I’m a mountain guy, I decided, after just a few hours in the outskirts of the Gobi desert. It was hot, and blowy, the Great Wall we were following was practically impossible to see, and the ground beneath us was parched and covered in huge salt pans. Give me a goat track, I thought. A ridge ripped by a cold wind from Siberia, and a Ming wall I can actually see. But my friend Chinoook is made of sterner stuff (though I give him a run for his money on my home turf). Out ahead, he led the way through the salt pans towards a brown smudge on the horizon. “There’s the wall”, he promised. I squinted. “Sure it is”, I thought skeptically. But he was right. Just meters off a salt pan they could have used as a set for Mordor in the Lord of the Rings, stood an enormous, multi-tiered wall – a giant layer cake two thousand years old.
(I was in Gansu Province with my friends Chinoook and Chen Huai looking at Han Dynasty walls and forts – part one is here).
We were in the desert near Yumenguan, on the fringes of the Gobi. Not for nothing is that name believed by some to mean “there is nothing”. It is a harsh place – the kind of desert people describe as “unforgiving”, as though a desert has feelings, emotions, or intentions. No. It doesn’t have any of that. Just sand, salt, wind and mosquitoes. And, deep in there somewhere, those bits of the Han Dynasty Great Wall that have survived two thousand years of that empty place.
Han Forts along the Silk Road
The Han dynasty presided over one of the golden periods of Chinese history. It is revered even today, and second only in Chinese esteem to the glorious Tang Dynasty, rightly seen as the absolute summit of Chinese cultural refinement and achievement. The Han was the first really big iteration of “China”, a true empire that covered much of the territory presently owned by the PRC and held it for many generations. The famous Silk Road had its first real start under the Han, and we were exploring the very routes those traders took 2,000 years ago, bringing silks and spices out of the Celestial Kingdom beneath forts and watchtowers and defensive walls.
Out here in the desert in present-day Gansu province, on the fringes of the Gobi itself, these fortifications were made from tamped earth and the loess soil* that covers everything. We walked along a famous section of wall where the outer layer of soil has eroded away to show the layered reed structure that gave the wall extra structural integrity (and, bizarrely, we met a man from Tasmania, on an official tourism delegation to Dunhuang).
From here we continued several kilometers deep into the desert, trying to verify the length of that section of wall. Chinoook did this kind of thing all the time, marching sometimes many days through the scorching desert, following a hunch or a GPS trace, mapping out obscure walls, just because it is interesting and no-one has done it. I was already impressed by that, but more so when I realised how uncomfortable it is – mosquitos, scorching heat, unpleasant bogs and inhospitable salt pans, all in the first few kilometers. The wall appeared and disappeared, sometimes a mighty barrier, elsewhere nothing more than a vague impression on the ground that would go unnoticed by anyone else foolish enough to be walking there.
Near here was a vast ancient trading city named Soyangcheng (aka Suoyang Cheng), today just decaying loess walls and a small visitor center. Chinese websites say it dates to the Han (Chinoook disagrees) but thrived in the Tang Dynasty (618-907CE).
We stopped in at other forts, generally not fenced off at all (and no surprise – these were all far from the road, and far from interesting to the typical tourists following the typical route, despite their deep interest to us). An exception was the famous Han era granary on the Silk Road at Hecang. This remarkable place was the truckstop of 2,000 years ago – a safe place for caravans to feed and water their camels, rest a bit, catch news of the road ahead from those who’d arrived from the other direction and share their own news in return. There was no fence, but when I wandered too close in search of a better camera angle, a funny little man ran from a hut and waved me off.
Rather than walk down, as Chinoook and I did, Old Chen drove, and inevitably blew a tyre. It was dusk by now, and this place was scourged with mosquitos. In deference to my elders, Confucian-style, I gave Old Chen my mosquito mesh mask as we both worked on changing the wheel. He knows little English, but as I fought a swarm of bloodythirsty monsters in between leaning on the tyre iron, he certainly had a master class in “working blue” from me. Chinoook, unperturbed and seemingly unbitten, looked on with bemusement.
Old Chen had some business to clear up with the police – something related to his liberal approach to driving – so we went to Zhangye, another fifth-tier city, to attend to it (this was the place which administered the stretch of highway where the indiscretion was committed).
I used the police station rest rooms while Chen Huai paid his fines. By coincidence, Zhangye had an excellent and famous temple complex dating to the Western Xia dynasty (a small one that ran this area from 1028-1227CE). The legendary Mongol Emperor, the Kublai Khan, who established the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368CE) was supposedly born in the temple, which also holds China’s largest wooden reclining Buddha. Marco Polo, who later met the Kublai Khan, supposedly lived in this city for a year, as well.
Waiting around for Chen Huai, we met some little kids who really liked my pro-spec, rather expensive dSLR. Keeping it looped round my neck, I let them play with it. Nothing came out in focus because they had their faces so close to the lens; many times it nearly smashed into the ground, but somehow I kept it in one piece as they mucked around.
The town also has a giant pagoda and one of Old Chen’s favourite noodle haunts. After slurping up his noodles, he liked to call out “Hey boss, bring me the noodle soup”. I tried it, discovering it is actually the water the noodles were boiled in. “Hmmm. Would you like mine too, Old Chen?”
The New Found Han Wall
And then I witnessed a real moment of discovery, the first time I’d seen Chinoook really animated (no, I mean really animated). Into the teeth of a blazing sandstorm, we followed a trace on Chinoook’s GPS, looking for a long stretch of Han wall he thought he had seen on GE, a continuation of a verified line on either side of this area. The wind was furious, blowing so much sand I didn’t dare take out my good camera. We got closer, but no wall was in sight, just sporadic lumps of loess sand called yardangs. Suddenly, X marked the spot, and we looked low at our feet for a telltale minor impression such as we had seen at other places. Nothing.
Somehow it occurred to me that one of these yardangs was unnaturally high and straight, and unnaturally long. Without thinking I said “hey, here it is”, and Chinoook had the same realisation. We had found it, and once we had, it was obvious. It stretched for miles in one direction, and all the way to a small road in the other, back near where we had started and where Chen Huai was snoozing in the car. It wasn’t a yardang at all, it was the remnants of a wall, made from the same packed loess as all the yardangs standing around nearby.
A closer look verified our discovery. There was evidence of manmade construction – reed layers and wooden supports. Chinoook was thrilled, fist pumping and jumping up and down for a brief moment before he contained himself and returned to his normal veneer of scientific detachment. We photographed the area, made a few notes and called Chen Huai. It was only a kilometer or two back to the road and once there, we persuaded Old Chen to drive up a nearby farmroad and have a look for himself.
He agreed it was manmade but couldn’t accept it was Han. The two of them argued back and forth the whole way home, in a classic example of Chinese and western thinking. Chinoook was all about satellite imagery and deduction – the overheads show known Han wall on the same line either side, the construction appears to be Han, therefore it must be Han. Old Chen was not about to break precedent – he hadn’t heard of Han wall here and nor had his historian friends; the nearest Han wall was miles from here (but on the same bearing! objected Chinoook); perhaps it was a later construction or there was some other explanation (other than the evident obvious one? asked Chinoook). But the two are old friends, and know how it goes. Old Chen will come around in time, once he looks at the GE imagery himself.
Lonely Village, Lonely Wall
Not far from a small village, forlorn, windswept, and named Xiakou, was a desolate valley. This whole area was really about as dismal as it gets in China – poor, miles from anywhere, and seemingly with no future. But what a past: around here the ancient Han Dynasty wall and the much later Ming Dynasty wall butt up against each other, right on the valley floor where Silk Road caravans plied the trade between East and West.
Up in the hills beyond, the Han wall was harder to trace, though we thought we could still see it. The Ming Wall was clear, and remarkably intact. Though made of seemingly indestructible loess, it was hard on that very windy day to believe that a pile of sand could survive half a millenium. Yet there it was.
We traversed the hills and crossed the plain back to the highway, as rain threatened in what had at first looked like a dust storm. At the highway, we hunkered down beside a hut where the man sold brake water for passing trucks. Many passed, none stopped, and there was no sign of a bus.
We set off down the road, trying to thumb a ride. In the end, a little minibus pulled over. The driver explained he hadn’t planned to stop, but the passengers all yelled “stop, stop, pick up the foreigners!”. Saved again, by the Chinese unfailing politeness and curiosity towards visitors.
Our last night was in Shandan. It is a small and gritty little place, though friendly, and looks like what I imagine the outskirts of Beijing were like about 15 years ago. Old Chen wanted us to share a last meal at a street stand where they make chao bu la. I readily agreed, as did Chinoook, and we sat down in a little tent while he went to meet an old friend who would join us. Our hostess was a little lady on a stool, sitting before an enormous makeshift wok on top of a miniature blast furnace. She seemed to enjoy having a few foreign friends in her tent, and the word “laowai” (foreigner) escaped more than a few lips as passersby saw us. Very few outsiders have cause to visit Shandan, fewer still to eat chao bu la in a tent on the back streets.
Chao bu la turned out to be a collection of liver, kidney, intestines, and I didn’t want to ask what else. The whole lot goes onto the searingly hot wok with a bucket of spices and chilli. It was pretty yummy stuff, knocked back with some cold beers drunk from tiny plastic cups. Old Chen’s friend was the local doctor and amateur historian and spoke a little English, so we practised with him a bit in the pauses between the renewed argument about that Han wall. Our hostess seemed bewildered by the whole thing, and just smiled happily when I told her the food was great. Chao bu la was a Shandan speciality, and in true small-town parochial style, she (and Old Chen) were harsh about the prospects of finding it in the next town, just a few kilometers away. “Totally different!” he said. “Right!” She agreed. “They don’t know how to make this down there. Not like we do in Shandan”.
I left that night, on a sleeper to Dunhuang for my flight to Beijing. Chinoook left too, in the opposite direction on the long haul to the capital. His train left first, so then it was just me with the station policeman who was helping me find my train out of curiosity rather than any sense I couldn’t find the platform on my own. It was after midnight. I complimented Shandan and chao bu la and explained about researching the Great Wall. He liked all that but what he really wanted to know was what I did and how much I earned. I never know what to say when I get that question – of course I make more than a conductor at a train station in a city like Shandan. I fudged it somehow, mumbling something about westerners didn’t like to talk about that stuff, and then a freight train conveniently roared through the station for about five minutes.
It passed and we stood in silence, two people from completely different worlds somehow meeting on a platform in Shandan. The overnighter to Dunhuang arrived, right on time as they almost always do, and I shook his hand and wished him farewell, with thanks for his help. He wished me the same, and I boarded my train to be sped through the dark, away from little old Shandan, back from the past to modern Beijing.
*Loess soil is a silty sediment formed by the accumulation of wind-blown dust. Its grains are very angular so you can build things from it, and even after years of wind and rain, loess formations will hold their shape.