Those Mongol hordes that the Ming Dynasty were trying to fend off must have been some pretty fearsome warriors. The Chinese, apparently, didn’t even think the Helan mountain range could deter them, not with its 180 kilometres of arid, craggy peaks that rise 3500 metres and were once home to bears and wolves. So they built a 10 metre high mud wall instead. That’ll send them running back to Ulaanbaatar or wherever they came from.
Try climbing over this
The wall is the only landscape feature below the mountains
But fun and games aside, the Helan Shan wall is by far the most impressive section we’ve seen in the roughly 1200 kilometres we’ve walked since leaving Jiayuguan. It is sturdy and tall, rising up to 10 metres in some parts. It is long and continuous, stretching across wide dry river beds as it cradles the base of the mountain range. But most of all it is wide, wide enough at least for men and horses to patrol.
Note the wide walkway on top of the wall (and the power lines cutting through the middle)
This section is probably wide enough for horses to walk along the top two abreast
The size of the wall and the number of beacon towers dotted throughout the mountain range suggest that this was a very important section to control. When it was built it would have protected the fertile fields along the Yellow River and the capital of Yinchuan; even today the wall defines the border between Ningxia and Inner Mongolia Autonomous Regions.
Providing cover around a dry river bed
One thing that is easy to forget, however, as we walk the isolated stretches of wall is that, in its heyday, it would have been populated by thousands of soldiers, officials, horses, and all the logistical support necessary to keep them ready and waiting for the enemy. It would have been anything but an empty landscape.
These mystery bumps supporting the main beacon tower are a common sight
There are footholds that reach the top every 10 metres or so along the wall
Deep canyons and long winding dry river beds flowing out of the mountains could have potentially provided an enemy army with an easy route through and well-protected cover. Cover, that is, until they came abruptly to the wall. You see, the Chinese didn’t let a little thing like a river stop them from building the Great Wall. In the first two photos below, you can see the wall running alongside and stopping at the banks of a river. The third one shows the drainage provided within the wall for a small gully – probably at one point there was more extensive drainage provided all across a river.
A beacon tower sits on the bend of a river bed
At one time, maybe the wall didn’t stop so abruptly at the river bank
Even if larger or more numerous drains were placed across larger riverbeds, you can imagine the maintenance required to prevent extensive erosion
One other feature of the wall that we observed along this section was a stretch of roughly 30 metres long that was clad in stone. We know that in many parts of the wall, the rammed earth that made up the core was protected by stone. It is not clear how much wall was stone-covered originally – whether the cover was extensive or sporadic, or whether these stones have been taken away over the centuries by farmers and villagers for use in constructing buildings – but the section pictured was on a particularly steep bit of hill. You can see where the stones have been pulled away, but maybe the steepness has prevented all of the rocks from disappearing.
You can see the mud wall in the bottom left corner where the stones have been removed