The First Fire Tower of the Great Wall

The first fire tower of the Great Wall
The first fire tower of the Great Wall

 Name: The First Fire Tower of the Great Wall, the First Pier
 Chinese Name: 天下第一墩
 Construction Time: In 1539 of Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644)
 Original Appearance: A cubic earth tower with height, width, and length all equal to 46ft (14m)
 Function: Sending military messages during war time via smoke and firebrands
 Location: 5mi (8km) south of Jiayuguan Pass in Gansu Province

In the vast desert west of Jiayuguan City, Gansu, there is a lonely earth mound standing at the edge of a cliff, with the wide Taolai River flowing at its feet. It is hard to believe that this unremarkable mound was actually one of the most vital beacon towers of the Great Wall, built in the Ming Dynasty. As the westernmost beacon tower, it is called the First Fire Tower of the Great Wall, or the First Pier.

The First Outpost along the Western Border

In the Ming Dynasty, 39 fire towers around Jiayuguan formed an efficient alarm system. In the past, the Taolai River served as the western boundary of the state. The First Pier, the westernmost fire tower standing on a 180-foot-high (55-meter) cliff by the river, was of great military importance. From there one could observe an enemy's intrusion at the earliest time and send a signal to the next fire tower by making thick smoke in the daytime or lifting a firebrand at night. Therefore, it is regarded as an indispensible part of the defense system of the Jiayuguan Great Wall and is known as the First and Most Vital Fire Tower under Heaven.

Based on the smoke or firebrand signals, soldiers got to know the enemy's situation correctly. For instance, as history records, giving off a smoke signal one time (or lifting one firebrand) together with a gunshot suggests there are about one hundred enemies.

The First Fire Tower once was a cubic earth construction with the height, width, and length all equal to 46 feet (14 meters). As a result of water erosion over hundreds of years, some parts of the tower have been destroyed. Today the remaining site measures 30 feet (nine meters) high and the bottom of it is an irregular square. This once vital outpost has faded into an earth mound.

Now, the First Fire Tower has been developed as a comprehensive scenic area. Besides the beacon tower, you can also have a look at the following spots:

 Underground Display Hall – Documents, pictures, sandboxes, and sculptures; all these items are used to display the history of the First Fire Tower and Jiayuguan. Outside the display hall, there is a glass sightseeing platform for you to view the scenery of the Taolai Valley and Qilian Mountain at a distance with the yellow and rapid Taolai River flowing under.

 Taolai Old Inn – Built of rammed earth, wooden boards, and sand, the old-style courtyard seems to blend in well with the vast desert. Standing isolated at the historical border line, the old inn seems to be still waiting for camel caravans of the central plain and western regions to stop by.

 Barrack –  It is connected with the old inn by a suspension bridge across Taolai Valley. Camps and training facilities of the frontier troops of the Ming Dynasty are reproduced in the barrack. There, you can also have a try at trotting along staggered wooden stakes (Plum Blossom Stakes), used to practice basic Kung Fu skills.

Travel Tips

May. 1 to Oct. 31 Nov. 1 to Apr. 30
Entry Fee of the First Fire Tower CNY 22 CNY 11
Combo Ticket (First Fire Tower, Jiayuguan, and Overhanging Great Wall) CNY 110 CNY 90
Opening Hours 8:30 – 20:00 8:30 – 18:00

 The First Fire Tower is 2,200 yards (two kilometers) away from the entrance gate. You can either get there on foot, or by sightseeing bus, which costs CNY 12 for a round-trip.

 To reach the old inn from the beacon tower, you can try the special ropeway to go across the Taolai Valley, which would save much of your time and energy. Equipped with cloth strips, you are actually flying through the valley with wind whizzing by your ear, which would definitely be an exciting experience. A one-way ropeway ride costs CNY 15. If you are terrified by this idea, you can also walk through the valley.

 If the weather is fine, the scenery around the First Pier is spectacular. In the morning, the sky here seems extraordinarily blue; during the day, the black Qilian Mountain to the south is quite clear and seems to be within the walking distance; at dusk, looking far into the distance, you will find the snowy peaks of the distant mountains are much whiter and more magnificent.

How to Get There From Jiayuguan City

Public transportation to this scenic area is not convenient. You'd better charter a minibus. The price is CNY 50 or so. If you want to visit the other two sites included in the combo ticket together, the fare is CNY 150~180.

- Last updated on Aug. 02, 2022 -
Questions & Answers on The First Fire Tower of the Great Wall
Asked by Ali from MALAYSIA | Jul. 03, 2019 08:39Reply
why combine ticket(the first fire tower & Overhanging Great wall) is higher than single ticket?
If we buy separate will be CNY53 consist of CNY22(First fire tower) + CNY31(overhanging great wall).
Answers (1)
Answered by Eden from DENMARK | Jul. 03, 2019 20:16

Well, the combo ticket also includes the Jiayuguan Scenic Area.
Asked by Peter from AUSTRALIA | Jun. 17, 2019 07:37Reply
is it possible to get a train from Jiayuguan to Turpan?
Answers (1)
Answered by Eden from POLAND | Jun. 18, 2019 19:58

Yes, you are advised to take the bullet train from Jiayuguan South Railway Station to Turpan North Railway Station.The duration is around 5.5 hours. The ticket fare of 1st Class Seat is CNY455 and 2nd Class Seat is CNY284.5.
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