To give you fair warning, this is a super image-laden post, so it may take some time for everything to load. It’s hard not to want to capture every nuance of every view on the Great Wall of China. You might see why it took me so long to edit all these. Grab a cup of tea if you’re in it with me for the long haul… this is just part 1!
Our Great Wall Adventure Club guide Jack picked us up from our hotel in the morning, with a van where we loaded our bigger bags. [By bigger, I mean carry on! Don’t pack heavy for a trip like this.] I’ll say this about the company: we specifically chose the Great Wall Adventure Club because it provided not only the opportunity to spend time outside the main tourist areas of the wall, but it is one of the only companies I found that gave us a chance to camp out overnight in a guard tower. This was an experience we just couldn’t pass up, and it was worth every penny and (minor) discomfort along the way.
We passed the famous Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium from 2008 on our three-hour drive out to the mountains, sitting in our share of infamous Beijing traffic and more smog. We finally reached a park where the van dropped us off at the trail-head for our hour-long journey up to the first section of wall we would see.
The cool fall weather and changing leaves were the perfect scenery, despite the hazy air, which you’ll notice throughout the photos. We didn’t have the best light or visibility, but I still adore some of the images.
Before I get too far, I wanted to talk some facts and figures about the wall. This History Channel video gives an excellent synopsis, better than I ever could, but I’ll be sharing some of this information with you throughout the post as well. Due to its length, size and centuries-long construction, there are many different, discordant statistics on the Internet about the wall. I don’t claim any of my information is 100% accurate, but it might give you a ballpark idea of what the Great Wall is all about.
Trying to cram hundreds of years and thousands of miles of history into two days is impossible, but even if you only have a couple of days, it’s possible to get a lot out of your visit to the wall and go places that the vast majority of foreigners don’t ever see. Our hike started on the unrestored Gubeikou section and the first day we hiked through to the Jinshanling section.
This looks like a raised dirt trail but if you look closely,
we’re walking on a section of the wall that has eroded.
The Great Wall is the world’s longest human-made structure, stretching over 4,000 miles along nearly the entirety of China’s northern border with Mongolia. The video above shows an awesome map. Because the wall isn’t one connected piece, if you measure the actual wall as opposed to the ground distance it covers, the length is supposedly over 10,000 miles. Maybe that’s why Jack used the figure he quoted. At the time, we all raised an eyebrow that the wall would actually be 10,000 miles long. Either way, it tops the charts in length as well as surface area and mass.
One of the first things I managed to accomplish on our hike, of course, was to drop my dumb camera lens cap off the side of the wall. We got our first real taste of the size of this monstrosity when Jack jumped down off the wall to rescue my lens cap. Before we left, there were jokes about whether or not the guys would be able to see over the Great Wall of China.
… That’s a definite no. We were a little worried that Jack wouldn’t make it back up. It’s quite obvious he does these tours often; the guy certainly knows how to climb.
As impressive and stunning as the Great Wall is, it’s has its dark history as well. Among many record-breaking statistics, it’s earned the title of “Longest Cemetery on Earth”. As with many engineering marvels, people lost their lives to build this (modern) world wonder, and some are even buried in it. Many estimate that 1-3 million people died during construction.
Apparently there are over 10,000 watchtowers. Those were some of my favorite parts of the wall. Other than cool photos, the number and size of them was just really impressive. Being a guard might not be so bad if you get to see that view while you work all day. Maybe the night-guard thing wouldn’t have been much fun.
We often wondered why anyone would want to attempt to climb the wall given the treacherous terrain that stretched for miles leading up to it. Thus, what was the point of the wall? I wouldn’t dare hike that terrain if you paid me $1,000,000. We decided that it was really just an aesthetic statement and distant warning to enemies not to even consider coming close. You know, we’ve got this big wall, so who knows what lies beyond it! Or, look at this massive thing we built on these mountains; we must be terrifying! Or, maybe in truth they just wanted to enjoy the mountain views? That would be my reason.
Speaking of views, one of my favorite images of the day/trip is the one above. I was embattled between the choice to keep up with the group and hang back for a good shot. This one was worth it.
Not every good image was your standard sweeping, scenic landscape, though many were excellent. The bark on this tree was really cool. I also loved examining the textured brick and the evidence of years of exposure to Mother Nature.
Sometimes the small details are as beautiful as the big picture. That’s got to be a quote. I should attribute it to the appropriate author.
Did I mention we were going a bit off the beaten path? As you can see, J-Mar took the hiking very seriously, with his pack, boots, his Under Armour and Korean hiking pants. He’s cute though, I’ll keep him.
I’d keep the rest of our awesome group, too. It was a really fun day of marveling with all of them. Below you can get a sense of how all of our different cameras captured very different versions of the sky. Editing was a challenge, and a lot of these are far from perfect. I’m still very much a Photoshop beginner, thus I gave up on making them match. But working with pretty faces makes it more enjoyable.
Back to the facts. Five different dynasties allocated people and resources to build and expand the Great Wall, the first being the Qin dynasty. Fun side-fact, we found out that the letter ‘Q’ is pronounced like ‘ch’ in the Chinese language. Therefore, Michelle’s new name for the trip was Miquelle.
Anyway, after the Qin/Chin dynasty, others that contributed to the wall included the Han (206 B.C.-A.D. 220), Sui (A.D. 581-618), Jin (A.D. 115-1234) and the Ming (1368-1644), which is arguably the most famous. The wall that remains today of stone and brick walls is predominantly remnants from the Ming dynasty. Before the Ming dynasty, the wall was built with compacted soil, clay and stone.
As for the manual part of the construction, many hands had a part in the building of the wall. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers were involved in construction, and some estimate that an additional half a million civilians toiled on the wall. That doesn’t add up to the millions that died during their labor, so I’m not sure what’s true. I read somewhere that civilians were paid around a dollar a day for their efforts. That could be true. Maybe not? The wall is such an enigma.
Another interesting fact I came across: the popular concept of a long, continuous “Great” Wall of China, even that particular moniker, was introduced in Chinese culture by none other than Europeans who had written about the wall. Surprise, surprise, Westerners making assumptions about foreign lands! Oddly, there wasn’t much reference to a singular Great Wall in Chinese art prior to the twentieth century.
There was no shortage of silly photos, like this one of Chris drinking ‘SNOW’ brand beer, which we thought was MONS beer at first. The selfie stick made an appearance as well.
Wait, random pit stop for beer?
We had to hike down through the fields and mountains in between some sections as well as down from the wall to our dinner location. I’m not sure when this photo was taken exactly, but at some point we made a pit stop at some random homestay in the literal middle of nowhere near the Great Wall of China. Partly to use the bathroom. Not a place I’d pick to live, but at least they had a dog.
At some point, also before dinner, we saw more wall and a nice, hazy sunset. The sunset wasn’t the only nice thing to look at! Like I said, he’s cute and I’ll keep him:
The one good thing about air pollution – I mean, mist – is the color reflection it provides for my camera at sunset. Maybe what I really like is simply the scenery, as I happen to like the grainy B&W [down further] just as much.
If you read this far, congratulations. I’m rewarding you with the funniest / most awkward / most ironic / all around best fact of the day: Because the Great Wall was in fact, discontinuous, Genghis Khan (of Mongolia) actually invaded China with no real problem. He simply went around the wall [read again: he just WENT. AROUND. THE WALL.] and subsequently conquered most of northern China in the early 13th century. Maybe that’s because the wall was mostly earthen and clay at the time. The Mongols ruled all of China for about a hundred years until the Ming dynasty came around and re-fortified the wall with stone and clay.
Here’s that B&W:
The last shot I could get with the night closing in was this fire in the distance. Also one of my favorites.
By the time we made it to the restaurant where we were served Chinese versions of Western-adaptations of Chinese food [on another lazy susan], it was super dark. So, we had to hike back up to the guard tower in the dark as well. Luckily we had assistance to set up camp a couple of locals who helped haul up our equipment. After a simple set up, we did what all good campers do: played games in the tent until we couldn’t stay awake any more. Apparently Rob and I were the only ones who actually slept through the night. I’m a heavy sleeper in general, but after all the walking, I can’t figure out how sleeping in a tent kept people tossing and turning.
Perhaps it was something else? Next up: the story of our secret – but lethal – bed buddy.