From almost any perspective, even, or particularly, that of a preservationist, it’s hard to define the Great Wall of China – is it a building, is it a structure, is it a cultural landscape? Regardless of how you define it, once you see it in person, you will have a new respect for it and a greater understanding of the enormity of the task of building it.
I recently hiked with my family along a few segments of the Wall’s 8,851 kilometer length as part of a Wild Wall Weekend, organized by William Lindesay. The trips are just one facet of the conservation and outreach efforts he conducts tirelessly.
William, as a long distance runner, got it into his head back in the 1980s to walk the distance of the Wall. It took several attempts – due to injury, arrests, and even a deportation – but in 1987 he traveled 2,470 km alone and on foot along the route of the Ming Dynasty Great Wall between Jiayuguan and Shanhaiguan. As he tells the story, his life with the Wall began as an adventure, then become focused on research and is now devoted to conservation. Since founding The International Friends of the Great Wall in 2001, William has become the world’s most outspoken advocate for preservation of the Wall and works with an international coalition of governments, sponsors and supporters to protect it.
According to William, “wall” is a misnomer, as the “Great Wall” is actually a series of walls, some 14 of them in fact, built at various times, but all with the purpose of keeping invaders out.
Given that the Wall is built at the highest points of the land it protects, the hikes up to it and down from it were as long as the hike alongside or on top of it, but all that elevation gain was well worth it. We learned a lot about the Wall and its history, and particularly about the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644) section of the Wall where we hiked. The majority of the Ming Wall is built from brick on top of a stone foundation (other sections are built of rammed earth). The stones were always quarried locally; some of them can weigh a metric tonne. Using local stone not only saved transporting them but also contributed to the steepness of the slope on the “outside” of the Wall.
The bricks were manufactured nearby and are uniform in dimension. The Wall is essentially an elevated road and has (or had, as the case may be) battlements along each edge. The Wall is interrupted on a regular basis by an undulating series of towers. William’s sons explained the purposed of the towers as the four “S’s: Shelter, Storage, counterSeige, and Signaling. The towers are beautifully built, filled with overlaying series of interconnected arches. Many of these arches were in excellent condition but there were also quite a few that you would not choose to walk under, just in case.
The white mortar contains lime and rice flour, which is a very strong and durable combination. While the touristy sections in Badaling and Simatai have been rebuilt and repointed, the sections we saw all still had their original mortar.
Despite the permanence of its construction, the Wall is in no way intact. For many years, the Wall was raided, by people taking the bricks for their own construction needs. Nature has also run its course – grasses, plants and even trees grow on top of the Wall. Yet despite this, the glimpse of some of these wild sections of the Wall, whether from below or from a tower looking along the length of a section, is awe inspiring.
The conservation of this incredible landscape is not to be taken for granted, but progress is being made.