The Great Wall of China is steep. Surprisingly steep. We all know the wall for its length, its historical significance and the fact that it can be seen from space, but its difficult to appreciate its steepness until you actually visit.
The winding fortification snakes its way over hills and mountains along China’s northern border and is traversed via paths and steps connecting each of its guard posts.
Walking up and down the paths and steps at the Badaling section of the wall is hard work, especially when northern China’s summer heat combines with Beijing’s famous air pollution to constrict the lungs. However, a leg and lung busting mini-hike is worth the effort because it allows the visitor to separate themselves from the hordes of tourists who descend upon one of the world’s most famous landmarks every day.
In actual fact, you don’t have to venture too far from the main entrance at Badaling to escape the crowds, and on a good day you may find you have the wall to yourself for a moment.
At this point you can contemplate the construction, appearance, history and significance of the wall.
Struggling up along the sections between the guard posts prompts visitors to wonder what it must have been like to have been stationed on the wall as a guard hundreds of years ago.
Would guards have lived in a constant state of fear of attack from enemy invaders? Somehow I don’t think this would have been the case at many sections of the wall. The topography alone would have thwarted any genuine attempt at invasion, and the height of the wall would have allowed the guards to see the enemy from miles away. The scale of the wall surely removed the element of surprise from most enemy combatants and this must have been a deliberate feature of its design.
It seems that boredom would have been a major threat to the guards. Staring into vast nothingness for hours and hours, day after day, and having nothing to do even when their shift ended – if it ever did.
I also wondered how they ate. If they were stationed on a remote part of the wall, were they provided with a set amount of rations sufficient to sustain them for the duration of their ‘shift’? Where and how did they cook? Where and how did they go to the toilet?
Actually, I know the answer to the last question. They did it in the guard towers, just as certain visitors are still doing today. Tourists left little reminders of their visit in most of the guard towers, which might explain the presence of this sign.
Regardless of how the guards fed and entertained themselves, or stayed sane, a posting to a remote section of the Great Wall was probably not a highly-prized assignment.
The guards fared better than the builders of the wall,, however. It is a well-documented fact that the workers who died during the construction of the wall were buried inside the wall.
The views are impressive and expansive, at least they would be if the haze of pollution cleared long enough to enjoy them. One has to wonder whether visiting in winter would afford better views as the summer haze would have dissipated. Either this or making the effort to visit other sections of the wall which a re further away from big cities and their choking pollution.
Other sections of the wall can be visited from Beijing. They are said to be in various states of disrepair, but are less crowded than Badaling. There are of course hundreds of section of the wall still standing along China’s northern border, and these could in theory be visited with time, money, a strong grasp of mandarin and a sense of adventure. Walking the entire wall required all of that and seemingly a solid grasp of logistics, because the wall is made up of many unconnected sections.
Would you do it?