During the early Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), the western border of the empire was ceaselessly invaded and terrorised by the fearsome Xiongnu people. These hardy nomads were both feared and despised by the Han Chinese, who regarded them as their arch nemeses. Rather than meet the formidable Xiongnu warriors in battle, many of the Han rulers chose to marry off their daughters to Xiongnu leaders in a feeble attempt to broker peace. Yet it seemed that even the most beautiful maidens weren’t enough to quell the Xiongnu people’s desire for the fertile land that lay within Emperor’s territory! This was all set to change in 141 BC, when the valiant Emperor Wu rose to power.
He abolished 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. In order to cement this victory, the Emperor established two vital fortifications: Yumen Pass and Yang Pass. By strengthening the border and helping to prevent further invasions from the Xiongnu, they became the most significant passes along the western section of the Great Wall. Located within the narrow Hexi Corridor, approximately 70 kilometres (43 mi) from Dunhuang, Yang Pass was once a military fortress beyond compare.
During the Tang Dynasty (618-907), it welcomed the return of the illustrious monk Xuanzang, whose fabled pilgrimage to the west was eventually immortalised in the Chinese classic Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en. The name “Yang” literally translates to mean “Sun”, but is actually in reference to its location south of Yumen Pass. This is derived from the fact that, due to the geography of the region, the sun shone in the south for most of the day, so the word “sun” became synonymous with the word “south”. However, in spite of its fortuitous past and cheerful name, it seems that Yang Pass suffered from a much maligned reputation.
Both Yumen Pass and Yang Pass served as major trading posts along the Silk Road and acted as gateways to the mysterious Western Regions. Yang Pass swiftly became associated with the grief of parting, as it was often the place where people would see their loved ones off before they left the country on long journeys. In fact, the image of Yang Pass as a place of sorrow became so ingrained in Chinese culture that it featured frequently in Chinese literature, most notably in the Tang Dynasty poet Wang Wei’s “Seeing Yuan’er Off on a Mission to Anxi”. In the final line, Wang beseeches Yuan’er by saying: “Oh, my dear friend, let’s have one more cup of wine; out west beyond Yang Pass, old friends there’ll be none”.
This poem went on to inspire the “Three Variations of Yang Pass”, a classical farewell song from the Tang Dynasty that has become one of the most famous pieces of Chinese music. The term “three variations” refers to the fact that the song must be sung three times, either partially or wholly, with some changes added each time. The earliest surviving version dates back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), although the most popular is based on a score developed during the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). It seems oddly fitting that, like a noble swan song, this tragic melody would rise to popularity around the same time that Yang Pass fell into obscurity.
The decline of the Silk Road during the Song (960-1279) and Ming dynasties meant that Yang Pass gradually became obsolete and was eventually abandoned completely. It once was linked to Yumen Pass by a 64-kilometre (40 mi) stretch of wall, interspersed every 5 kilometres (3 mi) by a grand beacon tower. Nowadays, most of Yang Pass is buried under the shifting sands of the unforgiving desert. All that remains is a small section of wall and a single beacon tower measuring just 5 metres (16 ft.) in height. In 2003, the Yang Pass Museum was opened and features nearly 4,000 ancient Han Dynasty artefacts, paintings, and exhibitions about the history of this venerable gateway. It was built to imitate what the pass would have looked like in its heyday, complete with its own gate tower, general’s office, and barracks. In fact, it’s so well-designed that it could almost pass for the real thing!
Extending from the eastern edge of the Tarim Basin right through to the city of Korla, the Lop Desert is an almost perfectly flat expanse of barren sands. There are three major depressions dotted throughout the desert that were once mighty lakes: the Lop Nur Basin, the Kara-Koshun Basin, and the Taitema Lake Basin. In ancient times, these formed the terminal lakes of the Tarim-Konque-Qarqan river system. This lake system was a constant source of confusion and frustration to explorers, as changes in the course of the Tarim River would cause the lakes to change position. In fact, Lop Nur was nicknamed the “Wandering Lake” because, like a wayward bachelor, it struggled to find a place and settle down!
Tragically, due to human intervention, the lakes of the Lop Desert have long dried up, but they once played a focal historical role in the development of the region. The capital of the ancient Loulan Kingdom was established near to Lop Nur sometime during the 2nd century BC and swiftly became an oasis city of paramount importance. When the kingdom fell under Chinese control during the 1st century BC, it was renamed Shanshan, but was unfortunately abandoned at some point during the 7th century AD. The site would remain hidden for over a thousand years, until it was rediscovered by the Swedish explorer Sven Hedin in 1899.
His excavation efforts revealed a number of houses and yielded several Chinese manuscripts from the Jin Dynasty (265-420), but the most magnificent discovery was yet to come. During the 20th century, Chinese archaeologists began excavating the area and came across a series of cemeteries. When the ancient graves were opened, they found mummies and burial items that had been beautifully preserved thanks to the extreme dryness of the desert climate. Among them was the “Beauty of Loulan”, who was so-named because of her long hair, soft skin, and peaceful expression. What makes the Beauty of Loulan and her neighbouring mummies so special is that their features are almost fully intact, in spite of the fact that they died over 3,000 years ago! Many of these mummies were of Indo-European origin and are believed to be a lost people known as the Tocharians.
When properly excavated, the earlier settlements near Lop Nur contained more primitive items, such as Mesolithic stone tools, basketry, bows, arrows, the horns of animals, simple jewellery, and fragments of copper. The later settlements were characterised by more advanced signs of civilization, including a canal, a dome-shaped Buddhist stupa, and the home of a Chinese official. According to historical records, Lop Nur boasted a length and breadth of roughly 120 to 160 kilometres (76 to 99 mi) during the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), but had already shrunk considerably by start of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). The building of dams by Chinese garrisons during the 20th century sounded the death knell for the lake, as it slowly withered into a salty marsh. Nowadays it is nothing more than a dried-up basin covered in a thick crust of salt.
The desiccation of its native lakes, coupled with daytime temperatures that can reach 50 °C (122 °F), means that the Lop Desert is particularly hostile to life. The plethora of freshwater mollusc shells, the extensive belts of dead poplar trees, and the myriad beds of wilted reeds that rest within the wind-etched furrows of towering yardangs are all that remain of what was once a series of verdant oases. When Sven Hedin travelled to the desert during the late 19th century, he witnessed solitary tigers prowling, packs of roving wolves, and groups of wild boar. Nowadays, the only large mammal that can survive in this barren wasteland is the hardy Bactrian camel, which ekes out a meagre living by feeding on the poplar forests and tamarisk shrubs that line the northern edge of the desert. From devastating sandstorms and lofty yardangs to barren salt flats and the blazing heat of the sun, the Lop Desert is an alien landscape that must be navigated with the utmost care.
 Stupa: A hemispherical structure with a small interior designed for storing Buddhist relics and for private meditation.
 Yardang: A yardang is a type of landform that results from severe weathering over a period of approximately 700,000 years, where wind and rain strip all of the soft material from the rocks and leave only the hard material behind. Yardangs have characteristically wide bottoms that gradually taper off towards the top, giving them an appearance similar to the hull of a boat, although there are huge variations in their size and shape.
Located within the vast and hostile expanse of the Gobi Desert, the Suoyang Relics have miraculously managed to avoid being buried beneath the sands of time. These relics are all that remain of an illustrious Silk Road oasis city known as Suoyang, which was established over 2,000 years ago! In 2014, its status as a historical site of invaluable importance was cemented, as it was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The city was first founded during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), but it didn’t receive the name of Suoyang until the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), which was thanks to a classical novel named Xue Rengui’s Campaign to the West. This novel claims to detail the campaigns of a famous Tang Dynasty military general known as Xue Rengui. According to legend, Xue was passing through the area with his army on his way to conquer the West when he tragically ran out of supplies just outside of the city. Luckily, his troops came across an edible plant known as Cynomorium or “Suoyang” (锁阳) in Chinese and this is what saved them from an untimely death. From then onwards, the city was named Suoyang after this life-saving plant!
While the miraculous survival of Xue Rengui and his army is probably a fabrication or an exaggeration, the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) did undeniably represent the period of greatest prosperity for this burgeoning oasis city. Its location within the Hexi Corridor made it a key stop along the ancient Silk Road and at its peak it boasted a population of over 50,000 people! During the An Lushan Rebellion (755-763), however, the Tang imperial government was severely weakened and was unable to maintain control of cities in remote parts of their territory, such as Suoyang. Thus the city fell under the control of the Tibetan Empire in 776 and wouldn’t be returned to the Tang until 849, when it was recaptured by a skilled Tang general named Zhang Yichao.
After the collapse of the Tang Dynasty, the Western Xia Dynasty occupied the region in 1036 and Suoyang became a major part of the Western Xia Empire. Historians know very little about this mysterious empire, which was ruled by a Turkic people known as the Tanguts. Much like the Tang Dynasty, however, Suoyang continued to flourish during this period as a cultural, economic, and military centre. While the city never quite lived up to its former glory in later dynasties, it did serve as a sanctuary for the King of Hami and his followers in 1472, when the Chenghua Emperor of the Ming Dynasty moved them to Suoyang after they had been threatened by the Mongols.
In 1494, the Hongzhi Emperor decided to repair and refortify the city walls that had been constructed during the Tang and Western Xia dynasties, but tragically his efforts were in vain. Two decades later, the city was attacked and occupied by a Mongol named Mansur Khan, who ruled the empire of Moghulistan. Incessant infighting between the Mongols and other nomadic tribes belonging to Moghulistan caused severe damage to the city and it was subsequently abandoned.
Nowadays, the ruins of the city lay scattered across the Gobi Desert and are comprised of four main sections: the inner city, the outer city, the yangmacheng fortresses, and the Ta’er Temple. The inner city is patterned in the shape of an irregular rectangle and is surrounded by rammed earth walls that are still between 9 to 12 metres (30 to 40 ft.) in height. The entire city structure is arranged around two main streets that begin at the northern and western gates respectively, from which branch all the smaller streets and alleyways that make up this vast labyrinthine city.
There is a smaller partition wall within the inner city itself that divides it into two sections: the larger wester district and the smaller eastern district. The western district is home to the remains of several residential buildings, while most of the buildings in the eastern district have tragically been completely destroyed. Historians estimate that, due to its size and the shape of its remaining buildings, the eastern district was most likely the area where government buildings and the residences of high-ranking officials were located, whereas the western district was occupied by the general populace. Alongside these remains, one of the main features of the inner city is an 18-metre (59 ft.) tall adobe watchtower in its northwest corner that is miraculously still standing.
The outer city unsurprisingly encloses the inner city and is thus also in the shape of an irregular rectangle. It is similarly surrounded by rammed earth walls, which have fallen down in several places and currently range from between 4 to 11 metres (13 to 36 ft.) in height. This outer city is believed to represent the extent to which Suoyang had grown at its peak during the Tang Dynasty. The southern wall, however, was destroyed by a flood and was never repaired, indicating that this section of the city had gradually fallen into disuse.
Between the inner and outer cities lie a series of special fortresses known as yangmacheng, which literally translates to mean “sheep-and-horse city.” Don’t worry; farm animals didn’t miraculously achieve sentience and build their own city in ancient times! The name simply derives from the fact that, during peacetime, these fortresses would be used as animal enclosures in order prevent disease by keeping humans and livestock apart. This innovation meant that the fortresses were effectively utilised during both wartime and peacetime. These spectacular fortresses, however, were exclusively used during the Tang Dynasty and were largely abandoned thereafter.
You may be wondering: How did this vibrant city support its substantial human and livestock population in the barren expanse of the Gobi Desert? This was thanks to an ingenious irrigation system, which channelled water directly from the nearby Shule River into over 90 kilometres (56 mi) of canals that covered an area of around 60 square kilometres (23 sq. mi). Nowadays, it ranks as one of the most extensive ancient irrigation systems in the world.
The Ta’er Temple
While the Buddhist Ta’er or “Pagoda” Temple is considered part of the Suoyang scenic area, it is not part of the city proper and rests just 1 kilometre (0.62 mi) east of it. A number of historical documents indicate that the Ta’er Temple may in fact actually be the King Ashoka Temple, which means it dates all the way back to the Northern Zhou Dynasty (557-581 AD). The temple was tragically destroyed during this period as part of Emperor Wu’s suppression of Buddhism, but was rebuilt during the Tang and Western Xia dynasties. It was during the Tang Dynasty that the great monk Xuanzang supposedly preached at the temple for a month before setting off on his famous pilgrimage to India. Many of the extant remains of the temple, however, date back to the Western Xia Dynasty, including the main pagoda and eleven smaller subsidiary pagodas. Alongside these pagodas, there lie the remnants of a drum tower, a bell tower, and the residential quarters of the monks.
Standing at an impressive 15 metres (48 ft.) in height, the main pagoda of the temple is undeniably the highlight of the complex. It is an adobe structure that is covered in white lime and shaped in such a way that it resembles an upturned bowl. During the 1940s, local eyewitnesses claimed to have seen a band of robbers break open the main pagoda and take numerous Buddhist artefacts that they found inside. After this report, archaeologists began searching the pagodas of the temple and found within one of the smaller pagodas a copy of the Buddhist mantra Om mani padme hum written in the Tangut script of the Western Xia Dynasty. This extremely rare document is one of the only remaining examples left of the Tangut script. If the robbery hadn’t happened, archaeologists may never have found this priceless gem, so it seems every cloud does have a silver lining after all!
Alongside the Ta’er Temple, there are a multitude of ancient tombs and cemeteries that lie outside of Suoyang. Over 2,100 tombs have been discovered, some of which date as far back as the Han Dynasty! Only one of these tombs, however, has been excavated by archaeologists. Much like the pagodas of the Ta’er Temple, this vast Tang Dynasty tomb was explored in 1992 after it was disturbed by grave robbers. Within the tomb itself they found artefacts of incredible value, such as porcelain figurines, tomb guardians, silks, and coins, which indicate that the tomb most likely belonged to a governor or wealthy merchant. None of these tombs are currently open to the public, but many of the artefacts discovered within this particular tomb are exhibited at the nearby Suoyang Museum.
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The Binglingsi or Bingling Temple Grottoes boast a history that stretches back over 1,600 years ago! Within these ancient grottoes, there are statues and murals that were constructed from the Western Qin Dynasty (385-431) right through until the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). This cluster of caves has been carved directly onto a steep cliff-face within the Dasigou Gorge on the northern bank of the Yellow River.
This grotto complex is separated into two main sections: the Upper Temple, and the Lower Temple. Out of the 200 caves that have survived, 184 of them are located within the Lower Temple, which is open to the public. The largest statue within these grottoes towers in at over 27 metres (89 ft.) in height, while the smallest is less than 20 centimetres (8 in) tall. After all, when it comes to showing your devotion, size doesn’t always matter!
Among these 184 caves, the largest and most valuable one is Cave 169. What makes this cave so special is that most of the surviving murals and statues within its interior date all the way back to the Western Qin Dynasty. It is also home to the oldest statues following the “Three Saints of the West” motif in China.
From the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534) onwards, Buddhist art started to adopt more Chinese features and was progressively being Sinicized. Most of the statues within the Bingling Temple Grottoes were sculpted during the reign of Emperor Xuanwu (512-515) of the Northern Wei.
During the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the Bingling Temple area became an important hub for people travelling from central China to Tibet. New grottoes and niches were constructed. As time went on, the style of the statues and the art was influenced by a hectic mixture of cultures.
In Tibetan, the term “Xianba Bingling” translates to mean “one thousand Buddhas” or “one hundred thousand Buddhas,” although the temple didn’t receive this illustrious name until the reign of the Yongle Emperor (1403-1425) during the Ming Dynasty.
Tibetan Buddhism began to flourish in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), during which time numerous Tibetan Buddhist monks flocked to the Bingling Temple Grottoes to worship. As a consequence, many of these monks converted the existing Buddhist statues into ones that followed the Esoteric style, and similarly painted over some of the simpler murals. For this reason, you may notice that colour of the paint on all of the Esoteric Buddhist murals is still very bright, since they are relatively new by comparison to their counterparts.
The ethereally named Dayun or “Great Cloud” Temple is widely considered to be the oldest Buddhist temple in the city of Wuwei, which was once an integral oasis trading hub along the ancient Silk Road. Although the exact date remains a mystery, the temple was originally founded during the Eastery Jin Dynasty (317–420) by a man named Zhang Tianxi, who was serving as the regional governor of Liangzhou (modern-day Wuwei) at the time. It was established under the name Hongzang or “Spacious Repository” Temple, which is believed to be due to its status as a reliquary for sacred Buddhist objects. In particular, there was once a magnificent seven-storied wooden stupa known as the Gantong stupa that was part of the temple complex, which was said to be one of the original Ashokan reliquaries.
King Ashoka was an Indian Emperor who ruled large swathes of territory in the Indian subcontinent under the Maurya Dynasty (323-184 BC). According to a Buddhist text known as the Ashokavadana, King Ashoka collected seven of the eight relics of Gautama Buddha and separated them into 84,000 elegantly decorated boxes made of precious materials, such as gold, silver, cat’s eye, and crystal. Using his immense power and wealth, he ordered that 84,000 stupas be built around the world to house these sacred boxes, and it is said that Gantong stupa was one such special stupa. In fact, this stupa was so revered by the local people that, during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period (907-960), a much-hated garrison commander hid within it after being chased down by a mob. When he threatened to burn himself alive and thus endanger the wooden stupa, the local people decided to let him go, rather than risk the safety of such a sacred structure.
It wasn’t until 690, when the Tang Dynasty (618-907) was briefly interrupted by the ascension of China’s first and only female emperor, Emperor Wu Zetian, that the temple would receive its current name. Emperor Wu Zetian was a devout Buddhist and decreed that there would be a Buddhist temple named Dayun Temple in every prefecture. As was customary during this time, rather than construct an entirely new temple for this purpose, the Hongzang Temple was simply renamed to the Dayun Temple.
From 754 until 756, the famous northern Indian monk Amoghavajra lived within the temple at the request of a military governor named Geshu Han, who was tasked with protecting the Hexi Corridor and Gansu province during this time. These types of visits served both spiritual and political ends. While the arrival of renowned monks was guaranteed to impress the devout, the fact that such a prominent figure had heeded the call of a Tang military governor helped to solidify the imperial government’s claim to the city of Wuwei. After all, this city was located at a strategic location along the Silk Road and played an integral role in managing trade, which made it hotly contested territory.
When the region was conquered by the mysterious Tangut people, who established the Western Xia Dynasty (1038–1227), the temple was renamed once again to the Huguo or “State Protecting” Temple. This strange new name was in large part due to the fact that, during their reign, the Tanguts faced opposition from the south in the form of the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and the southwest in the form of the Kokonor Tibetans, particularly in a place as strategically located as Wuwei. The renaming of the temple reflected the Tanguts anxiety about their ability to effectively protect their new territory from rival groups.
Tragically it seems that the temple’s new name wasn’t enough to protect itself, as it was destroyed during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) and had to be rebuilt during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Its bad luck didn’t end there, however, as it was reduced to rubble yet again thanks to a colossal earthquake that took place during the Republic of China period (1912-1949). In its heyday, the temple was comprised of the Gantong stupa, the Northern and Southern meditation halls, the bell-tower, and a chamber dedicated to the translation and copying of sacred scriptures. Nowadays, the bell-tower is all that remains of this once venerable house of worship. Within the bell-tower, visitors will find a bronze bell that supposedly dates all the way back to the Tang Dynasty and serves as the only lasting relic of this temple’s long history.
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.
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.
Make your dream trip to the “Turtle City” come true on our travel:
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” (张国臂掖，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!
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!
The Dayun Temple or (Great Cloud) Temple is widely considered to be the oldest Buddhist temple in the city of Wuwei. Although the exact date remains a mystery, the temple was originally founded during the Eastery Jin Dynasty (317–420).
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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.