Zhangye is right at the edge of the Badain Jaran Desert, and 70 million trees have been planted as windbreaks around the farming areas surrounding the town, giving the area a very “green” feel. It occupies an important strategic location in the Hexi Corridor, which is the valley in between two high mountain ranges that effectively funneled Silk Road traffic, and invading armies, in a east-west direction. As a result, it was a flourishing trading center since at least the sixth century A.D.
We planned to see Dafo Si, the Giant Buddha Temple, containing China’s largest reclining Buddha, 34 metres long, and the surrounding Dafosi Temple complex, in the morning, then head to Shandan and its horse farms in the afternoon, with cycling on the return. We will overnight in Zhangye.
We had several varieties of sponge for breakfast at the hotel – sponge in the shape of a muffin, sponge in the form of a cake, etc.!! Even Tali, who often makes breakfasts her most substantial meal of the day, ate almost nothing, but as usual in China, great food turned out to be only a few minutes away!
We then headed out by foot to the Temple Complex, that houses the Giant Buddha, a huge collection of important spiritual and historical scriptures, and the Earth Pagoda. Dafo Si is also the birthplace of Kublai Khan, underlining Zhangye’s long and vital history.
Right outside the Complex a group of women were sitting together, preparing a delicious concoction of sticky rice with fresh dates, elaborately wrapped in a type of palm leaf, for later steaming and serving. We watched and photographed them, and they were happy to let us eat a bit of the already-cooked filling that they were briskly selling. It was superb! Sprinkled with a bit of sugar, it more than made up for our spongy breakfast! What a tasty surprise!
Afterwards, we had a great time walking the streets of Zhangye, because it turned out that our original plan to see Shandan wasn’t do-able without hours and hours of driving, so we spent the day finding interesting market streets, bookstores, and tea houses.
During our walk in this important city on the old Silk Road, we passed by many buildings with Italian influenced architecture, now housing KTV (karaoke rooms) bars, and hairdressers. There was a large sculpture of Marco Polo, who spent several years here, translating the scriptures stored at Dafo Si, at the entrance of the neighborhood. Silk Road history was all around Zhangye!
We then met Jason for a walk to a market area, where Tali bought a pair of stone sunglasses, big round glasses whose lenses are actually polished stone! They looked quite funky, but are a bit heavy to wear as anything but a fashion statement.
We also tried “small hot pot,” which is like Sichuan Hot Pot, but without the meat. At the front of the restaurant were large glassed refrigerators, containing a large selection of vegetables. Whatever we wanted we placed on a stainless plate for the staff to par-boil for us, then drizzle with a bit of hot chili oil. Our meal was served on the same skewers they had used to prepare the vegetables with – potatoes, seaweed, broccoli, cauliflower – all quite good!
We ended the evening at the Happy Time Tea House, where you can sit as long as you want, use their Internet, and get endless tea refills, all for a small price.
It was a richly enjoyable day in Zhangye.