Strangely enough, I didn’t have high hopes of my first visit to the Great Wall of China. Even though (or because) it’s one of the most famous structures on Earth, I thought it could never live up to its billing, nor those iconic photographs of watchtowers and wall snaking into the misty, grey-green mountains.
At that time I was living in Hong Kong. The Easter holidays were coming, my mum was flying out to meet her new baby grandson and we were going stir-crazy living on a tiny and densely populated island. We needed fresh air and big views. We needed to start working through our Asia bucket list.
Quite why Beijing seemed like the ideal holiday destination is hard to fathom. It was even more crowded than Hong Kong, as well as being polluted and bitterly cold. What’s more, we were a tour guide’s nightmare: four little boys – aged seven, five, two and zero – two frazzled and sleep-deprived parents and an (admittedly super-fit) 80-year-old lady. And, just to make things even harder, we had only a week to explore a country spanning over 3.5 million square miles.
So we pared back our first family China experience to the basics of Beijing: the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, the Temple of Heaven, the Ming Tombs, a few Really Important Temples and buildings I can no longer remember… and, of course, the Great Wall of China.
It took a gruelling three-hour drive to get there from Beijing. However, when we vomited out of our minibus (quite literally, in the case of one of my sons), we knew we’d made the right choice. Under 50 miles north-east of the capital, Mutianyu boasts one of the best-preserved stretches of what the Chinese call the Long Wall. Set among craggy mountains, this section dates back to the mid-sixth century, though most of what you see today was constructed in the 16th century during the Ming Dynasty.
It’s not just the wall itself that impresses: with 22 watchtowers in this stretch of less than two miles, and fabulous crenelated merlons, it’s perfect for little boys’ soldier games.
First, though, we had to actually get up to the wall. Faced with the choice of dragging a heavy toddler in a buggy, a baby in a backpack and my mother up 4,000-plus steps, we decided to take the only sensible option – a stress-free ride up the mountainside in a cable car. To glide silently uphill amid the steep, forested slopes was a joy in itself. There were still a few steps to master at the top but before long we had made it: we had managed to get seven of us, spanning eight decades, to the Great Wall of China – surely almost as big an achievement as building the wall in the first place.
It was only once we were standing in the emptiness of one of the watchtowers that the scale of the thing began to sink in. It’s big – very big. At around 8 metres tall and 5 metres wide (excluding the watchtowers, which are bigger still), the Mutianyu section snakes into the far distance, but the whole structure extends for over 13,000 miles – roughly equivalent to 10 Great Barrier Reefs or 158 Hadrian’s Walls laid end to end.
Why did successive generations of rulers construct and maintain this giant edifice? The simple reason: fear. To the north stretched the Eurasian steppe, rife with marauding armies. South of this line spread lands that had long been contested (during the ‘Warring States’ period of 475–221 BC) but which had been consolidated under the first emperor of the Qin dynasty in the third century BC into the domain we now know as China.
Like Hong Kong’s famous Gin Drinkers’ Line during the Second World War, the Great Wall drew a line in the sand from east to west between ‘us’ (the Chinese) and ‘them’ (the Mongols, mostly). Moreover, by polarising armies and peoples as being – literally – on ‘our side’ or ‘the other side’ it provided an unequivocal statement of power and unity for a new empire striving to forge an identity. In addition, the road atop the wall not only allowed armies and traders to move efficiently, but also enabled the flow of goods to be controlled and taxed.
Of course, the other benefit for this mother of four little boys was that I could let them roam for hours, safe in the knowledge that neither they – nor I – could get lost. We descended by gondola, but the adrenalin-hungry can take a toboggan ride down a giant slide on something resembling an oversized skateboard. However, I think the more graceful descent matches the mood of this magnificent edifice.
It’s an urban legend that the Great Wall of China can be seen from space (it can’t), but the wall itself is truly legendary. For our family it was a (relative) breath of fresh air, an opportunity to step out of the fast lane, to travel along its foot-smoothed flagstones and back through time. And even though the misty mountains were shrouded in smog, to us, at least, it still looked picture perfect.
Advice for travellers
Best time to go
Spring and autumn are ideal. Winter can be bitterly cold, while summers swelter. Visit early morning or late afternoon to avoid the busiest times.
Mutianyu is about 50 miles north-east of Beijing. Day tours are available from the capital; alternatively, take a taxi or bus from Dongzhimen.
What to pack
Take water. Consider sturdy hiking shoes to tackle the climb to the wall and for long strolls along the top.
What to bring back
Tea sets, calligraphy, carved jade ornaments, silk and Mao memorabilia are among the most popular quintessentially Chinese souvenirs.
Check out the visibility forecast. Mist or even heat haze can greatly reduce what you see.
Visit the more-remote, less-crowded sections of wall at Simatai or Mutianyu (two to three hours’ travel from Beijing).
I went to the Simatai section of the wall, which was very rugged and not as restored or touristy as other areas.
Vanessa Collingridge is a broadcaster and author. Read more about Vanessa’s experiences at the Great Wall at historyextra.com/greatwallchina
This article was first published in the May 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine