Generally speaking, the respective Han and Xiongnu Empires just prior to their titanic war:
Han Soldiers and their typical equipment going into the conflict:
(from left-to-right: spear [枪, qiang] + dagger-axe [戈, ge], single-edged sword [劍, jian], and crossbow [弩, nu])
Up until this point, the Han and prior Dynasties’ military strategies had revolved around infantry (above) and chariot warfare…
This would prove problematic against the speed, maneuverability, and overall versatility of the Xiongnu cavalry:
“I think we may be in trouble…”
Fortunately, the recovery period had allowed the Han to replenish their stock of horses, and were able to field large forces of cavalry to great effect:
The First target of the war was to force open the Hexi Corridor to the west – the narrow passage between the Gobi Desert and Tianshan Mountain range to the north, and the Tibetan Plateau to the south (and of course, skirting around the deadly Taklamakan Desert).
The highly mobile Han Cavalry swiftly conquered the region swept away the Xiongnu armies under the command of the Worthy Prince of the West. Following up, Emperor Wu ordered the region (modern Gansu Province) colonized and the static defenses initially constructed by the Qin Emperors expanded westward.
Pictured is the ruins of an ancient watchtower along the western corridor:
With his ability to wage offensive warfare against Han crippled, the Xiongnu monarch, Ichise Chanyu moved his seat of power north, attempting to use the Gobi Desert itself as an 800km wide defensive barrier:
To be quite honest, I certainly wouldn’t want to have to cross this.
The Han, however, would not be stopped, and decisively defeated the Xiongnu chieftain and his second in command, the Worthy Prince of the East, over the course of the Battle of Mobei in 119 BCE. The Chanyu would escape and survive, but the power of the Xiongnu Empire was forever broken. Hostilities would continue for more than a century, but the war had – effectively – been won for Han.
In the aftermath, Han China had acquired massive amounts of new territory to colonize, but most importantly the invaluable corridor to the West and the establishment of trade via the Silk Road.