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Cultural Heritage / Trip Ideas

The Han Great Wall in Dunhuang

By Wei Jia

June 2

The best-preserved part of the Han Great Wall can be found five kilometers west of Yumenguan, and 90 kilometers to the north west of the city of Dunhuang.

The best-preserved part of the Han Great Wall can be found five kilometers west of Yumenguan, and 90 kilometers to the north west of the city of Dunhuang.

Besides the religious murals in Mogao Cave, Dunhuang in northwest China’s Gansu Province is home to a secular monument: part of the Great Wall that kept the ferocious Huns at bay and guarded the famous Silk Road. Unlike the vivid wall paintings, the drab ruins of those ancient defense structures, built more than 2,000 years ago during the Han Dynasty (202 B.C.-220), are well weathered in a harsh, wind-swept region that saw constant warfare.

The best-preserved part of the Han Great Wall can be found five kilometers west of Yumenguan, and 90 kilometers to the north west of the city of Dunhuang. It is only 402 meters long, while the total length of the Han Great Wall exceeds 10,000 kilometers.

The Han Great Wall at Dunhuang. [Image Credit: VCG]
First ordered to be built by Emperor Wu (156 B.C. – 87 B.C.) of the Han Dynasty at the Hexi Corridor after he asserted his control of the region routinely harassed by the marauding Huns to the north of China, the Han Great Wall served the purpose of cutting off the link between the Huns and the Qiang people, another hostile tribe, as well as protecting the fledgling Silk Road that dated to the same empire.

In contrast to parts of the Great Wall built with stone, such as the one in Badaling, Beijing, the Han Great Wall was constructed mostly using sand, dirt, and plants like reeds, which were abundant in the area. Another feature that may not bode well for the Han Great Wall is that large stretches of it were in flat, open grasslands, rather than hilly terrains that are easier to defend.

While the Han Great Wall may not look quite impregnable, its very existence deterred foreign invasions thanks to its dense beacon towers – big ones at intervals of 5 kilometers and small ones spaced at half that distance. Most of the remaining towers are at least seven meters tall.

The Han Great Wall at Dunhuang. [Image Credit: VCG]
The signals given by such a tower, smoke at day and flame at night, could be seen as far as 15 kilometers away. The closest garrisons, thus alerted, would either be prepared for battler or reinforce the guards at the towers before the invaders could make their numerical advantage count.

A humble predecessor to the better known Great Wall built in the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644), the Han Great Wall, standing desolate in an acrid, sandy region, is a far cry from the more photogenic structures under the same name. Yet the crumbled hints of an ambitious project tell, through the ages, the full story of the Great Wall.

Time to visit: May to October

Entry: 40 yuan/person

Opening Hours: 8:00-19:00

Best time to visit: May to October

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