Fairy Tale Mountains: Zhangye Danxia Landform Geological Park: Day Three on the Silk Road

I am pretty sheltered, living in Beijing.  I live in a neighborhood that has a whole lot of expats living in it.  It is like Beijing’s version of Chinatown.  Laoweiville.  People are used to seeing foreigners all the time and DO NOT CARE.  I love that about Beijing.  There is no pandering, no one is trying to scam you.  They leave you alone to go about your business on the streets.

But we are not in Beijing anymore…  There had been a bit of warning.  Some staring and surreptitious photography in Xi’an (read more about our stop in Xi’an here) but in Zhangye, a city in Gansu Province in the Northwest of China, the gloves came off. 

Rainbow Moutains 
We spent the day at the Zhangye Danxia Landform Geological Park.  It was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2009 and covers about 200 square miles. Maybe you have seen pictures of them?  They are referred to as the Colored Mountain’s and the Rainbow Mountains.  I am not sure if the sun wasn’t hitting them right or if the photos that I have seen were photo shopped but they weren’t as bright as I expected. I read that the blues and greens really come out right after rain but the weather had been picture perfect for days so we were out of luck.  Darn you perfectly blue sky! Wait… They were still stunning and reminded me of the drive around the Badlands that I took with my husband and Grandmother last summer.  That same sort of feel. 

Cameras in our faces

There are four major sections and to prevent what I would imagine to be the world worst traffic jam you are only able to get to each in one of the steady stream of shuttle buses.  Getting on one was more difficult than anticipated because lines in China have only the vaguest suggested meaning. As we sat on the bus we could see a little girl pointing us out to her family.  It turned out that the when she got on the bus it was full and she had to sit with us.  You have never seen a child so excited by a seatmate.  I have never seen a child so excited and I am around hundreds of them every day and sometimes I have cookies.  She was 8 years old and there with her 12 year old brother and parents and grandparents and…pretty much every one of her family members.  We trudged up the first hill as she and her brother tried to speak with us in English (pretty successfully) and we tried to communicated in Chinese (that did not go so well) all the while her parents and grandparents were circling us and photographing us.  I think that it might be a bit like what being a celebrity is like.  Cameras in your face, people being weirdly excided by your presence, everyone noticing everything that you are doing ALL THE TIME.  At the top of the hill we took a family portrait.  Actually we took about 20.

A new routine

In some ways it because our new normal.  Someone was taking our picture every few seconds.  Sometimes they would ask.  Sometimes they would just shove the camera in your face.  There were the people who were subtle about it as we walked by and those that wanted to be.  I do however notice when a person walking in from of me is taking a “selfie” and ends up pointing the camera at me.  #IcanseeyourscreenBut you get used to it.  There are several hundred people that have random pictures of me in their vacation photo albums, however.

Something about Nature

Manmade wonders are all impressive.  They can touch on the history or the mindset of a culture.  They can highlight human ingenuity.  But when you bring things back to the natural world that is a whole different level. These hills are older than the Himalayas but caused by pretty much the same thing: India crashing into Asia. The colors can be seen in stripes that echo across the hills clearly highlighting the different mineral deposits that are the cause of the different colors. The landscape is Danxia made up of large boulders and steep cliffs together. This particular kind of landform is only found in China.

A Fairy Tale

While the masses of people (in Chinese it is a “mountain of people” instead of a “sea of people”) were slightly distracting once you get to a viewing space you are able to feel the isolation of the place.  It feels like a fairy tale.  A landscape that a young maiden would have to pass to fulfill her quest of bringing back golden peaches from the far side of the world to cure her father of a dread illness.  Not that I gave the mountains a backstory or anything.

Tomorrow we are on to Jia Ya Guan Fortress and the Western end of the Wall as we continue on the Silk Road (click here if you would like to read more about the start of the trip)

Does anyone think that I am being overly sensitive about the whole picture thing?

Two Sides of China

I feel that China demands to be taken on its own terms.  The longer that I live here the more that I come to realize just how impossible that it is to categorize China.

Take for example this weekend. We had four days off because of Mid-Autumn Festival. 

Stop one was a small eco village near the great wall.  We decided to rent one of the little houses that has been restored and remodeled to be fancy pants and pretty.  It ended up being way more room then we actually needed.  If we ever go again it will probably be with two or three other people.    But it was spectacular.  There was an indoor outdoor fireplace and a private green space.  I don’t usually notice how much time I spend indoors in Beijing.  I am pretty indoorsy (this may be one the single understatement of the century) naturally so generally I don’t mind.  But sitting outside on the grass reminded me that I haven’t done that since I was in the States in July.  The weather is finally starting to turn.  At the least it isn’t so hot that I am angry all the time anymore.  I need to make sure that this fall I put some effort into being outdoors before the air and the cold drive me back inside.

The village itself has a bunch of tourist running around and yet it still manages to feel like a normal small village in China.  I think that there has been some major efforts in preserving that feeling while making sure that the villager are able to take advantage of the money that tourist bring in.  We had a special harvest “feast” at one of the restaurants.  The specialization was hand pulled noodles (delicious) but there was some really interesting corn congee (with a very starchy sort of sweet corn) added, corn blinis and tiny little roasted chestnuts.  I have had roasted chestnuts before at the Christmas market in Germany but I was all excited to try them again.  Mostly because I had forgotten that they aren’t actually very good.  There were also dumplings and tiny dried plums to add to a  a sort of hot  Chinese brandy. 

We climbed the hidden wall the next day.  Or rather to the hidden wall.  The hidden wall refers to the parts of the Great Wall of China that have not been restored and are technically not open for visiting.  I am not going to lie.  The climb was a bitch and there were snakes.  Well one snake and a squirrel.  Also some spiders.  In the end it didn’t even matter because it was SO WORTH IT.  We were at the wall by ourselves and it felt a little bit as if we had time travelled.  If we were to do it again I would make sure that we could spend the day of there and take a picnic.  As it was we got there, took some pictures, tried to absorb the ambiance, and then had to get back to our house for our pickup.

This is one side of China.  The slow, relaxed China with 5000 years of history to take in.  This is the Wall and people selling you peaches on the street.  This might be closest to the idea of China that I had in my head before I came here.

The second half of our little jaunt was a mystery trip.  My husband enjoys planning them occasionally and as it means that I have no responsibilities other than showing up I am all for them.  Last month he had read an article about wine in China and found out that China’s largest vineyard (or largest something or other to do with wine as the vineyard itself wasn’t massive)

It is entirely possible that it was the tackiest place on Earth.  Obviously, I have not been everywhere on earth but this was pretty spectacular.  It was built in 2007 and modeled after small Italian/French winemaking villages.  Chintzy faux restoration décor? Check.  Village square complete with “church”? Check.  All the red wine in all the land?  Check.

This is primarily a Chinese tourist site.  Carsten and I were the only Westerners that we saw there the whole time.  Which lead to a whole lot of staring.  And pictures.  I am going to be in many a photo album labeled “That weird laowai couple we saw at the vineyard.” The people in Beijing are so used to foreigners that no one bothers to look at you on the street.  It is easy to forget that for much of the rest of China that is not the case.  The point is brought home when small children circle around three or four times to look at you again.

Speaking of children: There was a extraordinary amount of families with small children there. Am I missing an essential piece of parenting wisdom that says that two-year-old really love tours of wine cellars?  It doesn’t seem like the first place that I would think of to take toddlers but that was the majority of the other people there.  Add in to the mix about 50 couples taking wedding photos here, there, and everywhere and you got a rather dizzying experience.

We walked all around the vineyards and toured the Chateau and the wine cellar with the rest of the herds of tourists.  It felt a little like Disney land.  A sort of artificial and idealized version of something real.  We sort of wandered around in a daze of confusion, amusement, and relaxation.  It was a uniquely Chinese place.

The vineyard showed a second face of China.  But here are others.  If China is one thing it is complex.  I am looking forward to seeing how many sides of this country I can find.

Blue Sky Beijing

My start date at school this year (staff start not with students) was August 8th.  Which is annoyingly early but ensures the break in October and the break in February that I wouldn’t get in the States.  But since I have been back at school Beijing has had pretty much nothing but blue sky days. This is enough of a rarely that it has been included in every conversation that I have had in China for the last month.  “OMG!  The air is so beautiful.” Ect., ect., ect..

You hear so much about Beijing and it’s constant pollution.  When I am visiting the US or Germany and people find out that I am living in China it is one of the first things that they ask about.  After, “Why?” in that puzzled way that defies any kind of answer.  When you look up travel to China online the air almost invariable comes up. It is as if we think that the air is going to dissolve us down to our bones if we go out in it. 

Honestly, it was my number one concern before moving here.  I took the job in at the London fair and then spent the rest of my 30 minutes to sign forms (OMG so many) and ask about the pollution.  I was semi convinced that I was going to come down with black lung or something (I had chest and sines issue already.  Thanks allergies). 

The Summer Palace

But the pollution never turned into the huge deal that I imagined.  My husband and I (along with the rest of Beijing’s expats) downloaded an app that gives us the aqi as measured by the US embassy (which is sometimes slightly different that the Chinese reporting) and pretty much obsessively check it.  I check it when I am not in China just because I want to know what the air is like.  I am that obsessed.

And it really isn’t that constant.  It is linked to the weather and in winter when the coal heating makes it all the worse. I lived in Ulaanbataar, Mongolia which is actually the second most polluted air in the world behind Ahvaz, Iran. But I didn’t know that at the time.   I never gave a thought to the air while I was there.  Or nothing more than a passing thought.  Mostly, I was cold and I can remember being able to see the air pollution.  When I came home for Christmas the first time and opened my suitcase everything smelled of coal smoke.  I smelled of coal smoke.  It was so constant and pervasive in winter that I didn’t even notice it any more.  I notice it in Beijing because it rarely lasts more than a couple days before the wind shifts, the numbers drop and the sky turns a brilliant blue.

The Taj Mahal as seen through the pollution

The Taj Mahal as seen through the pollution

Interestingly enough it was when we visited India that I noticed the pollution having an effect on me.  The pollution in New Delhi is consistently higher than in Beijing and is also significantly skewed towards larger particle pollution.  I found that I felt a ton of pressure on my chest almost every time that we walked around in India.  This had never happened to me in China.  The worst that I have dealt with here (even in the highest pollution that I have experienced) was being able to taste the pollution and having my eyes burn a little.

We have masks.  My husband (who tends to be in charge of these things) spent a couple of weeks researching the different brands and styles.  We ended up with Vogmasks.  They filter 90% of the pollution, are reusable up to 80 times (you can tell when they need to be replaced. Ew.).  There is a disposable 3M one that filters 99% but they only last about three times and aren’t super comfortable.    Plus, Vogmasks have allowed my husband to indulge his inner child and but the monkey king pattern.  Because, why not?

When we moved out of the “serviced apartment” that the school had us housed in for our first two months here we had already bought two air purifiers.  The Swedish brand BluAir is the most common in Beijing and we bought two of them (one for our main living room and the other for our bedroom) even though they were pricey.  So pricey.  Did I really just pay 1500$ for that, pricey.  But I have found that it is worth it.  I am reasonably sure that the air in my apartment is as clean as I can get it and I am pretty sure that means that I am not getting sick as often.

My school also the BluAir filters.  One in every classroom.  Last year Beijing actually shut schools down (including mine) because of the air.  The interesting part about that is that the air actually wasn’t “that bad” or at least it wasn’t as compared to the year before.  My school has exerted so much time and effort this last year making sure that my work environment is never above an aqi of 10.  The bus that I take has an air filter on it.  This means that I spend about 95 percent of the time in air that is as clean as in the States or Germany.

Just something to keep in mind the next time you ask me, “Is the pollution really that bad?”

Disclaimer: My husband wants to make sure that all of you readers know that this information was from when he was researching after we first moved here and may be outdated.