The history of the Great Wall of China and my fabulous 18H experience in Beijing…

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The Great Wall of China is mythical monument that attracts Chinese people and tourists from around the globe alike, making it one of the most well-known tourist attractions in the world.

This destination had been on my bucket list for a really long time. You can imagine how happy and excited I was to get the opportunity to cross this off my list as I was on a lay-over in Beijing on my way back from Paris to Sydney… Finally, I was about to walk along the ruins of the Great Wall of China!

As per usual, before heading to a new country and/or city, I do some research to learn more about my destination. Culture, traditions, dos and don’ts, public transports, tourist attractions, etc… It was with great excitement that I dived into the history of the Great Wall of China (to gather more information than what I already knew) before going there.

Without further ado, here’s a brief summary (I’ll try to keep it short, I promise) of the information that I gathered about the history of the Great wall of China.


 

How and when did the construction of the Great Wall start?

At first the wall was not one big construction but was made up of several smaller walls that were used as borders. During the 7th century BC, China was divided in states and those walls were built to protect the land of the many princes who lived at the time.

After the unification of the country, at the beginning of the Qin dynasty (221-206 BC), Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, decided to link all the walls in the northern part of the empire. This was the first version of the Great Wall.

For the next 2000 years, the Great Wall will be rebuilt, transformed or extended on many occasions, throughout the north of China. All these constructions were undergone by millions of Chinese people forced into labour.

The main purpose of this military fortification was to stop any attempt at invasion from the Mongols or any other nation coming from the North.

Most of the Great Wall as it is today has been built under the Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644). In some regions you can see two distinct walls, built under 2 different dynasties, stretching out next to each other.

What role did it play?

The Great Wall isn’t just a simple fortification. All along, you find an abundance of defence posts: forts, guard posts and tours, built to give shelter to soldiers, stock food and artillery, and to serve as outpost to relay military information.

What about now?

The Great Wall of China, mythical architectural feat, is a national symbol and most prized monument in the country. It was born from the collective efforts of millions of Chinese people through several dynasties, first started over 2 500 years ago.

In order to maintain this architectural wonder, classified as World Heritage site, and prevent further damage, the Chinese government has been trying to raise awareness amongst its people and implemented laws and regulations aiming at protecting the wall. Here are some of the recommendations issued by the government:

– Planting trees to fight erosion;

– Littering and graffiti are prohibited.

Rubbish should be picked up and any graffiti should be erased to keep the site’s integrity – During your visit, do not leave anything behind you and do not take anything with you.

And now for the million-dollar question: how long is the Great Wall of China exactly?

For centuries, the Great Wall was called “the Ten-Thousand-li Long Wall”. A li is a unit of measurement that equals to 500 metres, which means that the wall was estimated to be 5 000 km long.

But this seems very low compared to the current estimation of 8 850 km.

However, this number includes the many gaps and natural barriers (mountains, rivers, lakes, etc…) along the way. So strictly speaking, the Great Wall’s length is currently around 6 200 km.

But this number also takes into account all the secondary walls that are not built on the West-East axe of the main wall.

As you can see, it is quite hard to get an actual estimate of the length, considering the various parameters that can be taken into account when measuring it.

It also seems hard to believe that the Chinese nation back in the days could have been able to accurately measure the length of the Great Wall at the time of its construction.

So, let’s keep it simple and just stick with the fact that it is the “Great Wall”. And it’s a wrap for the history of the Great Wall!

 

 

Now, let me tell you a bit more about my own experience of walking along the wall…

After a long flight from Poitiers, France, and a very short amount of sleep, I finally landed in Beijing, around 6 o’clock in the morning.

The wait to go through customs felt like eternity, but finally, at 7.40AM my passport was stamped and I was granted a transit visa that would allow me to stay in China for 72h (it is free of charge, you just have to present your passport at the immigration desk upon arrival).

It is tired but excited that I made my way to exit the airport and get some fresh air (much needed after being trapped on a plane for 12h).

The sun was shining and the weather was warm at this time of year (June): the day was starting off well!

I was late but my driver was still waiting for me, holding a sign with my name on it. It made me smile: just like the movies, nice! ah ha! It turns out that he doesn’t speak a word of English, which made it difficult to communicate. Thankfully he doesn’t need direction as he knows exactly where to take me. Good thing because Chinese isn’t really my strong suit/my cup of tea!!

Quick side note! For this day trip, I decided to book myself on a tour. I am usually not a fan of guided tours, too expensive, too boring and, more often than not, of very low quality… (but that’s just my opinion). But this time I had to play it safe, knowing that I had my next flight that same evening (at 11.45).

I had a fair bit of time but I didn’t want to risk getting lost and miss my flight back to Australia! So, off we go, and my driver takes me to meet up with the rest of the group (8 other people in total).

At 9 we take the road to our first stop of the day. We begin with the visit of a temple, the name of which I cannot seem to remember… unbelievable! Anyway, it is gorgeous and interesting but the visit is really too short… Groups of tourists are arriving by the dozen and every time it is the same ritual: quick introduction of the site by the tour guide, pictures, 20 minutes of free time, just enough to have a walk through the souvenir shops next door! I was disappointed but not surprised: it’s always the same thing with a guided tour!

But let’s face it, with my camera around my neck and my backpack on my back, I am tourist after all 😉

   

 

It’s now 10.45 and… we’re having lunch! A good thing I had an early breakfast… We enter a restaurant where we are presented with traditional Chinese food. We were sitting at a round table full of a variety of delicious dishes. To be honest, I really enjoyed it!

At 11.30 we are finally heading towards the Great Wall, located around 1.5h away from Beijing, more specifically to Mutianyu, a less crowded (but just a little…) section of the wall.

My eyes still half-closed from a short nap but with a clear mind, I arrive at my destination and I have a hard time believing it: I’m really there, standing in front of the Great Wall of China! I am so excited!!

The guide gives us his instructions: we will be climbing together and once we arrive at the top, we will have an hour and
a half to freely explore this architectural marvel. Once again, very short… but it won’tstop me! So, here we go! We begin our journey with a staggering climb in a cable car.

So far so good, the mountain tops are making their appearance, a promising start to this visit. I have a little thought for Inò: he would never have stepped inside the cable car knowing he suffers from vertigo! But me, I’m having a blast! And here we are, the cable car comes to a halt and I step outside.

I am actually standing on the Great Wall of China. My first thought: oh my God! So many people, phew… I’m not feeling too comfortable in this huge crowd! But once again, I won’t let this stop me from having a good day and making the most of it!

Whichever way I look, I can already get a glimpse of the impressing wall, so long! I move forward and try to find the best way to go, to get out of the crowd and get some freedom of movement. After walking a short distance, I had a few options at hand and decided to take the way that seemed to lead to the best view of the landscape, probably the highest point I could get too.

Wrong decision: only after a few meters, I find myself surrounded by tourists again! The climb is pretty steep, and people are slowed down. I make the decision to go the opposite way. Now, that’s better! I can finally breathe!

Fewer people are going down this path, that takes me to a less crowded part of the wall, making it much more enjoyable!

As I walk along I take in the views of the mountains, going as far as the eye can see! It’s wonderful! The Great Wall is stretching out in front of me, it seems like it’s never ending! It makes we wonder about the reasons why they first decided to build it.

  

How did they do to build such a beautiful architectural monument over 2 000 years ago? It’s so impressive! These historic ruins truly are a remarkable sight to behold! You don’t have to go all the way up, it’s rather hard, but I’ll admit that it is very much worth it! You get an even more amazing view of the wall, winding through the mountains!

However, some training might be required beforehand, because it is quite a workout, climbing up all those irregular steps! And it’s not like going down is a piece of cake either, you have to be very careful if you don’t want to end up sliding down the stairs on your bottom (I’ve witnessed it myself, these things happen more often than you’d think…).

The fittest among have the opportunity to walk for several kilometres, but you can also just decide to stay in one spot and enjoy the beautiful panorama, taking shelter under the shade of one of the many forts.

I personally walked around 2 km (I didn’t want to venture too fare and miss the bus back), I strolled along and took in the view, simply being grateful to be there!

Bonus point for this section of the wall (Mutianyu): you get to slide down to the bottom! Of course, I loved the idea and
was really tempted to try it out! Unfortunately, counting my money down to the last coin, I realised I was missing 5 yans (the equivalent of a few cents) … Snif… I wasn’t sure if I could negotiate the price, so instead I treated myself to an ice cream! And what an excellent idea when the sun is shining so bright and the weather is so hot! I was just like a little girl, happily walking back to the bus, with an ice cream in my hand.

There are sections of the wall that are much less tourists. You can find more authenticity, more peacefulness and solitude. Like for example Jinshanling-Simataï, approximately 3h away from Beijing.

The restoration on this section is not fully finished and the path is a bit less practicable. On the other hand, the most popular and most crowded section, in Badaling, is only a bit over an hour away from Beijing.

 

 


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