Sunday, September 25, 2016

Yumen Pass.

The Small Fangpan Castle.

On the way back to Dunhuang city from the Dunhuang Yardang National Geopark, we stopped for a short visit to Yumen Pass (aka Jade Gate) and to see an original section of the Great Wall dating back to the Han Dynasty (202 BC - 220 AD).

Driving up to what looked like a free standing boulder, in the middle of the desert, I had a really difficult time imagining what the Yumen Pass looked like.  In fact, what is that boulder like thing?  I would soon have my questions answered.


It started with a quick check on Google where I found this map which helped to visualize the pass and the wall.  What looked to me like a boulder is actually the Small Fangpan Castle and it essentially sits at a break point in the wall.  It's the Yumen Pass.

(Map by Bairuilong. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)

Back in the day, travelers to *The Western Regions* left China through this pass which was also known as the Jade Gate because of all the many caravans that passed through it. The original Jade Gate was erected by Emperor Wudi (Emperor Wu of Han) soon after 121 BC and its ruins can still be seen about 80 kilometers (50 mile) to the northwest of Dunhuang which was, until the 6th century, the final outpost of Chinese territory for caravans on their long caravan journeys to India, Parthia, and the Roman Empire.

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 traveling through Dunhuang were required to pass through one of these gates, then the westernmost passes of China.

As we neared our destination, Cathy pointed out the remains of the original wall.  I was expecting to see crumbling bricks as the only sections of the Great Wall that I know are constructed that way but instead it was a layered rammed earth wall.  This actually makes sense as in this time period, weaponry could not penetrate a thick wall built from rammed earth.

The Small Fangpan Castle on the left; remains of the original Han Dynasty Great Wall on the right.

Cathy gave us some time to roam around on our own. I was curious about the wall so I had to have a closer look.


There were the remains of a watchtower as well.


It was fascinating looking at the construction of the wall.  It was basically layers of earth and stone separated by layers of straw.  I couldn't figure out what the purpose of the straw was - simply as a binding material??

The existing wall is not all that high or thick.  I imagine it must have been quite tall originally and I guess it was as thick as it needed to be to prevent arrows or larger ramming equipment to puncture through.







We had all split up so I made own way towards the castle, taking slow walk on the path leading to it.



It is so flat and arid here and even though it's autumn, it's a warm day.  I can't imagine how challenging it must have been for the Silk Road caravans to cross this terrain in the blistering heat of summer and the bone chilling cold of winter.





The castle was constructed of extremely thick rammed earth walls.  Inside was a small courtyard.  There was no roof...presumably the original one was constructed of straw and therefore, long gone.  I have to say that the use of the word "castle" in the name is a bit misleading as this really wasn't a castle as we know it in Western terminology.  I read a description that indicated it was a command post for the Yumen Pass and that does make sense to me.






There wasn't a whole lot to the Small Fangpan Castle; I was inside for barely 5 minutes so I decided to just take a slow walk back to the van where Cathy and our driver were waiting for us.

On the topic of our driver, Cathy told me his name several times but I cannot remember it for the life of me.  He's a really nice guy though.  Aside from being an excellent driver who keeps the van spotlessly clean and is never late arriving to pick us up, he always has a smile on his face and has treated us so well these past few days.  We've spent the most time on this trip with Cathy and him.  I will miss them both as we leave them behind tomorrow to head to our final destination in China.

But for now, it's about an hour's drive back to Dunhuang and again, we have the rest of today as well as tomorrow to spend on our own.