Tag Archives: desert

Where the Great Wall Meets the Desert

Where the Great Wall Meets the Desert   —by Jinny Batterson

(This entry is adapted from excerpts of Where the Great Wall Ends: A China Memoir, due out later this year.)

In August 2006, I got to see the western end of the Great Wall, near Jaiyuguan, a small city in Gansu province. Many years earlier, I’d first seen part of the wall near Beijing on a guided group tour. On this 2006 visit, my husband Jim and I were headed in stages by train to our first year-long China teaching assignment, in far western Xinjiang. We hadn’t originally planned to view the western terminus of the Great Wall, but fate (and some poor planning on our part) had landed us in Jaiyuguan for an overnight stay.   

We’d been able to get from our initial arrival city of Beijing as far as Jaiyuguan with the assistance of English-speaking Chinese friends and helpful travel agents. The further we got from Beijing, the fewer local people we knew.  Also, the less likely we were to encounter English-capable travel agents. Once we arrived in Jaiyuguan, we knew no one. We’d met no one on the train we could ask for help. We got ourselves and our luggage off onto the station platform. Then I approached the station clerk to buy tickets that evening for the next stage of our westward journey. I got stonewalled. Pulling out my phrase book, trying different dates, I got repeated exposure to a Chinese expression that’s become one of my least favorites: “Mei you,” (pronounced like the abbreviated version of mayonnaise), meaning roughly, “Don’t have.”

Stymied as far as immediate train travel was concerned, we located a helpful taxi driver who guided us to a comfortable tourist hotel near Jaiyuguan’s city center. Luckily we were able to arrange at least one night’s stay there. After we’d settled into our hotel room, we explored a nearby city park, ate dinner at a local restaurant, checked out some small shops, then spent a quiet night’s sleep away from a clanking, crowded train.

The following morning, we decided to do a little local touring. Using sign language, a bilingual tourist map of the area, and some basic Mandarin, we engaged a taxi to take us to the fort at the “First and Greatest Pass under Heaven,” the westernmost outpost of the Great Wall. Our driver, a middle-aged woman, would wait for about an hour while we toured, then return us to our hotel in town.

The fort was several miles west, straddling the narrowest portion of a corridor between two high hills. Our map’s brief commentary explained that it had been built to guard against barbarian invaders who could descend toward China through the pass.  Much of the fort had recently been reconstructed. It was tall, square, thick, appropriately forbidding, with concentric sets of walls and gates to keep invaders out and soldiers in. It had its own water supply. A holding pond to one side supported a luxuriant growth of shoreline willows. From the fort’s highest walls, I could see nearby wall remnants that were little more than crumbling mounds of packed earth in a parched landscape.

I saw few other foreigners. There was little English-language signage to explain the construction and history of this portion of the wall. Then a Chinese dad who sported a T-shirt advertising a Charlottesville, Virginia, pizza shop engaged me in conversation and provided some additional information:

“The fort is built mainly of rammed earth. Its initial construction occurred during the Ming Dynasty, starting in the 14th century. In addition to being a military fort, it was also a trading post along the Silk Road between China and the West,” he told me.

When I asked how he’d come by his excellent English and his American-themed shirt, the man told me he was a cardiologist who’d done part of his training at the University of Virginia’s Medical Center. Before I could ask many more questions, he politely bid me good-bye, rounded up his family, and departed the scene in an air-conditioned minivan that looked a great deal more comfortable than our taxi.     

Remnants of the Great Wall near Jaiyuguan, Gansu in northwest China

Fall Foliage–“Huyang” Trees

Fall Foliage—“Huyang” Trees    –by Jinny Batterson

Vermont has its maples, Colorado its aspens. The Taklamakan region has its “variegated leaf poplars,” known in Chinese as “huyang” trees.  These trees are desert-hardy, and have been spotted even deep within the Taklamakan.  Their leaves at different stages and on different parts of the tree can mimic poplar, willow, and even maple leaves. In the autumn, they turn a golden yellow, lighting up the area around them. Until I went to Xinjiang, I had never heard of these trees (also called “Euphrates poplars,” though not so often in sometimes ethnically tense Xinjiang).

Recently, the trees have become increasingly endangered, and I worry they may follow the trajectory of the American chestnut trees which once formed an important part of the deciduous forests of the eastern United States. During the early 20th century, nearly all American chestnuts succumbed to a fungal blight accidentally introduced from Asia—only a few isolated stands remain.  So far, no biological blight is affecting the variegated leaf poplars, but the incursion of more and more people into the areas where they’ve grown has put increasing pressure on these “trees of the desert.”  Some of the characteristics that make them most adapted to their geographical region—deep, extensive roots and slow-decaying wood—have also made them most susceptible to human invasion.  Their harvested wood is popular for building materials; their intrusive roots make them anathema to those constructing housing or irrigation projects near stands of the trees, whose roots over time will invade foundations and pipes.

The Chinese national television network, CCTV, in 2009 broadcast a 12 part series titled in English, “The Last Stand of the Euphrates Poplars.”  Shortly afterward, in 2010, the P.R.C. applied for UNESCO World Heritage status for parts of the Taklamakan/Tarim Basin region, including the Euphrates poplar’s extensive stands there as part of the justification for a designation:

“The Tarim Basin is the world’s core area of these poplar trees which cover 352,200 ha, accounting for 90% of their total area in China and 54.29% of the global distribution. The largest natural poplar trees in the world occur in the Tarim River drainage area and large areas of undisturbed poplar forests have been preserved in this region.”

The application is still under review.

As a town resident in the Tarim River oasis settlement at Ala’er, Xinjiang, I got few initial chances to see these poplars up close. That changed one autumn weekend when a work colleague arranged a group day trip out into the desert. We packed up a small van with tarps, water, and a picnic lunch, then set out from town.  We stopped first at a fairly high set of sand dunes, took some pictures, and took turns horsing around and rolling down the sides of the dunes. A large trash heap near the dunes only slightly marred the idyllic scene. (Why bother with landfills when the desert winds will sooner or later cover your trash for you?) Even here there were a few poplars, their roots burrowing deep under the dunes.

Next we stopped at a construction site where several tributaries that flow out of the surrounding mountains meet the Tarim River. Since it was autumn, flow from the glacier-fed tributaries was minimal or nonexistent, but there was a lot of piping and several dams—trying to capture as much of the water as possible. For our picnic site, we went downstream about a third of a mile to a large grove of poplars, golden and just starting to shed their leaves. There was a slight breeze, and the trees murmured in a way I associate with aspen groves in the American West.

It is possible that ancestors of the current trees developed as much as 65 million years ago. It is my hope that, despite our busy efforts to “conquer” the desert, these beautiful trees will continue to thrive where little else can for millions of years more.