She spoke first, a series of words in Chinese that I couldn’t understand and then one that I did: “Lanzhou?”
“Dui! Dui! I am going to Lanzhou, too,” I said, nodding vigorously to the kind-faced woman in her 40s, as we established that we were both alone and flying to the capital of China’s Gansu province — a spot in the country’s interior along a northwestern part of the ancient Silk Road trade route — and that neither of us spoke the other’s language.
I had taken notice of Wei Zhao Han in the Beijing airport when she started listening to Chinese pop music videos next to me without headphones. This was my sixth or so visit to China, but my first without my relatives, who mainly hail from Shanghai and Beijing, and I’d been missing that familiar element of noise and chaos: everyone talking over each other, picnic spreads of steamed buns and fruit laid out across airport waiting room chairs.
Wei, who runs an architectural business, and I bonded quickly. As we boarded the plane she got the man sitting next to me to switch seats with her. “Let’s be friends,” she said through her Baidu translation app (China’s version of Google, which is blocked), and followed that with a declaration that she would give me a ride from the airport to my hotel.
“You can trust that I am a good person!” she wrote into Baidu, and laughed as her friend drove us down a dark highway toward Lanzhou after midnight, which might be the midpoint of a Stephen King novel under other circumstances. But she was just one in a series of people who jumped in to help me — ordering for me at restaurants, getting me safely to my hotel, as Wei did. Most of them didn’t realize I was Chinese-American at first; they just seemed to see a woman on her own in a strange land looking rather lost.
A magnificent stretch of desert sandwiched between mountains, Gansu was once China’s Wild West, containing the westernmost structures of The Great Wall, built to ward off attacking nomadic hordes, and legendary shrines dug into cliffs for the westward spread of Buddhism.
It had made the 52 Places list for 2018 because the opening of high-speed rail lines had made its treasures, including the rainbow-striped mountains in the Zhangye Danxia National Geological Park, easier to get to.
But easier is relative and Gansu in November was not easy. Temperatures were below freezing in a landscape so beautifully barren it’s hard to believe it can sustain life. There were few foreigners; almost no one spoke English; and I couldn’t read menus or street signs. (I speak only basic, familial Chinese, like “I already ate,” and “No, really, I can’t eat any more.”)
It made Kuelap, the previous hardest-to-reach destination of this 52 Places trip, deep in the cloud forests of Peru, seem like a logistical breeze. At least there I knew some Spanish — and could read an address.
The new bullet trains follow the Northern Silk Road that once connected China and Eurasia, running from Xi’an in the east to Urumqi in the west. My plan was to spend two days writing, sleeping and getting my laundry done in Lanzhou, the province’s biggest city, then speed northwest to the Great Wall sites of Jiayuguan, and visit Zhangye’s geopark, located in between those two spots, on my eastward return. But train scheduling snafus and my new friends turned a lot of that upside down.
On the plane, Wei and I had scanned each other’s QR codes on WeChat, which is a superior Chinese version of WhatsApp. The next day, I got a message from her that she’d be coming to my hotel, the Wanda Vista, for dinner. It was the best hotel in town, she told me, and she eats there often. She met me in the lobby and walked me down a chandelier-lit hallway to a private room containing her sister, the friend who’d picked us up, and his brother, whom Wei called “lingdao,” or “leader,” because he was the president of an important Chinese bank.
They’d already eaten, but insisted on ordering five more dishes just for me, all of them vegetarian, because Wei had noticed I’d ordered a vegetarian meal on the plane. They drank hot water, which is a thing people do in the chilly North. And in between specialties like shredded potatoes stir-fried with chili peppers, Leader poured me shot glass after shot glass of baiju liquor. I know from many a banquet with my family that there’s only one thing to do in that situation: lift your glass and shout, “Ganbei!”
To the western frontier
My lungs were burning from the cold, dry air (and a decent amount of pollution) after climbing a mountainside near the city of Jiayuguan. I was standing on the Overhanging Great Wall, so named because it appears to cling to a ridge of the Black Mountains by some feat of wizardry. Ming dynasty tacticians built it in 1539, and from the peak there were views of the Gobi Desert in every direction, marked with bare mountains, oases, and in the distance, a steaming industrial plant.
It was hard not to marvel at sheer human will up there, including the amount I’d had to employ just to get to the view.
The afternoon after my dinner with Wei, I had boarded a 6-1/2-hour train to Jiayuguan, which was the shortest I could find from the downtown Lanzhou train station — after I learned all the high-speed trains were sold out and left from a new train station, Lanzhou West, on the outskirts of the city, anyway.
Onboard, a police officer introduced me to Jo, an English teacher from Jiayuguan. She not only woke me up when we had to get off the train at 2:30 a.m., but had her husband drive me to my hotel, where she negotiated my rate down to $29 for two nights (as opposed to the $90 I’d booked online). I showered and huddled under my covers with all my winter clothes on because I couldn’t figure out the heater. But I sure was glad I wasn’t paying $60 more for that.
The next morning, at Jo’s suggestion, I walked on Jiayuguan’s wide, relatively empty boulevards to a local restaurant, Wu Mai Er, to try a regional specialty: Lanzhou hand-pulled beef noodles. When I couldn’t communicate my order, a man in line bought my bowl for me and showed me how to pick it up, put chili sauce, or lajiao, in it, and then sit at a counter to slurp the noodles from the steaming broth.
Jo had also suggested I charter a taxi for 150 renminbi ($22) to see Jiayuguan’s three Great Wall scenic sites. We drove through the Gobi Desert outside the city to the mound of mud that was once The First Beacon Tower of the Great Wall, or the westernmost end of the western defense. It was part of a system of 54 beacons that sent smoke signals down the wall to warn of enemy movements.
On the shuttle bus around the site, I met another female traveler, Wei Gong, who had come by herself from Sichuan, and an English-speaking businessman from Nanjing, Yu Lihong, who helped me talk to my driver. The three of us didn’t always keep the same pace, but we kept in touch over WeChat as we circuited the Overhanging Great Wall and the final site, Jiayu Pass, or fortress, which was so huge I had to go back the next day to see it all.
The fortress underwent an impressive renovation in 2014. The evening I went, as the desert temperatures dropped precipitously with the sunset, I had the entire place to myself, walking up stone ramps used for bringing horses to lookout points and rolling down logs to crush enemies. At the exit, I caught up with Wei Gong, who was waiting for her taxi. A man who ran a shop selling tea sets made out of a local stone invited us to sit inside next to his wood-burning stove to warm our freezing hands.
A monumental detour
The UNESCO-recognized Caves of a Thousand Buddhas, known as the Mogao Grottoes, hadn’t been on my radar until Wei Gong invited me to come with her there. She was taking an overnight train hours after we’d left Jiayu Pass and I just couldn’t do it. But I also couldn’t get the idea out of my head. The 492 devotional caves, hand-carved into sandy cliffs, house the world’s largest and longest-used treasure of Buddhist art in the world, to paraphrase UNESCO. They were also a tempting 4-1/2 hours west of Jiayuguan, in the desert oasis of Dunhuang, and I never knew when I’d be this close to them again.
With the help of Yu Lihong, I booked a 2 a.m. train from Jiayuguan. I’d sprung for a luxurious “soft sleeper” car, with a comfortable bed and a door that closed. After four glorious hours of sleep, and a couple more waiting around in a taxi for the site to open, I walked into my first Mogao Cave to see 1,400-year-old Buddhas from the Tang dynasty.
You can’t get into the caves without a guide. After a bit of asking around I found an English-speaking tour, which had three people on it, including me.
The caves, whose ceilings are covered in hundreds of little Buddha portraits to convey Buddha’s infinite nature, date back to the year 366, when a monk named Le Zun went for a walk in the desert, had a vision of a thousand Buddhas bathed in a golden light, and was inspired to dig a shrine out of sandstone.
For centuries, devotees would dig caves and decorate them with enormous Buddhas, until the Silk Road declined, and people stopped coming. The caves remained intact and untouched (save for the work of a few shrine robbers) only to be revived over the last century with the discovery of a huge trove of Buddhist documents from the 11th century.
The centerpiece of the site is a five-story pagoda-like structure. As I walked in, a crowd of people were leaving and the light was so dim it was difficult to see. There was something big ahead. Was that a foot? I looked up to see a 98-foot-tall Buddha.
There are bigger Buddhas in China and the world, but likely none feel as intimate as standing inside a building that’s basically the same size as the Buddha, forcing you to crane your neck up to look at him and stay always in a supplicant position. The feat of human determination and faith that brought this massive statue into existence is overwhelming to contemplate. I think about that Buddha a lot and how close I had to stand to him to see him, and how tiny I felt in that moment.
The planning committee takes charge
A planning committee had gathered outside my compartment on an overnight slow train. I had, it turned out, a certain love for the more social, populist “hard sleeper” cars — with no doors and six bunks to a room — where the inability to sit up straight on any bed but the bottom meant lots of congregating in corridors. I also had a pile of logistical dilemmas, which piqued the interest of some English-speakers who’d overheard me discussing them with the conductor.
For my last day in the country, with a flight to Japan at 9 p.m., I had concocted a harebrained plan to spend the morning at Zhangye Danxia Landform National Geopark, or the Rainbow Mountains, then hop on a three-hour bullet train to the Lanzhou West station, and take another 40-minute train from there to the Lanzhou airport. But the trip was going to require precision engineering.
First, Lien Shao-Yong, a fellow eastward-bound traveler I had met at the grottoes, struck a deal for me with the conductor. I had a ticket for only part of the journey because the final leg to Zhangye had been sold out. The solution: pay cash for the difference and the staff would wake me in the middle of the night to move me to an empty slot since my bed was already spoken for.
Next on the scene was Song Xu, my bunkmate and a businessman with excellent English. He began plotting my day backward from my last possible arrival time at the airport. A college student, Liu Haocheng, joined us, as did another businessman sitting nearby. The family of three whose bottom bunks we’d commandeered listened in with bemusement as Liu translated the action into Chinese. “You’re doing this by yourself?” the mother said, nodding with approval. “Very brave.”
With the four of us checking websites and making phone calls in both Chinese and English, we nailed down a plan in a mere two hours. A driver named Tao Hong-Bing would pick me up when the train got in at 2 a.m., help me buy tickets for the legs back to the Lanzhou airport, find me a cheap by-the-hour hotel for a quick rest, pick me up again at 7 a.m. in order to get me to the geopark before sunrise, and then return me to the Zhangye train station to make the bullet train to Lanzhou that was holding this whole Jenga schedule in place.
Tao picked me up while it was still dark and we drove to the park, past trucks making early morning deliveries, and droves of children riding their bicycles to school. Private cars can’t go inside, so I boarded the first hop-on-hop-off bus of the day, which was carrying all the security guards and park workers, in their fur hats and winter coats, to their posts. The temperature gauge read minus-7-degrees Celsius (19 degrees Fahrenheit).
After a short drive down red brick roads, a guard shouted something that I assumed meant “Get off!” as we pulled up to the second of four scenic overlook platforms on the route. Along with two other tourists, I raced up flights of steps and along wooden boardwalks just in time to watch the sun peek over a sea of red hills and valleys and pillars and anthropomorphic sandstone formations that rivaled anything I’ve seen in the American Southwest. Then stripes in yellows and greens and whites and maroons began to emerge as sunlight bathed the landscape. They’re the result of mineral deposits organizing themselves during tectonic movements over tens of million of years.
WeChat messages began flooding in from the planning committee, who wanted to know how it was all going, and from Yu and both Weis, as well as from my aunt, uncle and cousin from Queens who happened to be visiting Shanghai for Thanksgiving but whom I wouldn’t be able to see. The other tourists had gone and I was alone on a freezing cold mountaintop across the world from a life I’d left behind almost a year ago, overlooking what could have been Mars, and I felt at home.
Just getting in Most foreigners must get a visa in advance directly from a Chinese consulate to enter the country — which also involves surrendering your passport for a period of hours or weeks. Citizens of five countries including the U.S. and Canada can and should get a 10-year multi-entry visa.
You must show evidence of entering and exiting flights as well as accommodation, which can feel uncomfortable if your travel dates hinge around getting a visa. Air China has reasonable change and cancellation fees — and there are some ways to get around the requirement.
Money matters Get plenty of cash at an ATM; I was able to use my credit card only twice, in nicer hotels in Gansu. But be careful not to take out too much. It’s easy to exchange renminbi for Asian currencies if you’re traveling onward, but foreigners have a limit on how many dollars they can buy back and few U.S. banks will exchange your overflow on your return.
Connection Websites like Google, Gmail, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook are banned. Get around that by using a VPN that makes it appear as if your IP address is outside China; I have a yearlong subscription to one, which has proved invaluable in the 52 Places. Set it up on both your computer and your phone. It also ensures that websites come up in your language instead of Chinese.
Mobile signals proved significantly more reliable (and less restrictive) than Wi-Fi in Gansu. Pick up a local SIM card or portable Wi-Fi hot spot, which runs off cell signals, at the airport.
Apps Downloading WeChat was an incredible lifeline. It can connect you to everyone you meet, including taxi drivers, who’d write to me in English using translation apps. If words aren’t working, send pictures.
All translation apps are flawed, but I like Google Translate for its free archive of conversations. iTranslate Voice is easiest for other people to read and SayHi seems to be the most accurate.
Sundries Carry multiple tissue packets. Napkins and toilet paper are rarely provided. Shampoo in hotels is also a rarity.
Lodging The Wanda Vista Hotel where I stayed in Lanzhou for $148 a night has one of the most opulent lobbies I’ve ever seen, complete with a room-size chandelier in the shape of a rose and a floor-to-ceiling depiction of the Silk Road rendered in carpet. Just watch out for that laundry bill. (Mine was $100.) Most hotels in smaller cities will negotiate an hourly rate if you are looking to rest before a late-night train.
Eat Hand-pulled beef noodles for breakfast is an inspired choice, and the best I had was at a place called Master Hong’s in Dunhuang. Asking around got me to incredible spinach jiaozi at a tiny counter shop called Good Again Dumplings in Jiayuguan. Vegetarians can look forward to exceptional si ji dou, or flash-fried green beans with chili peppers. When in doubt, make like a traveling businessman and ask for the “food street.” Every city has one or two.
Sights You can’t take pictures inside the caves of the Mogoa Grottoes, so if you want to document your trip to Dunhuang, try riding a camel around the sand dunes surrounding the Crescent Lake oasis. Any taxi you hire will combine the two sites, or there is a cheap bus.
Transport, roads Charter taxis are a cheap (by U.S. standards) and a stress-free way to get around to multiple tourist sites in one city in a day, not to mention free luggage storage. I kept my valuables with me and trusted that my drivers wouldn’t take off with my dirty clothes before getting paid. Rates should be between 150 and 180 renminbi ($22 to $26), negotiated in advance, and it is common for your driver to pick up other passengers. My Jiayuguan hotel found me a driver who later connected me with Tao in Zhangye. The only time I felt gouged was in Dunhuang, the most touristic of my stops, where I’d found a cab on arrival and my rate mysteriously went up by 100 renminbi over the course of the day.
Transport, trains Most train station ticket agents don’t speak English and kiosks for ticket purchases don’t have English options. To buy with a foreign credit card, use a site like trip.com, but you’ll still need to go to the ticket window to pick it up. I found it easiest to have a Chinese speaker accompany me to the ticket window and purchase advance tickets in cash.
To take a high-speed train, look for the station with a direction in the name, like Zhangye West or Jiayuguan South.
Save time and hotel charges by taking overnight trains. Book a “soft sleeper” if you need sensory deprivation to rest. “Hard sleeper” cars are way more fun. Keep your valuables away from the doorway. Whole meals, including corn on the cob, are sold onboard, but most people bring their own food.