Travel Guide

The Grand Jiayuguan Pass


For thousands of years, Jiayuguan was a wild, inhospitable place where the Wenshushan and the Heishan pushed in like a closing jaw on the western end of the Hexi corridor. Just 17 kilometres wide, with a deep gorge running through it from east to west, the flat plain was the entrance to the civilization of China, a narrow pass from the great plains and deserts of the Taklimakan, to the heavily farmed Chinese oases below the Qilianshan mountains.
A single dusty track, three feet wide, led outfrom the final oasis of Jiuquan, eventually splitting to lead either south-west to Dunhuang, Khotan and the Hindu Kush, or north-west to Hami, the Tianshan and the Parthian lands beyond. Jiuquan, the last oasis in China, was not easily defendable, so a fortress was built during the Han dynasty on a point where the whole 17 kilometres could be seen. It is, in fact, the only point where the whole distance can be observed. It was a lonely spot for the soldiers who were sent here to guard China's front door and was considered almost a point of exile for the generals sent to command them.
Founded during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD), there was originally just the Fort here, built onto an existing watchtower and completed in 1372. With primitive working tools it took thousands of laborers dozens of years to complete the project. Goats, and even ice, were used to convey building materials to the site. With completion, the fort became the strategic end of the Great Wall, demarcating the apparently advanced east from the allegedly desolate and dangerous west. Many Chinese still feel this way today, even after the completion of the Gansu Expressway.
The town itself grew up around this Fort, thriving from both its protection and location on the Silk Road. Nowadays, however, the town has lost much of its charm, bisected by main roads, including the expressway, and plagued by uninteresting buildings. Most of the sights that tourists will want to see are out of the city, so that the only plus side to stay in the place are views of the snow-capped mountains surrounding it.