Some 30km west of Yumenguan, on the road to Sanlongsha Yardan formations, is the Xihu National Nature Reserve, a 6,600 square kilometre reserve that includes the largets area of saline marshalnd and freshwater pools.
The entrance to the reserve can't be missed, because there is a chain across the road. The reserve offices are just a 100 metres to the right...this is the Gobi remember....you'd be able to see the building if it was 12km away!
There are a string of marshes and wetlands alongside much of the route of the Shulehe as it drifts down towards the Kumtag Shamo.
The photos shown are the wetlands at Hecang and Yumenguan to the east.
The insects in this area are ferocious!
Bird species seen in a short time at the Hecang lake include the pied avocet, ruddy shelduck (large numbers), common shelduck,little ringed plover, some kind of lapwing and a spoonbill (perhaps...at a long distance).
Yumenguan - the Jade Gate - lies in a small dip in the land alongside wetlands of the Shulehe River that rises up in the Qilianshan Mountains and empties into the vast sand and gravel pans of the Kumtag Shamo and Lop Nur.
Yumenguan is not particularly strategically located, and it can't be seen from long distances like most Great Wall fortresses as the defensive role here was played by the Great Wall. The Jade Gate was an administrative building, built around 111BC. The Great Wall has largely disappeared at Yumenguan but ran to the north a few hundred metres. There was a very short stretch that curved round to the north for a few kilometres just west of the fortress. The small farmhouse lies on the low ridge with remnants of the wall visible just behind it.
Yumenguan is small - just 630 or so square metres - with thick walls about 10 metres high. Originally there was a double parapet around the top of the walls, and a staircase-cum-ramp in the southeast corner to allow a man on horseback to get up to the top.
There were two gates, one facing west - out of China - and another facing north: it was just too small to fit a spirit wall so this arrangement prevented the bad spirits passing into China.
Although many visitors are content to jump out of the car and have a look at the Han Great Wall at Danggushu, few are prepared to make the 2 minute walk up to the beacon tower to the east. However, it is worth it, not so much because of the beacon tower itself, but because lying on the desrt floor behind the tower are the piles of firewood left behind when the wall fell out of use.
These piles were lit to signal that invaders were coming. For smaller groups, a small pile would be used, and a bigger pile for larger numbers. They would also light some fires on the tower and others on the ground. With the combination of sizes of piles of wood and different locations, they could communicate a variety of messages back down the line.
Although the Han Great Wall extends in fits and starts from near Jiayuguan, it is at its most impressive out here in the Kumtage Shamo part of the Gobi desert. The dry climate has protected the structure and although eons of wind and rain erosion and the feet of many goats and shepherds have taken their toll, their are long stretches of the Han Great Wall still standing.
At a place called Danggushu, some 4.5 km west of Yangguan, a particularly well preserved stretch stands proud on the sand and gravel above the Shuluhe.
Signposted from the track leading to the Xihu Nature Reserve and the Sanlongsha Yardan Formations, Danggushu is a lonely spot where it doesn't take much imagination to picture the soldiers living out here in their isolation, one man on the tower watching for invaders or smoke from the next beacon tower while the others tend to a little patch of vegetables, fish down in the river or watch over a few goats. One or two men probably sleep, waiting for their turn on the night shift.
Emperor Wudi is known to have drafted no less than 660,000 men on building this part of the Great Wall which was designed to protect the Silk Routes that split at Yumenguan. The design was simple: a few layers of tamped earth bricks, with a layer of jarrah reeds every 20 centimetres. Marc Aurel Stein, the Anglo-Hungarian explorer who examined them in 1907 compared them with the Roman 'limes' and many after him have commented on the remarkable similarity between the defensive fortifications of both civilizations.
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11km east of Yumenguan, along an excellent road is the place known as Dafangpan, where a huge building sits alongside more marshes of the Shulehe river. Although much has been written down the centuries about the famed Yumenguan, very little was ever recorded about this much bigger complex nearby.
It has been suggested that Hecang was a substantial granary, as grain seeds have been found by archaeologists, but this does seem rather unlikley given its location.
As at Yumenguan, it lies about 500m south of the Han Great Wall, and again is in a dip suggesting it was not intended to see or be seen.
The inner structure is 132 metres long and 17 metres wide, with walls 6.7 metres high and two iner dividing walls. The entrances to the three vast rooms were to the south. Outer walls and structures can be seen but most ave crumbled. Neither it, nor Yumenguan, are built in the same style as the local Han Great Wall which uses reeds for additional strengthening.
Archaeologists do know that the structure was used during the Jin period, but there was still no confirmation of its use.
There is a beacon tower on a stark ridge to the southeast and with binoculars you can see more to the east and north-east, as well as remnants of the Han Great Wall to the north of the marshland. It's an eerie place, but brightened considerably by a large lake to the north-east absolutely teeming with wildlife.
Sanlongsha is commonly referred to just as Yardan, Yadan or Yardang - all of which are a bit meaningless because "yardan" is a geological term, and it's a bit like Mount Everest being called"Mountain" or Niagra Falls being called"Waterfall". But in Dunhuang, it's just called Yardan - with those various spellings - and all the travel agencies in town can arrange day tours out their. All will also include Yumenguan, simply because it is impossible to reach Sanlongsha without passing through the Yumenguan entrance gate close to Dunhuang.
Few of the maps (Gizmi, Chinese) have the Dunhuang - Yumenguan road in the wrong place,all placing its southern point at Nanhu, which it is not; it is located much closer to Dunhuang, but very well signposted.
The west-east road from Yumenguan to the Dunhuang-Liuyuan road has all but disappeared now, and the route from the Dunhuang- Nanhu road is far quicker and far smoother.
The park prohibits the use of private vehicles in the park, but the RMB40 entrance fee includes a tour in one of the park's vehicles, a fleet that is aging rapidly in the harsh envionment. The park is surprisingly busy in the sumer season, with several coaches there most days. The yardan formations are so large that there is little risk of overcrowding.
There is a visitor centre just outside the geopark – topped by an awesome mobile phone mast. Even in the Kumtag Shamo you can’t completely escape. Fortunately some low ridges hide this eyesore from the yardan formations, which are to the east. Check and agree your route through the formations on the map and with the driver and/or guide as there are many routes. From time to time, the park authorities prohibit walking on the Gobi gravel, but currently seem to actively encourage it. Such is the consistency of approach to site management in China.
The sandstone crags are several kilometres long, and just tens of metres wide, beautfully embossing the Kumtag Shamo. All around, isolated bluffs and ridges have been eroded into the most wonderful shapes. Many have been given names. Indeed it is absolutely necessary in China, as it would seem impossible to enjoy natural scenery unless it is either named or painted.Fortunately, at Sanlongsha they have not earned sufficient money yet to begin painting the names on the rocks, nor have sufficient politicians been out here yet to compose gushing poems that can be etched all over in huge letters. For now, Sanlongsha is all on it’s own, beautiful and undisturbed, with the nearest village 100km away.
Deserts play strange tricks on the mind, and deserts play strange tricks on geology as well. A quick glace at satellite images of many deserts and drylands shows weird and wonderful patterns; on the ground these disappear to be replaced by endless expanses whose detail is obscured by shimmering heat. But occasionally, spectacular features rise up out of the stones to fascinate the curious and stimulate endless discussions on why and how they were formed. One of these places is the 400 sq km Sanlongsha Yardan Geopark on the very western edge of Gansu,just 29km from theXinjiang border. Bright yellow sandstone erupts from the flat black Gobi, like a row of huge upturned fishing boats on a beach. The ridges stretch fro many kilometres, each one separated from its neighbour by a hundred metres of black pebbles. The starkness of the landscape is accentuated by the total absence of vegetation. The effect is most dramatic when seen from the air, but this is not an option for most tourists although the park authorities are investigating the use of hot-air ballooons.
Formed between 300 and 700,000 years ago, but continuing to be shaped today by both wind and water erosion, the yardan formations form a giant’s Japanese garden, with the flat plateau broken by perfectly aligned ridges.
"Yaredan" is a Uighur word meaning "steep sandy dunes" and there are more than 20,000 sq km of yardan in China, primarily on Qinghai’s Qaidam Plateau and around Lop Nur.
There is a very small exhibition and display about Yumenguan and the surrounding area in a room at the back of the management offices. It's all free - just wander on in.