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It’s A Great Wall


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The Great Wall of China is not one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World – built in the sixteenth century AD, it came a little late to make than particular Hall of Fame. But that doesn’t stop it being pretty amazing, all the same.

You could try to walk the length of the Great Wall as part of your trip to China. You would want to be having a pretty long vacation, though – the Wall is 4,163 miles long, and at some points travels through some pretty inhospitable terrain. Starting near the Chinese capital, Beijing, in the east, it snakes westwards across mountain ranges and deserts, through wetlands and forest until it eventually reaches its end in the middle of nowhere in Central Asia.

And it’s actually wall all the way – this isn’t a jerry-built project, consisting of stone-faced battlements in popular tourist (and invasion) areas and miles of wooden fencing elsewhere. The thing runs for its whole length as a proper wall. The building materials change depending on what was available in local regions – stone blocks near Beijing, bricks a little further west, and great banks of earth held in place by woven netting as it goes through the desert. In many places the wall is in disrepair, but the parts you are likely to see as a tourist are in good condition.

Oh, and forget the old myth about being able to see it from space. Nobody quite knows how this story arose, but it’s not true. Although the Wall is very long, it’s only a dozen or so feet wide, and, because of the predominant use of locally-quarried building materials, tends be pretty much the same color as the ground around it when viewed from above. Recent astronauts have said that they think it’s more or less possible to make out the Wall – so if you’re in low-earth orbit, you have a pair of binoculars, you know where to look and conditions are good, you might be in luck. But in that situation you’d probably be able to make out smaller details than a three-thousand mile long fortification.

When you first step foot on the wall – probably in the most popular tourist center, on the outskirts of Beijing – you may initially be disappointed. As you climb the stone steps to the top the Wall doesn’t seen anything too great. But once you’re up there you begin to appreciate the true scale of the thing. If you stand facing north, the granite crenellations that stretch away to your left keep going for a significant fraction of the circumference of the entire planet.

Because of the Wall’s undisputed tourist value, the Chinese government makes a very big deal about it indeed, and it is often very busy. If you can, try to get to whichever section you wish to visit first thing in the morning before hordes of neatly dressed school children arrive and start climbing all over the thing. A really good time to visit is during the winter. The Beijing climate stays reasonably mild the year round, and there’s a good chance that if you do visit the Wall early in an off-season day you might virtually have it to yourself.

One of the things you’ll find yourself wondering as you stand atop the mighty battlements is – exactly how did they defend this thing? That are certainly a lot of people in China, and there always have been. But surely they couldn’t cover the whole wall?

To think like that is to misunderstand the purpose of the Great Wall. It was built to keep out roving tribes of nomadic tribesmen that might descend on the Chinese Empire from the north. For people like this, even an undefended wall is a serious barrier: foot soldiers might be able to scale it, but horses are not enthusiastic climbers. The wall would cause a significant delay in the itinerary of any rampaging horde – long enough for the forces of civilization on the southern size to muster forces substantial enough to take on the invader.

It’s other purpose, of course, was psychological – and this still has an impact today. The Wall was intended to convey a message to distinguished guests and pillaging barbarians alike: “we can do this – and if we can do this, we can do anything.” As far as barbarians were concerned, the message could be summed up as, ‘”don’t mess with us”.

That’s a good thing to remember when you’re in China, and it will strike you with particular force as you stroll along the wall, between the museums that are holed up in guard towers and barracks along the length. The people who built this thing – and their descendants – are never to be underestimated.

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