Peering from atop of the ruined stone ramparts that once marked the edge of known civilization for the Han Chinese through the morning haze out across the vast and intimidating mountains to the north, one could not help but imagine life in the Chinese dynasties and the harrowing experiences imperial soldiers must have faced defending the Middle Kingdom against the savage marauding warrior trips of the Xiongnu sweeping down from the hinterlands of the Eurasian Steppe to visit havoc and destruction on the cultivated and ordered Han society.
Free of the thick, jaundiced air, congested streets, oppressive heat, and clogged tourist attractions of Beijing, rugged highlands to the north of China’s capital lend themselves to an unfettered exploration of the Great Wall of China and its ancient ruined ramparts ensconced atop of forbidding mountain ridges blocking hostile encroachment from the north.
Prizing authenticity over the highly commercialized “Disneyland” experience the more popular and overcrowded tourist destination Badaling has to offer, one can hire a car and head for the lesser traveled sections of the Great Wall that stand above the village of Mutianyu located about 70 some odd kilometers north of Beijing.
Escape the thickening jaundiced air, congested streets, oppressive heat, and clogged tourist attractions of Beijing. Search the ruined ramparts atop of forbidding mountains blocking the Eurasian Steppe to the north. Clamber among the scattered stones of the “wild walls” of the Changcheng or the Long Wall as the Chinese know it.
The Long Wall
If you ask the average Chinese person, especially an elderly person, about the Great Wall of China, they might not know what you’re talking about, as to the Chinese, the iconic landmark is known as “Changcheng” or the “Long Walls” in the English vernacular, and not as the Great Wall.
Believe me, it’s really long wall. Though not visible from space, as popular urban legend says, the Great Wall runs like a stone ribbon tracing the ridge tops and across deep valleys and roughly following the southern border of Inner Mongolia.
From its eastern most point at Dandong on the coast of the Yellow Sea, the Great Wall runs over 8,850 km (5,500 mi) to the outer edge of the then known world at Lop Lake and the fringe of Taklamakan Desert in western China. Including all of its branches, the wall is an astounding 21,196 km (13,171 mi) long.
Early Chinese kingdoms began construction of the wall in 445 BC during the Waring States Period, which other dynasties continued on in various fits up through the Ming Dynasty until around middle of the 17th Century, as a defense against raiding parties of barbarians from the north.
A Really Old Place
There’s more to see at Mutianyu. In conjunction with some of the best-preserved sections of the Great Wall, there was also access to eastern segments of unpreserved or “wild” lengths of the Wall, and a chance to see the iconic Chinese landmark in a more natural state.
Restoration and upkeep of the Great Wall near Mutianyu lend to one’s imagination a representation of how the wall appeared in its functional state when manned by Chinese warriors actively defending against intrusions from militant barbarians in search of booty.
Seemingly endless flights of steep stone steps eventually led you to the ridge above and onto the impressively restored sections to the wall commanding views into the deep valleys to the north.
Hiking along the restored portions of the wall you can eventually reach a watchtower where it is possible to gain access to the Wild Wall, a place few tourists choose to treat.
Merlons lining both sides of the wall, a unique feature not found on many other sections, allowed defenders to fight off of both sides of the wall.
Peering in between them into deep valleys atop of stone ramparts, one can catch a glimpse of the past and is able to envision a very different world then when life was not so convenient. Threats from hostile invaders were very real for the civilized Han.
Among the Ruins of the Wild Wall
For those thirsting for more, it is possible to gain access to unrestored sections of the Great Wall and explore a once great structure now in various states of disarray, neglected and long forgotten, and trample along the battlements left to the ages.
Bypassing a bricked up window and climbing out an adjacent watchtower window one can gain a foothold on a thin ledge and shuffle across to a spot where it is possible to lower oneself onto the scattered stones of the ancient ruined rampart connected to the watchtower.
Among the brush and briars, one can make a closer connection with the past, to get a more authentic image of what once was. One can’t help think of the Chinese soldiers living a spartan existence on this wall defending the Middle Kingdom from the marauding hordes from the north.
Moving through the thick scrub along the overgrown battlements of stone, brick, and tamped earth, a narrow trail winds its way along the ridge and up to a dilapidated corner watchtower long fallen into disrepair, just as once great Chinese dynasties have faded into history.
Pushing past the undergrowth and small trees reveals remnants of what once was. In the distance, traces of the ruined wall wind their way through the dense foliage along the knife-edged ridges into the hazy distance.
Built with the blood, sweat, and lives of untold thousands over hundreds of years, the wall stands as a testament to the greatness and the futility of man.
The Magic of Ancient Places
Exploring primitive landmarks of significance connects one to the past and creates a pathway to those who came before you.
Possessing a palpable magic all their own, ancient ruins are a great place to lose oneself in time, to transcend the centuries to a different world and way of life.
There’s a certain magic in tramping among relinquished structures given to the past, and to be taken back across the eons when the world was a different, less sterile place.
Clawing one’s way up steep, forbidding bulwarks made of stone set in place by those who came long before you has a mystery and a magic all its own.
Standing on the battlements and peering through the windows of watchtowers into the hazy valleys to the north, one can’t help wonder what it was like for the defenders of the realm.
Authenticity in Adventure
Years of traveling tends to gradually move one toward seeking greater authenticity in the places traveled while building an avoidance of touristy commercial enterprises wherever possible.
Time is better spent seeing the world as it is or what is actually left of what once was than paying exorbitant amounts of money to get trampled by hordes of tourists in some gaudy theme park.
Mutianyu is quickly becoming a popular tourist destination but is not overrun at this point. There are plenty of ruins in disrepair to explore as opposed to being ground down by phony renditions of the real thing.
Mutianyu offers a blend of restoration with a slice of the real thing for those up for the adventure.
Adventure is where you find it. See you on the road.