The Great Wall 萬里长城

What is in a wall? Well for one thing it segregates one from another setting people apart. For another, it keeps people out or in. Why all this talk about a wall? Because the ancient Chinese is said to have built one – that is supposedly a man-made structure visible from space. Yep, it is the Great Wall.

Well, it depends how high up in the atmosphere. With all the drone technology and perhaps the spy satellites, we are sure the wall can be seen. Why is it great? Is it because it stretches for more than 5000km? Is it because it has been decorated or the architecture is unique?


The wall, as it is – was not built at one go. That’s for sure. First we need to hark back to the period of the 6th century BC. At that time, the Sinitic states of China were busy expanding territory beyond the riverine plains of northern China. Extent of the Great WallThe ancient Chinese had always been interacting with the nomads of the steppes since time in memorial. But the organized nature of statehood led the settled peoples to began to encroach upon the pasture grounds of the nomads from that time. It culminated in the seizure of territory in what is today Gansu and Inner Mongolia provinces of modern China, formerly the domain of the nomads.

So, it is true. The Chinese states along the northern and northwestern reaches of China both fought and traded with the nomads. They began building walls when the nomads started raiding the border settlements. Thus when the first emperor unified the country, he embarked on a project to connect them all. Thus the Great Wall was born!

The old and new wall

We wrote about it (here) that the wall was further extended by the succeeding Han dynasty as it battled its way into central Asia opening up the famed Silk Road. And today when one travels along the famed trade route, one may yet see the crumbling remains of the wall. All the way out in the arid Ordos loop! In fact, some parts of the wall along that trade route are fabulous fortifications. Click the link and take a read of their majestic splendour!

Great Wall Badaling 1
Easily accessible even on your own!

On the other hand, the ones that are closer to Beijing have only been recently built or refurbished. By recent, we refer to the Ming dynasty of ‘just’ 500 years ago.

Most tourists from Beijing are brought to the Badaling wall (八达岭), a section located 80km northwest from the capital. Probably the reason most are brought here is because this section is considered best preserved and most complete – so it’s claimed. Some literature also suggest that the stairs here are not as steep, but that is relative! Just look at our photos…

Now today one does not need to truly ascend the wall. There are cable cars that cater to visitors going up one side and descending the other. That was on our first visit in 1998. As young persons, we felt strong (after eating spinach) and decided to climb since we had the luxury of a whole morning. As we ascended the wall, we were we told that there was a funicular at another location that could take us further on. That ended our climb. So much for being considered a good “Han” (好漢)! You see, one has to climb it to qualify…

But mostly, it was about the views. From vantage points one can see how the Great Wall snakes across the hills. Imagine the workers who had to haul up blocks of stone and mounds of earth to be rammed into place. Caterpillar was sure not here to provide any earth moving equipment though it could have been ‘great business’ heh?

Now the guides, they pretty much leave you alone to explore the wall. Guess it will be a hard sell or even a hardcore guide who would accompany you panting all the way explaining about the watch towers and keeps…all of which you can read on your own before the trip in perhaps 50 languages or thereabouts… And the throngs of people. This first visit for us back in 1998 was already seeing the backs of what looked like thousands of visitors at any time.

Chairlift down from wall1
Legs dangling actually

Our more recent visit to the wall was at Mutianyu (慕田峪), and which we had a deeper examination of the wall. Heheh… This section of the Great Wall of China located in Huairou County 70km northeast of Beijing. Like Badaling, the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall used to serve as the northern barrier defending the capital and the imperial tombs.

Chairlift to Greatwall7
What if one gets stuck?

We were given two options when we arrived – walk up to access the wall (huh?), or take the chair lift. For a return trip cost of RMB65 (May 2011), you can take the chairlift up and have the option of taking the luge down. We took the second option. Duh!

As we ascended up the hill towards the wall, we could see the luge (nope, didn’t take it). Again it is asserted that the Mutianyu Great Wall has the largest construction scale and best quality among all sections of Great Wall (sounds like cut and paste). What we do know – is at this point the wall splits into two directions – one of which heads to the sea. The day we went was warm despite the clouds that seemed to block out the sun.

Finally, we got ON the wall. Again we had two options of which tower to see 大角楼 or正关台. We looked at the local map on the sign board and decided to make for大角楼 as it seemed to be a shorter walk (boy was that map deceptive). And so began our arduous walk and climb towards the traversable sections of the wall in the direction of 大角楼. Regret.

Built mainly with granite, the wall is 7-8 meters high and the top is 4-5 meters wide. It seems indestructible and as if built yesterday! But as we walked up the steps, some were wide and low, while others were high and small. Not very convenient… Watchtowers seem to be densely placed along this section of the Great Wall with what 22 of them on this 2,250 meter stretch of the wall alone.

This section of Great Wall is said to be surrounded by woodland and streams. Woods we saw, but not streams. The pine trees are also said to be well known and our guide said there are more than 20 pines over 300 years old and about 200 pines over 100 years old. We manage to take pictures of these venerable old pines up close when we got to the section that was inaccessible. We rad that we could probably continue winding 1.4 miles through lofty mountains and high ridges but we barely covered a small part. And we were already panting like dogs before we reached the top!

Why did the Ming dynasty decide to rebuild this section of the wall on such high ridgelines? According to historical records, the reason for doing so is to eliminate incursions from the Mongols. So you must be asking, how did the Mongols come about this section in the first place? Weren’t they horsemen? Apparently, the Mongols realized that they cannot easily penetrate the plains below. Therefore, they would lead their horses on the high ridgelines to stealthily enter the plains. As this occurred, the Ming authorities decided to put an end to it.

But building the wall here was not something that was completed in short time. It was actually left to the charge of two generals; Tan Lun and Qi Jiguang to build the defensive potential of Mutianyu over time.

Walking Mutianyu10
Fengshui was an important consideration.

When completed, the wall served as the northern protective screen, guarding the capital and imperial mausoleums. The next question is – why did the Ming place their imperial burial sites here?

The location of the imperial tombs had lot to do with Feng Shui – or geomancy. As this area comprises of mountains, wooded areas and river streams, it was ideal from this ideology standpoint to locate the royal family’s burial ground.

Walking Mutianyu6
Did you see any toilets here?

Tip: you do not really want to spend too much time on the wall. There are no toilets and the nearest refreshment vendor is all the way back at the cable car station.

Walking Mutianyu9
Down is always easier

The walk back was much better, as it was descending most of the time, though the last bit was upslope. As we descended the wall we could not help but notice the gradient of slope. Imagine the days when soldiers had to climb up and down patrolling the wall in full gear and weapons…and in the cold winter too? As the day wore on, the sun came overhead and the morning mist dissipated. From then it was possible to see a lot further than when we first arrived. Ok, literature says Mutianyu is also really scenic compared to the other sections of the wall. You decide. And when you are really tired, a rest along the parapet or in the watch tower can be used to ponder over the majesty of the views.

It’s a good thing there was a cable car / chair lift bringing us up to the wall. We cannot imagine we actually climbed up 13 years earlier.

Chairlift to Greatwall9
Told you legs were dangling

We firmly believe a climb up to the wall plus the strenuous walk up steep steps would probably make the visit less enjoyable and probably a lot shorter as we’d likely give up. It’s time to leave and the steep slope leading back to the chairlift was our last barrier. You know your knees and thigh muscles do ache after walking well over 1½ hours. Time to return to the coach and rest these sore legs but was so slow we were amongst the last to get back. Heheh.

Our recommendation?

Chairlift to Greatwall5
Don’t drop the camera though…

Take all the cable cars you can at all times possible. Save the walking only for the final ascent to a major watchtower. If you do want to lose the crowd, then you’d need to walk further and “trespass” through the ‘DO NOT ENTER’ sections. But if you can, try climbing it at least once – you’d earn the right to called好漢.

Our journeys to the Great Wall took place in 1998 and 2011

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