The Great Wall of China is so long that it is hard to imagine a beginning.
In the west, Jiayuguan marks one end, standing on the natural defensive barrier of a steep-gorged river and guarding entry to the Hexi Corridor. Jiayuguan (meaning Excellent Valley Pass) has a fierce reputation among Chinese people. It was once the place from which those who had offended the emperor would be sent into exile: the end of the world.
Given how much effort went into the Great Wall to defend China from the “barbarians”, one can imagine it must have been a terrifying prospect to be sent out among them, even leaving aside the inhospitable landscape of desert and peaks.
Now it is an interesting, modern city whose desert setting and surprising nightlife oddly remind me of a mini-Vegas, apart from the winter snow dusting the ground. The people are much friendlier than around Beijing, too, perhaps because they are less used to foreigners.
The impressive Jiayuguan Fort has been heavily restored, some of it in concrete that has caused the mud bricks to fail under the weight. Unthinking reconstruction such as this may be as great a danger to the wall as neglect. On the other hand the “First Beacon Tower of the Great Wall”, the much-photographed start of the wall itself, has crumbled to a dull-looking pile of mud bricks. The spectacular gorge it stands beside is well worth the visit, though, but the bitter January winds soon force me back inside out of the cold.
The wind has attacked this western part of the Great Wall with a vengeance. Built from rammed earth bound with a now-lost recipe of straw, tamarisk, egg yolk and rice paste, it is disintegrating under the slow assault of the elements. Flash floods and sandstorms have also helped smooth the edges between wall and the sandy ground it grew out of, while overgrazing and unsuitable land use helps the crushing advance of the Gobi. Nature is a more patient besieger than any foreign army.
This is one of the most ancient parts of the wall, as much as 2,000 years old and showing every sign of its age. Standing on any part that remains, I risk it crumbling beneath my weight, destroying what I have come to see. With more wall than most of us could explore in a lifetime, any such loss might appear relatively unimportant. However, the Chinese name of “Long Wall” reminds us that its real significance is its length, and losing any of it makes it no longer “Great”.
Out here, on the desert edge, my thoughts are free to roam and the winds conjure up the spirits of the countless laborers who died building it, the soldiers whose lives were passed in patrolling it and the attackers who studied it as a life-and-death obstacle. All gone, with the wall their only memorial. Now it too crumbles to dust, recalling the poem by Shelley about the traveler who comes upon a fallen, once-mighty statue in the desert with the poignant inscription: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Share and recommend trips to others, and earn a commission when they make a booking. Learn more now!