The fort at Jiayuguan once marked “the end of China” and the beginning of barbarian lands. It was where the Great Wall ended — and where threats to the Chinese empire might be expected to begin. Stepping into the fort, it is immediately clear that it had more in common with medieval European castles than the fort-palaces I visited earlier this year in India. What mattered was the walls: They were to be watched, and they were not to be breached. Within the rammed-earth walls, there was little in the way of buildings. There were certainly no palaces. The people who lived in the fort were soldiers, not princes, and the emperor never traveled to the borders of his domain.
Next stop: The Mogao Caves at Dunhuang