The Great Wall of China is undoubtedly one of the most amazing wonders of the world. It has been said the Wall can be seen from the moon. It has also been said that a helpful dragon directed the workers to the path over the mountains where the Wall should be placed. Neither of these legends are true, but they’re both really fun to think about.

The Mutianyu Section of the Restored Great Wall
The Mutianyu Section of the Restored Great Wall

Contrary to popular belief, the Great Wall isn’t actually one wall – it’s several smaller pieces of walls, built over hundreds of years that together form a defensive boundary on the northern edge of China. Other than protection from the Mongols, the Wall, having been constructed with towers and wide enough for ten men to walk side-by-side, was also used for transportation and communication.

Because the Wall took hundreds of years to complete, the ages of the pieces vary from mile to mile. The Chinese government restored sections so tourists can soak in the majesty of what the structure would have looked like during its heyday. The unrestored sections, also known as wild walls, have been swallowed up by the mountainside – trees grow through dislodged stones and one look over the side might cause a visitor to get vertigo and perhaps tumble to his death. It can be very scary to hike.

Last month, Jen and I took a trip to Beijing and spent a few hours traversing the Wall. It is so magnificent to be able to live a life where we both have opportunities to visit exotic and interesting places (Petra, Cairo, Jerusalem, Istanbul, Angkor). The Great Wall of China is the newest and one of the most impressive additions to that list.

Tourists are Everywhere along the Wall
Tourists are Everywhere along the Wall

The original concept for the Wall came about during the 14th century Ming Dynasty. After a series of defeats against the Mongols, the emperor devised a new strategy to keep the nomadic tribes out of China and this first portion of the Wall followed the Ordos Desert’s southern edge in an effort to utilize the natural landscape in the Ming army favor.

The areas built closer to Beijing were the strongest, but during various raids over the years, efficient tactics were developed to repair and reinforce pieces after skirmishes (before the enemy could launch another attack). Toward the end of the Ming’s rule, the Wall was instrumental in defending the empire against the Manchu invasions which began around 1600. By the time the Qing Dynasty ruled, the nation’s borders extended beyond the Wall and parts of Mongolia were annexed, so Great Wall was deemed unnecessary and constructions ceased.

Dragons Can Be Seen Everywhere...
Dragons Can Be Seen Everywhere…

Upon deciding to visit the Wall, you’ll find many options available: wild walls void of people and technology, restored sections packed with tourists, areas closer to or farther from Beijing, a few even boast ski lifts and toboggans installed to help people get on and off with greater ease. The main sections are: Badaling, Mutianyu, Jinshanling,  and Shanhai West and East. We chose the Mutianyu section because there are fewer tourists there than at Bedaling (closest to Beijing), but we felt the wild wall areas weren’t what we were hoping to experience.

The Wall was built using the mountainous terrain as a guide and as such has been compared to that of a long dragon stretching across northern China (the dragon’s head ends at the sea where it dips its mouth into the water for a cool drink). In Chinese culture, the dragon has traditionally been used a symbol for power, wealth, masculinity, and of the emperor himself.

Dragon Depiction at Mutianyu
Dragon Depiction at Mutianyu

Over the centuries, the dragon’s appearance has altered based on the symbolic needs for the depictions. As opposed to the more medieval European type of dragon, Chinese dragons look like long serpents with legs and a great, big head. Every minuscule detail of a dragon means something from the number of claws on its feet to the size and shape of its scales.

Dragon images can be seen just about everywhere in China as a sign of their culture and heritage. In fact, some Chinese people use the term ‘Descendants of the Dragon‘ as a means of illustrating their ethnic identity (the Mongols often used a wolf while the monkey remained the choice of Tibetans). Additionally in Chinese mythology, the phoenix is considered to be the mate of the dragon – yin and yang – and the tiger is its ultimate rival.

The Phoenix to my Dragon Standing Atop the Winding Dragon!
The Phoenix to my Dragon Standing Atop the Winding Dragon!

Today, it is highly taboo to disfigure or vandalize a dragon so one would think that to desecrate the Great Wall would be equally taboo; however, while we were on the Wall, we discovered that the Chinese people, adults and children alike, will drop trousers to relieve themselves in the corners of the battlements (I missed a photo opportunity by a split second). Many of the towers smelled as if they’d been drenched in urine. Quite the shame since the Wall is one of the can’t-miss sites (and sights) of the world! If you have a chance to go, we highly recommend it.

Until Next Time…

-Justin

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