We spent a lot of time in a bus today driving from Zhangye Danxia Landform Geological Park (click here to read more) along the Hexi Corridor (I thought that they were saying “Hershey” until I saw it written if that helps you understand how it is pronounced. Fun fact: in Mandarin the “x” makes a soft “sh” sound.*) on the way to the Jaiyu Pass. What is so important about this pass you may be asking yourself. I will tell you.
Jia Ya Guan Fortress and the Western end of the Wall**.
Not to mention the only access to water in a thousand square miles. It is kind of a big deal.
The Great Wall of China and the Silk Road Collide
Let’s just take a moment to let the fact sink in that Jia Ya Guan Fortress is both the western starting point if the Ming dynasty version of the Great Wall of China (over a thousand miles from Beijing) but also a vital crossroads on the ancient Silk Road. The fortress and this section of the Wall don’t meet us anymore. The remains of the wall of south of the city center and the fortress is in the north.
It was built during the Ming Dynasty (like much of the Wall) around in the late 12th century. For hundreds of years it served as one of the greatest waypoints of the Silk Road. We were told that over 80% of the Jia Ya Guan Fortress was original. That it hasn't been restored. If that is true then the preservation has been incredible. Most of what we were walking around and on looked and felt new. Well, maybe not new but at least not ancient. The steps were even (unlike in the Great Wall of Beijing) and everything was level.
A different kind of Wall
The wall here looks completely different that the four other sections that I have seen in Beijing. In Beijing the Wall is built with smooth grey stone blocks and the gatehouses that jut up every hundred yards or so are built on square straight up and down lines. The wall in are sand colored, perfectly blending into the desert landscape they are traversing. The gatehouses are vaguely trapezoid shaped and have a much more central Asian feel to them. The wall extends all the way to the Beida River Gorge.
There is a small lake fed by a spring in front of the fortress forming an important oasis. Today is a magnet to for everyone who wants a picture of the fortress reflecting in it but it is the historical basis for its location. This spring fed lake along with the Beida River gave the Ming government almost total control of the water in the region. With no access to water it was impossible to an army of any size to attempt to take the Fortress/ invade China. It was strengthened at one point to deflect a the army of a war chief who basically died of old age while planning his invasion of China.
Visiting it now is a slightly jarring experience. There were thousands of people milling along the paths with us not to mention a few hundred actors in traditional costumes playing the part of soldiers marching around. But yet again, once you got to the top of the wall of the Fortress it was easy to imagine the world as it was a thousand years ago. The Gobi desert stretch’s in front of you impenetrable and you are flanked on either side by mountain ranges. It is as if the planet itself is funneling travelers to this one point. You can almost feel the relief of the Eastern bound travelers upon seeing the fortress or hold your breath in fearful anticipation with the Westward travelers about to go forth into the Gobi.
A note on crowds and Golden Week
Travelling in China isn’t usually this crowded. Unfortunately, one of the downsides to working in China is the fact that my breaks from teaching are exactly when the rest of the countries are as well. “Golden week” actually happens twice a year in China. Once during Spring Festival/ Chinese New Year and one for National Day (October first). Chinese workers are given three days of paid leave connected to a weekend so that everyone has seven days off. During Spring Festival most people return home to see their families in the countryside. During the National Day holiday, they travel. There are over 580 million people travelling during Golden Week this year. It makes the sheer numbers of people in the crowds make sense. Pro tip: Do not visit China at this time if you cannot handle crowds.
My husband and I ended our trip by walking a bit into the desert, past the crowds, past the camels carrying tourists, and looking out into the distance as if we could see the echoes of those long ago traders.
*I realized that it is dangerous to throw out 90% of one’s entire knowledge of a language into one blog post but I am reckless like that.
**the fort is transliterated about 10 different ways. I am using the spelling my friend Hunter gave me because he is Chinese, is teacher of Mandarin, and speaks excellent English. Let’s all just agree that the spelling is debatable and move on.