After spending a few days at home, getting the damage to our car fixed and taking care of some visa business, we’re back on the road! The Silk Road this time. We didn’t start the second leg of our year of travel too well. The past few days have been rather hectic and nerve-wrecking. On Saturday we flew with Flybe from Amsterdam to Manchester with more than 1 hour delay.

We had to rush through Manchester Airport (we will save you the details, but better avoid this airport if you have to change planes) thinking we were going to miss our connecting flight with Hainan Airlines to Beijing. But we made it as it turned out this flight was delayed as well.

Luggage missing!

Immigration in Beijing early next morning was a breeze, but then we experienced the horror of every traveler: our backpacks hadn’t made it to China. There we were without our belongings for the next nine months. Two days followed with not knowing where our bags were, Hainan Airlines being less than cooperative and not reacting to our messages.

Visiting Lanzhou in some new bought clothes

After a restless 22 hours we had to get up early for a 4 AM minibus that would take us to the airport again on Monday for a second connecting flight to Lanzhou, a typical big Chinese city with lots of monotonous high-rises at the geographical center of China and as such a historical important stop on the Silk Road. Both in Beijing and Lanzhou we had to put on full pressure on ground staff to get things moving.

We met so much incompetence and unwillingness to help that we had given up hope to ever see our backpacks again. But then on Monday night a miracle happened: a call that our backpacks were on their way and sure enough they got delivered to us that night.

In the meantime we had acquired some new toiletries and clothes (shirts, underwear, socks, quite difficult if you’re not built like a Chinese) at a Beijing shopping mall and in Lanzhou (where we visited some of its few sights in the process) to see us through the first two luggage-less days. We noticed that China had gotten much more expensive than ten years ago when we traveled around the country for three months.

With backpacks to Xiahe

Much relieved that we were re-united with our luggage we got on the bus for a three hour ride to Xiahe, the seat of Labrang monastery, one of the most important Tibetan monasteries (but not actually located in Tibet). Although it was a great experience it somehow couldn’t live up to the memory we had of our amazing ten days of traveling independently through Tibet ten years ago.

But the smell of Yak butter (less pungent than in Tibet), watching people walking the kora (pilgrim path) spinning the prayer wheels and monks going about their business is always a good way to spend a day and a half.

Sangke grasslands

We also went out to explore the beautiful surroundings of the city and spent a few hours with a nomadic family at the Sangke grasslands trying several different typical Tibetan food items like yak butter tea and tsampa (flour milled from roasted barley). The tents they stayed at looked nothing like the yurts in the touristic camps created for the Chinese tourists. Apparently the pic for home is more important than the real thing, which is less colorful and romantic.

Luckily we were taken far into the grasslands where no Chinese tourists come. A humbling and rewarding experience. Despite their poor appearances, though, the family had their own SUV parked in front of the yurt. It’s all about priorities….

Zhangye-Danxia Geopark

After backtracking to Lanzhou we caught the high speed train to the city of Zhangye. Going through security our sun tanning spray that we had won at the national postcode lottery when we were on the Balkans got confiscated. Apparently the Chinese think sun tanning spray is a dangerous item to take on a train. We’ve learned that deodorant and shaving cream are also on the list of items they check for. Somehow they missed those this time.

Zhangye has a few minor sights, but the most important reason to visit this part of China are the multicolored rock formations at the Danxia Geopark near Zhangye. Seeing some amazing pics of it on internet we just had to made a stop here. The red, yellow, green and grey layers of rock of the so-called Rainbow Mountains really sparkle when the sun is out.

This is the case in most of the summer, but we were not so lucky. The day already started with monotonous grey skies. During the 45 minute bus ride from Zhangye to the Geopark it started to rain which didn’t stop until we were almost out of the park again four hours later. To make matters worse low clouds and mist started to drift in.

It was not the spectacular show of nature we’d hoped for, and I was sorely chagrined by the weather for a while – the colorful rainbow umbrella we had to buy to keep the camera dry couldn’t lift my spirits either –, but despite it all it still is one of the most awesome natural sceneries we’ve seen in our lives. And the crowds were also less than expected, so at least we got a break there.

Jiayuguan, end of the Chinese wall

From Zhangye we took another high speed train to Jiayuguan. This time the x-ray machine at security spotted my shaving cream (but not the deodorant). Playing the dumb, non-comprehending foreigner paid off this time. After pretending for a while not knowing what the problem is I showed them the GoPro grip that lay next to my shaving cream in the backpack. Don’t know if they got exasperated by me or that they thought this is was the x-ray spotted, but they decided to waive me through.

Jiayguan is an ugly city but we decided to visit it because it once was an important stop on the Silk Road and the symbolic end of the Chinese Great Wall, Jiayuguan Fort being the western gateway to China. After being picked up at noon by a car from our hostel we were on a half day taxi tour of the sights an hour later.

The sights were just so-so. The First Beacon Platfrom was disappointing, the Overhanging Great Wall (a piece of reconstructed wall) couldn’t match up to walking the Great Wall near Beijing (not even close) and over-restored Jiayuguan Fort felt a bit fake and was super crowded with Chinese tour groups. We knew this beforehand and not everything can be awesome. Our second week in China will surely bring great stuff again.

Last post: week 11

Next post: week 14

About the author

Roel Kerkhof

Restless wanderer, retired cyclist and triathlete, geographer and writer. Man with a mission impossible: to visit all countries in the world.

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