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.

Tiny Tuesday: It’s Not the Size, It’s How You Use It

“I enjoy reading your blog,” my uncle told me during a recent family event, “but it doesn’t really apply to me.” He was talking about the Tiny Tuesday feature, in which I explore how to make one’s lifestyle more efficient and less resource-intensive, mainly via small houses. It was a great chance to step back and reflect on my target audience.

My uncle grew up in a house that was, by the standards of the day, very large. He got married and raised two of the coolest cousins I could wish for in a considerably smaller house. Now retired and empty-nested, the couple lives in a large house once more, with plenty of room for guests. My uncle raves about having multiple full bathrooms and a shower big enough to turn around in. He values the level of comfort and feels he’s earned it.

For all we say and write about tiny houses, there’s no strict definition of what a tiny house is. Small-living pioneer Jay Shafer, maybe the only person qualified to write such a definition, offers this: “Any house is a tiny house if the space is used well.” It doesn’t have to be on wheels or take up less than 500 square feet. But it does need to be lived in and appreciated to the last detail. I think my uncle does a good job of that!

A lot of people struggle to use their spaces well. But if you’re comfortable with your lifestyle, living within your means and eliminating waste where you can, then maybe you can find value in this feature by helping others to reach the same goal. Tell friends and family how the average American household uses only 40% of its space. Urge your local government to reduce the minimum square-footage in building codes, legalize accessory dwellings, and permit affordable housing developments. Volunteer at the nearest Habitat for Humanity chapter or make a donation.

And thank you all for reading.

Tiny Tuesday: Discovering Security

There are two ways to be rich: one is by acquiring much, and the other is by desiring little.
–Jackie French Koller, children’s author

It’s 2008, and Ryan Mitchell gets laid off from what should have been a stable job. The Charlotte, North Carolina native wonders how to improve his situation: “So, I look at my budget, and about a half of my income was going toward housing – rent, utilities, insurance, all this kind of stuff.”

Ryan starts a blog, The Tiny Life, to catalogue his ideas for downsizing. The blog gradually morphs into what it is today: an expert resource for all things tiny house. All things considered, Ryan then builds one of his own. It takes him a year and a half to build his 150-square-foot house on wheels, working nights and weekends. Once it’s finished, he moves out of an apartment for good.

Ryan’s blog covers a wide range of topics both technical (“Preparing for an Off-Grid Winter”) and whimsical (“How to Decorate Your Tiny House for the Holidays”). In a recent interview for The Boston Globe, Ryan celebrates one year in his house and explains how big it feels, thanks to what he calls “intentional design.” With his low expenses, he is self-employed and he has the financial security to travel frequently and experiment with new business ideas. It’s an inspiring story.