Friday, November 13, 2009

An amazing expedition, now safely completed.
Khara Khoto Fort in the Gobi Desert, Inner Mongolia.
Mazartag Fort in the Taklamakan desert, China.

For a preliminary selection of pictures, click here...
Click on the first picture to enlarge it, then click the 'next' arrow to view.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Rockets and Forts in the Gobi
25th October 2009 - We drove North and reached the well laid-out town of Jiayuguan. Here we visited the great Ming fort. This historic building stands on a big hill which marks the very edge of the Gobi desert. It is a formidable structure with high walls, double ramparts, guard house, battlements and ornate, pagoda-styled watch towers. It presided over the changing loyalties of the Mongolian border and manned the patrols on this section of the Great Wall. The 'Wall' itself is unbreachable and runs from a precipitous gorge at one side before snaking off across the mountains on the other. The whole fortification is a tiumph of medieval engineering and tactical design and a grand statement of pure military might. Little surprise it was never taken.

26th October 2009 - Our journey across the Gobi continues. We drove northwards up the Ruo Shui river which rises in far-away Tibet and flows right across the Gobi desert. It disappears into lake Sogo Nur on the Mongolian border. The fertile banks support good cultivation as we started and this thinned out and disappeared as we reached deeper into the Gobi.

The road was well surfaced and clearly a military supply route. We reached a flat barren tract of desert, as flat as the eye could see, and we knew we were entering China's top secret defence installation and rocket launch site. We concealed all maps, 'gps' receivers and cameras. We were stopped at a checkpoint where our passports were submitted for examination. The guard looked us up and down suspiciously and then rang through our details to the guard commander.
"Four eenglish tavellers, all velly old, combined ages 300 years..."
"Ah ! So...", spluttered the captain, "300 years... let them pass".

We were waved onto a desert piste which by-passed the military garrison and rejoined the surfaced road further on. A fighter aircraft zoomed low overhead and then landed nearby. By the hangar were rows of fighter aircraft lined up. On our south side were numerous radar tracking installations. The barbed wire boundary fence went on and on until we reached another check point. And there, directly ahead was the rocket launch pad, clear for all to see.

James Bond would have been amazed. Jian-Hu was amazed too, this uninhabited and highly sensitive area had been out of bounds to Chinese and foreigners alike, until very recently. The secrecy of the site had been blown away when NASA published satellite pictures of the whole world on the internet. No hiding place remains and we identified the rocket site from the Google Earth picture we (improperly) carried with us.

However we are not spies and our goal lay further north. We sped on towards Mongolia across the increasingly barren reaches of the Gashun Gobi until we could see, in the far distance, the outline of hills that mark the Mongolian Border. We were nearing our goal, Khara Khoto.

29 October 2009 -
The medieval fort of Khara Khoto lay some way off our route and Ray Bird had prepared satellite pictures and gps fixes determining our turn-off point across the sand. But we were surprised, and a little disappointed, to find a newly consructed road leading to the fort. We thought we would be blazing a new trail to this forgotten fort but the Chinese Ministry of Culture had got there first.

The town was sacked in 1372 when the first Ming Emperor chased off the Mongol invaders. They had been in residence since 1227 when Ghengiz Khan invaded it. After a fearsome fight, all the Mongol occupants were slaughtered and the town was abandonned to the Gobi sands for over 500 years. It was rediscovered by a Russian archaeolgist around 1910. Few people have visited since but all that looks set to change with China's current tide of enthusiam for Chinese tourism. With the convenience of a graded road we arrived early entered the town by the West Gate and spent a long and interesting time reliving the known history and examining the ruins.

Our visit was the grand finale for our long planned and long travelled journey. We walked and climbed among the abandoned fortifications and cherished the memories of this vibrant border town. The great central square was contained by soaring walls, surmounted at one coner by several Buddhist stupa shrines. The river Ruo Shui provided water, the water provided trees and shade for the animals, crops and grazing, and to all external signs the fort was invincible. History dictated otherwise, however, and only memories and legend now survive. The massive walls were never breached but trickery and a siege starved the fort of water and the end was just a matter of time.

* Footnote from In 1372 Genghis Khan's influence was on the wane and China's new Ming Dynasty was exerting its authority. The great desert fort of Khara Khoto was protected by unassailable walls and maintained by a formidable army. A frontal attack was clearly impractical. So the wily Ming emperor marshalled a great force to dig a canal to divert the river - and then they waited…

The Mongol leader, Khara Bator, soon realised his fate. He dug a deep well which failed to supply water. Fearful of capture, he killed his own family before throwing his treasures down the well and running on his sword. The Chinese entered the town and slaughtered the occupants 'like cattle' and left the bodies unburied in the main square.The city was never reoccupied and gained a ghostly reputation. It became known as the 'Black City' and is shunned by the Chinese and Mongolians alike.

The city was claimed by the desert sands and is now only distinguishable by it's 30ft ramparts, crumbling temples and many bleached bones.

Our visit to Khara Khoto fulfilled all expectations and we started our long journey home with a sense of satisfaction and achievement. We crossed another 800km of Inner Mongolia to reach the northbound stretch of the Yellow River at Yinchuan. The Yellow River makes a curious 180 degree turn and we reached it again, a whole day later, on it's south-bound run at Wubu. Then another long drive through gorges and mountains into central China.

We reached Pingyao in the late afternoon. This extraordinary walled city is locked in it's own time capsule, embodying the best of 300 years of Chinese history. People live and work in this ancient city, cars are banned and tourists flock to see the cobbled streets and the ancient sites. There are Taoist shrines here, Buddhist temples and even a Christian church. It's medieval perfection is so convincing it looked like a Hollywood film set.

Then Datong, the home of many spectacular Buddhist shrines built under and adjacent to the Great Wall. Tomorow Beijing, the Forbidden City and our flight home.

This will be the last web-log post this series. Website and pictures will follow. Keep tuned in to

Raymond Bird, Philippa Treadwell, Suzie Rae, Kit Constable Maxwell