We can count about 40 beacon towers in this photo alone
When we first laid eyes on (and christened) the Valley of a Hundred Fengsui, we didn’t have any trouble identifying the structures we saw. There was no need to speculate about a prehistoric race of supermen or alien invaders. No, we knew that we had stumbled upon a valley that was unusually rich in fengsui, or as we generally call them on the blog, beacon towers.
Emma filming the Valley
If you’ve seen The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King and remember the scene where Pippin sets a large tower alight, sending a message calling for help across an entire mountain range, you know how the system of fengsui worked. All along the wall, from Jiayuguan to Shanhaiguan, beacon towers were built so that a fire signal (feng) or smoke signal (sui) sent from one would be visible from the next in line, making it possible to transmit military information back and forth rapidly across the entire border region. According to one military manual from the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), when the system worked according to plan a message could travel 1000 kilometres in a day and a night.
So what’s the big mystery? Well, we might know what fengsui are, but we don’t know why there are so many – more than anywhere else we’ve been – in this broad, open valley northeast of the city of Datong in Shanxi province.
Normally beacon towers are most common where the terrain is rough and lines of sight are interrupted; in these areas, you might see a beacon tower on just about every peak or prominence. But for some reason, in the Valley of a Hundred Fengsui, where you could easily see a signal sent from five kilometres away, the Chinese decided to build more than 100 beacon towers over a distance of less than 20 kilometres. Between some of the towers in the valley, there would be no point in sending a smoke signal – in the time it would take to light a fire you could just stroll over to the next tower for a chat.
Sunset falls on the Valley of a Hundred Fengsui
If you can tell us why the wall-builders constructed more than 100 nine-metre high signaling towers in a valley as flat as a pancake (and be verifiably correct), you could be the proud owner of the world’s only Walking the Wall fridge magnet. If none of you can, then the raison d’etre of the beacon towers in this remote, windswept valley in Shanxi province will have to remain another Unsolved Mystery of the Great Wall.