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April 04, 2007

At the Great Wall(s) of China

Day 27: Contrary to popular belief, the Great Wall of China is not one big, long, continuous stretch of unending wall. It is several pieces of wall, with many gaps. It is also many different walls, though they all run roughly parallel to one another--east to west--separating China from the lands to the north. The Great Wall of China was not a raised highway used to transport goods and people across the country, it cannot be seen from the moon, there are no dead workers buried within its bricks, and no one knows how long it is. The Great Wall was built with a single purpose in mind: to keep out Mongol raiders.

When my guide David Spindler talks about the Great Wall of China, he likes to start out by clearing the air of any myths. The second thing he tells you is that once he was just like you, a foreigner in China with no unusual interest in the Great Wall. He was here to study history, and just happened to go for a hike along the Great Wall, mainly because he wanted to go for a hike, and the Great Wall was just a good place to do it. He enjoyed the hike, so he went for more hikes along the Great Wall. He did so much hiking, in fact, that eventually it occurred to him that he could write a book about it.

Being a person of substance, he figured he ought to learn something about the wall's history. So David read as many books as he could find on the subject. He wasn't in China by this point--he was at Harvard, studying law--and he spent months reading books he took out from the Yenching Library before he came to the following realization: The Great Wall of China is the most famous structure in the most populous country on Earth, and no one seems to know all that much about it. Unlike, say, the Great Pyramids of Egypt or the aqueducts of Ancient Rome, all of which have been studied in fine academic detail, there was very little in the way of modern scholarship on the Great Wall.

Badaling, the most famous stretch of the Great Wall

The next year, David took a job as a consultant with McKinsey & Company in Beijing, but left the job eighteen months later to become a Great Wall of China historian. What started out as a hike has turned into a self guided project to document the Beijing-area Great Wall--walls, actually--in their entirety, read the known and unknown primary sources on the subject, and fashion something of a comprehensive understanding of this famous, but ill-understood wonder of the world. The Great Wall is all David Spindler does. When he's not guiding tourists--which he spends about 40 days a year doing--he's in a library, poring over ancient texts, or he's out on the wall walking, noting its features, seeing the odd snake, and matching up the present-day with the historical.

The most famous stretch of Great Wall is at a place called Badaling. It's new wall, relatively speaking. It was built by the Ming emperor's in around 1582.  In the 1950s and 1980s it was restored by the Chinese government and turned into a tourist attraction. Today, there's a cable car, gift shops, and two bear pits, though it's worth noting that the Great Wall of China was not built to keep out bears. (And even it was, it wouldn't have worked, because, as David discovered while reading a five-hundred-year-old-book, in 1496 a bear climbed over the Beijing city wall and killed a man.)

You'd think, in fact, that it was built to draw in tourists. Badaling is thick with them. You go there to see the Great Wall, but you end up noticing things like the fact that young women in China wear distressed jeans, retro trainers and Louis Vuitton bags (some of them quite obviously faked), just like young women in New York, Tokyo, and London. An interesting, if somewhat depressing cultural observation, perhaps, but not the kind of thing you want to remember about your visit to the Great Wall of China.

Fortunately, David can take you to parts of the wall other than Badaling. We decided to visit a stretch about which he'd recently made an interesting discovery. It wasn't an Indiana Jones moment. Spindler didn't find a rumpled sheaf of ancient paper in some tomb, or discover a secret compartment in the back of an old book. David was doing an Internet search and found out about a book written by a Ming-era official. He went to a Chinese rare book library, took out the book and read an account of several battles between Mongol raiders and Chinese soldiers near a place called Water's Head village.

Water's Head village, the scene of a famous battle and our home for the night

The average salary in Water's Head village is about $40 per month

Traffic jam

Mongolians, you should know, were for a very long time a source of frustration and anger for the Chinese. They were nomadic horseman, and every now and again they got it in their heads to head down to China and rape, pillage, and plunder. They rode through the various valleys and passes leading into China, sacked villages, stole stuff, took prisoners and livestock, then headed back to Mongolia, presumably to relax.

The Chinese had been building walls as far back as 500 B.C. to repel northern raiders. Nature was kind  enough to provide a natural border of mountains, so all the Chinese had to do was fill in the valleys with wall, which sounds a lot easier than it is. Nevertheless, the Mongols kept raiding and when the Ming emperors took power in the 1300s, they set upon building what would become China's grandest defensive wall.

The section of wall where the Raid of 1555 took place doesn't look much like Badaling. At one time, it had a handsome facade made of fired grey bricks, but most of those were plundered and used to build peasant houses during the Cultural Revolution because the wall was old and the official line during the Cultural Revolution was that old things were bad. We walked up through a valley that back in 1555 was called South Tang Pass. After half an hour, we came to the wall which still looks majestic and ancient from a distance, but reveals its state of decay as you get closer.

Hiking up a steep hill, we are following the wall south. There was a fierce wind blowing and the going was treacherous, even in ankle-length European hiking boots. The Chinese soldiers who built the wall, scrambling up and down the steep, rocky terrain carrying 30-pound kiln-fired bricks, had considerably simpler footwear. Sprained ankles, I imagined, were a constant problem.

From the top of the hill, we could see the wall stretching out endlessly in two directions, clinging to the rolling topography in such as way as to highlight its gentle curves. Just in front of it--on the side facing Mongolia--were deep lines in the earth, remnants of trenches the Chinese had dug as another obstacle to invading Mongol horsemen. The scale of the project--the planning, the finances, the man hours, the logistics--defies comprehension.

View of South Tang Valley

The South Tang Valley was the second place the Mongols attacked on Oct. 10, 1555. As the Ming text tells it, 500 horsemen approached, "raising a cloud of dust as they came." Ming soldiers attacked them by firing their crude firearms, throwing stones and shooting arrows. The Mongol casualties were reportedly "numerous," and the Chinese captured three Mongol horses, fifty Mongol arrows, and two wooden grappling hooks. The Ming soldiers themselves suffered only three casualties, two injuries and, as the report proudly tells it, "The Mongols saw that our new wall was high, our trenches deep, and our defenders valiant, so they headed for Boluo Gully. One of our commanders took 140 men and took a mountaintop, throwing rocks down on them, causing the Mongols to retreat to Water's Head village"

Grandfather Han, our host

David and I also retreated to Water's Head village, which still goes by the name today.  Not long ago, it used to be a village of 400, but now its population has dwindled to a mere hundred. The average salary in Water's Head Village is about $40 per month. All the young people have moved to Beijing and other cities where the jobs are. Today, there is only one child living in the village.

We stayed in the home of the Han family. There was only the grandfather and the mother, all the children having long since left. We never found out their first names. They lived in a single-floor house, built out of Great Wall bricks and heated by a wood burning stove which has an enormous round wok built right into it. The mother invited us inside, poured hot water out of a thermos into a basin and gave us some soap to wash our hands. Afterwards, she served dinner.

The best fried rice ever

We ate tofu that had been fried in a wok with green onion, Sichuan peppercorns, and soy sauce; a cold salad of Chinese spinach with strips of shredded potato (shredded potato is a common ingredient in northern China) and then fried rice with millet, green onion and, once again, shredded potato. It was the best fried rice I have ever eaten.

Thirty cent beers?  I'll take two, then

As we dined, the granfather poured us each a glass of bai jiu (sorghum liquor) and we talked about village life in Water's Head. David and I had rousted a few pheasant during our walk--pheasant come from China--and the grandfather told us that they sometimes soak corn in alcohol and set it out in the hills. The pheasants eat it and either become dead or very drunk--he didn't seem to be sure which--and the villagers take them home and eat them. They also trap wild hares in snares and roast them or stir fry them. Once, on a different stretch of wall, David was hiking along and found a deer lying down, caught in a snare by its neck. David released the snare, the deer coughed a few times and bounded off.

We talked about many things. David and I drank beer, which costs 30 cents for a large bottle, and the grandfather smoked cigarettes. David told them I was from Canada, and the grandfather said, "So you eat bread and drink milk." I asked him what he thought of bread and he said, "Good bread is good, bad bread is bad.". Later, the grandfather told David that he should try and develop the area into a tourist attraction, a place where city folk could come to see the countryside.

In villages in North China, people sleep on something called a kang, which is a kind of raised platform, usually in the main room, heated by the stove. David and I were told we would be sleeping there. We unfurled our bedding and lay down, myself in between David and the grandfather, who rolled out his bedding next to mine. He had never seen a sleeping bag before and kept feeling the softness of the nylon between his fingers, pulling the zipper up and down and laughing in a kind of bemused wonder. The grandfather rolled over, coughed a few times, and started snoring. Fifteen minutes later, he woke up and shut off the light and the three of us went to sleep.

Posted at N 40 11.249   E 115 45.830

Goodnight, Grandpa


Wow! What a great day! You are very lucky to have such a great tour guide and even luckier to get an opportunity to taste a piece of real China, the China away from Beijing and Shanghai, and to get a chance to hear about the local history. What sleeping bag is that?


Thanks for taking me to a far corner of the world that is real and unique and, oddly enough, familiar. I hope you meet more people like this on your trip.

It is great to get a chance to hear about the real vilage life of the common people.

With only one child in the village, the village won't be around much longer. Glad you got to see it before it's gone.

BTW -- Love the pillow!

I was just recently talking about China with my grandson. This will give him a glimpse into village life.
Thank you so much and have a safe trip.

I will be traveling with my MBA class to the Great Wall in May 2008. How can I contact David Spindler to arrange a tour?

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