We spent the day here in Jiayuguan, which was established long ago as a Han Chinese outpost at the edge of the Gobi Desert. In 1372, during the Ming Dynasty, a fortress was built here to protect the last frontier of the Chinese Empire. A lively trading town grew around the fortress, which is now supplemented by tourists coming to see this fully restored western terminus of the Great Wall, and its fortress complex. Here stood the final frontier of Chinese culture and civilization – outside its fortified gates was the vast Gobi Desert, and the Barbarian hordes, such as the Huns and Mongols.
In the morning we visited the Wei Jin Dynasties Tomb Complex, located about 18 km northeast of town. There are just two tombs, each 10 meters below ground, that have been excavated out of the 1600 tombs that are spread across an area of 30 square km. One was completely removed and sent to the provincial museum, and the other is open to the public. These tombs are more than 1700 years old, and lined with painted bricks depicting scenes of every day life at the time.
When we arrive, there are absolutely no tourists there – not one! We buy our tickets, and the supervisor of the site motorcycles out across the desert to open the tomb for us. He asks us if we would like a ride on the back of his cycle, but we decide to walk instead. When we arrive at the tomb and enter, we walk down a steep series of staircases, to the entrance of the tomb. We enter, and I am struck both by how beautiful the simple black and ochre paintings are, but also by how much they say about the way people lived so long ago – how they prepared and cooked their food, rode their horses, dressed, farmed, hunted, and so on. It’s an amazing place to visit, both from an artistic and a cultural perspective.
We return to town for lunch at an exceptionally good restaurant, featuring delicious variations of the staples available throughout Gansu Province (where we’ve been traveling for the past ten days). Everywhere we’ve been, the same basic dishes are always served – eggplant, served in a chili sauce, potatoes, served either sliced with sichuan peppercorns, or shredded in a mild sauce, fiery hot fried string beans, steamed white rice, raw cucumbers and tomatoes, and wheat or rice noodles. The only difference is in the talent of the chefs in the kitchen, and here, in this small outpost town, the chefs are superb!
We then head out to visit the final frontier of China, the western end of the Great Wall, beyond which was the Gobi Desert, and the Western Barbarians that China sought to keep out. It is easy to see just what it meant to be admitted into the safety and culture of Imperial China, when you were allowed entry through the massive gates here, or just how daunting and dangerous it must have been to leave.
The great philosopher and enlightened master Lao Tsu did just that, in the Fifth Century B.C. He was between 160 and 200 years old when he rode his black buffalo through these gates, into the unknown Western Regions (now Xinjiang Province, our next destination on this trip), because he was disillusioned with how his teachings were being received.
After spending quite a few hours at the Great Wall, we headed back to town and a delicious dinner at the same restaurant, but not before I got a new haircut…actually a shaved head! A haircutter in town did a very professional job first cutting my hair, then shaving my head, all for just 20 RMB (about $3 USD). She was absolutely shocked when I insisted she accept a 10 RMB tip for her superb work.
It was a magnificent day today!