Before we begin let’s be clear on one thing: the Great Wall was not successful in any way whatsoever. Although the first parts were built over 2,000 years ago in order to keep the Mongols out, the Mongols discovered time and time again that riding around the wall or bribing guards to look the other way was a much more effective way of invading China. In fact the Qing, the last dynasty in China which ended just over a century ago, were actually Mongol overlords who found a disgruntled general in the 17th century to open the gate for them.
So why do we bother with the Great Wall then? I think it’s for the similar reason we like things like the Eiffel Tower- they might serve no real purpose, but they are pretty cool in the “stuff people can build” department-
This would be neat enough if this was all there was, but the fact of the matter is the Wall in its heyday stretched nearly 9,000 kilometers (~5,500 miles) beyond what you see here and had a million people manning it. (To compare, the US-Mexican border is 3,169km or just shy of 2,000 miles. Conclude what you will about whether we should build a giant fence.) And like anything cool and windy, a hike along it is rather irresistible, no?
There’s a big discussion when you find yourself in Beijing about which section of the Great Wall to visit exactly, but we ended up heading for Mutianyu because it’s known for being less crowded and very scenic compared to other sections in exchange for being a 2 hour drive away from the city. It’s also famous for having quite a few watchtowers than the other sections, 22 in 2.5 kilometers (ie 1.5 mi), making for good pictures even if the smog creeping up from Beijing means you don’t have stunning panoramas on your visiting day-
I should mention though that while the distances above don’t sound too much, firstly realize you have to double the length because you have to walk back and secondly realize some sections are seriously steep-
Seriously, I climbed up the above section like it was a ladder because it seemed like the most reasonable thing to do, and this picture doesn’t show you the 400-odd steps before this which were so steep the walls were pitched at 45 degree angles on either side of us! So the hike took us about 3.5 hours sprinkled with liberal photo stops and tower climbing because hey, I don’t exactly come here often!
By the way, as an astronomically inclined person a lot of people like to ask me whether the Great Wall of China is actually visible from space. In short, no, it’s pretty thin and the same color as the terrain so astronauts in low Earth orbit (ie space shuttle or station) have tried to spot it, but more often than not end up “finding” a nearby river. Apparently the claim that it could be seen from space originated in the 19th century because it was assumed if we could see the “canals” on Mars then they could see the Great Wall. Because we knew what space was like in the 1800s, right? Like how there were intelligent Martians building canals?
Anyway, it turns out if you hike at Mutianyu there is one additional benefit the other sections don’t have- the toboggan ride! (Though before I continue, Patrick decided in Beijing that we didn’t stand out enough as the only white people in China and bought the panda hat for 20 yen. Well we can’t complain we’re being ignored!) See, you know how after a long hike up mountainsides you get tired and start wistfully thinking how great it would be if there was a slide going down the mountain so you wouldn’t have to walk it? Well this is China where they are more capitalist than Americans in many senses, such as the one where the fact that it’s an internationally historic site doesn’t get in the way of putting in a toboggan ride to charge tourists to use!
Now that I think about it, when you add up how much tourist money the local villages get which would otherwise be in impoverished obscurity maybe the Great Wall is a success after all…