Danxia is on the edge of the Gobi Desert, just outside of Zhangye (张掖) several hours North of here. It’s beautiful. The desert is a soft brown, spotted with green and purple plants. The natural landscape is amazing, but sparse on the way to the city. The train cuts through scattered buildings and cities, the fields covered with corn husks or the last of the crop that is there before the harvest.
It’s late in the year, and during National Holiday and the Mid-Autumn Festival week, the city was almost empty. The roads in Linze (临泽) are massive, six and eight lanes on the major roads. It’s not something I’ve seen since I left San Diego. It’s like it was built for traffic in a way that all the old cities of the world are not. There are lakes and rivers, but the water doesn’t really seem to change the desert look of everything.
This was a trip with my boss and his wife, so as much work as adventure. We ate, and wandered, but I always felt some hesitation. What I would have done alone and what I did with them was very different. More practice with English than with Chinese, and much more food than I am used to.
The meat was amazing, perfectly cooked lamb, simple seasoning, and more than I could hope to eat. Curried vegetables and noodles, and what they called the Harvest. Root vegetables, corn, and pumpkin, unseasoned and roasted perfectly. It was noted that I didn’t eat much of the other vegetables, but I chose what I liked and tried to finish it all. I failed, at two different meals. I can’t eat like I used to, and it was more than worth trying to meet the challenge.
Danxia is the name for what we call the Rainbow Mountains. The place is busy, with a feeling at the entrance like when I went to Teotihuacan, of the false face of the culture and sales booths. The park and the entrance are two very different things. You can get the cheap ticket, taking busses with everyone else from one stop to the next, wandering through the crowds and pushing to get to the top, but we took the expensive route.
Four times the price, but we had a private van and a tour guide for some of the remote passages throughout the park. For four hours we wandered, seeing the masses of people gathered at the main sites while we cut off onto gravel roads to see the Buddha’s retreat and the striped mountain. We picked at the multicolored rocks on the edge of the trail, and since my boss is a Traditional Chinese doctor he pointed out various plants and what they are used for. I’ve never seen them growing in the wild, it’s a very different experience.
It’s not as far into the wild as I wanted to go, but it was enough to get away from the city for a while. I could ignore the helicopter giving tours overhead, and the paragliders flying in the distance, but as amazing as it was, I miss the silence of hidden places.
We wandered the park after, catching the sunset lighting one side of the mountains. The light affects the colors here, and what you see depends entirely on the time of day and the weather. I’m told that when it rains in summer it washes away the top layer of soil and the colors are the most vivid. This time, the sky was pale and the colors of the desert were still amazing.
We were up early to eat and visit people, so by the time we got to dinner the doctor decided I was tired and I should eat alone and rest. I have climbed much higher mountains, and done so much more before I ever need rest, but I hadn’t been alone all day, so I accepted the invitation to eat alone and rest in his brother’s hotel room.
The next morning, we returned to Danxia to see the morning light hitting the other side of the mountains. The sun was harsh both days, and the air is thin, but it was beautiful. Sometimes I wish I had a better camera, but I have no interest in carrying around anything more than a point and shoot. The park was beautiful, and we left before most of the tourists arrived for the day. Heading back for lunch with my waiban, whose parents still live in Linze.
It’s strange seeing people with their children in a different culture. Trying to feed a child without pretending to steal their food, or playing the yumyum train. Children aren’t really expected to be children here, there is too much at stake in their future, too many tests to prepare for, to allow for the chaos I am so used to. The goal is focused, so the children must also be. In America, we are raised to believe we can be anything, do anything. It may not always be the truth, but it is the ideal, so we are raised to see the world differently than most children here. A trade, giving up creativity for focus.
After we wandered around the wetlands of Zhangye. I don’t know if they are natural or manmade, an oasis of reeds, birds, and insects in the middle of the desert. The water is a pale green, and I had forgotten how annoying flying insects can be. It’s an amazing contrast between the desert and the oasis, of life hidden and life in your face.
It’s nice to be back home, to rest and do nothing, but I miss that desert. It’s the kind of place I want to stay in, to feel, and absorb. I doubt you can camp there, the terrain is too soft and ever changing, quickly collapsing even as the earth is pushed up from below. That is the one thing I still look for here, places off the map where I can rest. But there is plenty of time.