The last of the fall color was about to disappear from the trees growing in the shelter of the Great Wall.
“A really awful place to be a sentry in winter,” I said. My companion nodded. We were looking out from one of the many watch towers dotted along the Wall’s length. Behind us, the view stretched across the valley towards Beijing, 80 km (50 miles) away; in front, the sparse, empty lands of Northern China and beyond, Mongolia.
To the right and left of us, the Wall snaked its way up and over mountain ridges, following the peaks and summits and disappearing into the distance. Estimates of its length vary from 5,500 miles to 13,000 miles. The discrepancy is a problem of definition, not measurement: The Chinese wall is not just one wall; it comprises many short lengths that were built at different times. Whatever its length, there is nothing else like it anywhere in the world. It was made a Unesco World Heritage site in 1987.
It is a staggering piece of engineering.
In Your Bucket Because…
- You can’t come to China and not visit it.
- It is an amazing piece of building work.
- Good for all tourists of any age.
The Great Wall’s Patchwork History
Badaling is where most tourists come to visit the Wall because it’s closest to Beijing. It’s therefore busy and somewhat spoiled by souvenir stalls and over-eager shop-keepers. This part of the Wall has been extensively renovated over the years and now boasts such modern additions as handrails and waste bins. Parts of it are very steep to climb but there is a cable car which takes tourists up to the top from where they can walk back down.
This section of the Wall was built during the Ming dynasty (14th-17th century) though the earliest parts were constructed around 2000 years ago in the Qin dynasty.
But when the Mongolian armies threatened to invade China in the 14th century, the Wall was repaired and fortified with watch towers, some 25,000 of them. Contemporary reports claim that many hundreds of thousands of workers lost their lives in the building of the Great Wall; others that their bones were used along with rammed earth as the foundations. The Wall also became the main highway between towns on its east to west route, the wall being broad enough at the top for five horses to ride abreast.
But in 1644 the Wall proved breachable: Manchu invaders crossed it on their way to Beijing, ultimately founding the enduring Qing dynasty, which lasted until the 20th century.
The Wall was left to fall into disrepair, its disintegration accelerated by local people, who used its bricks and stones for building purposes of their own, or who dug into the earth that formed the base to find soil for their own fields.
Debunking the Myth
A common question for quiz enthusiasts is whether or not the Great Wall can be seen from space. Actually, the jury is still out on that. The myth was first perpetrated as far back as the 18th century when it was claimed that the Wall could be seen from the moon. This fallacy was still being repeated up to the 1930’s. Neil Armstrong said that he doubted that any man-made object could be seen, even from space craft in low-level orbit. However, according to NASA, the Chinese–American astronaut Leroy Chiao did photograph what was later determined to be a section of the Chinese Wall from the international Space Station using sophisticated equipment. He is reported to have said that he didn’t see the Wall when he was photographing the area, which was so indistinct that he wasn’t sure that he was aiming even in the right place.
Building the Wall cost many lives. It would have been a terrible place to work: freezing cold in winter, uncomfortably hot in summer. And as for the sentries standing guard in the watchtowers? Not an enviable job.
Today, there is a totally different atmosphere as groups of tourists pose for photos where once the guards stood, and admire the view from where the Mongolian hordes attacked. I shivered in the strong winds as we made our way down to the tourist center and warmth. Was it the cold or was it the many dead who lay in unmarked graves beneath the Wall? I don’t suppose I’ll ever know.
- Make sure your tour operator is going to the Wall and not diverting you to jade or silk factories en route. Specify if you want to spend all the time at the Wall or whether you want to include the Ming tombs as well.
- If you are short of time or not terribly fit, take the cable car.
- Unless it’s summer, wrap up warmly. It’s 3,000 feet up and much cooler than the city.