A 400-Year-Old Bordertown in Desert

A Bordertown in Gansu

In a remote desert region in China’s west in today’s Yongtai County, Gansu Province, there is a 400-year old Yongtai City.

The city was structured to function as military fortress against the Mongols and Tartars who constantly crossed the border to loot the scattered Chinese settlements.

The city walls, 12 metres high and 1.7 kilometres in total length, were made of compact yellow earth, with foundations 6 metres deep.

On the city walls, there are 4 watchtowers and 12 cannon ports.

The city gates are protected by enclosed vicinities and a moat, 6 metres wide and up to 2.5 metres in depth.

There were also beacon towers extended dozens kilometres in the directions to Lanzhou City and The Great Wall serving as information superhighway.

The entire city was built in just 15 months, from lunar March 1607 to lunar June 1608 by the troops and their families during the Ming Dynasty.

During the Ming era, the bordertown stationed 2,000 troops, 500 cavalries, with the military facilities including gunpowder field, fodder storage and a mill house.

Today there are about 100 people still living there.

This is a double-gate structure to the city

COMMENTS FROM GOOGLE PLUS

Jennifer Linsky:
I seem to recall that one of the Judge Dee novels takes place there.

All Things Chinese:
The setting of Robert Gulik’s Judge Dee is Tang Dynasty, this is a Ming structure.

But on the other hand, until the 20th century, Chinese architectural style did not alter dramatically.

Hyoon-dae Cheon:
The two-gate access is brilliant. It should be applied to certain underground car parks/parking lots to prevent tailgaters trying to enter properties where they do not live and to which they were not invited.

If you see a stream of unstopped cars, you might presume they are police or prosecutors initiating a raid. Otherwise, pretending to be tenants, they might spend all night getting 50 evidence-collection vans into the underground. Any Koreans reading this might put that into their architecture plans, hahaha, hint hint.

All Things Chinese:
The city’s population has decreased from 1,300 to 100 in a few decades precisely because of the lack of water resource. The natural environment deteriorates rapidly in this region.

Speaking of double gates system, it is actually widely used now, for instance in zoos for the safety of zookeepers feeding the beasts.

Plautus Satire:
It’s interesting to note that while the large outer structure is rather irregular, the street layouts and dwellings inside are very regular and square, indicating different builders using different construction styles.

Also worth noting is the proximity to a peculiar crater lake. So called “star forts” in Europe (also in Japan, Vietnam, Australia, south America, etcetera) are typically found by lakes or rivers and often incorporate complicated and incomprehensible hydrology features both interior and exterior.

This structure seems to fit the general criteria of these so called “forts”, none of which contain any particularly defensive or practical features but which probably mark something buried that was left to be reclaimed after many centuries.

All Things Chinese:
In fact this fortress city had effectively kept Tartars at bay, which contributed to the shift of the external threats from northwest to northeast where the Manchus entered China eventually.

The gates of the city walls were protected by an outer layer of wall. That means you would need to pass two gates to enter the city.

When you passed the first gate, you only came to a small enclosed field. Only when the first gate was completely shut, the second gate would open for you.

If you were found acting suspiciously, you would be a sitting duck there.

Regarding the construction, the city was complete in less than two years. However, some parts were certainly repaired and renovated over the years, so, yes, there is at least one gate looking uncannily new.

Plautus Satire:
I don’t see any gates at all just arches. In any case it’s difficult to imagine these dirt walls keeping any determined military force at bay. It’s 1.7km of easily scaled perimeter to defend. While it may look impressive to a layman it really has limited utility in defense and would be more of a liability since it limits eyesight.

There’s also the fact that the surrounding area is desolate and barren. Of what use is a military fortification in the middle of nowhere? Then there are the various protrusions at regular intervals that serve no apparent purpose, and the four encompassed areas that seem to have been breached since their initial construction but seem originally to only be accessible from the interiors, again serving no apparent purpose.

Calling this a fortress is like calling a football stadium a giant fish bowl.

All Things Chinese:
The timber gates were removed since they no longer serve their purpose.

The compact yellow earth is as hard as sandstone (or almost). In the neighbouring regions with more dense populations, such as Shaanxi and Shanxi provinces, there are entire villages build under the yellow earth.

The area was not as desolate as now during Ming’s time. Over the centuries, the land becomes drier and salinized, so people migrated to elsewhere.

During the Ming’s era, city walls 12 m high were enough to deter the nomad tribes whose level of technology was extremely low while Ming’s development in firearms led the world at that period.

A Bordertown in Xinjiang

The restoration model of an abandoned Chinese town in the middle of the desert of China’s Gansu Province.

China’s west, inducing Xinjiang, used to be a much lush area than today.

It is the city built to guard a gate (Jiayu Pass) in the Great Wall to the west along the silk road.

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