GANSU PROVINCE is an arid, inhospitable province between Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang. Regarded as a sort of Chinese version of Siberia, because political prisoners have often been sent here, it is largely a barren desert with a few camels and little vegetation and little water. The Chinese, Hui, Tibetans, and Muslim minorities that have traditionally lived here often made their homes around oases and fertile valleys with sheep, orchards and mud-brick villages.

The travel write Theroux described Gansu as "a carefully constructed Chinese landscape of mud mountains sculpted in terraces which held overgrown lawns of ripe rice. The only flat fields were far below, at the bottom of the valleys. The rest had been made by people, a whole countryside that had been together by hand---stone walls shoring up the terraces on hillsides, paths and steps cut everywhere, sluices, drains and carved-out furrows." The cuisine of Gansu is based on the staple crops grown there: wheat, barley, millet, beans, and sweet potatoes. Within China, Gansu is known for its lamian (pulled noodles) and Muslim restaurants.

Gansu Province covers 453,700 square kilometers (175,200 square miles), is home to about 26 million people and has a population density of 56 people per square kilometer. About 73 percent of the population lives in rural areas. Lanzhou is the capital and largest city, with about 3 million people. It is located in the southeast part of the province.

Han Chinese make up about 92 percent of the population of Gansu but there are significant numbers of Hui, Tibetans, Dongxiang, Tu, Yugur, Bonan, Mongolian, Salar, and Kazakh minorities. Gansu and Shaanxi are the historical home of the dialect of the Dungans — Hui who migrated to Central Asia. The southwestern corner of Gansu has a fairly large ethnic Tibetan population. Hui numbers increased after Hui in Shaanxi were resettled in Gansu after the Dungan Revolt (1862-1877).

Located in the up river part of the Yellow River, Gansu Province was once an important part of the Silk Road. The heart of Gansu is the Hexi Corridor, a 1,000-kilometer-long narrow strip of land on the western bank of the Yellow River that provides access between the Central Plans of China to the west and was a key part of the Silk Road. The province’s main tourist attractions — namely Dunhuang and Mogao Caves — are associated with the Silk Road. Gansu relies heavily on tourism for revenues. According to some estimates, one third of the province's revenues come from tourist receipts.

Tourist Office: Gansu Tourism Administration, 361 Tianshui Rd, 730000 Langzhou, Gansu, China, Tel. (0)-931-841-6638 and 6386, fax: (0)-931-841-8443; Maps of Gansu:

Geography and Climate of Gansu

Gansu is a landlocked province lying between the Tibetan, the Plateau and Huangtu plateaus, and borders Mongolia, Inner Mongolia, and Ningxia to the north, Xinjiang and Qinghai to the west, Sichuan to the south, and Shaanxi to the east.The Yellow River passes through the southern part of the province. The province contains the geographical centre of China, marked by the Center of the Country Monument at 35°50 40.9"N 103°27 7.5"E. The nearest sea is very far away.

The landscape in Gansu is very mountainous in the south and flat in the north. The mountains in the south are part of the Qilian Mountains, which contains the province's highest point, at 5,547 meters (18,199 feet). The vast majority of Gansu is on land more than 1,000 meters (3,300 feet) above sea level. Part of the Gobi Desert is located in Gansu, as well as small parts of the Badain Jaran Desert and Tengger Desert.

The Yellow River gets most of its water from Gansu and flows straight through Lanzhou, Gansu’s capital and largest city. The area around Wuwei is part of Shiyang River Basin. A natural land passage known as the Hexi Corridor, stretching some 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) from Lanzhou to the Jade Gate, is situated within the province. It is bound from north by the Gobi Desert and Qilian Mountains from the south.

Gansu generally has a semi-arid to arid, continental climate, with warm to hot summers and cold to very cold winters. Most of the precipitation arrived in the summer months. However, due to its extreme altitude and continental location, some areas of Gansu have a subarctic climate-with winter temperatures dropping to -40 degrees C and F.

Hexi Corridor

The heart of Gansu Province is the Hexi Corridor, a 1,000-kilometer-long narrow strip of land on the western bank of the Yellow River that provides access between the Central Plans of China to the west and was a key part of the Silk Road.

Hexi Corridor connects China with Central Asia runs along the "neck" of Gansu province. The Han dynasty extended the Great Wall across this corridor, building the strategic Yumenguan (Jade Gate Pass, near Dunhuang) and Yangguan fort towns along it. Remains of the wall and the towns can be seen there. The Ming dynasty built the Jiayuguan outpost in Gansu. Nomadic tribes, including the Yuezhi and Wusun, lived to the west of Yumenguan and the Qilian Mountains at the northwestern end of Gansu and occasionally played into a part imperial Chinese geopolitics.

Hexi Corridor stretches from Lanzhou to the Jade Gate and is bound from north by the Gobi Desert and Qilian Mountains from the south. Dunhuang sits at the controlling entrance to the narrow Hexi Corridor, which led straight to the heart of the north Chinese plains and the ancient capitals of Chang'an (Xi'an) and Luoyang. The ruins of a huge Han Dynasty (202 BC - 220 AD) watchtower made of rammed earth seen today Zhangye Danxia (500 kilometers northwest of Lanzhou) is located in the middle of the Hexi Corridor in Zhangye city. Zhangye Danxia landforms features magnificent scenery with rocks of peculiar shapes and bright colors. It is arguably the best example an arid Danxia landscape.

Anna Sherman wrote in the New York Times: “For more than 2,000 years, a branch of the Silk Road — the 600-mile-long Hexi Corridor — has angled southeast from the Taklamakan and Gobi deserts to the Yellow River loess plains. The Hexi is hemmed in by deserts to the north and west, and by the great Qilian mountain range to its south. It is about 10 miles wide at its narrowest point, with oasis towns every 50 to 100 miles. For most of the Han dynasty, which lasted roughly from 206 B.C. to A.D. 220, no soldier, pilgrim, explorer or trader could enter northwestern China without first passing through the corridor, which was vigorously guarded. In A.D. 123, the imperial secretary Chen Zhong, in a strategic memo to the emperor, translated in 2009 by John E. Hill, wrote that if the Western Regions were not defended, “the wealth of the [nomadic Xiongnu tribes] will increase; their audacity and strength will be multiplied,” and the four garrisons along the Hexi Corridor would be endangered. “We will have to rescue them,” he continued. The great cities of China’s central plain, including the capital, would then be left vulnerable to attacks.” [Source: Anna Sherman, New York Times, May 11, 2020]

Silk Road Sites in Gansu Province

Silk Road Sights Near Lanzhou: 1)Bingling Temple Grottoes-Xia Temple-Linxia Hui Autonomous Prefecture (Coordinates: N 35 48 3, E 103 2 56); 2) Shuiliandong (Water Curtain Cave) Grottoes-Lashao Temple-Tianshui City (Coordinates: N 34 44, E 105 40); 3) Maijishan Grottoes-Immortal Cliff Grottoes-Tianshui City (Coordinates: N 34 21 09, E 106 00 10);

Silk Road Sights in Jiayuguan: Guoyuan-Xincheng Tomb Complex, Jiayuguan City (Coordinates: N 39 45-39 52 49.3, E 98 20-98 30). In the Jiuquan area: 1)Yulin Grottoes, Jiuquan City N39 57, E 95 5); 2) Suoyang City Site and Tomb Complex, Jiuquan City (Coordinates: N 40 15, E 96 12);

Zhangye City: 1) Camel City Site and Tomb Complex-Zhangye City (Coordinates: N 39 16 02-39 24 15, E 99 24 01-99 31 20); 2) Great Buddha Temple-Zhangye City (Coordinates: N 37 28-39 57, E 97 20-102 12); 3) Mati Temple Grottoes-Jiata Temple and Qianfo (thousand Buddhas) Cave-Zhangye City (Coordinates: N 38 10-38 50, E 99 54-100 45);

Suoyang City Site (Guazhou County, 100 kilometers east of Dunhuang and the Mogao Caves) is a ruined Silk Road city. Also called Kuyu, it was first established as Ming'an County in 111 B.C. by Emperor Wu of Han and was relocated and rebuilt at the current site in A.D. 295 by Emperor Hui of the Western Jin dynasty. The city prospered during the Tang and Western Xia dynasties. It was an important administrative, economic, and cultural center of the Hexi Corridor for over a millennium, with an estimated peak population of 50,000. It was destroyed and abandoned in the 16th century, after the Ming dynasty came under attack by Mansur Khan of Moghulistan. [Source: Wikipedia]

The city ruins comprise the inner city, the outer city, and several yangmacheng (fortified animal enclosures used as fortresses in wartime). Outside the city walls, the broader archaeological park includes the original site of Ming'an County, more than 2,000 tombs, and the remains of an extensive irrigation system with over 90 kilometers (56 miles) of canals. The archaeological park also encompasses a number of Buddhist sites, including the Ta'er Temple, the Eastern Thousand Buddha Caves, Jianquanzi Caves and Hanxia Caves. In 2014, it was inscribed on UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites as part of Silk Roads: the Routes Network of Chang'an-Tianshan Corridor.

Yulin Caves (Guazhou County, 100 kilometers east of Dunhuang and the Mogao Caves) is a Buddhist cave temple site that takes its name from the Yulin River, which flows through the site and separates the cliffs from which the caves have been excavated. The forty-two caves house some 250 colored statues and 4,200 square meters of wall paintings, dating from the Tang Dynasty to the Yuan Dynasty (seventh to fourteenth centuries).

Most of the caves have an entrance corridor, antechamber, and main chamber. In three caves, a central pier was left intact during excavation then carved with niches on all four sides. A number of caves were reworked and repainted in later periods, since the site remained in use throughout the Tang, Five Dynasties, Song, Western Xia, and Yuan Dynasties. It fell into disuse during the Ming Dynasty. The paintings are Buddhist with some secular scenes. Most have Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, apsara, and jataka tales. Among the secular scenes are donor portraits, go players, ethnic minorities, distinguished out by their hair styles and dress, farming scenes such as milking a cow, wine-making, a smelting furnace, and a marriage ceremony; depictions of musicians and dancers. The paintings are not frescoes but instead executed on an earthen render with mineral and organic pigments and gum or glue binders.

Silk Road Route in China

The overland Silk Road route to the west began in Changan (Xian), the capital of China during the Han, Qin and Tang dynasties. It stopped in the towns of Zhangye, Jiayuguan, Langzhou, Yumen, Anxi and Nanhu before dividing in three main routes at Dunhuang.

The three main routes between Dunhuang and Central Asia were: 1) the northern route, which went through northwest China through the towns of Hami and Turpan to Central Asia: 2) the central route, which veered southwest from Turpan and passed through Kucha, Aksu and Kashgar; and 3) the southern route, which passed through the heart of the Taklamakan Desert via the oasis towns of Miran, Khotan and Yarkand before joining with the central route in Kashgar.

On the southern route through western China the going began getting difficult near present-day Lanzhou, where the "Gate of Demons," marked the approach to an area, which the writer Mildred Cable said featured "rushing rivers, cutting their way through unfathomable lake hidden among the dunes...sand-hills with a voice like thunder" and "water which could be clearly seen and yet was a deception."

The going started to get really rough around the Yumenguan (Jade Gate Pass, near Dunhuang), traditionally regarded as the frontier of Chinese Turkestan and entrance to the vast and inhospitable Taklamakan Desert. where Cable wrote, the desert "is a howling wilderness, and the first thing which strikes the wayfarer is the dismalness of its uniform, black, pebble strewn surface." From here the Silk Road followed a line of oases to Kashgar or veered north into present-day Kazakhstan.

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “The routes around the Takla Makan desert in the Tarim Basin connected the Chinese capitals at Ch'ang-an (modern Xi'an) and Loyang with the western frontiers from the Han to Tang periods. The routes divided into northern, southern and central branches around the Tarim Basin at Dunhuang. The northern route started from the Jade Gate outside of Dunhuang and proceeded to the oasis of Turfan, near the Buddhist cave complex at Bezeklik. From Turfan, this route followed the southern foothills of the Tien-shan mountains to Karashahr and Shorchuk (near modern Korla) before reaching Kucha, an oasis surrounded by Buddhist cave complexes such as Kyzil and Kumtura. The northern route continued through Aksu, a junction for routes over the Tien-shan, and Maralbashi, near the Buddhist caves of Tumshuk, to Kashgar, where the southern route reconnects. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, Simpson Center for the Humanities, *]

“The southern route began at the Yang-kuan gate outside of Dunhuang and continued to oases on the southern rim of the Takla Makan desert such as Miran, Charklik, Cherchen, Endere, and Niya. This route followed the northern base of the Kun-lun mountains to Khotan and Kashgar. An intermediate route from Dunhuang led to the military garrison at Lou-lan on Lop-nor Lake, where branches diverged to Miran on the southern route and Karashahr on the northern route. Travelers' itineraries around the Tarim Basin depended on their goals and destinations, the political and physical environment, and economic conditions. *\

Archeological Evidence of the Silk Road Trade in China

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “Many artifacts demonstrate long-distance trade connections and cultural transmission between China, Khotan (Hotan in present-day Xinjiang, China) on the southern silk route, and the northwestern frontiers of the Indian subcontinent. Fragments of finely woven tabby silk from China reflect long-distance trade or tribute relations with Khotan during the third or early fourth centuries CE. Coins of Indo-Scythian (Saka) and Kushan rulers (see essays on Sakas and Kushans) and an incomplete manuscript of a Gandhari version of the Dharmapada were found near Khotan. Other items imported to Khotan from the northwestern Indian subcontinent included small Gandharan stone sculptures and moulded terracotta figures. Long-distance trade in highly valued Buddhist items (such as manuscripts, small sculptures, miniature stupas, and possibly relics) prefigured later connections between Buddhist communities in Khotan and Gilgit. Khotan was not only a regional commercial and religious center of the southwestern Tarim Basin, but also functioned as a connecting point between China, India, western Central Asia, and Iran. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, Simpson Center for the Humanities, *]

“The Shan-shan kingdom, which flourished on the southern silk route between Niya and Lou-lan until the fourth century CE, benefited from long-distance trade between China and eastern Central Asia. In exchange for luxury items from these regions, Chinese silk was probably used in commercial transactions, since silk was preferred to copper coins as currency. The economic prosperity of agricultural oases and trading centers on the southern silk route enabled Buddhist communities to establish stupas and monasteries. As Marilyn Rhie observes in Early Buddhist Art of China & Central Asia (vol. 1, p. 429), Buddhist sculptures from Miran and Khotan display many similarities with the artistic traditions of Gandhara, Swat, and Kashmir in the northwestern Indian subcontinent. Mural paintings at Miran reflect ties with both the art of western Central Asia and northwest India (Rhie, p. 385). Administrative documents found at Niya, Endere, and Lou-lan written in the Gandhari language and Kharosthi script demonstrate linguistic and cultural ties between the southern silk route oases and the northwestern Indian subcontinent in the third to fourth centuries CE. *\

“Intermediate routes through Karashahr and northern routes through Turfan probably eclipsed the southern route by the fifth century CE (according to Rhie, p. 392). Many of the most important archaeological sites on the northern silk route are clustered around Kucha and the Turfan oasis. Mural paintings in cave monasteries, stupa architecture, artifacts, and other remains from approximately the third to seventh centuries at sites around Kucha show closer stylistic affinities with the northwestern Indian subcontinent, western Central Asia and Iran than with China. Sites located further east along the northern silk route belonging to relatively later dates in the seventh to tenth centuries typically reveal more Chinese and Turkish elements. Mural paintings from the cave monastery of Kyzil demonstrate continuities between the art of the western part of the northern silk routes and the artistic traditions of Swat, Gandhara and Sassanian Iran in the middle of the first millennium CE. Monks and merchants traveling on the northern and southern silk routes were responsible for maintaining commercial, religious, and cultural contacts between India, Central Asia, and China. *\

“Material remains from sites along the silk routes reflect close relations between long-distance trade and patterns of cultural and religious transmission. Demand for Chinese silk and luxury commodities which were high in value but low in volume stimulated commerce. Valuable items such as lapis lazuli, rubies, and other precious stones from the mountains of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Kashmir probably led travelers to venture into these difficult regions. Some of these products became popular items for Buddhist donations, as attested in Buddhist literary references to the "seven jewels" (saptaratna) and reliquary deposits (see Xinru Liu, Acient India and Ancient China, pp. 92-102). Long-distance trade in luxury commodities, which were linked with the transmission of Buddhism [see essay on Buddhism and Trade], led to increased cultural interaction between South Asia, Central Asia, and China. *\

Faxian on From Ch'ang-gan to the Sandy Desert

Between A.D. 399 and 414, the Chinese monk Faxian (Fa-Hsien, Fa Hien) undertook a trip via Central Asia to India to study Buddhism, locate sutras and relics and obtain copies of Buddhist books that were unavailable in China at the time. He traveled from Xian in central China to the west overland on the southern Silk Road into Central Asia and described monasteries, monks and pagodas there. He then crossed over Himalayan passes into India and ventured as far south as Sri Lanka before sailing back to China on a route that took him through present-day Indonesia. His entire journey took 15 years.

Tansen Sen wrote in Education about Asia: “Faxian was one of the first and perhaps the oldest Chinese monk to travel to India. In 399, when he embarked on his trip from the ancient Chinese capital Chang’an (present- day Xi’an in Shaanxi province), Faxian was more than sixty years old. By the time he returned fourteen years later, the Chinese monk had trekked across the treacherous Taklamakan desert (in present-day Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of the People's Republic of China), visited the major Buddhist pilgrimage sites in India, traveled to Sri Lanka, and survived a precarious voyage along the sea route back to China. [Source: Tansen Sen, Education about Asia, Volume 11, Number 3 Winter 2006 <<>>]

According to Faxian’s “A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms”: “Fa-hien had been living in Ch'ang-gan. Deploring the mutilated and imperfect state of the collection of the Books of Discipline...he entered into an engagement with Hwuy-king, Tao-ching, Hwuy-ying and Hwuy-wei that they should go to India and seek for the disciplinary Rules."Source: “A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms” by Fa-Hsien (Faxian) of his Travels in India and Ceylon (A.D. 399-414), Translated James Legge, 1886, /]

“After starting from Ch'ang-gan, they passed through Lung [in eastern Gansu]...and reached the emporium of Chang-yih [north and west of Lanzhou, near the Great Wall]. There they found the country so much disturbed that travelling on the roads was impossible for them. Its king, however, was very attentive to them [and] kept them (in his capital). Here they met with Che-yen, Hwuy-keen, Sang-shao, Pao-yun, and Sang-king; and in pleasant association with them, as bound on the same journey with themselves, they passed the summer retreat (of that year [i.e., 400 CE])together, resuming after it their traveling, and going on to T'un-hwang, (the chief town) in the frontier territory of defence extending for about 8o li from east to west, and about 40 from north to south. Their company, increased as it had been, halted there for some days more than a month, after which Fa-hien and his four friends started first in the suite of an envoy, having separated (for a time) from Pao~yun and his associates. /

“Le Hao, the prefect of T'un-hwang, had supplied them with the means of crossing the desert (before them), in which there are many evil demons and hot winds. (Travellers) who encounter them perish all to a man. There is not a bird to be seen in the air above, nor an animal on the ground below. Though you look all round most earnestly to find where you can cross, you know not where to make your choice, the only mark and indication being the dry bones of the dead (left upon the sand)." /

Marco Polo in Gansu

When Marco Polo passed through Gansu in the 13th century, Nahu in north-central China had the only sources of water for miles. Shazhou (present-day Dunhuang) is where the Polos probably were exposed to large numbers of Chinese, Tanguts (relatives of Tibetans), and Buddhists for the first time.

Marco Polo didn't mention the famous grottos in Dunhuang but he did describe the custom in which men sometimes let travelers sleep with their wives — "fair and gay and wanton women" and men who ran boarding houses where he "tells's his wife to do all that the stranger wishes...And the stranger stays with his wife in the house and does as he likes and lies with her in bed---a custom still reportedly practiced by minorities in area:

Marco Polo wrote the people were "idolaters...they have many abbeys and many monasteries which are full of idols of many kinds, to which they do great sacrifice and great honor." He also wrote of admiration for monks---their shaves heads, their fasting, their "moon" calendar and the way they "lead life hard"---and said Buddha would have been a saint had he been a Christian


Lanzhou (1,560 kilometers west-southwest of Beijing in the southeast part of Gansu) is the capital and largest city of Gansu Province, with about 3 million people. It is the largest city on the Yellow River and one of the most polluted cities in China if not the world. In the old days it was regarded as one of the gateways to the Silk Road, the last major place to change money and buy provisions before heading to Turkestan and Central Asia.

Today Lanzhou is a dirty, industrial city filled with smoke and air-borne chemicals from petrochemical factories and brickyard kilns trapped inside a long, narrow Yellow River valley, flanked by mountains. The air pollution is so bad there has some discussion about blasting a hole in the mountains to allow the dirty air to escape. Lanzhou was described The New Yorker as “an assemblage of rusting machinery, slag heaps, and landfills; of chimneys, brick kilns, and belching thick smoke; of concrete tenements whose broken windows are held together with cellophane and old newspapers."

Despite this the China Urban Competitiveness Ranking released by the China Institute of City Competitiveness (CICC) listed Lanzhou as one of the Top Ten Chinese cities with best landscapes ib 2011. It has mountains to the south and north, and the Yellow River flows east to west through it. Famous attractions around the city include the Yellow River, Baita Mountain, Bapan Valley, Tulugou Forest Park, Wuquan Mountain Park, Xinglong Mountain and Zhongshan Bridge,


Tianshui (250 kilometers southeast of of Lanzhou) is the second-largest city in Gansu Province, with a population of about 3.5 million people. Situated in southeastern Gansu province, in north-central China. It was historically an important place along the Silk Road, the great route westward from Chang'an (present-day Xian, in Shaanxi province) to Central Asia and Europe. Tianshui Tram Map: Urban Rail

Anna Sherman wrote in the New York Times: Tianshui is “a city with roots in the Neolithic era, near one of the oldest archaeological sites in northwestern China, where remains dating back to 5000 B.C. have been discovered. The bullet train took a little under two hours to go about 200 miles. I passed scarps and junkyards glinting with shattered plastics and glass, graveyards on hills, a giant iron woman cradling a gilded sheaf. There were dry riverbeds and golden poplars, pomegranate trees and pylons. On the hills, radio towers; smoke from distant fires floated over the terraced fields. [Source: Anna Sherman, New York Times, May 11, 2020]

“I arrived in Tianshui an hour before sunset. Here was a city of flyover walkways and half-built skyscrapers that ran mile after bleak mile along the dirty waters of the Jie River. Tianshui was once surrounded by high gateways and spectacular city walls, whose lines followed the river. Modern Tianshui has lost those walls: Only the very oldest residents remember they once existed. As evening fell, I explored Nanguo Temple in the southern hills above Tianshui. The mountain air was clear and very cold. Over the doorways to their bedrooms and kitchen, the Buddhist monks had tacked up calligraphy written on thick paper, enigmatic jokes and prayers. One read: “At night there is no place to stay.”

“In A.D. 759, the poet Du Fu took refuge in the area after resigning from his government post near Chang’an. Du Fu, translated here by Stephen Owen, excelled in describing the human cost of the Tang dynasty’s imperial ambitions, the suffering of individual soldiers who protected the Silk Road and defended the country’s distant borders: “Already gone far from the moon of Han, / when shall we return from building the Wall? Drifting clouds journey on southward at dusk; / we can watch them, we cannot go along.”

Bingling Si

Bingling Si (near Tianshui) means "thousand Buddha" in Chinese and "10,000 Buddhas” in Tibetan. Situated in Xiaoji Mountain, 20 miles southwest of Yongjing County, it is where people have been carving statues and niches into two-kilometer stretch of steep cliffs above the surging Yellow River for more than 1000 years. There are 183 caves, 694 stone statues, 82 clay figures and 900 square meters of murals preserved here. The tallest statue is 27 meters (80 feet) high and the smallest is 20 centimeters.

Bingling Temple, or Bingling Grottoes, is situated in a canyon along the Yellow River. Two thirds of the sculptures which are set up along four tiers were made over 1000 years ago. The oldest date to 420 A.D. during the Western Jin Dynasty. The great 27-meter-high Maitreya Buddha is similar in style to the great Buddhas that once lined the cliffs of Bamiyan, Afghanistan. Access to the site is by boat from Yongjing in the summer or fall. There is no other access point.

Web Site and Getting There: Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Maijishan Scenic Spots

Maijishan Scenic Spots (40 kilometers southeast of Tian shui, 330 kilometers southeast of Lanzhou) is a Buddhist cave area nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2001. Maijishan is a 142-meter-high hill off the surrounding landscape. It got its name from its wheat pile shape. Maijishan means "Wheat Stack Hill". The site contains 194 caves, in which are preserved more than 7,200 sculptures made from terra cotta and murals covering over 1,200 square meters.

Maijishan grotto's history can be traced back 1,600 years ago. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: Maijishan Mountain is placed on the first list of state key scenic spots by its peculiar grottoes, exquisite clay sculptures luxuriant vegetation, all kinds geologies and landforms, mountain peaks. Its main area is 142 square kilometers including Maijishan Grottoes, the Immortal Cliff, the Stone Gate, Quxi Stream and Jieting Hot Spring. Maijishan Grottoes was first built in Later Qin (A.D. 384-417). Construction continued during 12 dynasties: West Qin, Northern Wei, West Wei, Northern Zhou, Sui, Tang, Five Dynasty, Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing. Although the site have endured earthquakes and fires, 194 caves, 7200 sculptures, 1000 square meters of fresco which are found and excavated a cliff that is 30 meters to 80 meters high from the ground. More than 70 percent caves were excavated in the North dynasty. There are many clay sculptures. Some are are well-shaped and excellent examples of art, with some best pieces produced during the early period. [Source: National Commission of the People's Republic of China.

Among the 194 grottoes and thousands of sculptures and preserved mural paintings, the eight cliff pavilions built by the Northern Dynasty have long been recognized as a "gallery of oriental sculptures". One traveler wrote in in CRI: The next morning we directly went to the Maijishan grottoes, which are one of the four biggest grottoes in China. Climbing the steep mountain step by step, we saw weathered but still gorgeous statues of Buddha and monks standing in different caves, delicate murals painted on the clay ceilings of the mountain and sculptures of animals which were carved as a form of worship. Besides, the picturesque scenery complements the grottoes. [Source: CRI, May 21, 2009]

Visiting Majishan

Anna Sherman wrote in the New York Times: “ “ Sited midway up sheer vertical cliffs, Maijishan was founded in the Later Qin dynasty (A.D. 384-417) as an isolated retreat where Buddhist monks from Chang’an might meditate. When I visited, the contrast between Tianshui and these ancient ruins — between industrial wasteland and classical landscape — was extreme. Maijishan was remote enough that its paintings and sculptures were spared during wars and revolutions, when other cultural relics were destroyed; they still record what the art historian Michael Sullivan in his 1969 history “The Cave Temples of Maichishan” described as “the metropolitan style of [the sometime capital] Luoyang in its brief glory.” Certain statues resemble the art of sites in Xinjiang; others are more closely related to styles found in India. In the third volume of her magisterial study “Early Buddhist Art of China and Central Asia” (2010), the scholar Marylin Martin Rhie traced links between Maijishan’s sculptures and the artworks of other Silk Road monastic centers. In some of the figures’ flowing drapery, and in the “delicacy of the linear outlines and contours of the features of the faces,” she found the influence of Greco-Buddhist artists from Gandhara, a region that once straddled the modern border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the waving hairstyles, Rhie found similarities to the sculptures of Tumshuk, a site near Kashgar. Connections between Maijishan and the ancient centers of what is now Xinjiang were particularly strong: Some bodhisattvas wore three-sided jewel crowns that also adorned paintings and a wooden statue at the Kizil Caves of Kucha, the ancient Buddhist kingdom north of the Taklamakan, while a distinctive pearl-band design also occurred in one of Kizil’s earliest caves. Near Maijishan were roads leading not just west through the Hexi Corridor and on to Central Asia but also south to Chengdu and east to Chang’an. Maijishan was secluded, Sullivan wrote, but “open to influences.” [Source: Anna Sherman, New York Times, May 11, 2020]

“The monastic community here was in a remote, wild place set among green mountains, bamboo groves and cornfields. Many frescoes have been exposed to the elements, and as a result, the paintings are poorly preserved. Buddhas are set into Maijishan’s cliff face; they resemble smaller versions of Afghanistan’s Bamiyan statues, which were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. The sixth-century poet Yu Xin recorded how a military governor “had a path like a ladder to the clouds constructed on the southern face of the rock,” and commissioned a series of Buddha sculptures as a temple offering in his father’s memory: The cave — Scattered Flower Pavilion — still exists, although the entire front section was sheared away in A.D. 734 during an earthquake, a temblor that also divided Maijishan’s west side from its east. Other caves that Yu Xin described — the Moon Disc Palace and the Hall of Mirrored Flowers — may have disappeared altogether. But the surviving Buddhas and celestial beings carved into the mountain look out over a spectacular view that cannot have changed that much in the last thousand years. “For a hundred li,” Du Fu wrote, “you can make out the smallest thing.”

“Maijishan also contained some of China’s most beautiful sculptures. In the Cave of the Steles, a Buddha stretched his hand down toward a smaller figure who might be a young monk or — according to my local guide — the historical Buddha’s own son. Specialists are uncertain whether the two figures were created during the Tang dynasty or later, in the Northern Song period of A.D. 960 to 1127. Whatever its age, the Buddha had the most beautiful hands of any sculpture I had ever seen, and the space between the statues — the Buddha’s outstretched fingers, the crown of the boy’s head — was electric. Whether the two were greeting or leaving each other, I did not know; perhaps they did not belong together at all but had been brought here from separate caves. I crouched at the foot of the small statue, looking into its face. At the outer edge of another cave, a statue of a bodhisattva smiled slightly, her right palm raised in the gesture that means “don’t be afraid.” During the 734 earthquake, the mountain collapsed a few inches past her right shoulder; on the jagged wall behind her, where the cliff met the sky, I could see a flying apsara and the curve of a halo — all that remain of some greater whole. Beyond rolled a green line of mountains, the dark blue sky and, jarringly, a cluster of security cameras and loudspeakers. Far below the wooden walkways that linked painted cave to cave, the bells on a donkey’s harness sounded: Local touts had set up replica caravans for tourists to ride. Polo and his co-author, Rustichello da Pisa, wrote of the men traveling the Silk Road, here in Ronald Latham’s 1958 translation: “Round the necks of all their beasts they fasten little bells, so that by listening to the sound they may prevent them from straying off the path.”“

Zhangye Area

Zhangye (500 kilometers northwest of Lanzhou) is a city of about 1 million people in the middle of the Hexi Corridor. At Matisi (Horse’s Hoof) Temple, about an hour south of Zhangye, a series of Buddhist grottoes, dating approximately to the fifth or sixth century, are connected by tunnels and stairways that have been carved into the cliff.

Zhangye Danxia (near Zhangye city) in the northern foothills of the Qilian Mountains in Gansu. Zhangye Danxia landforms features magnificent scenery with rocks of peculiar shapes and bright colors. It is arguably the best example an arid Danxia landscape. Zhangye Danxia landform mainly covers the territory of Linze, Sunan County with an area of 300 square kilometers. Hierarchical areas are scattered and feature steep rock walls. colorful rock mountains, gorges and lakes. The arid landscape of the Binggou (Ice Valley) area is particularly awesome. Checkout the sandstone formation there called “the Louvre”. The best travel time is June-September, but it can be hot then.

According to UNESCO: “ China Danxia is the name given in China to landscapes developed on continental red terrigenous sedimentary beds influenced by endogenous forces (including uplift) and exogenous forces (including weathering and erosion)....They are characterized by spectacular red cliffs and a range of erosional landforms, including dramatic natural pillars, towers, ravines, valleys.” The unique colors of the rainbowlike hills are the result of deposits of sandstone, iron and other minerals, as well as shifting tectonic plates.

Anna Sherman wrote in the New York Times: “I got on another high-speed train to travel more than 400 miles west to Zhangye, which was once an ancient commandery — essentially a fortified administrative center — on the Hexi Corridor. The train carriages were spray-painted with s for the popular Wangyuan-brand camel milk. Security guards wearing modular utility belts and flak jackets followed the women checking train tickets. The Han Chinese heartlands were receding; we were entering regions where minority populations make up a higher percentage of the population. The farther west we went, the stricter the security protocols became. [Source: Anna Sherman, New York Times, May 11, 2020]

“The desert was closer: The train passed roads white with dust. A scattering of sheep. Thorny apple trees. A crumbling Ming-era watchtower. Beneath the hills, the hollows were white with unmelted snow; in an abandoned garden near the tracks, fallen pears lay scattered around an ancient tree. A thin telecom needle. A temple. An earth-colored mosque. Razor wire and pylons. Ruined hilltop forts.

“The Qilian Mountains appeared, white, distant and dazzling. The entire carriage let out a collective cry of enchantment, cut short as we went into a tunnel; then again, the intake of breath, the cries, as the mountains appeared, closer this time, shattered prisms radiant with light. We went back into a tunnel, and I wondered if the train was climbing or diving. As we gained altitude, my pen oozed beads of ink; blood beat at my temples. The train was passing through Qilianshan No. 2 Tunnel, 11,834 feet above sea level. The Qilian Mountains, whose highest peak stands at 19,055 feet, mark the edge of the Tibetan plateau.

“The train passed grasslands where Han dynasty emperors bred their horses. The earth was dark and the rivers already half frozen. The Chinese first conquered this region in 121 B.C., by driving out the nomadic Xiongnu tribes, and the Tang historian Sima Zhen (A.D. 679-732) recorded an old nomad song lamenting that defeat: “Having lost our Qilian Mountains, our animals have no place to breed; having lost our Yanzhi Mountains, our women marry without splendor.”

Zhangye Danxia

Zhangye Silk Road Sites

Zhangye City: 1) Camel City Site and Tomb Complex, Zhangye City (Coordinates: N 39 16 02-39 24 15, E 99 24 01-99 31 20); 2) Great Buddha Temple, Zhangye City (Coordinates: N 37 28-39 57, E 97 20-102 12); 3)Mati Temple Grottoes, Jiata Temple and Qianfo (thousand Buddhas) Cave, Zhangye City (Coordinates: N 38 10-38 50, E 99 54-100 45);

Great Buddha Temple (in Zhangye) is an ancient Buddhist temple noted for its gigantic reclining Buddha statue made around 1100 during the Western Xia Dynasty (1038–1227). About thirty-five meters long, the statue is made of clay on a wooden frame and depicts the Gautama Buddha's attainment of nirvana, with his ten disciples standing behind him. It is largely unaltered since the time of. The hall which contains the Buddha is 48 meters (157 feet) long, 24 meters (79 feet) wide and 33 meters (108 feet) high, Over the centuries, it has been called "Kasyapa Buddha Temple", "Bojue Temple", "Hongren Temple", and "Reclining Buddha Temple". It present name "Dafo" means "Great Buddha".

The temple was when. Zhangye (then called "Ganzhou”) was the capital city of the Hugu. In 1028, the Tibeto-Burman speaking Tangut people took over Ganzhou, and a few years later the Western Xia controlled the Hexi Corridor. To strengthen their hold over the area, the Xia built temples and ordered the translation of the Buddhist scriptures. They were especially strong during the reign of Emperor Li Qiangshun (1086–1139), and the Dafo Temple dates from this time.

Camel City Site and Tomb Complex (20 kilometers west of Gaotain County, 90 kilometers southwest of Zhangye City) is 704 meters long from north to south and 426 meters wide from east to west and covers 300,000 square meters. The remnant wall is seven meters high and is made of rammed yellow earth. The base is six meters thick. Camel City was constructed in A.D. 397 and was an important Silk Road stop. The city was deserted several times due to wars and water shortages. By the Ming Dynasty it was deserted and was a popular place to graze camels, hence the name. [Source:]

Mati Temple Grottoes

Mati Temple Grottoes (Linsong Mountain, 80 kilometers south of Zhangye) is an important Buddha grottoes site with sven cave sites with about 70 caves and embracing the North Temple, South Temple, Thousand Buddha Cave, Golden Pagoda Temple, and the Upper, Middle and Lower Avalokitesvara Caves. Each part is is located a few kilometers from the other parts. Because the mountain’s coarse red sandstone which was not suitable for carving, most of the grottoes have clay sculptures. [Source: Top China Travel]

Based on the shape of the grottoes and the style of the Buddha sculptures, it was determined that some parts in Golden Pagoda Temple, North Temple, and Thousand Cave were built between 5th and 6th centuries. And some others may have been built in early 5th century or even earlier. The most well-preserved part is the Golden Pagoda Temple. The caves are excavated on a 60-meter-high precipice which is about 15 kilometers from Mati Temple. There are two existing pagoda-shape central supporting cave.

Northern Dynasty (A.D. 386-581) grottoes are mostly in Thousand Buddha Cave. Located on the northwest side of Mati Temple. Tthere are more than 10 grottoes here. No. 2 and No. 8 caves are pagoda-shape, central-supporting caves, with preserved sculptures and frescos from Northern Wei and Northern Zhou dynasties. There are more than 30 grottoes in Northern Temple of Mati Mountain. Most of the grottoes were created in Northern, Western Xia, Yuan, and Ming dynasties. The No. 8 cave is the largest, a kind of Buddhist palace, with a depth of 33.5 meters and a width of 26.3 meters. It was built around Western Xia dynasty. From an artistic point of view, the most impressive artwork is in Golden Pagoda Temple. Despite being renovated many times the sculptures have kept the original appearance. Check out the expressions on sculptures’ faces, the elaborate decorations on the sculptures’ bodies, and the Flying Apsaras art.


Dunhuang (on the Lanzhou-Urumqi train line, 750 kilometers northwest of Lanzhou and 750 kilometers southeast of Urumqi) is an oasis town of about 190,000 people and jumping off point for Mogao Caves. One of the premier Silk Road sites, it boasts a new airport, several four-star hotels a number of small hotels and guest houses.

In the Silk Road era Dunhuang was known as Shazhou — City of Sands. Today, it is one western China’s most cosmopolitan centers, as visitors come from all over the world to check out Mogao Caves. About 300,000 visitors, nearly all of them arriving in the hot summer, visit the town every year. Dunhuang means "Blazing Beacon."

Dunhuang is situated in a oasis containing Crescent Lake and Mingsha Shan ("Singing-Sand Mountain"). It’s remote location in northwestern Gansu Province, far from any major city, belies how bustling it must have been when it was filled with Silk Road merchants, suppliers, and entrepreneurs. . The Chinese government make of point of criticizing late 19th century Western "archeologists," who explored Dunhuang and other Silk Road towns and made up off with some of the best art and sculptures, which are now displayed in foreign museums.

According to the International Dunhuang Project: “Dunhuang has a history of over two thousand years. Lying on the Dang River, which flows south and disappears into the Gobi desert, the town was established as a Chinese military garrison in the 2nd century B.C.. Defensive walls with watchtowers were built to its north. On the junction where the main Silk Road split into northern and southern branches around the Taklamakan desert to its west, Dunhuang grew and prospered. In the 4th century an itinerant monk excavated a meditation cave in a cliff face south-east of the town. Others followed and by the 8th century there were over a thousand cave temples. One cave was used as a library and filled with manuscripts and paintings. It was sealed and hidden in about AD 1000 and its discovery in 1900 revealed an unrivalled source for knowledge of the official and religious life in this ancient Silk Road town." [Source: International Dunhuang Project: Silk Road Exhibition]

Tourist Office: Dunhuang Tourism Bureau, 13 East Yangguang Rd, 736200 Dunhuang, Gansu, China, Tel. (0)-94-732-2236, fax: (0)-94-732-2234 Websites: Travel China Guide Travel China Guide Hotel Website: Budget Accommodation: Check Lonely Planet books; Getting There: Dunhuang is accessible by air and bus and lies on the main east-west train line between Beijing and Urumqi. Travel China Guide (click transportation) Travel China Guide

See Separate Article on DUNHUANG

Dunhuang and the Silk Road

Dunhuang was a stop on the Silk Road and was visited by Marco Polo (See Above). It is situated at strategic position at the crossroads of the ancient Southern Silk Route between China, Central Asia and Europe as well as the main road between India, Lhasa, Mongolia and Southern Siberia. It sits at the controlling entrance to the narrow Hexi Corridor, which led straight to the heart of the north Chinese plains and the ancient capitals of Chang'an (Xi'an) and Luoyang. The ruins of a huge Han Dynasty (202 BC - 220 AD) watchtower made of rammed earth seen today Dunhuang is one illustration of the town’s economic — and military — importance.

The Silk Road started in Chang'an (Xian), about 1,700 kilometers from Duhuang and made its way to Europe via the Black Sea, Constantinople and the Mediterranean coast. In Dunhuang they could get fresh camels, food and guards for the journey around the dangerous Taklamakan Desert. Before departing Dunhuang some would pray to the Mogao Caves for a safe journey, if they came back alive they would thank the gods at the grottoes and perhaps donate money from some cave paintings. To cross the desert and frontiers they formed caravans for protection against brigands and bandits. The next stop on the way to Central Asia was, Kashi (Kashgar), over 2,000 kilometers to the west. At Kashi most would trade and return.

Brook Larmer wrote in National Geographic, “Whether taking the longer northern route or the more arduous southern passage, travelers converged on Dunhuang. Caravans came loaded with exotic goods redolent of distant lands. Their most important commodities, however, were ideas---artistic and religious. It's no wonder that the Mogao painters, illustrating the greatest of all Silk Road imports, infused their murals with an array of foreign elements, from pigments to metaphysics. Emerging from the wind-sculptured dunes some 12 miles southeast of Dunhuang is an arc of cliffs that drop more than a hundred feet to a riverbed lined with poplar trees. By the mid-seventh century, the mile-long rock face was honeycombed with hundreds of grottoes. It was here that pilgrims came to pray for safe passage across the dreaded Taklamakan Desert. [Source: Brook Larmer, National Geographic, June 2010]

Mogao Caves

Mogao Caves (28 kilometers south of Dunhuang) — also known as Thousand Buddha Caves — is a massive group of caves filled with Buddhist statues and imagery that were first used in the A.D. 4th century. Carved into a cliff in the eastern foothills of the Mingsha Mountains (Singing Sand Mountains) and stretching for more than a mile, the grottoes are one of the largest treasure house of grotto art in China and the world.

All together there are 750 caves (492 with art work) on five levels, 45,000 square meters of murals, more than 2,000 painted clay figures and five wooden structures. The grottoes contain Buddha and Bodhisattva statues and lovely paintings of paradise, asparas (angels), religious scenes and the patrons who commissioned the paintings. The oldest cave dates back to the 4th century. The largest cave is 130 feet high. It houses a 100-foot-tall Buddha statue installed during the Tang Dynasty (618-906) (A.D. 618-906). Many caves are so small they can only can accommodate a few people at a time. The smallest cave is only a foot high.

Mogao was designated a UNESCO World Heritage in 1987. According to UNESCO: “Situated at a strategic point along the Silk Route, at the crossroads of trade as well as religious, cultural and intellectual influences, the 492 cells and cave sanctuaries in Mogao are famous for their statues and wall paintings, spanning 1,000 years of Buddhist art.”

Brook Larmer wrote in National Geographic, “Within the caves, the monochrome lifelessness of the desert gave way to an exuberance of color and movement. Thousands of Buddhas in every hue radiated across the grotto walls, their robes glinting with imported gold. Apsaras (heavenly nymphs) and celestial musicians floated across the ceilings in gauzy blue gowns of lapis lazuli, almost too delicate to have been painted by human hands. Alongside the airy depictions of nirvana were earthier details familiar to any Silk Road traveler: Central Asian merchants with long noses and floppy hats, wizened Indian monks in white robes, Chinese peasants working the land. In the oldest dated cave, from A.D. 538, are depictions of bandits bandits that had been captured, blinded, and ultimately converted to Buddhism. [Source: Brook Larmer, National Geographic, June 2010]

Carved out between the fourth and 14th centuries, the grottoes, with their paper-thin skin of painted brilliance, have survived the ravages of war and pillage, nature and neglect. Half buried in sand for centuries, this isolated sliver of conglomerate rock is now recognized as one of the greatest repositories of Buddhist art in the world. The caves, however, are more than a monument to faith. Their murals, sculptures, and scrolls also offer an unparalleled glimpse into the multicultural society that thrived for a thousand years along the once mighty corridor between East and West.

The Chinese call them Mogaoku, or "peerless caves." But no name can fully capture their beauty or immensity. Of the almost 800 caves chiseled into the cliff face, 492 are decorated with exquisite murals that cover nearly half a million square feet of wall space, some 40 times the expanse of the Sistine Chapel. The cave interiors are also adorned with more than 2,000 sculptures, some of them among the finest of their era. Until just over a century ago, when a succession of treasure hunters arrived across the desert, one long-hidden chamber contained tens of thousands of ancient manuscripts.

"The caves are a time capsule of the Silk Road," says Fan Jinshi, director of the Dunhuang Academy, which oversees research, conservation, and tourism at the site. A sprightly 71-year-old archaeologist, Fan has worked at the grottoes for 47 years, ever since she arrived in 1963 as a fresh graduate of Peking University. Most other Silk Road sites, Fan says, were devoured by the desert or destroyed by successive empires. But the Mogao caves endured largely intact, their kaleidoscope of murals capturing the early encounters of East and West. "The historical significance of Mogao cannot be exaggerated," Fan says. "Because of its geographical location at a transit point on the Silk Road, you can see the mingling of Chinese and foreign elements on nearly every grotto wall." UNESCO World Heritage Site Map: (click at the bottom): UNESCO Also try the UNESCO World Heritage Site Web site (click the site you want) World Heritage Site

Yumen Pass (Jade Gate)

Yumenguan(Yumen Pass, 80 kilometers northwest of Dunhuang) is the name of a pass of the Great Wall also known as Jade Gate or Pass of the Jade Gate. During the Han dynasty (202 A.D. – A.D. 220), this was a pass through which the Silk Road and the main route to Central Asia passed. Just to the south was the Yangguan pass, which was also an important point on the Silk Road. [Source: Wikipedia]

Although the Chinese word guan is usually translated as "pass", it more specifically means "frontier pass". Yumen guan and Yang guan were the two most famous passes leading to the north and west from Chinese territory. During the Early Han, "a defensive line was established from Jiuquan ('Wine Springs') in the Gansu Corridor west to the Jade Gate Pass at its end." Yumenguan should not be confused with Yumen city 400 kilometers to the east. Yumenguan is called 'Jade Gate Frontier-post,' named because many jade caravans passed through it. The original Jade Gate was erected by Emperor Wudi around 121 B.C. and its ruins can still be seen today. Until the 6th century, it was the final outpost of Chinese territory for caravans on their long caravan journeys to India, Parthia, and the Roman Empire. [Coordinates 40°21 12.6"N 93°51 50.5"ECoordinates: 40°21 12.6"N 93°51 50.5"E]

Bonavia & Baumer wrote: “The remains of these two important Han-dynasty gates are about 68 kilometers (42 mi) apart, at either end of the Dunhuang extension of the Great Wall. Until the Tang dynasty, when the gates fell into disuse, all caravans travelling through Dunhuang were required to pass through one of these gates, then the westernmost passes of China. Yumenguan lies about 80 kilometers (50 mi) northwest of Dunhuang. It was originally called the 'Square City,' but because the great jade caravans from Khotan entered through its portals, it became known as the Jade Gate Pass. In the third and fourth centuries turmoil swept through Central Asia, disrupting overland trade, and the sea route via India began to supplant it. By the sixth century, as caravans favoured the northern route via Hami, the pass was abandoned. In 1907, Sir Aurel Stein found bamboo slips naming the site as Yumenguan, and in 1944 Chinese archaeologists discovered relics that confirmed this. With its 10-meter-high (32 foot) mud walls pierced by four gateways, the square enclosure covered more than 600 square meters (718 square yards) in the midst of unbounded desolation. Yanguan lies 75 kilometers (47 mi) southwest of Dunhuang but consists of only the ruins of a high beacon tower. [Source: Bonavia & Baumer (2004), pp. 176, 178. Quoted in Hill (2009), p. 138]

Jiayuguan Pass; Western End of the Great Wall

Jiayuguan Pass (southwest of Jiayuguan city, 500 kilometers northwest of Lanzhou, 270 east of Dunhuang) is the western terminus of the Great Wall of China. Attached to the wall is a small walled inner city and outer city. This outpost was called "Impregnable Pass Under Heaven." The wall extended no further because it determined that nobody wanted or would fight over land to the west. The most westward gate of the Great Wall is at Jia Wu Watchtower.

Jiayuguan was visited by Marco Polo (See Gansu Above). It has a section of the Great Wall rebuilt with private money invested by a former peasant. Cement-lined bunkers built as a defense for attacks from the Soviet Union are open to tourists. In the distance are snow-capped Qilian Mountains.

An arched tunnel provides access to Rouyuan Tower, the west gate of the fortress at Jiayuguan Pass. There is a good view from what is called the Overhanging Great Wall, originally built in 1539 during the Ming dynasty, about eight kilometers from the Jiayuguan Pass. Situated on the eastern slopes of the Heishan (Black Mountains), the wall was hidden to travelers coming from the west.

During the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) Jiayuguan Pass marked the end of China. Anna Sherman wrote in the New York Times: “In stories and songs, Jiayuguan represented the boundary between civilization and chaos. In 1942, the British missionaries Mildred Cable and Francesca French wrote in their memoir “The Gobi Desert” that scholars and disgraced officials, en route into exile, had covered the fortress gateway with farewell poems written in calligraphy: “Anyone with sufficient knowledge to appreciate Chinese penmanship could see at once that these were the work of men of scholarship, who had fallen on an hour of deep distress.” When I finally visited it myself, I saw that the long archway had been painted clean, and security cameras tracked everyone going in and out. Chinese tourists stood against the walls, posed for selfies and moved on.” [Source: Anna Sherman, New York Times, May 11, 2020]

The Jiayuguan Pass Great Wall was built in the early Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), somewhere around the year 1372. It was built near an oasis that was then on the extreme western edge of China. Jiayuguan Pass was the first pass on the west end of the great wall so it earned the name “The First And Greatest Pass Under Heaven.” An extra brick is said to rest on a ledge over one of the gates. One legend holds that the official in charge asked the designer to calculate how many bricks would be used. The designer gave him the number and when the project was finished, only one brick was left. It was put on the top of the pass as a symbol of commemoration.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, Nolls China Web site; Zhangye Danxia, Explorersweb

Text Sources: CNTO (China National Tourist Organization),, UNESCO, reports submitted to UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, China Daily, Xinhua, Global Times, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2020

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