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Yangguan Pass
Yangguan Pass

Yangguan Pass (Yang Pass) was one of the two important western passes (the other being Yumen Pass) of the Great Wall in the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-24 AD). It was established and used as China's western frontier defense outpost by Emperor Hanwudi (156 BC-87 BC).

In ancient China, Yang meant the south, and Yang Pass got its name due to its location to the south of Yumen Pass. Together with Yumen Pass, Yang Pass protected Dunhuang from invasion from the northwest, and witnessed the prosperity of the ancient Silk Road as one of its important forts.

Yangguan Pass
Yangguan Pass

Dimensions of Yangguan Pass

At its heyday, Yang Pass had a system of beacon towers and walls that marked the western border of the Chinese empire. But today it is quite ruined, so that there are hardly any walls in sight, with the only visible sections being the foundations of some of the walls. Due to years of erosion by shifting sands, Yang Pass is left with only a broken beacon tower standing alone on the vast desert. The beacon tower measures about 5 meters (16 feet) high and 8 meters (26 feet) wide. To the south of the watch tower is an expanse where visitors can find millions of pieces of broken tiles, coins, decorations and weapons, spread over an area of 20 square kilometers (4,900 acres), some of the last evidence of civilization left there.

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Yangguan Pass Museum

Yang Pass Museum was open to the public in 2003. It is an onsite museum with buildings of the Han Dynasty (206 BCC220 AD) style. The museum introduces the culture of Yang Pass through exhibits of sculptures, frescos and historical relics.

Yangguan Pass
Yangguan Pass

History of Yangguan Pass

Yangguan Pass, with a history of over 2,000 years, is located 70 km (43 miles) southwest of Dunhuang City. It is so named because it is situated in the south of Yumenguan Pass (In most regions of China, the south side is the side facing the sun due to the latitude and is called 'Yang' in Chinese).

Early in 114 B.C. in the Han Dynasty (206BC - 220 AD), in order to resist the Huns (Xiongnu) and manage the West Region, the emperor of the Han Dynasty established Yangguan Pass and Yumenguan as well as Wuwei, Zhangye, Jiuquan and Dunhuang counties, and a large number of forces have been stationed here since then. As the main access to West Region and an important conjunction on the south route of the Silk Road, Yangguan Pass was a military stronghold in ancient times. From the Song Dynasty (960 - 1279), it was gradually abandoned due to the decline of the Silk Road.

In ancient times, Yangguan was connected to Yumenguan with a 70-kilometer-long great wall dotted with tens of beacon towers. The original construction has already been destroyed so we can only see are the ruins of beacon towers, among which the one located at the Dundun Hill in the north side of the Gudong Sands is the largest and best preserved.

Yangguan Pass
Yangguan Pass

A large number of ancient relics were once discovered in the boundless Gudong Sands, including bricks, pottery pieces, coins, arrows, bronze decorations, seals and living utensils ranging from the Han Dynasty to the Song Dynasty, hence the name Gudong ('ancient relics' in Chinese). Where do the ancient relics come from? It is said that an emperor of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) married off his princess to the Khotan King to keep a harmonious relationship with Khotan (a kingdom in the western region in ancient times). The emperor also sent a group of retinue to accompany the princess and carry the dowry for her. When they arrived in Yangguan, a strong sandstorm hit the area. The storm lasted for 7 days and buried the villages, cities and fields, as well as the princess's retinue and dowry under the sands. The area was deserted since then. After years, some of the relics under the sands were found by local people, and they named the sands Gudong Sands (the sands of antiques).

Yangguan is known to all not only because it is a famous pass along the great wall and ancient Silk Road, but also for the famous poem wrote by the Tang Dynasty poet, Wang Wei:
Farewell to an Envoy on His Mission to Anxi - By Wang Wei
What's got Weicheng Town's path dust wet is the morning rain,
The willows near the Hotel become green again.
I urge you to empty another cup of wine,
West of the Yangguan Pass you'll see no more of mine.

Yangguan Pass
Yangguan Pass

Reviews of Yangguan Pass

"History is gone, now it's a theme park": What you see today as Yangguan Pass -- a 70km drive southwest of Dunhuang -- is actually the ruins of a beacon tower indicating the possible location of the original gate nearby. The original Yangguan was first built in 150BC and has not been preserved through the century. No one knows where is the exact location of the real Yangguan Pass. Therefore, what you're paying RMB 50 admission ticket to see is just the sandy beacon tower at the top of the hill -- everything else is basically newly built in modern times.

It takes a lot of imagination to understand the former splendor and poetic meaning of this place. In the Han dynasty through to Tang dynasty, this is one of the two gates where traders, Buddhist pilgrims and other travelers have to go through in order to leave China and head towards India or the Middle East. In Tang dynasty, the Buddhist monk Xuanzhuang, popularized in the novel "Journey to the West" (aka The Monkey King), returned from India via the Yangguan Gate carrying important Buddhist texts and translations.

I'm told that on the south of the hilltop, the locals call this the "antique beach" because over the years, many pottery, jewelry, coins from ancient times, as well as the remnants of houses etc. were found in this area. In reality, I didn't see anything but barren land on the southern slopes of the hill.

Yangguan Pass
Yangguan Pass

Today, what you find is a very basic museum describing the Han dynasty (when Yangguan was first built) -- people's lives, what weapons the military used for defence, what the farms looked like, etc. All very basic things you can see in major Chinese museums, if you have visited Beijing's museums you can absolutely skip this part.

If you're visiting in the summer and if you have children with you, there are war games here you might like to take advantage of. But I visited during low season, when everything was practically closed down, so I am not sure of the prices.

If you pay RMB 20 to take an electric vehicle up the hill and back (essential for visiting during the summer), then you are provided with a tour guide for free. However, if you choose to walk up the hill yourself, the tour guide will not walk up with you.

Since I was visiting in mid-February when it was still -5 degrees C during the day, the site had no other tourists and everything looked deserted. I was told the scenery is great during the summer. Perhaps when you visit, you'll see what I missed!

Yangguan Pass
Yangguan Pass

How to get Yangguan Pass

Yangguan Pass is midway between Lanzhou and Urumuqi on the edge of the Taklamakan Desert, in northern Gansu Province, northern Central China. Yang Pass is located 70 kilometers (44 miles) northwest of Dunhuang City (the closest place with an airport), Gansu Province, or over 300 kilometers (450 miles) by road from the small town of Yumen (the nearest place with a railway station). China Travel Servive use high-quality air-conditioned private transport to take the hassle out of getting to the wall.

Yangguan Pass Travel Tips

The area has a dry climate with strong ultraviolet, so a pair of sun-glasses, a hat and a scarf are necessary; you are also suggested to take sufficient bottled water;
Wear a pair of comfortable shoes that are suitable for long walking in sands;
The nearby Nanhu Lake and Grape Valley are also good places to learn about the local customs.