Day 49 - Saturday 20th May - Jiayuguan to Dunhuang

We felt that the day was off to a bit of an unusual start when a group of 18 year olds in army uniform wandered into breakfast with machine guns tucked under their arms. The Chinese kept eating their breakfast and did not blink. Our group had a second look before checking whether any of the pastries were edible.

We left town on the Provincial S312. The bitumen quickly evaporated and the then the dirt road. Teams were rebuilding the road and we resorted to using their construction tracks and parts of the road that were newly constructed, but unfinished. I think we did this to view an old mud walled caravansari, rather than drive along the new G30 and watch cars speed by at 120kph while we wallowed in the dust at 30kph.

The ruins were interesting. So was the old mosque built in the 12th century with a pagoda style monument to some important Arab cleric who had died here at that time. It was also interesting to drive through the traditional farming villages, rather than just speed by on the highway.

It was hard to tell which of the single story, flat roofed, dun coloured, mud brick buildings were still inhabited and which had been deserted. They were all dilapidated. Farming was all on a small scale. The inhabitants a mixture of Hui and Han, Moslem and Buddhist. They were all very poor and being left behind by the rest of China. You wondered about the futures of the kids we saw playing by the roadside as we passed.

We eventually made our way back on to the G30 to continue our journey west with a little less dust and some more comfort.

Remnants of old walls and watch towers were scattered at intervals along the roadside. These made us question whether Jiayuguan was the end of the wall. The explanations were unclear. These were the remnants of old fortifications to protect from the marauding masses, but these were not the Great Wall.

The stark desert landscape continued to dry and flatten. Soon, the only farming that was being done here was for wind. Turbines seemed to stretch from one horizon to the next. There were also a couple of solar panel farms as well. The turbines were not spinning as we drove past. Somewhere between 5 and 10,000 turbines have been installed. The pace of growth has exceeded the capacity to absorb them into the electricity grid. While China is the largest emitter of green house gasses, it is also the largest producer of renewable energy.

I was keen to visit Dunhuang as it had featured in a number of the books I had read on China. From the travels of 7th century travelling Buddhist monk, Xuanzhang through to the adventures of the 20th century British explorer Ariel Stein.

Situated on the edge of the Taklamakan Desert, the 2nd biggest desert in the world, Dunhuang is dry. It’s home to the Mogao Grottos and also the Whistling Sand Dunes which are trying to envelope the town.

While driving during the day the gearbox issues in the car still persisted. Reverse gear would not engage at all when it was hot. I was not sure these were separate tuning and gear selector issues. David (one of the 3 very technical people on the trip and a maths/science teacher in a past life) decided to read the car manual while we drove through the desert to see if he could understand how the Overdrive unit worked. By lunch he had a theory that the problem was in the Overdrive unit. By evening he had done a web search and confirmed that the two symptoms we had of engine speed dropping in overrun (not increasing) and failure to engage reverse gear were related and due to glazing of the overrun linings. Unfortunately while the articles were eloquent in describing the problem, they did not advise how to fix, or whether the problems would further deteriorate and mean that the car would not drive forward.