The Great Wall: Across China's great divide

LA Times | Travel

Badaling, China At Badaling, the Great Wall rides the ridgelines like a dragon, its gray brick scales glinting and its crenelated spine writhing. Built at a strategic pass in the mountains north of Beijing, it crosses stout gates, plunges into narrow defiles, climbs back up to the heights and ...

By Susan Spano // 08.01.08

Badaling, China

At Badaling, the Great Wall rides the ridgelines like a dragon, its gray brick scales glinting and its crenelated spine writhing. Built at a strategic pass in the mountains north of Beijing, it crosses stout gates, plunges into narrow defiles, climbs back up to the heights and seems to go on forever.

Long after this month's Olympic Games end in Beijing, people will flock to Badaling, where seeing is believing in the Ten Thousand Li Long Wall of ancient annals and legend.

But contrary to the impression it makes at Badaling, the Great Wall may never have crossed China in one mighty, continuous span, nor is its length precisely known. (Some say it's 4,500 miles, others a mere 3,100.) Experts now think of it as a series of disjointed segments built at different times in the last two millenniums and scattered in a maze all over northern China.


Purpose: To protect against invaders from the north.

Claim to fame: Longest structure ever built; symbol of China's violent conquests and architectural acumen.

Construction start: 5th century BC, though estimates vary.

Length: About 4,000 miles, though estimates vary.

Base width: 15 to 40 feet.

Height: 20 to 50 feet.

Building materials: Stone, brick and earth.

Named UNESCO site: 1987.

Sources: Encyclopedia Americana, World Book

William Lindesay, a preservationist who walked 1,500 miles of far-flung wall in 1987 -- from Jiayuguan in the desert of Gansu province to Shanhaiguan in eastern Hebei province, where the Great Wall meets the Yellow Sea -- called it a giant jigsaw puzzle.

"You have to imagine and believe," he told me last year in Beijing. "There is no place to see it all."

Nor is there just one wall to see. Its character varies widely from one vantage point to the next, as I discovered last year. During a stay in Beijing to study Mandarin, I made forays to various stretches of the wall.

Ming and models

Badaling is a starting place, the centerpiece of an estimated 380 miles of Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) fortifications in the capital region, the highest concentration of Great Wall in China.

The site is easily accessible from Beijing by bus and train, and there's also a multilane expressway. It opened as a tourist attraction in 1957, with plentiful visitor facilities and well-maintained, relatively gradual steps to the top where visitors see long stretches of reconstructed brick and stone wall, together with a knot of spurs and cunningly engineered Ming watchtowers.

The Badaling section would be the picture-perfect Great Wall. But about 4.5 million people visit each year, resulting in crowds and commercial exploitation that make it difficult for the casual visitor to enjoy the wall.

The gridlocked road up to the ticket booths leads past a dilapidated zoo. Inside the complex are moldering museums, cable cars, espresso stands, ersatz antiques shops and a Great Wall Circle-Vision theater. Bus exhaust billows, hot dogs steam, tour groups assemble and souvenir hawkers swarm.

So, on my first visit to China 10 years ago, I went to Mutianyu, east of Badaling, favored for its architecture and forested landscape. The Mutianyu wall was begun in the 6th century and reconstructed 1,000 years later. After that, the wall was neglected; Communist Party leaders even once encouraged vandalism, viewing the wall as a vestige of the nation's long, dark feudal past.

Concerted reconstruction began after Deng Xiaoping came to power in 1978 and began to reverse Mao Tse-tung-era policies. "Let us love our China and restore our Great Wall," Deng wrote in 1984, launching restoration projects along the length of it, including work at Mutianyu.

Here, the Great Wall stretches for almost 1.4 miles, interspersed by 22 watchtowers, including three connected bastions at the lowest part of the pass. Its parapets are lined with merlons and embrasures from which the emperor's men rained arrows and gunpowder bombs on mounted warriors from the north.

As I discovered on my return trip to China last year, visitors now encounter Badaling-force crowds and relentless souvenir peddlers at Mutianyu. It's a stiff, 45-minute climb to the wall, so many visitors avoid aching leg muscles by taking the cable car up and the toboggan ride down.

A decade of development, encouraged by the economic opening of China, has brought great changes to the Great Wall region north of Beijing. After decades of being pent up in the city, newly flush Beijingers now drive their own cars, loaded with bikes, skis and camping gear, into the mountains or go on family outings to see peach blossoms in the spring and pick apples in the fall.

Some have bought fancy new condos near the wall or country places in old stone garrison towns deserted by farmers drawn to the city for work. Hotels and resorts have sprung up, such as the deluxe Commune by the Great Wall Kempinski near Badaling, where contemporary architecture competes for attention with the ancient monument.

Meanwhile, the wall is being put to surprising new uses. In 2004, the Chinese government staged a rock concert headlined by Cyndi Lauper on a revolving stage built atop a watchtower. Every spring, thousands of runners gather in a village 80 miles north of Beijing to compete in the grueling Great Wall Marathon. And in 2007, the wall served as a catwalk for fashion models in Karl Lagerfeld couture.

Developments such as these have helped make the wall more accessible than ever, but they've also prompted objections from conservationists and devoted Great Wall pilgrims. The renewed interest has also encouraged people like me to seek out untrammeled places to visit the wall and new ways of seeing it.

Dynastic years

At the Red Capital Ranch by the Wall, east of Mutianyu in the Shen Tang Yu valley, I spent two glorious, moon-lit nights underneath the wall in the border territory where Qing Dynasty Emperor Kangxi loved to hunt and ride.

Since his time (1654-1722), fishing resorts and vacation homes have come to the narrow little valley. But get past the point where the two-lane highway passes through a gap in the Great Wall and it's easy to imagine oneself being carried on a palanquin to a hunting lodge at the edge of the Manchurian plain.

The ranch is romantic but rustic, strung out along an idling river where ducks cruise, fish jump and plastic bags float. Its high-ceilinged stone villas and pavilions, decorated with an eclectic mix of Asian antiques, evoke the world of Kangxi, and the waterfront restaurant serves dishes that might have pleased him, including venison satay and fried pumpkin.

Though the ranch offers organized Great Wall excursions, I saw no reason to leave. A fine section of unreconstructed wall crosses the property.

Descending into the valley from ridges to the east and west, the Shen Tang Yu wall demonstrates how its engineers sought to protect mountain passes vulnerable to invasion.

On a fine spring morning, I set out through peach and chestnut orchards to the wall, composed of steep, tumble-down steps overgrown with vegetation. I went hand over hand sometimes and followed the path around the wall at impassable spots.

It was a tough climb, but when I reached the top, I could see the fertile Chinese plain to the south and the mountains that separated the Middle Kingdom from Mongol tribes living on grasslands to the north.

The longest stretches of wall were built by the Qin (221 to 206 BC), Han (202 BC to AD 220), Jin (1115 to 1234) and Ming dynasties to protect the empire from Mongol raiding parties that routinely swept across the border, striking terror in the Chinese.

Other dynasties, such as the Tang (618 to 906), preferred to pacify the Mongols through trade and diplomacy.

Some historians have claimed that the wall was a failure because it ultimately did not keep the invaders out. Several dynasties -- including the Yuan (1271 to 1368) and Qing (1644 to 1912) -- were founded by northern clans that fought their way across the Great Wall, entered the capital and seized the peacock throne.

But for 2,000 years, the wall did effectively separate two very different cultures, one agricultural and rigidly structured, the other nomadic and, if not as civilized, far more adept at war. Still, by about 1300, the Mongolian empire spanned Eurasia from the Black Sea to the Pacific Ocean.

Sunning myself atop the Shen Tang Yu wall, I thought mostly of the Mongolian horsemen who brought the Middle Kingdom to its knees on true grit and swift Przewalski's horses.

In its wild state

On another weekend, I joined a group of tourists from a hostel in downtown Beijing who wanted to hike a six-mile stretch of wild, mostly unreconstructed wall between Jinshanling and Simatai near the western border of Hebei province.

The van trip took almost three hours to the Jinshanling trail head, where tourist development is scant compared with Badaling and the approach to the wall is relatively easy.

Up on top, we walked sections of wall damaged by time and the elements, the Sino-Japanese wars fought in the area during the first part of the 20th century and China's disastrous Cultural Revolution, when locals were encouraged to pillage the monument for building materials. In other places, new bricks and concrete testified to unauthentic reconstruction, equally an enemy of the wall.

Though the Great Wall was selected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site two decades ago, its condition was deemed so critical that it was added to the New York-based World Monuments Fund's 2002 watch list for most endangered sites. It is now estimated that 20% of the wall has been restored, 40% is in ruins and 40% has disappeared altogether.

For many visitors, it is the 40% of wild, unreconstructed wall that most beckons. To experience that Great Wall, I went on an overnight trip with Beijing Hikers, a club that organizes weekend expeditions into the countryside around the capital.

We left the city by bus on a Saturday morning with backpacks and walking sticks, accompanied by several guides who passed around hand-drawn maps of the paths we planned to follow in the vicinity of Sun Cha village near Mutianyu.

The wall came into full view when we reached the sleepy little village, set in a valley dappled with purple patches of wild azaleas. Our quarters for the night were in a traditional courtyard house with hostel-style rooms that had padded platform beds. The women of the house shelled walnuts and chopped vegetables for the evening meal, while the children played kickball and the men smoked cigarettes by the woodpile.

After spreading out our sleeping bags, we made an easy five-mile circuit around Sun Cha, stopping along the way to gaze up at the wall and 1,300-foot Pinnacle Tower, our Sunday goal. Then dinner was served in the courtyard, plate after plate of steaming mushrooms, omelets and fatty pork.

The next morning, it was a challenge just to reach the wall along a steep winding path up from the village. Almost by definition you cannot get to it without climbing a mountain, so when we arrived at the top we were rewarded with the wild, rambling wall of our dreams.

We snacked on oranges and energy bars at Pinnacle Tower, where an engraved stone tablet commemorated the bastion's construction.

There are similar tablets all along the wall, though many have vanished. Lindesay, who founded the Beijing-based International Friends of the Great Wall in 2001, helped launch a project to document the remaining tablets.

The conservation group has also organized volunteer garbage cleanups at Jinshanling, provided funds to turn local farmers into Great Wall rangers and worked with the ancient architecture department at Beijing's Tsinghua University to engineer ways of preserving the Great Wall's magnificent watchtowers.

Heightened awareness of the monument's fragility resulted in the passage of a law in 2006 specifically protecting it, and now there's a blueprint for Badaling.

Even more significant, perhaps, the government recently dispatched a team of surveyors to measure and report on the state of the wall, a project expected to be completed by the end of 2009.

But even after we know its precise length, I won't change my mind about the wall. I'm sure it goes on forever.