Jiayuguan, the end of the Great Wall, 2012

Staying at a hotel in Dunhuang, instead of spending another night on the train, was such a relief. Although the night was more restful than it was on the train the previous night before–train whistles blowing every hour, jolting, sudden stops–I still woke up feeling a bit out of sorts. We had a wake-up call at 5am. Our next destination was 300 miles away and we needed to get there by noon! Breakfast was served about an hour after the New Orient Express departed from Dunhuang for Jiayuguan, “嘉峪關”. I had a light breakfast because my stomach was still being highly uncooperative.

Taiwanese Red Turtle Cakes! Sticky, sweet dessert cakes made entirely from brown sugar and glutinous rice flour, and with a black sesame filling. Red Turtle Cakes, “麵龜” [mian gui], are usually served during the Chinese Lantern Festival, or “元宵節” [yuan xiao jie]. Broken down: “” is flour, “” is turtle, “” is festival, “” is the first month of the Chinese calendar, and “” in ancient times meant night. The Chinese Lantern Festival is, consequently, held on the first night on the Chinese calendar where one can see the full moon. “元宵” is also what Chinese people eat during the Lantern Festival: a sweet soup with glutinous rice balls. Glutinous rice balls are kind of like mochi that you put in your soup. Red Turtle Cakes are “red” because red is the color of fortune and luck in Chinese culture, and turtles are revered for their longevity. 🙂 Best part of breakfast, easy! The fresh grape tomatoes were delicious too. I think that was the first time I saw yellow grape tomatoes.

After breakfast I crawled straight back into bed, still feeling woozy with fever. Most others were in the entertainment car, talking and singing karaoke. Chinese people love karaoke. Any chance they get, and it’s either mahjong or karaoke. There was singing, dancing and doing the twist and the hustle to oldies. What a party. They were doing this in traditional Hui clothing provided by a member of the Hui clan, who was working as an attendant on the train. She graciously offered to do a demonstration of Hui dance, and a couple of us volunteered to join in.

Not too long afterwards, the New Orient Express slowly came to a halt at Jiayuguan station. Jiayuguan is purportedly one of the richest cities in China because of its massive steel industry. But driving through it certainly doesn’t give that impression; the houses were no more glamorous than the ones we saw in Turpan.

Jiayuguan  ‘嘉峪關’ translated verbatim means “excellent valley pass”, and the name “Jiayuguan”, rather than Jiayuguan City, is more commonly used to refer to the pass at the extreme west end of the Great Wall of China. This section of the Great Wall is the most intact and the one least in need of restoration. It was a key stop on the Silk Road.

There was no lush flora and fauna like that of Mutianyu, but the Great Wall is always magnificent. “懸壁長城” [xuan bi chang cheng] is what locals call Jiayuguan. “懸壁” means “cliff” or “cliff-side”, and “長城” is the Great Wall. Locals call it Xuanbi because when you get to the top, a part of the wall is hanging over the Gobi desert. In deference to my agoraphobia, I climbed only 30 or so steps up the Great Wall and gave up. Too steep and too uneven: it would probably take me until sunset to get back down! But the Gobi would’ve been a sight to see from that high up.

We also went to the old Jiayuguan city fortress, which truly had one of the most amazing public restrooms I have ever seen in China. There was a restroom attendant. And soap. And free toilet paper. These things never happen! We spent a good amount of time walking on the walls, listening to the tour guide explain the history of Jiayuguan’s watchtowers and what not. “天下第一雄关” [tian xia di yi xong guan] means “the First and Greatest Pass Under Heaven”. Jiayuguan protects the West end of China–the most feared section of the Great Wall because people who were banished from China were forced to leave through Jiayuguan. Cast out into the desert to die.

Bian lian “變臉”, or face-changing, is the picture on the left. It’s part of Sichuan opera, and a very well-known ancient Chinese art. Performers can change the masks on their face faster than a blink, without using their hands, or hiding behind their cloaks, or anything. All of the performers in the martial arts show were just teenagers, so it was really impressive to see how disciplined they were.

Watching their performance was actually like seeing amateur Shaolin kung fu artists. Sword fights, martial arts, lion dances and crazy dudes being propped up on the points of spears half-naked. There was some pretty wild stuff in there.

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