On my second day in Dunhuang I rented a taxi for the day with two new friends, Da Jing and Xiao Suan. We travelled out to the Ya Dan Geologic Park and several historic outposts on the Silk Road, including Yumen Pass (玉門關), Yang Pass (陽關), and the Han Dynasty Great Wall Ruins.
Trade along the Silk Road became a problem in the second century BCE when the Xiongnu people displaced the Yuezhi and Se (Saka) peoples in areas of present-day Gansu and Xinjiang. This became a priority of Emperor Wudi of Han (140 – 87 BCE) who dispatched Zhang Qian in 138 BCE to make an alliance with the Yuezhi. Zhang Qian’s travels through the western regions to Bactria (now in Afghanistan) were noted in the Records of the Historian by Sima Qian. Zhang Qian’s travel paved the way for Han delegations to travel to India, Syria, and the Mediteranian. Xinjiang was annexed as a part of the Han empire in 60 BCE. The Great Wall was extended to this area during the Han Dynasty. We visited the remains of the Han Dynasty Great Wall, shown in the photos below, at a point approximately 95 kilometers west of Dunhuang.
The Great Wall, along with most building structures in that area during in ancient and medieval times were made from rammed earth with matted grass acting as re-inforcing. The watchtowers were made from brick.
Yang Pass is named because it is the southern most pass (yang meaning the Sun, which is in the south) of the two passes in the area. There is a visitor’s center and museum at Yang pass today. Photos from Yang Pass are shown in the slide show below.
The Yumen Pass was named after the jade (pinyin: yu) that was transported here from the Hetian area in Xinjiang. It is not a mountain pass at all put situated on flat land. It is called a pass because it was the only way to pass into or out of the area.
All travellers in ancient and medieval times had to travel through these passes. Kumarajiva (鳩摩羅什), who lived from 344 – 413, and was from the area of present day Kashmir was one of the most prolific translators of Buddhist sutras. He travelled through Dunhuang circa 384 with a load sutras loaded on his horse. Unfortunately, his horse fell ill and died there. He raised funds to build a pagoda in honor of his horse. Today, White Horse Pagoda (白馬塔) is still standing in Dunhuang. A photo is shown below.
Another interesting place to visit in the Dunhuang area is San Wei Hills. There are three sites in the San Wei Hills Scenic area: Wang Mu Palace, Avalokiteśvara Hall, and Nan Shan Temple. The site days to circa 366. We met a wonderful nun at Avalokiteśvara Hall who cooked a delicious lunch for us. A photo of Nan Shan Temple is shown below.
Because of control of the western part of the Silk Road by the Persians the Romans attempted to travel to China by sea. Initially, they bought silk at ports in India but later they were later successful in making direct contact in circa 166 CE. As maritime technology improved more trade was done by sea than by land across the Silk Road. After the fall of the Mongol Empire in 1368 the Silk Road was abandoned.
- Du Doucheng and Wang Suqing, 2005 Dunhuang and Silk Road, Sea Sky Publishing House, Shenzhen, China, ISBN 7-80697-402-4/G.
- Shen Fuwei, 2009. Cultural Flow Between China and Outside World throughout History. Foreign Languages Press, ISBN 978-7-119-05753-8.