China’s Great Wall from East to West
Updated: Mar 22, 2021
As a first time visitor to China, seeing the Great Wall was certainly on our list.
As we started to make our decent into Beijing, I found myself with my forehead pressed up against the window of the airplane. I knew that the great wall ran just north of Beijing and I was trying like hell to get an aerial glimpse of it. As a child, I remembered hearing that it was one of the manmade structures that you could see from space which sounded pretty cool at the time. Surely we had passed over it that morning, but my efforts to spot it from the airplane were unsuccessful. After checking out Google Earth, I am not convinced that it cannot be spotted from outer space either.
About a week into our visit, we had our opportunity to visit the great wall at Badaling, located just north of Beijing. Though greatly anticipated, we had no idea just how cool the great wall was at this particular location. The wall was like some giant serpent that followed the contours of the mountain ridge far off to the east and west horizons. Once there, you felt compelled to climb the wall. It was a very steep trek up the wall so you had to choose east or west. We choose west that day. The climb up was somewhat difficult. The heat and humidity combined to make it even more challenging but the views and photo opportunities were outstanding.
It was possible to climb the wall for about a kilometer or so before you realized that the part you had been climbing had been restored. The wall beyond was in a state of disrepair and climbing it would have compromised your personal safety.
A week or so after our experience at Badaling, we were traveling further west in China by car, south of Datong, when we noticed another section of the Great Wall.
At that time, it had seemed odd and out of place somehow. Later, we would learn that the Great Wall was built in sections, abandon, and rebuilt again and again over two millennia by the different Chinese dynasties.
On our fifth trip to China, we found ourselves at the far west end of the Gobi Desert, almost 2000 kilometres west of Badaling. We awoke predawn to travel to the Yumen Guan Pass Gate to watch the sun rise over the ancient, ruined structure and experience the desert beauty. The wind was cold and we were dressed for the mid-day heat. It was a teeth chattering experience waiting for the sun to rise. When it did finally rise, the photo opportunities made any discomfort worthwhile.
From there, we continued west to see the, the western extents of the Great Wall. The wall we saw was very different from our experience at Badaling. The western wall is much, much older. It is also much smaller. It is on a desert plain, versus mountain tops. It was built of mud and reeds in layers versus stone. Due to its construction materials, it is much more susceptible to erosion so you walk around it and not on it.
Our last stop on that desert excursion was the Hecang Cheng ruins. These ruins consisted of a tall, mud walled, square structure with other, more minor structures scattered about. Big, small, or otherwise, we always find ruins fascinating and we somehow seem to be drawn to them wherever we go.
Upon completing our desert tour, we returned to Dunhuang for an afternoon nap. The mid-day heat was nearly unbearable so an air conditioned afternoon was welcome. From what we observed, the locals followed this same pattern. There was little to do in the day time because the shops would close and all of the people would disappear. Evening was a different story. The town would come alive at dusk. There was a large night market, music, dancing and colourful lighted fountains. Night time was one big party even though it was still probably 30C outside.
The next day we climbed on camels and traveled into the large sand dunes located just south of town. Though the trip was short, it was a lot of fun. Speaking from experience, the local Bactrian (two hump) camels were a wonderful ride compared to their one humped cousins.
The following day was spent touring the nearby Mogao Caves. The caves consist of 492 Buddhist Temples cut into a natural rock escarpment and are famous for their intricate paintings and carved sculptures. Indeed they were very impressive. In order to preserve them, they rotate access so that only a fraction of the temples are open for visit on any given day. It would literally take months to visit them all.
The drive to the Magao Caves was also interesting in that there were thousands of circular rock cairns in the flat desert just to the east of town. They were a peculiar feature that could also be observed from the airplane just before landing. It turns out that they were tombs. Some were very ancient while others were contemporary.
Our travels then took us to Jaiyuguan where we caught a train back to Beijing. The train ride was 32 consecutive hours. Tracy was 6 cars away from me and shared a berth with 3 others while I had 5 roommates. There were no showers so imagine hundreds of sweaty people hanging out together. The train toilets were interesting in that they were the Asian-style squatters: the train tracks could be seen whizzing by, through the three inch diameter open hole in the floor. The train ride was as unpleasant as one may imagine. It did not, however, taint an otherwise wonderful set of experiences.