A Dolphin God in the Waste

August 7 — Jiayuguan City, Gansu Province

We have bowed before The Dolphin and looked upon his heavenly kingdom.

Like Buddhist pilgrims, we twisted through Jiayuguan’s broad, empty avenues with no sure destination, assured in the knowledge that we’d know what we were looking for when we found it.

A sign: Above the tree tops floated a white globe, gleaming in the sun and impossible to interpret.

Like the three magi, we followed the shine in the sky and found our Lord.

In the middle of a leafy park in the middle of one of the world’s driest and furthest-from-the-ocean cities, The Dolphin rose out of a shallow fountain, perched on its tail fins, looming over all.

The only words we could find were: “What the hell?”

The Dolphin God

The Dolphin God

We approached it with trepidation. Beneath its cracked skin of interlocking white metal beams floated a gut-like atrium and an esophageal elevator.

We made an offering of ourselves.

As it turned out, The Dolphin was actually a gussied-up atmospheric monitoring station. Inside it was a small museum about China’s weather patterns and some exhibits on climate change, plus a collection of photos of the rest of China’s weather stations. Pretty normal stuff.

Atop the elevator, things got weird.

The Dolphin’s head is a 360-degree viewing deck, complete with heavy-duty binoculars. From the top, we could see why we’d had an unshakable feeling that something was amiss in Jiayuguan City.

Jiayuguan has a population of just more than 230,000 people, making it tiny by Chinese standards. But with a Dolphin’s-eye view, we saw the city sprawled out in every direction. Even stranger, it looked like the North Korean utopia realized.

Everywhere apartment blocks of disconcerting suburban sameness rose out of the desert, each red roof capped with its own solar-heated water heater. Tens of thousands of apartments, broken up only by huge, centrally located, hour-glass shaped nuclear cooling towers. Golden, decorative streetlights lining sweeping avenues.

Surrounding The Dolphin – again, in the middle of a desert waste – was a leafy and lush park that must have equaled New York City’s Central Park. It was practically drowning in streams, fountains, and lakes and overgrown in greenery.

And all of it was empty. No people in the apartment clones, no cars on the streets, no commerce anywhere. The infrastructure for perhaps millions, and all of it unused. The only thing that seemed to move at all was the steam drifting out of the nuclear plants. A heaven on earth, desolate.

We found the priests locked in ritualistic competition for their deity’s divine favor.

In the square below two groups danced, one next to the other, a narrow lane in between. Those in one group wore blue polo shirts, the other red. They stood in two blocks made of parallel lines of worshipers. In unison, they shuffled their feet and raised their hands and heads to the sky, keeping pace with the rhythmic, modern tunes that blared from speakers set up among them.

Each group whirled to a different tune, and as we watched, the music spilling forth from each amped up decibel by decibel in an attempt to out-loud the other. They pretended not to notice each other, even as they shot furtive glances scanning for any slip in synchronicity that could signal final victory. On and on it went as we slunk along in gap.

A man, not of that bizarre priesthood, approached me and asked where we were from. After a brief exchange in pleasantries, I told him the huge city looked empty.

“Does anyone actually live here?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “But someday they will come.”

Above, the dolphin reigned — still and omnipresent.

Worshipers compete for the favor of their deity.

Worshipers compete for the favor of their deity.


Peril at the Edge of the World

August 7 – Jiayuguan, Gansu Province

The edge of the empire.

To the west, ahead of us, lay the vast wasteland of the western deserts. To the east, behind us, civilization.

We stood atop the west gate of Jiayuguan fortress, looking out at the sands and mountains beyond. Through this gate, disgraced officials and scholars, poets and criminals walked out of the Chinese empire, banished into the wastes, most never to return.

To the west, ahead of us, lay the vast wasteland of the western deserts. To the east, behind us, civilization.

To the west, ahead of us, lay the vast wasteland of the western deserts. To the east, behind us, civilization.

Known as the “First and Greatest Pass under Heaven”, Jiayuguan is the most intact ancient military fort along the Great Wall of China. Located at the narrowest point of the Hexi Corridor – China’s throat – it was the first pass at the western end of the Ming Great Wall. Built in the late 1300s, its purpose was to protect China’s heartland from the “barbarians”, and for centuries it served as a key chokepoint along the Silk Road.

The fortress is massive: Concentric walls 11 meters high and 733 meters in diameter enclose an area of 33,500 square meters.  The walls, turreted at each corner, connect to the Great Wall and the northern and southern sides.

But where before those walls garrisoned China’s westernmost armies, today they garrison a tourist trap.

Dancers, juggles, face changers, and contortionists abounded. Camels waited for passengers. Dune buggies hummed out into the waste. And overhead some kind of lawnmower-powered hang glider buzzed the tops of the gatehouses.

The hang glider was omnipresent.

The hang glider was omnipresent.

Even when I found a quiet spot on a corner tower, it was all a bit much. The hang glider just wouldn’t go away.

So we circled the walls and headed for the Great Wall instead.

The western Great Wall little resembles its eastern cousin that climbs the shrubby hills outside of Beijing. Shorter and narrower than the famed gray stone wall, the western wall’s local-materials construction makes it a sandy brown mud structure, bonded together with straw. It follows the jagged curvature of the Gansu hills, making use of the local terrain to reinforce its defensive purpose.

We climbed the stairs of the open-to-tourists section to the topmost tower. From the roof, the purpose of the wall is clear: It commands hundreds of empty kilometers of flat, dead plains. Now, nuclear power plants dot the distance, but in the 16th century, no invading army could get even consider approaching the wall without raising the alarm and calling the garrison out from Jiayuguan.

From the tower, though, we spied something else: The dusty remains of skeletal pagodas dotting the steep and shifty hilltops around us. We had to investigate.

Picking our way along the treacherous, crumbling rocks, we wound along the hillsides passing whimsical shapes built by people who’d come before us with collections of the desert stones. We tried to convince ourselves that a fall down the jagged side wouldn’t be all that bad. In places, the trail narrowed to barely a boots width, sloping downward into the space below.

Periodically Matt would insist we go no further. As the man with the most mountaineering experience in our band, that should’ve given us pause. But Dave and I pushed ahead, dragging Matt, muttering this and that about “dangerous” and “hate” and “unstable traverses”, behind us.

At last we reached the splintering pagoda, robed in faded and unravelling prayer flags. Two other pagodas capped hills just below us. Between them, more lines of once-colorful prayer flags stretched like a cobwebs above decrepit temple buildings at the hill base.

To our north the Great Wall slithered up the peak from which we’d come. To the south, it slithered down another hill, then ran rail straight across the empty plain, out to the commanding Jiayuguan fortress, then disappeared into the desert over the horizon.

The Great Wall snakes along the hills, then connects with Jiayuguan in the distance.

The Great Wall snakes along the hills, then connects with Jiayuguan in the distance.

We snapped a few photos, then ambled and slid down to the peeling monastery.

A lone nun, bald and grey clad and trailed by a shaggy malamute, scuffled along among the sand-blasted buildings.

Then we had our closest call of the trip.

As we walked out of the monastery, Dave spied a trashcan for his empty water bottle. Nearby, a tiny mongrel of a dog lay asleep on the sidewalk. As Dave approached the trashcan, the dog lifted its head just a little, but when the bottle clanged to the bottom of the metal bin, he transformed into a demon.

With a snarl he tore from his resting place, flinty eyes locked on Dave’s ankles. With a yelp, Dave slung the bag off his back, wielding it like half like medieval flail, half like shield to keep the dog at bay. Whichever way Dave turned, the dog spun faster, yipping hatred all the way. Each time Dave turned to run, the dog was on at his ankles, forcing Dave to swing around once more and bring his baggy weapon to bear.

Matt and I looked on in horror and delight, flinching backward each time the dog spun closer us, unsure whether to gape or flee. Finally, with something of a strangled battle cry, Dave saw his opening and bolted toward us. On the tiny demon came, still, and the three of us sprinted around a copse of trees, dog in pursuit.  At last, Dave’s foe relented and broke off growling while we broke into nervous laughter as the terror faded into shame.

“Man,” Dave said, trying to recover some bit of his pride. “I just do not want to get a rabies shot in China.”

Dave retreats.

Dave retreats.