Originally known as Small Square City, Yumenguan Pass, together with Yangguan Pass, is one of the two important passes on the western frontier of the Han Dynasty (206 BC - 220) lands. It is located 56 miles northwest to Dunhuang City, Gansu Province, at the western end of Hexi Corridor. In ancient times, it was the crucial gateway from central China to the western regions.
Situated 75km northwest of Dunhuang, the Yumen Guan(Jade Gate) Pass was a strategic pass on the ancient Silk Road. It was so named because the jade of Hotan in nowaday's Xinjiang region was transported to central China through this pass. In his poem Go North of Great Wall, the Tang Dynasty poet Wang Zhihuan had the famous line, " Beyond the Yumen Pass the breath of Sring has never crossed". The mention of Yumen in the poem has made the pass more famous.
In the early Han Dynasty, the Huns ceaselessly invaded the Han's area. At first, the weak Han rulers attempted to marry the daughters of imperial families to the Huns' leaders, in hope of gaining temporary peace. When Emperor Wu rose to power, he immediately gave up this cowardly policy by launching fierce counterattacks on a large scale. Finally, the Hun's troops were driven back. In order to strengthen the stability of the western frontier, this wise emperor ordered Yumenguan Pass and Yangguan Pass to be set up along the Hexi Corridor. Henceforth, these two passes, like two royal soldiers, honorably began to guard the western gate for their motherland.
Today, there is not much left and the only visible architecture there is the dirt tower. Wilderness dominates the area.
|A camel caravan following the path of the ancient Silk Road.|
Yumenguan: Gateway to the Silk Road
Some eighty kilometres northwest of Yangguan stands Yumenguan, another majorstronghold and pass in the Great Wall'snorthwesternmost section. It is where theGreat Walls from Yangguan and Lop Nur inXinjiang converge. Yumenguan was themost famous stronghold of the Han dynasty,being the pass used by envoys, troops andtraders' caravans travelling along the SilkRoad to the Western Region. It is said thatthis was the path by which jade, produced inabundance in Xinjiang, was transported tocentral China in pre-Han times, and thisgave the Han dynasty fortress its name,yumen meaning "jade gate". It is a squarefortress built of tamped yellow earth, latercalled Little Square Tray because of itsshape. It is ten metres high, each side isthirty metres in length, and there are gateson the northern and western sides. To itssouth and west lies the Gobi Desert.
|Sunrise over Yumenguan.|
In the Han dynasty Yumenguan was thegarrison headquarters for this section of theGreat Wall. This tiny fortress was, in itstime, a nightmare for the Huns, and garrison men spent many dismal years here inthe remote desert away from their familiesand homes. Ban Chao, an eminent generalwho spent most of his life in the WesternRegion, appealed for Emperor Wu's permission to pass his last days behind the castle ofYumenguan. "I don't ask the extravagance,"he wrote to the Emperor, "of returning toJiuquan alive. I will be content to come backwithin Yumenguan before I die."
Yumenguan guarded the key pass on thefamous Silk Road. Following Zhang Qian'swestern missions the Great Wall was extended towards the Western Region, and therewas a rapid development of communicationbetween east and west.
|A belt of young trees in the Gobi near Yangguan.|
Many vied for the chance to be sent westas diplomatic envoys, their real purposebeing to seek profits by doing private business with government capital. Each year upto a dozen or more caravans of these pseudoenvoys set out, each caravan numberingfrom a hundred to several hundred persons.Herding tens of thousands of sheep andcattle and armed with millions of coins,these businessmen made extensive tours ofsouthern, central and western Asia, trips thatgenerally took eight or nine years, andreturned to China loaded with westerngoods exchanged at enormous profit.
At the same time as the Han businessmenwere trekking west, traders from the Western Region trayelled to China in greatnumbers via Yumenguan and Yangguan.They came ostensibly as envoys to "offertribute" to the Chinese court, but, like theirChinese counterparts, they visited Chinaprimarily for business purposes. They weretreated with generous hospitality by the Hangovernment, which "entertained the foreignguests from Western Regions with ponds ofwine and forests of meat", as one historybook put it. Some were invited to accompany the emperor on his tours.
|Little Square Tray fortress (Xiao Fang Pan Cheng), where garrison troops were headquartered in the Han dynasty. It's now known as Yumenguan.|
By the Tang dynasty traffic on the SilkRoad had reached its peak. Great quantitiesof Chinese silks, iron tools and agriculturalproducts, along with the techniques of ironsmelting, water conservancy and Chinese artand culture, travelled this path into theWestern Region. In return, China's importsfrom the west ranged from religion, drama,acrobatics and musical instruments down toagricultural products, vegetables and fruits.Images of flourishing economic and culturalexchange are reflected by Tang dynastytricoloured glazed ceramics unearthed inShaanxi, depicting caravans of camels loaded with Chinese silks, or musicians from theWestern Region.
|Swampland carpeted with a beautiful layer of vegetation. To step in it can be fatal.|
An Arduous Project
The Great Wall extends further southwestfrom Yumenguan along the southern banksof a continuous row of lakes and saline-alkaliswamps, its height varying from four metresin some places to a few dozen centimetres inothers. On the inner side of the wall standbeacon towers at intervals of several if:Averaging ten metres high, the towers arestill very impressive.
The saline-alkali lake is a curious phenomenon. Fringed by a snow-white layer ofalkali salt 60 centimetres thick, the water isa beautiful azure hue, but it is bitter andundrinkable. The lake banks are luxuriantlyovergrown with licorice plants with darkgreen leaves and thick, strong stalks. Theseare interspersed with groves of if'anchal; akind of fiery red plant, and a lush growth ofreeds, also covered with a thick frost ofalkali. Some exotic birds loiter by the lakeside, while wild ducks paddle in the water.Near the lake are pools of fresh water seeping up from underground where sheep, donkeys, camels and horses drink. The garrisontroops and travellers depended on theseoases for survival.
|Lakeside reeds covered with a frost of saline-alkali crystals.|
But the place is fraught with hiddendangers. The lakeside terrain is unpredictable. In some places the ground looks likefresh ploughed furrows, but the earth is hardas iron, with sharp edges that would cut thesole if one stepped on them, while aninadvertent fall could result in serious injury. In other, flatter places a smooth patchof ground could be just a fragile crustcovering a quagmire of unfathomable depth,a fatal pitfall for the imprudent traveller.This is where the camel shows its superiorqualities. Over the cutting edges of therough terrain it walks with ease on its fleshyfeet, and it avoids the hidden mires with analmost sixth sense.
Beyond the beautiful lakes and treacherous saline swamps, the Great Wall extendsinto the boundless Gobi, its tall beacontowers marking out the route of its advance.The Gobi is a vast empty land covered withbluish-grey gravel and sand. One travelsdozens of kilometres without seeing a tree ora blade of grass. The sky is a boundlessazure, without a fleck of cloud, a whisk ofwind or the stir of a bird to challenge theabsolute predominance of empty silence,and only the camels' heavy breathing andthe monotonous padding of their feet on therigid Gobi terrain remind one of the presence of life. At noon the scorching heatreaches 37C. ; at night it's a shivering 124C. to5C. . One must trudge two or three daysbefore finding food or drink. Hunger andthirst are the enemies.
|Big Square Tray fort (Da Fang Pan Cheng), also known as Riverside Storehouse fort (He Cang Cheng), stands on the Gobi 60 kilometres northwest of Dunhuang and 20 kilometres west of Yumenguan. Built in the Han dynasty, it served as a granary for the Great Wall garrison from the Han through the Wei and Jin (A.D. 220-419) dynasties. The rectangular barn measures 132 metres by 17 metres, and is built of rammed earth. The highest remaining wall stands 6.7 metres high, and the whole structure is partitioned by earthen walls into three separate storehouses, each with its own entrance. There are triangular ventilation holes in the walls.|
Beyond the vast Gobi lies a region ofyardang landform reminiscent of the mesasand buttes of the American Southwest, andcharacterized by catastrophic hurricanes inthe winter. It is said that some tornadoeshere are powerful enough to lift humansinto the air. With the loose sand cover sweptaway, the stratum 'of clay rock washed bytorrential rains in the summer is carved intoa curious mixture of tall clay plateaus separated by yawning canyons. The plateauspresent a variety of grotesque shapes: someresemble tall buildings or castles, otherslook like wild beasts, still others could bemistaken for beacon towers. Here the GreatWall of the Han dynasty has been reducedby the elements to a height of a few dozencentimetres, although some beacon towers,created by giving the natural clay plateaussome trimming and reshaping, have survived. The entire landscape gives one thefeeling that he is passing through a huge,uninhabited ancient city.
In the canyons between the plateaus are amixed growth of reeds, licorice bushes,bluish dogbanes, red willows and sand thistles. Particularly impressive are the manydiversiform-leaved poplars. Known as the"heroic tree" of the Gobi, the poplar isdrought-enduring, saline- and wind-resisting, and thrives vigorously in the adverseenvironment. For survival it depends on anenormous root system that extends a dozenmetres downwards and dozens of metreshorizontally in all directions to absorb whatlittle moisture the sterile soil has to offer.The meagre amount of water thus gatheredis heavily alkaline, but the tree is able toseparate the excessive chemical content andexcrete drops of it from its trunk. These areknown as "poplar tears", and crystals ofthese drippings are picked by local inhabitants and used as yeast in baking. Thanks totheir powerful roots, the poplars are alsoable to stand erect in defiance of the destructIVe storms.
|A wall Painting in a cave at Yulin, in Anxi county, Gansu-- Tang Monk on Pilgrimage for Scriptures.|
The grotesque geological landform madethis part of China a terrifying region forancient travellers, who believed it to be thehaunt of ghosts. The diverse shapes of theclay plateaus and the vapours from the saltlakes often produce mirages in the shape ofimages of towns or villages. Even morespectacular can be the experience at dusk ordawn, when in delusion the traveller seemsto hear voices calling to him, but should heyield to the temptation and stray from hiscompanions he is likely to step into somefatal danger. The beacon towers, whichgenerally serve to guide travellers, are soeasily confused with the similarly-shapedclay buttes that one is more likely to get losthere than anywhere else.
|Licorice, a useful medicinal herb, grows in abundance beside the salinealkali swamps. The roots of the plant are generally thick and strong, some more than a metre in length and weighing more than two kilograms, and of a higher quality than cultivated licorice.|
In a terrain so difficult and precariouseven for travellers, the Han dynasty buildersmanaged to create a Great Wall, and some ofits beacon towers stand eight metres highand remain in good condition to this day. Itmay well be imagined what hardships musthave been overcome in their construction.
Ever since the first links were forged withthe Western Region by Emperor Wu, Dunhuang became a communications hub and acentre for economic and cultural exchangebetWeen east and west as well as a strategicstronghold in northwestern China. Manycultural relics around Dunhuang bear witness to the town's past glory, notably theworld-famous Mogao Grottoes, popularlyknown as the Thousand-Buddha Caves, 25kilometres southeast of Dunhuang's countyseat. They are cut into the cliffs on theeastern slope of Mingsha Mountain. Thecarving started in A.D. 366, and by the timeof Empress Wu Zetian (who reigned fromA.D. 684 to 701) the number of caves hadexceeded 1,000. After centuries of erosionby the elements, and man's destruction, atotal of 492 caves remain in good condition.Created over a period of some ten dynasties,from Northern Wei (386-534) to Yuan(1206-1368), they contain about 45,000square metres of wall paintings and morethan 2,000 coloured statues of Buddhistfigures. It is the world's greatest gallery ofBuddhist art.
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