Among these battles and flows of refugees, in 399 Fa Xian set off on his long journey to India, returning to China in 414 with precious Buddhist scripts that he then translated. Seventy-five years later, the Northern Wei established total control over northern China, and in 494 the northern capital moved from Datong to Luoyang, by which time the Toba people had become as Chinese as the Chinese themselves. This period of China saw the development of the great grotto complexes first near Datong then later at Luoyang. The Northern Wei absorbed the Liang terrritories and united the greater part of northern China, from Anxi and Dunhuang to the Bohai Bay and Shandong. It all seemed too good to last; and so it was to prove. In 534, one north-eastern clan broke off to become the Eastern Wei, then later the Northern Qi. Meanwhile, the north-western elements broke off to form the Western Wei , to become the Northern Zhou 22 years later in 557 with their capital at Chang'an.
It's all a complicated history of warring regimes, each with its own systems and customs, but while the emperors make it to the history books, life at local level was precarious. People were tied to local administrations and what went on at the imperial courts was largely irrelevant. Religion, especially Buddhism, and philosophical debate provided a degree of sanctuary for the peasants and traders. Among the carnage, the arts and sciences filtered down from the courts to the lower level towns and officials and so to the countryside estates and oasis towns. Local warlords and barons copied the styles and fashions of the court, and patronised the arts and religion at local level.
Fondest memory: The Wei Jin period is quite remarkable for its diversity and for the consequent social and artistic development, brought about, ironically, not by peace but by war and struggle for survival. The records of this time, painted quickly onto small bricks as part of funerary tributes has become one of the great art treasures of China, still unknown and largely unappreciated.
Immediately after the Han Dynasty, came the Wei Kingdom (220-280AD), one of the Three Kingdoms. The others were the Shu Han in the west and south-west and the Wu in the south. The Wei, the most pwerful, was started by Cao Pi who became the first Wei ruler, Wendi, and ruled over northern and north-western China from Luoyang and Chang'an. The Wei are now considered the legitimate successors to the Han Dynasty.
The founders of the Three Kingdoms are now best known as the leading characters in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, with Cao Pi's father Cao Cao best remembered as a cruel tyrannical villain. It was a time of great instability across China, with local warlords and official generals running their fiefdoms the way they wanted. The last of the five Wei emperors, Yuandi, managed to conquer the Shu Han kingdom. It was a short-lived victory for Yuandi, as a couple of years later one of his generals, sima Quan, overthrew him in a palace coup. Sima Quan crowned himself Wudi, the founder of what became the western Jin kingdom. In 280, Wudi defeated the last of the three kingdoms, the Wu, and took the capital Nanjing. In Gansu, the Hexi Corridor was part of the Wei kingdom, with the Di tribes to the northeast and the Qiang people to the south in what is now Qinghai and Tibet.
Fondest memory: Wudi briefly reunited China, but the policy of giving each of his children a large area to rule proved the downfall of the united state. The population of the area under Wudi's control doubled in 15 years showing what could be achieved in a period of strong, peaceful government. But the siblings developed rivalries that quickly shattered the kingdom. In 317, Chang'an was sacked and the Chinese were forced south, while the Xiongnu took over the north, so forming the Northern Dynasties. In the Yangtze Basin and the south, the Han Chinese regained their strength - as the Southern Dynasties - slowly thanks to good administration rather than any wide leadership by emperors. The political vacuum created an opportunity for all kinds of outside influences to flourish, as often happens, and from 317 to 419 art, religion and the sciences developed strongly. It was a time of much strife with the Sixteen Kingdoms in the north constantly battling desert and mountain tribesmen, but by 383 the Toba or Northern Wei consolidated their power and became a significant threat to the Chinese Jin further south.
To the west of the Northern Wei, lay the Xia territories stretching from the Ordos down to the plains of the Wei river (confusingly!), while further west in most of what is now Gansu, lay the Later Liang Kingdom. The Liang Kingdoms had originally been founded in 320 by Zhang Mao, a Han, with its capital at Guzhong near Wuwei. Then the Later Liang was formed in 384 by Lu Gang, a Di tribesman. By 407, the Later Liang had fragmented into the southern, northern and western Liang. The western part was centred on Jiuquan (then Suzhou), the northern on Zhangye (Kanchow) and Wuwei, and the southern on Lanzhou. In 439, the Northern Wei emperor Tai Wu Di finally conquered the Western Liang, so reunifying the north of China.
Favorite thing: One of the most endearing legends of the Jiayuguan Fortress is that of the two swallows. It is said that during Zhengde's reign (1506-1521), two swallows lived in the archway of the eastern gateway. They were well-known to the guards who watched them flit in and out and around the surrounding desert. One night, the swallows returned late and found that the doors were closed. They flew around the gateway all night, butcould find nowhere to perch. They tried hammering on the doorway by flying against it, but the guards were not allowed to open the gate, on pain of death. Eventually, the two exhausted swallows died of exhaustion and fell by the gate where they were found in the morning. The sad guards and soldiers erected a memorial to them, and today it is said that if you strike a stone against a stone by the eastern wall you will hear the twittering of swallows.
The experience of leaving old China is not so much of an experience anymore at Jiayuguan: the lines of railways, roads and power lines leading west and the pipeline furrows leading west are all too obvious from the Great Wall here. A sulphuric acid factory a few kilometres away and the supply lake for the steelworks to the north-east leave the visitor under no illusion that all around is now China. But even here, by walking straight west from the front door of Jiayuguan, the earthwork fortifications quickly hide the modern, and the desert quickly feels forbidding and dangerous. The heat in summer or the biting cold in winter is all-encompassing, and there is a sense of isolation within a kilometre or two of the great steel city. To the north, the craggy sharp cliffs of the Heishan are bare and ominous; to the south across the plain lies the Wenshushan, the foothills of the great Qilianshan mountains, unknown to most Westerners but significant mountains considerably higher and more demanding than the Alps or the Rockies. The unloved Aurel Stein spent some time exploring these giant mountains, which were then referred to as the Richthofen range after the German explorer who was the first European to set eyes upon them in modern times.
Fondest memory: One of the great modern journeys, both arduous and dangerous is the route from Jiayuguan through to Xining in Qinghai, matching the infamous West Tibet Highway for remoteness and awesome dinner-table conversations subsequently in Boston or Putney. But equally spectacular are the many small roads and tracks leading north from Jiayuguan and Jiuquan into the serious deserts beyond the Heishan Mountains. This area matches the Taklimakan Desert in Xinjiang for serious remoteness, with not much until the Inner Mongolian border is reached, even less before the Republic of Mongolia, then expanses of virgin mountains and forests in Mongolia itself before the icy, silent grey forests of Siberia. North of Jiayuguan, walking and swimming in a straight line, you will pass maybe 20 people before you reach northern Michigan. On a busy day. If you are lucky. Take care. And wrap up well...it'll be a cold journey.
Beyond Jiayuguan, to the west lies the great desert. Jiayuguan was really the end of China in Ming times. Although Dunhuang and isolated oases and towns existed beyond the lonely fortress, this was it: the end. Beyond here was a great emptiness and the barbarians and the uncivilised world. Even today, Chinese people are uncomfortable with the world beyond their borders. I am sure many Chinese will strongly disagree with this, but I have sufficient experience travelling overseas with Chinese and in discussions with many people inside China to hold this view. I mean it as no disrespect; there is certainly a fascination with the outside, but it is always put in a China context. Some have, in recent years, seen it in an aggressive light, calling it "aggrieved nationalism", but that is regularly disputed.
Nevertheless, in days gone by, the Chinese simply did not trust the people beyond their borders, and given the remarkable acientific achievements in early China, there was perceived to be little need for foreign goods, many of which were inferior to domestic solutions. Today, this tends to manifest itself as an undying belief that eventually Chinese products and services will be superior to those developed elsewhere. Maybe. Maybe not.
But back in earlier dynasties, to leave China was a truly terrifying experience and even those who chose to do so, generally returned as quickly as they could. To be exiled was even worse, and those that were sent beyond the borders tended to stay fairly close by in the hope of being readmitted to the fold in due course; many were. China doesn't easily forget its sons and daughters, no matter how badly they have behaved in the past.
Favorite thing: Just below the fortress, inside the wall is a lake, now ornamental, but this lake is also home to a legend. During the fort's construction, water was an eternal problem and many men were tasked with bringing water from springs and streams some distance away: the small spring and stream at the foot of the ridge was just insufficient for the huge army of builders. An old man - they always seem to be old men - appeared and said that if granted one wish, he would find sufficient water nearby. When the military building supervisor conented and asked for the one wish, the man said that he wanted half the men working on the construction to be allowed home to help with the harvest, to which the supervisor agreed. The old man walked slowly down to the beach of the spring, and picked up a handful of dusty gravel. Hethrew the gravel high up in the air, and when it landed with a clatter on the beachside, water started pouring out from nine springs. The water quickly filled the entire stream bed and it became the lake that is seen today. The labourers and officials were impressed and turned to thank the old man - who had disappeared.
The Great Wall in the west of China looks very different from the better known stone-built wall in the east. Stone was not so easily available in the sandy, gravelly deserts or in the loess soils. The wall was built of adobe bricks where soil was available or of matted straw, reeds and straw where it wasn't.
These construction processes can still be seen in villages in the north of China, not for defense but for barns, farmyard walls and houses.
Using trays of wire mesh, shovelfuls of sand or soil are thrown throught the grid, creating a pile of fine sand or soil. This fine material was spread out on the ground on mats to bake in the sun and destroy any grass seeds which might sprout later and destroy the integrity of the wall. For the Great Wall, great efforts were made to ensure the final building material was precisely the right texture for creating solid bricks and it was not uncommon for silk, rice and hemp to be added to the sand or soil.
Fondest memory: The specific techniques for building up the wall differed from area to area, either as bricks or as continuous layers, but the final result needed to be tough enough to repel the arrows of warriors, and this was tested by military supervisors upon completion of parts of the wall.
The labour for bulding the wall came from nearby villages, sometimes they gave their labour voluntarily but more regularly they were forced to work upon pain of death; many died anyway, building what turned out largely to be an extravagant folly.
The wall did not, for the most part, look like the romantic wall seen in some areas north of Beijing, but was narrower and lower, with a narrow path along the top; and very little of it had any form of crenellations along the top. The most remarkable aspect of this is not that the wall is in such a poor state across much of China, but that it is so remarkably well preserved after more than 600 years of wind, rain and snow.
It is difficult to describe the Jiayu Pass without seeing the landscape. The photo is a Google Earth image taken from the north-east looking south-west over the 17km gap between the Heishan (on the right) and the Wenshu part of the Qilianshan (to the left).
The orange dots (if not legible) are from L to R: the First Signal Tower (actually two dots), the Jiayuguan Fortress and the reconstructed Water Gate on the right at the foot of the Heishan. The Overhanging Great Wall goes up the slope here NNW for 1 km, but cannot be seen from the satellite images.
The black area to the north of the first slopes of the Heishan (directly above the water gate) is not a historical feature but a lake that has been constructed to supply water to the steelworks in the city.
Jiayuguan is out of view to the left.
To enjoy looking at ancient Western part of Great Wall in Gansu Province. This place is less crowded. Don't miss JiaYuGuan.
Fondest memory: My memory would be, to pay RMB40 for the entrance to the Great Wall of Jia Yu Guan. it looks very much different from the one in Badaling of Beijing. How we get there?
The bus ticket cost RMB58 from Dunhuang, 5 and half hours' drive with excellent desert like sceneries along the way. This is the only time in China where nobody smokes inside the bus because the driver is a non-smoker, so it's like a miracle to me. The hotel we stay is called Xiong Guan Hotel, this is the only few hotel that accept foreigners, located East from the city bus station. The room for 3 cost RMB60, good condition. Before we check into our room, a taxi driver pops-up to offer us a drive to see the Great Wall, we agreed to go the next morning for RMB60 to 3 places which is the JiaYuGuan Great Wall, The Hanging GreatWall and the other one further away but I couldn't remember the name. Here you can have a chance to sit on the Camel with RMB2 per ride.
JiaYuguan is located 700km North West from Lanzhou, about 400km South of Mongolia. This is a desert without any agricultures but some industrial and tourism, it is also one of the ancient Silk Road city. You can take a taxi or a bus to It's nearest city of Jiuquan and also West to Yumenzhen.
This city is not so clean but it is one of the cleanest city in China. The railway station of JiaYuguan has won some awards for cleanest station of the year.
If I compare this Great Wall with the Badaling of Beijing, I will pick this one because of it's desert dry landscape and some beautiful architectures, also this place is less crowded so we can have more relaxing time to enjoy everything.
I remembered when we reached our hotel in Jiayuguan, there was a
welcoming "contingent" which played very loud music. The musicians are in fact very old men but they seemed very fit !
Favorite thing: The walls of the great wall pass are indeed very high. This is to prevent enemies from entering into China during the ancient times.
Favorite thing: There is a nice lake at the entrance of the Jiayuguan great wall pass. Gives some water to the dry place.