The exploration of our solar system has brought us many famous images, but one that is missing is that of the Great Wall of China, as seen by the naked eye from outer space. Chinese propaganda had the world convinced that the Great Wall was the only man-made monument visible from space, but technology went and ruined a great story.
Not only can it not be seen, but there is no single Wall – there are a number of Walls, spread across Northern China and built centuries apart. Any decent documentary will tell you this, but what they don’t tell you is that the Wall has been extended by the length of a toboggan to the carpark. It’s unexpected and any initial qualms about a funride being inconsistent with this feat of construction are soon forgotten when you realise that your feet can now take a rest. We’re grateful to have come out of season. This queue for the toboggan must be crazy in Summer.
We’ve heard horror stories of some day tours to the Wall. Many are little more than a series of sidetrips to dodgy backstreet shops where the purchase of some plastic figure will ensure wealth and eternal happiness. I’m sure it seems a fair trade at the time. These visits are apparently interrupted by the briefest of detours for a distant view of Wall. We’ve decided to book a driver for the day on the basis that the only shopping we do is for lunch, and possibly a fridge magnet of our choosing.
Our day begins with a last minute realisation that we can make it to two sections of the Wall, which causes a sudden panic for the driver, but prices and schedules are quickly adjusted. We’re now heading first to Mutianyu, one of the more intact and popular locations, and in the afternoon we’ll visit Huanghua, one of the lesser known sections within reach of Beijing.
Mutianyu is everything you would imagine when you think of the Great Wall. Our first sighting is the iconic image, snaking between summits with Ming dynasty watch towers looking in vain for Mongol hordes.
We’re quickly hustled to a guide, who does little other than point us in the direction of a ticket gate. To our left a gleaming modern cable car glides gracefully to the summit. This is looking promising – I think it’s the closest we’ll get to arriving in some kind of style.
Unfortunately we’re herded to the right, where a tired and battered chair lift slowly and somewhat reluctantly drags nervous visitors over a gorge and up the slopes. I’m not really at ease in the chairlift – it reminds me of someone counting down the days to their retirement. K seems perfectly happy though and is snapping photos in all directions. My hands aren’t leaving the bar and my eyes aren’t leaving our landing spot.
Finally we arrive, I’m breathing normally again, and we’re standing on one of the New7Wonders of the World. Unless of course you agree with USA Today and Good Morning America, who couldn’t find a place for it on their lists. The internet as one of the seven wonders? Really?
There’s an almost eerie feeling of familiarity with the surroundings, and the views from the towers and along the path of the Wall are spectacular. The weather is cool, but not freezing, so we’re comfortable. It’s a perfect day to be here. Once more we can’t help but wonder what this place is like at the peak of tourist season.
There has been a Wall here since the mid-6th century, but construction of the current wall began in 1400’s, around the same time as the chair lift.
The Wall rises and falls dramatically as it disappears into the distance, but apparently this section is only 3 kilometres long. It manages to include 22 watchtowers in that distance. While Presidents Nixon and Reagan chose flatter walks at the Badaling section of the Wall, Bill Clinton and family came to Mutianyu in 1998 – apparently they took the cable car.
K and I have different approaches to the Wall. I want to get as far and as high as I can in our allotted time, while K favours more of a measured and photographic approach. Fortunately our paths do cross again before we need to find our exit and make our way to the toboggan, or Sports slide as the sign calls it.
And courtesy of Alf188188, here it is in its entirety.
I’m sure I remember more Chinese flags along the route, and expressionless officials on every corner watching every slide. It’s a lot of fun – not too fast, not too slow, and most importantly, I make sure I don’t crash into the back of K’s toboggan at the end of the ride.
We have a slightly concerning moment when our driver is not at the agreed spot, but he soon appears, explaining that he was asleep in his car. Chinese people can sleep anywhere at any time. It seems to be a national gift, and not the last time we come across this. We grab lunch to eat in the car, and we’re off to Huanghua.