Cold and wet with smog warnings, Beijing in November is not a particularly exciting place to be, however must see sights are must see sights. And one of the biggest of these is the Great Wall of China.
I’d recently completed reading Conn Iggulden’s fantastic Conqueror series that chronicles the life and times of Genghis Khan, one of the worlds most dramatic and remarkable leaders. So the vivid images of 13th century China and what the wall stood for was still fresh in my mind.
The drive up to Badaling from Beijing takes no more than two hours by tour bus and though we were surrounded by mountains the fog made it difficult to see the wall until we were almost at the base entrance. The entry today is a huge modern day replica courtyard that felt like a bit of a ghost town as only one rather tired touristy shop was open. It turns out that the most visitors to the wall were from China and not foreigners like myself and so I inadvertently became a tourist attraction as well with several gesture invitations came my way to take a photo with an actual African. Hmm…
Eventually I got through the ticket lines and to the bottom of the stairs to start the climb. A little bit of history here. The function of the wall was always as a military one, from the time the first Great Wall was built in 206 to the fourth Great Wall in the 16th century.
Up and up hundreds of stairs. It had never occurred to me that getting to the top of the wall would be such a feat. It turns out that stairs back then were built unevenly and at almost 50-60 degree inclines. It was tough going with nothing to hold onto on a wet day, both on the climb up and down while dodging other wall gazers. At the top one finds these small cubby holes, tiny rooms that served as army lookout posts. One couldn’t help but feel sorry for those lonely sentries who had to stay on guard day after day, night after night in these wind embattled posts, especially if they had winter duty. I wasn’t even sure how they would see the enemy coming in the mist. Maybe that was Genghis’s greatest weapon. Mists covering thousands of Mongol warriors as they proudly waited to attack in their horseback regiments.
Ultimately, the Great Wall is a feat of medieval day engineering. Being there though is a stark reminder that its function was military and not rest and relaxation, and even the bootleg Prada shop at the base can’t change that.