I am about to start the second stage of my amazing trip. Where Xi’an was the final destination of travelers on the Silk Road, I am going to explore a more western part of the Ancient Silk Road in Gansu province, in North-West China. I will be staying in the ancient oasis town of Dunhuang in the Gobi Desert. Today a small city of about 200.000.
Around this historical city which was an important stop on the ancient Silk Road and a crossroads with other important trade routes leading North, you can find some of the oldest remains of the Great Wall and parts of an extensive defensive network of walls and watch and beacon towers and fortresses all designed to protect the precious caravans and the thriving trading center of Dunhuang, and more important, the passage way to the valleys and plains leading to Ancient major Chinese cities such as Chang’an (Xi’an).
But there is more : thousands of ancient Buddha caves, a unique national geological park, and the most beautiful Crescent Moon Spring surrounded by Singing Sand Dunes.. I am really excited, but I arrive very late so I will start my exploration in the morning. The hotel (Dunhuang Moya Hotel) is very nice and I enjoy a great breakfast, but it is located at the edge of town and not in the center, which us a bit inconvenient if you want to go to town for dinner. The more central Dunhuang International Hotel is a good alternative. I am ok with the location. There are so many sites to visit and the are all quite far out of town (up to 100 km) that i booked a local driver to take me around the coming 2 days so i can easily go anywhere I want.
Ancient Dunhuang Town Movie Set
I notice what looks like an old fortress a bit down the road and I ask the driver what it is. I didn’t know about any fortresses nearby. The driver tells me that this is Dunhuang Movie Town, a large desert studio built by the Japanese and since than used as a setting for over 100 movies. Probably all famous Chinese actors have been here at one time or another. Ok… and you can visit it ? … Ok. Sounds like fun. So we pull over for a quick stop. I had never been in a studio before, and I must admit i was curious.
The walls are pretty tall now that i stand next to it. Replica siege weapons are lined up in front of them. An imposing gate leads inside. Although it is of course fake, I must admit I was surprised by the incredible detail of the constructions. Its like you step through a time machine when you pass under the entrance gate : torture devices, stables, chariots and more. The stairs leading up to the walls have a slope without steps to allow horses to get up as well, and there are props everywhere in small alleys and behind corners for shooting different scenes.
It’s like a small town with streets and a temple. I enjoy my walk around the studio. Its really quite fun with a lot of different parts to discover and some great pictures to take. As I walk through a street that looks like a far west town, I discover an old airplane behind some buildings. As I said : great for some fun pictures !
Near a small temple there is a beautiful gate building that offers a great view over the studio and the rough, empty surroundings. I walk further in a street that must have been a busy market with stalls on both sides. You can go in most houses although most are empty.
Towards the end of town I find a small area used for a Korean movie. The buildings are really nice and I wonder what story was being told here.
But a quick tour is enough for me. Why waste more timethere if you csn see the real deal? So I walk back to the parking to continue the trip to my first real destinaton : the West Thousand Buddha Caves
West Thousand Buddha Caves
In the area around Dunhuang, archaeologists have discovered hundreds if not thousands of these caves. The were constructed over the centuries by Buddhist travelers on the Ancient Silk Road and wealthy merchants from the region. Many travelers came from India and left a legacy of documents and manuscripts and delicate frescoes in thousands of shrines. Some caves date back as early as the 4th century AC and their discovery was immensely important not only for its historical value but also in Chinese literature as many works were discovered that were believed lost.
The caves I visit today are a smaller archaeological site about 35 km from Dunhuang city. The most famous ones are the famous Mogao Caves, but they are on the other side of Dunhuang and on tomorrow’s program. Today we stay to the West of Dunhuang. I don’t see the caves anywhere when we park the car. I see some trees growing in what seems a very large pit and some people heading towards the edge. Than i see stairs leading downstairs. Apparently the caves are chiseled out the rocky sides of this depression of the terrain.
Its not a very big site but big enough to hold a large garden. I rather see the caves so I wait a while until there are enough visitors to start a guided tour with a small group. There are 16 caves of which 9 can be visited. But to protect the delicate frescoes, they are not all open simultaneously. Instead some kind of rotation system is used. I visit 4 caves dating from the Northern Wei Dynasty (375-534 AC).
The caves are sealed of from daylight and you enter through a small door. Inside the small shrines are wonderful. There are statues of Buddha and other religious figures, and the walls and ceiling are colorful decorated with religious scenes and thousands of small Buddha images.
Unfortunately I can’t take any pictures. Not allowed. I am a bit confused. I understand no flash is allowed, to protect the paintings from fading. But the guide explains the meaning of the paintings using a flashlight so i don’t even need to use a flash. I reluctantly tuck away my phone wondering how i can possibly damage the artwork by pointing my android at it. I think of the early days of photography when people thought that having your picture taken would capture your soul..
Than the guide points out that you can buy a small book at the entrance with pictures of the caves inside. Now i get it. Well.. It would be much of a travel blog if i can’t show what the caves look like, so I get the book for a reasonable price and I must say the pictures are much better than I could have taken inside the dark caves, and there are pictures of other caves I didn’t see. And so I find myself taking pictures of the pictures to at least show you the marvelous decorations of these ancient shrines. Well.. I guess you could say that I did take the pictures myself…
Yangguan Gate and the Silk Road
We continue our drive towards the Silk Road and soon we arrive at Yangguan Gate. It is an ancient military post to protect the silk road and was an important part of the military defense structures that were build over 2000 years ago. It is as important as the Yumenguan gate (Jade Gate) and both were connected by 70 km long Great Wall. The Yangguan gate was build in 122 BC during the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC – 24 AD).
Behind the entrance gate lies the restored wall with small towers en a nice gateway that leads further inside. Also here siege weapons are positioned in front of the walls. It is nicely done and i don’t mind the devices are not authentic.
They were well made replicas and they certainly added to the ancient military atmosphere they were supposed to create. But than, i am a man and I used to play with castles and knights when I was a kid, so I found it a nice touch.
In the middle of a central square on the main complex stands the impressive statue of the imperial envoy who played a key role in the development of the defenses and securing the Hexi corridor. The path leads further to a replica of the original encampment with more siege weapons and soldiers tents.
I don’t go to the encampment itself, instead i take a small shuttle bus that takes us a bit further out in the desert to see the remains of a large beacon tower that was part of the original defenses. there were a dozen of those between Yangguan and Yumenguan gate. This one is the biggest and most complete one.
It is still a ruin. But it is incredible that such a large part of the construction still stands after 2000 years of desert erosion. What is really even more amazing is the fact that it was not build out of stone, but with reed willow and stamped earth.
There is a fence but you can get pretty close and walk around the ruin, which if course i do, and I continue a while further through the desert to a viewing platform. In front of me is the Gobi dessert stretching out as far as I can see. Another fence below me marks the remains of what used to be the Ancient Silk Road.
It is a wide stretch of sand, and it makes me think of a large camel racetrack in the desert. But I realize the historical significance of the spot where I am standing and I imagine caravans of merchants with exotic produce slowly progressing into the desert with a huge beacon tower watching over them.
I am really excited to be here in China in the Gobi desert standing next to the mythical Silk Road. I wonder if maybe Marco Polo himself had passed here on this very spot. I have plenty of time so I head for a small pavilion a little further on a sandy dune for another viewing point before i turn back to the little shuttle and back to the entrance of the site. What a great experience to behold these ancient ruins and this historical place. I am glad I was there, although some may argue that i get overexcited over a ruin and a stretch of sand. To me, it was a magical place and I could have sat there in the sand till sunset.
But my stomach is starting to protest. It’s already past lunchtime and I have built quite an appetite from the walking in the sunshine. Its quite warm now compared to this morning..
The driver knows a place just next to the entrance. Now i realize that the greenery we passed on the way to the entrance were in fact vineyards ! We walk around the main house to the back straight into the vineyards were the owners have installed the most amazing outdoor dining I had ever seen. Tables and chairs had been put under a roof of green vines and dozens and dozens of bunches of grapes. How charming !
The grapes are ripe and ready to be harvested. They thrive in this rocky soil. As soon as I am seated a lady brings me a bunch of grapes. Complimentary. I ordered some simple dishes and the food I ordered was really great. A perfect lunch in a wonderful setting.
Yumenguan Gate and Pangan Castle
Yumenguan Gate is a short drive from Yanguan Gate and equally important as a historical remnant of the ancient military installations along this part of the Silk Road It was built around 116-105 BC. At that time Western China transported jade through this gate. Therefore it is better known as the Jade Gate.
As soon as you arrive at the parking of the site, you can see the ruins of what once must gave been a small castle, standing out against the barren flat terrain of the desert.
Basically all that is left are the 4 major walls and the remains of the entrance gate. You can go inside to get a good feel of the size of the construction. It is clear that in ancient times this must have been an impressive fortification. In the walls there are imprints left of several corridors or chambers on higher floors.
A little further there are some remains if smaller constructions that have almost completely vanished.
I walk around the building to see it from all sides, but it is really a short stop before moving on to our next stop. Nearby you can find some of the best preserved sections of the Ancient Great Wall, and i really want to see them.
Han Dynasty Great Wall
The Site of Great Wall in Dunhuang is 97 km away North-West of Dunhuang city. It was set up around 111 B.C — 101 B.C.. The materials are sands, little stones, rose willow and reed, all from local sources.
The Great Wall from the Han Dynasty was the largest ever built in Chinese history and measured at one time over 10.000 km. Of course it is not all wall and often natural obstacles like rivers or mountains were used. What is amazing is that after 2 millennia of erosion in the Gobi desert, the wall is still standing.
It is not a very large wall. Not like the sections near Beijing dating from the Ming dynasty. The tallest parts were about 2.5 meters high and up to 4 meters wide. Thanks to the erosion the layered structure has become visible.
Only a small section can be visited and you can walk several hundreds of meters along the remains of the wall toward what is left of a watch tower.
On the way back i spot a small piece of the wall that collapsed and folded. Here you can clearly observe from close by the layers of reed and the rose willow branches and sand used in the construction of this historical monument.
This was only the first of many sections of the Great Wall I would visit on this trip. But for today there is 1 more site to visit before this fantastic day ends : sunset at the Yadam National Geological Park, or Dunhuang’s ‘Devil City’ !
That however is for next post.