Ninth-century poet on a leave-taking at Jiayuguan

One more cup of wine for our remaining happiness. There will be chilling parting dreams tonight.

To some Chinese, the very name JIAYUGUAN is synonymous with sorrow and ghastly remoteness. The last fortress of the Great Wall was built here by the Ming in 1372, over 5000km from the wall’s easternmost point at Shanhaiguan, from which time the town made its living by supplying the needs of the fortress garrison. This was literally the final defence of the empire, the spot where China ended and beyond which lay a terrifying wilderness. Everything that travelled between the deserts of Central Asia and China’s central plain – goods, traders and armies – had to go through this pass. The desolation of the landscape only adds to the melancholy: being forced to leave China altogether was a citizen’s worst nightmare, and it was here that disgraced officials and condemned or fleeing criminals had to make their final, bitter farewells. The perfectly restored fort, just west of nondescript Jiayuguan town, is one of the highlights of northwest China, with a number of additional Wall-related sights scattered in the desert nearby.

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