Peril at the Edge of the World

August 7 – Jiayuguan, Gansu Province

The edge of the empire.

To the west, ahead of us, lay the vast wasteland of the western deserts. To the east, behind us, civilization.

We stood atop the west gate of Jiayuguan fortress, looking out at the sands and mountains beyond. Through this gate, disgraced officials and scholars, poets and criminals walked out of the Chinese empire, banished into the wastes, most never to return.

To the west, ahead of us, lay the vast wasteland of the western deserts. To the east, behind us, civilization.

To the west, ahead of us, lay the vast wasteland of the western deserts. To the east, behind us, civilization.

Known as the “First and Greatest Pass under Heaven”, Jiayuguan is the most intact ancient military fort along the Great Wall of China. Located at the narrowest point of the Hexi Corridor – China’s throat – it was the first pass at the western end of the Ming Great Wall. Built in the late 1300s, its purpose was to protect China’s heartland from the “barbarians”, and for centuries it served as a key chokepoint along the Silk Road.

The fortress is massive: Concentric walls 11 meters high and 733 meters in diameter enclose an area of 33,500 square meters.  The walls, turreted at each corner, connect to the Great Wall and the northern and southern sides.

But where before those walls garrisoned China’s westernmost armies, today they garrison a tourist trap.

Dancers, juggles, face changers, and contortionists abounded. Camels waited for passengers. Dune buggies hummed out into the waste. And overhead some kind of lawnmower-powered hang glider buzzed the tops of the gatehouses.

The hang glider was omnipresent.

The hang glider was omnipresent.

Even when I found a quiet spot on a corner tower, it was all a bit much. The hang glider just wouldn’t go away.

So we circled the walls and headed for the Great Wall instead.

The western Great Wall little resembles its eastern cousin that climbs the shrubby hills outside of Beijing. Shorter and narrower than the famed gray stone wall, the western wall’s local-materials construction makes it a sandy brown mud structure, bonded together with straw. It follows the jagged curvature of the Gansu hills, making use of the local terrain to reinforce its defensive purpose.

We climbed the stairs of the open-to-tourists section to the topmost tower. From the roof, the purpose of the wall is clear: It commands hundreds of empty kilometers of flat, dead plains. Now, nuclear power plants dot the distance, but in the 16th century, no invading army could get even consider approaching the wall without raising the alarm and calling the garrison out from Jiayuguan.

From the tower, though, we spied something else: The dusty remains of skeletal pagodas dotting the steep and shifty hilltops around us. We had to investigate.

Picking our way along the treacherous, crumbling rocks, we wound along the hillsides passing whimsical shapes built by people who’d come before us with collections of the desert stones. We tried to convince ourselves that a fall down the jagged side wouldn’t be all that bad. In places, the trail narrowed to barely a boots width, sloping downward into the space below.

Periodically Matt would insist we go no further. As the man with the most mountaineering experience in our band, that should’ve given us pause. But Dave and I pushed ahead, dragging Matt, muttering this and that about “dangerous” and “hate” and “unstable traverses”, behind us.

At last we reached the splintering pagoda, robed in faded and unravelling prayer flags. Two other pagodas capped hills just below us. Between them, more lines of once-colorful prayer flags stretched like a cobwebs above decrepit temple buildings at the hill base.

To our north the Great Wall slithered up the peak from which we’d come. To the south, it slithered down another hill, then ran rail straight across the empty plain, out to the commanding Jiayuguan fortress, then disappeared into the desert over the horizon.

The Great Wall snakes along the hills, then connects with Jiayuguan in the distance.

The Great Wall snakes along the hills, then connects with Jiayuguan in the distance.

We snapped a few photos, then ambled and slid down to the peeling monastery.

A lone nun, bald and grey clad and trailed by a shaggy malamute, scuffled along among the sand-blasted buildings.

Then we had our closest call of the trip.

As we walked out of the monastery, Dave spied a trashcan for his empty water bottle. Nearby, a tiny mongrel of a dog lay asleep on the sidewalk. As Dave approached the trashcan, the dog lifted its head just a little, but when the bottle clanged to the bottom of the metal bin, he transformed into a demon.

With a snarl he tore from his resting place, flinty eyes locked on Dave’s ankles. With a yelp, Dave slung the bag off his back, wielding it like half like medieval flail, half like shield to keep the dog at bay. Whichever way Dave turned, the dog spun faster, yipping hatred all the way. Each time Dave turned to run, the dog was on at his ankles, forcing Dave to swing around once more and bring his baggy weapon to bear.

Matt and I looked on in horror and delight, flinching backward each time the dog spun closer us, unsure whether to gape or flee. Finally, with something of a strangled battle cry, Dave saw his opening and bolted toward us. On the tiny demon came, still, and the three of us sprinted around a copse of trees, dog in pursuit.  At last, Dave’s foe relented and broke off growling while we broke into nervous laughter as the terror faded into shame.

“Man,” Dave said, trying to recover some bit of his pride. “I just do not want to get a rabies shot in China.”

Dave retreats.

Dave retreats.