The Wuwei Confucian Temple

While Confucian temples are common throughout cities in China, the one in the city of Wuwei is considered to be particularly special. Known alternately as the Wuwei Confucian Temple and the Wenmiao Temple, this ancient architectural complex was originally built in 1439, during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), and has been extended several times throughout its venerable history. The temple complex itself faces south and is constituted of three main parts: the Wenchang Hall in the east; the Confucius Temple in the middle; and the Liangzhou Confucian Academy in the west. 

Covering a surface area of around 1,500 square metres (16,145 sq. ft.), the Wuwei Confucian Temple boasts the reputation of being the largest Confucian school in Gansu province. It historically served as a place for scholars to study and pray to Confucius, and it remains an important site of worship to this day. In particular, it is common for parents to pray for their children at the temple on the run up to examinations. After all, who needs luck when you have the backing of the wisest man in Chinese history! 

The Wenchang Hall can be accessed via the “Shanmen” or Mountain Gate and contains a stage for dramatic performances, alongside a plethora of sacred shrines. On the left and right hand sides of the hall, there are shrines dedicated to Master Niu and Master Liu respectively. At the back of the hall, opposite the entrance, sits the Chongsheng Shrine, also known as the Shrine of Worship. The hall’s courtyard is resplendent with lush pine trees and houses a veritable forest of beautifully preserved stone steles, some of which are famous throughout China. In fact, the highly prized Western Xia Tablet was once located within this courtyard, but has since been moved to the Wuwei Museum within the temple complex. 

The aptly named Confucius Temple naturally occupies the central position within the temple complex and is the location where offerings can be made in honour of Confucius. This expansive hall also contains memorial tablets dedicated to a handful of Confucius’ most well-known and revered students, including Mencius, Zengzi, Zisi, and Yan Hui. In-keeping with the scholarly theme, the Liangzhou Confucian Academy would have been where literati historically studied and exchanged ideas within the complex, although nowadays it simply acts as another beautiful component of the temple. Alongside these core sections of the temple, there are number of elaborate structures throughout the complex that deserve special mention, such as the Ji Gate, the Lattice Gate, the Bridge of the “Number One Scholar,” and the half-moon shaped Banchi Pool. 

The crowning jewel of the temple complex, however, is arguably the Wuwei Museum. As mentioned before, it currently houses the Western Xia Tablet, which contains inscriptions in both Chinese and the extinct language of the mysterious Tangut people. It’s one of the very few remnants left of this enigmatic ethnic group and has been an invaluable tool for linguists in decoding the Tangut language. Alongside this tablet, the museum boasts a staggering collection of over 36,000 cultural artefacts comprised of ancient books, scriptures, works of calligraphy, and paintings. A few other notable items within the museum include: bamboo writing slips dating back to the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD); a bronze cannon from the Western Xia Dynasty (1038–1227); porcelain from the Ming and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties; and remnants of ancient coins, such as Western Xia silver coins.

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Yongtai Ancient Town

Known locally as “Turtle City”, Yongtai Ancient Town acquired its unusual nickname due to its shape, which is said to look like that of a turtle from an aerial perspective. The gate at its south represents the head and the overall oval-shape of the town bears an uncanny resemblance to the shell of a turtle. Much like its reptilian counterpart, Yongtai Ancient Town was historically protected by defensive structures that once made it practically impenetrable! This garrison town was built in 1602, during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), in order to protect against invasions and attacks from nomadic groups in the north. During its heyday, it was home to around 2,000 infantrymen and 500 cavalry units!

It was originally surrounded by a 6-metre (20 ft.) wide and approximately 2-metre (7 ft.) deep moat. This was in turn backed by a formidable 12-metre (39 ft.) high wall, which was punctuated by 12 defensive forts and four gate-towers. While the moat has unfortunately dried up, the imposing city walls and the ancient houses that lie within them have been beautifully well-preserved and offer a stunning insight into China’s history. What is perhaps most impressive is that many of these constructions were made used loess soil, which has been packed together tightly to form a stable structure.

By the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), however, the town’s military importance began to wane and the population gradually declined. Nowadays, the town has been largely abandoned due to desertification and its remote location, meaning that its population has dropped from around 1,500 in the 1950s to less than 400 people today. For this reason, it’s imperative that you visit the town as soon as possible, so that you can see the locals’ traditional way of life before it is deserted entirely. 

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Zhangye is a prefecture-level city situated in the northwest of Gansu province, resting at the heart of the legendary Hexi Corridor. The misty Qilian Mountains lie to its north, while to its south you’ll find Mount Heli and Mount Longshou. The Hei River flows directly through the city and has formed a number of oases, endowing the region with its remarkably luxurious greenery. It acted as a frontier town throughout China’s history, sitting at the centre of the historic natural passageway between the Far East and Central Asia. The name “Zhangye” (张掖), which literally means “to extend the arm”, is an abbreviation of the ancient Chinese saying “to extend the arm of the country, through to the Western Realm” (国臂,以通西域). Yet what it fails to mention is that they weren’t just extending the arm, but also the army!

During the Han Dynasty (206 BC– 220 AD), Zhangye rose to prominence as one of the focal trade hubs along the Silk Road and was thus fiercely defended by the Chinese army against the invading Xiongnu people. It was given its current name in 111 BC but Zhangye Prefecture was originally known as Ganzhou, which is where the “Gan” of Gansu province was derived. Evidently coming up with original names wasn’t the Emperor’s strong point! By the Sui Dynasty (581-618), it had rapidly developed into a metropolis for international trade and, during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the famous monk Xuanzang even passed through the city on his way to India. 

Sadly this would mark the end of the imperial court’s stronghold on the region, as a Tibeto-Burman-speaking people known as the Tanguts soon dominated northwest China and established the Western Xia Dynasty (1038–1227). It wouldn’t return to imperial control until the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), which is coincidentally also when Italian traveller Marco Polo decided to settle there for an entire year. He remarked in his travel notes on the city’s impressive size and the magnificence of its religious buildings so, if it was good enough for Marco Polo’s proverbial gap year, we’re sure you’ll agree it’s worth a visit!

Of these magnificent religious buildings, the Five Elemental Pagodas are perhaps the most strikingly unusual. They are all designed after the five elements of ancient Chinese philosophy: metal, wood, water, fire, and earth. The most famous of these is arguably the Wooden Pagoda of the Sui Dynasty which, rather misleadingly, was not actually built during the Sui Dynasty (581-618)! It was originally constructed during the Northern Zhou Dynasty (557–581), but underwent a long period of reconstruction during the Sui Dynasty and required further repairs during the Tang, Ming (1368-1644), and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties. It seems wood wasn’t the sturdiest of the five elements after all! 

Nowadays it is stunningly well-preserved and contains the Zhangye Folk Customs Museum, where visitors can learn about the city’s resident ethnic minorities. Over 26 of China’s recognised ethnic minorities call Zhangye home, including large constituencies of Hui, Yugur, and Tibetan people. This means that large parts of the prefecture, such as Sunan Yugur Autonomous County, are entirely dominated by a plethora of unique cultures, where visitors are privy to the fascinating customs of these ethnic peoples. 

The Clay Pagoda, one of the other Five Elemental Pagodas, is part of a spectacular complex known as the Giant Buddha Temple. It is widely considered the finest relic of the Western Xia Dynasty and contains China’s largest statue of the reclining Buddha. As a matter of fact, the entire temple was constructed simply to house this giant Buddha! The statue in question is approximately 35 metres (115 ft.) long and 8 metres (26 ft.) wide at the shoulders, making it over 11 times longer than a fully grown anaconda. It has been beautifully painted and gold-plated, which only adds to its overall grandeur. Yet this isn’t the temple’s only claim to fame, since Kublai Khan, founder of the Yuan Dynasty and grandson of Genghis Khan, was supposedly born within its halls.  

Just 65 kilometres (40 mi) south of the city proper, the Mati or “Horse’s Hoof” Temple is etched into the cliff-face of Linsong Mountain and houses still more sacred relics, including the legendary hoof-prints of a horse deity. Nowadays it is home to a large Yugur community and is the perfect place to engage with their nomadic lifestyle. That being said, if you’re in the mood for something a little less manmade, you may want to consider a trip to the Zhangye Danxia Landform Geological Park or the Zhangye National Wetland Park. 

Resplendent with rolling hills of multiple colours, the Danxia landform rests just 30 kilometres (19 mi) west of Zhangye proper and offers up a unique geological landscape, described by many as a living watercolour painting. The Zhangye Wetland Park is a little closer to home, as it rests on the northern outskirts of the city and offers stunning views of verdant marshes, flowery meadows, and winding rivers. This breath-taking natural scenery, coupled with the many interactive exhibitions on the history of the Silk Road, the plant and animal species that inhabit the wetlands, and the ecological importance of preserving them, is sure to awaken the conservationist in you!

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The city of Wuwei is located within a historic pathway known as the Hexi Corridor, which is flanked by the towering Tibetan Plateau in the north and the inhospitable Gobi Desert to the south. The dangerous and impenetrable nature of the surroundings meant that travellers along the Silk Road were forced to exclusively use this route, as it was the only safe way to enter central China from western China. Thus, as an ancient oasis city, Wuwei had something of a captive audience! In particular, Wuwei sits at the centre of the three provincial capitals of Lanzhou, Xining, and Yinchuan, meaning it remains a nexus for trade and travel in western China.

Archaeological evidence suggests that the Wuwei area was inhabited by primitive people over 4,000 years ago, during the Neolithic Era, although the first settlement did not appear there until around 2,100 years ago. This settlement was a town known as Zang and was occupied by a nomadic tribe called the Xiongnu, who ruled the region during this period. The city was not formally established, however, until the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), when Emperor Wu sent a military general named Huo Quobing to attack the Hexi Corridor in 121 BC. After General Huo’s forces had successfully defeated the Xiongnu and captured the territory within the Hexi Corridor, Emperor Wu renamed Zang to Wuwei in honour of General Huo’s heroism, as the name “Wuwei” (武威) literally translates to mean “Martial Prestige.”

Throughout its history, it served as the capital for a number of smaller dynasties, such as the Former Liang (317-376 AD), the Later Liang (386-403 AD), the Southern Liang (397-414 AD), and the Northern Liang (401-439 AD).  In fact, many of these dynasties derived their name from the alternative name given to Wuwei during the Han Dynasty, which was “Liangzhou” (凉州) or “Cold Prefecture.” For a brief period, it even served as the provisional capital for the Western Xia Dynasty (1038–1227), which was led by a mysterious ethnic group known as the Tangut people. To this day, very little is known about the Tangut people and the relics that have been unearthed near Wuwei have been integral to our understanding of this enigmatic culture.  

Nowadays, the city of Wuwei is unsurprisingly renowned for its wide variety of historical attractions, from imperial tombs to elaborate Buddhist grottoes. Arguably its greatest claim to fame is the Leitai Han Tomb, where a bronze statue known as “Matafeiyan” or “Horse Galloping, Flying Swallow” was found. The tomb dates back to the Eastern Han Dynasty (25 BC-220 AD) and belonged to General Zhang of Zhangye, who had once been responsible for maintaining imperial defences on the western frontier and was buried sometime between 186 BC and 219 BC.

The tomb itself wasn’t discovered until 1969, when a group of local people were tasked with digging air-raid shelters near the city of Wuwei. They came upon the tomb by accident and alerted the local authorities to their discovery not long thereafter. Once the tomb had been properly excavated, archaeologists unearthed a chamber that contained over 200 valuable bronzes, including the famed statue of the horse with its foot planted delicately on the back of a flying swallow. This statue has become somewhat iconic throughout Gansu province and is currently housed within the Gansu Provincial Museum, which is in the city of Lanzhou.

The Leitai Han Tomb, however, has been opened as a tourist attraction and can be found within the peaceful expanse of Leitai Park. While it may no longer be home to the coveted bronze horse, the tomb now serves as a sprawling underground museum, which is comprised of three main chambers and six smaller annexes. There are over 200 artefacts currently on display within the tomb, including a variety of elegant gold, silver, copper, iron, and jade wares, along with a series of 99 ceremonial figurines that were buried with General Zhang. The name “Leitai” literally translates to mean “Thunder Platform” and, as grandiose as this name sounds, it simply refers to the fact that the platform atop the tomb was once a sacrificial altar for the God of Thunder in ancient times. There is even a Taoist temple on-site that is dedicated to the Thunder God, which dates back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and is also open to visitors. 

Alongside the Leitai Han Tomb, visitors to Wuwei can also pay a visit to one of the many wonderful temples dotted throughout the city. In particular, the Wuwei Confucian Temple, also known simply as the Wenmiao Temple, has been an integral site for worship and education in the city for centuries. It was originally constructed during the Ming Dynasty and is famed for its stele courtyard, where famous stone steles can be found nestled within lush green pines. Amongst these steles, the most highly prized is the Western Xia Tablet, which dates back to the Western Xia Dynasty and is one of very few such steles still in existence. Within the temple, you will also find the Wuwei Museum, which houses a vast collection of over 36,000 books, paintings, inscriptions and other cultural relics.

Lovers of nature will want to gravitate towards the east of the city, where the Wuwei Desert Park can be found. This lush expanse of greenery, inlaid like an emerald within the Tengger Desert, is the largest desert park in China and was originally established in 1986. It is designed primarily to showcase the natural beauty of the desert, grasslands, and gardens. The north of the park is connected to the Endangered Wild Animals Research Centre, while Changcheng or “Great Wall” Town can be found on its eastern border. 

If you’re already feeling intoxicated by thoughts of Wuwei, that may be by design! According to historical records, people in Wuwei began growing grapes and making wine over 2,000 years ago. In fact, it is often described as “the hometown of Chinese wine” for this reason. Thanks to its continental climate and long hours of sunshine, the countryside surrounding Wuwei is the ideal place to plant grapes and has earned Wuwei the nickname of “China’s Bordeaux.” 

Wuwei also serves as the perfect stopover on the way to visit the Tiantishan Grottoes, which rank as one of the main Buddhist sites along the Silk Road. This Buddhist grotto complex has been etched directly into the snow-capped Tiantishan Mountains and was first excavated during the Northern Liang Dynasty, although they were added to right up until the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Its most notable feature is undoubtedly the 15-metre (49 ft.) tall statue of Shakyamuni Buddha that sits within the largest cave of the complex. To put that into perspective, this statue is nearly three times the size of a fully grown giraffe!

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Gansu Provincial Museum

Based in the provincial capital of Lanzhou, the Gansu Provincial Museum is renowned throughout China for its comprehensive collection of stunning artefacts. It was originally founded in 1939 as the Gansu Scientific Education Centre and was renamed the Northwest People’s Science Museum in 1950, yet during this time it was dedicated entirely to the history of Gansu province. It wasn’t until 1956, after three years of renovations, that it would be re-purposed and become the sprawling museum that we see today. Nowadays, the museum covers an area of 18,000 square metres (193,750 sq. ft.) and is home to over 350,000 artefacts, making it one of the largest and most impressive museums in western China. 

The most famous artefact housed in the museum is undoubtedly a bronze statue known as the “Flying Horse of Gansu.” Its English name is somewhat misleading, as its Chinese name of “Matafeiyan” (马踏飞燕) or “Horse Galloping, Flying Swallow” represents a far more accurate description of what it actually is. Dating back to the Eastern Han Dynasty (25 BC-220 AD), this bronze statue depicts a horse galloping, with three legs in the air and one hoof planted on the back of a flying swallow. The swallow itself has its head upturned in surprise to look at the horse, since it is understandably shocked by the situation!

The statue was discovered accidentally in 1969 near the city of Wuwei, when a group of local people were tasked with digging air-raid shelters. In the process, they unearthed a Han tomb belonging to General Zhang of Zhangye, who had once been responsible for maintaining imperial defences on the western frontier. It seems the general was not able to take his secrets to the grave after all! After alerting the provincial authorities to the discovery, the tomb was properly excavated by a team of archaeologists and the statue was found inside a chamber along with over 200 other bronze figures. 

What makes the horse within the bronze statue particularly special is that it was based on a historically famous breed known as the Ferghana Horse. These “celestial horses” were highly prized throughout China as a status symbol and were renowned for their agility, which is why the galloping horse in the bronze is shown to be capable of outrunning a bird in flight. In fact, these horses were so valuable that Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) waged a war with the Greek Kingdom of Dayuan in the Ferghana Valley to get them, which came to be known as the War of the Heavenly Horses (102-104 BC). In short, there was no horsing around when it came to this much sought-after breed! Nowadays, the “Flying Horse of Gansu” has become a popular symbol throughout Gansu province, as evidenced by the huge replica of the statue that can be found outside of Lanzhou Railway Station.

The museum itself is spread out over three floors and is home to three permanent exhibitions. The first floor of the museum is made up of a temporary exhibition space, where the museum hosts a variety of different themed exhibitions throughout the year. Alongside this temporary space, the three permanent exhibitions are: the Silk Road exhibition and the Palaeontological Fossils of Gansu Province exhibition on the second floor; and the Painted Pottery of Gansu Province exhibition on the third floor. 

According to historical records, the Silk Road was officially established after Emperor Wudi of the Han Dynasty dispatched an envoy named Zhang Qian to the Western Regions in the 2nd century BC. Over time, however, this simple trade route between China and Central Asia grew into a vast network of pathways that connected China to places as far-reaching as Africa and Europe. The term the “Silk Road” was first used in the 1870s by a geographer named Ferdinand Von Richthofen and was unsurprisingly so-named because of the Chinese merchants’ penchant for trading with silk, which was highly prized in ancient times. 

The Silk Road exhibit within the Gansu Provincial Museum mainly focuses on the section of the Silk Road that was located within the Hexi Corridor, which can be found in Gansu province. The Hexi Corridor was a focal part of this historic trading route, as it was flanked by the desolate Tibetan Plateau in the north and the hostile Gobi Desert to the south. This meant that travellers along the road were all channelled through this corridor, which was littered with integral market towns such as Dunhuang and Wuwei.

The museum’s sprawling exhibit contains over 420 artefacts related to China’s trade relations with other countries, as well as detailed historical accounts of how the Silk Road was established. A few examples of these ancient treasures include: a pair of bells that date back to the Han Dynasty; wooden tablets that were used to relay messages along the Silk Road during the Han Dynasty; mural paintings from tombs belonging to the Northern Wei (386-535 AD) and Jin (265-420 AD) dynasties that were found near Jiayuguan in the Hexi Corridor; triple-coloured porcelain from the Tang Dynasty (618-907); a 2,000-year-old gilded silver plate embossed with an image of Bacchus, the Greek god of wine; and Buddhist statues from grottoes that were established along the Silk Road.  

Once you’ve finished diving into the history of the Silk Road, the Palaeontological Fossils of Gansu Province exhibition is sure to satisfy the rest of your historical cravings. This exhibit is unsurprisingly dedicated to the numerous fossils that have been found throughout China, including dinosaur bones, fossilized plant specimens, and the contours of animals or plants that have been imprinted on stones. The exhibit itself is separated into four sections: the Palaeolithic Era; the Mesolithic Era; the Cenozoic Era; and the Department of Anthropology, which is dedicated to the evolution of prehistoric people who inhabited regions along the Yellow River. 

Its most startling display, however, is undoubtedly the fully reassembled skeleton of a stegodon, also known as the Huanghe or “Yellow River” elephant. This colossal skeleton is 4 metres (13 ft.) tall and 8 metres (26 ft.) in length, with staggering 2-metre (6.5 ft.) long tusks! Alongside this exceptional elephant, the exhibit is also home to fossils belonging to the Mamenchisaurus sinocanadorum, which once roamed the region of modern-day Sichuan province and is believed to be the largest prehistoric animal to have inhabited China. Based on fossil evidence, it is estimated that the Mamenchisaurus sinocanadorum was nearly 15 metres (49 ft.) tall and 35 metres (115 ft.) long. To put that into perspective, that’s over twice the length of the average bus! 

The third and final floor of the museum is home to a vast exhibit containing some of the most beautiful painted pottery from throughout Gansu province’s history. Gansu province is often regarded as the “hometown” of coloured pottery, as it is the place where the oldest coloured pottery in China was found. In fact, some of the ceramics on display originate from the Dadiwan culture (5800-5400 BC) and are over 6,000 years old, which attests to the venerable history of porcelain production in the region. 

White Pagoda Mountain Park

White Pagoda Mountain Park

Resting on the northern bank of the Yellow River in the city of Lanzhou, the White Pagoda Mountain Park is unsurprisingly named for the startling White Pagoda Temple that sits on its summit. While the park was opened to the public in 1958, the architectural masterpieces that can be found throughout its vast expanse date back to ancient times, the most notable of which is the titular White Pagoda Temple. The history of the original pagoda is shrouded in mystery, although there is a local legend about how it came to be constructed.

According to this legend, Genghis Khan wrote a letter to the King of Tibet, within which he expressed his desire that Tibet be peacefully reunited. As an act of gratitude, the King of Tibet sent a highly-respected Lama from the Sakya sect of Tibetan Buddhism to pay a formal visit to Genghis Khan in Mongolia. This Lama, however, tragically died of illness in Lanzhou and never made it to his final destination. During this time, the Western Xia Dynasty (1038–1227) controlled much of Gansu province, including the city of Lanzhou. The city was eventually annexed by the Mongolian Empire in 1226 and, not long thereafter, the White Pagoda Temple was erected in honour of the Lama. Yet it seems as though the pagoda was doomed to suffer from the same bad luck that befell the Lama for whom it was built!

The original pagoda collapsed sometime towards the end of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) and so the pagoda that we see atop the mountain today was actually rebuilt under the direction of a government official named Lou Yongcheng during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). It was also extended during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) at the behest of Chuo Qi, the governor of Lanzhou, in 1715.

The current pagoda towers in at 17-metres (56 ft.) in height and is composed of seven storeys, with its white exterior being complemented beautifully by an emerald-green spire at the top. It is octahedral in shape and each of its sides is decorated with elaborate Buddhist patterns. Small iron bells hang from the eaves of each storey of the pagoda, which produce a soothing sound whenever a breeze blows across the mountain.

Compared with other Buddhist pagodas, the White Pagoda has a highly unique shape. Most Buddhist pagodas are a combination of two main structural features: a multi-storied tower on the bottom; and a roof in the shape of an inverted bowl on top. The White Pagoda reverses this design, as its multi-storied tower is founded on top of huge inverted-bowl shaped segment, which is in turn supported by a large Sumeru pedestal that rests on a square base. In short, the pagoda’s structure is as complex as its history! From the top of the pagoda, visitors can enjoy a stunning panoramic view of Lanzhou and the surrounding countryside. 

Alongside the pagoda itself, the temple complex was historically famed for its three treasures: the Elephant Leather Drum, the Bronze Bell, and the Chinese Redbud Tree. The Chinese redbud trees that once populated the mountain have unfortunately all withered and died due to their water sources drying up, but the Elephant Leather Drum and the Bronze Bell have stood the test of time. The Elephant Leather Drum is a huge drum that was reputedly donated to the temple by an unknown Indian monk, while the Bronze Bell was cast during the Qing Dynasty and weighs a colossal 153 kilograms!

The White Pagoda Mountain Park encompasses the entire temple complex and stretches from the summit of the mountain right down to Zhongshan Bridge at its base, which in turn crosses the Yellow River and was historically used by travellers along the Silk Road. The foot of the mountain is also marked by Jincheng Pass and Yudie Pass, which once served as military fortresses in ancient times. The park itself is dotted with a number of breathtakingly beautiful sights, such as decorative pavilions, roofed corridors, elaborate archways, and ancient trees. Some of the highlights of the park include: the Yellow River Stone Hall, which is a small exhibition dedicated to stones that have been taken from the Yellow River; the Yugur Reception Tent, where visitors can engage with the culture of the Yugur ethnic minority; and the Gongbei Mosque, which is one of the largest mosques in Lanzhou.

The term “gongbei” actually refers to the style of roof and derives from the Persian word gonbad or “dome.” It is a term used specifically by the Hui ethnic minority in China to denote a Muslim shrine that centred on the grave of a Sufi master. Since the term “gongbei” is popularly used in reference to Hui mosques, the Gongbei Mosque in Lanzhou is sometimes called Lingming or “Spiritual Life” Hall to differentiate it from others. It is important to note that, unlike other attractions in the park, the Gongbei Mosque is closed to the public and can only be enjoyed from the outside. 

The Giant Buddha Temple

The city of Zhangye once served as a bustling trading hub along the ancient Silk Road and, as such, it was one of the first Chinese cities to be exposed to Buddhist influence. The Giant Buddha Temple stands as a testament to the profound impact that Buddhism had on this city. With a name like the Giant Buddha Temple, it shouldn’t be too hard to guess what this place is famous for! Originally built during the Western Xia Dynasty (1038-1227), the temple is home to the largest statue of the Reclining Buddha in China. The eponymous Giant Buddha statue is 33 metres (108 ft.) high, 49 metres (161 ft.) wide, and 24 metres (79 ft.) long. To put that into perspective, it is over five times the height of a giraffe and about as long as the average blue whale! The temple itself is also one of the largest remaining relics of the Western Xia Dynasty, a mysterious empire that was led by a Turkic people known as the Tanguts.

According to legend, a member of the imperial Tangut clan named Sineng decided to become a Buddhist monk and was traveling in the area surrounding Zhangye when he heard heavenly sounding music. Following the sound, he came to the foot of a mountain where a numinous light was shining. After digging at this luminous location, he unearthed a collection of Buddhist artefacts and among them was a statue of the reclining Buddha. Sineng interpreted this as a sign of divine approval and vowed to build a magnificent temple in honour of this sacred statue.  Five years later, his wish came true when in 1103 the Western Xia Emperor Chongzong provided the funds necessary to begin building the temple on the grounds of a pre-existing temple, which had been known as the Jiaye Rulai Temple. This original statue is reputedly hidden deep within the belly of the much larger Reclining Buddha statue that takes pride of place within the temple today.

Nowadays, the temple complex is separated into three main areas: the Buddha Hall, where the giant Reclining Buddha is located; the Buddhist Art Exhibition Hall, where various Buddhist paintings and sculptures are exhibited; and the Sutras Exhibition Hall, where the original sutras collected within the temple are displayed. The giant statue of the Reclining Buddha was carved from clay that was plastered over a wooden frame before being painted and gold-plated, which gives it an uncannily lifelike appearance. Directly behind the main statue, there are statues of the 10 principal disciples of Shakyamuni Buddha. The sides of the hall are similarly home to statues of the 18 arhats, who are regarded as legendary guardians of Buddhism that supposedly possess supernatural powers. Alongside these vivid statues, the walls of the Buddha Hall are no less magnificent, as they have been covered with colourful murals that depict scenes from both the Mountains and Waters Sutra and the classical Chinese novel Journey to the West.

The Sutras Exhibition Hall, also known as the Hall of Scriptures, is currently home to over 6,000 volumes of ancient Buddhist sutras that have miraculously managed to survive within the temple. Some of these dusty tomes have actually been written in powdered silver or gold, making them exceedingly valuable and rare. After all, diamonds may be a girl’s best friend, but only the Diamond Sutra will help you achieve enlightenment!

Alongside the main temple halls, the temple complex itself is also home to two unique buildings: the Clay Pagoda and the Shanxi Guild. Originally, there were five pagodas in Zhangye known as the Five Element Pagodas, which were built in accordance with the traditional Chinese concept of the Five Elements. Now the 13-storey-high Clay Pagoda in the Giant Buddha Temple and the Wooden Pagoda in the Wooden Pagoda Temple are the only two that remain, making them important historical relics of the city’s ancient past.

The Shanxi Guild
The Shanxi Guild

Unlike the Clay Pagoda, the Shanxi Guild was technically never part of the original temple but has since been incorporated into the complex. The Shanxi Guild was founded in 1724 during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) as a place for traveling merchants from Shanxi province to network with one another and to feel more at home in this far flung city. These Shanxi merchants, more commonly known as the Jin Merchants, were astute businessmen who began by trading salt, which the imperial government permitted them to do so long as they provided food to imperial troops stationed within the frontier regions. This is why so many Shanxi merchants ended up in the remote western regions of China, such as Gansu province. Today, the Shanxi Guild still contains a well-preserved gate, theatre stage, audience tower, bell and drum tower, memorial archway, wing rooms, and hall. Wandering through these ancient buildings, you’ll effortlessly be transported back to what life was like for traveling merchants in this isolated oasis town.

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The Hu Family Mansion

Nestled within the bustling city of Tianshui, the Hu Family Mansion looks somewhat out of place among the modern shops and skyscrapers that surround it. It once served as the private home of the wealthy Hu clan and was originally constructed during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) by an official named Hu Laijin, with the help of his son Hu Xi. What makes the Hu Family Mansion so unique is that it conforms to a traditional style of Chinese architecture known as a “siheyuan” or “quadrangle courtyard”, which is extremely unusual in northwestern China.

Nowadays, it has been opened to the public and decorated with gorgeous period furnishings, with detailed descriptions of every room’s function clearly signposted. From the rich jade-green bamboo that grows within its courtyards to the intricate woodcuttings that bedeck its interior, the Hu Family Mansion was designed to be as aesthetically pleasing as possible and is a real feast for the eyes. Wandering through this tranquil mansion is sure to give you a clear idea of the simple yet scholarly lifestyle enjoyed by many Ming Dynasty officials.  

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The Yuquan Taoist Temple

Located at the base of the Tianjing Mountain in the city of Tianshui, the Yuquan Taoist Temple is a colossal complex that sprawls up the mountainside, covering an area of nearly 170,000 square metres (203,318 sq. yd.). The temple was originally built during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) under the rather uninspired name of Beishan or “North Mountain” Temple, but its name was eventually changed to the Yuquan or “Jade Spring” Temple during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). The name was derived from a local spring, which supposedly sprouted water that was so clear and beautiful that it resembled lustrous jade. In-keeping with its aquatic name, you’re sure to be blown out of the water when you see how beautiful this temple complex is!

Tragically the original temple was almost completely destroyed during the collapse of the Song Dynasty, but it was restored to its former glory during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) and underwent over 30 extensions from then until the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). The final renovation project took place during the 1980s and left the temple with more than 90 separate buildings. The temple complex itself is peppered with lush cypress trees, some of which are over 1000 years old, and contains two very famous stone tablets: one of which was inscribed by Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan and founder of the Yuan Dynasty; and the other by an illustrious Yuan Dynasty calligrapher named Zhao Mengfu. The most notable features within the temple are arguably: the Spirit Official Hall, the Jade Emperor Hall, the Doumu Hall, the Three Qing Hall, the Jade Spring, the Immortal Cave, the Three-Immortal Cave, and the Dai Temple.

The Spirit Official Hall is the first part of the temple that you come to after entering and is dedicated to Spirit Officer Wang, the Supreme Patron God of Taoism. According to Taoist tradition, Wang is ranked among the top five hundred spirit officers and supposedly possesses the ability to suppress demons. That’s a pretty impressive skill to have on your CV, even for a deity! Unfortunately he pales in comparison to the inhabitant of the nearby Jade Emperor Hall, where one of the most holy deities in the Taoist canon is consecrated. The Jade Emperor ranks among the highest deities in the Taoist pantheon and his hall is more like a miniature temple in its own right, which is a testament to his importance. It consists of a main temple hall, two side temples, a pavilion, a bell tower, a drum tower, and an archway. Every year, on the 9th day of the first month according to the Chinese lunar calendar, a magnificent temple fair is held in this hall in honour of the Jade Emperor’s birthday. Talk about extravagant!

It seems, however, that even the Jade Emperor has competition! The Three Qing Hall is dedicated to the “Three Qing” or the Three Pure Ones, which are unequivocally acknowledged as the highest ranking deities in Taoism and are sometimes referred to as the “Taoist Holy Trinity”. According to traditional Taoist theory, the way of the Tao produces One, One leads to Two, and finally Two creates Three. The first of the Pure Ones, Yuanshi Tianzun, represents One, since he oversaw the creation of the universe out of nothingness. Once their job was completed, Yuanshi Tianzun manifested into the second of the trinity, Lingbao Tianzun, who classified the elements into their rightful groups and separated the Yang from the Yin. During the final stage of creation, known as Two creating Three, Lingbao Tianzun manifested into Daode Tianzun, who preached the Law to all living beings and thus brought about civilisation. The Three Pure Ones are a distinctly abstract concept, as they each represent both a deity and a heaven. That being said, to avoid confusion, they are often depicted as elderly sages sat upon thrones.

While she may not have achieved the illustrious status of the Three Pure Ones, the Doumu Hall is dedicated to the goddess Doumu, who nonetheless ranks quite highly within the Taoist pantheon and is considered to be the mother of all stars. In fact, she is thus believed to have absolute power over the future of all things in the universe, so don’t underestimate her importance or you’ll sorely regret it! During the early Yuan Dynasty, the hall was often referred to as the “Big Dipper Platform” because it was used by a Taoist priest named Liang Zhitong to worship the stars and the Big Dipper. In other words, a trip to this hall at night may just leave you feeling starry-eyed! Near to the Doumu Hall lies the titular Jade Spring, where crystal clear spring water has supposedly flowed for hundreds of years. It is rumoured that this spring water is not only extremely refreshing, but can also treat a variety of eye-related diseases, meaning it is sometimes nicknamed the Mingyan or “Brightening Eyes” Spring.

At the back of the temple complex lie the Immortal Cave and the Three-Immortal Cave which, though they may sound similar, serve slightly different purposes. The Immortal Cave was originally used by the Taoist priest Liang Zhitong to practice special Taoist rituals and he was supposedly buried in this cave after achieving immortality. We’re not quite sure why an immortal person would need to be buried, but we’re happy to leave it a mystery! The Three-Immortal Cave, on the other hand, is a hand-carved cave that commemorates the three legendary founders of the temple: Lü Dongbin, one of the Eight Immortals of Taoism; the aforementioned Liang Zhitong, who achieved immortality during the Yuan Dynasty; and Ma the Immortal, who was another Taoist priest that supposedly achieved immortality during the Qing Dynasty.

The Dai Temple is located in a completely separate part of the temple complex and was constructed during the Qing Dynasty, making it the youngest part of the temple. It originally consisted of two ancestral halls: one for Lord Zhou, and one for Lord Tuo. It was eventually rebuilt as the Dai Temple and is primarily dedicated to one of the Four Heavenly Emperors of Taoism: Dongji Qinghua or the “East Pole Emperor of Blue Essence”. More importantly, however, this section of the temple is home to a gruesome display of statues that are designed to represent the many tortures that immoral people will face in the underworld. It’s the ideal place to visit if your friends and family have been behaving badly!

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Yumen Pass

Towering over the western end of the Hexi Corridor, Yumen Pass was once a major gateway along the Great Wall and an integral part of the ancient Silk Road. Alongside Yang Pass, Yumen Pass served as the main pathway to the mysterious Western Regions. The pass’ long and colourful history began during the early Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), when the western border of the country was ceaselessly invaded by the nomadic Xiongnu people, the arch nemeses of the ruling Han Chinese. Rather than meet the formidable Xiongnu warriors in battle, the early Han rulers resorted to marrying off their daughters to Xiongnu leaders in a feeble attempt to broker peace. As they say, all is fair in love and war!

When Emperor Wu rose to power in 141 BC, he was appalled by this cowardly policy and replaced it with his own strategic military agenda. In 121 BC, fierce counterattacks led by the celebrated military general Huo Qubing eventually drove the Xiongnu troops out of the west and allowed Emperor Wu to secure the western frontier. By 111 BC, the Emperor had established Yumen Pass and Yang Pass, which strengthened the border and thus helped to prevent further invasions from the Xiongnu. As time went on, it became a major trading post along the northern branch of the Silk Road. Silk, porcelain, tea, and a variety of luxury wares all passed through its humble gates. “Yumen” literally translates to mean “Jade Gate”, and it is believed that the pass is so-named because of the many jade caravans that passed through it.

According to an alternative legend, there was once a region in the west of Gansu province known as “Mamitu” or “Horse Loses Its Way”. Numerous caravans carrying jade from Hotan to Dunhuang were forced to travel through this region before arriving at Yumen Pass. The region was a mess of marshes, ravines, gullies, and weeds, making it desperately difficult to navigate. As if that wasn’t complex enough, the extremely hot weather meant that it was virtually impossible to cross during the day so many caravans chose to travel at night. The darkness, coupled with the region’s unusual topography, meant that even the most experienced merchants would frequently lose their way.

There was once a caravan that often traversed this route carrying jade and silk. One day, as soon as it entered Mamitu, the merchant became hopelessly lost. As if by magic, a wild goose suddenly dropped down in front of them. A kind-hearted boy scooped the goose up in his arms and decided he would carry it until they had escaped the treacherous Mamitu region. After some time, the wild goose turned to the boy and said: “Please give me some food, and I will help you find your way”. The boy realised that the goose had dropped not because it couldn’t fly, but because it didn’t have the energy to fly. He immediately gave the goose some food and water. Once it had eaten its fill, the goose flew into the sky and guided the caravan to the small city of Fangcheng. 

It was not long before the caravan once again became lost in Mamitu. As the wild goose flew over them, he promptly stopped near the young boy and said: “Once I have guided you to Fangcheng, please promise to give me the finest piece of jade you have. I will place it in the highest tower, and it will shine so brightly that you will never lose your way again.” The boy told the merchant, but the merchant was reluctant to part with his precious cargo. After the goose had helped them, he refused to give up the jade and thought the matter was over. Who would have thought that, not long thereafter, he and his caravan would become lost in Mamitu yet again!

This time, however, it was much more serious. They were unable to find water for several days and, as they slowly weakened from thirst, they realised that they would surely die if they could not find their way soon. At that moment, the goose appeared and shouted down to the merchant: “Your caravan is hopelessly lost! Give me the jade you promised, and I will lead the way to safety.“ The merchant turned to the young boy, who advised him to kneel down and swear to the wild goose that he would keep his promise. The merchant promptly followed the boy’s advice and the goose kindly guided the caravan out of Mamitu.

Once they had arrived in Fangcheng, the merchant picked the largest piece of luminous green jade he could find and gave it to the goose. The goose flew to the top of the highest tower in Fangcheng and embedded the jade there. When night fell, the jade would shine in the moonlight and guide caravans through Mamitu. From that day forward, not a single caravan became lost, and Fangcheng became known as the Jade Gate Pass.

The Han Great Wall near the Yumen Pass

Unfortunately, towards the end of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the trade route through Yumen Pass was gradually supplanted by the northern route via Hami and the pass fell into disuse. Nowadays, all that is left of this venerable military gate and trading post are a smattering of ruins, which are located approximately 90 kilometres (56 mi) from the city of Dunhuang. At the grand old age of over 2,000 years, it was considered so integral to the country’s history that it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014. The complex is entirely built of rammed earth and, due to years of neglect, all that remains today are the gatehouse, a beacon tower, and a small portion of the Han Dynasty Great Wall. In many ways, its desolation is part of its charm. After all, as the poem “Song of Liangzhou” by Wang Zhihuan goes: “Don’t complain that the willows do not thrive there, you should know that Spring never comes to Yumen Pass”.  

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