In Through Shên-Kan, between December 16 and 17, 1908, the Clark
expedition stayed two nights in Majiagou, six miles west of Yanchuan
County; departing on the 18th, they passed Wenan Yi, Yuju, Tuojiacha,
Yanmenguan Pass, Luojiawan and stayed in Gangu Yi in Yanshui Valley.
Yanmenguan Pass, mentioned here, is not the well-known Yanmenguan
Pass in Daixian in Shanxi, but the less well-known one in the mountains of
northern Shaanxi. It is located in the southwest of Yanchuan, at the junctions
of Yan’an, Yanchuan and Yanchang, 1,251 meters above sea level and on the
watershed of the Xigou River, a tributary of the Yanhe and Xianhe rivers.
In my three explorations of Yanmenguan Pass, I only successfully completed
the trip once.
According to the “History of the Ming Dynasty”, “Annals of Yan’an Fu”
and “Records of Place Names in Shaanxi Province”, the pass was built in
the Tang Dynasty, initially being named the Heling Guan Pass and then
renamed Heyuguan Pass in the Song and Yuan Dynasties. In the 30th year
of the Ming Jiajing period (1551), it was rebuilt and the name changed to
Yanmenguan Pass, also known as Chantiling. It was an important gate on the
ancient post road from Xi’an to Yulin in the Ming Dynasty and a strategic
pass from Gangu Yi to north Wenan Yi.
The Chantiling Pass is like a funnel. There is an abandoned path
northwards, leading in the direction of Wenan Yi and to the south are two
roads, one leading southwest towards Tangping village in Gangu Yi and the
other in the direction of Yanchang. Now, the G210 national highway from
Gangu Yi passes through the Lucao Liang tunnel and directly connects with
Wenan Yi. Therefore, the ancient post road and Yanmenguan Pass have
retired from regular use.
My first exploration of Yanmenguan Pass was in March 2009, and when I
drove to the foot of the hill, I discovered the road was blocked by tree trunks
and jujube tree branches. I attempted to clear the way and then suddenly a
few howling dogs were running towards me and I had to abandon the effort.
One month later, on April 11, I made my second trip. Having learned my
lesson, I specifically invited Su Jianguo, a member of my host family in
Gangu Yi to be my guide. He had been to Yanmenguan Pass when he was
young, though had not been back for many years. When we arrived, the road
at the foot of the hill was still blocked. Su got out of the car and removed the
branches while, in thoughtful silence, the dogs observed us from a distance. I
decided they only knew how to bully strangers! Later that year in September,
when I went there with the CCTV film crew, we failed to reach the top
because a large area was now blocked with loess landslides. So in my three
explorations, this was the only occasion I successfully completed the trip.
Driving along the dirt road, we wound our way up to the plateau, which
is about 240 meters in elevation; a few forks had appeared on this winding
and narrow mountain road but Su’s experience prevailed and we were able
continue in the right direction without any detours. My watch showed 10:30
as the road ended and there the mist in front of us was Yanmenguan Pass
and two beacon towers, just a short walking distance away. It had rained
the night before and there were a few scattered clouds remaining. Watching
them drift above us, the flowers and trees occasionally darkened by their
shadows, it was as if we were in distant and magical land.
Among the ruins in the pass is the Chantiling Tunnel, nearly three
meters high, two meters wide, and eleven meters in length, and resembling
a deep gate. There are two cone-shaped, rammed-earth beacon towers on
its southeast and northwest sides, about 260 meters apart. To the southeast
of the tunnel is the rectangular shaped Yanmenguan Pass. The wall of this
pass is also rammed-earth loess and the residual height exceeds one meter.
Statues of seven goddesses are enshrined inside the Kangzheng temple.
There is a brick arch in the west wall, about two meters in height, width, and
depth. Here is Kangzheng Temple, also known as Shamen Temple, founded
in the Ming Dynasty, now covered with overgrown weeds and the home
of scurrying rabbits. Inside the temple are enshrined the once worshipped
statues of seven goddesses.
A stone tablet from the Ming Dynasty rests
on one wall. The script is blurred and vaguely reads as six edicts by theEmperor Zhu Yuanzhang: filial piety to parents; respect for the elderly;
harmony with colleagues; education of descendants; management of one’s
life; good behavior. There are a few other stone inscriptions from the Ming
and Qing Dynasties but most of them are damaged or weathered and have
I spent two hours looking around the ruins and enjoying the sunny day; the
trip had been really worthwhile. It was the Clark expedition that had led me to
this place — and all because a hundred years ago they twice passed this way.
Unfortunately, I could not find any original photos from here. Perhaps
the weather was too cold; the lowest temperature measured at 7:00 a.m
on the morning of December 18, 1908 in Majiagou was 11.5 ° F (-11.4
°C). They had covered 40 kilometers over the mountains in one day. Some
pheasant were observed and thirteen pigeons were shot. It was possible, of
course, that they did not take pictures.
The second occasion they came here was on August 26, 1909, on their
return journey. They left Gangu Yi in the morning arriving at Majiagou in
the evening. The distance they covered and the places they stayed at were
exactly the same as their outward journey in winter. However, this time it
was the height of summer: a mule fell dead because of the intolerable heat.
Only one photograph has been found of that day, “Hillside with temple” (the
picture and a detailed description can be seen in Chapter Four, p. 221).
There are several beacon towers standing on the top of the hills around
the site of Yanmenguan Pass. Among them are Lüjiahe beacon, Tuojiacha
beacon and Fanjiagou beacon in the north; Shijiahe and Luojiawan beacons
in the southwest, their positions paralleling the ancient post road.
On September 3, 1991, the historical sites of Chantiling Tunnel and the
ancient Yanmenguan Pass were announced as key protection areas by the
People’s Government of Yanchuan County.
It is worth noting that originally the only way to the area was on foot.
Now, a wealth of oil reserves has been discovered underground in the area of
Yanmenguan Pass. A new road has been built and a work site constructed.
In the near future, there will no longer be quietness here. With rows of
pumping units (known as “kowtow machines”) working around the clock to
extract their underground treasure, the heritage conservation policy will face