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January 7, 2010

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Glorious land of golden poplars

TODAY Inner Mongolia is covered with forbidding snow, but a few months ago in glorious autumn it was ablaze with the golden foliage of rare poplars indigenous to the Gobi Desert in northern China.

The forests in fall are so spectacular that Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai shot part of "Ashes of Time" (2008) there and Zhang Yimou filmed scenes from "Hero" (2003) in that fiery landscape.

It was early October during the National Day holiday that I went hiking in the huyang (diversifolius poplar) forests in E Ji Na Qi, or Ejin Banner, an administrative area in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.

For about 10 days each year, the first two weeks in October, the autumn foliage is at its best, unfurled on powerful branches of unusual shapes.

The 30,000-hectare poplar forest, one of three such in the world, is less than 100 kilometers from Mongolia.

As I'm addicted to my Nikon camera, I kept clicking away at scenes of exuberant leaves and extremely blue sky. I couldn't help shouting, "Fairytale world! Heaven!" as I walked along.

I reached the Ejin Poplar Forest National Nature Reserve Park on September 30 in my solo travel to Inner Mongolia and Gansu Province.

I arrived just before the annual huyang festival that starts on October 8 and attracts numerous visitors. Even on October 1-2, the roads were jammed with vehicles, including SUVs that had covered 1,500 kilometers from Beijing.

It was a sunny afternoon when I first arrived in Dalaihubu Town (Da Town), capital city of Ejin, one of three banners that comprise the Alxa (Alashan) League (a larger administrative unit) of Inner Mongolia.

I took a cab to the park to visit Bridge 4, and Bridge 8 later at sunset.

There are eight huyang districts separated by bridges across the Ejin River and each district has a bridge.

The view from Bridge 4 was a beautiful dream of golden leaves against a deep blue sky. The shapes of the branches appeared to be sculpture.

In the film "Hero," actresses Maggie Cheung and Zhang Ziyi fight each other in Ejin against the backdrop of fallen golden leaves.

"It's heaven and definitely worth the trip," said one visitor.

Ejin is in the west of Inner Mongolia and it takes five to seven hours to get there by bus from the nearest railway station in Jiuquan City, Gansu Province.

Then I took the cab to Bridge 8 (you can walk there from Bridge 4 in an hour or two) to see the sunset. It was a different scene as the gray desert was the backdrop for the golden huyang trees. It looked like a painting.

There's a desert entertainment park near Bridge 8, but it's not recommended unless you want to ride camels or travel the dunes in a SUV.

A tip to amateur photographers: avoid taking pictures between 10:30am and 3pm when the sun is very intense and the light is not the best.

Earlier in the morning is good. You can also await the perfect afternoon by taking a nap, finding an Internet cafe at Da Town or trying the delicious honey melon that is sold all around.

After sunset, I returned to Da Town and had a Mongolian-style dinner with mutton, beef and chicken, and ewe's milk yogurt (not everyone's taste).

In the next two days, I visited other places in Ejin Huyang Park. From Bridge 6 and Bridge 7, visitors can explore pools hidden far beyond roads.

Along Bridge 2, visitors can take pictures of huyang forest, the Ejin River and passing camels. Many photographers set up their tripods and waited for sunset.

Locals say huyang is a symbol of vitality and endurance. "Huyang lives for 1,000 years, remains standing for 1,000 years after dying and does not decay for another 1,000 years after falling down."

If Ejin Poplar Forest was a paradise, the Skeleton Forest of dead trees was quite the opposite.

The Skeleton Forest (Guam Shoo Lin), 28 kilometers southwest of the town, used to be a desert oasis hundreds of years ago. But today the dead trees are ominous, some still standing, others broken and lying in the sand, tangled roots exposed. Some are shaped like dragons, others look like space aliens and dancing figures.

It's a place for the imagination and a great place to take pictures.

I spent several hours with a tripod, photographing silhouettes of dead trees against the setting sun.

"It's a natural combination of dead huyang and soft sun light, which creates a feeling of passed time and nostalgia," said visitor Xu Min who has a Canon 5D and six Canon lenses.

To me, the scenes evoked a line by homesick poet Ma Zhiyuan of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368): "In twilight, a crow perched on an old tree that was twisted like a withered vine."

The huyang died for lack of water as the region was transformed into desert.

Actually, E Ji Na means "black water" in Tangut (xixia) language. The Ejin River, also known as Black Water (Heihe) is a major river system that originates on the northern Gansu side of the Qilian Mountains. The 800-kilometer-long river has two major branches, which merge and flow north into Inner Mongolia. The river terminates in the Ejin Basin in the desert.

The river area has devastated by acute desertification. Ground water levels have dropped by as much as 5 meters since the 1940s, while forest coverage near the river shrank by more than 1,900 square kilometers between 1958 and 1994.

North of Ejin is the Swan Lake, (called Ju Yan Hai in xixia language) that now covers a mere 35 square kilometers, compared with 1,000 square kilometers in the Xia Dynasty around 900 years ago.

The lake is still a nice place for photographers shooting the sunrise, but visitors need luck to spot swans today.

Another sunrise spot in Ejin is Black City, the former Tangut capital. It's now deserted and it lies near the lower end of the Ejin River.

A famous knight used to live in the Black City but it was abandoned after the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) forces diverted the river away from the city in 1372, according legend recorded on the walls of an Ejin temple.

The area was also visited, unfortunately, by foreign explorers who took away treasures and art. They included Pyotr Kuzmich Kozlov and John DeFrancis.

Besides Ejin, I also visited other sites of the Silk Road such as Dunhuang, Jiayuguan, Zhangye and Jiuquan in Gansu Province and Badanjilin Desert in Inner Mongolia.


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