Skylar, Johnny, and I traveled to Gansu Province in western China for the May 1 holiday, international labor day. Gansu is west of Shanxi, two provinces over, and the places where we’d traveled in Gansu almost felt like a separate country from eastern China. Most eastern China cities have become steel and concrete jungles, with plenty of western restaurants, foreigners, and import stores. Gansu is one of the more neglected children of China, and consequently, it has preserved much more of its virgin landscapes and historical relics from its prosperous Silk Road-era past. I once asked a tour guide in Pingyao, Shanxi Province, why some parts of China have so much traditional culture still standing, while most of Beijing resembles a pre-apocalyptic scene from The Matrix. (Pingyao is touted as the best-preserved Qing-era city in China, complete with city walls, old streets, and old (but retrofitted) architecture.)
“Because we are poor,” she responded. No one had moved in to develop the area because they just didn’t have money. “Sometimes it is good to be poor.”
Good for us that Gansu is poor. The cynic in me imagines a near future where legions of workers blow up the side of a mountain for rare earth metals because some gross man needs to buy a Louis Vuitton bag for his mistress. But for now, snow-capped mountains remain in central Gansu, the vast and encroaching Gobi desert sits to the north, high grasslands are in the southwest, and verdant forests flourish in the east.
The three of us were ecstatic to leave the daily grind of Shanxi. We rallied around the cry, “Gansu, baby,” which maybe was an Austin Powers reference. I don’t know where it came from. We’d eat a bowl of beef noodles, or we’d look at some amazing historical artifact, or we’d just make eye contact and croon, “Gansu, baby,” at each other.
The trip commenced with a 12+hour sleeper train ride from Taiyuan to Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu, a day-long layover in Lanzhou and a visit to the provincial museum, and then another overnight 12+ hour train ride to Dunhuang. Gansu is a long arm-shaped province, and the journey from Lanzhou to Dunhuang stretches from the elbow to the shoulder. From Lanzhou to Dunhuang, sleepers were sold out, so Johnny, Skylar, and I sat in a crammed yingzuo (hard seat) compartment for over 14 hours starting from around 8 p.m. Hard seats, with their lack of head support and personal space, are pretty intolerable for long trips. We kept our spirits up by playing cards and saying “Gansu, baby,” nonsensically to each other. When bedtime came, we took turns flopping on each others’ backs, and I discovered in the middle of the night that the little kid across from us was actually sleeping on the floor of the train. I had stretched out a leg and kicked something rather meaty. In the end I think we all got about 2 hours of sleep.
One of our main goals in Dunhuang was to see the Mogao Grottoes. The Mogao Grottoes are a sprawling set of hundreds of cave grottoes filled with frescoes and Buddhist sculptures dating from as early as the fourth century–a relic of Dunhuang’s importance along the Silk Road and the diaspora of Buddhism into China from India. Unfortunately for this blog, but fortunately for tourists and the preservation of culture, photography was prohibited in the grottoes. Even though only a few of the grottoes were open to tourists, what we saw was beyond words–not only was the sheer quantity and size of the sculptures and wall paintings impressive, this was art that had seen the influence of the earliest western cultural exchange, the prosperity of the Tang Dynasty, and the greed and insensitivity of 19th and 20th century imperialism. Many of the older sculptures of Buddha looked different like the Han-ified Buddhas I was used to from eastern China; these more resembled Indian Buddhas, our tour guide explained. A lot of the cave art had been stripped away and was on display somewhere in the West. “This wall chunk that is missing right here,” our tour guide said on numerous occasions, “is on display in the Harvard University such-and-such library,” or “Priceless Buddhist scriptures were found in this cave, but during political unrest at the beginning of the 20th century an uncultured citizen sold it to a British guy.” Gansu, baby.
Our Lonely Planet guidebook had told us that it was a bikeable 25 km to the grottoes. When we first arrived in Dunhuang, we’d rented bikes and found a hostel. We first passed out for several hours to recover from the train ride and then started making plans to bike instead of bus to the Mogao Grottoes the next day.
“Maybe if we’re fast we can make it there in less than an hour,” I said. “The road seems really flat.”
“I think we can make it there in an hour and a half,” Johnny said.
“I don’t know,” Skylar said. “These are mountain bikes. I think you’re thinking about the road bikes we usually ride in Taigu. Those bikes can go a lot faster than these.”
She was right–it took us two and a half hours to bike 25 kilometers there. (English unit conversion: we averaged little more than 6 mph.) The first half of the ride took us down a highway that was lined with trees, but you could feel the sand blowing in the air. We stopped at a gas station to buy water, and I took the opportunity to buy a towel, which I tied around my face to protect me from the sand. The second half of the ride was along picturesque, barren desert, a giant rolling sandbox with sporadic tufts of tumbleweed. But we’d left around 8 in the morning, so it was still early when we arrived at the grottoes. We walked around eating fistfuls of local raisins on the provided tour.
“It’s a little bit downhill on the way back,” I said hopefully to Johnny after our tour, as we walked back to our bikes. “I think we can definitely make it faster.”
Sometimes I am wrong about things.
The moment we left the Mogao parking lot, we were back to biking in the barren desert, and the wind began to pick up speed. I had never felt wind like that in my life. It was like the dementors were descending on Gansu. The air was yellow with swirling sand. It was only mid-afternoon, but it was dim enough to be twilight. I could barely see, but I had to squint to prevent sand from hitting me in the eyes. It wasn’t long until I completely lost sight of Johnny in front, with his sarong wrapped around his face and my backpack strapped to his back, and pretty soon I couldn’t see Skylar in her red hoodie, either. The wind whipped my hair about my face and kept trying to push my bike off the road, so I spent a lot of energy just trying to keep my bike straight. I wanted to stop, but I would have probably lost all faith and been blown away into a tree 20 kilometers away.
The sand kept shocking me as it struck my hands and face. It felt like I was constantly being pricked by needles. Silicon dioxide, I thought numbly to myself. It’s like glass. It made me remember suddenly my first-year undergraduate electricity & magnetism lab. Dan Stinebring, our professor, told us to rub a glass rod with a piece of rabbit fur to demonstrate electrostatic force. “All right, let’s rub this rod,” I’d said to my lab partner, Josh. Thus commenced a flood of penis jokes. We also had to dangle foil balls in that lab, and the rabbit fur looked like a carpet sample. I would have enjoyed writing the manual for that lab.
But I wasn’t laughing now. My body was being stripped of electrons by vengeful bits of glass rod, and I had too much sand in my mouth.
Cars and taxis would zip by, whipping even more sand at me. They would honk to alert me as they passed, headlights beaming, but I was terrified that the wind would blow me toward them, or that one of them wouldn’t see me. I could barely see them, and the wind was so loud that I could barely hear them as they sped by. I had no reflectors, no headlamp, just my stupid body on a goddamn mountain bike.
“This would be a really stupid way to die,” I thought to myself. “I bet my mom would think I was really fucking dumb for doing this.”
I kept pedaling and switching gears uselessly in hopes that the ride would get easier. I kept telling myself it would end soon. The sand granules in my eyes, the rhythmic electrostatic shocks against my bike, the terror of pedaling toward my sandy yellow death–it would be over soon, and maybe we could guzzle a couple ice-cold beers and China’s answer to a pulled pork sandwich, roujiamo?
“You’re a champion,” I said out loud and caught a mouthful of sand. “You’re a motherfucking champion!”
I kept repeating that meditatively to myself. I was a motherfucking champion, goddammit. I was fucking awesome. Hell yeah fuck yeah hell yeah. Nothing but me conquering this motherfucking sand. Shit, there’s a car.
After more than an hour in the sandstorm, we finally rounded the corner where the desert made way to trees. The wind slowed, so we all stopped to drink some water, and more importantly, to marvel collectively at our own stupidity. I took the towel off my face and felt present for the first time since leaving Mogao Grottoes. My entire body had been violated by sand. I had sand in my eyes, sand up my nose, sand in my mouth, sand in my ears, sand down my pants, sand in every cranny of my being. My hair even felt different; the sand granules in it made it feel crispier, like a giant potato chip crowning my head. Skylar and Johnny started laughing at me immediately.
“You look like a gongren,” Johnny said to me–I looked like an industrial worker. Happy International Labor Day. I couldn’t see myself, but I could feel the grit everywhere. I must have been sandier than both of them because they were only laughing at me. They had been wearing hoods in addition to covering their faces. I just had my fucking towel.
“Maybe this was stupid,” Skylar said as we fruitlessly shook sand off ourselves. “But I really feel like we experienced the desert.”
Thanks to Skylar, who took all of these photos. I broke my camera after getting too much sand in it.