Right or Left? That was our choice when we arrived at Base Camp—my nickname for the concrete entryway, lined with small shops and a ticket booth—at the Great Wall of China’s Badaling section, 40 miles northwest of Beijing.
Only select sections of the crumbling Great Wall have been fully or partially restored. Badaling is one of the best. It’s also closest to the country’s bustling capital. As such, it’s the most crowded, especially when we were there—during October’s National Day Holiday, when everyone in the country goes on vacation for a week and makes a beeline for Beijing and the Great Wall. During peak times (i.e. holidays), it’s estimated that 70,000 people per day visit Badaling.
Before traveling to China, I’d watched a tv show documenting the Great Wall’s history. In the 3rd century BC, during what’s known as the Warring States period, Qin Shi Huang’s army defeated armies from the other 6 kingdom states in what is now China. After crowning himself emperor of the now unified country, he ordered most fortifications between the states demolished. Some walls he kept and joined together in a single system to protect his empire from barbarians in the north.
Using mostly packed earth and rocks, almost a million peasants, criminals, soldiers, disgraced nobles and unemployed intellectuals slaved for ten years to construct a wall that stretched 3,100 miles. It’s estimated that 400,000 of these laborers died during construction, and many were buried in the wall, giving rise to its nickname: the world’s largest cemetery.
Over the years, there were various accounts of the wall’s efficacy. As dynasties came and went, it was either repaired or neglected. It kept out some invaders but not others such as Mongol Genghis Khan. Around 1206AD, his grandson Kublai Khan broke through, conquered China and created the Yuan Dynasty, stationing soldiers along the wall to protect merchants and caravans traveling along profitable Silk-Road trade routes.
The year 1368 saw the defeat of the Mongols and the establishment of the Ming Dynasty, which put a great deal of effort into fixing and strengthening the wall, building fortresses, steps, watchtowers and gates; employing skilled laborers; using bricks handmade of granite and limestone; and turning it into the fortification we know today (note: they added sticky-rice flour to the mortar, and although many bricks disintegrated, the mortar is still holding strong, leaving a pattern of holes where bricks used to be). The series of 25,000 towers built less than 500 feet apart and 30-40 feet high enabled troops garrisoned at each tower to see each other’s smoke signals, lanterns, flags and beacon fires and be ready to fight the enemy when and where he should appear.
In the mid 17th century, the Manchus broke through the wall, precipitating the fall of the Ming and beginning of the Qing Dynasty, which lasted until 1912.
Surprisingly, the Wall is not just one wall, but a series of walls, some running parallel or perpendicular to each other. At one time these walls slithered like giant snakes from the Yalu River in the west, through the Gobi Desert, along mountain ridges and sixty-six feet into the sea (so that raiders could not ride their horses around the end) for an estimated length of 5,500 miles (actual 13,170.7 miles, if you count all the branches). Many parts are now in ruins.
So, back to our choice. The left side, we were told, was a more difficult climb but with fewer people. No longer energetic youngsters, we opted for the easier Right side and were grateful for the railing on the steeper sections. Make no mistake—climbing the Great Wall is no walk in the park. There are steps—lots of them, and I noticed many of the younger Chinese huffing and puffing along with me as they pulled themselves up by the railing.
I could easily imagine soldiers running up and down these steps, using the nine-to-twelve-foot-wide top of the wall as a transportation corridor from tower to tower, firing canons and aiming their crossbows through the narrow battlement openings at the enemy below.
The crowds didn’t bother us. We rather enjoyed climbing with the Chinese tourists. Perhaps it was because they were on holiday and in a good mood, but they were courteous and friendly, many asking to take pictures with us. When I asked our guide about this later, she said that when they go back home, they’ll show off their foreigner “friends (us).” We’ll be famous in little villages all over China.
Can you really see the Great Wall from the moon? Well, not with the naked eye. It’s long enough, but not wide enough, says an astronomer friend. But photographs and radar imagery taken from a low-earth orbit do show the world’s longest defense fortification—one of the Seven Wonders of the World—snaking like a massive Chinese dragon across the desert, grasslands and mountaintops of China, enthralling us still.