Northwestern China is the Yukon Province of PRC.
It’s a lot less developed than the coastal part of the country where I grew up. Nobody goes to northwestern China expecting a Maldives vacation. It’s a solid amount of road travel, fierce gusts of wind, hours and hours of gobi* desert populated only by dusty thorny shrubs, tiny hotel rooms and the dry climate. It’s mysterious rather than desolate, quiet rather than bleak, spacious rather than lonely, breathtaking rather than stifling.
You go there for the wind, for the mysterious feeling of a certain type of ancient sorrow, Edgar Allen Poe’s “lost Lenore”, and “nevermore”.
The night- at the tents
Took us three hours to fall asleep, looking forward to see the sunrise in our fitful dreams. And then it started raining.
Lightning and thunder.
So we took the opportunity to sleep in and got up at 8:30. When you’re road travelling, 8:30 really is sleeping in.
It was cloudy but in no way grim outside. We got ready for the day and went to take a walk by the lake.
It was actually quite refreshing, and when the sun came out the lake looked like it was covered with golden fish scales.
I found something interesting by the lake. There was a lot of colourful strips of cloth.
At first I thought they were just garbage floating in from somewhere, but then I started seeing these doll-like cylinders. They looked like tiny beanbags with pieces of cloth wrapped on one end with a rope.
Is it some sort of ritual the locals carry out? Perhaps like the wish bottles people put in the sea, or like the lanterns people send into the sky in Taiwan. After all, humans like to find a medium to physically carry their good wishes, be it water, clean air or strong winds.
And that morning my good wishes found solace not in a sunrise, but in a random combination of things that I could not surmise but was able to appreciate.
Chaka Salt Lake- “the Mirror of the sky”
Chaka Salt Lake was fabulous. Luck was on our side, and so was the sun.
I’ve read online that when it’s rainy and windy, Chaka Salt Lake would look boring as hell, but when the water’s calm and the sky clear, Chaka Salt Lake is amazing.
The Salt Lake is very shallow, so a must-do is to wade into the water and take photos. Another must-do is to bring a huge scarf to pose with. Or at least that’s what people do.
We had to drive four hours straight to get there. It’s not a well-known tourism spot yet, so we pretty much had the place to ourselves.
Yardangs are rocks carved by the wind into shapes that resemble the hull of a boat.
Yardangs are everywhere in Qinghai, but the place we went to was special because it was on the water.
The best places are hard to get to, so this turned out to be one of the best places I have ever been to.
The desert- the echoing of sand
For two days in a row, we went to the desert southwest of Hunhuang, Gansu Province. It felt like another type of water, a dry ocean.
The most famous part of the desert is called Mingsha Hill (鸣沙山)，meaning “Echoing Sand Mountain” in Mandarin.
The place has become very touristy, with restaurants all over the edge of the desert, where you can pay for a package that includes a desert motorcycle ride, sand tobogganing, dinner and a night sleeping in their tents.
But however touristy it was, the views were stunning and the things they offered were definitely fun to do.
The next day, we went to Crescent Lake, which got its name from its beautiful shape like a crescent moon.
The best part was riding camels.
Everything in northwestern China is huge, but there’s something very human in its vastness. I’d even say it’s more human than cities. It’s where you can go into the lake and stand in the water, where you can play with sand like a child, where you can Disney songs on the back of a camel. Or at least, that’s what I did. Ha.