Walking THE Wall

The cable car whisked us up through the lush green hills to tower 14 of the Wall snaking deep into the hazy horizon. According to legend the Great Wall was built along the tracks of a ‘friendly’ dragon that helped trace its course. The meandering ramparts interspersed with beautiful watchtowers, did seem to lend credence to that story.

The mist was thick, as we turned left for the steep climb towards Tower 23, and visibility poor, making it near impossible to photograph this less(er) restored part of the wall. Chins in our jackets against the cold, we retraced our steps and continued down hill towards the toboggan near Tower 6.  Midway there, the mist suddenly cleared and it turned bright & sunny. And hot. Thankfully we were dressed in layers and we stripped down to our last, by the time we reached Tower 5. The toboggan ride downhill was exhilarating and fun, albeit a bit incongruous in a place such as this.

Great Wall at Mutitanyu – Beijing, China

To us, as to most other people we know, the Great Wall has been synonymous with China and walking its ramparts a lifelong dream. To be actually standing on top of the broad expanse of this awesome structure was at once exciting and humbling. Stretching across approx. 8850 km East to West, mostly along the Northern border with Mongolia, this has to be one of the most impressive constructions on earth and the longest by far.

But the myth of a single, ‘great’ wall that has continuously existed since 221 BC is just that, as is the claim that it is the only man made structure visible from the moon. The Wall is in actual fact a series of fortifications built during different periods (221BC -1644AD), using varying local materials, and thereby turning on its head the romantic legend of the dragon. Very little remains of the earlier Wall except for a few eroded ruins.

The Great Wall apparently did not even feature in any Chinese art as a historical/ cultural symbol up until the 19th century, implying that its ‘national’ symbolism was propagated by western perceptions based on reports by early Jesuit missionaries and foreign emissaries to the imperial court!

The earliest part of the wall was consolidated from several existing city walls by the first emperor Qin Shi Huang Di (of the Terracotta Warriors fame) when he unified the warring states in 221 BC. As much to demonstrate his control over them, as to serve as a defensive fortification. Later some benign dynasties (remember Tang was after Han and before Song, Ming & Qing :-))  did repair and extend it, but it was the Ming emperors (1368–1644) who spent a considerable amount of time and money in constructing most of what we now know as the Great Wall, to keep out the Manchus and the Mongols from the North.

Ironically the very Manchus that this wall was built to repel eventually breached it and marked the end of the Ming dynasty. Following the suicide of the reigning Ming emperor they founded the last imperial dynasty of Qing (1644 -1921) and thereupon didn’t find much need for a wall, and construction and repair was discontinued. Restoration on parts of the crumbling remnants began only as late as 1984 and some badly damaged portions are expected to completely disappear in a few decades if not attended to soon.

This brings us to the question of the value of walls as barriers in general.

What do they acheive? Do they really protect? Or are they just used to lull the populace into a false sense of security? History has proved, more often than not, that walls serve to keep people in rather than to keep enemies out. And that these barriers do not aid peace nor progress. But do we ever learn from history?

On the drive back to Beijing, our guide Lily, tried to answer our questions about the human cost of the Wall over centuries and narrated a popular but rather sad legend connected with it – The story of Meng Jiang Nu, the wife of a farmer who was forced to work on the wall during the Qin Dynasty. When she heard her husband had died while working the wall and was buried under it, she wept for days atop the wall, until it collapsed revealing his bones, so she could give him a proper burial.

This (translated from the original Chinese) ‘Ci’ poem, “The Great Wall” by the brilliant 17th century Manchu poet Nalan Xingde) gives a Chinese perspective from a time, long before the Great Wall became an intrinsic part of China’s national consciousness:

Through how many panels of mountains and seas
do the high parapets of the long wall
wind and wind?
Our eyes follow, slope after slope
and we understand
how it ate up the dragon hearts of our grandfathers
and in the end they built it for whom?

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Madhu is an Interior designer turned travel blogger on a long sabbatical to explore the world. When not crafting stories on The Urge To Wander, she's probably Tweeting @theurgetowander or sharing special moments on instagram.com/theurgetowander

76 thoughts on “Walking THE Wall

  1. That is interesting that it wasn’t recognized by them as a symbol until the West did. Great photos.

    1. I’ve been living in China more than a year and has never ceased to amaze me that every time I visited a historical site, the Chinese coming with me always stayed out the door … smoking a cigarette …
      In fact one of the most impressive walls of Beijing was brought down to build one of the belts of the city, to improve their impossible traffic I guess …

  2. Great walk on the wall; I’ve been there a couple of times but your description captures some nuances I never thought about. Thanks for that. As the wall is torn down for the most part, I guess the majority of widows should be happy … 🙂

  3. Engaging post as ever, Madhu! I really enjoy reading your narrations. Mutianyu and Jinshanling are not that far apart in the grand scheme of things, but they are just so different! Next time I will have to try that toboggan ride – it must be something else in the winter.

    1. Thank you James! The Toboggan was a first for me and I almost chickened out! R had to drag me back, to the amusement of a few other tourists in line! Once I got on, it was so much fun!
      The thought of scaling the wall by foot put us off the other sections, but after looking at your pictures I truly regret not having gone to Jinshaling. Maybe another time….

  4. What an interesting travel tale, with some history mixed in as well. Your pictures are beautiful. Incongruous or not, I would have been first in line for the toboggan ride!


    1. Thanks Elisa! The Toboggan was great fun and in spite of my nervousness before I got on I did enjoy zipping down!

  5. Now that is one place that I have yet to visit and want very much to do so. It’s great that you were able to go there.

  6. Great photos, and a very interesting history. Thank you. When we went, Kat and I said “Oh we can walk down” – then the toboggan passed us and we so regretted that we had not taken it.

  7. Nice bookending! Great photos too, 1st and last as the bests. I envy you. It’d be only daydreaming if I put this on my bucketlist. You truly are lucky to be there. Good that though exhausting, you had fun. Thanks for the history lesson and for the trip.

  8. Now THIS is on my bucket list, I hope, one day, finances willing. For now, I will have to be content with your compelling photos and interesting narrative. I love the verse at the end.

  9. This was a very interesting, and much appreciated post, Madhu. I can tell you really put some effort into sharing your experience with us. That one shot taken while standing inside the tunnel, looking out, is breathtaking. I suspect, nothing is like actually being there though. Thanks for sharing this.

  10. Love the photos! Did you ever see my post on my visit to the wall? we started at the unrestored sectiOn and walked all the way to where you were. It was crazy!!!!

    1. Love your account! You actually SCALED that mountain! Wow! Really admire your dad! Agree with your guide “You Americans are strong” 🙂

      1. Thanks! It was so fun! My dad is amazing. He is 69 and is in better shape than me! We are hoping to do the French alps trek this summer! Keeping my fingers crossed!

  11. Fantastically informative post Madhu! I have always had just one image in my head of the wall and you have made sense of it for me. You obviously listen to the guides – unlike me – and remember what they say or you do your research well. Your photos are terrific, great to see the real thing 🙂 I don’t think I’ll be walking it any time soon with all those hills!

    1. Thank you Gilly!
      Have no idea about your mobility issues, but if you take the cable car up and the Toboggan or ski-lift (between towers 5 & 6) down, the Mutiyanu section is not that hard to do. The walk from tower 14 – 5 is ‘mostly’ downhill. You only climb the steep steps if you want to go up to tower 23 and beyond or you go up via the ski lift that lands at the lowest section of the wall.

  12. Hello Madhu 🙂 I was wondering about the header picture on your main page. Where did you take it? I like your design!!!

  13. I have some friends who’ve gone to the Great Wall a couple of times and their pictures, just like yours, make me want to go ASAP. 🙂

    I was touched by the plaintive poem you posted in the end. Beautiful but quietly sad, isn’t it?

    1. That poem touched me too! A reminder that we owe our enjoyment of these amazing monument to the sweat and toil of those who actually built them! Thanks Tita!

  14. Great post, Madhu! I’ve always been so fascinated of the Great Wall as a child and it is still a dream to see this place someday. 😉

  15. So beautiful. I am so jealous of people who have had a chance to visit China! My husband being one of them. I hope to get out there one day!

  16. It was great to see your photos, especially of the wall snaking up hill and down dale, across the forested hillsides. I’ve never seen shots that describe in such detail – thanx for sharing. I’ve always had a penchant for myth-debunking dragon slayers:) I forgot to ask – what are the other man made structures visible from the moon?

    1. None actually 🙂 The claims first started doing the rounds in the 30’s when man hadn’t begun to dream of going to the moon! You will be surprised how many websites still make that claim though! I believed it too 🙂 Thank you for dropping by…hope to see you around 🙂

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