Travel Guide

Great Wall in Shaanxi

Recently we decided to explore a less well-known section of the Great Wall. This is the part that appears to dance across the Loess Plateau along the northern border of Shaanxi Province and recalled how it once formed a continuous defence of the Guanzhou area where Xian, our home city and onetime capital city of China is located. During the Ming Dynasty [1368-1644] the government organized the environs of the Great Wall into nine zones. In each of these zones a garrison or Zhen was set up for its supervision. The Yansui Zhen, the garrison in Yulin was responsible for the 880-kilometre section between Fugu to the east and Ningxia to the west. For any one wishing to explore this section of the Great wall, then there is no better place to start than Yulin itself, so this is where we started.

Although the modern development of Yulin is somewhat sluggish by comparison with other cities, as a northern outpost of the Ming Empire it was of strategic military importance. By 1403 it had become a fortified citadel but in 1407 the Ming moved the Yansui Zhen here. As a consequence an extension to the Wall was built and large numbers of soldiers were introduced. This part of the Great Wall served also as one of the Yulin city walls. Wherever a garrison is established the civilian population will expand to support it. This was true of Yulin and the city soon became an important trading post with the Mongol Tribes to the north. Markets were established and a thriving Yulin served both as a military base and trading centre in this northern part of Shaanxi.

Yulin Wall

The Yulin Wall, which is some seven kilometres long, was built from tamped earth with an outer brick covering. The city was enclosed within a rectangle with five gates of which only the Eastern and Southern gates survive to this day. On our visit to the old city walls we found the Eastern Gate. The outer brick layer had fallen away and the inner core of tamped earth was exposed. It reminded us of the beacon towers in Dunhuang, where the local people had removed bricks to built their houses. It was good to learn that the Yulin city government has taken steps to ensure material from the Wall is not plundered in future. This action reflects the policy of China's central government and its programme of protection for ancient sites and relics that has spread now to these more remote locations. Local people told us that the ancient city had not seen too many changes and many old buildings and fortifications can still be seen.

The ruins of beacon towers scattered along the Wall, not far from the city stand as silent witnesses to the continuity of the fortifications in the past. Of these, the most famous is Zhen Bei Tai, five kilometres north of Yulin. We found you can reach this beacon tower by taking a ten-minute taxi ride for a fare of 10 yuan. We also found that the sections of the Wall further to the northeast alongside the new road being constructed betweenYulin and Shenmu had fallen victim to the vagaries of the weather. Our only clue to the line of the Wall here was the assortment of beacon towers sited on the hilltops.

We decided to continue our trip north eastwards along the Yulin-Shenmu Road where we found ruins of beacon towers that had been partly buried in sand drifting in the wind. After continuing our exploration for several hours we came upon two more fortress sites Chang Le Bu (Chang Le Castle) and Jian An Bu (Jian An Castle) and Jian An Bu and a small village school.

Zhen Bei Tai (Pacify-the-north Tower):

Located on Mount Hongshan, five kilometers north of Yulin City, stands the Zhen Bei Tai Tower. This was built in 1607 during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) for the protection of the Hongshan Market Place for it was here that Mongol and Han people met to trade their goods.

It is a four-storied square tower, 30 meters high, measuring 320 meters around its base. The four storeys decrease in size towards the top and between each storey there is a staircase to enable the soldiers to ascend to the top. There was a watch shed at the top of the tower from where the soldiers could receive and send signals but this collapsed during the Qing period.

The tower has been well restored and is reputed to be "The First Tower of the Great Wall". A climb to the top provides visitors a panoramic view of the surrounding hills. The scene is one of desolation where vegetation is sparse and it is difficult to appreciate that this was once a scene of great activity. The deserts sands are slowly but surely swallowing up what little is left of the Wall. There are the ruins of two small fortresses near Zhen Bei Tai. They were both protection for market trading places during the Ming Dynasty.

A walk of one kilometer to the southwest from Zhen Bei Tai will take you to another site to visit - Hong Shi Xia (Red Rock Gorges). Inscriptions on the cliff face are very attractive.