Like Beijing and the Forbidden City, Paris and the Eiffel Tower, Egypt and the Pyramids, one can NOT go to China without visiting the Great Wall. It would simply be touristically, possibly even morally, wrong.
We waited patiently in Beijing for the weather and my cold to improve so that we could go to the Wall. In the end, neither the fog nor my congestion lifted, and we just had to go anyway. Happily, unlike the city, our experience of the Great Wall was only enhanced by the murky autumn weather.
Knowing just how famous the Wall is, how essential a tick it is on the China-tourist to-do-list, I had braced myself for pushy vendors, obnoxious crowds, and tour group leaders waving flags or umbrellas in the air. We did take the precaution of going to the Mutianyu section of the wall, rather than Badaling, which is THE most visited spot on the entire wall.
Mutianyu is still relatively close to Beijing and also relatively easy to get to. (We took a bus from Beijing, about an hour’s drive, and then hired a lovely female cab driver to take us to the wall and back from the bus terminal) It’s definitely set up to receive tourists; I understand that some sections of the Wall further out from Beijing are less restored and can actually get pretty desolate. I’m sure it must be beautiful but I was definitely not up for a whole day of vigorous hiking at that point. We’ll simply have to go back. 😉
As it was with me still being sick, we only did a half day visit. It was better than nothing and I’m so glad we did even that, because I absolutely loved the wall. The bad weather worked in our favor; although the entrance leading up to the wall sure felt touristy, with tons of souvenir stands selling all sorts of useless junk, all of this faded away quickly enough and the up on the Wall itself there were hardly any people.
The fog that had felt so oppressive in the city only shrouded the Wall and surrounding hills in an atmosphere that was both peaceful and evocative. It was so quiet, and any scenery beyond nearby wooded hills was obscured by the mist. An occasional magpie would glide from tree to tree across the valley, but aside from that, all was still, and it was easy to forget time completely and imagine that we’d been transported back across the centuries to the time when the Wall was young and an active part of the areas defenses against Mongol armies. It’s easy to think a wall is a wall is a wall, but I was just blown away by the sheer size and history of the thing, and by all that it implied – the ingenuity and sacrifices required to create it, the realities of the world into which it was built, the number of centuries it has silently witnessed. It was – it is – simply incredible.
There’s plenty of info out there about the Wall, but here are some fun facts you may not know about that I’ve purloined from the interwebs (source):
- That the Great Wall is a single, continuous wall built all at once is a myth. In reality, the wall is a discontinuous network of wall segments built by various dynasties to protect China’s northern boundary.
- During its construction, the Great Wall was called “the longest cemetery on earth” because so many people died building it. Reportedly, it cost the lives of more than one million people.
- The Great Wall of China is also known as the wanli changcheng or Long Wall of 10,000 Li (a li is a measure of distance, approximately 1/3 of a mile). The main wall is around 2,145 miles (3,460 km) long with an extra 1,770 miles (2,860 km) of branches and spurs.
- The Great Wall of China is the longest man-made structure in the world.
- The length of all Chinese defense walls built over the last 2,000 years is approximately 31,070 miles (50,000 km). Earth’s circumference is 24,854 miles (40,000 km).
- Because the Great Wall was discontinuous, Mongol invaders led by Genghis Khan (“universal ruler”) had no problem going around the wall and they subsequently conquered most of northern China between A.D. 1211 and 1223. They ruled all of China until 1368 when the Ming defeated the Mongols.
- Contrary to common belief, the Great Wall of China cannot be seen from the moon without aid. This pervasive myth seems to have started in 1893 in the American-published magazine The Century and then resurfaced in 1932 when Robert Ripley of Ripley’s Believe it Or Not claimed the Great Wall could be seen from the moon—even though space flight was decades away. It is questionable whether the Great Wall can be seen from a close orbit with the unaided eye.
- It is common to hear that the mortar used to bind the stones was made from human bones or that men are buried within the Great Wall to make it stronger. However, the mortar was actually made from rice flour—and no bones, human or otherwise, have ever been found in any of the Great Wall’s walls.
- During the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-78), the Great Wall was seen as sign of despotism, and people were encouraged to take bricks from it to use in their farms or homes.