Thursday, 15 March 2012

19. Wonder: The Great Wall of China

(For the Great Wall of China preview, please click here. Click here for accounts of Badaling and Hushan, here for accounts of Mutianyu and Huanghua, and here for Juyongguan and Jiankou.)

(Photos of: Badaling, Hushan, Mutianyu, Huanghua, Juyongguan, Jiankou respectively.)

The Great Wall of China. The name says it all, really. It's a wall, in China, that's great. Perhaps we could leave my review like that, short and sweet. But no, like the Wall, I intend to go on and on...

Over the last month, I've had the fortune to visit six different sections of the Great Wall. These have ranged from the very reconstructed and very tourist-orientated (Badaling) to the very wild and remote (Huanghua). All save Hushan in the far north-east have been in the Beijing vicinity, generally regarded as the most spectacular and scenic sections of the Wall. Six sections of a Wall that stretches for thousands of miles is obviously just a small taster, but short of taking months to walk the duration, it's the best I can manage. A mere highlights tour of the largest Wonder on my list, and the largest construction in human history.

Well, maybe. You see, a lot of myths and hyperbole have been spun around the Great Wall of China. One of these is that it is a construction at all, in the sense of being a single entity. It's not - it's a whole bunch of walls built at different times. Nobody really knows how much is out there and how much there once was. To call the Great Wall of China a single construction would be like calling all the roads in Britain a single construction. But yet, despite the disparity in age and condition, and the wide spread of territory the various walls cover, there is a certain single-minded unity of function. Defence whatever the cost, seems to be the motto underpinning the Wall we see now, the stone Wall built by the Ming dynasty between the 15th and 17th Centuries. Taking old, mostly decrepit stretches, huge amounts of the Wall were rebuilt or newly built in what was an "all or nothing" project. Against nomadic enemy who could travel 150 kilometres in a day, there was no point in half a wall. And no point in a half-hearted wall. The Ming dynasty oversaw a massive construction project spanning over 6000 kilometres. The best place for a defensive wall is at the very top of a mountain, and that's where it was built, when required. The cost and effort was immense.

That's what we see now when we think of the Great Wall of China, the Ming-built Wall from around four hundred years ago, riding the tops of mountains and disappearing into the distance. Really, if I was to be pedantic, I'd be reclassifying my candidate Wonder as the Ming Dynasty Wall rather than the Great Wall of China. It is the Ming-built Wall we celebrate. In particular the mountainous section around Beijing, for which we have a lot of thanks due to a man called Qi Jiguang. Although no one man can be credited with something as enormous as the Great Wall, Qi Jiguang deserves more credit than most. Primarily, he was a very successful war general, but he also became the prime architect of some of the most famous stretches of Wall around Beijing. He recognised the merits of always having the Wall at the highest point, and also pioneered the Wall also being a means of transport. By building a more solid, wider wall, the top could be used as a road, for troops to manoeuvre and communicate between the numerous watchtowers that punctuate its length. It was Qi Jiguang who developed the Wall from a crude barrier into an architectural masterpiece.

These days, Qi Jiguang's masterpiece is either very ruined or very restored, with plenty of gaps. It might not have much of a defensive function any more, but that's only because there's no longer anyone to defend against. Curiously, this isn't testament to the Wall's efficiency; rather the opposite. It was disastrously expensive. Each watchtower is recorded as having required the labour of four hundred men to construct, taking a total of four months. Over ten thousand watchtowers are thought to have once existed. If such an effort was done today, using a minimum wage of £5 an hour and assuming a lenient eight-hour day, the labour costs alone would be a quite staggering £19.2 billion. For just the watchtowers. Now, of course, this is an extremely rough estimate, and Imperial China was certainly not paying the builders a minimum wage - mostly they were conscripted soldiers existing on little more than watery rice soup - but the cost and effort is still apparent. And once built, the job wasn't over - it was a never-ending cycle of repair work. In fact, during the entire Ming dynasty, the Great Wall was never a functioning single unit and was never fully manned. It was in continuous disrepair and undergoing continuous maintenance. Records in 1576 show that ongoing fortifications were estimated at costing around three-quarters of the annual government revenue. Only a fraction of this insane amount was able to be given, indicating that maintenance was falling behind. Which probably helps explain why Manchus to the north so easily broke through in 17thC, overthrowing the Ming dynasty, establishing the Qing dynasty, and immediately abandoning the upkeep of the needless Wall in favour of simple trade and diplomacy. In the end, you could argue that the Great Wall was simply too great for the Ming empire - they bit off more than they could chew.

But none of that matters a jot when you stand on it. The Great Wall of China has plenty of history behind it, but that's not what impresses. Another widely believed misconception is that it is over two thousand years old, built by the first Emperor of China, and while plenty of Wall was built around that time, what we see now is virtually all Ming dynasty era from about four hundred years back. But the age isn't what particularly impresses. Nor is it the actual architecture. Removed from all context, the Wall is not unattractive, but it is not a hugely outstanding piece of work. It's just a bunch of towers connected by lengths of wall - solid, effective, but not works of art. As you stand on the Wall for the first time or the hundredth time, it is not the architecture you are appreciating. No, the Wall has one very obvious trick up its sleeve, one very straightforward trick it does extremely well: SIZE.

Yes, this may not be the revelation of the century, but my God the Great Wall is big. Six thousand kilometres, you might say, of course it's big, but until you stand on top of a mountain and see the thing you can hardly appreciate what that means. The Great Wall is preposterously big. Its full size is beyond true comprehension, because the only way we can see all 6000 kilometres is by looking at a satellite image, by which time it's merely a series of lines on a map, but standing on a peak with the wall meandering off in two directions, always riding the crescent of a ridge, and disappearing beyond distant mountains, a fragment can be glimpsed.

Even a fragment - ten kilometres? twenty kilometres? - is big enough to inspire a sense of awe. The essence of any Wonder is that sense of awe, that feeling of wonder. The Great Wall of China has it in spades.

As I've said, I've visited only six sections of the Wall, more than a superficial skimming of the surface but less than a truly in-depth experience. To truly see the Wall would take months of dedicated walking, which is a little more than my current schedule will allow. Therefore, in my overall assessment of the Great Wall, I am largely judging the unseen, based upon the little I've seen. I think this might be unique among all the Wonders I've visited or are going to visit. Nowhere else is so vast and nebulous to fully visit. At the same time, I think - I hope - I've seen among the best the Wall has to offer. As it drifts off into the west, entering desert territory, it stretches along flat land and is pretty run down. Other parts are eroded and crumbled, and even in their day weren't impressive. Lots of the Great Wall is just a wall. But around the Beijing area, the Wall has the best of all worlds - it is a mixture of the original and the restored, and enjoys the drama of the mountains. It is the Wall seen in postcards, the Wall of popular imagination. Really, when you stand at section of Wall such as Huanghua, it doesn't matter if the Great Wall is 6000 kilometres long or just 60, all that matters is that what you can see is incredible.

My favourite parts of the Wall were the original, crumbling parts. As well as having a ruined charm, they were always quiet, with hardly a person around. That isn't to say I didn't enjoy the funfair experience of Badaling or, to a lesser degree, Mutianyu, but the magic is diluted when there are loads of tourists around and you're standing on a reconstruction from the 1970s. Restoration of any aged monument is always a delicate subject, because there's always a fine line between preserving something and rebuilding it into something it's not. With the Wall... well, there seems to be a general sentiment that this line is often crossed. A quote from John Man's book on the Great Wall (which I can't find the details for currently, but will when I get my hands on the book again) goes "The remnant that endures wind and rain is just like the elderly grey hair on a grandmother's head." This could apply to almost any old building in the world - don't modernise and make it unnatural, just accept the natural ageing process. That's one way of looking at it, but another would be that by accepting natural decay, we eventually let the monument die. The Great Wall is a particularly exposed edifice; after a few hundred years it's in serious disrepair, to simply leave it alone threatens its eventual degradation into rubble.

The problem is that China doesn't seem to be handling the restoration process with due sensibility. I don't think anyone would begrudge a few sections of heavily restored Wall, such as Badaling or Juyongguan or Mutianyu. It's a long wall, let's have some areas catering for tourists, let's have some rebuilt sections. But how many do we need? There is much unwarranted reconstruction, to the point where a Chinese UNESCO official compared some of the restored Wall to a "geriatric recovering from radical cosmetic surgery". That's not regular surgery to save the patient, it's wilful and needless surgery to make it look better, in the eye of certain beholders. Around Beijing is a lot of original Wall that looks wonderful just as it is, in a state of overgrown decay. Why change it? Some of it already is undergoing restoration, or is scheduled to. None of the hikers who visit regularly want it changed, and there's already enough for the casual tourist to visit. Preventing it from collapsing is certainly good, but constructing the charm out of it is not.

But - the Wall has never been a time capsule. Throughout its two thousand years of history, it has undergone constant rebuilding and reconstruction. Every "authentic" piece of Wall you see is a series of reconstructions. We're inclined, these days, to like our history served frozen, but the history of the Great Wall is an ever-evolving, an ever-changing one. During Ming times, upkeep and repair was done annually, with major works done every five to ten years. Then it was done for defence, now it's done for tourism. Personally, I'd like to keep the Wall as it is, in the case of the Great Wall I stand firmly in the "freeze time" camp. But the Wall's history does not agree.

Of the six sections I visited, my favourites were the unreconstructed parts each time. Largely, this was due to them simply being more fun. I would have the Wall to myself, and these sections were generally a little more extreme than the reconstructed sections: no steps, no handrails, sometimes with entirely collapsed walkways that required climbing. Aesthetically, I suppose, it's a matter of taste, and I still greatly enjoyed the reconstructed parts, but the ramshackle appeal of the "original" Wall won me over each time. The firm leader of the group was the section at Huanghua. A small section was well restored, but the bulk was crumbling, broken-down, sometimes treacherous sections of Wall, that looked sensational as it ran across the tops of rocky hillsides. Resolutely non-commercial, I had the Wall entirely to myself for hours, and though it was a sometimes exhausting clamber, it was immensely satisfying.

I would strongly advise any visitor to Beijing, with only time for one Wall visit, to visit the Huanghua section, as it mixes the best of the restored with the ruined, is jaw-droppingly beautiful, and is wonderfully peaceful. Stand on the Wall, on top of a mountain, with the whole world below you, watching the Wall snake across it, and listen to... nothing. Silence. Even if the Huanghua section was the only section of Great Wall existing, it would be a leading Wonder.

My next favourite, and next on my recommendation list, would the Jiankou to Mutianyu trek. As long as you can find the correct route up the mountain to meet the Wall (easier said than done...), it's a mostly downhill trek mixing fabulous scenery, decrepit and dramatic sections of Wall, which turns into the decently restored Mutianyu as you continue along. It's much more commercial once in Mutianyu, and you'll be plagued by T-shirt vendors upon reaching the base, but the crowds are light, and I can't deny the enjoyment of sliding down a toboggan after hours of walking.

Mutianyu itself is a terrific section of the Wall, and though its an effort - some of it is very steep - it's definitely worth going beyond the restored part. And if you particularly like the restored sections, then look no further than tourist-favourite Badaling. It may come under fire for being pretty tacky, but there is still no denying it looks amazing: it is a classic section of the Great Wall, and an essential visit for anyone wishing to experience everything the Wall has to offer. Plus, it's easy to get to, has a decent museum nearby, and truckloads of souvenir options for the discerning connoisseur of tat.

The only sections I wouldn't strongly recommend would be the Juyongguan section, which was just a loop without the drama of the Wall disappearing into the horizon, but still crowded and over-developed, and the Hushan/Tiger Mountain section, unless you happened to be in the far north-east of China. But it should be borne in mind that although I did a little more than the casual tourist, I'm still a Wall lightweight. There are loads of great sections of the Wall about, some more accessible than others, and I didn't visit what is regarded by many as the Great Wall's highlight, the trek between Simatai, Jinshanling and Gubeikou, due to distance and some of it being closed currently due to (sigh) restoration work. One day, though, one day...

Finally, before I round the review off, a quick myth to explode. These days I think most people with thought processes have figured it out, but the Wall is neither visible from space, the Moon, or Mars, with the naked eye. Can you see a motorway from space? Neither can you see the Wall. It's very long, but it's not wide or brightly coloured. I think that the myth is slowly dying a death, but it still persists - Chinese school textbooks included it until 2003, when a Chinese astronaut returned from space and, presumably in a low voice, admitted he couldn't see it anywhere.

Where the myth actually began is unknown, but the very first known reference to it goes way back, quite remarkably, to 1754 when English historian William Stukely wrote, “[Hadrian's Wall] of four score miles in length is only exceeded by the Chinese wall, which makes a considerable figure upon the terrestrial globe, and may be discerned at the moon.” One man being fanciful a couple of centuries before the space-age, perhaps, but the idea seems to have persisted, to be the point where even the National Geographic, in 1923, published it as fact, with a whole other bunch of nonsense such as being two thousand years old and built in only fifteen years. However, the myth appears to have really taken off in 1932, when it appeared in the popular American newspaper column "Ripley's Believe It Or Not". Here it is, along with some pretty wild facts about China itself (click to enlarge).

At the time, "Ripley's Believe It Or Not" was syndicated across the nation, with a readership of up to 80 million: all systems go for the myth. It did not help when the first man to walk on the moon, Neil Armstrong, made the vaguely ambiguous statement (my italics): "I have not yet found somebody who has told me they've seen the Wall of China from Earth orbit. I'm not going to say there aren't people, but I personally haven't talked to them."

Perhaps the myth is part of the appeal of the Great Wall. Perhaps the best Wonders attract a series of myths. Just look at the Pyramids and the astonishing stories it has gathered. The Taj Mahal, Machu Picchu, the Colosseum too all have fantastical tales weaved around them. The earliest section of Chinese wall is thought to have been started in the 7th Century BC, and there has been plenty of construction since then, so plenty of time for myths and stories to have appeared. The mighty Ming Wall built upon these literally, the Western media did so figuratively: the Great Wall of China becomes a colossal physical entity we can see and visit, shrouded in two thousand years of myth-making.

So the myth is an added appeal of the Wall, in a supporting role. Likewise, its age, its architecture, its sheer fame, all are part of the attraction. But really, to see the appeal of the Great Wall of China you just need to look at these photos, here and in my earlier entries. I'm not a gifted photographer, but the Great Wall doesn't take bad pictures. And the photos only hint at what it's like to actually stand there; I'd seen many pictures of the Wall before I visited, but none of them prepared me for how immense it really is. Because the primary appeal of the Great Wall is the sheer improbable size of the thing, as it goes on and on in the most improbable of locations. It would be impressive on flat plains; running along the top of mountainous peaks it defies belief. It enhances the wonderful scenery around it, as I've said before, the beauty of the Wall is how it augments the landscape. It is incredible. Or more concisely put, it is simply Great.

Criteria then.

Size: About eight metres high, with towers up to around twenty, that's not so big, is it? Width is around five metres. But it's all about the length... thousands of kilometres. The Great Wall is unimaginably, wholly improbably, large. Sure, much of it is worn away, and nobody really knows how much there is, but to stand on a mountain and watch it go on and on and on, is mind-blowing. And each picturesque view is less than 1% of what's available. The Great Wall is all about size.
Engineering: Much of the Wall, the parts rarely visited by tourism, is pretty uninspired: it is a wall in the most dull sense, just bricks or rammed earth. Even I could have a shot building it. More impressive is the building of a continuous wall across incredibly difficult terrain, where the technical prowess becomes more apparent. Again, it's about the size. The sheer effort involved in building it, in building so much, is staggering.
Artistry: At its best, the Wall is an attractive, yet functional, fortification, or at least evocative in its ruined form. But removed from context, it's not sensational.
Age/Durability: The Ming Wall is around four hundred years old, but the myths and history of the Great Wall stretch back a couple of thousand more. However, much of the restored parts are merely a few decades old, and have a little less gravitas as a result; it is hoped that restoration can take the form of preservation than full-on reconstruction for the Great Wall's future.
Fame/Iconicity: A symbol of China, and one of the most famous constructions in the world.
Context: The Great Wall is all about size and what you do with it. It becomes part of the dramatic landscape around it, running through it like a natural feature and enhancing it. It is like a river inverted, instead of taking the easiest route, it takes the most difficult, clinging to the highest points and adding an extra spine to mountain ridges. This is where the mesmeric beauty of the Wall lies.
Back Story: The true history needs to be carefully extracted from the myth, but is still packed with war, paranoia, Imperial arrogance, and heavy symbolism.
Originality: Just a wall? Can a wall be original? There are lots of walls in antiquity, usually city walls. But the Great Wall took it a step further, it became a national wall, and nothing like it had ever been seen then, and in terms of sheer scale, has never been seen since.

The 18th Century French philosopher and write, Voltaire (who, it should be mentioned, never actually visited China), once said about the Great Wall that "...the pyramids of Egypt are merely childish and useless heaps in comparison with this great work," though he later declared it "useless" and a "monument to fear". I wouldn't agree with his comments on the Pyramids, but I'd fully concur with his sentiments otherwise. The Great Wall is a great work, but arguably pretty useless and a testament to the paranoia of the empire, when a bit of reasoning with the enemy would have been more effective. But does that matter now? Not a bit. The Ming Dynasty may have built the Wall for the wrong reasons, but what an astounding creation a bit of paranoia can make. Before I visited the Wall, I was very slightly apprehensive that perhaps this supposed dead-cert of a World Wonder might actually be a little disappointing. Just a wall, I thought. But of course, it's more than a wall. It's The Wall. At times, it is pure "wow", which is all a Wonder really needs. I have only the greatest enthusiasm for the Great Wall, and after six sections I only want to visit it more. In the end, it is beyond doubt that the Great Wall of China is a Wonder of the World, and I would be astonished if it didn't finish in the final Seven very comfortably. The only question now is, is it better than my current number one, the Taj Mahal? I thought nothing could even come close to the Taj Mahal: the Great Wall comes very close. They are both very different and pretty difficult to directly compare. It's almost a toss of the coin. But ultimately, the perfect, transfixing beauty of the Taj Mahal gives it the merest of edges over the Great Wall. But they are both miles ahead of anything else.

The Seven Wonders of the World So Far
1. Taj Mahal
2. Great Wall of China
3. Angkor Wat
4. Sydney Opera House
5. Borobudur
6. Kailash Temple in Ellora
7. Akshardham

Petronas Towers

Notable Landmarks (or National Wonders)
The Golden Temple
Forbidden City
Temple of the Emerald Buddha
Shwedagon Pagoda
Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha
Banaue Rice Terraces

Interesting Places
Ananda Temple in Bagan
Marina Bay Sands
Agra Fort
Ayutthaya Historic Park
Lotus Temple

1 comment:

  1. I was fortunate enough to visit the Great Wall in November 2002. I hiked the 10-km stretch from Jinshanling to Simatai, and it was absolutely wonderful. There was a great mix of crumbling sections with parts that were in better shape, and some sections which were incredibly steep. The whole journey, though, was wonderful, and every view of the structure was breathtaking. The true majesty of the Wall, in my opinion, comes from its setting. The way that it highlights and accentuates the mountainous terrain by providing a focal point is where the real "wonder" lies.

    It also helped that I had the whole walk to myself.