Jiayuguan Travel Guide

Written by Sally Guo Updated Oct. 13, 2021

The city of Jiayu ("Premier Valley") owes its origin to the famous guan, or pass, of the same name, i.e., Jia-yu-guan, located about 6 kilometers southwest of the present-day city of Jiayu. "In the beginning", as the saying goes, there was the pass that was manned by a military contingent. In time, simple inns designed to accommodate overnighting traders, or merchants, sprang up (the overland Silk Road trade had all but disappeared by this time, at least the bulk of it, though overland Silk Road trade between China and Central Asia would never cease, even if silk may long since have ceased to be the main commodity traveling westward from China to Central Asia).

These simple merchant accommodations eventually gave way to better and more permanent accommodations, and since overnighting guests require various goods and services, a community of requisite service personnel dedicated to serving the needs of the traveler settled in the vicinity of the pass, and they of course eventually required better and more permanent housing. All of this called for provisioning not only for the travelers but also for the service personnel who saw to their needs, so gradually, a small city arose as an auxiliary function of the pass.

Topography and Location of Jiayuguan

Both the pass and the city, which lie in a highland valley (the Jiayu Highlands, from whence both the pass and the city get their name) between Wenshushan (Mount Wenshu, Wenshu being the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, in Buddhism) and Heishan (Black Mountain), are of rather a recent date, relatively speaking (relative to the earlier, Han (BCE 206 - CE 220) Dynasty Great Wall that stretched all the way to Lake Lop (Lop Nur) in present-day Xinjiang (Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region)), since they stem from the Ming (CE 1368-1644) Dynasty period. Construction on the pass began namely in CE 1372, shortly after the Han Chinese rulers of the Ming Dynasty relieved the rulers of the Mongol Yuan (CE 1279-1368) Dynasty of power (the fear of marauding nomadic tribes from the north, remnants of the Mongol Empire, was apparently still fresh in the minds of the Han Chinese successors to the Mongol Yuan Dynasty, hence the need for the construction of the pass at Jiayu), while the city that arose "organically" in response to the needs of the itinerant merchants who overnighted at Jiayu seems to have had no fixed date of creation.

The city of Jiayu, lying near the western mouth of the Hexi Corridor, also lies in the Gobi Desert, with an arid climate characteristic of any desert, though the Gobi Desert is not without its lush parts. The Beida River flows just south of the city of Jiayu, while Lake Dong and several ponds dot the city itself, making Jiayu something of an oasis in the desert. Agricultural produce in the area includes wheat, maize, millet, buckwheat, beets, potatoes, sorghum (a high drought-resistant crop and therefore a local food staple for both humans and livestock), sesame, and tobacco. Livestock, as intimated, is also raised here, and includes sheep, goats, horses, cows, and even camels (camel safaris originating in nearby Dunhuang, located about 250 kilometers, as the crow flies, west-northwest of Jiayu, take visitors on a tour of the Gobi Desert, including a visit to Mingshashan ("Echoing-Sand Mountain")).

Though technically not a part of the city of Jiayu, the region's largest steel mill, Jiuquan Steel Company, is located in the old, Han Dynasty city of Jiuquan, situated less than 10 kilometers east-southeast of Jiayu. The region is rich in both iron ore and coal, so having a steel mill here makes eminently good sense.

In addition to its agricultural output and its steel production, the city of Jiayu and its environs are also home to several cottage industries that cater to tourism and to tourism-related exports, such as: the fabrication of so-called archaized carpets, or the production of carpets that are modeled after ancient patterns that have been handed down through the ages; the production of drinking vessels of phosphorescent jade that replicate the famous Zhou (BCE 1027-221) Dynasty Jiuquan Cups that were used by the royal court, both for official use and as presents for visiting dignitaries as well as for high-ranking government officials who merited special recognition; and finally, replicas of the famous murals of the Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang.

What to see in Jiayuguan

Being a young city in Silk Road terms, Jiayu doesn't have as many "stories" (i.e., legends, both of the historical and the mythological type) associated with it as do other Silk Road cities along the Hexi Corridor, and therefore there is something of a paucity of noteworthy tourist sites in and around Jiayu. That said, there are a few historical sites of very special interest, including the pass itself, Jiayuguan, which is not only one of the best-preserved but also one of the most exquisitely constructed sections of the Great Wall, is built of rammed earth (the base) and mud bricks (the upper section, including the crenelated ramparts), and in an elegant, timeless style that is reminiscent of the best, most exquisitely formed fortress walls of European castles (the fort's walls are trapezoidal, cross-sectionally, i.e., the wall's base is significantly wider than its top - click here). There are also the stunning landscapes of the Jiayu Highlands and the strange, moon-like (outer-space-like), blackened-stone surfaces of parts of the Gobi Desert beyond.

Other noteworthy sites in the vicinity of Jiayu include: the Fresco Tombs of the Wei and Jin Dynasties (i.e., of the Wei (CE 220-265) Kingdom of the Three Kingdoms (CE 220-280) Period and the Han Chinese Western (CE 265-316) and Eastern (CE 317-420) Jin Dynasties), aka the Xincheng Frescoes, located in Xincheng Township, Jiayu City (click here); the suspended section of the Great Wall, aka the Suspended Wall (click here), which section of the Great Wall is an extension of Jiayu Pass to the north, stretching across the valley between the Wenshu and the Hei Mountains (and note that though Jiayuguan is a pass in the sense of a gateway to the north, or an exit giving onto the Gobi Desert - in ancient times, corrupt local officials who were banished from the empire were said to have been expelled from the kingdom via Jiayu Pass - it is a fort in every other sense, and was used as such from its creation until late in the Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasty);

Jiayu is today a modern urban environment with wide, tree-lined boulevards, lush green parks, numerous housing, and building complexes - and even a few skyscrapers - interspersed with the usual shopping malls, tourist hotels, restaurants and cafées. Qinqiang Drama is the opera form that defines the cultural life of the city. A dozen or so ethnic groups live here, including Bonan (aka Bao'an), Dongxiang, Han, Hui, Koreans, Manchus, Mongols, Tibetans, Tu, Uyghurs, Yuga and Zhuang.

The best reason for visiting the city of Jiayu is, hands down, to see the pass, or fort, which is one of the most exquisite sections - if not THE most exquisite section - of the Great Wall (it is not for nothing that Jiayu Pass has been called the "First and Greatest Pass Under Heaven" - the keyword being "Greatest" - the "First Pass Under Heaven" being Shanhai Pass at the opposite end of the Great Wall, near the port city of Qinhuangdao in Hebei Province). Since Jiayu Pass was constructed at a much later date than most of the other sections of the Great Wall, it's constructors could take advantage of previous pitfalls and newly acquired knowledge in order to construct the perfect medieval fortress wall. Note that Jiayuguan has not been rebuilt - it was built to last when it was erected toward the end of the 14th century, and, thankfully, sieges of the type launched by the marauding Xiongnu and Mongol hordes of earlier eras was by that time all but a thing of the past, so Jiayu Pass bears few, if any, "battle scars".

Weather of Jiayuguan

Note that the weather here is rather arid (the meager amounts of rainfall are concentrated in the summer months), but gets cold in winter (the frost-free period is in fact only 160 days annually), with a minimum winter temperature of -21 degrees Celsius (-5.8 degrees Fahrenheit), while summer temperatures reach a maximum of 34 degrees Celsius (93 degrees Fahrenheit). Like all arid places that lack cloud cover, the diurnal (day-to-night) temperature swing is great here. The wind here can be strong as well, so layered clothing and a good supply of lip balm - as well as sunglasses and/or a hat, sun creams, etc., in summer - are a must at Jiayu. A pair of quality walking shoes, broken-in of course, for strolls along the Suspended Wall and the ramparts of Jiayu Pass is also highly recommended.


The ancient Han Limes is another name for the Han Dynasty Great Wall mentioned in the Han Dynasty historical records, remnants of which Great Wall can be found throughout northern China. Earlier, this set of ancient defenses was believed to have extended only as far as the Jade Gate (Yumen, or Yuman Pass as it is more commonly referred to today), located about 130 kilometers northwest of Jiayuguan and situated at the very mouth of the Hexi Corridor in northwestern Gansu Province. However, thanks to the work of the Hungarian-born British archeologist and university professor, Sir Marc Aurel Stein (1862-1943), the Han Limes were determined to have extended all the way to Lake Lop.

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