Biking Across China, Episode 3: A Museum for No One

Cycling across China solo as a woman. Sound awful? Amazing? Terrifying? It’s all of those.

Yùmén to Jiǔquán
玉门 – 酒泉
210km // 4 days

A Bowl Made From a Human Skull

In the last few kilometres leading to Yumen, on a freeway crowded with trucks taking methanol and other random materials to Xinjiang province even further West, I stumbled across an enormous and deserted structure.

It looked like a theme park fortress gate, newly built and at least 10 metres high, but completely empty, like a facade housing nothing and no-one. I drew close to take pictures, standing there for more than 5 minutes before, to my shock, a side door creaked open and a middle aged woman wrapped in several layers of desert-proof clothing emerged sleepily, arms hugged to her chest.

“Tickets are 40 yuan.”

Bit steep for a tumbleweed field, I thought. But what the hell.

With a shy smile, my guide ushered me through the main gate and into a large compound beyond, several new buildings collected together under the bright, featureless sunshine. She showed me around the place, unlocking doors and switching on lights as she went, revealing a coherent and well presented collection of artifacts. Her accent was so thick I could hardly understand a word of the museum tour she was clearly reciting from memory, and I nodded along dumbly, finally gathering from snatched glances at information boards that this museum was the site of an old fortress and temple, collectively called Qiáowānchéng (“bridge shore fortress”) whose original ruins lay in the sand nearby.

Unlocking doors as she went

The Kangxu Emperor, who ruled 1661-1722, had seen the place in a dream and dispatched two officials to build it. They were later executed for doing a deliberately lacklustre job, and a bowl fashioned from one of their skulls is the museum’s prize artifact. I wondered how much the guide was paid to sit here all day. 

The museum’s prize artifact

A gold plaque on the wall stated this museum was part of the “Belt and Road” initiative, a vast and vaguely defined collection of construction projects that had been all over the news a few years ago.

At the time, government controlled media trumpeted the initiative as a momentous and magnanimous sharing out of China’s economic growth to countries broadly along the historic Silk Road, thereby creating a modern reincarnation of that ancient economic bloodline – with, of course, China in its rightful place at the centre. 

“Belt and Road” Scientific Educational Site, November 2017

These days, mentions of the Belt and Road have gradually disappeared from the news, along with the funds poured into its enormous construction projects, which, once they had done their job of creating economic activity, were often of limited utility. 

“When was the last time you had another visitor?” I asked. 

She thought for a minute. “A couple of weeks ago.” 

I wandered out to the ruins at the back, amazed by the loudness of my footsteps and imagining the dismay of the soon to be decapitated officials who must have once stood where I did now, faced with an even bleaker backwater than the one I saw from the top of the ruined walls.

The Jade Gate

Yumen is a small, neatly laid out city split into New and Old Yumen, one quiet and thriving, the other a shuttered ghost town.

As it’s name, the “Jade Gate”, suggests, it was historically a hotspot of the jade industry, though today it’s better known for the billion-dollar oilfield that lies 50km north of the city, employing 12,000 people.

To my surprise, the first hotel I walked into said foreigners were fine to stay. The usual bug eyes followed me as I rolled my bike around to a back room for storage in the company of a ping pong table and pile of earth-covered vegetables. I spent two days sleeping, washing my clothes and taking long showers, and taking advantage of a kids kickboxing gym nearby that was empty for the summer.

My final dinner there was a late night dumpling stop after the gym, where I wolfed down egg and chive jiaozi and was shown pictures of the owner’s nieces and nephews while the dashu (uncles) outside debated how long it should’ve taken me to ride from Dunhuang. They concluded I had ridden far too slowly.

Da Ma

I meant to set off with sunrise, but as usual, I slept in until 8am.

A hearty bowl of noodles from the shop downstairs – arguably more than I needed for a gentle 50km ride – made my body feel heavy and the ride feel difficult.

Even the mercy of flat, smooth highway roads was offset by the freight trucks that thundered past every few seconds, buffeting me from side to side in an eventually predictable but still terrifying outward-inward pattern.

Eventually the highway gave way to smaller, rural roads through picturesque villages where the smell of drying sunflower husks sweetened the air again. I stopped to take photos of a bright red door with hundreds of them piled outside, surprising the Ayi taking care of them when I asked in Mandarin if I could take her photo too.

Da Ma

“You can speak Chinese! I would have had no idea.”

A broad, good-natured smile broke out from under her hat, and we chatted for half an hour, taking a photo together and swapping WeChats, where she would later send endless well wishes and advice for onward travel. Her name was Mi’er, but she told me to call her Da Ma (Big Mom/Ma). “I’ve never met a foreign person before,” she said, taking off her hat (and I my helmet) to pose. 

A man had stopped by us as we spoke took our photo. He turned out not to be her son, as I had thought, but the son of a neighbour. To my surprise, about 10 minutes after I had said my goodbyes and cycled on, he reappeared, shouting at me to slow down.

“You cycle so fast!” he said. “You’re going the wrong way for Zhangye.”

“I want to see the temple. A sign said there was one this way.” I replied, immediately disliking that he had followed me in his mini electric three-wheeler. What could he possibly have to say that he couldn’t have said 10 minutes ago in front of Da Ma?

“Don’t go there, there’s nobody ever there. Here, you have to see something better, I’ll take you. It’s right here, a sacred spring with a myth carved into a stone next to it.”

I paused, unable to think of an excuse not to go.

“Ok. Show me the way then.”

I moved my knife into my pocket and walked with him to the spring he wanted to show me: a poorly kept groundwater spring in a grassy enclosure behind a field.

At his insistence, I snapped a photo of the murky pool, before gently but firmly refusing his multiple offers to drive me to my destination, show me more around the tiny village, or come to eat dinner at his mother’s house. I said my goodbyes and cycled off quickly, hoping both that I was being over-sensitive and that he wouldn’t follow me again.

Idyllic

I spent the night by a nearby reservoir that I found via Google Earth, that wonderful piece of software. Pulling up, I saw to my annoyance that rather than the quiet soliatary scene I had expected, a pair of friendly-looking construction workers sat, busy doing nothing, by the side of the lake. I snacked by the waterside, deciding I would wait for them to leave so I could put up my tent without being seen. No matter how friendly, I hardly wanted a group of male construction workers and whoever they ran into that evening to know that there was a foreign girl spending the night outside alone. After staring for a few minutes, they came over to chat, bringing a head of fresh sunflower seeds to share. “Where are you from?”

“Brazil,” I said, using a ploy I learnt from a wily Russian friend which works on the (almost always correct) assumption that the person quizzing you won’t know much about Brazil, and therefore will have a minimal number of potentially offensive follow up questions.

I hardly said a word while the more talkative of the two told me everything he could recall about Brazilian footballers, America, foreigners, the reservoir, the differences between cities and rural Gansu, the differences between China and America, and the crabs that a man was fishing for in the water ahead of us.

As the sun began to set, they asked where I was going to sleep, since it was too dark and I was clearly too tired to cycle much further. My vague gesture to the lakeside was met with astonishment. 

“Don’t sleep by the reservoir! It’s so unsafe. There are crabs. And dogs. And there are no people there! Here, stay in our work barracks. It’s safer and there are beds.” 

I nodded and said I would, inwardly amused at such genuine fear of the outdoors and looking forward to pitching my tent by the water on the opposite side.

The man cast about the surrounding hills with his eyes. “Or that empty building over there. The person who lived there died. We Chinese, we’re very practical. No one would mind.” 

Ghost Towns

The morning brought cool, crystal clear air and pale gold light that washed over the hills and rippling water. 

I had pitched my tent on another soft bed of sand, and I snuggled into its grainy embrace for an hour as the sky lightened before finally emerging and climbing up to the simple but beautiful pagoda that someone had built overlooking the reservoir for a few rounds of skipping and shadowboxing.

A simple but beautiful pagoda someone had built

As I was heating my coffee afterwards, a wide-eyed man in a grandfatherly knitted sweater and coat pulled up at the collar turned the corner, neck craned. He must have been on his morning walk, and a long one; the closest houses were a mile or two away.

“Did…did you sleep here?” He asked incredulously. 

“Yeah, this is my tent. It’s nice by the water.”

“Oh, you can speak Chinese. You were by yourself?” I nodded. “Weren’t you scared?” 

“Of what?” I asked with a laugh. He agreed that there were no dangerous animals, and no people to speak of either, but still couldn’t quite get his head around the concept of my tent. “Huh. Dǎnzi zhēn dà.” (You’ve got guts.)

A lengthy uphill cycle, which Da Ma had warned me was ahead, took me the best part of the morning and peaked in the ghost town of old Yumen. Its defining feature was a large power plant or factory of some kind, hidden behind tall brick walls that made it impossible to see whether it was still functioning.

More than half of the shop doorswere shuttered or bricked up, and people were scarce. Weaving through the streets felt like trespassing on an abandoned movie set, where the only people left were straggling cleanup staff in hardhats. Almost all of the stores were mechanic or car stores. I wondered if it was the classic cluster effect of Chinese copycat merchants, or simple supply to demand. No tourists here. Only cars passing through on their way to somewhere else. 

A gutted apartment block

Just as the town buildings started to peter out into the next stretch of singular, cross-country road, a gutted apartment block caught my eye.

I left my bike by the side of the road to go and take pictures, not worried enough to lock it. Nobody was around to take it.

It was an empty apartment building that looked ghostly against the mountains. I wandered around taking pictures of the destruction. Traces of life remained – a washing line, a dust covered sofa, scattered playing cards, some colourful lightbulbs. Shards of random materials cracked under my feet as I walked. I half expected to find a body.

The bizarre thing was, I knew this building. It was almost identical in design to countless other apartments I had walked around in in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, only now it felt weaker, more susceptible to collapse, more forgotten. I wondered if it had ever been lived in, or simply built and never completed because there was simply no demand. How could this drained town come up with the dozens of families needed to fill a place like this?

“Doesn’t matter if it’s valuable if there’s nobody to buy it.”

A hundred kilometres or so later, I passed an even more desolate site: the crumbling remnants of a completely abandoned salt mine village.

Train tracks still led into it, but there was nobody there except a worker from a nearby road construction company taking a siesta from the blazing afternoon sun. “There’s been nobody here since 2015,” he told me. “They all moved to Jinta.” He followed me around as I took photos, asking the usual questions: where was I from, why did I speak such good Chinese, wasn’t I scared cycling all by myself?

Train tracks still led into it

Huge piles of salt lay in heaps six feet high by the shell of a factory, spilling over onto the railway tracks and blending with the surrounding sand. 

“They just left all this here?” I asked. “isn’t it valuable?”

He barked a laugh. 

“Doesn’t matter if it’s valuable if there’s nobody to buy it.”

The remaining road was long, flat and easy as long as the wind wasn’t blowing, and it gifted me with one of the most achingly beautiful sunsets I have ever seen as I stopped once more by a reservoir for the night. The sun spilled pink and orange in fragments over the ripples of the water, and a small crowd of geese nearby surprised me – China has so few pockets of genuine wildlife – taking off in a flapping, honking group, silhouetted against the rose-coloured sky.

The rather empty Jiuquan was home for 2 more days of recovery before I set out again towards Zhangye.

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