By the time this extraordinary landmark first appeared on a European map of the world in 1584, the Great Wall had already stood guard over China's northern frontier for 1800 years. Construction first began after the unification of China in 221 B.C., when a series of walls built by former warring states were linked into a single defensive shield under the direction of the first Emperor of the Jin Dynasty of China.
This first Great Wall was a rammed-earth structure that looked very different from the Wall seen by tourists north of Beijing today. As Chinese dynasties rose and fell, the boundaries of the empire changed and new walls were needed. The magnificent brick Great Wall in Beijing dates from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The emperors of the Ming Dynasty spent the best part of 300 years fortifying its northern border against Mongol and Manchu raiders.
Manchu troops walked through the Wall unopposed in 1644 after Ming General Wu Sangui opened the gates to the northern invaders. The Manchu's new Qing Dynasty had no use for the Great Wall, which subsequently fell into disrepair. The Wall served no purpose to the Qing Dynasty because they were from the north anyway.
Today there are several gates of the Great Wall in the vicinity of Beijing that are open to tourists. The most popular and most developed is the Badaling Gate. Another is the Simatai Gate, but it is 3-hour drive from Beijing and requires either a group tour or hiring a private car and driver as well as a guide, unless you are an extremely adventurous person and think you can handle multiple local bus changes and haggling for a private car for the final 12 miles (and remember all this must be totally in Chinese). The private car, driver and guide cost more than we were willing to pay. I would like to have had the opportunity to see this place that is supposed to be outstandingly beautiful. But neither my energy level, my tired legs and feet nor my wallet were up for this trip. Bill said he was happy just looking at the photos in the guide books in the hotel.
Huanghua is also a popular gate with people who want to see a section of the Wall in a more crumbled state. Huanghua is 40 miles north of Beijing and even more difficult to reach than Simatai. We passed on that one too. We wanted to visit Mutianyu, which is 42 miles northeast of Beijing and also presents travel challenges. It seemed the most interesting. The Mutianyu section was first built in Northern Qing Dynasty (550 - 557) and is older than the popular Badaling section of the Great Wall. During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) construction of the present wall began. The Mutianyu section of the Great Wall connects Juyongguan Pass in the west and Gubeikou Great Wall in the east. In Ming Dynasty, two patriotic generals named Tan Lun and Qi Jiguang rebuilt the Mutianyu section in order to strengthen its defensive potential when they guarded the strategic pass. This section served as the northern protective screen guarding the capital for generations.
A pass was built in the wall in 1404. The Mutianyu Great Wall was rebuilt in 1569 and today most parts of it are well preserved. The Mutianyu Great Wall has the largest construction scale and best quality among all sections of the Great Wall.
We stayed in Michael's House of Beijing, which is a mock Hutong type small hotel. It is about 5-6 blocks from the Jishuitan metro station. The publicly-owned bus No. 919 departs Deshengmen near the Jishuitan metro station and goes directly to the Badaling gate of the Great Wall. This easy transportation makes it relatively easy to visit Badaling…..guide or no guide. After learning Saturday evening that we would need to also hire a private car and driver in addition to our guide, we instructed the hotel to notify the travel agency that we were canceling the Mutianyu trip and instead wanted to go to Badaling with a guide on the public bus. Supposedly, this was all arranged and everyone was clear on the details. Something must have been lost in the translation, because Monday morning the guide William showed up with a private car and driver. So we were once again on for the trip to Mutianyu and it would cost more than we really wanted to pay. But we did get 100 RMB discount on the car and driver.
The Mutianyu section of the Great Wall winds 1.4 miles though lofty mountains and high ridges, and many sections are made of granite and its unique structure makes the wall almost indestructible.. This is the only section of the Wall that has double sided parapets to allow fighting on both sides. Some of the parapets are sawtooth shaped instead of the regular rectangular form. Beneath the parapets there are square embrasures, the top of which are designed in an arc structure. These are quite different from the traditional round embrasures seen elsewhere on the Wall. The Mutianyu Wall measures 23 to 26 feet high and 4 to 5 yards wide. The width was decided to be this wide because this dimension would allow 5 horsemen to ride side-by-side on the top of the wall.
There are 22 watch towers set at fairly close intervals along the Wall. These towers are located not only in the main Wall but also in the distinctive 'branch cities' peculiar to this section of the Wall. Branch cities are built on the hill ridge against the inner or outer side of the Wall. The branch cities measure from several yards to dozens of yards across.
To the northwest over 3,281 feet hills (we would call them mountains) lies a section of the wall called Ox Horn Edge. On these steep and lofty peaks there are 2 walls. What is more rarely seen is a general gateway platform guarded by 3 watch towers together on the southeast side. This might be the only place along the Wall where 3 watch towers stand in such close proximity. Mutianyu Great Wall deserves to be the archtype of the ten thousand li Great Wall. (10,000 li is equivalent to 3,100 miles)
It is difficult to say what the total length of the Great Wall really measures. If all the fortified walls built in the different dynasties around northern China are included, the total length would exceed 50,000 kilometers (31,000 miles). The Ten Thousand Li seems quite a low estimate of its length compared to modern estimates of 8,850 km (5500 miles). These estimates include trenches and natural barriers like mountain rivers and lakes. Estimates of the length of actual wall come to over 6,200 km (3,900 miles). However, this includes many side branches that don't contribute to the west-to-east 'length'.
All along the Great Wall at the watch towers, guards used a system to relay information of impending attacks to their command posts far away. One shot and 1 smoke meant 100 enemy were approaching. Two shots and 2 smokes meant that 500 enemy were approaching. Three shots and 3 smokes meant that 1,000 or more enemy were approaching. And 4 shots and 4 smokes meant that 10,000 or more enemy were approaching. Bill asked a good question for which neither the guide nor anyone the guide asked could provide an answer. This relay shot and smoke system would be effective to notify the distant command post that enemies were approaching, but how did they communicate to the command post the location along the wall where the enemies were approaching? The answer to that question remains a mystery to us.
Besides its strategically important location and compact layout, the Mutianyu Great Wall is also famous for the breathtakingly beautiful scenery. Heavy forest covers over 96% of the total scenic area. The Wall presents different aspects of beauty in the four seasons. Flowers bloom all over the mountains in spring. Grasses dress the hillside green in summer. Trees are laden with fruits in autumn, and especially in October, leaves are turning red or yellow. In winter, the Wall is covered by snow, making it seem more magnificent. The pine trees around Mutianyu Great Wall are a bit unusual because of their age. There are more than 20 pines over 300 years old and about 200 pines over 100 year old.
On the spring day that we visited Mutianyu the apricot trees were in full bloom and the mountainsides were covered in white blossoms. The sky was very gray and dreary, as is normal for the Beijing area of China during the spring; but the temperatures were cool and comfortable. The previous day was sunny and bright but hot as hades. Would have been better for photos yesterday, but temperature today was better for us to walk around on the stone. The writing in stones on the mountainside in the photo on the right says something to the effect that everyone should always honor Chairman Mao as the savior of China. The flowers look like snow on the mountainside, but those are thousands and thousands of apricot blossoms.
Upon arrival. tourists must run the gamut of pushy vendors to reach the entrance and board the cable car to be whisked in comfort to a platform near the top of the Wall. From there one climbs steep stairs less than 100 feet in elevation to the top of the Wall. That goodness for that cable car! I cannot imagine walking up that steep mountainside. It was hard enough for me to walk the incline from the parking lot to the bottom cable car platform. Once on top of the Wall, one obviously must turn left or right. We chose to go left first. If you are young enough and in good enough physical condition, you can walk all the way to watch tower number 23; but much of that is a very steep incline....and as Bill pointed out, what goes down must come back up and vice versa. There are many more towers, but the Wall has only been renovated to tower number 23; so the Wall is closed to the public past that point.
We only walked to the second tower to the left, then turned around and walked to the first tower to the right. That was enough walking for me and Bill had also seen enough. And even our guide was huffing and puffing worse than me. Some people might get a feeling of personal fulfillment by walking long and arduous distances on the Wall; but, really, what's the point? And the view is spectacular...... but once you have seen it, how long do you need to keep looking at it? Plus, as Bill pointed out, what goes down must walk back up, and vice-versa.
We took the cable car down. Younger and more adventurous tourists can slide down a sled called "Speed" but that did not appeal to us at all.
After touring the Wall, our guide took us to a very nice restaurant some miles away, where we enjoyed a veritable feast. For about $9 each the meal consisted of steamed broccoli, green beans with ginger & garlic & hot dried red peppers, roasted mountain stream trout, chicken & whole brown water chestnuts in a slightly sweet sauce, egg drop soup with leafy vegetables, watermelon slices and a beverage. This was by far the best meal we have eaten in Beijing area. The trout was extra delicious. My favorites were the vegetables as we have not eaten hardly any vegetables since arriving in this city. The only thing I did not care for were the brown water chestnuts, and those were easy to pick out and leave on my garbage plate. The eggs in the egg-drop soup were much thicker and larger than American style egg-drop soup, as if the eggs were not beaten thoroughly before adding to the hot broth. But it tasted the same.
There was plenty of time to also visit the Ming Tombs, but we decided to give that a miss and head back toward the hotel. Today was the final day of a 3-day holiday and we feared the traffic returning to Beijing would be extraordinarily heavy. We lucked out because the police were in the process of shutting down the freeway (probably for some important person to travel unhampered by the common folk and for security reasons). Our car managed to get onto the freeway just as the police closed the entrance behind us. So we had a clear ride back to the city on an almost empty freeway. Tomorrow mid-day we will take overnight train back to Kowloon-Hong Kong. The T97 train departs the Beijing West Railway Station at 13:08 and will arrive at the Hung Hom Station at 14:51 the next day. Then the ferry to Macau at 17:00.