It is a single, massive stone structure that undulates across thousands of miles. Although it does stretch several thousand miles, the "Great Wall" is actually a series/network of walls, not all physically connected; some are made of stone, some of rammed earth, some of clay brick. A few sections were low enough to be easily jumped by horse & rider.
When a worker died, his body was simply built over to save time. No; decomposing bodies would leave empty "bubbles" that would weaken the structure and possibly cause it to collapse. Untold thousands of workers died while building the Wall but there is no evidence that any were entombed within.
It was built in a single, massive effort to keep Mongol raiders from "civilized" lands. Construction of the Wall stretched across at least two separate dynasties; some sections were meant to interfere with Mongol movement, others to keep local warlords in check or block other enemies besides the Mongols.
Meng Jiangnu wept so long & cried so loudly over her huband's death at the wall that a section collapsed. The "Meng Legend" has been traced back by historians & ethnographers both in China and elsewhere to a period predating the Wall by a century or more. (Westerners may not be familiar with this particular legend, but it's relatively well-known in China.)
It is one of the greatest feats of human engineering and a lasting symbol of the power of ancient China. Oh, yeah -- and then some!
I'll be honest: the Forbidden City blew me away, and has been on my bucket list for years; I was excited to be walking in Tienamen Square; driving through Beijing and seeing both ancient buildings (not all restored) and the everyday lives of its citizens was interesting... but this is the Great Wall of China, dude! I've wanted to walk on it since I was a kid, and decided that I would see it someday back during the Nixon ping-pong craze.
And now I was on a bus headed down the highway to see it... and the air was thick, and grey, and drizzly, and kept visibility to a few hundred yards. Aargh! My anguish began easing when I finally caught my first glimpses of outlying guard towers on nearby hillsides; the heavy haze made it a lot easier to erase modern touches like power lines & antennas from view, leaving the ancient constructs looming out of the mist like a scene out of a time traveler's dream. Of the two fully reconstructed sections of the wall near Beijing, Badaling and Juyongguan, we went to the latter (slightly lesser-known) pass through the hills. We seemed to drive through one parking lot to get to another that we promptly drove through to get to a third, smaller lot where we parked and Linda gave us some background on this part of the Wall. I don't remember all the details any more, but I do remember one number: 1,700. That's one thousand, seven hundred. As in steps to the top.
Holy cow. I've climbed to the 2nd level of the Eiffel Tower, I've climbed the lion monument hill at Waterloo (with some tourist's dachshund zig-zagging between my feet!), I've walked downhill slopes in Norway so steep they felt like going uphill... But this was a challenge of a whole new order of magnitude. You've probably seen the same photos of the Wall that I have -- the gently undulating curves with people strolling along on a smooth, wide, road-like surface. I tell you three times: that ain't Juyongguan. There were short flat sections down at the river (and across), but once you reach the hillside you are climbing some very impressive angles... with a few added attractions we would discover during the ascent.
Linda said that anyone who makes it high enough (at least halfway, preferably beyond) would be a "hero of the Great Wall," so we all were psyched to get heroic. We had just a couple of hours to make the climb and then get back to the bus for the return to Beijing. So we made our way past the interestingly-named main gift shop and ancient-looking support buildings (some of which are ancient)...
...past the costume rental shop (I didn't know ancient Chinese infantry were issued Adidas!) -- a sight we would see often during our travels...
...and the climb began.
Reaching the first tower required just a short stroll up a relatively gentle slope. I peeked inside what had originally been something of a barracks and liked the river view, so here are a couple of photos:
On the other side of the tower was a wide platform where (among other displays) there was a rack holding reconstructions of the various types of spears & repelling weapons that would have been used by the original garrison. Looking at them, I could easily see how anyone approaching the Wall would find it impassable -- can you imagine trying to climb a massive wall while armored soldiers are poking one of these down at you from above?
Just a short distance away in the uphill direction was a nice counter-point to those rather fearsome weapons. Hanging from chains draped along the rails are thousands of small locks, many shaped like hearts. These "love locks" are placed here by couples as a sign of their everlasting love, and the sheer number is impressive. Our eyes ran along the chains, taking in the sight, and then followed the line of the Wall up the hillside... up the hillside... up... and uuuup...
Whoa. This was going to be a bit of a workout, wasn't it...? Back in the parking lot, A and I had commented to each other that a lot of the people coming out looked damp. Now we realized it had nothing to do with the damp weather; they were sweaty from climbing the Wall! We decided we'd still be able to make it up at least far enough to become "heroes" if we paced ourselves, took a couple of deep breaths, and headed on up.
Reaching the next tower wasn't too rough; although the steps were uneven, most were broad and the angle of the hill wasn't too steep. We took a short break at the tower, where signs had some good advice for those folks who just couldn't stop communicating (never mind the grammar). We could also get a better view of how the Wall might look to someone coming up to it at ground level, and get a better idea of how the different layers of foundation, base wall and top paving stones are arranged.
We set out (up) on the next leg, and the going quickly got a lot less easy (not that the climb from the first tower was exactly "easy" to begin with). The angle was rapidly becoming steeper... and the steps a lot less even. It was not uncommon to have to have a step close to 2 feet high followed by a narrow step of half a foot, then a couple of odd-shaped steps ranging in height from a foot to just 1 or 2 inches, all scattered in a random arrangement. It was like climbing a staircase designed by a committee comprised entirely of fitness buffs, sadistic stonemasons and maniacs... there's just no way to get into a groove because you never know how far up (or even down) the next step's going to be. The more tired we became, the harder it was to correctly judge how far we had to lift our feet for the next step, and we both began to stumble periodically. By the time we passed the halfway point we were both beginning to wonder if making it to the top was possible, much less even safe... we were both panting & sweating heavily, and having to stop more often to try to catch our breath. Even l'il sis, 6 years younger and in much better shape than yours truly, was in some trouble. It's hard to read the sign by my head in the photo below, but I remember wondering if its warning about "brain disease" applied to us at that point!
There are no more photos of our ascent; I finished off the original 2GB SD card in my camera, and both of us were too busy trying to not fall down or have a heart attack to trade A's camera back & forth. An added (and completely unexpected) attraction was that in places the passage along the top of the wall was just wide enough for two people to squeeze past each other, sometimes while navigating 90+ degree turns as it worked its way past obstacles on the steep hillside. We reached a plateau at roughly the 2/3 mark and decided that we probably wouldn't make it down alive if either of us tried to be any more "heroic" with the climb. Even the multi-lingual graffitti scratched into the stone, sadly prevalent lower down, had become relatively rare at our altitude.
Now began a different kind of adventure. Going up, we were concentrating on the footing ahead of us, and the rising ground gave the impression of solid footing. Going down, the ground was essentially dropping away from us... waaaay the heck down away from us... and A has some difficulty with arrangements like that... and we were both literally too tired to walk, much less climb.
But climb we did. I kept in front of A to help guide her down and block her view of the ground dropping away, while she helped act as an anchor for me so I wouldn't start to accelerate downhill. There were a couple of tense moments squeezing past people heading uphill in the tighter spots, but we stopped whenever we felt too tired or dizzy and all was well. All the way down, we noticed a weird kind of camraderie with everyone else working their way down (there were a lot of people going in both directions, and ever. single. one. was moving at a different speed); even when it was obvious we couldn't speak each other's language, there were a lot of shared smiles, brow wipes, and deep puffs of breath that allowed everyone to share the experience regardless of nationality. A few intrepid (and young, and invariably male) climbers were showing off by literally running uphill, but when I looked back I noticed no one was moving terribly quickly once they'd gotten much higher up.
We also began to encounter an increasing number of unnaturally happy Asian men & women dressed in green & white who were working their way uphill, first a few singletons, then pairs & trios... soon we could see it was an extensive group, some of whom were singing loudly to the amazement of the (exhausted and breathless) climbers around them. My curiosity finally got the best of me and learned, in broken English, that it was most of the staff from a Hyundai plant in South Korea on a group trip... but no one could explain why they were all so gosh-darn happy about everything! (Hey, even as the group got strung out, most seemed to be making it all the way up; maybe elevated spirits are what got them up to the top of the hill...?)
A few huffing & puffing minutes later we had the kind of experience I'd heard about but never expected -- we became a tourist attraction! A chinese couple on their way up (intelligently, on their way up slowly) stopped us and using a lot of smiles, head nods, and gesticulations let us know they wanted at least one of us to pose with them as a memento of their climb. (This is a not entirely uncommon experience for Western tourists in China, even now; there's enough novelty in our our foreign appearance for it to be considered fun to have us in family vacation photos.) Every once in a while I still stop to wonder if some family in China is proudly displaying one of my relatives in their family album...
We finally made it back down to the souvenir shop -- a bit of an interesting climb all on its own off to one side of the actual wall -- where the gentleman behind the counter asked for our names and engraved them on little metal plaques. I forgot the price, but they were actually very inexpensive and came in nice little lined boxes... and baby, did we ever earn our "hero" titles! <pant> <pant> <gasp> <pant> I checked the cooler filled with ice cream & bottled drinks and decided that as desperately thirsty as I was, it would be better to wait 'til we were back on level ground and we continued on our way.
Rough as the descent was, there was an ethereal beauty to the misty hillside views that was not lost on us. Every now and then, as we leaned (often panting) on the walls or towers, we'd just look and watch the mist moving. A captured some very nice images with her camera; I've only included one here to leave room in my online album for future images. Another image A was able to get for me (my camera was still hors de combat) was a feature of the Wall that tickled my fancy. Here was this massive stone construct designed for military purposes and yet most of the crenellations or drains in the wall's sides had little scrollwork carvings above them... a nice touch of art & craftsmanship, almost a reminder that there are more refined arts than that of war.
When we finally got back down to the lowest & least steep (notice I no longer say "flat") portion of the Wall, as I looked past the tail end of the Hyundai group I noticed a camel walking through the parking lot below... yes, I said a camel. A was so surprised that she took at least 5-6 photos, but the one below is the only one in which you can see the whole camel. ("Zoom in!" "I am zooming in!" "No, not there, to the left!" "I can't see it now!" "No, the other left!" etc. etc. etc.) No one knew what it was doing there, and we were the only members of our group to see it, but we have photographic proof that it wasn't just a hypoxia-induced hallucination!
We finally reached the gift shop & snack bar at the bottom only to discover we should've bought those drinks when we had the chance -- everything had closed for the day! As we sat at one of the tables and our heart rates began slowly returning to normal, Papa S and Papa B came strolling happily over; they had made it all the way to the highest tower! (They were the only ones in the group to do so; at least I had company...!) I put a new 8GB card in my camera and when I was done laughing about having the capacity for over two thousand pictures (remember, I'm of a vintage where a 36-exposure roll of film was "big") we all sort of wandered in different directions. A went down a lot closer to where the Wall crosses the river than I did, and got some nice shots despite the failing light.
NEXT: Citius, Altius, Fortius!