Six hundred years ago the Chinese built a great fortress to mark the edge of their Empire and to prevent attacks by foreign invaders. This was Jiayuguan, the ”First and Greatest Pass Under Heaven” (天下第一雄关).
In 1368 the Han Chinese drove out their Mongol overlords and founded the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). They immediately set about arranging the defences of the empire so that they would not be threatened by foreign invaders again*. In 1372 the first Ming Emperor, Hongwu, ordered the building of a new fortress and rebuilding of a section of the Great Wall in order to block the main way into China from the North West.
The Hexi Corridor runs through the Gobi desert in Western Gansu Province and is the only easily travelable route between high mountain ranges. All the traffic along the Silk Roads and all invading armies passed along this way. The new fortress was built at the narrowest point of the Hexi Corridor, at its Western-most end. The fortress became known as Jiayu Pass or Jiayuguan. (To Chinese the word pass in this context refers both to the pass between the mountains and to the gateway that people had to “pass” through.)
After the fort was built, all traffic along the Silk Route for hundreds of years had to pass through Jiayuguan and it marked the absolute edge of China. Even when the later Qing dynasty (1644 – 1912) extended its control into what is now Xinjiang to the West, Jiayuguan still marked the edge of China proper, being the limit of civil administration, with everything beyond being controlled by a military governor.
The fortress today is the most complete existing example of a large-scale Ming fortification, though it has been subject to considerable restoration.
*In 1644, another group of foreigners would invade, this time from the North-East and would set up the Manchu Qing dynasty.
Boiarskii image courtesy of the World Digital Library