The silhouette of mountains evolves into a huge earth wall across the horizon.
Before us in our tiny van, stands the 400-year-old fortress of Yongtai, guarding another remote section of the ancient Silk Road.
A colossal mud fort, seemingly forgotten today.
Video: Exploring Yongtai Ancient City
Yet centuries ago, amazingly, it was built in just 15 months (1607 to 08) to protect Chinese settlements from nomadic raiders.
But apparently, according to a local – a self-claimed descendant of a “General” – the fort saw no military action.
As a deterrent, however, it’d proved effective, serving as a training ground for troops.
Yongtai – a massive Ming fortress of mud walls
Statistics reveal Yongtai Fortress had compacted-earth walls reaching 12 meters with foundations 6 meters deep, and the fortifications circled the garrison for 1.7 kilometers.
The Ming-era defensive design was a “Turtle-shaped Fortress.”
Double walls ringed the city gates – a common defensive strategy – and only after visitors had entered the outer enclosure were the gates of the inner wall opened.
Another defensive measure was the moat.
Water surrounded the fortress.
Now dry, but once 6 meters wide and 2.5 meters deep; so enough to avoid swimming with steel stuff while averting arrows to the head.
All along the walls, watchtowers and cannon ports (China was the world leader in using gunpowder armaments).
Inside lived a garrison of 2000 soldiers, 500 cavalry (with 800 horses).
Supplementing this were soldier’s families, food storage facilities, grain mills, and water reservoirs.
Visible across the landscape – from the near mountain range leading into the hazy horizon – beacon towers, which would send messages via smoke across vast distances to sections of the Great Wall.
Today, Yongtai’s ancient city is a tranquil ruin.
But, it lives.
Descendants of Ming soldiers remain; mostly middle-age farmers herding goats and sheep.
Youths have left for city lights.
And so, the ghosts of age creep closer to the crumbling mud walls, nearing the battlements, poised to conquer.
Travels in China – 2020