Saturday, 10 April 2010

Sai Wai


We are off again! Rowena arrived by train on Wednesday morning, and in the afternoon we braved the juggernauts on the horrendous road out to Jiayuguan Fort to set out into the Sai Wai. This is the area beyond the Great Wall, traditionally regarded by the Chinese as a dreadful wasteland inhabited only by barbarians. To be exiled to the Sai Wai was a fate worse than death. However for barbarians such as ourselves who had just survived the Chinese road system, it held no such fear, as you can see from the rather cheesy photo of us setting out from the West Gate cheerfully waving out little national flags.
We had a pleasant afternoon ride along an old earth track through low desert hills, following the line of the ancient Silk route. But being China, it was not long before we found ourselves back on a metalled road running alongside the expressway with excellent views of the railway and a couple of large industrial complexes . As we are taking it slow to begin with, Peng found us a place to stay by an abandoned brickworks about 15kms from the fort - in a walled compound housing a few farming families. Opposite was another walled compound – but much larger, and housing exiled Chinese prisoners banished to the Sai Wai.
Our room was in the middle of the block shown above, and backed onto a straw yard full of sheep and lambs – the little overnight sounds of rustling straw and bleats was quite comforting to an ex sheep farmer such as myself. Less welcome was the constant barking of the many tethered dogs – accounted for in the morning when it transpired that Shandan had escaped his headcollar and had been inspecting the premises. The room was somewhat spartan – its only content being a bicycle and a lot of dust – but it was dry and relatively warm. And our friendly hostess cooked us a welcome bowl of spiced lamb.
After helping turn out the sheep the following morning we set off again.
And eventually arrived at our present destination, Huihuipu. This is a great excitement for me as it was the ‘Muslim tomb halt’ visited by the Trio, and the first stage on their journeys west. It is the site of the tomb of a great Muslim pilgrim, one of three who journeyed from ‘distant lands in the west’. Francesca French and Mildred Cable describe ‘a small, square, mud-built tomb, with domed roof and a crenated border’. This old tomb was later replaced by a larger building, and two years ago by a tall pagoda like tower, the top of which we could see peeping over the hills like a welcome beacon from a couple of miles away. There is a flurry of building activity taking place here at present, with a new mosque in the process of construction (see above photo) together with a new accommodation block for visiting pilgrims. To my delight, Peng organised for us to stay in the current visitors accommodation, a splendid room boasting a sleeping platform covered with carpets and furnished with colourful quilts, and a large stove which has been lit for us so we are in a warm little haven.
The novelty of hosting long distance horseback travellers who also have a keen interest in the tomb means we are being treated like royalty, with endless cups of Chinese tea and a ‘historic’ spicy mutton stew served with enormous bowls of rice. We have had a constant stream of curious but congenial visitors checking over the foreigners belongings (my air bed and laptop are always a great source of interest) and watching them eat (they can actually use chopsticks!).
Here we are with the imam and his gang. They all look rather serious in the photo, but are in fact quite a jolly lot. The chef is on the right by the stove, which constantly has a kettle on the boil.

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