Ampersand's Travels...

Just another brick in The Wall

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As a child I was told that an ancient people called 'The Chinese' built a big wall hundreds of years ago that still stands. It was so long that it could surround all of Britain and so big that astronauts could even see it standing proudly when they looked through their spaceship's port holes. My friend from Hong Kong said it was made to keep barbarians out of China.

Well, this wasn't exactly true. The Great Wall of China (Wàn Lǐ Cháng Chéng, or 'Ten Thousand Li Long Wall'; a li is a measure of distance, approximately 500m) can't be seen from space with the naked eye. It is only 9m wide at its thickest so my school gym would have been more visible. The wall's reputation is so widespread that it has obtained mythic status and people have felt free to improvise their own elaborate and superlative facts about it. Below are some true facts to set the record straight about one of the world's most incredible structures.

  •     The Great wall is not one continuous wall but a series of shorter walls marking the northern boundary of the ancient Chinese heartland.
  • •   The distance from easternmost to westernmost points of the wall is 3,915 miles but the combined length of every stretch of wall is 13,670 miles (more than half of Earth's circumference).
  • •   Construction began on the earliest sections of The Great Wall in the 7th-century BC to protect against nomadic invaders from the north (mostly Mongolians).
  • •   The Great Wall didn't work! Mongols continued to make smash-and-grab raids for centuries and Genghis Khan's armies swept past it to conquer all of China, beginning the Mongol Yuan dynasty which ruled the country from 1271 to 1368.
  • •   The best preserved parts date from the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) when more construction in stone was carried out.
  • •   During the Ming Dynasty's zenith, 1 million soldiers were employed in defending the Great Wall.
  • •   Extensive work on the wall came close to bankrupting China during the Ming Dynasty and longstanding plans to paint the wall had to be abandoned.
  • •   The wall is 9 metres at its widest and 8 metres at its tallest.
  • •   The mortar used to bind the stones was made from rice flour.
  • •   During Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution (1966-76), the Wall was seen as a sign of despotism and villagers were encouraged to take bricks from it to use in their farms or homes.
  • •   The wheelbarrow was invented for use on construction of the Great Wall.
  • •   The Great Wall of China obtained UNESCO World Heritage status in 1987.
  • •   One of the most-photographed and iconic stretches of the wall is at Mutianyu which adorns a particularly hilly landscape and has 22 towers guarding just 2,250m of wall. (Sneaking into one of these watchtowers to camp for a night during a tumultuous electrical storm is one of my most treasured memories of living in China).
  • •   One of the best preserved and least visited sections of the Great Wall is Jinshanling (Ampersand's favourite; 2 hours drive from Beijing) which was re-enforced after numerous attacks in the mid 16th century. It's low-lying points are double-walled to increase their height.

For more information or to start planning your tailor-made China holiday, get in touch with our China specialist/fanatic Charlie:

charlie@ampersandtravel.com   /  +44 (0) 207 819 9770

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