WILLIAM F. WU



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Mongols on the Great Wall

By WILLIAM F. WU
Special to the Valley Press
Copyright 2000 by William F. Wu

Great Wall Profile

Suppose you want to visit one of history's greatest architectural and engineering feats, but you don't want to be jostled by a mass of tourists. Suppose the nation you'd visit has 1.2 billion people and you don't want to be trampled by them, either. Where do you go?

The Great Wall of China at Mutianyu.

With family and friends, I recently visited Mutianyu. Our itinerary was prearranged through an American travel agent. From Beijing, we rode a hired minivan to see the Great Wall. About 44 miles north of Beijing on a narrow highway, Mutianyu has a restored section of the wall nearly five miles long; on weekdays it is free of the crowds at the wall's most popular site, Badaling, and has more spectacular scenery. At Mutianyu, I rode a chair-lift for $5 over the tree-covered mountain slope to the top of the wall. Once there, I could look far across the forested mountains on each side, with traditional China to the south and Inner Mongolia, which has now been part of China for centuries, to the north.

Great Wall restoration

Several sections of the Great Wall have been rebuilt in recent decades as tourist attractions, including at Mutianyu. The wall is made of stone surfaces that contain rammed earth, about 24 feet high and wide enough for ranks eight men wide to march along the top. At the top, brick and mortar provide crenelated walls and watch towers.

A hike up and down the steep inclines atop the wall gives visitors a feel for what the soldiers who once garrisoned the rampart saw.

I climbed up several watch towers, built within two bow shots of each other so archers could protect the full length of the wall from attack. At a sign of trouble, signal fires lit atop one tower would tell guards at the next tower to light one, until the warning reached the nearest military camp.

Mongols on the Great Wall

Vendors on the wall dress in period soldier costumes; one, a woman, pointed to a village on the Mongolian side, saying they lived there. They sell water, postcards and books, but their most distinctive offering is to rent period costumes for visitors to wear for photographs. Rental was about $5. The vendors are friendly, speak some English and will be photographed.

Great Wall Costume Pair

Great Wall Full Length Costume Pair


Bill arranged to meet up with Lisa Alderrou,
a friend from Southern California who was also
traveling in China, in Beijing for a trip to
the Great Wall at Mutianyu, where they posed
in rented costumes.

To modern visitors, the wall is simply not very high. Its claim to magnificence lies in historical context and in sheer length. Finished about 214 B.C. during the reign of the first emperor, Chin Shi Huang, who conquered several kingdoms to unite the Chinese, the Great Wall incorporated existing walls built earlier. Later dynasties extended and repaired it. Now mostly in ruins, by the shortest estimate the wall once ran about 4,000 miles and by the longest 5,000 miles, from the Yalu River on the Korean border to the deserts in Central Asia. Sometimes derided as a military failure because the Mongols and Manchus each conquered China once, the wall's history of more than 2,000 years shows that when the Chinese empire was united and prosperous enough to defend the wall, it served its purpose.

Sword Fight

The Great Wall fell into disrepair after the conquest of China by the Manchus, nomads from north of the wall, in 1644. Until the early 20th century, they ruled on both sides of the wall and so had no need for it; by their overthrow in 1911, modern military technology had made the rampart obsolete.

'They will cheat you'

I rode the 'toboggan' back down to the base of the ridge, a kiddie-carnival sort of ride where I controlled my own speed. It's fast enough to be fun, but not dangerous; mostly, it's a goofy way to leave such an imposing historical and architectural edifice. Our tour guide had warned us about the vendors at the base: 'They will cheat you.' Recalling that, I bargained for a cap for a friend. The woman spoke a little English and wrote down the price, which put me at ease. I handed her a bill; she shortchanged me and abruptly "lost" her English. She chattered in Chinese while I argued. At last, with my companions waiting, I gave up and left. Loss: Only $1.10. It still annoys me.

On Sunday, buses are available from Beijing to Mutianyu, but they bring the largest crowd of visitors. For those seeking a near-solitary hike at the Great Wall, but without other hardship, a minivan can be hired any weekday for about $45 per person at most Beijing hotels; travelers seeking cheaper rates can begin with a local bus or train to Huairou and hire a van or taxi for about half that amount.

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Last Modified: January 11, 2003
Modified by: LJL


Copyright William F. Wu 1999, 2000-8. All Rights Reserved.