Friends have wanted to join our travel in China ever since we started but then COVID got in the way and all travelling plans have been postponed indefinitely. Out of the blue at the end of April 2021, a carefree young friend Jovy joined us. She was already in China when our dear mutual friend Chi Man introduced us to each other and urged her to join us. From time to time, Kin posted photos to let Jovy know our whereabouts. About a month later, she asked if she could join us in Zhangye, Gansu (甘肅張掖). Of course we said yes.
We picked Jovy up at the Zhangye railway station. We did not even know what she looks like except that she is much younger than us. While we were waiting for her outside the station, Kin made a rough guess that Jovy is likely to have short dyed hair, wears glasses and in pants. Then ten minutes later, a tall short hair spectacled young woman with brown highlights and in hiking pants waved at us! We were immediately impressed by her bubbly personality as despite the long day she had had – taking an early flight from Beijing (北京) to Lanzhou (蘭州) followed by a five-hour train journey, she was in high spirits and bright eyed.
We were not sure if Jovy would like our laid-back way of travelling but it turns out that she is even more “free-style” than we are. Her few days eventually extended to ten days and we crossed three provinces, saw snow mountains and the western part of Gobi Desert (戈壁沙漠).
Jovy’s timing of joining us was quite uncanny as we rented a two-bedroom apartment in Zhangye (張掖) days before we knew that she would join us. It worked out perfectly as she could just stay with us. It would have been quite expensive for her to find separate accommodation at such short notice as it coincided with the May 1st Labour Day holiday and many accommodations were already fully booked.
The next day, we drove south just under 200 kilometres to cross the border of Gansu province into Qilianxian (祁連縣) in the northen part of Qinghai province (青海). It is famous for the beautiful snow mountain range of Qilian (祁連雪山) and a popular place to visit in the summer to get away from the heat. We only decided to come here very last minute as it was recommended by a coffee shop owner in Jiayu Pass (嘉裕關) whom we met a week earlier. We find the best way to decide where to go is by talking to the locals. But of course one still needs to do sufficient research beforehand to understand and make the best of the local travel tips.
En-route, we visited the Mati Temple (馬蹄寺), a spectacular cave temple which simply took our breath away. It has seven grotto groups and the oldest grottoes are believed to be over 1700 years. The temple faces the beautiful Qilian snow mountain (祁連雪山) and as we started walking towards the first part of the temple, Kin kept wondering how we could access the different levels of grottoes as we could see no visible stairs or pathways between them. Only until we arrived at the base of the temple, we realized that there are narrow spiral stairways dug inside the mountain to reach the caves.
The huge cave on ground level is pitch dark and I walked very slowly through the long corridor of statues. As my eyes gradually adjusted to the dark, I saw many of the statues are destroyed. While I felt the starkness of the dark cave, I could still envisage the magnificence of these religious sculptures in its heyday.
We arrived at Qilianxian (祁連縣) late in the evening. We booked the accommodation from the same person who owns the apartment we stayed in Zhangye. We met with Mr. Zhao (趙大哥) who brought us to the apartment and we found an old Muslim couple in the apartment. They showed us around and it dawned on us that we actually rented their home. They told us that we could not use the kitchen and I was completely taken aback. Then Jovy quickly guessed that it is because they are Muslim and do not eat pork. We reassured them that we only eat vegetables and only then they let us use the kitchen.
Our stay at the Muslim home was quite special. The apartment is very homely with lots of green plants in the living room. The second evening when we were cooking dinner, we heard a knock on the door and opened the door to find the Muslim old couple standing outside. It was Ramadam month and the Muslims had to fast (not even water is allowed) from dawn till sundown. As it happened that wherever they were staying temporarily had power cut, so they came back to the apartment to boil water and eggs. They also came back the next evening to water the plants. So we got to talk to them briefly the first few evenings.
We soon learned that Mr. Zhao is the old couples’ son-in-law. His family owns acres of land and a few hundred goats and yaks in the mountain. He took us to see their land and we met his brother who is in charge. They have to move their herds to different pastures according to the season. Their children and wife stay in town while the men raise the herds. Mr. Zhao did not practice Ramadan and he told us that many of the younger generation no longer follow the traditional customs. When we asked if his children would continue raising livestock, Mr. Zhao said that since they can go to school and get an education, it is better for them to find work in the city. It may seem like a pity that the traditional way of life is fading; but understandably as a parent, Mr. Zhao wants a better and less harsh way of life for his children.
Mr. Zhao also took us to a local horse race. It was not a race about speed only but the horses had to race in a specific trotting style. Each participating horse was followed by a motorcyclist on the outside ring to ensure that it raced properly in the required style. As it was super windy, after watching a few races, I went back to our van to have hot tea and stay warm while Kin and Jovy continued to brave the harsh wind.
The race finish was in fact only about 50 meters in front of our van. I was checking phone messages and did not pay attention to the final race. Then as I looked up, I saw a horse heading towards the van and it kept coming until I stared right into the jockey’s eyes only two feet away. I heard a thump and the jockey bumped right into the van and fell. I was dumbfounded and did not quite understand what just happened. The jockey quickly got to his feet and pulled the horse away. Luckily, the horse was fine and I saw the jockey limping.
When I finally came to my senses, I got out and saw a dent in the hood. I hoped the jockey was not too badly injured as we could not find him. There had been a lot of unique experiences throughout our trip but getting hit by a horse in a race is definitely extraordinary.
After an eventful week in Qilianxian (祁連縣), three of us together with our flurry children headed north into the western part of Inner Mongolia to see the Gobi Desert (戈壁沙漠).