Sunday, 16 June 2013

It's a Wall, and it's Great

“On your right is the Trans-Siberian railway. Take that and you can be in Moscow in 7 days”. It is strange sometimes how the most mundane looking of things can have such romantic and exciting connotations. I mean I used to travel on the train every day to work and the Trans-Siberian railway doesn’t look any more interesting that the Northampton-Euston train main line.

We are on the last but one day of our trip to China. Today is “Great Wall Day”. We’re just heading out of Beijing towards the large section of restored wall at Badaling. We are assured that even though the section we’re going to see was extensively restored in the 1950s some of the original bricks were used, so it is practically the same thing.

As befits something you can supposedly see from the moon you get sight of the wall from quite a long way out. This isn’t so much because of its size – of which more later – but because of where it is. The Great Wall is built, as far as it can be, on the top of hills and mountains. Consequently it starts out with an inherent advantage for Things You Can See From A Long Way Off.

The other reason it is so visible is simple colour contrast. The wall varies between a sort of light brown and grey. The mountains are largely covered in vegetation, so it marks out a huge man-made scar carved across the countryside.

Gregory, our irrepressible local guide, is typically enthusiastic about what we are to see, and I learn some things I didn’t know. Actually, apart from seeing the odd documentary on it, the Great Wall has never featured highly on my list of things to be interested in. it’s sort of something you’re aware of and you know it is important.

The concept of the Great Wall as a “Great Wall” is over 2,000 years old. It all goes back to Emperor Chin, the Terracotta Army man. Prior to that there were seven little walls, all built by separate kingdoms to protect their northern borders. Chin’s instructions were to link them all together and then extend them. Throughout its history it has been modernised and rebuilt, probably principally by the Ming dynasty, but the basic concept stays the same. It’s a big wall with watchtowers every 500 metres or so stuck on the top of the dominant ground until it winds to its eventual conclusion in the middle of the Gobi desert.

The road heads out to the site, and the Wall, or elements of it, are always in your eye-line. When you get to the site you can’t drive right up to it. There’s a walk up a broad boulevard, past souvenir shops, cafes & restaurants as you head towards the main gate. The design isa such that you approach it effectively from outside so you can be impressed by it.

It has all been done in good taste, - the goods in the shops may be tacky but the entrance area is clean, well designed and well laid out. You are warned to use “the facilities” as there isn’t a lot of plumbing on the wall itself. 

Up at the wall itself you can head either left or right to walk along it. There’s some dispute as to which is the more difficult walk and which has the best views. We head West. East may have been better, but we’re not disappointed by our choice. 

The first thing you note as you walk is that it isn’t flat. If you’ve walked city walls in England (or even in China) you’ll have noted the engineers attempts to keep the walls level. Not here. The entire aim is to build to a certain level on the commanding heights. If the mountain shoots up nearly vertical, then the wall likewise goes nearly vertical. There are steps, it is true, but you need the handrail. The steps are in good repair, but they do not all have the same riser height nor depth.

Of course fit young people like me and Mrs T are bounding up and down the steps like gazelles, but not everyone is in the first flush of youth. This isn’t a walk you do in a hurry.

The view from the top is stunning. You constantly stop just to look. The Wall is worth seeing in itself, but it also gives you access to look at countryside you otherwise probably couldn’t see. It’s like an enormous public footpath through an area of outstanding natural beauty.

The Wall as a military obstacle has, to me, a number of question marks hanging over it. They’ll tell you that it was built to keep out both the Mongols and the Manchus. Both of these peoples did succeed in crossing the wall in some way and overthrowing the ruling Dynasty, setting themselves up as rulers of China. Thus the Wall can be seen as only ever delaying the inevitable, - of course if it delays the inevitable for 300 years then that’s probably a success.

If the Wall has been reconstructed in accordance with the original design then it actually isn’t that big. Again, compared to castle and city walls in the West it didn’t strike me as awfully tall. And it doesn’t have a moat in front of it. So my view would be that it is fairly easy to cross it with a few storming ladders. Especially as the guard towers are 250 yards apart. What it does prevent, I suppose, is the lightening raid by mounted troops. So that might be what they were trying to achieve.

The other thing that did occur to me was that it probably didn’t look a lot like this when it was actively used. Trees and foliage are allowed to grow up really close to the Wall. I would guess, seeing as this would give cover to attacking troops, that it must have been cleared back from the Wall for distance of at least 125 yards (or what the Chinese considered to be bow range). In conclusion I think it is basically saying "Oy! You barbarians. Look what we can build. You might as well b*gg*r off and attack someone else"

My final, final thought is this. The Wall is an iconic location. It is instantly recognisable to a large number of people who live on the planet. Like Red Square or the Pyramids, it's one of those places you can say you've been to and people are instantly, genuinely, interested in.

And we've been there.


  1. I've not been to the Wall, but I have been to Red Square* :)

    *Most impressive at night, when they left the snow on it.

    1. We were there at midnight. No snow, however, but there was a full moon.

  2. I wonder what the standing garrison would have been?? They clearly couldn't man all of it...

    1. I'd guess you'd have 10 or 20 men in a watch tower and patrol between them.

      Of course the numbers wold have gone up and down depending on the state of the ruling dynasty.

    2. Blimey - so 13000 miles long, that's say - let's be pessimistic, 40,000 watch towers....?? Assume low side on garrison, so call it a half a million men to man the wall!

    3. They did have access to a lot of resources, - 700,000 people to build the erracotta warriors and the mausoleum is the usual guess. The minimum army size is also normally described as 100,000. But your point is a good one, - it probably never was fully manned, and if it was it would be by fairly poor local militias.

  3. >>We are assured that even though the section we’re going to see was extensively restored in the 1950s some of the original bricks were used, so it is practically the same thing.

    Bit like the Cutty Sark :-p

    Looks great - wish I was there!

    1. Exactly like the Cutty Sark, only slightly less seaworthy.