Posted by: Tommy | October 28, 2011

A terrible military defense strategy, but a brilliant tourist attraction

The Great Wall of China. It is probably one of the 5 most famous man-made structures in the world. It’s certainly the most famous thing in China. And rightfully so – I thought the Great Wall was incredible. But there’s not a whole lot to it. You go, it’s stunning – surrounded by beautiful scenery, improbably long and built over impossible terrain, but then you just walk around for hours admiring the view. It was a memorable experience, but not necessarily a captivating story for the blog.

Anna had been before and loved it (18 years ago, with her parents), but didn’t feel the need to go again. So I joined up with a French girl, Emelie, from our hostel and together we explored the Wall. She’ll be in some of these pictures, with captions to tell of the interesting bits from the day.

After 2.5 hours on a bus, Emelie and I started our Great Wall adventure by taking the cable car up the mountain. We'd climb plenty later, so we decided to cable car instead of climb the mountain.

This is as much of the Wall as we could see at any one time. We took the bus to the less-touristed Mutianyu section of the Wall. There were still plenty of people, but apparently less than at other sections.

Like I said earlier, we did plenty of climbing. The distance between watchtowers wasn't too far, but getting from one to the next frequently involved massive elevation changes. This is looking down after climbing a steep section.

Not all of the Wall has been restored. After it proved to be so useless as a defense strategy, the Chinese government let the Wall fall apart. Until 1986, when someone realized that tourists would pay to come see it. Since then, sections have been painstakingly restored. Police officers are known to give steep fines to tourists and guides caught in the unrestored sections of the Wall. This is because restaurants, souvenir shops and other tourist traps have sprung up around the "authorized" Wall-viewing spots. Here we're slightly off the allowed path, checking out a deserted, unrepaired stretch. Notice the trees growing down the center of the Wall.

It's hard to tell in this black & white photo, but the landscape and views around the Wall were stunning. You could see, all along the ridge of mountains, watchtowers and crumbling pieces of the Wall.

I liked the mountain view in this photo.

The view from inside one of the watchtowers.

There is a myth that the Great Wall of China is the only man-made object visible from space. That's false. While it's long enough, the Great Wall is way too thin to be viewed from that far away. A sign there compares seeing the Great Wall from the moon to trying to spot a piece of thread on the ground, while sitting on a 10 story building.

This had to be among the most random, unexpected collaborations that I've come across this year. In addition to taking a cable car up the mountain, you can ride down the same mountain in a small, plastic sled with wheels. Since we'd been climbing up and down the steep, irregularly-sized stairs for over 4 hours (we ran out of time about 10 minutes from completing the entire Mutianyu section) and were exhausted, we opted to ride rather than walk down. Good call - it was fun. And a great ending to a phenomnal day.



  1. I sure do like the idea of the cable car up, but especially like the slide going down.

  2. I loved the wall when we went with Anna. One of my most vivid memories though was of the Chinese surrounding Anna to touch her almost waist length blonde hair — many of them had never seen blonde hair. No sleds down then.

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