Shuidonggou (水洞沟)

Visit of Shuidonggou (水洞沟 Water Cave Channel) located on the southwestern edge of the Ordos Desert

The program indicated a « Visit to Shuidonggou if time allows »! We left Pingluo later than planned and as result the visit by bus to Shuidonggou was about to be cancelled when a few of us insisted to go. When asked why to go there I could only say that I knew that Teilhard de Chardin wrote his “Mass on the World”  when he was in Inner Mongolia but I never heard about Shuidonggou before reading it in the Programme I only knew the existence of Zhoukoudian where the Peking man was found in December 1929 by Wenzhong Pei.

The day before I had tried to find out more about this site but since google is not accessible in China it was not easy. I only found one comment on http://gochina: “Of all the Ningxia sites we visited, this one was the most over-rated and is not really worth the trip” but I added that if one is interested in Teilhard de Chardin I cannot imagine missing this opportunity.

Most of the participants gave preference in visiting the town rather than travelling again to another spot. Four of us took the risk and went by taxi to Shuidonggou. Short after having left the city behind us and crossed the yellow river the landscape changed totally and we entered in a much industrialised area which extended as far as we could see.

shuidonggou 1

When travelling to Xiwanzi and beyond we had already seen to our surprise vast infrastructures being built such as High Speed Train Rails, Modern Highways etc. which are not at all commensurate to the needs of the local population living there now. We found out that the Central Government decided to transfer industrial activities from over-industrialised places in China to these underdeveloped areas thereby creating employment and thus attracting people to settle.

Around Shuidonggou coal lies only centimetres beneath the surface of the earth resulting in the setting-up of huge mining activities that have transformed the classical desert landscape into an industrial desert with artificial hills and valleys. When our taxi drove between giant trucks we started to have doubts on what we would find at Shuidonggou! (fig 1) A few kilometres further the taxi dropped us on a large parking slot in front of a big complex: the museum of Shuidonggou.(fig 2)

This brand new museum opened its doors only in 2011. The museum is mainly focused on Palaeolithic artefacts excavated in and around Shuidonggou by Emile Licent (1876 – 1952) and Teilhard de Chardin (1881 – 1955) in the mid-1920s. Licent, a french jesuist  discovered the site thanks to a belgian missionary F. Schotte who had found in 1919 some 5 km east of Shuidonggou the crane of a woolly rhinoceros who lived there during the last glacial period.

The museum gives a very good overview not only of the activities carried out in de mid 1920s but also over later discoveries. It gives moreover a didactic overview of the evolution of tools used by man over time such knives and axes.

Walking down to whatshuidonggou2 was once a river bed we passed by a small new building supposed to be built in a similar style as the one where Teilhard and Licent stayed. In front of house are from left to right the bust
of Emile Licent, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Pei Wenzhong (1904- 1982) and Jia Lanpo (1908 – 2001) (fig 3).

There used to beshuidonggou 3 the Shuidonggou River crossing the site but with the water being used for industry there is almost no water left. When walking through the river bed it seems that we are in the middle of nowhere but seen from above we see the contrast between past and present; just a few hundred meters away the horizon is filled with high voltage power lines and chimneys from coal energy plants. (fig 4)

With a little bit of imagination and a certain inclination for romanticism I now have a better sense of the first paragraph of the – messe sur le monde – : « Puisque,  une fois encore, Seigneur, non plus dans les forêts de l’Aisne, mais dans les steppes d’Asie, je n’ai ni pain, ni vin, ni autel, je m’élèverai par-dessus les symboles jusqu’à la pure majesté du Réel, et je vous offrirai, moi votre prêtre, sur l’autel de la Terre entière, le travail et la peine du Monde. »

Contrary to Zhoukoudian were human presence was found in caves and thus in a certain sense limiting the search area here excavations are made in layers (terraces) of sandy-loess, gravel and allushuidonggou 4vial sediments of the banks of the river ranging over many kilometers as shown on the drawing made by Teilhard. (fig 5) After a short walk we arrived at an excavation site clearly showing the different terraces starting with the youngest to the oldest.(fig 6)

The Shuidonggou Palaeolithic site includes some 12 different locations, ranging in date from Early Late Palaeolithic to Late Palaeolithic. Excavations are still on-going in some of these places and recently thanks to new technologies artefacts found in earlier excavations were analysed and lead to the discovery of an engraved stone artefact some 30.000 years old. Shuidonggou was one of the first Palaeolithic sites to be explored and is therefore often referred to as the “Cradle of Chinese prehistoric archaeology”.

shuidonggou 5

When we bought our admission ticket we realised that there was much more to visit besides the Palaeolithic excavations. There is in particular the Great Wall, beyond which lies Inner Mongolia, built during the Ming Dynasty.  There used to be along the Great Wall temples for the local people or the troops to make offers to some deities such as the Mountain God or Land God. Here at Shuidonggou there was till the 1980s a temple devoted to the Mountain God but there remains only a drum shaped stone flag holder which stood in front of the temple.

The Great Wall site also comprises caves where the troops would live and hide but we hadn’t the time to visit those.

When driving back to Yinchuan we talked about what we have seen and concluded that it was really worth going there.