08 May 2004

A Trip to "Such a Magnificent Great Wall"

So in the museum at the Badaling section of the Great Wall of China, they have a section of photos of famous visitors to the Wall, with some quotes. Nixon is quoted as saying “only a great nation can build such a magnificent great wall.” To paraphrase the Reagan quote, when people visit here they get tired from walking up the steps, so imagine what it must have been like when they were building it.

Well, it is a “Great” wall, even if the Badaling section is the most touristy and one of the reconstructed sections (there is even a KFC there, and the watch towers have emergency call phones). In reality, the wall itself is not much to look at (wait a minute before you yell at me for disparaging one of the seven wonders of the world). It is, well, a wall. The Badaling section is made of brick, it is several meters high and several meters wide, there are guard towers placed “two arrow flights” apart (allowing complete coverage in case of attack), and there are steps, thousands of them, and sloping parts as well where they didn’t even bother putting in steps (despite the sections being at 30 to 45 degree angles).

But while a rebuild wall of stone is in itself not much to look at (imagine any of the walls around the leftover Revolutionary War forts in the United States), the setting and scale of the wall is magnificent. Set along the ridgeline of steeply undulating mountains, the wall winds like a snake up and down the hillsides, twisting and turning, following the terrain. In the background, row after row of ever-taller mountains recede into the mist (well, “mist” sounds better than “haze,” which is more accurate – the same haze of dust and some other unidentifiable substances, even if we far from the city and high into the mountains).

The past few days of significant walking ours of Beijing preceded by long walking tours of Seoul were well worth the time and effort, as my legs did not give out on the wall. But I can certainly feel the climb still even hours later. It is not a nice leisurely afternoon walk, but a strenuous climb up and down irregular stairs built on steep inclines, intersperse with areas of near ski-able sections of smooth paving stones laid on equally steep inclines.

When I stopped to talk to someone (he was going up, I was coming down) it was a bizarre site. I was leaning forward, he was standing straight, and my eyes interpreted the lip of the Wall as horizontal, so it gave him the appearance of standing at a 35 or 40 degree angle. Of course in reality, it was the wall that was leaning, not him. The only other time I have seen a similar phenomenon is on a sailing ship, under the deck, when cutting through the water at top speed, heeled over, and someone was standing vertical next to the base of the mast, looking more like he was leaning, rather than the ship.

Now I must admit to a minor infraction of the rules. When I came to the end of the section I was walking, I would have had to backtrack quite a ways to get to the path going down off the wall and transferring to the next section of the wall. But I had observed a couple of Chinese simply leaping off the end of the wall, following an obviously well-worn path (despite its not supposed to have been there) and head down, so I followed them. So not only did I walk the Great Wall, I jumped off it as well – much to the entertainment of the Chinese who had preceded me off the wall.

Now I must make one other note about the area. Beijing in Beijing, there are no mountains. This is a big change after being in Seoul, which is ringed by them and even has a few right in downtown. So heading north up the Badaling Expressway, I finally got to see Chinese mountains, and I must say that they are almost exact replicas of the Chinese ink paintings of mountains. They really do have vertical faces, bare weathered rock thrust skyward from domed forests, steep ravines splitting the peaks, individual and groups of bare stone sticking up, looking like paired of tombstones or monuments. The peaks grew fainter and fainter as they grew taller and taller in the distance.

To get an idea of the forces that shaped these mountains, note that at places the stratigraphy was laid our in vertical slabs, rather than horizontal, and a jumble of angles were visible as huge plates of rock and earth were thrust together, bending and breaking in a cataclysmic car accident of geological proportions. So if you go, take the number 919 bus from Deshengmen Gate (it is just 12 yuan one way, 24 round trip, much cheaper than the other 50 yuan buses), and if you want, you can even hop off at the Ming Tombs on the way back (which I didn’t do this time – I want to have some reason to have to come back).

Oh, and sit on the right side of the bus when heading north – it affords a better view of the mountains. And with that, I have just one more parting thought – as Nixon is more often quoted as saying during his groundbreaking trip to China – “This really is a Great Wall.”

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