Category: The Great Wall.

China: the greatest wall of all

By Caroline Adam

When you arrive at an entry point of the Great Wall and gaze up at the first of many flights of stairs, you get an overwhelming sense of the physical challenge that lies ahead. While you may not be able to see past the initial watchtower located at the top of the first few hundred steps, you’re well aware that this ancient structure is a little like the average game of Monopoly – seemingly never-ending.

Whether it’s an hour in total spent ascending and descending a small chunk of the wall, or it’s a good part of a day spent journeying much further than the average tourist, climbing it is a demanding task.

But try to imagine what it must have been like actually building it, a task that began more than 2000 years ago. For the warring Chinese states of Qi, Yan and Zhao, who built the initial structure between the fifth century BC and 221BC, it meant stamping earth and gravel between board frames. They each constructed extensive fortifications to withstand the attack of small arms such as swords and spears.

However when China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, unified the country by force and conquered all opposing states in 221BC, he wasn’t happy about this, ordering the destruction of all the wall sections that divided his empire along the former state borders. To protect against intrusions from the north, he ordered the building of a new wall to connect the remaining fortifications along the empire’s new northern frontier.

Stones from the mountains were used over mountain ranges, while rammed earth was used for construction in the plains. But similar to the creation of the Terracotta Warriors, also built during the reign of tyrant emperor Qin Shi Huang, many of the workers lost their lives in the process. It’s believed that two to three million peasants died while building the wall.

The Qin Dynasty lasted from 221 to 206BC, while the second dynasty to add to the Great Wall was the Han Dynasty (206BC to 220CE). However, most of the ancient sections of the Great Wall have since eroded and very few remain. It was also located north of the current structure, which was mainly built during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), on a much larger scale and with longer lasting materials. Its primary purpose was not to keep out people who could scale the wall, but to ensure that semi-nomadic people outside the wall could not cross with their horses or return easily with stolen property.

Along the Great Wall from the Ming Dynasty there are many watchtowers, which were used to transmit military messages using fire and smoke signals. They also provided a place to retreat to from attackers who had scaled the wall. Inside, their narrow layouts were designed to confuse any infiltrators. Barracks and administrative centres were located at larger intervals along the wall, with small armies garrisoned along the length of it.

The world’s longest man-made structure, the Great Wall stretches from the coastal town of Shanhaiguan in the east of China to Jiayuguan Pass in Gansu Province in the west, along an arc that roughly follows the southern edge of Inner Mongolia. Winding its way across grasslands, deserts and mountains, it’s believed to span a length of 8851km in total.

Most tourists who want to scale part of the Great Wall head to one of the entry points near Beijing. The most popular is Badaling, located 70km north-west of the city. But some of the alternatives have the advantage of being less crowded. These include the Juyongguan Pass section, located 50km north-west of Beijing, and the Mutianyu section, situated 70km north-east of the city. The latter even has a cable car travelling up and down as well as a toboggan sled course down to the bottom. Another option is the Jinshanling section, located two and a half hours from Beijing. This partially restored portion of the wall makes an ideal day trip and is a gem for photographers, thanks to its rural setting.

Listed as a World Heritage Site in 1987, the Great Wall is a staple ingredient of any operator’s itinerary covering the major sightseeing highlights of China.

The fact that the Great Wall has already stood the test of time over many centuries is in part a tribute to the ingenuity of the Ming Dynasty engineers, who used a sticky rice mortar that bound the bricks together so tightly that in many places, weeds are still unable to grow. Sadly, though, much of the structure beyond the main tourist sections is in poor condition. Recent news reports claim that only a small part of the wall outside Beijing has been maintained by the government, with the rest left largely untended. The elements have eroded many areas and the wall has also been damaged by local prospectors mining for minerals.

Hopefully, the fact that the Great Wall is one of China’s greatest tourism assets will see this awe-inspiring and ancient structure being better preserved for future generations to also enjoy. Article link.

Category: The Great Wall