Beijing: Conquering the great wall

By Jim Eagles

The Great Wall of China failed because invaders were able to bribe their way through. Today it is a goldmine for tourism. Photo / Jim Eagles
The Great Wall of China failed because invaders were able to bribe their way through. Today it is a goldmine for tourism. Photo / Jim Eagles

Next time you see someone sporting a T-shirt proclaiming "I climbed the Great Wall of China"... take it with a pinch of salt.

Even if they have been to the wall - rather than getting the T-shirt from some cheapskate grandfather who took advantage of the "two for one dollar" offers at the stalls lining the entrance - chances are they didn't climb it.

Out of the 18 people in the World Expeditions group I went with to the section of wall at Mutianyu - about two hours drive from Beijing - all but one went up the wall by cable car and came back the same way or took a toboggan ride.

The exception was me and I walked both ways because, I don't know, it somehow didn't seem right to get to the top of one of the seven wonders of the ancient world by cable car ... and I suppose I also wanted to see if at 65 and with a quadruple bypass I could still make it.

The others in the group, Australians all, shouted "Been nice knowing you" as I headed off up the walking track.

But actually it wasn't as tough as I'd expected. Once you've run the gauntlet of the aggressive stallholders who line the first 100m or so it's just a matter of plugging slowly up the hundreds of stone steps leading almost straight up from the village to a well-restored 3km section of wall.

Every so often I stopped to give my screaming thigh muscles a break, admire the surrounding forest with the occasional darting lizard or flittering bird, and take advantage of the shade.

And that's when I realised: there were lots of people on the wall, and even a few walking back down, but I was the only one climbing up to it.

By the time I got to the top I had worked up a fair sweat in the humid atmosphere so I sat down beside the big stone blocks which make up the base of the wall and waited to see if anyone else was walking ... and after about a quarter of an hour half a dozen Chinese came puffing up. Everyone else was taking the easy route.

It was certainly well worth the effort to get there. This section of the wall was originally erected over 2000 years ago by the Qi dynasty which ruled northern China and rebuilt some 1400 years later by the Ming emperors as part of their massive effort to create a barrier against the barbarians.

The wall runs along the top of the ridgeline with its 20m-or-so stone walls mostly standing at the top of impossibly steep slopes, topped with a 3-4m wide pathway for easy movement of troops, and dotted every 100m or so by imposing watchtowers.

The usual Beijing haze was fairly thick, making it difficult to enjoy the full spectacle, but it did have the advantage of causing the great line of fortifications to gradually fade in the distance, underlining the impression of a wall which stretches about 6000km from the sea to the Gobi Desert.

As I walked along the top of the wall, I seemed to be passing through countryside still as untamed as when it was built.

Of course what was different was that instead of Ming dynasty troops manning the watchtowers, there were only solitary hawkers.

And instead of the battlements being patrolled by lonely soldiers there were dozens of tourists pouring along its top - especially near the terminus of that cable car - taking photos by the score.

All of which serves to emphasise the great irony that the wall didn't do a good job of keeping the barbarian soldiers out - the Ming dynasty was overthrown by the Manchu armies the wall was supposed to deter - but it is good at bringing barbarian tourists and their money into China.

As I walked back down the steep path, I reflected upon another interesting twist in the wall's story. One reason the wall failed was that the need to attack it could usually be overcome by a small payment ... and these days the effort required to climb the wall can be avoided in the same way.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Singapore Airlines operates 12 times per week between Auckland and Singapore and then onward to 62 destinations in 34 countries, including Malaysia, China, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand and Korea.

Getting around: World Expeditions operates its Silk Road expedition, from Beijing to Samarkand via Kashgar in April, May, August and September. Ring 0800 350 354 for further details.

Jim Eagles visited China with help from Singapore Airlines and World Expeditions.

- NZ Herald

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