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Wednesday, November 2, 2016, 10:34

Yanmen Fort helps Shanxi win the battle for its soul

By Sun Ruisheng and Ren Xiaojin in Datong
Yanmen Fort helps Shanxi win the battle for its soul
Yanmen Fort is renowned as the first gate of North China, where most ancient dynasties were located. (Photo by Sun Ruisheng / China Daily)

It's easy to get a certain impression of Shanxi if you've never been there, as the province's reputation goes before it. And that reputation has, for a long time, been bad.

With the growth of clean energy, however, the province is finally shedding its image as a coal-producing, polluting behemoth, and is rebuilding its economy through a long-neglected treasure: Its rich cultural heritage.

Standing on the outskirts of the city of Datong, Yanmen Fort, also known as Yanmen Pass, was the first frontier to separate the empire from nomadic tribes, and it performed this role from the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) onwards.

As the starting point of the Great Wall, it overlooked fierce battlefields for thousands of years, witnessing bloodshed, death and the birth of legends. In light of such a cruel history, it might seem strange to learn that the same fort is now a theme park showcasing Shanxi's spectacular culture and history.

The fort's name also has something of a romantic quality, despite its blood-soaked history.

"The name translates as 'wild goose door'", said local tour guide Wang Xiaohai. "Every year when the geese fly south in the autumn they will pass over this fort."

The steep path to the fort, called Frontier Trade Street, is lined on both sides with hostels and pubs furnished in the ancient manner, with locals selling products and souvenirs along the road. Performing troupes dressed in traditional local costumes entertain tourists with rousing renditions of Shanxi Opera, adding further spice to the local flavor.

Once you reach the fort, though, the scene changes dramatically, and instead of seeing a bustling, historical theme park, you are confronted by a vast, untouched wilderness.

As you overlook the hills and villages below, the strains of music and singing disappear, and are replaced by sound of the desolate wind that blows through the forests. You might also hear the honking of geese as they fly overhead.

There is little doubt that the history of the much-contested strategic pass, and the area that surrounds it, are big draw for travelers.

In the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127), the renowned warriors of the Yang family defended it against invading Qidan troops from the northern prairie.

These legendary warriors included the female members of the family, and visitors will see statues of some of them lining the pathway that leads to the scenic area. The story of these female warriors is known throughout China.

The pass consists of Yanmen Village, which is located at the foot of the pass, a barbican, and an enclosing wall.

The enclosing wall is more than five kilometers long, and is dotted with beacon towers. The barbican was built outside the north gate of Yanmen Village.

Shanxi's rich history and culture certainly amaze visitors, especially those who, prior to visiting, might have had certain preconceptions.

"I was truly amazed, as this was sheer history unfolding in front of my eyes," said Khyati Shah, a reporter from India after visiting Yanmen Fort. "One cannot help but feel transported to a bygone era in Chinese history."

Passing through time

In the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC), Zhao State first established Yanmen county in the region. When Emperor Qin (259–210 BC) reigned over the country, he gave orders for the construction of the Yanmen Pass to guard against the northern tribes. The pass has been bitterly contested ever since.

REN XIAOJIN

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