For many people, me included, a trip to the Great Wall of China is an item on the Bucket list, and probably one that is listed very close to the top. Having the opportunity to walk the Great Walk, on a stop over in Beijing on a work trip, between a leg at the University of Nottingham Ningbo Campus (UNNC) and the University of Nottingham’s Malaysia Campus at Semenyih (Kuala Lumpur) was certainly an unexpected but wonderful opportunity.
I like travelling, and I like being inconspicuous when doing so, and I very much like to disappear when I travel and try and just blend in. I like to take public transport, keep my head down, watch, and go with the flow. That theory does of course go entirely out of the window when I as the traveller am taken out of a context of being able to be inconspicuous, and choose to be travelling by train to the Great Wall as a Westerner. Not only do many Western tourists seemingly prefer a more organised approach to the Wall, travelling by coach, but I was on that train not only as a female traveler, but as a very pale woman with blonde hair at that, accompanied by an even paler flame- haired female friend, and THAT renders you anything but invisible. So, for the 1.15 hours of the train journey it was actually quite hard to look out of the window and get a sense of context for the setting of the Wall as there were always people staring at us. In fact, word spread about the Westerners on the train and people walked down the train to come and stare at us. Really, we should have started charging and offered to pose for photos but those photos were taken anyway and some people liked it so much,they came back for several looks. I hasten to add that there was never a sense of being intimidated or feeling threatened, people on the whole kept their distance, stared their fill, tried the occasional ‘ hello’ and left us otherwise in peace, but being at the centre of this strange spectacle and being forced to remain the passive subject of those gazes is actually quite wearing. It did make me think very hard though about identity and a sense of place and the need for communities to ‘belong’. All of which is of course entirely relevant to a visit to a wall whose sole purpose was to determine a sense of belonging, and to symbolise both power and define boundaries.
The Great Wall is first and foremost one of the most astonishing defensive bulwarks ever constructed, safeguarding and marking the territorial extent of China’s Empire. The original construction dates to China’s legendary first Emperor Qin Shi Huang and dates as early as 220 BC. Of course, little remains of those original bulwarks as the Great Wall has on and off been rebuilt, maintained, and enhanced; the majority of the existing wall date to the Ming Dynasty. Inside the Wall, Imperial unified law prevailed; outside the wall, there were ever shifting tribal allegiances, and a fluidity of belonging that stood in stark contrast to the immobile, overwhelming, dominant bulk of the Wall. Inside the Wall, there was (at least theoretically) law, order, stability and permanence, and again, this expresses itself through strong, tall, powerfully built structures meant to defy all weathers and seasons. So, the first thing to know about the Great Wall is that it’s not just a functional structure, as a frontier demarcation, but it’s in fact so much more. Functionality is the least of it’s many aspects, and even if we just focus, to begin with on functionality, the structure is unlike any other.
The Wall is not continuous but stretches nevertheless several thousand miles across China and is, in places, 7 m deep and 7 m high, enough to move horses and troops but also includes watch towers, ramparts, tribute gates and supported a system of beacons. At Badaling, the Wall has been heavily restored (for the first time in 1957) and is probably in as good a nick as it was under the Ming Emperors, and its easy to see at Badaling why it was such a formidable obstacle. There is plenty of space on the wall for defenders, there are watchtowers that allow the most spectacular views across the surrounding area, and as the Wall at all times overlooks other sections of the Wall, the structure is impossible to approach without being seen. Guidebooks can be quite sniffy about Badaling (‘too touristy’, Wall ‘too restored and not authentic enough’) but its precisely its easy access from Beijing as well as its excellent state of repair that allow the visitor a sense of why its there and how it functioned. Beijing, The Northern Capital, needed to be defended, and indeed one of few serious attempts on the Wall occurred not far south from Badaling, at Juyong Pass, within striking distance of both Beijing and the resting place of the Ming Emperors, so the section at Badaling is actually a great case study of why the Wall was needed, built and maintained in the first place. Yes, other sections of the Wall may be more remote and only accessible through the help of a guide and may require hours of arduous trekking- as a day tripper, that is not time I have, and even at Badaling, a decent exploration of the wall will require hours of walking endless steps and slopes and should not be attempted lightly. Good footwear and plenty of water would seem in order but still, this did not stop some of the more intrepid visitors from attempting to scale the sometimes sheer vertiginous slopes in heels???!!!? I both tremble at the thought of doing this and shaking my head in disbelief, and for the record, for me my footwear of choice were proper sturdy walking sandals. But, I digress.
So, functionally speaking, the Great Wall is definitely fit for purpose. But its also a fantastically impressive piece of architecture, in that it both respects and defies the landscape it is situated across. The Wall follows the contours of hills and mountains and often perches quite perilously on top. The views are certainly breath- taking and there is also a clear sense that on the Wall, seeing matters as much as being seen. The wall is there to be noticed, and the Wall is there to endure, symbolising the permanent and immortal ambitions of the rulers of the Middle Kingdom. It’s worth remembering that Qin Shi Huang, arguably the founder of the Wall, is also the Emperor most commonly associated with the Terracotta Army, so scale, ambition, and challenge are key to the visuals of the Great Wall. Bucket List item? Yep. And it remains on the Bucket List because having seen it in summer, what I would like now is to return and see it in Winter. So, the Great Wall and I have unfinished business but then, a monument of this scale, and size and ambition can not be appreciated in one trip alone.