You might think something the size of the Great Wall would absorb any number of people. In the remote countryside, yes, but only those portions that have been rebuilt are considered safe enough for visitors, such as the section close to Beijing at Badaling.
In China, safety can be a relative concept. Worn smooth by the shuffling of countless feet, and with holes everywhere, the stone paving is treacherous. Near-vertical steps with narrow treads are bad enough going up. Going down, with a crowd pressing behind, they seem like an accident waiting to happen. And yet, despite all the hassle of getting here, the tacky souvenir shops and the press of people around me, as I raise my head to the horizon and see the battlements fading into the haze of far-distant mountains, I am always awed to stand on the Great Wall. This truly is one of the World’s Seven Wonders.
It is an amazing sight, worth any effort to see, and it seizes me by a form of horizontal vertigo. Vertigo is not the fear of falling from a height, but the fear of throwing yourself off. I have to resist the urge to start walking these wide ramparts and never stop. Given the searing noontide heat and the way the wall quickly deteriorates away from this showcase spot, it is a desire to be indulged another day. One man who did give in to the compulsion to keep walking was Briton William Lindesay, who in 1987 completed a 2,470km trek from Jiayuguan in the dusty west to where the wall touches the Yellow Sea at Shanhaiguan. Now based in Beijing, he concentrates on exploring what he calls the Wild Wall, the untouched parts well away from tourists. As tourism and industry encroach on the land next to the wall, it loses its setting and becomes merely a glorified Disneyland.
“The wall is an amazing thing. It is not only a building, it is a landscape,” he says. “But it is a victim of its own greatness. It meets modern and expanding China head on, in thousands of locations. It is difficult to protect because there is so much of it.”
That battle for protection, if it was ever joined, seems lost at Badaling near Beijing and also a few miles away at Mutianyu, where the whole village serves tourists who come to see a stretch of wall made even more impressive by its mountain setting. First built in the mid-6th century and rebuilt in the 1600s, its crenellated walls and many towers stride to the skyline over rolling tree-covered hills. Heavily restored, it looks as if it was built yesterday.
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