When we started thinking about walking the Great Wall of China, we imagined a six-month journey on a wall with almost mythical qualities – a perfectly preserved brick structure snaking along exposed ridgetops, clinging to impossible cliffs, plunging into the abyss. The wall of our imagination was crowned with imposing watchtowers every few hundred metres, and there were crenellations all along the way.
The real wall isn’t entirely like that. Certainly there are sections of wall that look much like the photo at the top of this page, but other parts of the wall were constructed of a variety of locally available materials – stone, adobe or rammed earth. There are long gaps in the wall, and some sections have eroded away.
A map isn’t always much help in finding the wall
It can be said, and has been said by some scholars, that there is no single Great Wall of China. Instead, there are great walls, or “long walls,” the literal translation of the Chinese expression changcheng. Different dynasties built walls for different reasons. The Qin and Han dynasties (221 BC-AD 220) built walls in what is now Inner Mongolia and across the Ordos to defend against the nomadic Xiongnu. The Jin (1125-1234) built barriers in what is currently Liaoning province to keep out the Mongols. It would take years to walk along all of these walls and barriers.
So when we say we’re “walking the wall,” a word of explanation is in order.
Our route follows the most famous sections of the Great Wall built during the last great period of wall-building in China, the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). We are beginning at what is traditionally considered the western end of the Ming wall, at Jiayuguan, and finishing at what is traditionally considered the eastern end, at Shanhaiguan.
Even the route we’ve planned does not take in all of the Ming wall. The wall continues north from our intended finish at Shanhaiguan and runs well into Liaoning province. In addition, there are spurs, sections of double (inner and outer) wall, and sections submerged under modern reservoirs or on cliffs that are too steep to walk safely.
With all of this in mind, we’ve set ourselves the goal of walking a continuous route between Jiayuguan and Shanhaiguan that takes in as much wall as possible within the bounds of safety and practicality.
We’re not hiking the wall we originally imagined. There won’t be watchtowers around every bend or dragons lurking in the moats. But what we’ve found in researching our trip is that the reality of the wall is more fascinating and as great a mystery to us as any mythical wall ever could have been. We hope that if you follow us, you’ll agree.