The wall is visible along the ridge in the upper portion of the photo
Some of you who have been following us since last summer may remember our post Rough Country, which was about loess, the fine-grained, fertile soil that’s also highly erodible and hell on hikers. Well, we might have thought that the edge of the loess plateau in east-central Gansu was rough country at the time we hiked it, but when we think back on those little bumps and ditches now, all we can do is wish we had it so good.
I’ve a feeling we’re not in Gansu anymore
From the town of Anbian, in western Shaanxi, the wall dips south from the Ordos region and heads straight into the heart of the loess plateau. In general terms the area’s not that much different from the hill-and-canyon country we hiked through in early August, but the scale certainly is. The hills we hiked in Gansu were tiny compared to the mountains south of Anbian, which rise to 1750 metres and higher, while the Shaanxi’s canyons plunge far deeper than Gansu’s, to below 1400 metres.
None of this would be so bad – it’s only 300 metres up the peak and 300 metres back down to the valley – except you have to do it about four or five times a day, going both ways. When you can find anything like a usable path, that is. We’re not exactly daredevil types, and where there are cliffs so steep that goats fear to tread, you’re not going to find us pushing forward. When the going gets tough, we detour around the cliff, so the loess canyons added quite a few kilometres to our journey.
Up and down . . .
and up . . .
The larger scale did make for some lovely agricultural valleys though, and they must be very pretty in spring and summer. And the fertility of these valleys meant that the villages of cave dwellings, unlike those in Gansu, were still inhabited.
This home, complete with TV aerial, is actually built into the side of the wall
Shaanxi is well known for its cave dwellings, and millions of people in Shaanxi (an estimated 40 million in China on the whole) live in homes built into the earth. However, the term cave dwelling, while accurate, doesn’t really convey what these homes are like. Most have brick facades with elaborate latticework around the windows. They are cool in summer, warm and light in winter (they always face south), and reasonably spacious inside.
Outside the home of Mr Liu and his son
A single-family home might have three rooms, each measuring about 7 by 4 metres with an arched ceiling about 3 metres high. Typically, the main entrance opens to a common living space, with a couch or two facing a coffee table and a large cabinet holding photographs and family mementos. To one side of the common room, connected by a short hallway, is a bedroom. To the other side is a kitchen/bedroom oriented around a brick stove that is fueled by corn cobs, dried corn stalks, or more rarely, coal. Toward the back of this room, large urns holding water and grains are lined along the wall. In the front, under the window, there is a kang, a large (2 x 3 metre) brick platform bed that is heated by the stove exhaust, which is routed under the kang before going up the chimney. Cats love kangs.
The kitchen area of a cave dwelling
A family replenishing their water urns from the canyon stream
Loess is not an unmixed blessing, however. While it may be fertile and a great building material, it also erodes easily – by wind, by water, and under the hooves of millions of sheep and goats (not to mention human feet) over the years. Together with poor land management, these forces have meant that the loess plateau erodes like nowhere else on earth, and causes myriad environmental problems – massive sediment loads in the Yellow River, resulting in raised riverbeds and catastrophic flooding along the lower river; gullying and loss of arable land in the uplands, and windblown dust that can diminish visibility to virtually nothing as far away as Beijing.
The national government and international aid agencies have responded with dozens of soil conservation and ecological restoration programs. China’s Loess Plateau Watershed Rehabilitation Project was funded by the World Bank from 1994 to 2002 to slow soil erosion over approximately 1.5 million acres of land within the Yellow River basin via terracing, forestation and restricting grazing. Further north, China’s own Great Green Wall project will create a 9 million hectare, 3500 kilometre band of forest across the northern provinces designed to halt desertification, slow soil erosion and prevent the spring dust storms that currently plague northern China.
A Green Great Wall project north of Yulin
The Green Great Wall logo
Though it is too early to know whether these programs will actually slow erosion significantly, they have successfully restored ground cover to millions of degraded hectares. As we travel through Green Great Wall project areas, it’s apparent that bird life is more extensive and diverse than in the surrounding rangeland, even though the project areas resemble tree farms far more than functioning forests. However, it also appears that occasionally reforestation may have been carried out a bit too enthusiastically. In some places, trees have been planted right up to the base of the actual Great Wall, and even within the walls surrounding beacon towers. It seems likely that as these trees mature, their root systems will encroach upon and damage the wall itself.
A beacon tower crowded by pines