THE Wall

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.

On the way up to the wall – fog, fog and more fog

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.

Our first glimpse of the Wall

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.

Inside one of the watch towers


  • 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.



Beijing haze

That last post means that I’ve covered all of our stop in the amazing province of Yunnan. After we left Zhongdian (another spectacular bus ride with amazing mountain views!), we returned for a short stay at Bruce’s in Shuhe.

Before we knew it, it was time to head to the airport and catch our next flight, north and east to China’s capital city. As our plane ascended, we were able to look west and see the Himalayan mountains, snow-capped and brilliant in the afternoon sun. SUCH an amazing sight. And a quite a contrast to the place we’d be landing in later that night.

I need to be fair here. I think the odds may have been stacked against Beijing making the best impression on me. I know people who think it’s pretty darn cool and according to what I’ve read about it, there should be loads of interesting stuff to see and do. But it ended up being my least favorite part of our time in China.

So, like I said, to be fair, we didn’t see it at its – or my – best. We were there during some of the worst fog/smog the city that year. The first few days, we could hardly see across the street it was so thick. Our apartment felt like it was floating in a silent, surreal cloud. The weather was cold too, and that chill felt like it seeped into everything, while the fog leached color out of the world. It created an eerie effect for me; the city at times seemed too quiet, too subdued.

Also, I was miserable and sick with a really bad cold for a lot of the time. Even if the sights outside the apartment would have been more enticing, I don’t know how much energy I would have had for exploration.

Not that I didn’t get out. We rented a studio apartment via Airb’n’b in the city’s art district, and it wasn’t long before we had our regular spots in the neighborhood for groceries, coffee (yay, Costa!) and some reliable restaurants. It was a nice change to just live like a normal person instead of a tourist for a few days, to absorb every day happenings around the neighborhood.

Sick or no, there is no way you can go to Beijing and NOT visit the Forbidden City, so that was the one major tourist sight that I visited (Roman went to more while me and my cold flopped in the apartment). Of course we also visited The Great Wall, but I’ll save that for another post.

The Forbidden City

It’s impossible not to be impressed by the Forbidden City. Built in the 1400s, the compound served as the imperial palace to 24 different emperors. It is the largest “ancient palatial structure” in the world, composed of hundreds of buildings and courtyards covering over 170 acres. All of it is surrounded by two security measures – a broad moat and a thick, high wall that is over seven meters high. Every detail, from the placement of the buildings to the color of the roof tiles, was carefully planned and executed with both symbolic and practical consideration. Nearly all the roofs are yellow, the color of the emperor. Massive copper and iron vats line courtyards and in ancient times were filled with water, providing both decoration and a means to put out fires. Lots more information on the symbolism of the architecture and design here if you are interested.

We spent half a day wandering around the complex, leaving as the sun began to set. If I’d been feeling better, I think we could have easily spent even longer – there was so much to see and take in! 🙂 Here are just some glimpses of the place.

Tourists checking out one of those big copper vats

The sun setting over the exterior moat (you may have to search the haze a bit to find it!)

Quick update

Internet in Beijing was not the consistent, fast thing I thought it would be! That plus being a bit under the weather has kept me off the blog and offline in general these past days.

It was great to have some down time in a proper apartment, something a bit more homey than another hotel room (thanks again Airbnb!) where I could make cup after cup of tea and watch the ridiculously thick smog envelop the view outside our window. 🙂

We left the capital city last night, overnight-training it to Pingyao (curious where that might be? Check out Roman’s impressive-looking map on Everlater). Unbelievably, it’s already our last week here in mainland China and there’s a ton we’re trying to fit into our time, but I’ll also try to sneak in some more posts now that we have reliable internet again. 🙂

Current events: Landed in Beijing

It feels like forever since I’ve written anything. Really it’s only been about a week, but what a full one it’s been!

Yunnan was a whirlwind – three stops (Tiger Leaping Gorge, Zhongdian, also known as Shangrila, and Lijiang/Shuhe) in six days and all of them beautiful.

And now we’ve landed in Beijing.

We’ve gotten ourselves a big, bright studio apartment in the art district (using Air BnB again) and it feels good to know we’ll be staying in one place for more than two nights! Although as of today we only have two more weeks in China – and a LOT we want to see and do before we leave. So I’ll enjoy the bit of down time while I can. And do what I can about the blog backlog. 🙂