Location: located in the Gobi desert, at the middle of Hexi Corridor, 600 kms from Lanzhou, 5 - 6 hours away by bus from Dunhaung
Neighboring Areas: Shaanxi, Sichuan, and Qinghai provinces, Inner Mongolia, Ningxia Hui and Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Regions
Area: 2,935 sq km
Nationalities: Han, Hui, Tibetan, Dongxiang, Yugu, Baoan, Hazake, Tu, Sala, Manchu, and Mongolian
History: historically, a small township engaged in local trading, catering to the needs of the military garrisons stationed at the fort; as a Han outpost and in 1372, during the Ming dynasty, a fortress was built to protect the last frontier of the Chinese empire
Climatic Features: warm variable zone, aridity climate with the frost-free period of 160 days
Average Temperature: January with temperature as low as - 21C, August with temperature as high as 34C; Sandstorm - March to May; Strong Wind - November and December; annually with the highest of 38.7C and lowest of 0C, annual and daily difference in temperature great.
Rainfall: annual precipitation 100 mm, with rainfall concentrated in summer
Jiayuguan is not just about the famous great wall pass. If you are in the town, you should visit the town centre which is very clean and beautiful. There is now a huge shopping complex at the town centre. Also, there is a huge monument of the horse at the town centre as shown in this photograph.
The tomb-brick murals of the Wei and Jin periods pre-date the Mogaokou murals and frescos at Dunhuang. The style of painting can be linked directly to the styles seen in Cave 249 at the Mogaokou. It is believed that the artists lived locally and their art depicted everyday life of the times in rich, vivid and realistic detail. The technique used a brush pen, with the paintings executed quickly, with the precision and detail increasing slowly over a long period of time. The earlier bricks are duller, and the shape of people depicted was low and short, but later, the bricks were brighter, people were more clearly defined and the edge lining was more distict.
The Wei Jin Tombs were discovered in 1972, and between then and 1979, eighteen tombs were unearthed. Each tomb has three chambers, the first two vaulted and the rear burial chamber arched. Each chamber is decorated with three to five layers of painted bricks, although as many as ten layers have been discovered. So far, more than 700 brick murals have been discovered, mostly with one mural per brick, but some with one mural spread across two bricks. The brick murals demonstrate ordinary life in the political, agricultural, social and economic spheres; specific topics include the use of mulberry trees, livestock farming, hunting, pastoral cultivation, camping, banquets, music, chess, travel, wagons and silk costume.
As a link to the present-day, the logo of China Post, China's national postal service, is based on the 'estafette' design uncovered at the Wei Jin Tombs.
A very small museum has been created at the entrance to the area containing tombs #6 and #7, one kilometre from those tombs.
Located in Xincheng, 18 km northeast Jiayuguan, the Wei Jin Dynasties Tomb Complex is an extremely significant cultural site that is little visited by most visitors to Jiayuguan. The underground tombs date back to the Tang Dynasty (618~907), the Jin Dynasty and the Wei Kingdom (220-420). The whole tomb complex covers 30 sq km, with more than 1600 tombs. Currently just two tombs (#6 and #7) are open, although one other tomb (#5) has been completely removed and rebuilt at the Gansu Provincial Museum (currently closed).
Each tomb is 10 metres below ground level, with three chambers - two ante-chambers and an arched rear burial chamber. Each chamber is lined with hand-painted bricks depicting scenes of the day, and considered highly valuable for historic research. The huge number of pianted bricks creates a living memory of everyday life in western China and Central Asia and is unique. Unfortuantely, there appears to be no single catalogue of all the paintings (each one is different).
If you're pressed for time, skip climbing the Overhanging Great Wall and just take photos from the outside. We got marvellous photos anyway. :P I've been on the Great Wall from Jinshanling to Simatai, pretty steep bits there and the Overhanging Great Wall didn't look THAT much different. Besides, it's "restored" from 1987.
Admission to 1st Beacon Tower is 11 RMB, zipline ride across the gorge (?) is 35 RMB. The snow scenery at Jiayuguan fortress and 1st Beacon Tower is gorgeous... sadly, this's season-specific! Having all of these 2 places to yourself is also a big plus :D
Admission 60 RMB (30 RMB for students). The snow scenery at Jiayuguan fortress and 1st Beacon Tower is gorgeous... sadly, this's season-specific! Having all of these 2 places to yourself is also a big plus :D
This would seem odd, until (as Aurel Stein was quick to realize) the importance of the great trade route through the Jiayuguan pass is noted. For the Chinese in the earlier Han Dyasty, it was essential to protect the route, not so much any single pass: before the north-south curtain wall was built (in the Ming), it was possible for enemies from the north to cut off the route by traversing the short Shiguankou Gorge to attack the traders passing by across the main plain. This short stretch of wall across the valley would force attackers to travel around the northern side of the Heishan Mountains into even more diabolical desert. When the Ming Wall was built later, all eyes were looking west more than north, and by then the older Han wall, by then unnecessary, was in ruins.
In some respects, little has changed in the Shiguankou Gorge - photographs today look remarkably like the photographs taken by Aurel Stein in 1907, but there is much tourism development on the north bank of the river bed (and a good deal more is planned for the south bank and along the gorge by the local authorities!). This includes the kitsch water gate, some administrative buildings and a sculpture park as well as the usual unmaintained and decaying landscaping. A small temple, presumably built since 1907, sits looking down on the gorge from 'beyond' the wall. Although there are additional extremely low quality tourism-related structures in a mong the trees close to the road, the area is very pleasant. The overhanging Great Wall itself is interesting, although heavily restored to a rather idealised form, but it is in the Shiguan Gorge that the local history and heritage comes to life, and it is the gorge that makes a visit here really worthwhile.
At the Shiguankou Gorge, where the little village of Huangzeying lies, Aurel Stein was extremely impressed by the complicated arrangements for protecting not just the great lands behind (east of) the Great Wall, but also the small area of land outside (west of the wall). The extra fortifications, barely noticed now in the peaceful valley, suggest that this gorge was considered a real weak point in the Jiayuguan area. On the south side of the gorge, a spur wall rises to first one then a second watchtower. Progressing along the gorge (it leads to the Heishan rock paintings), after a mile, a curtain wall stretches across the valley, ending at high cliffs north and south. Clearly a Ming Dynasty wall, this is unsurprising and would have provided protection for the productive land outside the wall - fertile irrigated land is precious enough in this area to be worth protecting every last morcel.
But the real mystery - and I haven't been this far along the track and only read about it on my return to Beijing, is that a little further on is yet another wall, this time facing not west, but east....towards China!
Great design, poor function.
The visitor centre at the First Signal Tower has been constructed underground and has the potential to be a great facility. Unfortunately, the undergound bunker, virtually invisible at the surface and approached by a sloping ramp, is like some kitsch 1970s B-movie bad guy's haunt with mock stone waling inset with dinosaur skeletons, fake cattle skulls and wagon wheels. A glass floor sits over a fake Han tomb, and a glass-floored observation platform mainly provides a view of the incredibly insensitive 1980s tourism developments on the other side of the gorge. It is no surprise that every single tourism brochure and guide-book photograph of the First Signal Tower you will ever set eyes on was shot before these hideous huts and tents were built.
To add insult to injury, but with the definite possibility of injury thrown in for good measure, a Flying Fox zipwire has been installed, allowing tourists to cross the 150 metre gorge from the visitor centre.
Oh dear, China!
South-east of the Jiayguguan Fortress by some 8km is the First Signal Tower. From the lonely dusty road it looks like it is sitting on a flat plain where the Great Wall mysteriously ends, some kilometres short of the Qilianshan Mountains. Up close, the huge Taolaihe gorge appears, and the tower is seen to be sitting precariously right on the very edge with a 60 metre drop into the abyss from the very wall of the tower. Next to it, the Ming Great Wall, restored for the first 100 metres, comes to its very end.
The tower itself aways seems to surprise visitors, asking "Why is it solid?"
In fact for most of its length along the Wall, all watchtowers and signal towers were solid: a square cone of tamped earth,tapering towards the top, faced by adobe bricks with a parallel set of foot holes allowing access to the flat top. There never were any rooms inside the tower. The soldiers would have lived nearby in huts or tents or in the nearby villages. The basic principle of all towers was that from any one tower, two others had to be able to be seen even in poor weather. Here, the second and third signal towers can be seen before the main Jiayuguan fortress.
Unusually, in front (to the west) of the Wall, a huge ditch,now partly filled, can be seen. Known as the hidden Great Wall, this trench - or dry moat - was extra protection against attack.
Sadly a road and a power line cut through the wall here. To the south for the final few metres the Wall has been faithfuly recreated; to the north, stretching away across the gravel plain, it remains unrestored. The second photo shows the difference in height beween the two stretches.
Nearby is the well hidden visitor centre - it is underground and the entrance is 75 metres away by the parking area, to the east.
The inside of the fortress is now virtually empty, save for the Commanding Officer's Mansion to one side. It was originally built during the reign of the Ming Emperor Longqing (1567 to 1572), and much of it survived through to the present day untouched (despite what the guidebooks say), except for the gateway and one of the front pavilions which have been recreated.
The position of the Commanding Officer was clearly one of some prestige, and the whole complex is substantial with even the side buildings being 5-bay mansions. The large hall at the back was the General's residence.
Perhaps the most spectacular part of the fortress is the method of entry. There are two outer gateways, both facing south, after which there is a sharp turn to get to the main gate, so preventing a direct frontal attack. Each outer gate has a small attic tower above for observing those coming and going. It is behind one of these attic towers (at the western end) where the single extra brick lies - see separate review.
The huge entrance archways were designed to impress and are lined with huge slabs of stone at the lower level. The doors themselves are wooden, thick and lined with heavy iron sheeting for ptotection against fire-arrows.
In 1506, a master builder, Wang Zhen, started building the huge Guanghuamen and Rouyuanmen towers above the east and west gates. Each stood on a platform 9 metres above the ground, and were 17 metres high. Legend has it that Wang was unsure as to how to build the two towers and gathered all his trusty craftsmen together to discuss the possibilities. This was done under the full moon of the Mid Autumn Festival and the men ate and drank, sitting on one of the two platforms gazing out over the silent desert. Eventually, one old man, who had offered nothing to the debate, suggested building the towers from the top down. The others mocked him, but Wang realized that this would probably be the most effective and cheapest way. So huge mounds of earth were piled up on the platform and after completing each layer,soil was removed and the next level down was constructed. It was all finished by February the following year.
The big open space inside the Jiayuguan Fortress looked very different when Aurel Stein passed by in mid July 1907. He approached from the north-west and saw the fortress as it would have looked down the centuries, stark and forbidding, up on the edge of a low ridge.He described the inner area as being "sadly decayed, half the houses of its single broad streetbeing roofless ruins". Now, these houses have disappeared altogether, and there remains just the commandant's house, partly restored, to one side.
The great brick and stone fortress is not the end of all the fortifications. There is a protective moat around the entire complex, most easily visible from the platform of the outer western gate. The moat is 10 metres wide, with a slight lip that conceals it from a distance. This is the "hidden" Great Wall that would prevent a direct attack on the wall of the fortress, and could also conceal soldiers ready to counter-attack. Further earth fortifications, including pits to trip charging horses, can be clearly seen all around the western gate. Everything was designed to confuse the enemy and deflect any frontal attack. Much of these earthworks predate the fortress itself.
Despite appearances, the fortress at Jiayuguan is not square, but rectangular with the 166 metre western wall the longest, and the two side walls (north and south) sloped in to a shorter, 154 metre eastern wall. Rather than being for any specific military reason, it is likely that this represented the easiest way to construct the fortress on such uneven ground. The end result was a fortress with a total inner wall length of 640 metres; the outer wall runs for 733 metres.
In front of the inner city wall, is what is known as the Luo City Wall, which forms the protective western barrier wall, with the third gate - this is the outer gate and the gate that, in essence, led out of China. This wall is 190 metres long and is no less than 25 metres thick at the base. Each of the crenellations along the top was fitted with a small loophole to allow a rifle to be rested for accurte aiming as any enemy approached the base of the wall.
The rest of the outer city wall, much smaller but firmly protected by the earthworks further out, is only 3.8 metres high but still high enough to be a major deterrent. Remember that this wall was behind the Great Wall so didn't need to be so substantial - if the enemy had got to this point (they never did) then there would be real problems.