China Week: The Great Wall

He who does not reach the Great Wall is not a true man.
-Mao Zedong

I saved the best for last. The Chinese call it 万里长城, pronounced “wànlǐ chángchéng” (literally “the 10,000-mile-long wall”), or simply 长城 “chángchéng” (“the long wall”). Archaeological surveys place the total length of all sections of the wall between 5500 miles and 13,000 miles. Thus, even though the number “10,000” is meant to be figurative (like “myriad”), it turns out to be an accurate description.


Doug traverses an unrestored part of the Great Wall.

Semantics aside, the Great Wall is truly great. The oldest parts were built nearly 3000 years ago, but the parts still standing today were largely built or rebuilt during the Ming Dynasty of 1368-1644. The wall traverses some of the most rugged terrain imaginable. Guard towers spaced by sightlines allowed sentries to keep an eye on the empire’s entire northern border, and enabled rapid communication. The wall aimed to stop nomadic invaders long enough for China’s armies to mount a defense. It didn’t always work.

Today’s wall is the product of tens of millions of laborers. Typically each side is a double course of brick sandwiching rubble. Two colors of brick are used, with the tan parapet standing out from the grey bulk. Here’s a new vocabulary word for you: crenellation. The Great Wall’s parapets have a crenellated, or toothy shape, rather than being solid. The low parts are called crenels, and they’re useful for shooting an arrow at an invader or for admiring a view.


A cross section of the parapet.

The 4- to 5-meter-wide interior is filled with rocks and earth, and paved over on top with stones. Touristy sections of the wall have stairs, while crumbling unrestored segments are slippery smooth. The stairs include periodic channels carved out for drainage. Guard towers typically have window openings and a terrace on top accessed by narrow steps.

A handful of restored wall segments near Beijing are the most visited. These segments charge admission fees and offer refreshment and souvenir stations, as well as amusements (for an additional fee) like chairlifts and toboggan rides. One may traverse the natural parts of the wall between restored segments, and overnight point-to-point trips are popular with backpackers.

I imagine the builders would be proud that their life’s work survives as not only China’s most iconic monument, but also the world’s first long distance hiking trail. It’s a pretty simple one to follow.


This concludes China Week. Please read the first six parts if you missed them: Architecture, Business, Food, Pollution, Bridges, and Transportation.

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