Jiahuguan, Ejina & Zhangye October 16 – 19
October 16 Tuesday Jiayuguan – Jinta Gansu 80km – Ejina, Inner Mongolia 350km
We had an early start and by 8:30 am. I had a half-price ticket (¥60 covering the Overhanging Wall and the Fort. First we climbed the famous Overhanging Great Wall at Jiayu Pass which is said to be the largest and most intact pass of the Great Wall of China, a World Heritage Property since 1987.
The climb is steep but not long. Zhang Qian, Xuanzang and Marco Polo had all passed through this strategic pass during their famous journey. Anyway, this section of the wall appears fairly new and not authentic restored sections of the Ming Dynasty!
I walked to the top and was disappointed to see the magnificent landscape being spoilt by pollution from nearby factories. It was hazy even on a fine day.
Our next destination was the Jiayuguan situated at the western end of the Ming Dynasty Great Wall. The wall here was built with rammed earth making yellow its dominant hue. The city where the pass is located is named after the pass which was also a vital traffic fort along the Silk Road.
Construction began in 1372 AD, this ancient expansive fort-city has a complex and integrated defensive system: an inner city, the central area with many buildings; an outer city and finally a moat. It has been extensively restored.
Today, the fort has a total area of 33500m2. There are 14 buildings including pavilions, gates, turrets and cannons on or along the wall.
The inner city with an area of 25,000m2, is enclosed by a city wall running for 640m and reaching a height of 11m. It has two gates in the east and west. Each gate is protected by a smaller guard tower and a barbican in front forming another defensive screen for the inner city.
Outside the inner city, there is another barrier forming the first defensive line of the pass – the outer city. The west wall of the outer city was built with bricks making it very solid. The plaque on the three-storeyed tower on the wall read “the First and Greatest Pass under Heaven” to indicate the military importance of the Pass.
There is too much to see. I walked fast, reached the outer city and took a picture at the First and Greatest Pass under Heaven” which is symbolic. Foreigners from the west coming to China would enter through the pass while Chinese heading west could exit. Kai paid ¥60 for a souvenir passport from Jiayuguan with a stamp on it.
As we still had a long way to go, we only stayed for 90 minutes. I felt sorry that we could not visit the museum. At 11:45 am, we were back on the road.
We followed S214 to our third destination, the Jinta Desert Huyanglin Scenic Area (a 4A scenic spot). Most of us got half-price tickets (¥30). Instead of taking our vehicle inside the park, we decided to pay ¥20 each for a shuttle bus service so that the driver could take a rest. This was the biggest mistake we made on this trip: we wasted our precious time waiting for the bus instead of enjoying the amazingly beautiful foliage.
There are tens of thousands of acres of forests with trees of populus euphratica, a saline-tolerant species that grow well in desert. To prevent further desertification, the Chinese government has spent decades of research and hard work to plant trees in the arid regions. Gradually, man-made forests spring up like miracles in the desert.
Populus euphratica is known for longevity and vitality: the tree can live for 3,000 years and does not fall down 3,000 years after death. Its leaves turn golden in September and October after the first frost attracting tens of thousands of tourists.
This expansive scenic spot consists of five areas. Most visitors flock to the Jinbo Lake with the trees lining the lake shore. We took a ride to the watch tower (Stop 4). After taking a snap shot of the surrounding area, I headed to the forest and followed a broad-walk to the famous lake. There were few tourists. I lost my friends and was alone.
I fully enjoyed the tranquillity and atmosphere of a glorious golden autumn. There were hundreds of dead populus euphratica in the wetland area. The trees with reflections turn into an open museum of sculpture and art works.
I arrived at the lake at 2:30pm. It was the most beautiful and photogenic sight I had on this trip with golden trees along a turquoise lake with a blue sky and clear reflections. I wished we could spend the whole afternoon enjoying the lake and the forest in peace.
The group except Flora and Leung gathered at the lake and we managed to take the 2:40pm bus back to the entrance. Flora and Leung got lost, missed a bus and did not reach the carpark till 3:30pm. Well, had we taken our vehicle into the park, our time would have been much better spent.
Our driver was in a bad mood complaining that we were late. He did not take his lunch while we were in the park. We had not eaten and asked the driver to find a restaurant. He said there was no restaurant and we had to wait till we reached Ejina.
We continued driving along S214 and passed through an area within the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre which covers a total area of 2800km2. As the centre is a military zone, no photo is allowed. We also did not get Wi-Fi with our phone.
We watched a beautiful desert sunset. We were relieved when we reached our hotel at 8:30 pm. The hotel is old-styled without facilities. But we had to pay almost ¥700 for a twin room at peak season. A rip-off!
We were hungry and exhausted. After dinner, I was ready for bed and had an excellent sleep.
October 17 Wednesday: Ejina (about 70km)
We had a late start at 9 am and spent the morning in the Ejina Populus Euphratica Forest, one of only three existing populous eupraticas forests in the world which has been listed as a geopark. I paid the full entrance fee of ¥190 and a bus ticket cost ¥40. There were thousands of tourists eager to take photos of the autumn scenery.
The forest has an area of about 250km2. Inside the park, there are some 20 scenic spots each standing out for its special populus euphratica trees or woods, many of which have been locations for films and TV series. Today only two (No. 2 and 4) out of six attractions were open. The ticket price should therefore be reduced! From the entrance we walked through the ”Taolai Woods” near Yidaoqiao with young populus euphratica with long and slender leaves like those of a willow.
The best spot for photography is at the “Paddle Populus Euphratica” with a tree trunk falling into the river. People say it looks like a girl who is sitting by the river and dipping her feet in the water.
We followed the trail and saw a “Welcoming Populus Euphratica” with two large branches, looking like a person with outstretched arms to welcome guests. This tree is over 400 years old and about 17m high.
After spending an hour strolling in the forest and around a few small lakes, we hopped on the shuttle bus going to the “Hero Woods” with many over 1,000-year-old Euphrates Poplars scattering in an area of 6.7 km2. Leaves of middle-aged trees are oval and broad while the ones of old trees are similar to those of maple trees.
I enjoyed my leisure walk with Bing through the wood. But my mood was spoilt by the noisy Mainland ladies who dressed in red or held out a long red shawl posing like Peggy Cheung and Zhang Ziyi in the film “Hero” directed by Zhang Yimao in 2002.
Bing and I decided to hop on the shuttle bus for a ride to the end of the route. Next to Stop 8 is the desert. But a separate ticket is required. We took the bus back and tried to go back for a few photos of the trees. Unfortunately, the light was too strong. We left before 2:30pm, walked back to the hotel and had time just for a cup of instant noodles.
At 3pm, we set off for the Black Water City Scenic Area not too far from Ejina. Again, I had to pay for a full price ¥180 and ¥20 for a shuttle bus. We went in after 3:30 pm and came out at 7 pm. But it was frustrating that all of us except Kai and Bing managed to find the Heicheng Ruins 黑城遗址(or Black Water City Ruins), an ancient fortress first built in 1032 AD and later becoming a trade centre of Tangut Empire during the Western Xia Dynasty (1038 -1227). Heicheng city which got its name from the Heishui River was an important northern fortress on the northwest of the empire. It was the largest existent fortress along the ancient Silk Road. The city continued to flourish during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) but was abandoned in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and left in ruins.
The scenic area is expansive comprising a “Dead Euphrates Poplar Forest”, the ruins, a young poplar forest along the river and a reconstructed fortress.
Unfortunately, we had not done our homework and studied the location map thoroughly before entry. We immediately hopped on a shuttle bus at entrance which took us to a reconstructed fortress and the Heishui River. There is no location map at the bus stop.
We strolled around the river bank and visited the new fortress. We were disappointed without realising we had to take another shuttle bus to the ruins which is 15km northeast of the entrance.
Kai found the shuttle bus by chance. Bing ran into him and they hopped on the shuttle bus to the ruins which they describe as impressive and massive. Bing sent the group a message via WeChat about the ruins without details. As a result, none of us could make our way. I was annoyed but could only blame myself for my negligence.
I am always mindful that life is short and precarious. I live and enjoy whatever I have. Hence, I spent almost two hours wandering aimlessly at the at the Dead Euphrates Poplar Forest, a wonder of nature. What a blessing to be able to be with the trees which had witnessed the rise and fall of the Heicheng City and are still standing majestically!
I watched sunset in a surreal and most extraordinary world of dead euphrates poplar trees. Instead of looking at man-made treasures at the ruins, I spent my time with living creatures of ancient times. What an experience!
We were all on time and returned to Ejina at 7 pm. We had a feast with most delicious mutton. We had to sleep early as we would depart at 5 am for sunrise.
October 18 Thursday: Ejin – Juyanhai – Zhangye (about 550km)
We got up at 4:30 am and set off for sunrise at to Juyanahi, the tail of a lake of the Heihe River the second largest inland river in China. Heihe originated from Qilian Mountain, the river flows through Qinghai, Gansu and Inner Mongolia provinces for over 800km. it merges into the Gobi Desert in the northwestern margin of the Badain Jaran Desert. The Ejina River flows into the lake and is the main source of water supply.
The lake with a long and narrow shape like a new moon, is divided into two lakes (Noel and Shun Noor). It is a flowing desert and its position can change from big to small, south to north and east to west. The lake, surrounded by reeds, is a nature paradise with plenty of swan, geese, cranes, ducks and gulls.
One of the main attractions is to watch sunrise. We set off at 5:10 am and arrived at the entrance around 6 am. I paid a full fare of ¥60 and ¥10 for shuttle bus. But we had to walk in the dark for some 20 minutes to take a 3-minute ride to Pier 2. The sun did not rise till 7:30 am. Hundreds of people arrived early in order to secure a vantage point to take photos. While waiting, some visitors fed the gulls and took photos.
Frankly I have watched some most beautiful sunrise in the seven continents. The sunrise today was pretty but not extraordinary by my standard. Anyway, I find the reed and the rippling lake away from the crowd more enchanting. If I have a choice, I would rather spend time strolling along the lake shore and enjoy the scenery and the waterfowl.
We left at 8:30 am and were back in the hotel by 9:15 am. We had a long way (about 450km) to go and were ready to set off at 9:30am. Unfortunately, after driving for about 15km, the driver found the petrol station on the highway closed. At the end, he had to drive back to the town for refill. He explained the price of petrol would go up that evening. As a result, some petrol stations closed the station trying to keep their stock. How can these state-owned or quasi-government companies, do such a thing? We wasted about 45 minutes and did not set off till 10:30 am.
We drove on S214 again with a quick lunch stop near the aviation town. A simple lunch in a dirty local restaurant cost over ¥480. It’s a rip-off!
Instead of taking the highway G30 to Zhangye, our driver took the old road which is a short-cut. Part of the road is in poor condition with many potholes: we had a rough ride for almost an hour. Then we were back on good paved road.
Shortly after 5pm, we arrived at the Zhanye Pinshanhu Grand Canyon Scenic Spot located 56km north of Zhangye with a total area of 150km2. The north-south width is 26km, and east-west length is 40km.
The landscape is amazing and photogenic. What one finds is a combination of canyon, stone forest, gobi, snow mountain and primeval forest. There are walking trails at the bottom of the canyon and many viewing platforms that are linked up by board walk. Adventurous visitors can climb.
I had a concessionary fare of ¥60 and paid ¥20 for the shuttle bus. The weather was poor: cloudy and grey. The ticket office warned us that the last shuttle bus from the entrance would be at 5:30 pm and we just had an hour.
We first got off at Platform 1 for a short walk along the board walk. Then the bus took us to Platform 3 where we walked to Platform 4 to re-board the bus at 6:30pm.
We walked fast taking a couple of snapshots. As usual, traditional Chinese names are given to various natural rock formations and scenery including the “nine dragons converging in the sea”, “a couple peaks”, “one-line sky”, “lucky sacred tree”, “golden toad confronting the sky”, “stone forest” etc.
It must be fascinating to walk at the chasm of the canyon. But time did not allow. As it is not be possible for visitors who enter after 5 pm to hike to the bottom of the canyon, the park should offer a discount ticket.
It got dark after 6 pm. It’s a pity that we could not see the amazing colours and grandeur of the canyon. We took the last shuttle bus and got back to our bus at 7 pm.
The driver had made a mistake and took us to a wrong hotel in the city centre. As a result, we probably wasted at least 30 minutes and did not arrive at our hotel opposite the high-speed train station till 8:30 pm. The hotel is new and fantastic: we paid less than ¥300 for a twin room. But reception was inefficient and took more than 30 minutes to complete the check-in procedures. Tonight, I shared a room with Bing instead of Flora as Bing and I would stay another night in the hotel while the others would leave for Xian the following day.
We were tired and would prefer to eat at the hotel. But it has no restaurant. We had to take taxi to the city centre for dinner. It was raining: we waited for more than 20 minutes.
Luckily, we found a nice local restaurant near the night market for our farewell dinner. We ordered ten dishes. I had too much and went to bed after midnight with a full stomach. This was the longest day of this trip.
October 19 Friday: Zhangye
We had a full programme in the morning before my friends heading to the airport. We set off at 8 am to visit the Zhangye National Geopark 張掖國家地質公園comprising two Danxia landforms丹霞地貌. Danxia landform are found in several provinces in southeast China and in Zhangye. “Young” landforms normally have deep, narrow valleys. As the landform gets older, valleys would widen, isolated towers and ridges would emerge and numerous shallow and isolated caves of various sizes and shapes would be formed.
We first visited the Binguo Danxia (冰沟丹霞)Scenic Area. Extending 5-10km from north to south and 40 km from east to west, this geopark covers an area of over 300 km2 with altitude between 1,500 and 2,550m. The landform includes widespread Danxia cliff, sandstone wall, stone stele, aiguilles and hills, is the best Mullion-like palace style Danxia formation in China.
I paid a concessionary entrance fee of ¥20 and ¥20 for the shuttle bus. The park has two main scenic areas. We had to leave the park by 11:30am. We took the 9:15 am bus to the tourist area 1 where we jumped onto another bus which took us to the tourist area 2.
I walked up a steep staircase to the ridge for good views of the Danxia landform. Then I followed another trail to the highest platform for more fabulous 360° views.
Then I took the bus back to tourist area 1. The landscape here is totally different. While one is impressed by the grandeur of the landform at the first site, one would be amazed by the closed-up views of the cliff, sandstone wall and tower when walking through the bottom of the valley in the second site.
I always love a view from above. I pushed myself to walk to Platform 1 which is the highest point in the site. I found myself totally engulfed by towers and peaks. I could easily spend another hour or two exploring this fascinating area.
I was lucky to catch the bus at 11:15am and met up with the other friends at the entrance. We set off to the next as well as last attractions of this trip.
Our last stop was at the Linze Danxia Scenic Area known for its rainbow mountains. About 540 million years ago, the area was once part of the ocean. Due to tectonic plate collision, the land folded and formed mountains, and lifted above sea level. Zhangye’s Danxia was formed by the erosion of red sandstone, forming isolated peaks and steep stratified outcrops. Its special geological structure, combined with long-term desert conditions, freeze-thaw peeling and wind and water erosion have given rise to its present magnificent appearance.
This famous geopark located in the northern foothills of the Qilian Mountains is most photogenic and breath-taking. Covering an area of about 322km2, the park is covered with lots of precipitous red cliffs, most of which are several hundred meters high, and multicoloured ridges or weathered strata, sometimes stretching to the horizon. The colours of red, purplish red, yellow green, greyish green and dark grey etc are awesome.
As we had to leave the park by 2:30 pm, we decided to take a private 9-seater for ¥300 for two hours. My entrance ticket cost ¥28. In this scenic area, there are four major viewing areas.
We only had a whirlwind visit to three viewing areas. At the second viewing platform near the entrance, we spent 15 minutes. One was supposed to see a sleeping beauty from the ridge at the base platform. It was a cloudy day and the colours all looked dull and colourless. I also could not find a sleeping beauty.
We spent 30 minutes at the third platform that affords a view of the famous ‘Seven-colour Fan’. The sky cleared a little and the mountain looked like having a faint paint with colourful palette. The huge rolling hills look very soothing with their pastel colours.
We had the most stunning view at the fourth viewing platform. It’s like a wonderland in a fairy tale: we were surrounded by colourful rolling hills.
We walked up to the ridge running from east to west. Standing on the ridge, we looked south amazed by the ‘Seven-colour Mountain’七彩山
After spending 40 minutes in this spectacular site, we had to go. After a quick lunch, our driver dropped Bing and I before 3 pm at the hotel. We said good-bye to Sunny, Joy, Flora, Leung, Kai and Miranda who would be flying to Xian before returning to Hong Kong on October 21.