In China’s Land of Buddhas and Fortresses, Kindness Prevails

The afternoon after my dinner with Ms. Wei, I had boarded a 6.5 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 woman 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.

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 4.5 hours west of Jiayuguan, in the desert oasis of Dunhuang, and I never knew when I’d be this close to them again.