My journey continues as I take the train from the oasis of Dunhuang to the city of Jiayuguan. I like the Chinese rail system. It’s efficient and modern. Especially in the bullet train you travel fast and comfortable. There is plenty of leg-space and each seat has a connection for your phone so you can watch a movie or something without worrying about your battery. You can always get a snack or a drink on the train. This time unfortunately it is dark outside already, so I can’t see the landscapes whizzing by at 300 km/hour… It takes a good 4 hours to get there, and by the time I arrive it is late in the night and I am exhausted.
A taxi brings me to the hotel : the Chinese Peacock & Parasol Tree Hotel. It is pitch black outside. Still today I have no clue as to the location of the hotel in Jiayuguan. It is also pitch black at the hotel. Everybody seems asleep, and it takes a little scouting around before I find a person still awake to bring me to the room. The hotel seems to be some kind of park, and the rooms are small chalets hidden behind flowers and trees. Absolutely beautiful ! But I would only see the hotel the next day, as the gentleman takes me over small pathways and small bridges to my room in the dark. I try to memorize how we are walking and I start to worry a bit about missing breakfast in the morning…
The rooms however are beautiful and stylishly furnished with wooden and bamboo Chinese style furniture. Very tasteful. And the bed was huge. The next morning I don’t seem to have too much trouble finding my way back to the front of the park. I seemed to have remembered well, although I do miss a turn or 2. But I enjoy the walk between the small chalets in the greenery and the flowers. It’s a sunny morning and the temperatures very pleasantly fresh. The central building is huge and looks like a big greenhouse. I wonder if I am at the right building. But yes, inside the greenhouse and surrounded by exotic trees and blossoms is the restaurant of the hotel. The restaurant also holds beautiful colored exotic birds that sing a happy song while you eat your scrambled eggs from a rich buffet. One seemed to have escaped and sits free on the cage of a fellow colorful bird. Would it be a couple? Accidently separated by a careless caretaker?
I wish I had some time to visit the gardens and the park, which looked beautiful. But a car pulls up and I recognize the licence plate. It’s my driver for the day. Time to go and discover some more relics of the ancient Silk Road and it’s defensive structures.
Overhanging Great Wall of Jiayuguan
Jiayuguan is a small city of less than 200.000 inhabitants but long a go it as a very strategic place along the Silk Road and the Western end of the Ming Dynasty Great Wall (1368 – 1644) (that is the same one as the big section around Beijing that everybody knows so well) . I have a bit of an obsession with Great Walls. It’s one of mankind’s greatest achievements and one of the Great Wonders of the World, but in all the years I had been traveling to China I had never seen it. Until in the summer of 2015 I finally saw a section of the Southern Great Wall near a Miao Village in Hunan Province. And of course I had just visited the remains of the Great Wall from the Han Dynasty….Confusing? Yes it is. I have learned by now that the Chinese people have been quite some wall builders over the centuries and you can find different sections of different walls from different periods in many parts of China. I asked a friend of mine once if he had ever seen the Great Wall, and he said : sure, which part?
This part is peculiar. It is build on against the slope of the steep, rough Black Mountains, but on the back side. So it looks like it is ‘hanging’. When you look from the West to the East, it is invisible. So the enemy would think there was a gap through the Black Mountain Canyon, only to discover after a difficult climb that there was a solid wall waiting for them. Originally it was build from stamped earth and sand, giving it its characteristic yellow color. Today this section has been completely restored and is accessible to the public.
The site entrance is next to a beautiful restored water gate. Flags are dancing in the wind The welcoming view is impressive and you see the wall and gate and watchtowers exactly as they must have been like hundreds of years ago. A little further I see a monument commemorating the travelers and their camel caravans on the Ancient Silk Road, and a temple pagoda, with the rugged and dry Black Mountains in the distance
It is not a long climb on the wall. The path leads up to the top of the wall and a guard tower, from where you descend again from a mountain path. It’s a good exercise though. And there is plenty of opportunity for great view of the black Mountains and the plains on the other side of the Wall.
Two small watch towers are also restored and on the way to the summit. The climb is sometimes steep and i have to catch my breath for a moment after arriving at the second tower. This is the end of this section of the wall. At least the open part, because i see the wall continuing further and the dark silhouette of distant towers and pagodas on mountain tops against the bright sun.
When I look down over the spectacular mountains, I see love messages and initials against the slopes. Similar to the initials of lovers carved into trees. Here they are arranged with rocks and stones, and well visible from up here in the tower. They must be pretty big.
A young couple is climbing the mountain side off-track, on their way to leave their own token of eternal love. It’s pretty cool, really. The girl is pointing to some rocks, while her partner is climbing further in the blistering desert sun and braking his back trying to lift stones that are clearly too big for the poor fellow… Yes yes… true love has its price…
The walk down is pleasant and offers some real nice up-close views from the Wall. This is what it looks like from the enemy side and it doesn’t look inviting. It’s really an incredible feat, these Great Walls of theirs. Impressive !
I walk back to the entrance after taking in the panoramic views. Time to get back on the road for a short drive to my second stop of the day.
First Watchtower in the West
The ticket includes 3 sites : the Hanging Wall, the Jiayu Pass Castle and the First Watchtower of the Ming Dynasty Great Wall. I am heading to the tower first, and I am quite thrilled. The First Watchtower was the first of 39 towers build. It is build in 1539 next to a cliff, and it is the starting point of the famous Ming Dynasty Great Wall (the Beijing one). This is the starting point in the West of 8800 km of Great Wall.
First you drive along the remains of a part of the original Wall. Similar to the Han dynasty section I visited in Dunhuang (which is much older), it is build with stamped earth and sand. Therefore much of it is in ruin due to the constant desert erosion. Still I find it in better condition than the much older Han Dynasty Wall. This wall connected once all 3 sites of today’s visit. I found it remarkable that there was no fence placed in front of the wall.
You can just stand next to this historical construction. Touch it if you want. Some tourists are testing the strength of the wall by kicking against it. I don’t speak any Chinese, but I am sure that my facial expression at that moment was a universal language they understood very well.
A short walk leads to the cliff of the Taolai River Canyon where the remains of the first watch tower still stand overlooking the canyon. Although it is in ruins, I still feel special to stand here at the starting point of such an immense structure.A set of stairs leads down the cliff side where you can visit a reconstruction of what must have been an original military encampment belonging to the tower and wall. There is time to take a look at the canons and the drums and the soldiers’ tents. Life must have been hard as a frontier soldier in those days…
For me the major attraction is the spectacular hanging bridge over the cliff.
It leads to a tourist center on the opposite site, but the crossing over the wobbly bridge is quite an adventure with fantastic views over the Taolai River flowing like a blue serpent through the canyon. Or should I say blue dragon? And off course the Watch Tower watching over it all.
A few kilometers further by car lies the imposing fortress of Jiayuguan. It was a main military headquarters along this section of the wall and a key part of the defenses in the Jiayu Pass. It was build in the same materials as the wall and towers : stamped yellow earth. But it is completely restored and now is a main attraction of the city. It is huge and I feel humbled waking towards the tall walls of the fortification. In front of the Fortress is a spring and a pond that you follow towards the entrance.
The fortress has an inner and an outer wall and many gates with beautiful gate towers guarding them. The wall themselves are equipped with watch and arrow towers, and canons. Also here I notice that the stairs leading up the walls are constructed half without steps to allow cavalry onto the walls.
There is a most charming temple commemorating the military leaders of this area and even a beautiful theater to entertain the officers.
Some of the walls are 6 meters high and sometimes form small squares in which the enemy would surely be trapped. I take ample time to discover the fortress and the little boy inside me wants to climb every wall and watchtower. The becoming slightly older man inside me is thinking of all the delicious food I had during my trip and the slightly expanding middle section of my torso…
Central in the complex is a large square. I suppose to assemble the troops. It is very lively with some stalls in front of the gate and colorful banners everywhere.
The further i venture into the fortress, the prettier become the 2 and 3 story gate buildings. The last one is particularly richly decorated and the curling rooftops simply magnificently decorated.
I make my way up on the walls. Its the cherry on the cake of this most interesting visit. From here you have the best views of the walls and towers of Jiayu Gate Fortress.
After this visit I have come to the conclusion of my discovery of the Silk Route and its military defense structures. What a trip it has been ! I have really learned so much . I take the opportunity to wave an Ancient banner in front of the fortress. I wonder how much my military intelligence would have been worth to the enemies on the North-Western side of the Wall, looking for a more fertile piece of land in Mainland China…
But as I gaze over the planes and mountains in the far distance, all i see is more of Fantastic China. The old enemies have been conquered, and the only ones scaling the walls nowadays are content travelers such as myself.
The Weijin Painted Tombs
Much to my surprise the driver stops one more time on the way back. He surely has noticed my interest in the history and culture of the region. He points to some small hillocks, more like bumps really, and explains to me that here we are at an ancient burial site. They were found in the 1970’s. In the tombs were the (plundered) remains of people from the Han Dynasty and the minority nations from Wei Dynasty (AD 534-550) and Jin Dynasty (AD 265-420). 8 off them were cleared and explored in 1972, and 6 of them have paintings on the bricks inside the tomb. They are the most amazing drawings. Simple, yet elegant. Almost like cartoons. The simple drawings give a truthful account of everyday life in this period. You can see how the local people used to work and live, It also provides historic proof of how adept the Chinese were in agriculture more than 1500 years ago.I first visit a small museum which shows the most valuable artifacts found inside the tombs, a decorated coffin, and the most special drawings found inside the tombs.
Unfortunately only 1 tomb is open for visiting. But it is certainly worth the visit. A narrow corridor leads down to the actual tomb. It is completely build underground in bricks, without the use of any adhesive or cement. Here and there I see damage and holes dug by grave robbers. The tomb itself is a series of 3 chambers, with the last one containing the coffin. The other rooms used to hold valuables and everyday object for the departed to take to the afterlife. Fortunately the delicate brick paintings are intact, and I am fortunate to visit a cave with some very beautiful drawings of people in their traditional clothing doing everyday activities like cooking or butchering. It is really fantastic.
But now it is really time to get going and catch my next train. I am not leaving the Province yet. Om my way to the trainstation we stop at a road restaurant for a quick but great meal : local bread and a local lamb noodle soup with extra meat. Delicious.
My next stop is going to be a further exploration of China’s natural wonders and its rich cultural heritage : This destination has been high up my bucket list : Up to Danxia !!
Till next post