Wonder called the Great Wall

Nivedita Choudhuri visits the world’s longest human-made structure stretching over 6,700 km

The spectacular wall appears like a dragon winding its way along mountain ranges
The spectacular wall appears like a dragon winding its way along mountain ranges

The Great Wall attracts 10 million visitors a year
The Great Wall attracts 10 million visitors a year
— Photos by Indranil Choudhuri

AS a child, I was fascinated with everything Chinese. Chow mein. Fireworks. Silk. I was particularly spellbound by a picture of the Great Wall in my Class III history book. China was, however, out of bounds for tourists, but that only served to enhance its mystery quotient.

Recently, I happened to visit China and I immediately grabbed the opportunity to go and see the Great Wall. Most tourists encounter the Great Wall at Badaling, its most photographed manifestation, 70 km northwest of Beijing. The wall at Juyongguan, 50 km northwest of Beijing, represents a rather steep climb and people generally take a few hours to complete the strenuous circuit.

The Great Wall can be attributed to Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China and founder of the Qin dynasty. Born in 259 BC, Qin ascended the throne at the age of 13. He introduced significant reforms by building an extensive network of roads and canals and standardising the Chinese script. To keep out invaders, he ordered General Meng Tian to rebuild and connect the defensive walls of the states he had conquered into the Great Wall of China. Over 300,000 people were reportedly mobilised to build the wall. Most parts of the Badaling Great Wall were built and reinforced during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) to defend the capital against the intrusion of the Mongols. Unlike the Qin fortifications, the Ming construction was stronger because of the use of bricks and stones.

The wall stretched over 6,700 km at the end of the Ming dynasty. However, earthquakes and erosion have taken their toll and almost a third of it is reportedly gone. People compare the Badaling Great Wall to a dragon winding its way along mountain ranges. It adds drama to an already spectacular landscape. No wonder, it reportedly attracts 10 million visitors every year. There is a cable car that takes tourists two-thirds of the way up to the top. Priced at 60 yuan per person (1 yuan = Rs 5.30), the cable car trip cartainly doesn’t come cheap. However, most visitors prefer the easy way out rather than use the gently sloping steps to walk all the way to the top.

People with disabilities find access to the wall at Badaling better than elsewhere in the Beijing area. On a clear day, you can see for miles across leafy, undulating terrain from atop the battlements. The admission price also includes access to the China Great Wall Museum and the Great Wall Circle Vision Theatre.

Though it is the ‘picture-perfect’ wall often seen on postcards, what the pictures do not show are the tourist stands selling souvenirs, women in traditional costumes inviting visitors to be photographed with them and fast-food outlets that aspire to make a quick buck. Most people queue up to buy T-shirts that say ‘I climbed the Great Wall’ or stamped certificates which say the same and on which their names are typed and photos pasted.

I visited the Great Wall at Juyongguan on the National Day holiday (October 1). Trips to the Great Wall (and all landmarks for that matter) should be avoided during weekends and public holidays. The place was crammed with local and international tourists and it reminded me that China was after all the most populous nation on earth.

Guarding one of the two crucial passes to Beijing and the vast North China plain, Juyongguan (Dwelling in Harmony Pass) was the site of pitched battles in ancient times. Climbing the steep section to the left offers fabulous view of Badaling. Restorations in the 1990s created over 4 km of wall, but railings mar the effect as there’s little feeling of antiquity. The Yun Tai (Cloud Platform) is a remarkable feature at Juyongguan. Dating from the 14th century, it was the base for three Tibetan-style stupas, which collapsed during an earthquake and were replaced during the Ming period by a Chinese-style Buddhist temple. This, too, was partially destroyed by a fire during the Qing (1644-1911) period.

Badaling and Juyongguan have the advantage of being close to the Ming Tombs, where 13 of the emperors of that dynasty lie for eternity in sumptuous tombs. The Shih-san Ling, as they are known as, are among the country’s most revered antiquities. In a recent development, the Great Wall was chosen as one of the modern day seven wonders of the world in a poll of 100 million online voters. Unfortunately, the wall is facing threats from many quarters. Severe sandstorms in northwest China have reduced sections of the wall to mounds of dirt. Vandals have pilfered bricks or stones in many places. In many stretches, trees and bushes have pushed through the wall’s stone flooring. Clearly, much needs to be done to shield China’s most loved icon from further harm.