Key information: Great Wall
- The Great Wall oozes history as it winds for thousands of miles along the northern border of the ancient Chinese Empire.
- Most of the wall is lonely, crumbling ruin snaking along mountain ridges or marching across the eternal dry, yellow plains of Northern China. The best known stretches near Beijing are heavily restored but still stunningly evocative, and crumble into rubble after a few miles. The wall ends near the restored fort (superb, but film-set perfect) of Jiayuguan in the far west.
- You can add in a walk on the wall when visiting great sites such as Beijing or Datong, or travelling the Silk Road or make it an excuse for an excursion into the backwoods.
- The most accessible places particularly around Beijing tend to be painfully crowded although you can usually get away from the worst within half an hour.
Walkopedia rating(Top 100)
- Walkopedia rating92
- Natural interest13
- Human interest18
- Negative points4
- Total rating92
- Note: Neg: crowding at best known places.
- Length: Variable
- Level of Difficulty: Variable
The Great Wall is a testament to China?s multi-millennial fears. Not paranoia: China?s fears ? of invasion and pillage by their nomadic northern neighbours - were all too well-founded. These restless, changing tribes would burst into China with a force and cruelty that were horrifying even to the often-cruel Chinese. Numerous dynasties were established by just such invaders.
The Wall was conceived as a barrier to these barbarians, keeping them where they belonged, out in the wilderness beyond the soft, civilized Chinese world, although it served other functions, in particular the control of trade. Its precursors were built from the 7th Century BC onward, long before China had been unified, as unco-ordinated defences erected by independent states, as much about keeping each other out as holding the northerners away. These walls were gradually merged and developed into a more coherent form by successive dynasties: it is telling that the very first imperial dynasty, the Qin, began this shortly after they won out in 221 BCE. New versions continued to be built by successive powers facing different political, economic and strategic issues, the Han, Sui and Ming dynasties in particular. This resulted in major changes of the course of the main ?Wall? over the years and a multitude of essentially parallel walls.
The scale of the Wall, and thus of the will-and-man power required to bring it about, are beyond imagination. It, it you can call it ?it? rather than ?they?, winds in its main surviving form for more than 8,850 tortured kilometres, with approaching 25,000 watchtowers, along the northern border of the ancient Chinese Empire, from the Yellow Sea to its petering-out in the eastern approaches to the fearsome Taklamakan Desert. Earlier excrescences ran hundreds of kilometres further out into the western desert. The total length of all walls from all periods is said to approaching an astonishing 22,000 km. (These statistics include natural barriers such as rivers and mountains.) The Great Irony is, of course, that the Wall never stopped any serious invader.
The Wall?s construction consumed incalculable resources and required millions of workers, many of them prisoners of one sort or another and a multitude of whom died during the process. It was made of local materials - rammed earth on the plains and stone in the mountains - for centuries, until the early Ming, perhaps impelled by having just displaced the invader Yuan, undertook a massive, 100 year, reconstruction with brick and stone facings. The Ming version enclosed less territory than those of earlier dynasties, reflecting the continuing control by the displaced Mongols of huge tracts of what had been Chinese territory. The Wall subsequently fell into obscurity and decline.
The Wall snakes across the rough mountains of the north-east; then marches in its Ming incarnation across the dry, yellow loess plateaus and dusty hills of the Chinese heartlands south the great northern swing of the Yellow River, whereas in some eras it ran deep inside what is now Inner Mongolia; and then across the wastes of the Tengger Desert until it comes to its end the north of the Qilian mountains, between the deadly sands of the Taklamakan desert and the south-western extremities of the great Gobi.
The Wall is now in varying states of decay. Don?t be deceived by the heavily restored, hawker-infested stretches north of Beijing to which most visitors are bussed. Most of it is lonely, crumbling ruin winding through the countryside. Even the best known stretches are still stunningly evocative, and lapse into rubble after a few miles.
The Wall oozes with vividly imaginable history. As you gaze through the battlements toward Inner Mongolia, you are an illiterate soldier of the late Song dynasty, staring out to the dubious, unpredictable lands to the north, waiting for the Mongols to sweep down from their steppes and deserts. Just keep looking, if you re near Beijing: when you turn, it will all vanish as you confront the not-so-Golden Hordes of modern tourism..
Walking the Wall
Most visitors inspect the restored stretches north of Beijing. Other sections are well known, including Shanhaiguan, where the Wall meets the Yellow Sea, and the restored but still extraordinary fort at Jiayuguan in the far west, an unmissable stop for Silk Road travellers. It is better, though, to walk on less populated and less preserved stretches if you can get there, and there are many places where you can find yourself near the Wall (or a wall) on a China expedition.
Bring a picnic and good boots ? you are likely to meet steep and risky stairs and rubble-strewn paths - and plan a proper walk, heading away from the stalls and swarms. Even at the most restored and visited places, the crowds peter out pretty quickly and the Wall returns to rubble soon after that. Walk as far as time allows, choose a spot with a good view ? not difficult ? and revel in the excitement of this weird construction.
You will know the Wall north of Beijing from the usual photographs, snaking along contorted ridges between its hunched watchtowers. The Wall is a complete rebuild at the best known stretches, Badeling, Mutianyu and Juyongguan, which are all heaving with tourists, stalls and hawkers. Yet even here it is hugely atmospheric if you supress crowd allergies, and you can walk out of the crowds pretty easily.
If you are able, head to Simatai, a 19km stretch of steep and mainly unrestored Ming dynasty collapse, which has fewer visitors and some really thrilling walking, teetering above vertiginous drops. Even better, get dropped at Jinshanling and walk the approximately 9 (at times steep) kilometres to Simatai.
Remoter and much less visited stretches can be found with some effort and research. Well known among remoteness aficionados (yet still remote!) are the broken stretches in the rough hills around Huanghua.
This major fortress near the seaside resort of Beidaihe, which held back the Manchus for years before it was surrendered to them during the chaos at the end of the Ming dynasty. Its heavily restored remains now constitute one great tourist trap, and the Wall, as it climbs into the hills to start its great journey, is an overcrowded disappointment. You can get away to romantic and lonely wreckage, but you will need to travel some way.
William Mackesy?s May 2002 walk along a stretch near Datong is worth describing because it is typical of the way visiting the remoter, unglamorous stretches can feel. The wall here was appealingly dilapidated, dissolving mud brick walls and towers.
We had to travel by taxi, as not even local busses would get near there. We rattled off into the Datong traffic, winding slowly out through the city?s charmless suburbs, coal mines and coal dust. We then bumped along a wide valley through cold-seared fields and dusty little villages recuperating from the harsh winter. We passed two wedding parties, shy brides peeping out under bright headdresses from grubby little taxis decorated with scuffed, re-used balloons and bunting.
Our driver got lost. After discussions with various mule carters, the most local-looking locals imaginable but nevertheless ignorant of the Wall?s whereabouts, we edged across the rocky river-bottom and up through an apparently deserted village. After extricating ourselves from two mud-walled dead ends, we emerged into huge, desiccated fields beneath dry mountains.
The silhouettes of watchtowers and walls emerged ahead. The Wall snaked down out of the hills along the edge of a ravine to our left, then marched away across the plain into the haze. It was the season of dust storms ? it is almost Inner Mongolia here ? and we were unable to tell which direction we were facing. Our track petered out in dry plough. We left our car, a speck of red in a pale, undemonstrative landscape, with our driver standing, hands in pockets, watching in bemusement as we picked our way across to the Wall.
Clambering up a wind-worn mud brick bastion, we surveyed the landscape: almost no life colours, or indeed signs of life except the odd tiny figure at its endless, ancestral tasks. The hills curved away ahead toward a smear of pale green where a village crouched under a sheltering bank. The Wall, born of this earth but paler and drier, and still 20 ft high despite its reputedly poor condition, sliced this world into separate but identical halves. There were no visitors, no vendors, just us and this ancient, unchanged landscape.
We picked our way along the crumbling top, our heads turned from the dusty breeze. Below us, a peasant and his pair of mules looked up in surprise at our approach, then returned to their ploughing with a cry and a grunting heave. He may have never seen foreigners, but work is work. After a while, the Wall broke down. We clambered down and turned back toward the hills, this time on the track alongside. We threaded across a rocky bed where a river, debouching from the hills, had cut a great sweeping gash in the Wall. A pull up the rocky hillside got us to the stump of a tower and a view back over the murky plain.
We wandered back to our little dash of colour and our driver, who was busy tickling his prized possession with a feather duster.
Jiayuguan and Dunhuang
In the far west, hundreds of miles up the Hexi Corridor from the Chinese heartlands, the Great Wall as constituted by the Ming ends its tortured journey at the fort of Jiayuguan, which sits on a hillock in the wide, stony pass just below the snow-capped Qilian Shan mountains. It is ridiculously atmospheric, albeit restored to film set perfection. Built in 1372, it was one of the new Ming Dynasty?s earliest constructions.
The fort really was ? psychologically anyway ? the last significant outpost before the howling wilderness, as the pathetic scratchings of exiles testify on its gateway. Ahead lay the endless death-wastes of the Taklamakan (He Who Enters Does Not Emerge) desert and the occasional oasis that supported the great Silk Road trade routes. This was where civilisation (well, Chinese control) ended and the lawless barbaric realms began, particularly when the Silk Road cultures were disrupted.
The nearby Wall marches across the gravel desert, a low, wind-eroded thing here, not much in itself, but redolent of history and place. Patrol the high ramparts of the fort, then crunch out beside the Wall?s rotted carcase into the desert. A ridgetop section a drive to the north (The Overhanging Great Wall) has been restored and gives huge desert and mountain views from its highest watchtower.
A few hours? drive to the west is the oasis of Dunhuang, home to the greatest of all Buddhist cave complexes. From here you can walk out into the desert to inspect the lonely remains of outlying watchtowers and defences.
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