The ‘original’ wall was begun over 2000 years ago during the Qin dynasty (221–207 BC), when China was unified under Emperor Qin Shi Huang. Separate walls that had been constructed by independent kingdoms to keep out marauding nomads were linked together. The effort required hundreds of thousands of workers – many of whom were political prisoners – and 10 years of hard labour under General Meng Tian. An estimated 180 million cubic metres of rammed earth was used to form the core of the original wall, and legend has it that one of the building materials used was the bones of deceased workers.
The wall never really did perform its function as an impenetrable line of defence. As Genghis Khan supposedly said, ‘The strength of a wall depends on the courage of those who defend it’. Sentries could be bribed. However, it did work very well as a kind of elevated highway, transporting people and equipment across mountainous terrain. Its beacon tower system, using smoke signals generated by burning wolves’ dung, quickly transmitted news of enemy movements back to the capital. To the west wasJiāyùguān, an important link on the Silk Road, where there was a customs post of sorts and where unwanted Chinese were ejected through the gates to face the terrifying wild west.
During the Ming dynasty a determined effort was made to rehash the bastion, this time facing it with some 60 million cubic metres of bricks and stone slabs. This project took over 100 years, and the costs in human effort and resources were phenomenal. The investment failed to curb the Manchu armies from storming the Middle Kingdom and imposing over two and a half centuries of foreign rule on China.
The wall was largely forgotten after that. Lengthy sections of it have returned to dust and the wall might have disappeared totally had it not been rescued by the tourist industry. Several important sections have been rebuilt, kitted out with souvenir shops, restaurants and amusement-park rides, and formally opened to the public.
The most touristed area of the Great Wall is at Bādálǐng. Also renovated but less touristed are Sīmǎtái and Jīnshānlǐng. Not impressed with the tourist-oriented sections, explorative travellers have long sought out unrestored sections of the wall (such as at Huánghuā) for their more genuine appeal. The Chinese government periodically isolates such sections or slaps fines on visitors. The authorities argue that they are seeking to prevent damage to the unrestored wall by traipsing visitors, but they are also keen to direct tourist revenue towards restored sections.
When choosing a tour, it is essential to check that the tour goes to where you want to go. Great Wall tours are often combined with trips to the Ming Tombs, so ask beforehand; if you don’t want to visit the Ming Tombs, choose another tour.
As with most popular destinations in China, try to avoid going on the weekend.