The Great Wall of China

It was with a certain amount of trepidation that I set off from Beijing for our obligatory visit to the Great Wall during my CTS tour of China in 2009. The image of densely packed crowds, litter and souvenir stalls had been firmly fixed in my mind by a friend who’s most vivid recollection seemed to be the quantity of discarded chewing gum and puddles of spit that made walking on the visitors’ section of the wall precarious, not to say uninviting.

I don’t know when she was there but my excursion with China Travel Service turned out to be the opportunity of a lifetime. This is one of the most visited edifices in the world, somewhere that is on everyone’s “list” and, to make matters worse, tourists are generally confined to a comparatively short section outside the capital. But at Mutianu I was able to stand on the wall alone with nothing but the breeze and the birdsong to keep me company. I watched it snake away into the distance and marvelled for a time while Sophie took the others off in the other direction for a stroll.

A bridal couple turned up to pose for a few good luck photos but otherwise I was undisturbed and, as for the litter: not a speck. I shall treasure the experience for the rest of my life even though I know that this section of the wall is heavily restored and of little interest to scholars or archaeologists but at the time (the very beginning of my trip) I had the reassuring feeling that I had made a sound choice of tour organiser. The photographs are not bad either.

The Great Wall was never a single edifice but a series of segments succesively re-built and added to throughout the dynasties over a two thousand year period. As a defensive structure it was only as good as the massive army garrisoning it and the organisation of the Imperial Court willing to pay for it. At its apogee during the sixteenth century Ming dynasty it was costing the Empire thousands of wagons of silver each year, more than enough to pay off each marauding barbarian with his own personal fortune.

It was as a statement that the Wall was most effective. From the great unification in the second century BC under Qin Shi Huang, better known as The First Emperor, to the bold vision of General Qi Jiguang, the great Ming strategist, it proclaimed the might of an empire able to keep hundreds of thousands of men under arms and sacrifice as many as it took to build the greatest edifice the world has ever seen. With over seven thousand watchtowers and nearly a thousand beacons it was also as efficient a means of communication as could be devised to keep the empire together.

In many, if not most, places along it’s estimated five and a half thousand mile length it is now degraded and neglected, sometimes disappearing from view altogether. This is particularly so in the western deserts where much of the wall was constructed from rammed earth and mud brick rather than fired brick or stone. Indeed, a previously unknown section was being identified in Gansu province by archaeologists at just about the time I was there. Although I didn’t think I’d need any more pictures of the Great Wall, I’ve had to borrow a couple to illustrate these disparities for, after Mutianu, I didn’t actually visit it again until I got to the very Western end at Jiayungan.

The great fort which controls the corridor between two mountain ranges is now heavily restored but in its day it was known as the Impregnable Defile Under Heaven and marked the last outpost of civilisation. In the fourteenth century a posting here was considered to be tantamount to exile as some of the graffiti on the Gate of Sighs attests. We enjoyed the visit although a not particularly helpful local guide reeled off information in an uninspiring and utterly forgettable way, which was a shame because some of the stories of the people who fetched up in this forgotten part of the world are quite fascinating.

I noticed this lack of engagement with the subject matter even more at Xuanbichangcheng where, beneath a portion of the hanging wall (also heavily restored), a set of statues commemorate some of the most famous characters to have passed this way throughout Chinese history. Our somewhat disinterested guide caved in to pressure from other members of the group to leave what they described as a “Disneyland” display and move on to something more authentic. I seem to have had time to get a decent set of photographs but the plaques were in Chinese and so identifying everybody is going to prove quite a challenge.

Well, I experienced the Great Wall as visitors are expected to and was suitably impressed. But much of the accompanying information did not come from our guides who, to be fair, were just following a prepared script. I should explain that although Sophie accompanied us throughout the trip we had local guides for each segment and, as in all such cases, some were better than others. We were also aware of some restrictions on topics for discussion imposed by the authorities although, as will become apparent, not always obeyed to the letter.

Now that the past is regaining some of its fascination in China, archaeologists are continuing to make new discoveries about the people who built it and lived alongside the Wall: sometimes whole villages are descended from those who were garrisoned along it. This is because Qi Jiaguang, in addition to recruiting tens of thousands of building workers from the Southern provinces, saw the wisdom of allowing them to bring their families along as well. But if I didn’t find out as much as I’d have liked at the time then there has been no real excuse for failing to do so since.


Categories: China, Far East


  • nicola ainsworth says:

    test comment

  • Chris says:

    Have you had any luck tracking down the characters at the end of the Wall? I’d like to know more about the “Chinese Sancho Panza”.

  • Nicola says:


    78c Lin Zexu (anti-opium campaigner & exile, 19th cent.)
    79 Zuo Zongtang (general & diplomat, 19th cent.)
    80 Ban Chao (explorer, 1st cent.)
    81 Marco Polo (explorer from Europe 13th cent.)
    82 Yuan Zang (Buddhist pilgrim to India, 7th cent.)
    83 General Huo Qubing (military tactician, 2nd cent. BC)
    84 Zhang Qian (Imperial envoy, 2nd cent. BC)

    I don’t know from whom I got the idea that one of the statues could be described as the “Chinese Sancho Panza” (fictional companion of Don Quixote), it is certainly unlikely to be something that I came up with spontaneously. Perhaps our guide compared the diminutive companion of Marco Polo to this character from Spanish literature? Certainly there are many legends about the companions of Yuan Zang (a five hundred year old monkey amongst them) and, if this is not complicated enough, General Huo Qubing is sometimes referred to as the “Chinese Alexander” for his charisma, military prowess and early death.

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