Culture / People / Places

Jiayuguan Fort

Architecture and martial arts at the westernmost fort of the Great Wall

In my way through the chinese part of the Silk Road I couldn’t miss the Jiayuguan Fort. Located northwest of Gansu province, near Jiayuguan City, the Jiayuguan pass is the first one at the west of the Great Wall, and one of its main passes. Its location in the narrowest point of the Hexi Corridor, the traditional trading route of Gansu, makes the fortress very valuable in the ancient times.

For its strategic location and reputation the Jiayuguan Pass is known by the colourful name of “First and Greatest Pass under Heaven”.

Today Jiayuguan is the most intact ancient militar building from all passes of the Great Wall, and atracts thousands of tourists every year. It was added to the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Sites in 1987, and it’s one of the main sights of Gansu province, and also from the Gobi desert.

In 2011 the Pass was restored using a 2.03 billion yuan inversion by the Chinese government. Interestingly, and to avoid losing the authenticity of the Pass, it was mandatory the use of the original ancient construction materials and techniques.

A Fortress of Legends

Built initially in 1372, it took more than 150 years to complete, mainly due to the difficult access to the area. The length and the greatness of the pass inspired a few legends about its construction. Probably the most famous one invloves Yi Kaizhan, a mathematician know for its precision. The official in charge of the construction asked him an estimate of the number of bricks the whole pass would take. After some time Yi calculated that the project would require 99,999 bricks. The officer didn’t think it was enough, so Yi added one more. After the pass was finished there was only one brick left, that was placed loose on one of the gates, where it is still today.

This legend has many variations, but the amount of 99,999 bricks and the final one left on the gate are present on all of them.

In one of the variations Yi didn’t add a the extra brick, and was going to be punished because he was off by one brick (looks like they have pretty high standards back then). Yi, however, said that the brick should be left there, as a god put it to preserve the stability of the fortress, and moving it would make it collapse.

Although it has lost its military importance the Jiayuguan the whole fortress has actors playing as soldiers, generals or prisoners, artists singing chinese opera and martial artists performing kung fu, dancing and art shows in the courtyard. There is a number of historical places and museums you can visit and a big garden outside the main complex. The fortress is also decorated with ancient chinese flags and there are different activities you can do -for a price-, like riding a camel, archery or just walk around the markets to find something nice to buy.

The Martial Arts Show

One of the greatest surprises while I was in the Jiayuguan Fort was the fantastic martial arts show some skilled artists performed. Acrobatics, dancing, flag waving, theatre, fighting… A great spectacle that gathered all the people around the main courtyard. Between yurts and ancient weapon racks all the artists involved were dressed up to look like ancient Han soldiers, monks, prisoners or dancers. I was specially captivated by the fan show, but all of them had a beautiful choreography and gorgeous costumes.

If you like the photos don’t forget to check the full gallery of the Jiayuguan Fort

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