The Great Wall of China, one of the wonders of the ancient world—so we had learnt from elementary school. And in a few hours, I would be on it! I mulled on this for a moment. The movie—The Great Wall, starring a buff Brad Pitt and the very attractive Tian Jing passed through my mind. The various sections of the wall had been built over a long period of time, in fact many centuries, to keep marauding hordes from the north ravaging the empire, with mixed success. In some countries walls are being contemplated, even today, to prevent being overrun by so called “hordes”. It seems history keeps repeating itself. Why don’t we ever learn from it?
A little history:
Over two thousand years ago, during the period of the Warring states in China, the many kingdoms had walls built to protect themselves from rival states. Around 220 BCE, Emperor Qin Shihuang conquered all opposing kingdoms and united the empire— the birth of the Qin dynasty. He promptly demolished the walls that now internally fragmented his empire and went about building a wall along his new northern frontier. This was the beginning of the Great Wall. It was a crude affair of packed dry earth and stone. Over time this wall fell into disuse and erosion took its toll. Very few original sections survive today. Latter empires repaired or extended parts of the wall according to their needs. But in 1225 it was not a contiguous wall. Chengiz Khan and his Mongol horseman identified the breaches and rode through them all the way to Beijing establishing the Yuan dynasty. In this respect the wall was a failure.
In the 14th century, the Ming dynasty was being bled dry from the long wars with the Manchus and Mongols on the northern fringes. Astute state planners started to look at the wall again as a means of protection. They resurrected the idea of a strong, continuous wall along their northern perimeter. This time the wall was built south of the Gobi and Ordos deserts bypassing the Mongol strongholds. Compared to the earlier Qin construct, this was much sturdier, built of brick and stone with imposing ramparts, battlements and watch towers. Defending their capital, Beijing, was a high priority of the Ming, so the walls around Beijing were particularly reinforced and well maintained. In certain places, the wall was wide enough for four to five horses to gallop abreast. These sections are what tourists flock to see today.
Militarily, the wall was at best a modest success. But it did form a spectacular, safe and wide highway for trade and travel from the eastern seas to the western deserts contributing to the wealth and power of the huge, sprawling empire. Echoes of the wall and its secondary and tertiary benefits on trade can be found in the modern Chinese Belt and Road initiative.
The two best places to visit the Wall that are closest to Beijing are Badaling and Mutianyu. Both are well preserved. Badaling is the closest and as a result the most touristy. Mutianyu is slightly further (a 2 to 2.5 hour drive), so the crowds and hawkers peddling wall-trinkets are less. It also has a chair-lift that takes tourists to the top of the wall and a very popular toboggan run that brings them down to the base. I had selected Mutianyu because of the chair lift. Mutianyu would also give me a chance to see the countryside around Beijing.
After an early breakfast, Xu Di, my translator; Mario, our tour guide and I set off in a car for Mutianyu. As we left congested Beijing, the air became cleaner and fresher. We saw green fields and spring flowers blooming in the warm sun. The flat plain became hilly as we approached the northern outskirts of Beijing. We saw restaurants with exotic names beckoning to tourists. Suddenly I saw the much photographed Wall snaking across the spine of the mountains. It stretched from east to west as far as the eye could see. My eyes were glued to it when the car stopped. We had arrived at Mutianyu.
I got down and stretched. Mario went to get tickets for the chair-lift. It was essentially a ski-lift but very useful if you could not or did not want to hike all the way up. Within minutes I was standing on the wall. I looked around me to get my bearings— historically and geographically.
It was early April. The sun was bright with just a little chill in the air. I looked to the north. It was mountains, mountains as far as the eye could see and completely deserted. On a clear day you can see all the way into Mongolia. I leaned over the ramparts just as a Chinese general might have done seven hundred years ago, eyes and ears alert, scanning the horizon for telltale signs of Mongol cavalry on the move—the thundering hooves and dust-plume of a thousand horses bearing down on the Wall and the empire. He ducks as a short-shafted arrow whizzes by raising his metal shield just in time as another arrow ricochets off it with an ominous clang. A lucky escape! This spurs him into action. He curtly orders a counter strike with flaming, explosive arrows—the Chinese had gunpowder then. It could have happened at this very spot, I imagine. This was flashback in time! I woke myself from this pleasant reverie.
I walked along a well preserved section of the wall, climbed the battlements and took pictures. I kept thinking how much time, effort and resources it must have taken to build something of this magnitude in ancient times. It must have drained the state coffers, not to mention the forced conscription of starving peasants and lives lost through forced labor. You can read about these in any good guide book. But, it was and still is a spectacular wall and definitely worth a visit, for a history buff like me.
The exertions had made me hungry and thirsty. I sat in a rest area in the shade. Luckily, the day before, anticipating just such an exertion, we had bought a supply of dried raisins, walnuts and almonds from a store in Beijing, an improvised ‘trail mix’. These were products from Xinjiang province and had a unique flavor. I was particularly impressed by the raisins. Each was almost an inch long and still retained the delicious fruity aroma of the grapes. I chowed them down in handfuls. After a few sips of water I was refreshed and ready for the journey back to Beijing.
It was early afternoon by the time we returned. We had time for a quick look at the Summer Palaces and Kunming Lake. The ruins of the Old Summer Palace is a potent reminder of the excesses and wanton destruction committed by the colonial Anglo-French powers during the Opium Wars of 1856-1860.
For dinner we went to Kuang Fan, a restaurant in Yintai, a popular mall where I ordered ‘Chicken in a Clay Pot’, a Cantonese specialty. It was piping hot and spicy, in a word—delicious. The birds head was in the pot neatly split down the middle. See if you can spot it in the picture. Hint, look for the beak.
It was late by the time I returned to my hotel. It had been a wonderful, eventful day with a visit to The Great Wall of China. I fell asleep dreaming of charging horses, helmeted soldiers and flaming arrows.
The next day I was on a plane headed back to the US. It had been a very fruitful and enjoyable visit to China, thanks to the many teachers, students and staff who had made it possible.