Saturday, February 21, 2015

Beauty and Challenges in Zhangye

My decision to go to Zhangye was a risky one, I understood.  I knew nothing about the location itself, I had talked to no one who had been there and recommended it, and even the local Chinese I met didn't seem to be familiar with it at all.  I had seen photos of the Zhangye Danxia Landform on a few different lists of "unbelievable places that actually exist" - a range of small mountains with bright bands of colors - red and mustard yellow and even blue.  Being familiar with photo editing software capabilities, I was sure that the colors had been enhanced a bit, but even a more dull version of those photos seemed incredible.  I knew there was likely no reason for me to ever be in that part of the world again, so why not take a risk and try to see this incredible work of nature?  When I researched the location online, I also discovered there were some other amazing sights nearby - temples carved out of the sides of mountains - that could also make the visit worth it.  Unfortunately the reviews for the only hostel in town were dreadful, but I decided to take my chances.  

The trip started out on a down note when I rushed to my gate at the airport only to discover that the flight would be delayed an hour due to weather issues in Zhangye.  When we arrived in my wildcard destination, it was freezing outside (okay, it was in the 50s, but a huge departure from the tropical climates I had been visiting), and it was raining steadily.  I bundled up as best I could and caught a taxi to the only hostel in town, a YHA property.  The hostel was well outside the center of town, and I was somewhat horrified when I saw how cold and dingy the lobby was, and how many random men were hanging around inside smoking despite two no smoking signs.  Through the assistance of a random guest - no one working at the hostel spoke a word of English - I was taken to see a dorm.  It looked awful - dirty cement floors and hard-as-rocks beds with half disintegrating mats on them.  The common bathrooms were even worse - they were absolutely disgusting, and the staff made some excuse about how they didn't have time to clean them.  The one single room in the property wasn't terrible, so despite it costing a bit more than I would like (they refused to bargain at all) and it not having heat, I took it for some solace.  I emerged later for some food, finding a spot where I got a hot pot meal, but they dumped so many chilis on top that I could hardly eat it!

I had spotted exactly one foreigner in the hostel, a guy named Xavi from Spain, who had arranged to go out to the Danxia Landform the following morning with some Chinese girls.  Thankfully, they were happy to include me, and I found myself awake and bundled in as many layers as I could manage around 5:15 the next morning, well before sunrise.  We piled into a van - four Chinese girls who worked together in Shenzehn (and thankfully spoke some English), a Chinese guy named Chang, Xavi, and myself.  We stopped along the way for some very fresh warm bread and juice boxes of apple juice and soy milk mixed together for a quick breakfast, arriving just as the sky was beginning to lighten up.  We then piled into one of the park shuttle buses to be taken out to a lookout point where a handful of people were already perched.  We made it just in time to see the sun peak from the horizon, flooding the sky with pink light.  We stayed up there looking out over the horizon until the sun had fully made its presence known, gazing out over the rock formations opposite as the bits of striped color that make it so unique began to slowly come into view.

We decided to visit a few other lookout points first and return to this one towards the end of our visit, when the sun was higher in the sky and could better illuminate the brilliant colors.  We hopped aboard the shuttle, taking it to the 'first' stop, which had a number of small paths and viewing platforms flowing out from the drop off point.  We made our way up to the various viewing platforms, the rounded orange and white hills opposite the sun beautifully illuminated with the low light, while those to the east remained dark.  The Chinese girls took endless photos, posing dozens of times, recruiting myself and Xavi to join in when we were nearby.

At the next stop, we crossed a small hill and climbed way up to the top of the highest viewpoint in the park, with a stunning view of the hills in every direction.  We passed poorly translated signs all along the path, adding some humor to the climb.

Our next stop was one of the most stunning to me, while very simple.  A very small set of stairs led up to a small platform opposite a large single section of rock with sort of individual folds like rocky pleats at the bottom, each clearly striped with color.

Finally we returned to our sunrise stop, taking in the beautiful colors and the wide landscape in front of us now that the sun was up higher and illuminating those sections of rock that had been hidden before.  We crossed the small barrier (after a local did the same) to take a few quick photos atop a small ridge overlooking the painted valley to the right and the more green areas to the far left.

After seeing each of the stops, we returned once more to stop one, where we could now better see the painted hills on the eastern side of the platform, getting glimpses of some of our other stops far in the background.

Finally we regrouped and made our way back to our driver, loading up the little van and making the long drive back to town, where we immediately all went to lunch, gathering around a circular table in a little dining room at a small restaurant.  As we chatted, awaiting our food, I suddenly looked over to Xavi, who had gone totally pale, eyes rolled back as if he was having a seizure or passed out.  I jumped up and held his head and shoulders and tried to talk to him, and he came to shortly thereafter, sweating and looking ill.  He had passed out and felt sick to his stomach, but he said nothing like that had ever happened to him before.  Edna and I got him a sprite and got him back to the hostel to rest, but the rest of us were concerned and a little freaked out, not knowing what had happened.  Lunch itself was good - there was a chicken dish with noodles that was quite spicy, a really delicious bacony dish, and amazing eggplant and tomato dish that tasted like a ratatouille, and some green veggies and other small dishes.  It was really nice to have the Chinese girls there to order!

I wound up meeting the girls for dinner that evening as well, walking to a nearby spot with homemade noodles.  They made sure that nothing was too spicy for me, and it was all pretty tasty.  Unfortunately, both the girls and Xavi were leaving (he had recovered enough to catch his train and make it safely to his next destination), so I was back on my own in Zhangye.

Up early again, I ate breakfast at the hostel before meeting up with the hostel driver again, as well as two Chinese tourists who spoke very limited English, to venture out to Mati-Si.  After a long drive, we purchased tickets for the town itself and the famous grottos, driving through a beautiful green pine-covered valley, surrounded by tall hills, with prayer flags in pyramidal formations dotting the landscape.  Our first stop was a set of modern pagodas atop a small hill with a view of the famous north Mati-Si Grottos, our next stop.  Here, incredible temples had been carved directly into the soft stone.  First built in the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317-420), there were a number of rooms formed out of the impressive wall of rock before us.

We first entered the Standing Buddha Hall, which was a huge open space with a tall golden Buddha standing in the center.  Behind the figure, a u-shaped hallway was lined with seated Buddhas that had been smashed (one side was restored).

Next was Mati Temple, a small room to the far right where there is said to be a horseshoe imprint of the holy horse of King Gesar, a hero of Tibet, which lends the space its name (it translates to "horseshoe").

Finally, we entered the most expansive section in terms of the tunnels leading through the rock.  We climbed up one level, looking out the windows in the rock, which stood in front of individual rooms of figures.  The window areas themselves were mostly covered in colorful prayer flags, lending a low, colorful, but muted light to the space.  We crawled up higher, through a steep stone staircase up to another level that was laid out similarly, then finally up to a central space with almost no natural light, but a sectioned off wall of icons, a monk standing watch to ensure no photos were taken.  We stepped into another small adjacent room down a flight of stairs with one image and a massive yellow candle, then we turned and followed the path back the way we had come.  First up, then down and down and down the steep stone steps through the narrow passageways.

Finally back outside, we loaded into the van and drove a bit further up into the dark green valley.  Apparently horseback riding had been an option, but it was more "be led down a short path" than actual riding, so we declined, taking a walk up to a pasture area, past small restaurants and guesthouses where locals spoke the regional dialect and even looked different from the typical Chinese population I had encountered.  The guy in our group couldn't understand what they were saying, and he was surprised when I told him that we didn't have different regional languages in the US, only accents.  As we walked back to the car, I couldn't help but notice a number of other small pagodas carved into the rock high above us.

We returned to the car, making one last stop closer to the entrance at a smaller set of temples carved into the rock.  It didn't take us too long to explore, though to get up to one required some basic rock climbing maneuvers to chimney up a small space with the aid of some hand holds and a strategically placed wooden plank and metal bar to actually reach the room, which was furnished relatively simply, with a Buddha image and some small paintings.  We walked through the other small rooms built into the stone, some with offerings of incense or red ribbons, then left the complex, pausing briefly to check out a number of small pagodas carved into the rock, some decorated with tiny Buddha figurines, before climbing back into the van to return to Zhangye.

The ride back was odd, as we picked up random people here and there and dropped them off.  We didn't return until after 3, and having not had lunch, we went straight to the same restaurant where we had eaten lunch the day before.  Thankfully, this time I could order by pointing to a photo of our lunch spread from the previous day, getting a pork and eggplant dish, supplanted by a 'fungi' dish and some greens.  Since we had such a late lunch, I stuck to yogurt and a Snickers bar for dinner, not wanting to attempt to order anywhere on my own.  I was tired of this city, of not being able to speak to anyone or understand anything, of being cold, of not being able to order food, and I couldn't wait to leave the following day.  Little did I know what misadventures awaited me.

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