Join guest expert Amar Grover as he takes a walk along the serpentine Great Wall of China.
Its image sells wine, motorbikes and mobile phones. Well before space flight, it was even thought visible from the moon. It remains a staple of state visits and is, as one scholar’s noted, “the functional equivalent of the imperial audience”. Yet here I was among a small group who’d come neither bearing gifts nor to pay homage but simply to enjoy walking stretches of China’s Great Wall.
The Chinese usually call it ch’ang-ch’eng, or long wall, which is less vague then it sounds for hardly any one agrees as to its length. But all agree it’s very long and undeniably great even though as a defensive barrier it never entirely worked. And according to the billboard looming to my side, up ahead it lay “sprawling like a huge dragon to cut across clouds and fog.”
I was at Taipingzhai, part of the heavily restored Huangyaguan section, which marks the start of almost 40km of walkable wall. Built in the 6th century, and practically rebuilt in the 16th, Huangyaguan musters just about every facet of wall-building there is. Starting alongside a sheer cliff, it’s a perfect example of how the Chinese often felt they were improving an instinctive map and natural boundaries.
Setting off in brilliant sunshine, our small group quickly spread out along the broad, high wall. We were all preoccupied with marvellous ever-changing views and dramatic perspectives. Lagging behind the others, I soon found I had it practically to myself.
An almost child-like abandon took over. Each successive tower ‒ precise regulations specified their spacing enabling smoke and fire signals to cover a thousand kilometres in twenty-four hours ‒ amplifed the views across the lush, rugged hillside. I climbed almost every one to peer through loopholes, pace their lofty battlements and lob rocks at the odd inconsiderate tourist straying into my elaborately contrived pictures. Actually, I didn’t do that at all because despite being in the world’s most populous country, there was not a soul in sight.
Occasional plots of maize and chestnut trees almost brushed the wall’s supple serpent-like form as it rose across ridges and dipped between hills. Far below, hamlets and wheat fields nestled in a knot of little valleys. I headed on, the wall peaking at a short spur so steep one needed to clamber up on all fours, and imagined nomadic hordes scaling the brickwork with grappling hooks to smoke out bored and lonely guards.
Yet, rather like the old adage that what goes up must come down, eventually the great stone serpent plunged into a populated valley. By dusk I was sipping tea and happily contemplating more wall-walking in the days ahead.