Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Days 162 and 171: Some Walls - Badaling and Tiger Mountain

The Great Wall of China, as many before me have observed, is somewhat long. It is regarded as the world's largest man-made structure - if you could call it a single structure. A figure of 6000 miles is often bandied around, but that's not the result of a scientific survey with a trundle wheel, it's an estimate based on historical records and looking at maps. That's because the Great Wall of China is not one single long wall from the sea in the east to the desert in the west, it's a fractured mass of walls spanning that distance, as though a cartographer had tried to draw a straight line but was seized with a mad sneezing fit. The significant stuff is all found in the north of China, where it was once required to fend off the advances of the ghastly barbarians, but it's a confusing mess of branch-offs, dead-ends, ruined sections and reconstructed sections that nobody can easily define. What is the Great Wall? Even UNESCO aren't sure - when they put it on the Heritage List in 1987 they couldn't reach a definitive scientific conclusion to the overall length or ages of the various walls that seem to make it up. As little as three years ago, government studies revealed an extra five hundred miles previously not counted. Five hundred miles is almost twice the length of mainland Scotland, or almost seven Hadrian's Walls - just overlooked!

Great Walls, plural, is touted as a more accurate name, although not quite as appealing. I don't see it catching on. And although a strict definition may elude the experts, the flocking hordes of tourists have a better idea - the Great Wall of China is simply a huge wall that zigzags across the tops of mountains and looks, well, great.

As walking the full 6000 mile length of the Great Wall I, from an early stage, ruled out as being a little impractical, I thought that to do it justice I would need to visit various sections. Most Wonders I like to visit at least twice, but the Great Wall being such a colossal structure warranted multiple visits. So far I have visited four sections, three around Beijing (Badaling, Mutianyu, and Huanghua) and one at the border between China and North Korea (Tiger Mountain Great Wall). I have more sections to visit, but for now I'll detail the four I've been too, and therefore hopefully avoid the official review being almost as long as the wall itself.

Badaling first. The name means "Key to the North Gate" although some sources give it such names as "reaching eight directions", so I guess it depends on the translation (or perhaps some sources are simply wrong). Burness and I visited this before our North Korea trip, when he was still a carefree young lad with functioning eyes unaffected by crazy viruses. In fact, it's the only section he's visited to date. Poor Burness. If you've been following his condition, you'll be pleased to hear that the crazy face mould has gone, and for a couple of days so did his eye pain, before it returned. Fortunately, as I write today, it's much better and he can even open his right eye now. Unfortunately, and very weirdly, the vision in his left eye has faded. Overall, it a less than ideal situation.

But we care about "things" on this blog, and not "people", so let's get back to this chunk of wall. For anybody intending on visiting a few sections of the Great Wall, I would unhesitatingly advise them checking out the Badaling section first. Why? It's the most touristy part, it's pretty reconstructed and inauthentic, and it's by far the busiest section. In summer, it's known for its crowds and sounds horrendous, but even in winter, by sections where the cable cars reach, it is pretty busy. All this makes it sound dreadful, but it isn't. The wonder of the wall rises above the shepherded hordes. There may be loads of tat-selling stalls at the bottom, and determined vendors using their sparse arsenal of English to lure you into their web of souvenirs, but once on the Wall it's all forgotten about. Because they don't matter. The crowds don't matter. Suddenly, only the Wall matters.

So why visit it first? Basically, because it makes the quieter sections seem all the more incredible. But also because, it being your first visit, it will still take your breath away, and you'll be more focussed on the Wall and less on the parade of wares. In truth, the cacophony of commercialism that is Badaling didn't at all bother me. The Wall is 6000 miles long, so what harm is a five mile long section for tourism? Let there be cable cars and camels, souvenirs and snack stalls, touts and tour buses; I found it all weirdly charming, in a relentlessly unsubtle Chinese way. I'm sure it's unbearable in summer, but in the cold winter it was never a hassle, just part of the experience. Not one for the purists, I'm sure, but for anyone wishing to experience all the Great Wall has to offer, it is a vital section to visit. But it shouldn't - as many, sadly, make the mistake of - be the only section you see. Visit Badaling first - then enjoy the peace and freedom of the other sections.

In fact, my only issue with Badaling is that it was limited. Sure, the Wall goes on and on, but eventually on either side the path becomes blocked. The Wall reaches a bricked-up watchtower, and short of clambering about to get to the other side, it's a dead-end. This kind of against-the-rules climbing isn't an issue at any other section of the Wall, but at the tourist-packed Badaling, seems wrong. It means the freedom associated with the rest of the Wall, that same freedom felt when climbing a mountain (as, in a sense, you are doing when walking the Wall), is restricted. Badaling is less special as a result, less free, and more a convenient tourist trap.

The audio tour too... wow. For around £4, an audio tour was available that would trigger automatically at the right sections - fortunately, it was possible over-ride this as it frequently misfired. Quickly it became apparent that the educational value of the audio tour was second to the astonishment at the amount of overblown bluster it offered. On a freezing day, the hot air emanating was almost pleasurable. The two narrators - one male, one female - had cloyingly wholesome American accents, and were very fond of grand statements such as "the greatest architectural work in human history" and "a miracle of mankind". Burness sniggered at my rage when they stated with all sincerity when relating to the New 7 Wonder vote, "In 2007, the Great Wall was awarded top position by an absolute majority in a fierce vote..." Just... bollocks... (in case you've missed it, my feelings on the New 7 Wonders can be found here). During a closing number, for about five minutes, the narrators barely mention their "world famous miracle" as they set off on a remarkable stream of purple prose about the changing seasonal landscape around the Wall, all set to very stirring music. I'm sure it makes more sense in Mandarin.

But for my Great Wall debut, the crowds and the tour made not a difference. Stand on the Wall for the first time, and witness it climb up mountains and wind down them, and stretch off out of sight into the distance, and it looks nothing less than magnificent. That magnificence is never diminished, whether packed like a sardine with a million Chinese at Badaling, or entirely alone at the crumbled Huanghua section. And even at Badaling, it's not hard to find peace and quiet, keep walking until the bricked-up watchtower and observe the numbers vanish, from light crowds to barely a handful around.

Although this is the easy part, don't be fooled into thinking Badaling is a stroll. Sure, you can cheat and take the cable car to the highest part, then simply walk down, but if you otherwise walk any distance at all, you quickly realise that Badaling is steep. It does not escape you that you are on a mountain. This is what the Wall does, it follows the mountain. It doesn't look for the easy route, it clings to the peaks and ridges. A stroll quickly becomes a pretty exhausting hike up some very steep sections, some with steps, some just paved with granite slabs, and despite metal handrails, going downhill can be pretty treacherous. A man as famously nimble as I had no problem, but given the heavy tourism - in physique as well as numbers - I wouldn't be surprised if there are some nasty falls. Not that I can find any reported - a casual Google seach for '"Great Wall"' death tourist' reveals tourists being murderedstruck by lightningfalling from cable cars, and being mauled to death by Siberian tigers (!), but only alludes to deaths by falling on or from the Wall without any specific cases.

Badaling is also fun. I can't speak for the summer, but in winter with just light crowds, the Wall is a lively place, with tourists shouting and laughing and taking photos. Everyone was enjoying the Wall during my visit, and that is a lovely trait of any Wonder - to be enjoyed. Badaling might not score points for being serene, authentic, or free, but it scores a lot for fun. Like a boisterous, drunk uncle hell-bent on dancing, what it lacks in subtlety, it makes up for in fun and absolute lack of pretension.

The second section of the Great Wall was near the city of Dandong, on the North Korean border. I neglected to write about Dandong, with its singing dwarfs, river border with North Korea, and polar opposite existence to the subdued North Korean border town, and will leave it for a future day, but as part of my train journey from Pyongyang to Beijing, I had a day's stopover and tour in Dandong. Part of the tour featured a visit to the rather ostentatiously-named Tiger Mountain Great Wall. It's a great name, though the wall failed to quite live up to it. In fact, it's named after two nearby peaks, said to look like tiger's ears, so no actual tigers (and no tiger maulings therefore) and the mountain with the Wall was more of a hill, but it was a pleasant stroll.

This was a bonus visit for me, as I hadn't planned it, and being with two others plus our guide, I couldn't go marching off for hours, although as this section is the most easterly of all Wall sections, I would quickly have come to a dead end. Because this is where the Wall stops. There are other parts of the Wall at other areas in eastern China, but this is the most easterly, climbing a hill to overlook North Korea, and ending. It's a very recent reconstruction - done in 2000 - and doesn't have the scenic beauty of the sections around Beijing, but if you fancy standing on a wall and looking at North Korea, I heartily recommend it.

That's Badaling and Tiger Mountain Wall therefore, covering something like seven miles out of a possible 6000. 5993 miles to go then, and I probably managed up to ten more during recent visits to Mutianyu and Huanghua, which I'll detail in an upcoming entry.

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