appreciated for its un-restored oldness. You can see the straw that they mixed in with the mud wall that acts like rebar. Bamboo is the best material because it won’t absorb moisture and will last forever. We couldn’t determine if this section of wall used bamboo or some sort of straw. Whatever it is, it helped the walls to last a long time.

Yadan National Geologic Park is a 2km x 25km stretch of dried up riverbed full of wind-eroded sandstone towers called Yadan Landforms. The landforms rise above the flat Gobi Desert and cover a vast area. Due to its eccentric landforms, low-lying terrain, strong magnetism and howling sounds made by the wind, the area is also called "Ghost City" by local people.

It looked to us like a poor man’s Monument Valley or Goblins of southern Utah. I'm sure they were formed by similar geologic processes.

We each had little run-ins at this stop. While Dave was in line to get our tickets, the guy in line behind him reached around and pushed his money into the ticket taker's hand. Dave grabbed the money and held it in the air. The guy reached as high as he could to get his money back. Then the guy stepped back and motioned for Dave to go first. Dave chastised the guy, in English of course. He didn't hear anything like an apology, but the guy lowered his eyes and kept waving for Dave to go first.

For touring the national park, everyone transfers to park buses. Our group boarded the big bus but by the time we got in, there was only a middle seat in the back left. We said we'd wait for the next bus and stepped off. Our van driver protested. He wanted all his people to be on the same bus. We said we weren't going unless we had a good seat. They (the driver and some of our fellow passengers) got a tourist from Hong Kong who spoke good English to explain the situation. We let her know we understood the situation completely but were not getting on the overcrowded bus. They relented and drove off without us and we got on the next bus 15 minutes later.
All buses stop at the same four stops to let their passengers off to take photos and walk among the sandstone piles.  If you miss your bus, you just hop on the one behind. By the time our tour was finished, we had to wait for some of our fellow van passengers who had fallen further behind than us. Perhaps we were a bad influence on them. During our tour, the sun tried to burn through. It got fairly bright by the end of our visit but we couldn't help but imagine how much better the reddish rocks would have looked under pure blue skies.

We hung out at the hostel waiting for the taxi to arrive. We had plenty of time to make the 120km journey before our train was due to depart. We were told we would have to pay 40 RMB each instead of the going rate of 30 RMB. We agreed to the higher price while rationalizing we would pay more for one person on the Airport Shuttle bus to LAX. We'd also pay more for a 10km taxi than this 120km ride. We were able to fit both packs in the trunk next to the natural gas cylinder. Sure enough, at the edge of town we pulled over to the CNG station for a fill up. We had to wait at the curb again and lost track of which green taxi was ours. Dave said not to worry, he would find us. He did. We drove 20 or 30 km before turning off the main road to a farming village. We stopped to pick up the two other passengers to fill the taxi.

Then the fun started. It became dark and the games of bright-lights dim-lights started. It seemed about half the cars and trucks on the road had burned out lights and our driver was going to flash his brights until they went to dim, or nothing. The traffic coming the other way was doing the same bright-dim-bright flashing game. It made me wonder if our lights weren't working properly. When we weren't trying to blind drivers with brights, we drove in the left (wrong) lane for some unknown reasons. We concluded that the only logical reason for the driver's behavior was because he is 'nuts'. We were driving through farm country. And out of the darkness, farm carts and tractors would appear on the road without any lights what-so-ever.  At other spots, sands of the Gobi had drifted across the pavement giving good reason for evasive maneuvers. Then there were SMS's and calls coming in and out of the driver's phone. How we made it to the 120km to the train station without killing someone, or being killed, is a testament to our good luck.

We paid the driver and settled into the train station waiting room. Liuyuan is off the tourist track and we got plenty of stares as we waited. We did plenty of gawking ourselves. We were solidly in farm country as the lined and weather beaten brown faces of our fellow passengers revealed.

It was pandemonium when our train was due to arrive. The announcement went out and hundreds crammed and crowed their ways into the entry hall waiting for the gate to open. Since we had a ticket for a sleeper birth, we went first (again) and waited on the platform with a handful of other passengers. The train originated somewhere else and when it arrived, we would have less than 10 minutes to board. So we waited on the platform in the cold dark night. One of the other ladies who was waiting, started doing tai chi with her friend. She seemed like the teacher type and soon Michelle fell into line doing tai chi with her backpack on until the train arrived.

It felt good to be moving on from Dunhuang.
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Sharon on

Thank you for sharing, I have a virtual trip going on here. Dave, glad your eye is better. Take care.

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