Oxfordshire Mind’s Physical Activity Team are offering a weekly ‘virtual walk’ this week the team are visiting the Great Wall of China.
Hello everyone. Today we are following in the footsteps of Emperors and taking a tour of the Great Wall of China, that truly enormous man-made wonder that represents one of the most impressive architectural feats in human history. Contrary to rumour, it’s not especially visible from space – although you can spot it with the naked eye if you know where to look- but it’s certainly monumental, at nearly 9000 kilometres long.
First built over two thousand years ago, successive generations of emperors extended and strengthened this mighty fortification to signal to the world the strength and power of their domains. Really it’s a series of walls, joining up with the mountains that form a natural barrier around the heart of China. It snakes across thousands of miles of countryside, over lofty mountains, through desert and across grassy plains. There are parts of it that few people even visit any more. Miles away from the nearest city, these long-forgotten sections are overrun with vegetation, slowly crumbling back into the stone they were made from. You can hike along these magnificent ruins, perhaps reflecting as you do so on how even the most impressive and awe-inspiring things have a journey; a beginning, a peak, and an inevitable end.
Right now, though, we’re not being quite so adventurous. The section we are visiting today is Badaling, the closest and most easily accessible from Beijing. Fully restored, it’s the part that most people visit, and if you have any relatives with pictures of them at the Great Wall on their mantelpiece, they were probably taken here. It’s also usually the most crowded part of the wall, sometimes so packed with tourists that it’s impossible to take a photo without getting at least five other people in shot. However, we are visiting in January, which is the off season, so we should have the wall almost to ourselves, as long as we’re prepared to deal with the winter weather.
It’s a bright but icy early morning when we board the coach that will take us from central Beijing to the wall. Our hands are being kept warm by paper bags of mini pork buns, bought from a nearby street vendor as a snack for the journey. A little waft of savoury-smelling steam escapes from them, freezing in the cold air, whenever we open the bag to pop one into our mouth. We board the bus and make the two hour or so trip out to the wall, gazing out the window, watching the city turn into countryside or else snoozing to make up for the early start.
We get off the bus and walk up to the plaza in front of the wall. We gaze up in awe at the top of the wall, which is still rather high above us. There is a cable car to take us up there, but we are here to walk, so let’s follow where everyone else from the coach is going and take the ramp.
We come out on the walkway on top of the wall and take a moment to gaze along it. The wall stretches off into the distance, winding over the mountains, up and down and up and down, like a giant skipping rope. The trees are all bare now, their branches thin lines inked against the sky, like strokes from a calligrapher’s pen. The mountains are shades of brown and grey, those muted tones replacing the bright green of summer, like a bird taking on a drabber winter plumage at this time of year.
This high up, it’s cheek-bitingly chilly. It’s one of those bright winter days where the sky is a completely clear, cloudless blue; not the bright, vibrant cobalt of summer, but a paler, washed-out shade, like fine silk that has sat in the sun for too long. The sunlight sears your eyes without providing any warmth, and our breaths are puffs of ice in the freezing air.
We amble slowly along the rampart, stopping every often to peer out through one of the gaps that provide a look out point for miles around. It’s hard not imagine yourself as a soldier, walking this route all those years ago, your eye always on the horizon, vigilant for signs of movement. We duck inside one of the watchtowers, one of the rare points of shelter in the exposed length of the wall. It’s easy to imagine our solider taking a brief moment of refuge here on a similarly chilly winter’s morning; removing their helmet, grabbing a quick bite of food, and holding their hands out over a brazier to warm them before braving the elements once more.
Nowadays, the wall is not patrolled by soldiers, but visitors armed with nothing more sinister than cameras. Even on a day like today, a few hardy souls can be found determinedly snapping photos. We are stopped as we pass one young American family and asked if we could take a picture of them, which we happily do. It’s a great photo—wide grins, shoulders drawn back proudly, and when we show it to the parent who handed us their phone, they smile broadly and thank us, clearly satisfied with the result. Perhaps we have been a part of creating a lasting memory for those people today, an image that will sit in pride of place in their living room for years to come, long after the children have grown and gone away to start lives of their own.
Finally it’s time to turn around and make our way back to where we’ve started, so we’re there on time to catch the coach back to the city. I hope you’ve had a good time today, and your face isn’t too numb from all that time spent out in the cold. See you next week for another walk!