Qilian is a place close to my heart. In the fall of 2013, Brendan, two friends and I went hiking here for a week. It not only changed my ideas about China, hiking here, and outdoor travel in general, but it also left me thinking back to its incomparable scenery and amazing people every time I thought about travelling to China. To give you an idea of the entirety of the place, I’m posting pictures here from both this trip and the 2013 trip.
Qilian is a small boomtown next to an immense mountain range with the same name in a valley corridor of gorgeous grasslands, evergreen alpine forests and riverbeds of birch trees. In the summer almost everything is green, dotted with wildflowers and canola flowers in bloom. In fall, the entire region turns yellow. Flanked by red rock cliffs and backed by looming snow mountains it’s one of the most picturesque parts of China I’ve been to; being pretty out of the way, and somewhat off the radar (completely off the radar to most non-Chinese) it’s also extremely quiet. It’s a wonderland for hiking and unbeatable for being in nature.
Technically Qilian is off-limits to foreign travellers, due to military secrets or maybe something having to do with political sensitivities. Foreign travellers in this region, like in many parts of Qinghai, can be faced with fines or forced to leave instantly. Luckily I’ve never come close to this happening either time I’ve been here but unfortunately I can’t suggest it to anyone as a destination without mentioning that inherent risk. Then again, like anything in China enforcement is inconsistent. The first time we were in Qilian, our group was actually approached by the police at a town called Zhamashi as we were trying to set up camp. After calling us in to his higher-ups, the officer’s only response was ask us to camp on the other side of the river.
This time back we only stayed for a night and a morning, cresting over the mountains from Qinghai lake and spending the night camping by the banks of the Black River, luckily setting up camp before the looming clouds began to move in. The serenity of the forest was as good as ever and we spent the morning weaving our way through the Black River canyon, swerving off to dodge sheep and cut straight through the grasslands. Short but sweet.
The only regret is that we didn’t make it over what’s supposed to be the most magnificent part of the mountain range, an almost 4500m pass off the S213. But after a full night of rain (in what was said to be a pretty wet week), an unpaved road that locals told us was both hard to drive on and also has loose rocks up to a couple feet wide didn’t sound like the best way to make it to the other side. Another day, another trip.
The highlight of this trip back was a visit to a jade factory I’d been to in 2013. On a hike on one of the last days we were there that October I had found a couple of slightly green-ish rocks in the riverbed. Hearing that there was Jade in this region, I wrapped them all up like prizes and took them back in to town with me to a jade shop for confirmation. The girl behind the display case literally laughed in my face. Actually, she said: “This isn’t jade. If you want to see real Jade you should go up the hill to our factory,” which is kind of code for “I have no way to explain to you how wrong you are so go see for yourself.”
We went up and had one of my most memorable travel experiences in China. The bosses of the factory were some of the most hospitable people I’ve met and invited us into the back where they literally kept an enormous pile of jade guarded by a Tibetan Mastiff. Before we left, we were each given the biggest piece of raw jade I have ever held in my own hands.
This time back it’s the first place we went. Somehow I was still able to remember how to get to the factory and we made our way up the hill again to the small non-descript red door after first descending the mountains. Except this time it was locked and the whole courtyard was empty. Discouraged, we asked a passerby what had happened. She told us they moved, but couldn’t say where. Slightly discouraged, I tried to think back to where the display shop was; a bit of guessing later and we found it. I opened the door and started to ask where the factory had moved, but before I could fully finish explaining why, the girl behind the counter said “You we’re here two years ago right, our boss has a picture of you on his phone. Where are the other guys?” I was as shocked as I was touched. Two years, no contact what so ever, and a complete change in appearance (“how did your hair move from your head to your chin,” as one friend put it) and she still remembered me.
We headed over to the new factory, which now has a hotel attached to it and an even bigger pile of un-carved rocks. Everyone in the factory had the same reaction, excited but so relaxed in expressing it that it felt like was an old friend who came through often. After a quick breakfast and long goodbyes we had to get on the road. Driving away to calls of “see you next time,” it’s good to know that this is a place that cares about us too.