The Ghost of a Gobi Oasis: Where the Great Wall Ends

Culture | by Michaela Kron
Posted: October 11th, 2010 | Updated: June 27th, 2014 | Comments

Dunhuang Desert Beacon Tower

When I visited the Great Wall of China at Badaling (near Beijing), it was just as I had imagined it to be. The weathered brown and grey bricks extended for miles, tracing the lush, mountainous terrain, growing thinner and thinner before eventually disappearing into the fog. The air was fresh and misty, a welcome change from Shanghai's sweltering humidity. This was it. After a grueling climb, there I was, standing on the Great Wall! I took it all in; I wasn't sure when I'd see it again. It didn't take long. Just over a week later, I was back.

This time, I was in Dunhuang, a city in northern Gansu Province where there isn't much to do besides explore the desert (and the famous Shazhou Night Market to buy dried fruit and jade souvenirs. But a couple hours outside of the city and in the middle of the desert is a valuable piece of Chinese history: the western end of the Great Wall. [Disclaimer: when I say "the western end of the Great Wall", I don't actually mean that there's a wall anywhere in sight because, well, there isn't (at least, not in the sense of the Great Wall).]

Dunhuang Desert Beacon Tower

What I saw was essentially a remnant—an unimposing, freestanding beacon tower surrounded by a rusted wrought-iron fence. If I didn't know any better, I would've thought I was looking at a rock formation emerging from the sand, not a fortified beacon tower that dates back to the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.–220 A.D.). Yet, though the tower itself isn't terribly impressive, the history behind it is fascinating. I think what is most intriguing about this part of the Great Wall is that it's over 1,000 years older than the Great Wall as it exists today, which was built during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

After the Chinese victory over the Xiongnu in 121 B.C., the Chinese built fortifications at Dunhuang, and the city eventually became a key supply base for those passing through the Gobi Desert. For many of those people, the wall and beacon towers must have been a welcome oasis, representing safety and comfort in an otherwise isolated and unforgiving terrain. I can't say that I viewed the beacon tower as necessarily oasis-like, but I found the landscape surrounding it to be spectacular.

Set against the backdrop of the vast desert and clear blue sky were two traditional pavilions and an ancient wheelbarrow. I had spent the past couple days in the Gobi Desert, riding a camel and camping, but it was in this particular area where I felt like I was in a desert in China. Maybe it was the knowledge that the western end of the Great Wall was several yards away. Or it could have been the pagoda-like pavilions. Whatever it was, I embraced it. I knew I wouldn't be back there anytime soon.

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