Far removed from China’s well-traversed urban centers sits Jiayuguan Fortress, a barren stronghold which guarded China’s far-flung eastern frontier from enemies and unknowns lurking in the west. The fortress sits at the base of a narrow valley and takes its name from one of the surrounding hills, the Jiayu. In ancient times, Jiayuguan served as a strategic military post, and the design of the fortress is a testament to the harshness of life along the fringes of China’s rugged exterior. The fortress is comprised of several concentric layers, which were designed to repel wandering bandits and national armies alike. An outer moat encircles the establishment, deterring attackers from launching a frontal assault. This defensive perimeter is followed by an outer wall lined with watchtowers, turrets and elevated pavilions, from which city defenders could easily launch projectiles and rain down upon assailant. The main city makes up the central nucleus of the fortress, and contains the largest buildings within the fortress, and it was here that the fortress’ inhabitants would spend most of their lives, maintaining an uneasy sense of normalcy which would be broken at any time by the sound of an approaching battalion.
Jiayuguan Fortress marks the tail end of the Great Wall, and the fortress was seen as the final outpost of civilization before entering the untamable and all-encompassing Gobi Desert. In the days of its original construction, the fortress also played host to a number of dissidents and political exiles who the emperor chose to banish rather than execute for political reasons. Looking out at the endless expanse atop one of Jiayuguan’s watchtowers, travelers are overcome with a feeling of vastness and desolation, and it takes no stretch of the imagination to see Jiayuguan as it was meant to be seen- as an uninviting stronghold selflessly staking a claim at the very edge of the inhabitable world.