Wednesday, April 18, 2007

China | Gansu Province | Jiayuguan | Great Wall

From Beijing I took one of the morning planes to Lanzhou, on the Yellow River in eastern Gansu, 704 miles to the west, and then caught the afternoon puddle-jumper on to Jiayuguan, 369 miles still farther west.
Lanzhou, on the Yellow River
In Jiayuguan I wanted to check out the possibility of making a trip to the Mazong (Horse’s Mane) Mountains to the north and Gobi Desert beyond.

The bus from the airport was not running—there were only about thirty people on the small plane and most of them seemed to be locals who were met at the airport by acquaintances. I had to take a cab for the six-mile trip into town. The cab driver was a woman in her mid-twenties. She delivered me to the Jiayuguan Hotel on the main city square and insisted on carrying my bag inside. I had read that the Jiayuguan Hotel was a dump and was going to stay there only because it was conveniently located. The accounts must have been written before a recent upgrade. The place now is quite up-scale and all the receptionists and even some of the waitresses in the restaurant speak English. The listed price reflected the upgrade—400 yuan for a standard room; more than the venerable Yong An, where I stay in Beijing—but this price was quickly lowered to 200 yuan when I showed signs of heading for the door. Mid-April is the off-season in Jiayuguan. All the while the cab driver was hovering by my elbow. Speaking through one of the receptionists she then offered to take me the next morning to the two most famous local sights—the westernmost extension of the Great Wall of China and the Jiayuguan Fort, on the western edge of town. A price was arrived at and we agreed to meet at nine the next morning.

There was some kind of settlement here in this wide corridor between the Qilian Mountains to the north and the Mazong Mountains to the north since at least Han times some two thousand years ago. More than a thousand tombs dating from the Wei (220-265) and Western Jin ((265-316) dynasties are scattered around the surrounding desert. During the Ming Dynasty the fort here marked the western limits of the Chinese Empire. The Great Wall, starting far to the east at Shanhaiguan on the Bohai Gulf, ended here, and in 1372 a fort was built to guard the border. The nearby town become knowns as “Jiayuguan,” which means “Barrier of the Pleasant Valley.” The city now has a population of some 115,000. Cement and fertilizer factories dominate the town, and iron ore and coking coal are mined in the nearby mountains. Although nowhere near as famous a tourist attraction as Dunhuang, some five hours by bus to the south, a fair amount of tourists stop by to see the Great Wall, the fort, and a smattering of other local sights. All serous Silk Roadies make an obligatory stop here because of its importance as a way-station on the Silk Road.

The day I arrived it had been very overcast and I was not able to be see much of the surrounding area either on the plane’s approach or on the drive into town. The next morning I was a bit startled when I drew back the curtains and beheld the glacier-capped 18,000 foot-plus Qilian Mountains dominating the entire southern horizon.
Qilian Mountains from Downtown Jaiyuguan
The town itself is at an elevation of 5385 feet. In the foreground to the south were in the much lower buckskin colored Wenshu Mountains. It was these mountains to the south and the Heishan to the immediate north and the Mazong beyond that funneled many of the various caravan routes of the Silk Road through this area. That is why during the Ming Dynasty this place was called “The Greatest Pass Under Heaven.”

The driver was right on time the next morning. Her name is Chan. She is in her late twenties I would say, very thin, with a finely chiseled face. I quickly discovered she did not speak a single word of English. For someone who works with the public she seemed intensely shy—or maybe she was just shy around foreigners. She would glance at me out of the corner of her eyes for a microsecond and than intently stare straight ahead, as if she had seen something she really shouldn't have. Our first stop is the so-called Overhanging Wall section of the Great Wall, 6.2 miles from the hotel on the city square. From the fort, 4.2 miles away, the Wall runs across flat desert and ends at the top of a high hill.
The Overhanging Wall
Beyond here the rugged ridges of the Heishan form a natural barrier. A wall was built here probably as early as the Han Dynasty some 2000 years ago but the current version dates from the Ming Dynasty.
The Overhanging Wall
After the fall of Mongolian Yuan Dynasty in 1368 a Ming army led by General Feng Sheng drove the last of the Mongol armies from the region. The existing wall was upgraded and new sections built in an attempt to prevent any further Mongol incursions. The pounded earth wall from the fort to the Overhanging Wall appears to be more-or-less the original version, but the brick section climbing up the spine of the mountain appears to have undergone extensive restoration.
The Overhanging Wall
Nearby is a newly installed suite of granite statues depicting various travelers, pilgrims, and generals who have filed through Jiayuguan over the ages.
Among the more notable is Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism, who some sources claim made the first recorded trip through Jiayuguan in the fifth century BC. Lao Tzu was of course the author of record of the Dao De Qing, the seminal text of Taoism. Discouraged that so few people were willing to follow his teachings of The Way he mounted his black buffalo and rode westward. Here at Jiayuguan he left China proper and disappeared into the wilderness beyond and hence into legend. That he was supposedly between 160 and 200 years old when he made the trip brings the historicity of this whole account into question.
Lao Tzu
There is no doubt about the historicity of Xuanzang, the peripatetic pilgrim who passed this way around 630 on his way from Xian in Shaanxi Province to India. I have visited numerous places in Xuanzang’s itinerary, including Lanzhou in eastern Gansu Province; Turpan and Khotan in Xinjiang, Bodhgaya, site of the Buddha’s Enlightenment, nearby Vulture's Peak, where the Buddha taught, and the great Buddhist university of Nalanda, all in India; the Big Goose Pagoda in Xian where the Buddhist texts he brought back from India were stored, and his tomb at Xingjiao Temple near Xian.
Peripatetic Pilgrim Xuanzang with his panier of sutras brought back from India
Near the statue complex is Jiayuguan’s only Buddhist temple, which has recently been restored.
Nearby is another section of wall which is being restored and is not open to the public. When I expressed a desire to see it Ms. Chan took a dirt road to the base of the mountain and then led me up an extremely steep narrow foot path which ended at an opening in the wall where the workmen gained access. I had to admire her pluckiness. She was wearing street shoes and had to climb several of the steep sections of the trail on her hands and knees.
View of the Overhanging Wall, with Buddhist Temple at bottom left
We climbed onto the top of the wall, where several workmen were repairing the brick steps, and proceeded upwards. Ms. Chan really seemed to be enjoying herself. She whooped and hollered as we climbed higher and new vistas were presented to us.
The charming Ms. Chan taking a breather
I got the impression that she had been on the lower part of the wall where the workman were but had never before climbed to the top.
Climbing to the to Beacon Tower
From the tower we were presented with a sweeping view of the mountains to the north and south and the corridor between them which made this place so strategically important.
The Greatest Pass Under Heaven