Trip Log for June 8-30 Is Up!

Need a break from pretty pictures and feel-good stories? Head over to the Trip Log, where we have the cold, hard numbers – no fuss, no frills.

The Trip Log presents a day-by-day account of our trip in numerical form – our daily latitude/longitude coordinates, kilometres walked, elevation gain and lost. If you like maps, you can use the latitude/longitude coordinates to follow us on Google Earth or Google Earth Plus (instructions on the Trip Log page).

As of June 30, we had walked 388.752 kilometres: 151.507 on the wall and 237.245 off the wall. That pace is a bit too slow for us to finish at a reasonable time, but when the backpack breakdown is taken into account it’s not too bad.

A few cool things about June. In Google Earth Plus, you can see Jiayuguan Fort (see “The Strongest Fortress Under Heaven” ) very clearly; entering 39° 48’ 05.28” N, 98° 12’ 57.59” E will put you right in the middle of the fort. You can also see the wall very clearly at our June 9 campsite at 39° 52’ 46.09” N, 98° 18’ 48.02” E.

In Search of the Blonde-Haired, Blue-Eyed Chinese

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A mock temple commemorating the history of the lost Romans of Yongchang County

We weren’t sure if it was a vicious rumour or a thrilling, little-known secret. Could there really be a whole village of blonde-haired, blue-eyed Chinese in Yongchang County in Gansu, descendants of Romans who settled in the area?

In 2005, Xinhua published an article, “Romans in China stir up controversy,” detailing the supposed history of ancient Romans settling in this part of Gansu. In a 1957 book, Homer Hasenflug Dubs, professor of Chinese history at Oxford University, argued that some Roman prisoners taken by the Parthians in 53 BC eventually made their way east to China, where they took up arms against the Han Dynasty and ultimately settled permanently near Yongchang. According to Xinhua, there is scientific work being done to establish a DNA link between villagers in the area and the “Romans,” but so far as we’re aware no results have been reported.

Yet rumours still circulate of curly, blonde-haired Chinese with aquiline noses in one particular mountain village called Liqian.

We thought the tales were at best an exaggeration, at worst Gansu’s version of the Bermuda Triangle. But we had a day off in Wuwei (a mere two-hour drive away) and decided we wouldn’t forgive ourselves if we let this opportunity slip by.

After two attempts at finding a driver (we ditched our first one because his car was too noisy), we then had to try to explain to him and his friend, in our best Chinese, that we wanted to go to a village about 20 kms south of Yongchang. Did we know the name? Well, we knew the ancient name. Did we know any more about how to get there? No. What did we want to do when we got there? Drive around then go back to Wuwei.

Finally: Is there something distinctive about this place? We told the driver about the rumours and the ancient Roman ruins. Aha, he had also heard about it! He opened his mobile phone and made a few calls, stopped at a few roadside fruit stalls to ask directions, spoke to a group of men playing chess on the footpath, and finally found the southbound road that we were to take.

But first he drove us by the town of Yongchang. There, close to the centre, were three huge statues, one obviously of a Roman man. The trail heats up.

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Well, honey, that guy on the right sure looks like a Roman

When we got to the village of Liqian, our driver found a village elder who took us to some recently discovered ruins that one group of archeologists believed to belong to Romans, though this theory has its detractors.

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Could these ruins be the foundations of a lost Roman city?

Then he took us to a plaque housed within a temple (recently constructed) of slightly Doric-looking columns, telling the story of how a group of Romans were captured by the Chinese 2000 years ago and subsequently settled in this part of China (see the picture at the top of this post).

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A group of students turned up while we were there, but they seemed more interested in hamming it up for the camera than the history of the area

Though we searched and looked and asked for any local villagers with blonde hair, we didn’t see any and we weren’t shown any. It seems hard to believe that after 2000 years, Roman characteristics could still be evident on the faces of the local people. But you never know what they’re hiding under those hats.

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Yan Zheng Qiang (centre) and friends, Liqian village

Xiakou

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A rainbow above Xiakou

On a six-month walking trip, there are days when it all comes together – everyone you meet is friendly and helpful, the path is clear and your footing good, and you know that when you look back in the future that day will seem bathed in golden sunlight. On other days the stormclouds gather, every “Ni hao” you shout out is met with stony silence, and you wonder how you’ll do this for another four months.

And there are days like Xiakou – a little bit of both. We began the day by being outrageously overcharged for our cab ride back to the wall from Brendan’s kidney stone misadventure. Somehow, we stupidly forgot a simple rule that every tourist to China (except us) has down by the third day: never, ever, EVER hop in an unmetered taxi without negotiating a price first.

The fun continued with a tedious trudge through clumpy abandoned fields and a pointless two-hour, five-kilometre detour to refill our water bags that could have been avoided if we’d continued on the wall another 45 minutes. By the time we reached Xiakou’s city wall, nary a smile crossed Emma’s sunburnt face.

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The entrance to Xiakou

Xiakou was a small but important fort, communications station and grain storage depot on the old Silk Road. The contemporary village directly abuts the wall’s south side, and is bounded on the west by the simple gate pictured above, and on the east by a more elaborate gate.

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Xiakou’s eastern gate, built in 1574

The town doesn’t seem such an important place now. Vehicle access is over a dirt road and the buildings are mostly single-storey adobe brick. There are a few empty plots of overgrown vegetation and the two or three people we did see stayed well away from us. But the eastern gate is far and away the best example of a small-village fortification we’ve seen – structurally sound and with what look like original murals on the interior and an unrestored sign above the entrance.

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Read right to left, the sign says “Wei zhen qiankun” (roughly, mightiest garrison in heaven and earth)

Though we got to Xiakou at about 6 pm, accommodation in town wasn’t going to be an option. So we walked through the gate and towards the wall, reaching the first serious hills of the trip. We climbed a few hundred feet and made camp in a small meadow as a beautiful sunset broke through the dull grey. At the same time, a few drops of rain in the distance gave us our first rainbow. This is what it’s like to walk the wall – one hour of beautiful light can make eight hours of painful walking seem worth it.

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Sunlit wall fragment

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Looking down on Xiakou in morning light, with the wall stretching across the plain

Re-entering the Blogosphere

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Mei you internet (translation: we don’t have internet)

We’ve been beyond the range of China Unicom’s wireless internet service for about the last 10 days, in what we think is probably a taste of things to come for the next month.

As a result, we’ve been forced to change our usual practice of putting up no more than one post a day. From now on, we’ll be posting in clumps whenever we have internet access.

So be sure to scroll down whenever you see a new post to look for additional new posts, and read from bottom to top in good blog fashion. You wouldn’t want to miss any action photos of Emma now, would you?

Wallflowers

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I couldn’t resist this heading when I thought of it. The moment went something like this:

We were walking along the wall around Xia’anmen. All around were fields of sunflowers, wheat and corn when I noticed a small group of wildflowers at our feet.

Me: “You know, there are so many flowers out now we really should write something about them.”

Brendan: “Yeah.”

Silence.

Me: “Hey, we could put photos up on the blog and call it Wallflowers.”

Brendan rolls his eyes. Flowers schmowers. He gives in and we take off our packs and pull out our cameras.

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Wildflowers are relegated to second place in the Gansu Corridor. In the heavily irrigated stretch of land bordered by rugged mountains and deserts, sunflowers, watermelon and corn have, for hundreds of years, pushed the delicate wildflowers to the edges of the fields.

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But the distance between the populated, agricultural areas and the desert is sometimes only a matter of feet. It is in this small area that we find the wildflowers, nowhere near as abundant as the crops, but a lot more colourful when you get down on your stomach and look at them.

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Of course, not all the flowers we’ve seen are wild, and not all are at field’s edge. We’re not sure, but we think the flowers shown below are harvested for use in dyes.

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And because sunflowers are so beautiful, we couldn’t let this photo go by without a showing. Or maybe it’s because the sunflower is the state flower of the mighty state of Kansas, we forget which.

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Sorry New South Welshpersons, no waratahs out here