Attempting to drive out of Baotou in an insanely complex traffic jam: cars, trucks and three-wheeled diesel carts at all angles jockeying for position. Our GPS has just crapped itself; refusing to reboot. Yesterday we drove to Datong looking for material to shoot but had less than favourable stark light and found nothing of particular interest. Left town with a colourful new thermos and hot water; drove into the night, parked up west of Hohhot (Inner Mongolia) waking up to a clear sky and frost covered swags. The motorway along this route is on the verge of being opened. It is possible to travel fifty-plus kilometres along a newly tarmacked outside lane, sporting one long continuous barrier. No option to pull over other than at conveniences along the way: hot water dispensers, canteen food, petrol, toilets, dusty and utilitarian. The architects who masterminded these buildings must have had dreams just a little too large in scale for their limited imaginations, resulting in the clumsiest, ugliest and oddest of buildings. Staff looking upon us as though we have just landed from Mars; not particularly curious just pleasant and friendly to a fault. The terrain is very arid and uninteresting apart from a chain of mountains to the north of the road, low-lying light brown scrub, and light-brown mountains—light-brown everything. The summer months have definitely passed. Vast stretches of road interspersed with the occasional industrial town, road builders’ barracks and some kick-arse coal-fired powered stations. The air is acrid and filthy at times and yet a stark, cloudless blue sky lies between these groupings of industrial monoliths. Cash-only for petrol and road tolls. My wallet was getting rather empty, which was a little disconcerting. We have driven through a few police blocks, all nerves; waiting from a distance until the police are busy with a bus-load of passengers then casually drive through looking pleased with ourselves.
The outskirts of Baotou were dusty and rank, as insidious as any minus five-star town one might have the pleasure of visiting. Piles of coal were being shovelled off trucks on to the side of the road to be distributed amongst households as workshops prepared for the approaching winter months. The commercial centre of town was a world part: an endless row of stylish shops, underground malls and throngs of fashion-conscious middle-class people. A pretty young woman engaged us in conversation and took us for coffee at a stuffy, ornate establishment to practice her English. Oh, how life can be so sweet at times.
While waiting at the toll gates, upon entering the town of Wulashan, a five-tonne truck fitted with a tow bar reversed into us. It crumpled our bonnet, leaving us with a hefty bit of repair work and few anxious moments while police ushered us through. Pulling over at the other side of the gates we got out of the car at the very moment our pre-arranged contact, Mr Hua, strolled over the tarmac to greet us. An exchange of words with the truck driver—Mr Hua as our interpreter—and a police officer who had taken possession of the truck drivers' licence. He offered to negotiate a cash fee for on-the-spot repair work; something he could little afford, no doubt. Decided both he and I were, potentially, in as a bad a situation as one another, which I resolved with a hand shake, a pat on the back, a smile, and a farewell. It was worth it just to see the relief on the man's face. Perhaps some karma earned but an uneasy feeling when calculating the cost of the repair. Mr Hua escorted us to our hotel and then on to the workshop where it was determined by the repair foreman to be a day’s worth of work. And here’s the best part: 350 yuan (A$54) all up. (I was expecting $900 or more.). While all of this was taking place, our GPS came to life again!
This evening we ate in a plush private dinning room in our hotel in the company of Mr. Hua, his policeman friend Mr. Tuan, and Mr. Lee, the hotel manager. The restaurant manager and a cohort of others joined us for toasts of wheat wine and the taking of photographs. Our hosts extravagantly ordered way too much food and proceeded to treat us as though we were somewhere between high-ranking officials and long lost friends. Westerners visit their town only once every year or two; for them it was a special occasion. Accepted the evening and hospitality with good humour—our stomachs on the verge of exploding before retiring for the night.
Our hotel room dresser was well stocked with: a variety of packaged foods and beverages, an ‘anti-germs’ towel; a shaver with instructions to 'please wet the bear with warm water or warm towel before shaving'; a pack of ‘No. 990’ playing cards; a variety of condoms sporting labels such as ‘Man God Dew’, ‘PsaxDoll Sex and Shake’. Men’s socks and Women’s Panties conveniently packaged as one 'comfortable consideration new vogue and character'.
Loaded film and brushed the coal dust from my camera equipment. On the way out of town in Mr Hua's minibus (Mr Tuan driving), we were stopped at a road block while police checked and photographed our passports; phoning through to senior officials to ask whether to let us through or not. Apparently officials throughout the country are over-zealous in the lead-up to the change of guard in Beijing next month. We trekked across a few real-life sand dunes before driving to Mr. Hua's environmental commitment of the past five years: a 300 square-kilometre wetlands reserve. It was an effort on his part to make nearby communities, landowners and farmers aware of the fragile nature of this huge body of inland water, and to care for the preservation of it. Major problems are being experienced because of fertiliser run-off and encroaching desert. A thankless task, expert opinion suggests that this unique wetland environment will be overtaken by desert within the next thirty years.
Good to be on the road again. Two hours south-west of Wulashan we pass a barren, redistributed landscape: small mountains levelled, replaced by roads and factories; coal slag piled high into small mountains—the legacy of unbridled industry resulting in untold atmospheric emissions and mountains of spent energy. For two hours, a stretch of heavy industry to our left and to our right. Diminishing visibility as we enter a soupy haze so thick it's difficult to see beyond 500 metres. It becomes less and less desirable to stop for photo opportunities, with less and less to see. Further on, the haze lifts and we pass farmers tilling fields and cutting back bracken on the roadside. The landscape is scrubby semi-desert. We pass remnants of ancient crumbling walls, the occasional yurt and see a total of three camels; a scant reminder of what once was. Relieved to enter Gansu province by early evening and a more interesting landscape as we climb to an altitude 1,650 metres. We sleep out underneath a blanket of northern stars on a dusty side road; warm and comfortable despite a cold clear night and the constant rumbling of trucks to one side and the occasional train to the other.
This morning we are at last off the main highway, so we can stop at will. And whenever we do, we are invited in to locals’ houses for green tea and a hard-baked uninteresting corn bread. Their houses are simple brick-and-tile buildings, generally facing an inner courtyard; neatly kept, and adorned with Han oddities. Piles of corncobs arranged in courtyards; a pile of coal around the back. Each house has a coal-fired cooking stove and a coal-fired pot-bellied stove in the living room. Without coal these people would be facing unbearably cold winters. Coal is fundamental to their lives. Bricks are kilned, houses heated, electricity generated all by the convenience of coal. A very simple primitive existence; one that resolves around the seasons and the necessity of the autumn harvest of corn and wheat. One family invites us into their home to watch a long-winded DVD of their father’s recent funeral. After forty-five minutes we leave politely, but not before the obligatory succession of photographs.
Spent a very rare and beautiful afternoon in a primary school attempting to provide English lessons while trying to keep warm in the bitterly cold classrooms. Outside a dust storm whistled through the courtyards, transforming itself in to a snowstorm as the afternoon wore on. Only one classroom of the ten or so had their coal stove fired up, radiating a luxuriant heat. All of the rest of the little children had to suffer the near-freezing conditions—although they didn't seem particularly perturbed. Hardy and attentive, these kids. Teachers alternated between rooms; handling two if not three classrooms per session. Pulled some of the younger children out of class, one or two or three at a time. Photographed them in the tiled and cracked earth courtyards in the wonderfully atmospheric fading light. Swirling autumnal leaves and dust transcending into wispy sleet and a powdery droplets of snow settling on their little faces, their patchwork clothing, the ground, and the surrounding packed-earth walls. Incredible and rare. So mystically Chinese in nature, like something out of an epic piece of Chinese cinema. Such an utter privilege.
Booked into a hotel in the next small town along the way and, by 8pm, five police officers invited themselves into our room to do a routine check of passports and have us fill out forms. An anxious forty-five minutes while two of them went off to take photocopies of our passports. Oddly, the most obvious questions were never asked of us:,just how did we get here all the way from Beijing? And how did we intend to get back?
Couldn't wait to leave that small town, but not until a hot shower, de-icing of the car, and a hot bowl of spicy noodle soup. Mostly rudimentary garrison towns along the way. The majority of the people are still Han but there or one or two who are Central Asian in appearance—to our benefit; not feeling so conspicuous anymore. Some of the Central Asians west of here could pass as Europeans: they have similar features and are of a similar build. Frustrating, though, as locals are more likely to expect us to speak Mandarin or a local dialect, and perplexed when we don't. It's nice to leave the coal belt and heavy industry behind. The air is cleaner and we are now seeing wind turbine blades transported on trucks, and the occasional wind and solar farm—a promise of what Gansu has to offer. The Chinese now lead the world in renewable energy. I'm excited at the prospect of witnessing and recording some of this first hand.
Feeling like we are leaving Eastern China behind us now; the buildings are becoming more Tibetan in appearance. The landscape is opening up as the mountains become more distant, larger, snow-capped. Altogether a larger, more dynamic and more romantic landscape. We are around 2,300 metres at times. Billboards along the highway warn us to take heed, 'Don't drive when tire' and 'overspeeding prohibition'. Large chunks of ice on the road, which have fallen off trucks, and black ice that has resulted in a few overturned cars. Overloaded trucks breaking down, resulting in standing traffic many kilometres long. But mostly the roads are exceptional and traffic flows freely. Very relieved to have made it to Zhangye on our ‘Beijing only’ drivers’ licenses. Booked into a hotel in the centre of town; room smells of cigarette smoke. In China, one has a choice to smoke or not. Passive smoking is a different matter altogether. It's impossible to get away from the smell of it. Like coal smoke, it permeates everything.