I arrived in Lanzhou around noon and found a nice room at the Lanzhou Mansions Hotel just across from the train station for only 3.00 US$. This is the station seen from my room.
I had been lucky in Xi'an but the odds evened out in Lanzhou for the Gansu Regional Museum where I had hoped to see evidence of early east-west trade was closed. I visited the university and found that for some unknown reason, I could send e-mail but nor receive it. As I had seen plenty of lamaist monasteries in Tibet and Mongolia I did not make the detour to visit the one at Xiahe and took the next night train proceeding up the Gansu corridor.
Lanzhou, located at the southern end of the Gansu corridor was of enormous strategic value as the bolt of the silk road to the west.
Gansu province is a narrow corridor between two ranges of the Qilian mountains. It was an obligatory passageway between the lush, green plains of the ancient Chinese lowlands to the east and the dry highlands that lead to Central Asia and Persia to the west.
On the other side of this northern range lies inner Mongolia which was impassable by traders because inhabited by barbarian nomadic tribes (the turkic Hsiung-nu in Han times and various mongol tribes in Tang and Ming times) and still worse, the Gobi desert.
To the south, the mountain plateaus of Qinghai province were even more hostile to human life. The silk road generally had alternate routes along the way but here, traders and armies had no choice, they had to follow the Gansu corridor (also known as the He Xi corridor).
The corridor is mostly barren but a string of oasis like the Zhing Shue (clear water) Oasis shown here made it passable for trade and conquest between China and Central Asia.
Camel caravans, travelling from oasis to oasis through deserts like this, opened trade routes between China, Persia, Greece and Rome.
They were however vulnerable to raids by the fierce Hsiung-nu mounted archers who would swoop down on their small horses from the hills over the northern horizon.
The Han response to Hsiong-nu raids was to extend the Great Wall and to build and garrison a series of military outposts to protect the trade routes to Central Asia. One of them guarded Jiayuguan pass. Much later, the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644), withdrew from many foreign lands and considered this point as the western end of the Great Wall. Actually, what is seen here is a recent reconstruction of the original wall which extended much further west than Jiayuguan.
Soon after retrieving power from the mongol Yuan dynasty, the Chinese Ming built the "Impregnable Defile Under Heaven" fortress, whose entrance is shown here, as the western gate of China. In fact, it was the western gate only for a relatively short time for the Chinese have held influence and often control over vast lands and many nations beyond this point for most of the 2000 years that have past since Han military outposts bordered on Central Asia.
Between the inner and outer walls of the fortress. The original fort was built in 1372 but the outside walls were added much later and what we see now is the result of extensive renovations undertaken in the 1980's.
The string of garrisoned forts along the silk road were not well maintained after the fall of the Han Dynasty in 220 and trade with the west dwindled until China, reunited again by the Sui Dynasty (589 - 618), began another cycle of Imperial Expansion under the dynamic Tang Dynasty (618 - 907). The Tang pushed the borders back as far as Lake Balkash in today's Kazakstan and sent Chinese expeditionary forces deep into Central Asia as far as Kashmir until they were repulsed by a coalition of Turks, Arabs and Tibetans in the Talas valley in 751 (in northern Kyrgyzstan).
A small open air theater between the outer and inner walls.
Tang power declined after their expulsion from Central Asia as the Dynasty was weakened by internal strife, revolts and banditry. Lamaist Tibetans from the south and Manicheist Uighur from the north fought over the silk road strong points from which the Tang had retreated in the north-west. Trade fell off again during the more than two century period of turmoil and disunity that followed their fall until Genghis Khan imposed mongol law and order from Manchuria to the Caspian sea. The economy prospered during the mongol Yuan Dynasty (1271 - 1368), founded by Genghis Khan's grandson Kublai Khan but the harshness of mongol rule led to rebellions which restored Chinese rule over a reduced area under the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644).
A patient camel waiting for for tourists to climb on and be duly photographed.
As usual, there are up days and down days. This up day started at the train station where my friendly soft sleeper compartment companion turned out to be an important government official who took the time to drive me from the station to the Wumao Hotel in the chauffeured limousine that had come for him. I dropped my bag and took a taxi to visit the end-of-the-wall and the fort. The driver was a good looking girl who did not speak English but who had a quick mind and a pleasant disposition. I think we both enjoyed our struggle to get over the language barrier. Anyway, we had a good laugh at our efforts! She waited while I visited and brought me back in town. Today's good luck held up as there were very few tourists and I practically had the fort to myself.
The Gate of Enlightenment, the Wenchang Pavilion and the side of the open air theater in the eastern courtyard.
The mongol empire was breaking up when the Ming built this fort. The Golden Horde was adopting sedentary ways in Europe while the still nomadic central Chaghatai khanate, weakened by internal strife, eventually split into a Muslim branch holding Transoxiana of the Syr-Darya and a mostly Buddhist conservative branch in control of Mogholistan (Kashgaria, the Tian Shan Plateau, the Tarim oases and the northern steppes beyond.
Looking at the double towers of the Gate of Conciliation from the top of the southern wall.
This was the outer limit of the civilized world. The weakening of the Chaghatai mongol discipline led to the resurgence of the Turkic people led by Tamerlane who, after ravaging northern India, Central Asia, Iran, Iraq, eastern Turkey and the Caucasus, was amassing a huge army around Otrar (in today's Kazakstan), to conquer China when he died at the age of 71 in 1405.
This was probably the most serious threat in China's history. Numerous invasions by northern nomadic tribes had never threatened China's integrity because these invaders had always adopted Chinese ways like Kublai Khan had. Tamerlane posed a greater threat for here was a Muslim fanatic whose declared intention was to convert China to Islam. Youg-lo, the second Ming Emperor would have opposed considerable resistance but Tamerlane's Jihad would have drawn wide Muslim support and it could have succeeded. The imposition of Islam by the sword would have destroyed the Chinese civilisation as surely as it has destroyed Mazdaism, Manisheism and Zoroastrianism and eradicated Animism, Christianity and Buddhism from the Atlantic to this Jiayuguan fort.
Looking at the Gate of Enlightenment across the inner courtyard from the Gate of Conciliation on the west side. It was a godsend to be almost alone in the fort. It allowed me to review the fort's historical context outlined in my guide book and to dream about the enormous strategic value this place had when it was newly garrisoned by the Ming. Tamerlane had overrun much stronger defenses than these so we can imagine the Ming's relief when they heard of his demise!
Overall view of the fort from the west side, the side Tamerlane's hordes would have faced had they come.
Like other Dynasties before, the last Ming emperors spent more time with concubines than with the affairs of state allowing a growing eunuch class to acquire more and more power and the previously well structured civil service to become corrupt. Bad government and abuse of the peasantry by local officials and warlords led to a massive rebellion that became a golden opportunity for the Manchus from the north-east to overcome the decadent Ming and set themselves up as the Qing Dynasty in 1644. Imperial Expansion became the order of the day again as their able first rulers annexed inner Mongolia and took control of Mongolia and Tibet as protectorates. The Chinese were second class citizens in their own country under the harsh Manchu rule but the Qing Dynasty nevertheless lasted almost four centuries until 1911.
The old saying that history repeats itself is nowhere as true as it is in China where Dynasties have sprung, flowered, grown corrupt and fallen with clock-like regularity over and over again and for the same reasons during four millenia. It is not surprising that Chinese Emperors and Warlords, Mao Tsedong and other modern politicians have never failed to study the lessons of the past in the ancient State Chronicles, in Sun Tse's "The Art of War" (500 BC) and in historical novels such as "The Three Kingdoms" written in Ming times about the demise of the Han Dynasty. One can wonder what surprises the next breathing cycle of the Chinese giant has in store for us?
Our western politicians naturally have a four year horizon because their essential qualification is to excel at gathering votes. How many of them have bothered to read Machiavelli and Clauswitz? And, does anyone care?
After a great day of dreaming about the distant past, my cute taxi driver brought me back to the Wumao Hotel (on the right), where I had a room for only 2.50 US$ (on the left is a shopping center and the bus station from which I left for Dunhuang on the next day).
The distant past and even the recent prudish communist past were quite irrelevant to the immediate present when I took this flash picture at 5 PM in the totally darkened disco of the Wumao Hotel (it was pitch black and I could not see a thing, I aimed and shot my flash by chance where I thought the action was). At 5:30 sharp, the ear splitting music stopped, all these high school kids filed out, grabbed their schoolbooks and bikes and went home to supper and homework. It was a weekday and the disco closed for the night.
On the next day, the 8 hour bus drive through through the desert to Dunhuang gave me a chance to digest some of the impressions left by my daydreaming in the Jiayuguan Fortress. I was the only stranger aboard so nobody interrupted my train of thoughts and suddenly we were in Dunhuang where I found a bunk in a two bed dorm at the Feitian Hotel for only 2.50$US.
The next day was a down day. I had come here to see the Mogao Caves 25 kms from town but as I could not get there by myself, I had to deal with CITS. They stuck me with two-middle aged canadian ladies who made me ashamed of being a westerner, let alone a Canadian. We all know about "The Ugly American" but these two ignorant bitches were ahead in red neck stupidity all the way. They criticised everything and everybody within range made a point of letting everyone know that they were on a deluxe custom tailored private tour costing more than 6000 US$ each.
We had a private guide when we got to the grottoes and I had to follow while these two harridans boosted their egos by putting down China and the Chinese to their captive audience, our hapless guide. The one from Calgary harped on how filthy the cesuos (toilets), were and boasted that she had 4 bathrooms in her house while the sister from Vancouver informed those who could not help hearing, that all the Chinese she had seen before coming here were servants or waiters. I could have crawled under a rock.
I would have liked to take pictures but the guide, who was understandably upset but did not show it, warned us that our cameras would be confiscated if we tried. Consequently, I can only show you this long distance shot of the best Buddhist art site in China. Its a pity for the caves represent a unique in-situ museum record of cultural evolution in this part of the world over a millenium.
The Western Han took the Dunhuang oasis from the Hsiong-nu in the late 2nd century and made it one of their silk road military outposts. When the Han fell Dunhuang changed hands many times but it had already become a Buddhist center. Dharmaraksa came here from Central Asia to translate texts into Chinese during the Jin dynasty (265 - 317). The carving of the Mogao caves in the Mingsha cliff, initiated in 366 by the monk Yuezun continued over the following 1000 years. The tides of war and dynasties rolled over Dunhuang but the digging continued until some 500 caves, holding some 2400 painted clay statues and 45 000 square metres of murals, were excavated. This recording of passing cultures and styles ceased during the tumultuous years of the Yuan Empire break up when Muslim Tamerlane threatened to invade China. After that the Mogao caves fell into neglect during the Ming and Qing Dynasties and were all but forgotten until rediscovered and systematically plundered by British, French, American, Japanese and Russian archaeologists in the beginning of this century.
I was glad to get away from the two witches who ruined my visit to the caves and to relax on my own by the beautiful Crescent Moon Spring where I chatted with a nice japanese lady visiting China with her husband and two teen-aged children.
There were other tourists at the Crescent Moon Spring but they appeared well behaved. Some went tobogganing in the sand dunes and others submitted to the control of the camel drivers.
In the late afternoon the colours warmed up and the shadows lengthened long before sunset, sculpting the dunes into fantastic shapes near the Crescent Moon Spring.