Over 10 million people visit the Great Wall of China every single year. 10 Million. Now that is a lot of people. To give you an idea of how that compares with other great historical wonders last year, Stonehenge saw 1.34 million visitors, Machu Picchu was limited to 2500 visitors a day ( 912,500 people a year) and Petra had 600,000 visitors (it peaked at nearly 1 million in 2010). And while the wall is very long, at nearly 6000 km, the vast majority of those 10 million visitors visit near to Beijing at Jiankou, Mutianyu or Badaling.
When I was fortunate enough to visit I went to Mutianyu which is possibly one of the most restored areas and highly accessible. I also passed by the wall again at Datong where, rather than the grand structure we have become accustomed to seeing the wall is little more than what appears to be a pile of dark old bricks.
The scale of the wall at Mutianyu is the first thing that hit me – not only does it snake across mountain ranges but literally you can see it running for miles and miles into the distance over these hills that one wouldn’t even want to hike over in the heat, let alone construct a 7m high wall that is wide enough in parts to drive a car down. And yet, between 220BC and the 1600s, millions of people died in the construction of this defensive wall which was built initially to keep the Xiongnu people from the North out of the newly unified states of China.
The second noteworthy thing is the sheer steepness in places, with some near vertical stair cases providing access to the next tower along this stretch of fortification.
The wall’s history is, as one would expect, fascinating. It provides a history of state making, defence and unification of peoples. The ironical thing about the wall was that on two occasions when it was really needed (1225 with Genghis Khan and again in 1644 against the Manchurian army) it failed to provide defence required – more on that below. .
Various fortifications were built by warring states in the area since the 5th century BC. The walls were designed to withstand bow and arrow attacks and were constructed with mud between wooden frames. In 221 BC the Qin dynasty was established, effectively unifying central China. In an attempt to bring centralised rule into force, the emperor had most of the old warring States’ walls destroyed, and a new wall built in the north to protect the newly unified state from the raiding Xiongnu people from the north. This new wall connected some remaining fortifications along the northern section of China.
The wall was maintained by subsequent dynasties but there were holes in its construction. In 1225 Genghis Khan found a gap in the wall and marched his troops straight through, overtaking Beijing City. The Yuan dynasty was created and the wall not maintained because Genghis Khan had no need to protect the country from his own empire.
With the fall of the Yuan dynasty and formation of the Ming dynasty, the Ming leaders realised their vulnerability to the Northern states, and invested again in reconstructing the Great Wall. A long and drawn out conflict with the Manchurian and Mongol tribes was tiring the dynasty, so they agreed to reinvest efforts in the construction of the wall along the Mongolian deserts’ Southern perimeter. The Ming dynasty used more study bricks and stone with ramparts and built an estimated 25,000 towers along the length of the wall, which stretches from the sea in the East to the middle of the desert in Western China.
The wall was tested throughout the Ming dynasty, and was successful in keeping the Manchurians out, until a corrupt warrior in the Ming army opened the gates and allowed the Manchurian army through at the Shanhai guan Eastern point by the sea in 1644. The Ming dynasty was defeated and the Qing dynasty was established (the last emperor was a Qing dynasty emperor).
I’m going to write a series of articles on tourism and the impact we have on the local environment; the good, the bad and the ugly. This article, I hope, will get you starting to think about the movement of people and the physical impact on historical sites along with some of the reasons why we travel to see them.
Why do you aspire to see the great wonders of the world (if indeed you do)?
What is it that pulls us to travel distances, cross continents and experience sights that are so different from those we are familiar with at home?
Travel can be fantastic, for both the traveller and the host nation. Understanding how best to tap into that positivism and negate the negative impact of our footprints is something that The Balanced Adventurer blogs are going to explore. Please join me on the journey – sign up to follow The Balanced Adventurer below.