The Great Wall


Mutianyu Great Wall, Copyright Michael Bencik 2013

Ok, who would not be excited about seeing the GREAT WALL OF CHINA. Really, one of the seven wonders of the world, can be seen from Outer Space, and is the longest man made structure on the planet. But really people, it’s the freaken Great Wall. I know, I repeat myself, but it’s just that cool.

I originally envisioned getting a nice swanky hotel with a view of the wall, maybe with a nice outdoor hot tub, but no such luck. So we chose a day trip to the Mutianyu Great Wall, and it worked out great. We booked our trip from the Sanitum Youth Hostel, and it was only a few hours from there. We arrived with numerous options for getting up to the top of the Wall; we could climb 4000 steps, take a chair lift, or a gondola. Hell, if you pay enough, you could probably be zipped up in a helicopter. Because this was a day trip, with only 4 hours around the wall, we chose the chair lift instead of wasting valuable time climbing. The great thing about the chair lift is you have 360 degree views everywhere, and is it ever gorgeous.

From the chair lift you access the wall via one of the watchtowers. This structure was made out of granite, three stories high, with a tile ceiling. There are decorative dragons on the tile work up top. One thing you don’t take in to account here is how many stairs there are when you are on the wall. You go up, then down, then up some more, sometimes gradual, sometimes very steep. The Chinese like to describe it as a dragon flying over the mountains, but I would say it’s more like a caterpillar crawling over. The wall followed the very contours of the mountain, so of course there were stairs everywhere. Sections of the wall are mounted precariously to the top of large jagged cliffs, where only birds come to roost. It’s made out of fill, loose sand and stones, then incased in granite blocks.

The Great Wall started out as anything but great, beginning as far back at the 7th century BC. Then it was just a fortification made from logs and fill, but over thousands of years, it became the massive barrier we know today. The biggest building spree on it was during the Ming Dynasty, around thirteenth century. According to the great minds of Wikipedia, the walls total length, including earthen fortifications, was over 13,000 miles. You don’t even want to know how many workers died building it. The wall stretches from Shanhaiguan in the east, all along inner Mongolia, to top lake. Guess those Mongolians were some pretty tough customers if these extreme measures were needed. Genghis Khan who?


Mutianyu Great Wall, Copyright Michael Bencik 2013


The section of wall we were on was rebuilt by General Xu Da. Who is this General Xu Da you say, great question. After all, I want to know who the man was that did such handy work, in case I need some advise on my house. Well he was a bad ass from all reports, he helped lead the rebellion against the Mongol led Yuan Dynasty. Taking down the capital Khanbaliq, better know now as Beijing, and ending this dynasty. Then he scared the hell out of the Korean Joseon dynasty, before venturing in to Mongolia, further than any other Chinese army. He sacked the Mongol capital or Karakorum, and brought home all kinds of nobles as slaves. Then, of course, he was in charge of the wall too. According to legend, the emperor of the Ming dynasty was so pleased by this that he sent the General a swan pie, and told him to eat it. Well, it was well known that the General was allergic to swans; the feathers made him sneeze. He ate it anyway out of loyalty. Thus ended the heroic life of General Xu Da. But don’t feel too bad, his daughter married Emperor Yongle, and became Empress Xu. So life was good.


Mutianyu Great Wall, Copyright Michael Bencik 2013


The Mutianyu Great Wall is 14 miles long, The wall is approximately 25 feet high, and 15 feet wide. There are 22 watchtowers along this section, some multiple stories high. This is the largest amount of watchtowers on any section of the wall. The other thing that is unique to this section is that the watch towers face both directions. So you can fight the Mongol hordes on one side, and any internal rebellion on the other.

The section we were on had been fully restored, but we were also able to see the unrestored section. It was great to be able to compare the two. The rest of the wall is in rough shape, not being used for hundreds of years. It is crumbling, but surprisingly intact just the same. Wandering down past the safety barriers, its amazing how well the wall has stood the test of time. Of course it would be faboulous to take a multiple day trip, hiking along the top, camping up there in the battlements. Imagine how excellent it would be to have a roaring fire on one of the towers, with the mountains silhouetted in the distance, and a full moon above.


Mutianyu Great Wall, Copyright Michael Bencik 2013



A sketch I did from Mutianyu Great Wall, Copyright Michael Bencik 2013


A sketch I did from Mutianyu Great Wall, Copyright Michael Bencik 2013


Well we hiked all over the wall, climbed up towers, did handstands, wandered down the crumbling sections, and had a really good time for hours. I even did some sketches. Time was getting tight though, and we had to be off the wall, and down the mountain to get our free meal. We are budget travelers after all. We needed to cruise down fast.

So what better way to do it then to hop on a wheeled cart and roll down a toboggan run. I suppose they could throw up a zip line to the bottom, but this was pretty damn cool. Whipping down the mountain, zipping around curves, with only a weak break to slow us down, what could be better. Unfortunately we got the slowest family in the world in front of us, making us break hard and actually stop completely. “Get off the tracks!,” or as my dad likes to scream, “Speed it up GRAMPS!”

Well, in the end we were down with plenty of time to spare. So we went shopping. After all the hill down to the parking lot was filled with souvenir stalls and vendors. Bargaining was the name of the game here, and we worked it hard. Presents for all. We actually did not buy near as much as we should have, worrying about time. Turned out the prices here were way cheaper than anywhere else that we found in Beijing.

If you are in Beijing for a short stay, you would be a fool not to jump on the chance to do this tour. In one day you will get to see thousands of years of history, an engineering wonder, and walk on a man-made structure that can be seen from space. What could be better than that.

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4 responses to “The Great Wall

  1. Such a great experience! Visiting the Great Wall is one of the things at the top of my list for what to do in my life. Thanks for the photos. It looks like early spring there, but people didn’t look cold. What was the weather like?

    It must have been fun to sketch those angles of the wall caterpillar, crawling over the mountains, even if you didn’t have as much time as you hoped for. I love how you fit sketching into every part of your life.

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