Dunhuang is situated at the west end of the Hexi Corridor. It borders Anxi on the east, Aksai on the south, and Xinjiang on the northwest. The area is located on the northern rim of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. Established as a prefecture in 111 B.C., Dunhuang, also known as Sanwei and Guazhou, was one of the four prefectures in the area west of the Yellow River in Gansu during the Western Han period. It was a major communications hub between the eastern and middle sections of the Silk Road in ancient times. In 1986, it was designated by the State Council as a city of historical and cultural importance in the country.
Extending over an area of 31,200 square kilometers, Dunhuang lies in a basin surrounded by high mountains. Oases account for only 4.5 percent of the area as most of it is taken up by mountains and Gobi deserts. Dunhuang produces excellent Liguang peaches and seedless grapes.
One of China's top tourist cities, Dunhuang is famous for its Mogao Grottoes throughout the world. Other attractions in the area include the Crescent Moon Spring at the Resonant Sand Hills, the Yanguan and Yumenguan Passes, Shazhou a reconstructed Song Dynasty town), and the yardangs, which are known as the Devils' Town to the locals.
The Mogao Grottoes
The Mogao Grottoes, 25 kilometers southeast of the city of Dunhuang, are carved into the steep cliff at the foot of Hills Mountain on the Nest back of the Daquangou, riverbed. The first caves at Mogao appeared in 336. Of the original thousand or more caves, 493 remain intact. They contain more than 2,400 statues and 45,000 square meters of wall paintings and are considered to be the largest treasure house of art in the world. In December 1987, they were listed by UNESCO as cultural heritages of the world.
One of Mogao's artistic features is the harmony of its architecture, sculpture, and wall painting. The painted statues are presented in the round or in relief. The wall paintings in the caves cover a wide range of subjects including pictures of Buddhist deities, events in the life of Buddha, Buddhist stories, architecture, landscapes, portraits of patrons of the caves, animals, and decorative patterns. They reflect social life and cultural exchanges between China end the West during the period from 304 to 1368. They are priceless material for the study of politics, economy, culture, military affairs, and religion in ancient China. In 1900, Mogao surprised the world with the discovery of more than 50,000 sutras,and manuscripts, in a bricked up chamber in its caves. Today, the Mogao art has developed into a branch of learning known as Dunhuangology in the world.
The Yumenguan Pass
Some 90 kilometers northwest of the city of Dunhuang, the Yumenguan (Jade Gate) Pass was one of the two passes in the western frontier region during the Western Han period. The other was the Yangguan Pass. It was the gate of ancient China to Central Asia. For centuries, anybody heading west of Dunhuang to travel along either the middle or the northern route of the Silk Road in the Western Regions had to file through the pass. The pass was so named because the fine jade produced in Hotan in present-day Xinjiang had to travel through the gate before it reached the Central Plains of China. Also known as the Small Square City, the pass is roughly square in shape. It extends 26.4 meters from north to south and 24 meters from east to west, covering an area of some 630 square meters. The crumbling wall that surrounds it is built with rammed earth. A North-south section of the wall is 4.9 meters wide at the base. About 15 kilometers from Yumenguan are the ruins of the ancient city of Hecang, which was actually a granary of the soldiers stationed at Yumenguan. The site today is impressive for its historic resonance and total desolation as much as for anything else.
The site of Yangguan (Yang Pass) is situated in the town of Nanxiang about 70 kilometers southwest of the city of Dunhuang. Yangguan was built along with Yumenguan by Emperor Wudi of the Western Han Dynasty when he opened the areas west of the Yellow River in Gansu and established the four prefectures of Wuwei, Zhangye, Jiuquan, and Dunhuang there. It was a vital strategic point one had to pass through when he traveled westward from Dunhuang to follow the southern route of the Silk Road in Central Asia. Yangguan has long disappeared and what is left of it is little more than a ruined tower, which, standing on a reddish sandstone hill, is 4.7 meters high and 8 meters by 7. 5 meters at the base and 8 meters by 6.8 meters at the top. The tower commands a perfect view of the vast area around it. Nothing but traces of the wall foundation of Yangguan are visible between sand dunes. Located south of the tower is a depression about five kilometers square. Known as Gudongtan (Beach of Curios), the place is strewn with broken tiles.
Mingshashan and Yueyaquan
Five kilometers south of the city of Dunhuang is Mingshashan (Sand Hills). The hills, at an elevation of 1,715 meters, are actually made up of sand dunes. The sands reportedly make a humming sound when one slides down the sand dunes, hence the name.
Yueyaquan (Crescent Moon Spring) lies in a tiny oasis at the foot of Mingshashan. Spring water trickles up into a depression between huge sand dunes, forming a small, crescent-shaped spring. The spring is deep in the east and shallow in the west and is about five meters at the deepest point. It is blue and mirror smooth. The spring has remained unchanged for thousands of years despite of its location surrounded by shifting sand dunes. According to legend, the iron-backed fish and a medicinal herb called the seven-starred grass produced in the lake could prolong life. As a result, the spring is also referred to as the Spring of Longevity.
The Yardang Abode of Demons at Yumenguan
Yardangs, meaning steep small hills in Uygur, are a special wind-eroded landform in arid areas. About 85 kilometers west of Yumenguan is a typical formation of Yardangs stretching 25 kilometers from north to south and about two kilometers from east to west. Since the little hills look like buildings, the place is referred to as the Yardang Abode of Demons by local people. The heights of the hills are between five and more than 20 meters and their widths and lengths vary from a few dozen to several hundred meters. The place looks like a walled medieval city with massive buildings, churches, squares, streets, and beautiful sculptures or a museum of architectural art where you can find small copies of the world's best structures such as Beijing's Temple of Heaven, Tibet's Potala Palace, Egypt's pyramids and sphinxes, Mongolian yurts, and mosques in the Arab world. In addition, you will find with delight other works of art by Nature such as sculptures of lions, caravans trekking along the Silk Road, and turtles emerging from the sea.
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