Dr. SkySkull in China, Part 5: The Great Wall

Part 5 in a long series of posts about my month and a half in China. Part 1 can be read herePart 2 can be read here, Part 3 can be read here, and Part 4 can be read here.

My trip to China was so filled with activities — and overwhelming at times — that I’m finding it easier to jump around a bit chronologically in my posts, and talk about things as the mood strikes me.

Today I’m in the mood to talk about my visit to the Great Wall of China!

It was in my fourth week in China that my gracious hosts took me, and a Russian colleague, to visit Beijing. There is so much to see in that incredible city, but in the few days we were there we had three targets in mind: The Temple of Heaven, the Forbidden City, and, of course, the Great Wall. We visited The Temple of Heaven on the day we arrived, and then got up relatively early to see the Great Wall the next day. My hosts hired a driver to take us there, and it was in the car that we got our first glimpse of the wall, and a hint of the physical challenge it can be.  My misgivings would be prophetic!

I saw this view of the wall from the car and immediately said “oh, crap.”

Of course, before I dive into my photos of the wall, and my experiences on it, I should give a little background, including what section of the wall we actually visited!  The Great Wall of China is, including all historical sections and branches, 21,196 km in length, so saying “I visited the Great Wall” is a bit akin to saying “I live on planet Earth.” It’s technically true, but not very informative to anyone familiar with the location.

The Wall has a remarkably ancient history. The first sections were built as early as the 7th century B.C.E., by rulers of warring states seeking to defend their holdings from their neighbors.  When King Zheng of Qin conquered his opponents and unified their lands under him as the First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty in 221 B.C.E., he pulled down sections of the wall that divided his lands but ordered new sections be constructed to defend against the Xiongnu nomads. It has been suggested by some historians that hundreds of thousands of workers may have died during the construction of the wall in this era.

After the Qin Dynasty fell, other dynastic rulers built their own additions to the wall, and maintained and repaired existing sections, still with the goal of keeping out northern invaders. But the biggest and most lasting constructions were undertaken by the Ming Dynasty in the 14th century. After numerous battles had failed to pacify the Mongol tribes, the Ming rulers switched to a defensive strategy, building new and sturdier wall sections made of stone and brick, a significant change from the rammed earth walls of the earlier years.

The Ming wall served its purpose, mostly, for several centuries. I say “mostly” because raids across the barrier were not uncommon, but apparently it kept out large invading forces until the Manchu people were finally able to cross the Great Wall in 1644, though through the use of inside assistance.  The Ming Dynasty was being hard-pressed at that time by the armies of the rebel leader Li Zicheng, who finally took Beijing in 1644. The Ming ruler hanged himself when the city fell, leaving his generals alone to put together a last attempt at resistance. The Ming general Wu Sangui made an alliance with the Manchu in the hopes that they would help expel the rebels from the city, and he opened the gates at Shanhai Pass for the Manchu army.

As you might have expected, the Manchu didn’t leave, but instead formed their own Qing Dynasty. They annexed Mongolia into their empire, making a defensive wall within their own territory unnecessary, and construction thus ended.

It is the Ming sections of the wall that are still in existence today, and the best preserved section is known as Badaling, which is 43 miles from downtown Beijing. It was built in 1504, making it an impressive 500 years old, and was restored and opened to tourists in 1957. Badaling is the site that foreign dignitaries such as Nixon, Thatcher, and Reagan visited. As I understand it, it is the most popular site among Chinese visitors, though there is also another well-restored section Mutianyu which is a bit quieter. There are also sections of the wall that are unrestored — and hence dangerous —  and should only be explored by serious hikers, like Jiankou.

Our trip was naturally to Badaling! Upon arrival at the tourist complex, we were faced with the choice of walking up a section of the wall to its highest point, Beibalou, or paying extra to take a cable car to a point close to the summit. After some debate, we decided it was best to take the cable car up, leaving us enough energy to explore further.

First view of Beibalou.  I’ve digitally enhanced some images for clarity and aesthetics.

Even with the cable car, there is still a pretty intense section of wall to climb to get to the very top. And the combination of ramps and irregularly-sized steps makes it surprisingly strenuous, if you’re not used to doing such intense glute workouts.

You can see that the wall was crowded, as you might expect! It was also quite hot, though less so at that altitude (more on that soon), and any annoyance at the crowds seemed pretty negligible compared to the sheer effort of getting up the wall.

Me being me, I had to take several photos of my reaction for twitter on the way up. Here’s just one of them.


But overall it wasn’t that difficult to get to the top for me.  Here we all are at the peak!

From that vantage point, we were able to get a nice view of the surrounding wall, as well as the landscape. From here, one could really start to appreciate how truly massive an undertaking the Great Wall was.

You can see a lot of haze in the more distant parts of the photos; I wasn’t sure if that was natural haze, smog, or a little of both. From talks with friends who had visited years earlier, it is apparent that the smog levels are lower than they used to be. Or at least they were on that day.

By a nice bit of synchronicity, a couple of days before my visit I was asked by the SPIE if I could film a short video of “what excites you about optics and photonics?” for a contest they were holding. I decided it would be a cool start to the contest to film my video from the Great Wall itself!

From this point is when things started to get interesting.  From the highest point, our options were to walk back down to the visitor center on the main tourist part of the wall, or turn left and take a walk on a less-traveled branch to another tower some distance away.

The target tower.

It doesn’t look that bad of a walk from the perspective of my telephoto lens, but here’s the perspective from where we were on the wall at the time.


It’s hard to even see in this photo without zooming in — it’s the tiny building in the center left.  In order to get to it, we would have to go down a loooooong way, then go steeply up, then steeply down, then up again to get to the tower… and then come back the same way to get back to the cable car. My colleague Sergey is very convincing, however, and in spite of my misgivings I joined everyone on the walk.

Misgivings aside, it was a lovely path to take, with excellent views of wall sections and the countryside.

Panorama of the view. Click to see full size.

After the loooong walk downhill — and downslope is not any easier than upslope, it’s just difficult in a different way — we came to one of the baffling design choices of the wall engineers, this sharp up-and-down section.

Aw, hell.

One wonders why the designers didn’t just put the wall across the hill horizontally, so that guards wouldn’t have to climb these incredibly steep stairs up and down to go about 100 feet.

I again photographed my displeasure at all this.  The slope was close to 60 degrees, by the way — a very steep climb.

The downslope on the other side was not much better, as the following photo indicates.

It was almost vertigo-inducing at times.

But it was worth the effort. I got my favorite photo of the Great Wall sometime along that walk.

My favorite.

Incidentally, it is somewhat difficult to find really compelling photos of the Great Wall, simply because it is a long, thin wall that can be easily lost in any scenic view. You may have heard the factoid that “the Great Wall is the only man-made structure that can be seen from space.” Well, this isn’t really true on several counts. First, it really isn’t easy to see it from space, and astronauts have argued this point. Second, the Great Wall is about two car lengths wide, which means it is about as visible from space as a two-lane highway.  But the “seen from space” factoid is a red herring that distracts from the massive scale of the Wall in length. It is an incredible construction, regardless of its space-optical properties.

After getting down that little staircase, it was just a… short? hike up to the tower for a break.

And, at last, we made it to the tower, where we drank a lot of water and had some snacks.

The view from the “back” door of the tower showed how much more wall we could have walked, if we were so inclined to try. It also highlighted another tricky part of traversing the wall…

From this angle, it looks like a pretty straight shot from the foreground part of the wall to the part running off into the distance on the left. But if one steps a little further out of the building…

In fact, the foreground section dips down, goes to the right, up, and then swings back over the top of the hill all the way to the left to meet up with the background section! There are not a lot of straight line sections on this part of the wall.

After our break, it was time to take the short hike back up to the cable car station, and… oh shit.

Here I started to get a little worried.

Another rough part about sections of wall like this one is that there are no breaks in the climb — it is a straight slope up, with no flat sections. It is easy to get burned out from the constant exertion.

Overall, I did pretty good, however. From the tower, I did the downward slope okay, pushed my way through the steep upward slope, and came down on the other side.

It was on the final long climb to the cable car that the Great Wall finally broke me.

About halfway back up to the cable car, I started finding myself short of breath, and my legs and butt were pretty much shot, as well. All those high, irregular steps had taken their toll on me.  I finally needed to sit down, and I took a ten minute break before starting up again.

And after 20 steps, I needed to take another five minute break. And then I did 20 steps, and another five minute break. I repeated this multiple times.

While sitting there, I started to wonder if I was going to need to be airlifted off the Wall. I could just imagine the Chinese newspapers the next day: “Idiot American needs rescue from Great Wall.”

But while resting, I was able to take some additional lovely photos of the scenery.

In spite of being near death, the view was lovely.

Finally, I managed to squeak up the final few stairs to the cable car level, cool off, catch my breath, and relax!

I’m not ashamed to admit that the Great Wall kinda broke me. There were a number of factors that contributed: the height and steepness of the stairs, the heat, and the altitude — it only occurred to me after our visit to see how high we were in the mountains, and the peak at Beibalou is 3,330 feet above sea level, high enough to have an influence.

Also, when I checked my phone afterwards, I realized that I had done a really intense workout, after all!

It was quite an adventure! That evening, we had a lovely meal and rested up for a trip to the Forbidden City the following day.  But that is the subject of another post…

Here are a couple of additional images from the Great Wall, to end this story.


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4 Responses to Dr. SkySkull in China, Part 5: The Great Wall

  1. John says:

    Hi Greg, post on the Great Wall are very interesting and bring back memories. Unfortunately I don’t thing I could walk the Wall anymore. Take Care, Dad

  2. kaleberg says:

    The Great Wall sounds like a great workout. Do the Chinese run a marathon there? If it were in the US, we Americans would. Go USA! It sounds like you are having a great visit.

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