"Yumenguan - the Jade Gate" Yumenguan by mke1963

Yumenguan Travel Guide: 15 reviews and 26 photos

Snow falls in the mountains. A glacier melts. A stream trickles down the stony slopes. It becomes a river and winds out into the desert. A long way from the glacier, the river slides into glassy meadows and forms a wetland. Then disappears for ever into the sands of the Kumtage Shamo. Here, at the edge of the great Kumtag Shamo desert, sits Yumenguan, the fabled Jade Gate of antiquity - the entrance to China. Here is where it all starts and where it all ends, by a lonely marshland on the edge of the Gobi.

In the first century AD, the Han Dynasty emperors built the Yumenguan simply as a place to assess and tax the jade that was imported from Khotan (today's Hetan in Xinjiang) as it made its way by camel towards Chang'an, the imperial court.
At about the same time, the emperor Wudi manged to round up 660,000 men from the area to build a Great Wall to protect the precious oasis towns of Dunhuang and Anxi. The wall was built from tamped earth with a leyer of jarrach reeds every 20cm to give rigidity and to protect the wall from the erosion of the fierce winds and the rare heavy downpour - for on those rare occasions when it rains in the desert here, it pours mercilessly for hours.

In those Han days, when trade really started flourishing to the far-off kingdoms of Parthia and Kushan, the Yumenguan was the junction between the early central and southern routes. But why is the gate so remote? Why is it out in the desert by this marsh? Why not nearer the lush oasis of Dunhuang? Well in those days, from the third century BC to the middle of the first century AD, the whole of the Tarim Basin and the Hexi Corridor was both warmer and wetter: records bound up in the high mountain glaciers have shown this. During this time, small oasis towns expanded quickly to create a string of trading posts. There were far more people in the area, and the river would have fed fields and pastures. It was not so desolate then. Also, the river formed a natural, easy-to-follow route across the land, so it made sense to fortify where there was fresh water. Over the centuries, the weather became colder and much drier, sounding the death knell for cities like Loulan and Miran, and the many small kingdoms in what is now the Taklimakan. The desert sands blew in, centimetre by centimetre, and each year there was a little less rain, a little less water in the river. New Silk Routes opened up, including the southern route directly from Dunhuang to Charklik and Khotan, passing through the Yangguan or Sunny Gate, closer to Dunhuang. As the weather became drier and the people moved out, so it became more sensible to stay closer to the oasis towns. Yumenguan slipped into obscurity, although still guarded by the imperial soldiers. Eventually the wall was abandoned.

Today's Yumenguan is a lonely sentinel standing in a small dip in the land by that lonely marsh. A farming family lives nearby, ancestors of the men who weighed and inspected the jade. Today he herds a flock of 250 sheep, and sees his neighbours - 11km away to the east - once a month, just to say 'Hello'. From being the junction of the famed Silk Road, hustling and bustlin, now there is just a farmer. And that river in the desert.

Return toDunhuang.
Go to Yangguan and Nanhu oasis.

  • Last visit to Yumenguan: Jun 2006
  • Intro Updated May 9, 2016
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