It was towards the end of February and the air was crisp and cool when I arrived at Badaling, an hour and a half from Beijing. I left behind the pollution of the capital city and found a sun that was pale gold and a sky that was bright blue. The surrounding landscape reflected mixed patches of brown and red. The wind was so strong at moments that it almost took my breath. Walking from the bus park towards the entrance to the Great Wall my heart began to race. I could scarcely believe that I was here having imagined this day for so long. Now it had finally arrived. It was surreal.
As I worked my way up the inclined walk-way, it began to sink in, I was about to set my eyes upon a sight I had dreamed of seeing for so many, many years. Finally, passing through a turn style, I turned a few corners and then, there before me, stretching into the distance, stood the Great Wall. It ascended and then descended; again and again up and down the hills, it wound its away along like a giant ribbon. Though I had seen many photos of it, I was astonished!
Taking a few photos, I began my climb. In those days I was a good bit younger and in passable physical condition, but even then walking along the wall at Badaling where it has been refurbished was an experience that soon began to take its toll on my knees and legs. The steps are uneven and often have an inconsistent depth and height, so sometimes you are taking a larger (or smaller)-than-average step up or down. The slight pain in my lower extremities would fade away in a few days, but the memories of this experience never would.
I have been fortunate enough to visit the Great Wall on four occasions during my many visits to China. Twice at Badaling (45 miles from Beijing), once at Mutianyu (40 miles from Beijing), and once at Dandong, outside Dalian in the northeast part of China near the Russian border. To visit the Great Wall at Badaling has, I discovered, some drawbacks. This location is the one most frequented by tourists and so it is often very crowded. The whole area is thoroughly commercialized, and any visitor must wade through what seems an endless array of shops and stalls to reach the entrance point. Also, at Badaling, due to the major renovations, much of its original character and feel of the wall has been lost. Nonetheless, this section of the Great Wall at Badaling is its most famous stretch since it was the first section to be opened to the public as China lifted its veil of secrecy and began to develop a tourist industry. It is a showpiece stretch where foreign dignitaries often pose with Chinese officials for a photograph.
To the south of Badaling is the Juyong Pass where there is a section of the wall that used to accommodate numerous guards to defend the capital, Beijing. This section is made of stone and bricks from the hills. At this particular section, the wall is over 25 feet high and 16 feet wide.
The Great Wall is unique in many ways. Historians count it as one of the greatest achievements of humankind due to the centuries that were required to construct it and due to its great costs in terms of treatment (and lives!) of workers and in terms of financial resources. Architects admire the enduring value of the wall because of its design and construction. As a fortification, it served to defend China for centuries. For all of these reasons and more, it has been listed among the “New Seven Wonders of the World” and it is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The “Great Wall of China” is a collective term that refers to a series of fortifications made of stone, brick, tamped earth, wood, and other materials, generally built along an east-to-west line that marks the historical northern borders of China. Its stated purpose was to protect the Chinese empire from the raids and invasions by various nomadic groups of the Eurasian Steppe. The Great Wall is actually a series of many different walls built by several dynasties over many centuries. Collectively, these various iterations stretch from Dandong in the east to Lop Lake in the west and form the present-day Chinese-Russian border in the north as they continue on, roughly delineating the edge of Mongolian Steppe.
One of the most famous of these sections was one that was built in 220–206 BC by Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China (Qin is pronounced ‘chin’ and gives China its name). During this time, glutinous rice flour was used as the material (cement) to bind the bricks. Almost none of that wall remains. Since then several walls have been built and some of these were joined together and made bigger and stronger over the centuries. These sections have been refurbished, maintained, and enhanced by various dynasties.
Much of the existing wall is from the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). The Ming wall is 5,500 miles in length, but there are hundreds of smaller branches, some major, other minor in terms of length. If these could be straightened out and somehow added to the Ming wall, its overall length would more than double (about four trip across the USA).
Wall building techniques were widely known and practiced in Chinese culture during the spring and fall season from the 8th century BC and the Chinese states of Yan, Wei, Qi, Zhao and Zhongshan each constructed a walled fortification to seal and defend their borders. These walls were made by compacting earth and gravel between wooden frames. They could repel attacks when the enemy was only equipped with swords and spears.
Due to the wall’s association with Qin’s cruel treatment of many of the workers, the dynasties after Qin avoided referring to their own additions to the wall by the name “Long Wall” – Qin’s usual nomenclature. Instead, they used other terms that are reflected in medieval records. In translation these terms for the wall are often rendered in English as “frontier,” “rampart,” “the outer fortresses” and “the border wall.” Poetic and informal names for the wall have included such terms such as “the Purple Frontier” and “the Earth Dragon.”
Only during the Qing period did “Long Wall” again become the common term to refer to the many border walls regardless of their location or dynastic origin. “Long Wall” is the equivalent of the English term “Great Wall.”
Apart from defense, other purposes of the Great Wall included border control, allowing the imposition of duties on goods transported along the Silk Road, regulation or encouragement of trade, and the control of immigration.
The defensive characteristics of the Great Wall were enhanced by the construction of watch towers, troop barracks, garrison stations, and signaling capabilities through the means of smoke or fire. The path along the Great Wall has also served as a transportation corridor for Chinese goods.
My boyhood years were spent in Richmond, Virginia. My family lived on the south side of town and when we went shopping or to the movies we crossed the James River on Robert E. Lee Bridge. There on Cary Street used to stand the Virginia State Penitentiary. I remember asking my father about its looming walls that ran right along the street replete with ominous-looking guard towers and razor-wire. He explained to me that its purpose was to keep those being punished inside. Later during the mid-1980s I visited the Berlin Wall and passed through checkpoint Charlie to the East side where I looked through the Brandenburg Gate to spot where JKF declared himself “a Berliner.” It, too, was a wall whose purpose was to confine people to a life under ruthless Communist dictators. The Great Wall, however, was intended to keep perceived enemies out and to keep its citizens safe. For my part, the Great Wall of China is not only amazing because of its sheer size but because of its purpose. Defending the people of a nation has been throughout history a legitimate purpose of all governments, and despite its tremendous costs both human and financial, it appears to have achieved its central aim at least to some degree.
Next time: “Machu Picchu: The Lost City of the Incas”