For reasons of simple geography, travellers entering or leaving China from the west have always been channelled through the narrow strip of land that stretches 1000km northwest of Lanzhou. With the Qilian Mountains soaring up to the south, and a merciless combination of waterless desert and bone-dry mountains to the north, the road known as the Hexi Corridor offers the only feasible route through the physical obstacles that crowd in west of Lanzhou.
Historically, whoever controlled the corridor could operate a stranglehold on the fabulous riches of the Silk Road trade. The Chinese took an interest early on, and early Great Wall-building efforts were taking place along the Hexi Corridor under Emperor Qin Shi Huang in the third century BC. Subsequently, the powerful Han dynasty incorporated the region into their empire, though the central government’s influence remained far from constant for centuries, as Tibetans, Uyghurs and Mongols vied for control. Not until the Mongol conquests of the thirteenth century did the corridor finally become a settled part of the Chinese empire, with the Ming consolidating the old wall and building its magnificent last fort at Jiayuguan.
Two cities along the corridor, Wuwei and Zhangye, offer convenient places to break the long journey between Lanzhou and the extraordinary Buddhist sculptures at Dunhuang, and have their own share of historic sights.