Kiwi Natalie Bowie hadn’t so much as visited China for a holiday, let alone travelled to the edge of the Gobi Desert. But in the space of 48 hours, she decided to quit her job and escape to the Orient. 

WORDS + PHOTOS Natalie Bowie

In February 2014, I arrived at Shandan Bailie School in Gansu Province, Northwest China, armed with my thermals, my camera and my enthusiasm to help support something a very special Kiwi had started in the 1940s. The school has special significance to New Zealand – it was founded by Rewi Alley, born in Canterbury in 1897. Rewi served in World War I and afterwards returned to New Zealand, where he farmed for a few years in the backblocks of Wanganui before setting off to China out of curiosity, little knowing he’d spend the rest of his days there, until his death in Beijing in 1987.

As the founder of the New Zealand China Friendship Society, which continues to support a range of initiatives in both countries today, Rewi is regarded as one of China’s most important foreign friends of the 20th century. Shandan Bailie School stands among his life-transforming achievements.

Natalie with some of her students.

In 1942, Rewi joined British adventurer George Hogg in running a school for orphaned boys in Shaanxi Province, but in 1944, with war raging in China and armies heading further west, they were forced to organise a daring rescue and move the school inland to a half-deserted village on the edge of the Gobi Desert. There in Shandan, the students were able to continue to benefit from Rewi’s theory of hands-on learning.

After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the school was moved to Gansu’s capital city, Lanzhou, where it merged with a technical institute. But Rewi retained his passion for the region and its people for decades, and in the late 1980s (and himself in his 80s), he found the funds to re-establish the school in Shandan. Today, it continues, and each year invites one New Zealander to visit to teach English to the students. In 2014, I was that lucky Kiwi.

Shandan is an oasis town five hours by train north of Lanzhou. On three sides of Shandan, desert stretches as far as the eye can see. To the south, the mighty Qilian Mountains dominate the skyline, towering almost 6000m at their peak. As the train meandered up the Silk Road, with giant cliffs on both sides of the tracks, I saw camels ambling by among herds of goats and yaks.

My journey was to be one of self-discovery, as much as anything else. Leaving a good job, great friends, my home and family support for the unknown was going to be tough – add to that the fact that I was the only foreigner at the school and a young-ish female, and I was in for some interesting times.

The kids weren’t the only ones with something to learn. I’d expected that my lack of patience would make teaching English to a class of 55 teenage boys a challenge, but I developed a whole new appreciation for teachers! During my time in Shandan, I taught about 240 local students what I could about life outside their small hometown. But most of my time was my own, and that was when the real adventures began.

I visited a huge horse farm that was home to more than 10,000 horses, and travelled to Inner Mongolia to climb the sand dunes, where I felt like I was in the Sahara, not China. I loved the natural beauty of the region, including the stunning Danxia landforms (pictured top) and man-made marvels like the true end of the Great Wall of China, which I travelled nine hours by overnight train further west to another oasis town to see. (Part of the Great Wall also ran past my bedroom window, although it was just another area for rubbish, dirt and sand to accumulate in Shandan, and most of the wall was so eroded it would hardly keep out a sheep, let alone an invading army.)

Other adventures included surviving the constant sandstorms that ravage this region in spring, working with local farmers to help support their cooperatives, and spending hour upon hour on my trusty old bicycle, visiting villages and farms within easy reach of Shandan. I battled altitude sickness when I first arrived and found I also had to quickly adjust to temperatures that sat at around -15°C in the middle of the day and plummeted even further during the crisp, dark nights.

My trip led me to befriend a range of interesting characters, although making true friends was challenging due to the language barrier. It was also hard to reconcile the poverty I saw everywhere with the SUVs and iPhones that were equally prevalent. Through subsequent travels in China, I’ve come to learn that this situation isn’t unique to Shandan, but it took a lot to get my head around it.

The friends I did make in Shandan will be forever in my heart, and I’m so grateful that I had the opportunity through the New Zealand China Friendship Society to follow in the extraordinary footsteps of Rewi Alley. My five months in the Gobi were unique and fascinating, and an experience I’ll always treasure.