Category Archives: Gansu

Amdo Art China Gansu Tibet

Tibetan Briefcase Art



The below is a collection of Tibetan book-holders. I took the photos where they were hung and stacked in the entry-way of the main prayer hall of rGan Gya dGon Pa, on the plateau north of Labrang, while bumping around on a fortressologizing trip with my dad this summer. Afterwards I spent a long time looking to buy one in various places. They are hard to find now, and good ones have to be commissioned specially from craftsmen. The best ones here have been individually hand painted on each panel, and the wooden frame enameled with silver. Other than rGan Gya, where it seemed that every monk had one, I have not seen them in common use elsewhere.

These things are called by are different names in different places. In Labrang they are called Shog Bu Ba Li, in Rebgong they are called Lag Shing, and in Lhasa-dialect they are Shing Leb. Tibetan books (dPe Cha) are long, flat, and loose-leafed. The idea is that you bind the book with cloth, press them between these two boards, and bind the whole thing tight with a cord. I think they are an eminently lovely way to carry your books around.




























China Gansu Inner Mongolia Photos Qinghai

A Shout-Out for a Friend


Above: Our camel, Subutai the Magnificent, resting on the grasslands in the Qilian Mountains

This is super after-the-fact, but I thought I’d put up a link here to my friend Adam Rouhana’s photo site, Among other things, this has got pictures from a walking trip we made from Lanzhou-ish to Dunhuang in the summer of 2014, partially in company of an extremely truculent camel that we bought in Alashan. The trip went Jingtai 景泰 – dPa Ris / Tianzhu 天祝 – Wuwei 武威 – Minle 民樂 – Zhangye 張掖 – Alashan Right Banner 阿拉善右旗 – Sunan 肅南 – Qilian 祁連 – Yumen 玉門 – Dunhuang 敦煌. I think Adam’s pictures at their best really get to the austere weirdness of rural west China, whether it’s camel-wrangling in the Gobi desert or the surreal lives of the petite-bourgeoisie in boom-town county-level Communist Gansu. Not many people genuinely attempt to see that world in all it’s weird glory, and in that sense I think these photos are actually something quite rare.

There’s also awesome photos from Morocco, the US, Palestine, and other places. So, you should check it out. Here are some of my favorite China pictures. All photos copyright Adam Rouhana, etc.:







Click here for more!

Art China Gansu Tibet

The Great Monlam at Labrang

tiger in the crowd at hoincang


the masked procession

I’ve spent the last month holed up in a house outside of Labrang monastery, Tibet, studying Amdo-dialect, huddling by the stove, and feeding two cats. The house belongs to a Canadian woman named Tenzin Dolma and her husband Choejor, from Ngawa. Tenzin Dolma spent ten years at the Gomang Dratsang in Karnataka and now runs a thangka painting school here in Labrang. She has gone back to Canada for a little during the Tibetan New Years, and I am cat-sitting.

One of the big events of the Great Monlam (smon lam chen po) prayer festival at Labrang is the unveiling of the butter offerings (me tog mchod pa) in front of the main assembly hall of the monastery. Each of these offerings is presented by one of the six monastic colleges (grwa tshang), and the contents of the offering represent the specialty of that college. The offerings are traditionally viewed at night; starting at six in the evening and continuing into the early hours of the morning, a massive line of pilgrims snakes around Labrang monastery. Many pilgrims will wait four or five hours for the chance to process beneath the butter sculptures and make a quick obesience before being pushed onward.

So I took pictures of them all (you can get into the square behind without waiting in line) and then ran them all by my Tibetan teacher, a monk named Lobsang Choedrak, to find out who everyone in the sculptures was. This type of thing is useful for me to do, since my Tibetan is terrible and I often don’t know the Tibetan names or iconographies of even the most basic deities. The placement of the offerings is also interestingly symbolic of the intellectual ordering of the Tibetan sciences. In the center, directly in front of the gates of the hall, are two offerings representing the college of philosophy (thos bsam gling). Flanking this on either side are the upper and lower schools (rgyud stod smad), and on the outside, physically and intellectually, are the offerings of the Medicine College (sman pa grwa tshang) and the Kalachakra College (dus ‘khor grwa tshang). A recurring figure is the various incarnations of the Kunkhyen Lama (kun mkhyen rin po che; the Treasury of Lives refers to this line as the Jamyang Zheba), which is the main line of trulkus at Labrang monastery. I’ve got a lot of help from wikipedia, the Treasury of Lives biographical database, and obviously my teacher, Lobsang Choedrak. Here they are:

metok front


1) The College of the Wheel of Time:

(dus ‘khor grwa tshang): This college specializes in Kalachakra and astrology. It is famous for having designed the calendar now in use in this part of Amdo.

dus 'khor

rigs rdan drag po

rigs ldan drag po detail

Lower: Kalki Raudra (rigs ldan drag po), the “Fierce Destroyer” in Sanskrit, or in Tibetan, the “Fierce Holder of the Lineages”. The legendary twenty-fifth and last ruler of Shambhala who will ride out to destroy the infidels at the end of the world.

kun mkhyen gnyis pa

Upper: The second Kunkhyen, Jigme Wangbo (kun mkhyen sku phreng gnyis pa ‘jigs med dbang bo).


2) The Upper Tantric College:

(rgyud stod grwa tshang).

rgyud stod grwa tshang

jo'i sku

Lower: The Buddha Sakyamuni, aged twelve, seated on a lotus (lo mju gnyis na tshod can gyi jo bo rin po che’i sku) This image is a copy of the one that sits in the Jokhang Temple at the center of Lhasa.

kun mkhyen lnga wa

Middle: The fifth Kunkhyen Lama, Tanpa’i Gyaltsen (kun mkhyen sku phreng lnga ba bstan pa’i rgyal mtshan), flanked by Chinese-style dragons. This Kunkhyen was the one who established the Upper Tantric school in 1941.

tshe dpag med

Upper: Amitayus (tshe dpag med), the Buddha of Infinite Longevity. This is an obscure form of Amitabha (od dpag med), the Buddha of Infinite Light and the ruler of the Western Pure-Land Sukhavati (bde wa can).


3) Hevajra College:

(kyai [kyee] rdor grwa tshang). Hevajra is a tantric Yidam.

kyai rdor grwa tshang

tsi dmar chos sku detail

tsi dmar chos sku

Lower: The Red Pith (tsi’u dmar po), the Dharma-Defender of Samye Monastery. Also known as Nochin Chenpo (gnod sbyin chen po), “The Great Demon”. This deity is obscure; there’s a Florida State University PhD dissertation by Christopher Paul Bell on the topic.

kun mkhyen bzhi wa

Middle: The Fourth Kunkhyen, Tharto Gyatso (kun mkhyen sku phreng bzhi wa thar ‘dod rgya mtsho). The fourth Kunkhyen established the Hevajra college in 1879.

mgon po he ru ka

Upper: Tromgon Heruka, the Protector of the Trom Clan, Drinker of Blood (‘brom mgon he ru ka). I’ve not been able to find out any information about this deity.


4) The Academy of Study and Reflection: (1) (thos bsam gling).

The Academy of Study and Reflection is the central, oldest, and largest college of Labrang monastery. Thus instead of one butter sculpture it has two, placed directly in front of the assembly hall doors. The college specializes in the study of philosophy and debating.

thos bsam gling 1

kun mkhyen tang po

Lower: Je Tsongkhapa (rje tsong kha pa), the founder of the Gelug sect, seated in a palace. Seated beneath him are two of his main disciples, on the left Gyeltsabje (rgyal tshab rje) and on the right Khedrubje (mkhas grub rje). Beneath him is Mahakala (mgon po), the principle protector of the Gelug sect, and around him four Indian masters. Together with the four represented on the second sculpture of the Academy of Study and Reflection, they reflect the “Six Ornaments and Two Supreme Ones” (rgyan drug mchok gnyis). Clockwise from the upper left, they are: Nagarjuna (glu sgrub), Vasubandhu (dbyig gnyen), Asanga (thogs med), and Shakyaprabha (Sha’ kya ‘od)

'jam dbyangs dmar ser

Middle: Red-Yellow Manjushri (‘jam dbyang dmar ser). Seated on a lotus throne holding up a sword to cut through ignorance; on his right is the Mahaprajnaparamita Sutra floating on a lotus.

sdon pa sakyamuni

Upper: The Buddha Sakyamuni (ston pa / sha kya thub pa)


5) The Academy of Study and Reflection (2) (thos bsam gling):



Lower: The First Kunkhyen Lama or Jamyang Zheba  (kun mkhyen tang po or ‘jam dbyangs bzhad pa). The first Kunkhyen Lama was a Gelug monk who founded Labrang monastery in 1708 or 1709. There is a legend which states that when he arrived in Lhasa for the first time in 1668, he presented a white scarf to the statue of Manjushri in the Jokhang temple. The statue smiled at him, and hence his name: “Jamyang Sheba” “He upon who Manjushri smiled”. Underneath him is the oracular protective spirit Nechung (gnas chung), also called Dorje Drakden and Pehar Gyalpo. Around him is a lineage of early Indian masters. Together with the four represented on the first sculpture of the Academy of Study and Reflection, they reflect the “Six Ornaments and Two Supreme Ones” (rgyan drug mchok gnyis). Clockwise from the upper left, they are: Dharmakirti (chos grags pa), Dignana (phyogs glang), Aryaveda (‘phags pa lha), and Gunaprabha (yon tan ‘od).


Middle: White Manjushri (‘jam dbyangs dkar po).


Upper: Amitayus, the Buddha of Infinite Life (tshe dpag med).


6) The Lower Tantric College (rgyud smad grwa tshang)

rgyud smad grwa tshang

'jam dbyangs bzhad pa sku brang tang po

Lower: Je Sherab Sengge (rje shes rab seng+ge). Sherab Sengge was a disciple of Tsongkhapa, who in 1433 founded the Geluk sect’s first tantric college in Lhasa. After a second one was founded in 1475, this became known as the “lower” (sman) college.

rgyal ba rdo rje 'tshang

Upper: King Vajradhara (rgyal ba rdo rje ‘chang), the “Thunderbolt-Bearer.” Vajradhara is the ultimate primordial Buddha in the Geluk and Nyingma sects.


7) The Medicine College: (sman pa grwa tshang)

sman pa grwa tshang

gtsang rgan ye shes bzang bo

Tsangmen Yeshe Zangbo (gtsang sman ye shes bzang bo), who doesn’t appear in the Treasury of Lives that I can find, but according to my monkish informants was an old teacher in the Medicine College.

kun mkhyen gsum ba

Middle: The Third Kunkhyen, Jigme Gyatso (kun mkhyen sku phreng gsum pa ‘jigs med rgya mtsho). I’m not sure if this Kunkhyen had any particular relationship to the medicine college or not; it’s not mentioned in his Treasury of Lives article.

sman lha

Upper: The Medicine Buddha, Bhaisajyaguru (sman lha or sangs rgyas sman bla). He sits cross-legged, holding a jar of medicine.

So that’s that. Just for fun, here’s the rest of the pictures I took during the Cham dances and processions after. Under normal circumstances I wouldn’t take pictures of this stuff but the scene was too wild and strange to pass up…

the procession moving through the monastery (3)

monks walking with drums (1)

on a back street in Labrang

soldiers lining the procession way out of the main square (1)


China Fortresses Gansu Qinghai Tibet

Out of Tibet

Sorry for the long hiatus in posts; it’s become increasingly hard to get online in China these days, and I figured I’d just let the blog sit for the moment. Right at the moment typing out long-form diaries seems kind of exhausting, and I don’t know who’d actually read it anyway, so I’m just going to tap up some pictures from the first part of the trek here, and then type up some other things in more detail in later posts. These pictures are from my slow and generally very pleasant walk down from Tibet (starting at Labrang) to eventually arrive by many valleys, passes, and peoples and fortresses in the loess lowlands of Ningxia.

Sangja over the Sangke Grasslands, Sangchu, Amdo

My friend Sengge Drashi overlooking the Sangke grasslands and the fortress there. The origins of the fortress, which guards the approach to Labrang from the south, is a mystery, and even the nomads who live there now do not know who built it.

Sangja and the White Cliffs of Ganjia, Sangchu, Amdo

The Bajiao Fortress, near Xiahe, Gansu

Two views of the white cliffs of Ganjia (Ganjia Drakkar), and beneath it the Swastika Fortress (Tb. Yungdrung Kar, chn. 八角城 “The Eight-Point Fort”), near Sangchu. The origins of the Swastika Fortress (in actuality, it’s shaped like a cross) are unknown.

Old men near Ri'ngon village, Sangchu, Amdo

Shongpongji Village, Rebgong, Amdo

On the road to Rebgong, at Ri’ngon Village and Shongpongji.

Iron Fort Mountain over Bao'an Village, Rebgong, Qinghai

The valley of Rebgong is famous for the Rongwo monastery and the artistic communities surrounding it, but it also contains a fascinating collection of fortresses. Pictured here is the ‘Iron Fort Mountain’ 铁城山, which overlooks the northern entrance into the Rebgong valley and the ‘Protecting the Peace Fort’ 保安城 beneath it.

These two forts and the third ‘New Fort’ 新城 nearby are a classic example of the development of Chinese frontier fortress building. I got a nice tour from local octogenarian and former history teacher Feng Yuzhi 冯育廌, who’s a spry, interesting dude, born in 1935, and from whom I’m getting all this information. The mountainside redoubt of the ‘Iron Fort’ was built in the Hongwu reign (1368-1398) of the early Ming, when the Mongols had just been defeated, control over the frontiers was still shaky, and fortress building had not yet been standardized. Now it’s just tumbled walls snaking up and down the hills, and looks far more Tibetan than Chinese. The second, larger fortress of Protecting the Peace City, was built in the Wanli reign (1572-1620) during the ceremoniously declining years of the Ming, and contains the whole pomp and apparatus of the Ming state: Massive square walls built on the plain, a Temple of the Martial Emperor, a Temple of Walls and Moats, and a large Yamen, all of which remain more or less intact. As Feng Yuzhi relates it, back in his day, this was Rebgong: Protecting the Peace was a large, colonial administrative town, while the present Rebgong City was just a small Tibetan village surrounding Rongwo monastery. The present population of the town, which is mostly Chinese, dates apparently to the period directly after the Taiping Rebellion, when soldiers where settled here from all over the empire.

In order to handle this inflow of population, in 1911 a third fortress was built some ways up the valley, known as the ‘New Fort Village’ 新城村. This third fortress is in some ways the most interesting of the three, since it’s one of very few surviving examples of late Qing (only one year before the start of the republic!) fortress building. It’s palpably evident that by this time the strict forms of high Ming fort-building had become atrophied, but this small community of Chinese settlers facing the Tibetan frontier still felt the almost ceremonial need to wall themselves up. The back walls of the New Fort are only about chest height, but each corner of the fort is marked by tall, narrow watchtowers from which flags can be hung, and from which you can see over the treetops to the much larger Protecting the Peace Fort down the valley. These watchtowers are quite unique; I’ve never seen anything like them in other Chinese forts.

Both the Protecting the Peace Fort and the New Fort have become victim to various rural improvement schemes lately. The Protecting the Peace Fort has had all its walls painted blue and been covered by curious faux ‘rural’ sculptures emblazened with the logo of the Agricultural Bank of China, while the New Fort during my visit was renovating itself to become a ‘model village’ 示范村, re-plastering all the houses, hanging up placards, paving its roads, etc.

Street in Nyantok Village, Rebgong

Two doors on the street of the Nyantok Fortress, in the valley of Rebgong. This is one of the few existing Tibetan village fortresses, along with Gomar Fort nearby. The fort is a fascinating hybrid of China and Tibet – the ceremonial “door protecting” 守门 “golden lions” 金狮 are standard on Chinese doors, as are the vertically hung good-luck charms – except the charms are written in Tibetan. The barley stalks hung over the doorways are another feature particular to this area; I never quite got around to asking what they meant.

The main street of Gomar Village, Rebgong

View from the main gate into the streets of Gomar Fortress. Gomar is the best preserved Tibetan fort in the Rebgong valley. The square, cardinally oriented fortress walls themselves are obviously modeled on the Chinese forts further down the valley, but the winding maze of narrow streets inside is purely Tibetan. It’s also interesting to note that while Nyantok and Gomar Fors are mostly Tibetan, the villages directly facing it across the valley, Upper and Lower Wutun 上下吾屯, are officially registered as Monguor (Tu), and possess their own creole language of Chinese, Tibetan, and Mongol, spoken by a few thousand people.

The Lhawa Rinchen Jam in Nyantok Village, Rebgong

Here is the shaman Rinchen Jam on the streets of Nyantok Fort. Rinchen Jam is a thangka painter as a day job and a lhawa, or “god-man”, for special occasions. He was chosen to be possessed by the gods by a council of the elder lamas at Rongwo several years back, and while he is generally an extremely friendly guy, he’s reticent about this, because as he put it, “it’s not something he can exactly explain in a few words, and it’s something of a difficult issue.” He and his friend were nice enough to pick me of the street in Nyantok Fort and invite me to a shamanistic ceremony.

Washing an idol in Nyantok village, Rebgong

After the god has possessed Rinchen Jam, he begins to shake and froth and leads litter-bearers of the god’s image and its procession down to a spring to be washed, all the while banging a drum emblazened with chintamani jewels. The god itself is a fascinating example of the Sino-Tibetan eclecticism of the whole Rebgong Valley. The door plaque on the temple lists the diety therein, in Tibetan, as the “Incarnated Spirit Go’u mo (?) Mountain Elephant” (srid pa’i lha gnyan go’u mo ri lang). The Chinese next to it puts the inhabitant of the temple as the Spirit Erlang (二郎神), a popular Daoist diety. The Tibetans hold that the entire mountain behind Rebgong is in the shape of an auspicious elephant, and that this particular temple sits on a spur behind Nyantok Fort which represents the elephant’s trunk. But Tibetan ri-lang (“mountain elephant”) has been misinterpreted here into Chinese er-lang, the name of a god. The Tibetans are aware of the mis-translation but do not seem concerned. Rather, in good Chinese (but not at all Tibetan) folk-religion style, they are making alcohol offerings and processing the god out into the streets of the village to meet local officials.

Processing the god through the streets of Nyantok Village, Rebgong, Gansu

At the end of the ceremony, the god is processed through the narrow streets of the villages surrounding Nyantok Fort and into houses of three village notables, including finally the headman of the old Mongol chiliarchy, and then rests there for a few days, after which more ceremonies commence, although I did not witness them.

Dancers at the Leru Festival in Rongwo Monastery, Rebgong, Qinghai

Dancers at the Leru Festival in Rongwo Monastery, Rebgong, Qinghai

Dancers at the Leru Festival at Rongwo Monastery

Dancers at the Leru Festival in Rongwo Monastery, Rebgong, Qinghai

Dancers at the Leru Festival at Rongwo Monastery

Dancers at the Leru Festival at Rongwo Monastery

Dancers at the Leru Festival at Rongwo Monastery

Dancers at the Leru Festival at Rongwo Monastery

Meanwhile the main part of something called the Leru Festival was taking place at Rongwo monastery in Rebgong town itself. I have to admit that I haven’t the faintest idea what the whole thing was about. Sometimes these festivals contain a displays of body piercing but I did not see any here.

Boy Monk in Dantuk Monastery, Xunhua, Qinghai

Boy Monk in Dantuk Monastery, Xunhua, Qinghai

Boy monk at Da’nduk monastery. There’s an interesting article about this place on Sam Van Schaik’s Early Tibet blog, in which he renders the name dan tig (in wylie romanization) and proceeds to derive it from a Sanskrit mountain named Dandaka, via Chinese Mount Tanta 檀特山. He’s deriving his argument from Dunhuang sources, which is beyond my abilities, but he doesn’t point out that there’s a widely repeated local etymology for the name. The locals write it (in wylie) da ‘dug, which has more or less the same pronunciation in Amdo dialect as dan tig, eg. something like “Da’ndukh”.

The story behind this, as told to me by locals and again by the abbot of the monastery, one Ngawang Soba, was that the famous monk-assassin Lhalung Pelgyi Dorje had used the remote cave-temples of Da’nduk as a hideout after shooting the evil last Tibetan emperor, Lang Darma, in 842. Every Tibetan knows this story: After disguising himself as a Bonpo priest and painting his white horse black with charcoal, Pelgyi Dorje rode out from the caves of Yerpa down to Lhasa, where he found Emperor Lang Darma having an outing on the Barkor. While the emperor was inspecting the stele text of the famous 822 Sino-Tibetan treaty, Pelgyi Dorje performed three obesiences. At the first kowtow he took a bow out of his sleeve. At the second he drew the bow back. At the third he shot Langdarma dead, and ended the Tibetan empire forever. He then urged his horse into the Kyichu River, washing his blackened horse white, turned his black bonpo robe inside out to reveal a white inside, and escaped.

This is the well-known part of the story, but then, according to the Tibetan folks in Xunhua, Pelgyi Dorje apparently rode hell-for-leather north across the Changtang and the passes of the Tanglha mountains to Da’nduk. (According to the Treasury of Lives article about this, Pelgyi Dorje had developed the ability to “pass freely through rocks,” and leap from mountain peak to mountain peak, which could have helped; it’s a long way from Lhasa to Xunhua.) Anyways, the Tibetan empire broke up in chaos; as Van Schaik points out in his second article about Da’nduk, the whole area of present Qinghai and Gansu, including the large cities, was at the time Tibetan territory, which were partitioned by warring generals after the collapse of the distant authority in Lhasa. Pelgyi Dorje holed himself up in the monastery at Da’nduk, which is located deep in steep and incredibly inaccessable canyons, in a place where one would generally never expect to find a temple. Unfortunately he was later discovered, and had to remove himself to a cave near the “Heavenly Lake” ch. 天池 on the other side of Xunhua county, where he spent the rest of his life, and achieved upon his death the rainbow body. Thus the monastery in the in the canyons came to be known as (wylie) da ‘duk, “Stay here now”, and the cave at the lake as yang ‘duk“, “stay again”, in memory of Pelgyi Dorje’s two escapes. The place later became a major center for the second propagation of Buddhism into Tibet, and is, I can affirm, an excellent place to hide.

View from Dongping Village, Minhe, Gansu

From the walls of the Old Black Fort, Minhe, Gansu

View from Dongping Village, Minhe, Gansu

Looking from East Terrace Village 东坪乡, down over the terraced loess hills towards the valley of the Huangshui River 湟水河 and beyond it, the mountains which border Hualong. I’d gone up here, originally, to look for a fortress on the mountain ridges bordering Tibetan country, called the Old Black Fort 黑古城, and eventually found it, or something that seemed to be it, lost in the fog and rain, covered in flowers and fields of corn, wheat, potatoes, queen anne’s lace, so eroded and overgrown I had to walk the mounded rain-soaked walls twice before I was sure of what I was standing on. There were temples in every village up there, high up on the mountain peaks, but the locals wouldn’t let me in to any; sometimes you could see men in blue robes and red sashes burning incense in there, smoking away on the hilltops. People kept big singing grasshoppers in wicker cages and saw their own lives as difficult. To the north the land, which was lush, terraced, Chinese country, broke even further into deep wooded valleys and granite crags, Tibetan gorges, eventually the forbidden ranges of the Qilian, but I wasn’t going that way. I spent an afternoon in the old walled Mongol tusi chieftaincy of Linked Forts 连城, of which there were originally apparently 24, but I never worked out where they all were, and there was no place to stay, so I kept walking, passing obos on the road side.

Herdsman over the valley of Xin Zhan, Yongdeng, Gansu

Herdsman over the valley of Xin Zhan, Yongdeng, Gansu

I liked this herder guy. Down in the valley was another fortress, the New Station Fort 新站城, and apparently other, older, larger ones, which are now gone.

Dinner in Fenshuiling Village, Tianzhu, Gansu

In Han villages nobody ever wants to let me in. I had an argument about this at one point when it was raining. The shepherds wore medieval looking sheepskin raincoats that made them look like giant walking condoms and I pitched my tent in the middle of the town square in the pouring rain to protest. Eventually the villagers relented and let me stay in an abandoned house. Later on some folks from Lanzhou who were visiting relatives turned up, slightly embarrassed, and brought me a bowl of food for dinner.

Village near Pingcheng, Tianzhu, Gansu

The next morning I climbed up to a pass and you could look down over the huge plains of Tibetan Tianzhu, and in the distance, the Mountains of the Longevitous Deer 寿鹿山.

The Pine Mountain Fort in Tianzhu

Pine Mountain Fort, Tianzhu, Gansu

The Pine Mountain Fort in Tianzhu

The Pine Mountain Fort rises massively out of the hovels of an impoverished and wind-swept Tibetan village sitting on the empty prairie. The fort, which is enormous, was built in 1599 after the area was seized back from Anda Khan’s Mongols, along with a 200 kilometer stretch of great wall across the mountains to the north to protect it. (I’m getting this information from this article.) The Chinese people living on the far side of the mountains still remember this process, and claim that one out of every ten camels passing by in the caravan trains that came through here would be required to carry a load of mud over the passes, and by this process the fortress of Pine Mountain was eventually constructed. The ruins of another fortress are located somewhat to the north-west, which seem to be of different design, and much older. There used to be military horse farms here, but these were all moved out to Shandan on the northern slopes of the Qilian in the ’50s, and now the area is impoverished, and beautiful. The two huge concentric enclosures of the Pine Mountain Fort have been fenced off by the lone, illiterate Tibetan family that lives inside the walls, and the space is now economized as a rather large sheep pen.

Fortress in Bianshui Village, Jingtai, Gansu

Threshing floors in Jianshan Village, Jingtai, Gansu

What else can I say about any of this? The villages on the northern slopes of the Longevitous Deer Mountains are poor, and lovely.

North gate of the Ever-Peaceful Fort, Jingtai, Gansu

Some of the forts were tiny and built by local landowners, or some were built to “fight the Huihuis“, as the residents put it, or to store valuables; some have tunnels leading out from under the porous hillsides and some are massive, guarding the routes over the mountains; some have been turned into movie sets and had massive fake churches and Tang dynasty temples and other strange things built in them and some used to be the capital of the county until it was changed to other forts and then changed somewhere else entirely once the caravan trade died out. Some of them only remain in sections and some are perfectly complete; it all became so complicated that it would take me ages to tell it to you fort by fort and both of us would eventually lose track of where they all were and what they were for; sometimes nobody was there and there was no-one to ask or sometimes the locals disagreed or sometimes I wasn’t even sure if there was a fort at all, so go figure.

Threshing floors at Yuanzhuang Village, Jingtai, Gansu

Old fellow winnowing grain in Jianshan Village, Gansu

Threshing in Yuanzhuang Village, Jingtai, Gansu

Grain winnowing was taking place in this time of year, late summer. Threshing floors always seemed poetical to me, ever since discovering that English “area” comes from a Latin word of that meaning, and that Dante uses it as a diminutive for the earth itself: “As I revolved with the eternal twins, I saw revealed, from hills to river outlets, the threshing-floor that makes us so ferocious…”

House in Jianshan Village, Jingtai, Gansu

Locals at Jianshan Village, Jingtai, Gansu

Locals beneath the village fort, Jianshan Village, Jingtai

The Qi Family in Jianshan Village, Gansu

An image in an abandoned shrine house in Jingtai, Gansu

The Qi 祁 Family put me up for a night and that’s a picture of them in their house. Half of these villages had fortresses, little ones up on the hilltops half-destroyed, or sometimes the villages were destroyed and the fortresses were whole. One of the villages had a huge watchtower sticking out of it; I thought the place was abandoned but later on I met two women, and then I thought they must have been ghosts, but they seemed too cheerful and chatty amid the bleached white ruins, with matching blue headscarves. Another village was richer than the others because there was a scenic area in the mountains up above it and a shepherd there growled at me when he found me sleeping in the desert nearby, what was I doing, all the rich people went up there and bought local women for the night, you could buy anything if you were rich… In a third village a wind was howling and nobody was about, the sky clear and cold and wildly blue in the mountain storm… In another abandoned village there were old shrine houses surrounding the massive, pushed-in walls of the village fort, and inside you could see malevolent, mud-colored little Buddhas and headless images of what might have been Guanyin, she-who-hears-the-lamentations-of-the-masses, or maybe Mary, or anybody else, now wrapped in red votive clothes in the speckled sunlight shining through the smashed-in wood-slat and cornstalk roof… I didn’t eat for two days because nobody gave me anything and at the end of it all I got to Jingtai, and crossed the Yellow River on a ferry, and went down into the grayness of the loess country, and was out of Tibet at last.

Central Asia China Diaries Gansu Xinjiang

He Receives Orders By Daylight and Gallops Off Beneath the Stars

The Great Gobi

The Great Gobi

Poem 6)
Carrying barbarian cups on his shoulders
riding on a purple Bohan horse,
West of Suiye City
the autumn moon is full.
He receives orders by daylight and gallops off beneath the stars,
invested with a valuable sword.
He goes away for a night,
and takes Loulan.

So goes what I always thought was one of Wang Changling’s less inspired poems. In any case something like was what I attempted upon leaving Pichan. I will summarize the whole adventure briefly. From Pichan to Qumul along the road it’s about 320 kilometers. In my bag I had a sleeping bag, two fleeces, my camera, and a water bottle. It was very cold.

Mountains above Hongshankou

The highway rises up into the desert foothills of the Tian Shan and then drops down again on the far side into the oasis of Hami. After sleeping in a culvert under the highway the first night, the second night I hitched to the town of Qijiaojing. (七角井, “The Well of Seven Horns”. I asked about this name and nobody seemed to know the origin. The internet speculates that there were originally just seven wells and somehow the name got changed.) The town is about fifteen kilometers north of the highway; the cheerful trucker who brought me out there was making rounds back and forth to mines located out on the Mongolian border. I spent the night in a friendly little truckers’ dormitory run by a motherly and slightly odd woman from Sichuan, who took a shine to the wandering American who’d appeared in her hostel and decided to feed me and let me sleep for free. The town is a small, desolate cluster of mud houses that lies on an empty salt plane surrounded by snowy desert ridges. Around it lie the rusting towers of salt processing factories.

Salt processing plant on the plain of Qijiaojing

The place seemed beautiful. The next day I hitched back to where I’d left off and decided to detour down into the valley of Qijiaojing again, since there wasn’t anywhere to sleep on the road ahead and the strong consensus among locals in the town was that, sleeping outside, if the cold didn’t kill me the wolves would. I spent a rather peculiar day picking my way down runoff canyons and then out onto the salt flats. There is a small ghost town on a lonely hill that rises out of the empty plane. I walked to it across the desert.

The ghost town of Lushanbao

The ghost town of Lushanbao

The place is called Lü Shanbao (绿山包, “The Green Hill”). (It’s worth noting that the place names along the route from Gansu into Xinjiang all have intriguingly Wild-West-type names. “Sand Beacon-Tower” (沙墩子), “Camel Pen” (骆驼圈子), “Fort Two”, “Fort Three” (二堡,三堡), “The Great Beacon at Forty Li” (四十里大墩子), “Bitter Water Well” (苦水井), “Dry Well” (干井), “Yellow Sheep Well” (黄羊井), “Rotten Water Well” (臭水井), etc.) According to an old couple I stayed with the second night in Qijiaojing, besides a few families of Kazakh nomads, the whole valley (including themselves) was originally populated by youth from the Shanghai area sent out there during the Cultural Revolution to be salt miners. Since then it’s been slowly losing population, hence the abandonment of Lü Shanbao. One family remains there now in a house at the end of the town. I didn’t talk to them, but as I wandered through the empty dirt roads of the town I could see smoke rising from their chimney and hear cows in their yard.

The next day I walked back up to the similarly nearly abandoned roadside settlement at Hong Shankou (红山口, “The Red Pass”). A new project has been set in motion to improve the highways running from Gansu through Hami into Xinjiang, thus bringing the province closer to the motherland. Both the planning and the execution seem rather confused to me; the marked route of the projected highway on my maps bears no relationship to its actual route, and the actual route, as multiple people complained to me, had been under inconclusive and obstructive construction for years. In some places the two highway routes run parallel to each other, one disused. In some places one or the other of the lanes is in use and in some places the new highway is totally unusable and the old one is in use. In other places, for instance east of Hong Shankou, the new highway is in use and the old one is not. You can follow the old one for dozens of kilometers as it snakes out across the empty desert, walking cheerfully down the yellow line. Sometimes telephone wires lead off into the empty planes. At night, you can see lights shining off there in the haze.

Disused highway outside of Hongshankou

The weather was warm for a few days. I followed the highway interminably, eating in truck stops and sometimes bags of cookies that I’d buy, walking until long after dark, sleeping in my bag in ditches by the road to get out of the wind. By the third day it was clear that the road was dropping down into an oasis; the mountains had receded into golden distance to the north and pleasant-looking Kazakh hamlets were passing on the roadside. A fellow in a canteen on the by the road that night averred that there was a ruined Qing Dynasty watchtower nearby, built to guard the caravan route between Qumul and Turpan. In the dark I despaired of finding it but when I awoke it wasn’t far off, sitting on a knoll a few hundred meters south of the highway.

Old Watchtower at Shadunzi

Old Watchtower at Shadunzi

The next night I slept in someone’s empty apartment very kindly lent to me in a town called Sandao Ling (三道岭, “Three Road Peak”) and after that I was in Qumul. Presumably the oasis of Qumul contains many wonders but I haven’t the faintest idea what they are; I stayed in a hotel room near the train station and did very little for four days until I tried to leave, at which point I got forcibly dragged back by a group of people long on suspicion and short on official ID, but who claimed to be “Railroad Police”. I, my person, my bag, my camera, and my diary all got very thoroughly searched before they decided to release me with the strong injunction that walking nearby the railway tracks in a southerly direction from Qumul is frowned upon by the authorities of that county. The whole experience was as unpleasant as it was inexplicable.

Walking on the tracks near Hami

Afterwards I walked down the highway for what must have been six or seven days, about which I remember almost nothing other than that the road led through cold and windy planes of empty gravel and that once a day or so there would be places to eat on the roadside. After 180 kilometers I got to Xingxing Xia (星星峡, “The Gorge of the Stars”), the last town in Xinjiang. Xingxing Xia is an unlovely truckstop on the Gansu border, situated in a gap through some rocky hills. In the town there is a toll booth, some restaurants, a small guesthouse run by a Huizu family, some reedy springs where horses and camels were once watered, little else. Behind it, orange mountains rise, and beyond are endless, golden expanses of the Great Gobi.

As the first or last town in Xinjiang, it’s apparently something of a storied place. The Baidu Baike article (which is not particularly well written) provides several contradictory explanations for the rather peculiar name. One is that quartz was once mined in the mountains above the gorge, to the extent that they could be seen glittering with it on nights when the moon was full, hence the Mountains of Stars and hence, beneath them, the Gorge of Stars. I didn’t do any geological research but having walked over those mountains I do note that I didn’t see any quartz up there. The article also relates that the Qing general Zuo Zongtang passed through Xingxing Xia on his juggernaut campaign of pacification across rebel Gansu and into rebel Xinjiang in the 1870s. He wrote the name of the place as 猩猩峡 “The Gorge of Orangutans” (the pronunciation is the same) because the desert and mountains there reminded him of wild beasts impeding the progress of his army.

According to Baidu, it was also here where in 1937 the great revolutionary and later reformist leader Chen Yun, who had just returned from a visit to Moscow via Communist held Xinjiang, was able to meet the exhausted remnants of the Red Army Western Route army when four hundred of the original twenty seven thousand made it out of Ma Bufang‘s Gansu to the safety of Xinjiang. Hence the place is remembered among Communists and there is a commemorative plaque.

Above the town are a half-dozen little mud turrets built on the hillsides. I climbed up there in the morning to have a look.

Old gun emplacements at Xingxing Xia

According to the soldiers who run the water supply station beneath them, and corroborated by the Baidu Baike article, the gun emplacements were built by Guomindang Troops in the 1930s in order to defend the strategically crucial watering-place against the forces of the Gansunese warlord Ma Bufang. (The Baidu article also notes that there was fighting here in the early twentieth century between feuding miners, and also contains a somewhat curious statement that the People’s Liberation Army, when entering Xinjiang for the final time in 1949, was forced to battle “Tujue Bandits” (突厥族土匪) here for a while before they could proceed. “Tujue” refers to the sixth to eighth century empire of the Göktürk, “The Blue Turks”, and thus I’m not exactly sure what this is supposed to mean.) In any case the explanation about the Guomindang and Ma Bufang makes sense, because the gun emplacements clearly face down the valley to the east. In some places you can even see the keyhole-shaped marks where artillery pieces were set up on the gravelly slopes, overlooking the broad approach and the empty blue expanse of desert stretching off beyond it.

Old gun emplacements at Xingxing Xia

Gun emplacements outside of Xingxing Xia

Beyond Xingxing Xia, across the border now in Gansu Province, the desert becomes suddenly beautiful.

In the desert near Liaoyuan Zhen

In the desert near Liaoyuan Zhen

What had in Xinjiang been frigid, gray expanses of hazy Gobi (戈壁滩, gebi tan, a gravel plane, or 大戈壁, Da Gebi, the “Great Gobi Desert” itself,) in Gansu suddenly become vast, golden planes split by blue ridges, and jagged purple mountains, black hills and white salt flats, dust devils and sunlit brush, blue sky, wind. I walked for a few days to get to Liaoyuan Zhen (柳园镇, “Willow Garden Town). Eventually it became too brutally cold and windy to sleep outside at night and I ran out of food and water so I hitched there, spent the night in a hostel, and then hitched back the next day and completed the route, this time detouring out into the beautiful desert, climbing up to hilltops and wandering thoughtfully in the brush.

The Great Gobi

In the desert near Liaoyuan Zhen

Time was running out. I had to be back in Beijing by the twenty-fifth to start the next semester at Central University for Nationalities (中央民族大学). The last day of walking, a freezing wind was blowing across the empty Gobi. I walked for twenty kilometers in a howling gale and then, on flat and featureless plane, hitched a ride to the last hundred kilometers to Dunhuang. The winter’s walk was over.

Watchtower outside of Dunhuang

The name Dunhuang (敦煌) means “The Blaze of Beacons”, and you can see dozens of ancient signal beacons strung out across the desert and hilltops, part of an ancient system of forts, signal towers, and long walls that connected the Jade Gate Pass (玉门关, Yumen Guan) to the Yang Pass (阳关, “The Pass of the Sun”) and the city of Dunhuang itself. The city is home to the mind-blowing Mogao Grottoes (莫高窟) or the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas (千佛洞), and is also a part of my own family history, as my great grandfather Langdon Warner was one of the western explorers who controversially removed texts and art from the Mogao Grottoes at the beginning of the twentieth century. Thus it deserves two or three posts of its own, and when I go back there next time and have time to explore the place fully, I’ll write them.

So that’s it for the Trans-Asia Trek for a while. It’s worth adding here a brief word here on the future of the trek. I am now back in Beijing, heading into my second semester at Central University for Nationalities (中央民族大学), during which I will be studying in the Tibetan Department. As it seems now, I probably won’t have time to do any walking during the summer, since I’ll only have a six week vacation and it’s come to my notice that I get more out of walking when I do it in longer, more contiguous chunks. Right now I’m hoping to find a way to spend the summer intensively studying Tibetan, either in China or in Nepal. Among other things, this will help me prepare for the next step of the Trans-Asia Trek, which is Tibet.

When I graduate (inshallah) next year, I hope to return to China with a few thousand dollars in my pocket and complete the walk to Beijing. The next leg of the journey is to cross the northern Tibetan plateau: Amdo, the Tsaidam Desert, and the Qilian Mountains. This will be the most remote, the most dangerous, and one of the most politically difficult walks I’ve ever attempted. From Mount Amnye Machen to Dunhuang there are five hundred kilometers of open, empty plateau and mountains, almost uninhabited except for a few Tibetan and Mongol nomads and more than a few Chinese labor camps. Right now my dream is to buy a yak maybe in Maduo on which to pack supplies, and attempt the thing as one long stealth raid, but this plan may change. My priorities at the moment are to learn Tibetan and make money. In a year and a half’s time, I may be able to return to China to finish the journey.

So thanks to everyone who’s been supporting me this winter, either by sending me emails and comments or with gifts of money, gear, help, a place to stay, or company on the road. And wish me luck for the semester, next year, and for the next leg of the trek across Asia!