Jiayuguan and Dunhuang: A heavenly horse

More than two thousand years ago, at some point between 120 and 113 BCE, an exceptional horse of rare and marvellous beauty emerged from a little lake in a single hop and put itself in the hands of one man. The place was extraordinary: impressive, solid dunes that rose up to 400 meters high seemed as if they were refraining themselves from moving on top of the beautiful lagoon, named Wuwa. How could it be possible that they didn´t let the wind pushed them to bury the whole place for eternity?

The man was Bao Lizhang, a Chinese government’s official who ran the luck of the exilees: a fault or a mistake had been enough to condemn him to serve in wild lands, on the Empire’s very far Western borders. Many, like him, when crossing the Jiayuguan Pass fort’s last gate –facing the uncertain and wild–, used to throw in sorrow a little rock against the wall: if it failed to bounce back, their trip would end up in tragedy.

The Great Wall at Jiayuguan.

My photo gallery on the Great Wall and the fort is here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/temoris/sets/72157615022967457/show/

When we look at a map of China, it seems to us as a one-piece territory, well integrated, static since milennia. In fact, China’s heartland lies on the East, roughly between Xi’an, Beijing and Hangzhou. The rest are conquests: Sichuan, the South, Manchuria. And to the West, the Tibetan plateau and Xinjiang province. Regarding the latter, China´s map along the centuria looks like a man whose belly grows hugely and then falls in famine: it has taken the “Western territories” many times, in bloody wars, and then lost them ever again (until Mao retook them).

The communication gateway between the West and China has been the narrow and long Hexi corridor (the Gansu province owes its shape to it), stretching right in between the freezing Tibetan plateau, to the South, and the deadly Gobi desert, to the North. A series of oasis allowed for the survival of those travelling along. The key point, its narrowest, was the Jiayuguan pass, which in Chinese tales and myths carries both the connotations of dangerous border and a Siberia-like punishing exile: the Empire was always in need to colonise those lands to assert its control. For that purpose, it used to get its subjects into forced migration: criminals, fugitives, merchants, low-rank officials like Bao Lizhang. Their duty was to become peasants and harvest food for the military garrisons. As Hexi’s corridor resembles China´s long throat, expelling them was called kow wai or “without the mouth”, as a sugestión that the country was spitting the condemned out.

The Jiayuguan Pass is closed by the westermost end of the wall, and the fort is still there, like new, to guard it. When I first saw the fort, from the opposite side of a frozen lake, it looked powerfully solid. It´s walls are very thick and trying to reach the main buildings seems an endless task. One goes across a gate, then there’s an open space, another gate, more open spaces… the designers created rat traps to mischieve the enemy when it thought it had overcome the last wall. Three high towers kept control over the scenario. In the last gate, there used to be graffiti left by the exilees lamenting their luck. And on the Northern and Southern sides, the Great Walls stretch along the desert and up to the mountains: all travellers had to submit to inspection at the fort or challenge its might.

A few kilometers to the North, a beautiful section of the Great Wall has been restored. By large, most people who have visited the longest human-made barrier went to the parts near Beijing, where they have joined the immense tourist groups that walk by the footpath on the top. It was wide enough to allow the hurried movement of entire platoons. But here, at Jiayuguan Pass, were this magnificent work of tens of thousands of humble Chinese subjects ends, it is barely wide enough for two men standing shoulder to shoulder. I followed it meandering up to the mountains, climbing with two hands at some point, and was exhausted when I reached the summit. I had to imagine the soldiers running up and down, trying to stop the attackers climbing up the walls and protecting themselves from an arrow storm and stumbling upon each other to fall on the wrong side of the wall –to the hands and swords of the enemy. (Well, not that falling on the “right side” wasn’t fatal.)

From the top I could see the end of the Jiayuguan oasis as a clear line: the cultivated lands on one side, the Gobi desert’s grey cruel dryness, on the other. Gobi means “stony”, and certainly there doesn´t seem to be anything alive, no vegetation, no scavenger birds surveilling from the sky. The Taklamakan desert, which I’d see further on, reaches higher temperatures, but it’s got the blessing of its oasis, of which in the Gobi there’s none.

The restorers of the site placed here a Silk Road’s caravan replica in real size: camels, merchantes, servants, the men who must have felt shaken when leaving the safety of the Great China and heading towards the wild territories, infested with aggressive nomads, poisonous animals, thirst and supernatural spirits ready to mislead the traveller out of his way and to painful death. But it made a huge impression on those coming towards it, as well. Three female European missioneries, Cable, French and French, wrote: “Only those who have crossed the Gobi roads can possibly understand the thrill and excitement of the traveller when the first tower of Kiayukwan (Jiayuguan) comes into sight, about five kilometers before the town is reached. Drivers and passengers always raise a shout at the prospect of once more passing the portal of China”.

Eight hours away from Jiayuguan, or a several weeks-long trip for the ancient caravans, there’s another oasis, Dunhuang’s. This town serves as a base to visit one of China’s most important cultural features: Mogao ku (Mogao caves), a climax in the humankind’s artistic history. They are also called the “thousand Buddhas caves”: for over ten centuries, between the 4th and the 14th, humble monks sculpted, carved or painted religious images. Dryness, cold, Buddhist resistance and good luck joined to keep them relatively safe from time and imperial persecution. Not so much from the White Russians, the soldiers defeated by the Soviets who escaped to China and were imprisoned in the caves, in the early 1920’s. Neither from the Western archeologists from the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th, who are locally known as the “foreign devils” because they “saved” thousands of ancient relics from this and other sites in Xinjiang, by sending them out to countries whose museums still keep them and won´t give them back.

Yet, a thousand-years art work is not so easy to plunder and impressive sculptures and paintings are still there, showing different influences which in time mixed up: greco-Buddhist (the greek comes from Alexander the Great’s invasion of Central Asia, on the other side of the big Taklamakan), Chinese and Mongol-Lamaist. To protect them, there’s no artificial light in the caves (you can’t introduce cameras) and all visits must be guided (for 20 yuan, they take you to only seven caves, or so, which adds to the sustained robbery commited by the Chinese government to enter all tourist sites, 200 yuan in this case, about 35 usd in all). In dim light, you can have a glimpse of how was the border life a thousand years ago, of kings and rich donors (who paid to be included whith their relatives in the scenes), all Central Asia´s ethnic groups, merchants, pilgrims, bandits, caravans, the two paradises of Mahayana Buddhism (Western and Eastern), and prominently, the feitian or apsaras, winged divine beings flying across the Buddhist sky.

It was almost middle March and the temperatures were still below zero. How could these monks from a thousand years, dressed in robes, survive living in this icy caves, only dedicated to multiply the images of the Buddha? The guide said that minus 20 and less was normal in february.

On Dunhuang’s other side, I went looking for the Crescent Moon lake. I stood in awe long before I reached it: at the end of the road, giant dunes rose up as I’d never seen before. They shined under a late afternoon sun, partly golden and partly white and blinding, as that morning snowfall’s frozen layers persisted. I rode a camel around them, and went to the top of one, but it was only the first one: many more, ever higher, stretched to the horizon.

Dunhuang dunes from the road. My photo gallery on Dunhuang is here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/temoris/sets/72157615062431247/show/

Dunhuang dunes from the road.

My photo gallery on Dunhuang is here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/temoris/sets/72157615062431247/show/

Then I walked toward the lake, flanked by a few traditional Chinese buildings. The shapes justifies its name. And surrounding it, the huge dunes. The existence of this lake, long ago called Wuwa, really looks supernatural. Why are the powerful dunes, steep and difficult to climb, opening up this space? They can invade fields, destroy towns, change form and position during the night and amaze people in the morning. What has stopped them to advance just a little and make the lagoon dissappear, to turn it into a legend impossible to investigate, buried forever by the incredible weight of these mobile mountains? But the lake is there.

The exilee Bao Lizhang’s duty was to preserve Wuwa so that the wild horses could drink. One day he saw that stunning animal. To be able to capture it, he made a human clay figure and dressed it with his clothes, putting a briddle and lace in its hands. The horse felt uneasy at the beginning, but as the weeks went by it got used to it. One day, Bao took the place of the clay figure, wearing he same clothes, and laced the horse. Then he tamed it and offered it to the emperor.

He expected to be released from his punishment and allowed accross the Jiayuguan Pass fort’s gate to go back home. In order to secure this, he planned to associate the horse with an auspicious and divine event and made up the story of the animal hoping out of the lake to his hands. The emperor, who had showered with presents and privileges a magician who had done nothing but deceive him, had a weakness for all supernatural manifestations and interpreted the tale as a gift from god, a personal favour from the divinity, and wrote an ode called “Song of the heavenly Horse”. Bao Lizhang went back to his family.

Wuwa, today’s Crescent Moon lake.

Wuwa, today’s Crescent Moon lake.

4 responses to “Jiayuguan and Dunhuang: A heavenly horse




  2. eres un hombre afortunado, periodista y viajero, dos actividades maravillosas que al combinarse dan un resultado fascinante y complicado a la vez.
    Buenisima suerte y continua, hay tanto por conocer.

  3. hola, mada gusto conocer tu blog. Estoy haciendo una artículo y me gustaria saber si como conocedor y periodista conoces cual es la forma más económica de viajar a Madrid. Gracias.

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