In keeping with my single-minded visits to places in China, my first stop west of Beijing started in a similar way. As just about everyone knows, one end of the Great Wall of China is near Beijing, coming right up to the water. What probably a few less know is that the other end is in the desert, not far from Mongolia and Kazakhstan, in the city of Jiayuguan. This is the primary reason I decided to come to Jiayuguan, but as is always the case, there’s something more than what meets the eye.
Though in Jiayuguan’s case, it’s admittedly minimal.
I’ve had a problem since coming to China — everything is way bigger than it looks on the map. I set off walking from my hostel on what turned out to be a 10-kilometer walk. It also turned out to be a little more interesting than the wall itself.
Jiayuguan is a weird city. There’s absolutely nothing old about it, and yet there’s nothing new either. It gives me the impression of a place than began as housing for factory workers and their families, and it just grew from there. The oldest buildings, which don’t seem older than the 80s, are crumbling and decrepit. A handful of newer buildings are sprinkled throughout, and new housing developments are in the works.
Everything towers over the wide streets to dizzying heights, which just adds to the strangeness of it all because there are definitely not enough people in the entire city to fill these blocks. Down at street level, shops rotate in a cycle of fours — mechanic, hairdresser, restaurant, convenience/liquor store. At every major intersection, massive monuments tower over the empty streets. In bizarre contrast, pristinely-manicured public parks dot the city and sit as empty as the streets themselves.
You can walk for 20, 30 minutes through downtown and only see people in their cars as they move down the wide roads. Perhaps the weirdest of all, however, is the frequency of clusters of loud pops that reverberate throughout the city like gunshots. No idea what those were about. No one seems to flinch when they happen, so they must be a part of the city’s ambiance.
Still, in spite of the apparent lack of culture (and life in general), not all was empty. As I walked, I saw turquoise minarets of a mosque in the distance. Directly across the street was a narrow alley, squeezed tightly with a street market. Just one street. But it seemed that all activity in Jiayuguan is confined to that place.
The scents of spices and herbs and fresh fruits waft around, intermixing with the shouts of vendors. Butcher shops offer up slabs of meat a foot across, laid beside whole sheep heads. Bakers stack fragrant flatbreads on counters outside their kitchens. One such baker saw me slow down and snatched a piece of bread off the stove, tossed it through the window and across the gap behind the counter to land with a thud in front of me. It must have been several meters to throw it that far, but he really wanted me to try his bread, apparently. It was good, too — seasoned with honey and peanuts. He was stoked to have a foreigner at his stand. I sense foreigners don’t typically take the time to search out these corners in Jiayuguan.
I took my bread for only 3 yuan and continued on, now aiming to find the wall. It would be another hour and a half before I located it. The city is not intuitively laid out, and the wall is at the outskirts. Eventually, I was just walking along the highway, an amusement park and train tracks on one side, and the smokestacks of factories against the mountainous backdrop on the other.
I came to a turn into a very well-manicured park, and decided to take my route inwards. The quality of the park and its gardens was off the charts, and its visitors nonexistent. The garden was vast, stretching for several miles without so much as a leaf on a branch out of place. And eventually looming in the distance came the Great Wall, its forts silhouetted against the bright sky.
To look at everything in Jiayuguan, I can’t help but get the impression that this city was meant for more. It feels like it was meant to draw people out west, into China’s interior, but now is just a crumbling ruin of what could have been.
Once I had my sights on the wall, it wasn’t long before I actually came to approach it. In order to access the forts that are preserved there, you need to hike up and buy a ticket for 105 yuan, which is a racket. Then you go to a kiosk where they scan your face and take a photo. There’s an area below the wall where you can explore historical landmarks of dubious authenticity, and then yet another kiosk. You scan your face, and then it brings up the photo from the first time to check that it matches. Super weird.
After that, you’re free to explore the interior of the fort. And honestly, there wasn’t much to see. It was restored in 1987, and a lot of the wall is just covered in plaster. It no longer feels like an ancient relic, but instead like a theme park attraction. Like those Wild West towns built to look old but are obviously new. There’s another section called the Overhanging Wall another 10 kilometers up the road that I hear is much cooler, but I didn’t go. That said, the fort is still an interesting attraction, even if it feels brand-new.
All in, Jiayuguan is worth a visit, but not if your goal is seeing the wall. That’s hardly the most interesting part of the city. I feel like it was important for me to see as a preview of what’s to come. It’s a fusion of this very Communist-style planning and a distinctly Central Asian culture. It’s a city filled with weird contrasts and juxtapositions. My impressions swung from This is such a pretty city to Wow this place is a shithole on a block-by-block basis. I’ve never been anywhere that elicited reactions like that. And yet weirdly enough, it reminded me a lot of Reykjavík, Iceland. Reykjavík’s grungy sister city. Just a super weird place. Go if you’re into that, but don’t make the wall your exclusive reason.