The Great Wall

Can an old wall really deserve the epithet ‘Great’? I mean after all, it’s just an old wall. You can’t even see it from space. Is it really that cool? You give me a cannon, and I could conquer it. So went the argument of the most boring man in the world. (More on him later)

But really? Yes, yes it is that cool. And yes, is does deserve ‘Great’.

At over 5500 miles long, and dating back to the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang in 220-206 B.C., the Great Wall of China really does live up to its name.

Deciding that this was one of the things most worth seeing in China (and indeed, one of the true wonders of the ancient world), I decided to actually get up early and go check it out. This may seem like an obvious thing worth doing, but I’ve never been comfortable waking up before noon, and after spending a few days on a train travelling through multiple time zones, losing all sense of when I should be awake, it was more effort than usual.

Turning up at the main bus depot of Beijing at some ridiculous hour of the morning (like 8a.m. I know, crazy right?), I was immediately accosted by a man trying to sell me a taxi ride over to the Wall. I got slightly more offended by the assumption than I should have (especially because he was right. I was tired ok?), but thankfully a helpful local gave me the number of the correct bus, so I was able to dodge the taxi driver (who had followed me for a good 20 minutes, and wanted me to pay roughly 80 times what the bus ended up costing).

As I got to the correct bus terminal, I was confronted with a choice. Take the cheap one, or the fast one. Obviously I jumped on the cheap bus, and ran into Ned and Morgan, a pair of Australians who made the same choice. The fast bus left, and we were left to wait for our bus to head out. Somewhere halfway through our introductions though, a Chinese woman jumped on the bus, and was very adamant that we all leave and get on the fast bus. Considering that it was only around £2 more expensive, and she was very insistent, we all jumped out and got on the fast bus. Good thing we listened to her too; it was only a little bit more money, and arrived two hours earlier.

Where it arrived though, was out in the sticks. We had decided to head to Jinshanling, one of the newer parts of the Wall. It was constructed in 1570 by the Ming, and is one of the most impressive sections available on a day trip from Beijing. It is in the mountainous region of Luanping, 125km from Beijing. Only the initial section has been restored, allowing us to see how it would have originally looked as well as seeing some of the more degraded areas further away.

Attempting to head out there had left us stuck in a local town, whose name I’ve forgotten, but, after a lot of bartering by Ned (who spoke some Mandarin) we managed to arrange a taxi to the wall for 250RMB (as opposed to roughly twenty each for the bus). Now, I’m not sure if you’ll remember my description of driving habits in Mongolia, but rural China was worse.

We were treated to certainly the dodgiest driving I’d ever experienced up until that point. Overtaking on blind crests, around blind corners, massively speeding, driving more on the other side of the road than our own, going four-abreast on a two lane road (had the hard shoulders given out, I wouldn’t be here writing this). At one point, we stopped a guy on a tricycle to buy a couple of cans of coke from him. On a blind corner. In the middle of the road.

Morgan was sat in the back with me (Ned being up front, trying to understand what the hell our driver was telling him), and more or less spent the whole time with his eyes screwed shut, muttering whenever he got the courage to open them “Don’t do it, dude”, “Oh no, did you just see that?”, “Shit guys, we’re all going to die”. It didn’t help that there was no seatbelt clip, and if you wanted to be belted in you had to just tie it in a knot, and hope it would hold if you needed it to.

Strangely enough though, I wasn’t that bothered by any of this. If I’m not in direct control I seem to get quite passive and fatalistic about these things. I remember once driving back home with my friend Myke across ice and snow-covered roads, and the car span at least 270° before hitting the nose into a snowdrift. The only thing I remember crossing my mind in those couple of seconds was “huh. Weird. This doesn’t look good”. When I’m in direct control of the situation, I freak out a whole lot more, as I would learn with my near-death-experiences on my motorbike in Vietnam. I’ll tell you about those later though.

As you head towards the Wall at Jinshanling your first glimpses are of it off in the distance, crowning the nearby hills. It truly looks like the walls of a medieval fortress, or the border to another realm. Until now I hadn’t really understood how a simple wall could have repelled barbarian invaders for so long, but it really is an impressive sight. Attacking this wall, after marching hundreds of miles, charging up the mountainous terrain, meeting arrows and pikes, and knowing that the fires lit above were a signal for reinforcements from the garrisons held nearby? It’s no wonder that China remained so well defended for hundreds of years.

Sorry about the blurriness.

After leaving our cab at the base, it was only a short walk up to the Wall. It was a Tuesday we chose to visit, and that meant that we were entirely alone on the Wall. The only exceptions were a sleeping warden, and a few domestic tourists gathered around the point where the cable car stopped. We decided to avoid that, and wandered off in the opposite direction, past our napping friend. In this direction, we found some of the more broken down and derelict parts of the wall. I suspect that a lot of the wall is in similar states of disrepair, this being China after all, and that only the best preserved sections are made easily accessible. On the other hand, I hear that it is possible to walk across much of the remaining Wall, so I suppose much of it must still be fairly decent quality. The sections that we explored, past the signs telling us we were leaving any monitored area and that we shouldn’t continue, were showing signs of age. They were broken down, and a few staircases had to be clambered down (and then up again), because they had crumbled into near vertical sections at times.

The base of the Wall

Morgan at the entrance to one of the watchtowers

Morgan and Ned clambering down a section of Wall

A view of the landscape the Wall ran through.

The way up

Despite all this, the Great Wall certainly deserves the name. As we stood on the top of a watch tower we could see it winding off into the distance, and knew that it kept going for over 5500 miles. As context, that’s nine times the distance from Land’s End to John o’Groats, and roughly the distance you would have to drive to get from London to New Delhi, or fly to Hollywood.

It manages this because, contrary to popular belief, it isn't a single structure, but is a network of walls built over hundreds of years, all the way up to the Ming dynasty, in the 16th Century. Click to enlarge.

A humbling sight, and another reminder of what you can do with absolute power, negotiable morals, and a huge slave labour force. It is said that the building materials of the Wall are earth, bricks, and the bodies of the dead. It’s slightly depressing that the majority of huge and impressive sights I’ve seen have been constructed this way, but this wouldn’t be the first, or the last.

Not a flattering photo. It was really hot that day.

After surviving the trip back to Beijing, I went out with Ned for some of the most amazing dumplings I’ve ever had and then, because it started raining, quite a few beers.

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3 Responses to The Great Wall

  1. Great post, I still haven’t made it to the wall but I like reading about other people who have. Thanks for sharing.

  2. annehome says:

    What a lot of walls the Chinese built, the map illuminated your comments.

  3. Liz Ogden says:

    it isn’t a wall, then, is it? Walls. I always wondered why Chinese walls were supposed to have gaps in. Now I know.

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