It’s A Great Wall
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
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
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