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Published: April 30th 2013
So to the most exciting day of my travels - a visit to the Great Wall of China!
This iconic structure is so well known it hardly needs any explanation but here's my bit of potted history to fill in any gaps.
The Great Wall of China - or the 'Long Wall of Ten Thousand Li' was first started in the 3rd century BC when disparate earthern ramparts were constructed by individual states. Under Qin Shi Huangdi's unification of China (the guy of Terracotta Army fame) the Great Wall was created through joining up the previously built ramparts. Construction continued right up until the Ming dynasty in the 17th century AD.
This huge defensive military project undertaken by successive Chinese Empires, with a total length of more than 20,000 km or 13,000 miles, starts in the east at Shanhaiguan in Hebei province and finishes in the west at Jiayuguan in Gansu province. Snaking over many different landscapes from hills and plains to deserts the Great Wall is now only completely restored in a few sections, much of the rest of it a crumbling ruin. The labour used to create the wall ran into the millions - mostly made
up of soldiers, commoners and criminals who were sentenced to four years hard labour building the wall. Many workers died or were injured during the process.
The section of wall we were visiting is called Mutianyu, which is about 55 miles north of Beijing. We travelled there in our own private vehicle and arrived very early in the morning just as the market traders were setting up their stalls. Since I was still suffering from the coughing and wheezing asthma thing, now joined by fellow group member Sarah who had similar problems, we decided to get up to the wall using the very welcome cable car. We only got a single ticket up as we had a choice of options for coming down - I'll get to that later!
As there was virtually no-one about yet we didn't have to queue at all and were quickly winging our way up the hillside towards the wall which we could now see in all its glory snaking away into the distance as far as the eye could see, both to the left and to the right.
We quickly made our way over to a little arched entrance and stepped
through onto the wall itself. Wow what a moment. It's such an iconic structure it was hard to believe I was actually there and standing on the Great Wall of China. In my photos I have such a big grin, I was so happy to be there. I spent most of the day on my own, checking out the section we were on. This meant I could go at my own pace up the steeper parts - sometimes just 10 steps at a time - stop - cough - breathe! It got very steep towards the end of the farthest section I went along, so much so that people were clinging on to the steps as they went down again.
The early morning light was great for taking photos with lots of lovely shadows of the crenellations. The watchtowers were great to explore. Inside there were quite a few arches most of which I had to bend down to get underneath - the Chinese are mostly all shorter than me NOW, so must have been even shorter when the wall's towers were built. This section at Mutianyu dates back to about 1368. The scenery around us was so mountainous,
stretching for miles into the distance. So beautiful and majestic. The cherry blossom was just out and created a lovely splash of colour across the hillsides.
I found it fascinating to see how the wall had been built, the brick courses running parallel to the line of slope rather than horizontally as is the method these days. At one point I watched a few men carrying out some running repairs. It makes you wonder how much of the wall in these tourist sections is actually original and how much is made after the event. Either way The Great Wall is a fantastic place to be. You can imagine the isolation and boredom of the patrolling soldiers. And the wall wasn't actually that great at keeping out marauders either as it was breached by the Mongols in the 13th century and by the Manchu in the 17th century!
I learnt that along the wall beacons were lit to warn of impending attack using wolf dung. Another interesting fact is the distance between towers - this was arranged so at to be no further than two arrow shots apart, thereby leaving no part of the wall unprotected - assuming there
were soldiers at EVERY watch tower ALL the time.
Eventually it was time to head back down the hillside to our waiting vehicle and make our way back to Beijing. So how did I get back down again? By cable car? No, and it wasn't down the stepped footpath the rest of my group had walked up earlier in the day. I'm going to have to tell you as you'll never guess. I got down the hillside on a toboggan! Yes, they really had created a toboggan run, a bit like a long twisting, silver, slide down the mountain. Unfortunately we got stuck behind two VERY slow, silly Chinese girls who used their brakes so much they were virtually at a standstill sometimes. So we didn't get to whiz down quite as fast as we might have otherwise. It was still really fun though.
As to the claim that the Great Wall of China can be seen from space...sadly NASA has debunked this myth. Since the wall is made from materials similar in colour to the surrounding landscape it is impossible to distinguish it with the naked eye from space and other man made structures are far easier
I had such a wonderful time walking on the Great Wall - bathed in glorious sunshine. What a great way to end my trip to China, well all bar a last night out in Beijing eating out at a famous Peking Duck restaurant and then seeing the unbelievable offerings at the food stalls in the centre of the city - scorpions, tarrantulas, snakes, cockroaches, bulls testicles and the like on a stick. I settled for strawberries and other fruits covered with crunchy spun sugar on a stick instead, although some of the people in my group did try the snakes and the scorpions!
Sheer sheer China, what a crazy, fascinating country and one I hope to return to, next time exploring more of the spectacular mountainous scenery now that I've visited many of the more famous tourist's attractions.
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