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Friday, May 30, 2014

Memorializing Beijing, Part 2

The Great Wall of China 万里长城. To quote Wikipedia:

The Great Wall of China is a series of fortifications made of stone, brick, tamped earth, wood, and other materials, generally built along an east-to-west line across the historical northern borders of China in part to protect the Chinese Empire or its prototypical states against intrusions by various nomadic groups or military incursions by various warlike peoples or forces. Several walls were being built as early as the 7th century BC; these, later joined together and made bigger and stronger, are now collectively referred to as the Great Wall. Especially famous is the wall built between 220–206 BC by the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang. Little of that wall remains. Since then, the Great Wall has on and off been rebuilt, maintained, and enhanced; the majority of the existing wall is from the Ming Dynasty.

Other purposes of the Great Wall have included border controls, allowing the imposition of duties on goods transported along the Silk Road, regulation or encouragement of trade and the control of immigration and emigration. Furthermore, the defensive characteristics of the Great Wall were enhanced by the construction of watch towers, troop barracks, garrison stations, signaling capabilities through the means of smoke or fire, and the fact that the path of the Great Wall also served as a transportation corridor.

The main Great Wall line stretches from Shanhaiguan in the east, to Lop Lake in the west, along an arc that roughly delineates the southern edge of Inner Mongolia. A comprehensive archaeological survey, using advanced technologies, has concluded that the Ming walls measure 8,850 km (5,500 mi). This is made up of 6,259 km (3,889 mi) sections of actual wall, 359 km (223 mi) of trenches and 2,232 km (1,387 mi) of natural defensive barriers such as hills and rivers. Another archaeological survey found that the entire wall with all of its branches measure out to be 21,196 km (13,171 mi).

You can’t see the Great Wall from space. It’s not one long wall, but a series of formations created over a long period of time. In fact, no one knows for sure how many sections of the wall actually exist. It required a colossal investment in manpower, money and time to construct and maintain, yet it failed spectacularly on the two occasions that mattered most: in the 13th century, when the Mongol hordes overran northern China and established the Yuán Dynasty 大元; and in 1644, when the Manchu conquered the country. And it is truly a magnificent sight, and a must-see on anyone’s Chinese itinerary.

On the second full day of our weekend trip to Bĕijīng 北京, I bade farewell to my wife and daughter, and embarked on a tour to one of the more lesser-known and least-visited sections of the wall. Organized by one of the city’s youth hostels, our group of 16 (including your humble scribe) intrepid (and mainly German-speaking) youthful travelers traveled on a three-hour bus ride to Jīnshānlĭng 金山岭长城, 125 kilometers (78 miles) northeast of Beijing. For me, it was the ideal tour: a guide walked us to the start of the hiking path, pointed out on the map where we needed to turn left and then right, and then announced she would see us in about three hours, leaving us to do the hike on our own:

The first part of the hike was on a section restored in the 1980’s, making for a relatively easy walk in the beginning:

The day had started out dreary and overcast in Beijing, then became smoggy as our bus left the city. By the time we reached Jinshanling, however, the weather couldn’t have been better:

Just one of many classic views that afternoon:

One not-so-serious selfie…:

…and one serious shot:

The wall snaked its way across the top of the ridge, but I wondered why it was built in this location. It was hard to imagine any army attempting to cross this section of steep terrain in order to launch an attack. Surely the Chinese could have relied on natural defensive barriers like the one in Jinshanling and concentrated more of their forces in more likely invasion spots:

The Dark Tower was just one of 22 watchtowers we passed through during the hike. Peter Jackson was no doubt inspired by the Chinese beacon system whereby fires would be lit on these watchtowers as a way of transmitting signals:

It was steep going in some places:

And the wall goes on…:

Eventually, the wall reverted to its more natural state, with crumbling steps and equally crumbling watchtowers. It was at this point that the possibility of broken bones or sprained ankles became real:

Isolated though they may have been, some of the watchtowers were occupied by vendors selling drinks and Snicker bars. One “poor farmer from Inner Mongolia" became offended when I wouldn’t buy a kids-size T-shirt from her, even though she insisted I “had to”:

At one point, the wind whipped up and blew me closer to the edge than I would’ve liked. It made me wonder how many soldiers lost their lives on the wall in just such a manner, or by slipping or falling on the steep steps. Or from the dangers posed by heavy rain, earthquakes, snow or lightning strikes. Or from suicides brought about by boredom or loneliness. What did the soldiers eat? Where did they sleep, or go to the bathroom? What did they do to ward off the tedium? How long were their tours of duty? It’s one thing to hike a relatively short section of the wall by choice. It’s another to be forced to stand guard atop a lonely ridge in the middle of nowhere, constantly scanning the landscape for incursions by terrifying “barbarians” from the north:

A taste of the surrounding scenery:

At some points it was necessary to use my hands as well as my feet in order to ascend the steps:

And the wall goes on, both in front of and behind me:

Another selfie:

I admit this shot makes me look somewhat chunky. It’s true I’ve gotten heavy; on the other hand, I traversed six kilometers (3.7 miles) and passed through 22 watchtowers in just two hours and forty minutes. In fact, I was the first of our group to finish the hike, when I had been worried that I was the one the young ‘uns would’ve been waiting for at the bus:

Nearing the end:

The view through a couple of watchtower windows. “Autobahn!” cried one of the German-speaking hikers:

A last look back at whence I had come:

The wall continued on to Sīmătái 司马台, but this was the point where our group needed to leave the wall and make its way down to where the bus would be waiting. Did I mention I was the first to finish?:

A last look at the landscape and the Great Wall as I headed downhill:

Some of the local wildlife:

It was around 7:30 in the evening by the time I was reunited with Amber and Pamela. Hiking the Great Wall of China, even just a small section of it, meant another item could be crossed off of my bucket list (if I had one, that is). We still had one full day left in Beijing, however…:


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