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Archaeological Travel Guide to the Jiucaigou Pass, a Ming dynasty-era stretch of the Great Wall that runs through Ningxia’s Helan Mountains.


Fast Facts

Name: Jiucaigou Pass of the Great Wall | 韭菜沟

Where: Shizuishan, Ningxia, China

Location: 39.06915, 106.35469

Description: Jiucaigou is a stretch of the Great Wall built by the Ming dynasty along their northern border with the hostile Tengger Desert.

Getting there: Take a taxi from the Shizuishan Bus Station (or anywhere else in the city) Wudang Temple for around 30 RMB. Go down the stairs to the right of the temple and turn left on the paved road. Walk for about 30 minutes until you reach the second army gate, and turn right. A gravel path leads uphill to the ruins of the Great Wall.

Cost: Free


It was the first encounter with the Great Wall of China for both of us – a famed archaeological monument undoubtedly on my bucket list and a timeless piece of national pride from hers. Tucked away in the mountains of Central China, far from the fame and photographs of Beijing’s Great Wall, we were hiking up to Ningxia’s Jiucaigou Pass. 

The Jiucaigou Pass / 韭菜沟 of the Great Wall was built in the Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644 CE). This mudbrick and rammed earth section in the Helan Mountains guarded the relatively fertile Yinchuan valley to the south from Inner Mongolia to the north. Today, much of the Jiucaigou Great Wall has since eroded away.

This article will overview the history of Ningxia’s Jiucaigou Great Wall, my own experience visiting, and the information you need to visit for yourself.

The Story of the Jiucaigou Great Wall

Ningxia and its sections of the Great Wall of China are somewhat unique among the mostly east-west orientation from the coast to Jiayuguan. Because of its geography and history of invasion from nomadic tribes to the north, the Ming dynasty choses to divert the Great Wall northward to fortify this narrow stretch of the Yellow River Valley and protect it from future invasion.

An Introduction to the Great Wall of China

The Great Wall of China is one of those spectacles of humanity that we hear so much about growing up that facts and images will often distort the truth of it. When people think of the Great Wall and tall tales of it being seen from space, the wall they are thinking of is likely this:

Severin.stalder, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

And while this is the Great Wall, it is simply one small stretch of a much, much larger construction project spanning many centuries and dynasties. In actuality, the Great Wall is not one continuous construction, but a series of progressive sections of walls built by numerous rulers as a mostly unsuccessful effort to barricade their territory.

Throughout the centuries, construction methods and quality varied and the toll time has taken shows in many of the more obscure stretches. The most commonly seen photos of the Great Wall are from locations in close proximity to Beijing in the northeastern reaches of the country. These are the large stones and ornately defined watchtowers snaking their way through the green, sometimes snow-covered mountains.

The wall continues several thousand kilometers inland from Liaoning’s coastal region, with its farthest reaches lying in Gansu province. These stretches further inland became neglected as the coastal cities continued to flourish. And those whose construction was mostly compressed mud with the occasional outer stone coverings began to erode away into often-unrecognizable mounds of dirt lining the northern reaches of China.

The Ming Dynasty Great Wall

Main article: Cultural Profile: Ming Dynasty, Retaking and Reviving Ancient China

While the Great Wall had been built over many centuries of Chinese dynasties since the Qin dynasty (and to some extent before then), all construction and maintenance of the Great Wall ceased during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368 CE). This is understandable when, in context, the rulers of the Yuan dynasty were the Mongol people — one of the nomadic hordes that the Great Wall had been built to defend China against.

In the 14th Century, as the Ming rulers retook China and drove out the reigning Mongol-led Yuan dynasty, they did so with a highly Han Chinese-centric worldview. While the Yuan dynasty, which had embraced international trade and multiculturalism within China, the Ming dynasty was founded largely around the idea of Chinese nationalism.

Ming China maintained a very high degree of foreign trade, but they also entered a new age of relative isolationism within their borders. This included expanding into many regions that had previously been home to non-Han Chinese ethnic groups, particularly in the south. If these groups would not submit to Ming power, they were subsequently overwhelmed with force or even exterminated — as was the case with the Bo people of Sichuan and Yunnan.

However, chief among the Ming dynasty’s policies of reestablishing Han dominance over China was taking up the task of their ancestors in fortifying their homeland against foreign powers, particularly in the north. This resulted in hundreds of kilometers of the Great Wall being either rebuilt or newly constructed.

Most of the Great Wall that is visible today, including the most famous and photographed stretches near Beijing and the far west at Jiayuguan, the fortification that granted entry into China, were built by the Ming dynasty.

Ningxia’s Geography and the Jiucaigou Pass Great Wall

Shizuishan and Ningxia's Yellow River Valley as seen from Jiucaigou Pass
Shizuishan and Ningxia’s Yellow River Valley as seen from Jiucaigou Pass

Jiucaigou Pass is located in the Helan Mountains, which run north-south and form a high, natural boundary between two radically different environments. On the east side of the mountain range is an arable, though arid, region where modern Ningxia province (Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region) is located. 

On the west side of the Helan mountains is the Tengger Desert, a southern extension of the Gobi Desert that is extremely dry and little more than sand in all directions. The Helan Mountains combined with this desert make for a formidable natural barrier to Ningxia, from the northwest. 

Historically, the area of Ningxia has been inhabited by agricultural settlements, culminating in the Xi Xia dynasty (from which Ningxia gets its name). However, the area was always bordered on the north by generations of nomadic cultures. These two conflicting cultural styles came to a head in 1209 and 1227, when Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire crossed into the region and completely wiped out the Tangut people.

Several centuries later, when the Mongol Yuan dynasty had been ousted and replaced by the Ming dynasty, the new rulers sought to prevent this from happening again. They recognized, as historian John Man puts it, that the ‘fertile thumb’ of Ningxia sticking north into the desert would make a strategic location for a beachhead to conduct continued raids into Chinese territory. 

To prevent this, Man explains in his book The Great Wall, they made fortifying the narrow north-south habitable area of Ningxia a priority. This meant diverting the traditional east-west routes of the wall northward through the Helan Mountains, resulting in stretches like that seen at Jiucaigou Pass. 

The Mings further secured this Ningxia territory with a new fortified settlement called Zhenbeibao, which was located near Ningxia’s modern capital, Yinchuan. This fort lasted for several centuries during the Ming rule, but was badly damaged in an earthquake in 1739. The Ming’s successors, the Qing dynasty, built a new fortification to serve the same purpose Zhenbeibao. 

Today, both of these forts have been turned into the Zhenbeibu China West Film Studio, a location where many films set in ancient or medieval China have been filmed. It is also a major tourist attraction in Ningxia, however, I didn’t get the chance to visit during my trip there.

My Visit to the Jiucaigou Great Wall

With so many parts of the Great Wall dotting the northern landscapes of China, I was certainly bound to track one down sooner or later. So, nearly two years after arriving in China, I made it a point to finally see the Wall on a trip to Ningxia. According to independent researcher Dr. Ben (no relation), there are 5 areas in Ningxia where significant ruins of the Great Wall can be found. 

A flight from Chongqing brought us into Yinchuan – the first stop on our trip to Northern China. From here, Ida and I opted for a bus trip north to Shizuishan, a town along the northern edge of the relatively fertile valley that skirts the Helan Mountains and Yellow River of Ningxia. Next to the bus stop was a random tourist trap that we had seen in a magazine at our Yinchuan guest house, the Hill of Chinese Stones. 

After a less-than-impressive experience there, we were back on a bus and headed into town for lunch. 

Shizuishan and the Wudang Temple

The new highrise skyline of Shizuishan when we got off the bus
The new highrise skyline of Shizuishan when we got off the bus

The Jiucaigou Great Wall (also known as the Dawukou Great Wall) is located in the Dawukou district of Shizuishan, a small city about 1 hour north of Yinchuan, Ningxia’s capital. We caught the fast bus from the Yinchuan Tourist Bus Station on East Shanghai Road (Shanghaidong Lu) for 28 RMB each. 

Shizuishan is quiet, but one of the nicer small towns I visited during my time in China. It sits right at the base of the Helan Mountains in an otherwise industrial area of Ningxia. Once in Shizuishan, flagging down a red taxi is easy, and all will know North Wudang Temple (北武当庙), one of the city’s biggest attractions.

The North Wudang Temple is a Buddhist temple at the northern edge of Shizuishan and where the main roads into the Helan Mountains begin.

The North Wudang Temple on the northern end of Shizuishan
The North Wudang Temple on the northern end of Shizuishan

We skipped the temple and instead went down the stairs on the right side of the temple entrance and where we found a paved road heading into the mountains. This leads all the way to the wall. In fact, according to people we spoke to later on, it led all the way to the neighboring Inner Mongolia (not actually true, though).

The Hike to the Jiucaigou Great Wall

The first group of abandoned military buildings you'll pass on the way to the Jiucaigou Great Wall
The first group of abandoned military buildings you’ll pass on the way to the Jiucaigou Great Wall

Within about 5 minutes of walking, you’ll pass through an abandoned stockyard of the People’s Liberation Army. The sight of this made my Chinese companion a little wary, yet there is no sign or gate barring entry. Once on the other side, you will begin seeing signs of the old Great Wall. Atop the mountains in the distance, whether straight ahead or far to your right, you’ll notice a seemingly trapezoidal shape atop the low peaks. This is a watchtower and the first ruin of the Great Wall you’ll see.

Although the road leads into the mountains, the slope of the hike is not a difficult one. Once past the military stockyards, you’ll be walking on a relatively flat paved road alongside a dried riverbed. Curiously, there are faded signs warning against swimming. Although rain is scarce in Ningxia, it’s likely when it does come, this is one of the areas it will drain off the mountains, certainly a dangerous prospect for swimming.

Further up, the road begins curving around the increasing peaks, showing signs of further development, both modern and ancient. In the eroded ravine were numerous small structures built to control the flow of runoff water so as not to overwhelm the road. 

Built into numerous mountainsides were curious arched doorways surrounded by bricks. At first, we thought these were tunnels through the mountains, but I later found out they are actually air defense caves for the antiquated military facilities in the area.

Another checkpoint bearing the faded yellow and red stars of the People’s Liberation Army may throw some off, however, the gates looked as if they hadn’t been closed in a long time. 

Further reading in the time since has confirmed this, with the former military facilities now serving as a recreational and wildlife area. At the time of our visit, we were passed by recreational cyclists, which eased any nerves we might have had. 

After this checkpoint, there are a couple of smaller roads that split off. However, the way to the wall is to continue on the main road.

Arriving at the Jiucaigou Great Wall

Pointing the turnoff from the main road with the final abandoned military checkpoint in the background
Pointing the turnoff from the main road with the final abandoned military checkpoint in the background
Ida pointing to the gravel path leading up to the Great Wall ruins
Ida pointing to the gravel path leading up to the Great Wall ruins

Following a few more curves in the road, a clearly artificial and long stretch of the wall finally came into view on one of the hilltops. A gravel path going into the hills leads all the way to the wall ruins, about 400 meters away.

As we left the road, a group of men was working about halfway up the hill. They greeted us with a friendly wave and asked to take photos with us. Although it wasn’t clear what they were working on, it looked like a feature to help control water heading further up into the mountains, possibly for the later tourism facilities that would be opening.

A little further up at the sparse hill, we reached a spot where these men had placed their equipment. In the shade underneath one of the hill’s few trees, they were keeping several shovels and two containers of drinking water, a necessity in this dry environment.

At the top of the hill is the ridge where the Great Wall was built. Although only the heavily eroded core of the mudbrick and rammed fortifications remain, the distinct shape of the wall and its associated watchtowers are immediately recognizable.

Underneath the eroded brickwork that made up the majority of the wall was a base of rough, sharp stones that ran through most of the visible length. They were used to level out the lower parts of the ridge so the wall could be built at a consistent height. Although it looked as if this would not be a suitable method of stabilizing the wall constructed above, it had apparently done so for several hundred years.

A few small parts of the wall were broken, allowing Ida and (and I suppose any other nomadic invaders) to go through to the other side. This south-facing side quickly gave way to a steep downward slope leading back to Shizuishan and providing a fantastic panorama of the plains below.


Our last view of the Jiucaigou Wall and watchtowers on the walk back
Our last view of the Jiucaigou Wall and watchtowers on the walk back

The afternoon was winding down as Ida and I began our walk back into Shizuishan. Despite the dry August heat in the daytime, by 4pm, it was starting to quickly cool down. It took us a little over a half hour to get back to North Wudang Temple. 

Several red taxis were waiting just past the gated entrance to the temple. We hopped in one to go to the Shizuishan bus station to return to our hostel in Yinchuan. 

About halfway to the station, we had a curious conversation with the taxi driver. Peering back through the rearview mirror, he asked in Chinese if we were Arabic tourists. With Islam being the largest religious demographic in Ningxia and Ida fully covered in a white shawl, the question was amusing but also made some sense.

Our taxi back to the Shizuishan bus station
Our taxi back to the Shizuishan bus station

A couple of hours later, we were back in Yinchuan getting ready for our departure the next morning for Shapotou.

How to Get to Jiucaigou Great Wall

GPS Coordinates: 39.06915, 106.35469

Shizuishan as seen from North Wudang Temple
Shizuishan as seen from North Wudang Temple

The Jiucaigou Great Wall (also known as the Dawukou Great Wall) is located in the Dawukou district of Shizuishan, a small city about 1 hour north of Yinchuan, Ningxia’s capital. We caught the fast bus from the Yinchuan Tourist Bus Station on East Shanghai Road (Shanghaidong Lu) for 28 RMB each. 

Once in Shizuishan, flagging down a red taxi is easy, and all will know North Wudang Temple (北武当庙), one of the city’s biggest attractions. When you finish with the temple (or simply decide to skip it), go down the stairs on the right (east) side of the temple entrance and you’ll see a paved road heading into the mountains. 

This paved road leads all the way to the wall into a recently created ecological park and passes several abandoned military buildings. The hike is about 2.9 km/1.8 miles overall (2.5 km/1.5 miles on the road 400 m/1300 feet on a gravel path to the wall) and is relatively easy.

The road to the Jiucaigou Great Wall
The road to the Jiucaigou Great Wall

And, while it looks like it might lead all the way to neighboring province of Inner Mongolia, the road only continues for a short distance (1 km) after the area where the Great Wall section is accessible.

Fast Facts

Glossary

Great Wall 万里长城
Fortifications and defensive barriers built along China’s northern border beginning in the Warring States Period and continuing through the Ming dynasty.

Helan Mountains 贺兰山 
Small mountain range between the Tengger Desert and the Yellow River in China’s Ningxia province.

Inner Mongolia 内蒙古
Province in the north of China designated as an autonomous Mongolian region. The territory is made up primarily of steppe and the Gobi Desert.

Ming dynasty 大明
The ruling dynasty of China from 1368-1644 CE. Ming doctrine was characterized by isolationist policies and focus on internal matters and expansion.

Mongol Empire
The largest contiguous empire in human history founded by the conquests of Genghis Khan in 1206.  1294. By its end in 1294, the Mongol Empire had broken into 4 political entities: the Yuan dynasty, the Chagatai Khanate, the Ilkhanate, and the Golden Horde.

Mongols
Nomadic ethnic group native to the steppe north of China

Ningxia 宁夏
Province in the north of China designated as an autonomous Hui ethnic region. The territory is made up primarily of the arid Yellow River valley and surrounded by the Helan Mountains.

People’s Liberation Army (PLA)
The military operated by the ruling Communist Party of China and, by extension, the Chinese national government. It serves as the principal military force of China.

Tengger Desert 腾格里沙漠
A very dry desert located primarily in China’s Inner Mongolia province.

Silk Road
A vast trade network connecting China to India, the Middle East, and Europe through Central Asia that was responsible for the intercultural spread of goods and ideas. Although trade began along these routes prior to the Qin dynasty, it began flourishing during the Han dynasty when they secured the Hexi Corridor.

Xi Xia 西夏
A Tangut kingdom located in northwestern China from 1038–1227 CE notable for its beehive-pyramidal royal tombs. In 1227, they were exterminated by the Mongol Empire for refusing tribute to Genghis Khan. Also known as the Tangut Empire or Western Xia dynasty. 

Yuan dynasty 大元
The ruling dynasty of China from 1271-1368 CE. Yuan was founded after the Mongol conquest of China and continued expansion of their territory.

Sources 

Benjamin Williams

Hi all, my name is Ben. I’m a native Michigander with a passion for human culture and new places, and more than that, new experiences. I have degrees in archaeology and writing, pursuing a career in the latter. However, I never quite lost that fascination for archaeological theory. For the past 11 years, I’ve been living and travelling between Asia, Europe, and North America, documenting ancient sites and the peoples who built them, and then adapting them into practical archaeological travel information at PathsUnwritten.com. https://pathsunwritten.com/about-me/

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