Dandong: The beginning of the Great Wall of China

Dandong: The beginning of the Great Wall of China

Dr. Watson E. Mills says, “This section of the Great Wall has so few tourists that you actually have an opportunity to take in the enormity of this building project without being pushed and shoved by others. Also, you can stroll along leisurely and enjoy the many picturesque views as you climb upward towards the top of the mountain. I can tell you this, to walk this Wall will be an experience you will never forget.”

Authenticity has always been an important issue for me when I visit the Great Wall of China. Like all who come here, I want to see what it looked like long ago, but I have found in my visits to the Wall that it is just about impossible to achieve that goal. Today, a tourist must settle to see sections of the Wall that have been rebuilt, entirely or in part. This makes it possible and safe to walk along its famous contours. So at the end of the day, I have come to realize that we tourists sometimes carry the idea of “authenticity” too far. 

I remember when I first saw the Great Wall in 1997. I was entering China from Mongolia aboard the Trans Siberian railroad and without any fanfare at all the Wall – or what was left of it – appeared right outside the window of my compartment. I must say it did not look too “Great” to me. Much of it had been eroded by the ravishes of time, many of its original blocks lay in rubble heaps, and what little of this once powerful Wall that remained was in such a state of disrepair that it would have been impossible to walk along it. My first “real” visit to the Great Wall was at Badaling outside Beijing later during this same visit. Badaling is where almost all tourists first encounter the Great Wall. It is commercial in the extreme and the crowds are humongous.

The Great Wall of China is the eighth in the present series based on the Smithsonian’s list of “28 Places to See before You Die.” The list of 28 places is divided into seven subcategories of four places each. The Great Wall is the last site in the second subcategory: “Feats of Engineering.” Next time we will venture into the third subcategory: “A Matter of Timing,” which includes places such as Iguazu Falls and Machu Picchu.

On the visit I write about today, in 2010, after weighing “authenticity” against the hordes of tourists at Badaling, I decided not to be bothered by the fact that the section I planned to visit in Northeastern China has been completely rebuilt, albeit in a way that was “faithful” to the original. Besides, Northeastern China affords beautiful views without the ever-present smog that hangs over Beijing, and, of course, it marks the beginning point of this magnificent landmark.

A column in this series about a year ago focused on the Great Wall located just a few miles outside of Beijing. This time I will write about a section of the Great Wall at Dandong less than 10 miles from the city of Dalian near China’s border with Russia and North Korea.

During my flight from Beijing to Dalian, the pilot announced that the Great Wall was about to come into view thousands of feet below. There was much excitement and enthusiasm as everyone rushed to a window. Sure enough, the Wall appeared and from this height it resembled  a giant serpent making its way across the beautiful mountainous landscape of Northeastern China. I have visited the Great Wall several times, but I never seen it from this height.

Once in Dalian, I discovered that this huge city is not only the jumping off place for touring the starting point of the Great Wall, but also a beautiful and unique city in its own right. Many towns and cities around the world often contain an open space for public gatherings usually known as a “city square.” In fact, several of the largest city squares in the world are found in China. Early that morning a taxi dropped me where I would await my bus to the Wall at Dandong. I found myself in Xinghai Square which at over 19 million square feet is the largest public square in the world. Obviously the Great Wall is something to behold, but I must say walking around in this gigantic square was also an unbelievable experience, too. The square was built in 1997 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the city of Dalian.

Soon, the bus arrived and after a few minutes I arrived at Dandong. The car park was completely empty and for a moment I wondered if the place was open! It was indeed open and I set out walking. For awhile that early morning, I was the only person on the Wall for as far as I could see. Because this section of the Great Wall (known as the Hushan Wall) has been totally rebuilt, the steps are all of uniform height and the surface is even. The Wall meanders south, passing through several towers before it climbs at a steep incline towards the top of the Hushan Mountain. There are excellent views across the river into the bleak nothingness of North Korea. By the time I returned from my walk along the Wall, there were a handful of tourists walking upward toward the towers, but nothing even close to the throngs of tourists at Badaling.

China’s Great Wall is its best-known monument and tourist attraction, and it is viewed by millions of visitors each year. “The Great Wall” is the popular name for the Wall that was built to protect China’s northern border in the 3rd century BC and also for the Wall that was built in the 15th and 16th centuries AD, long after the initial structure lay in ruin.

The Hushan Wall that lies near Dandong runs along the Yalu River which separates China from North Korea. This section of the Wall extends up the Hushan Mountain, which literally means “Tiger Mountain” and is so named because its two towering peaks resemble two tiger ears against the sky when seen from afar. The Dandong Wall represents the starting point of the 5,500 mile long Wall.

The entrance to the Wall is called the Grand Gate Tower. It consists of two parts: the main body at the bottom and the two-story tower at the top for archers. The main body is made of blue bricks, with a height of 31 feet and a width of 66 feet. As you hike along the Wall you will pass through several watchtowers – each is different from the other in terms of design and function. The highest watchtower at the top of Tiger mountain is a beacon tower. Other towers provide modest living quarters for the soldiers. The Wall itself is about 26 feet high and 13 feet wide.

China’s Great Wall is, without doubt, the greatest architectural achievement ever accomplished by the Chinese. To the Chinese people, it embodies the nation’s inherent spirit and industrious nature. It symbolizes the indomitable spirit of a nation. Today it resonates with all people all over the globe as a fascinating place to visit. I would not necessarily agree with a quotation attributed to Chairman Mao: “He who has not been to the Great Wall is not a true man!” but I would definitely advise you to see this monumental structure – and to walk along it – should the opportunity ever arise. To do that is an amazing experience.

Next time: “The Northern Lights”