Great Wall of China and Ming Tombs

There is a Chinese saying, 不到长城非好汉 which literally translates into  “He who has not been to the Great Wall is not a true man”.  How did this come about? Read on to find out. So during my weekend in Beijing, I had the Sunday to visit one of China’s, and also mankind’s greatest engineering achievements, to see and climb the Great Wall of China.

Again I booked the trip with the hotel’s tour desk. They were very  happy to see me again, obviously. This time the group was bigger and we sat in a minivan. The first stop was the Ming Tombs (明十三陵). Here are 13 tombs of the Ming emperors built into a valley around 40km from Beijing. The first tomb was built by Emperor Yongle in 1492 and subsequent emperors also placed their tombs beside him. The area of the Ming Tombs was chosen because of Fengshui principles, with the mountains to the back  and water in front.

The first stop was the memorial archway which is also the start of a 7lm long Spirit Way. This is a huge stone gateway constructed in 1542 during the Ming Dynasty.

The Memorial Gateway at the start of the Spirit Way leading to the Ming Tombs.
The Memorial Gateway at the start of the Spirit Way leading to the Ming Tombs.
Named the Spirit Way, this 7km long road leads to the tombs. There are many statues of animals and warriors lining the 2 sides of the road.
Named the Spirit Way, this 7km long road leads to the tombs. There are many statues of animals and warriors lining the 2 sides of the road.
More of the stone animal statues. The camels caught my eye since they only live in the deserts of western China and are not native to northern China.
More of the stone animal statues. The camels caught my eye since they only live in the deserts of western China and are not native to northern China.

Luckily for us, we didn’t have to walk the 7km road. The minivan was waiting for us to ferry us to the Ming Tombs proper. In the olden days, the emperor and his retinue would ride on horseback all the way from Beijing to the Ming Tombs.

Only one tomb has been excavated and we were not allowed to take photos once we were there. The tomb is now empty as most of the artifacts were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. And the Chinese have decided not to excavate the other tombs as it is difficult to preserve the artifacts once they are exposed to fresh oxygen and start to deteriorate.

Alright, we were brought to see an empty tomb. Now let’s get to the real deal. After another hour’s drive, we arrived at the section of the Great Wall near Badaling (八达岭). This section was actually built during the Ming Dynasty in 1505 and most of it has been restored to it’s original condition. As such, for purists they would rather visit sections of the wall at Simatai (司马台) which dates back even earlier to 550 and are left in their original condition. But that’s much further and would take a long time to get there given the short stay that I had.

My first view of the Great Wall. There were not many tourists at that time and the weather was superb.
My first view of the Great Wall. There were not many tourists at that time and the weather was superb.

So here I was at the Great Wall admiring the greatness of it and wondering at the sacrifices of the workers who built it. Getting here wasn’t so hard with modern transportation. So how does one become a true man? You have to climb the Great Wall, that’s how.

Visitors always say that they ‘climbed’ the Great Wall. Nobody says that they strolled along the Great Wall. Pictures of the Great Wall somehow doesn’t convey the steepness of the gradient that visitors have to contend with. And the weather is unpredictable with wind chill and ice on the steep stones at times. One slip on the ice and you may find yourself sliding all the way down to a nasty injury. I had encountered wet stones that literally froze beneath my feet and becoming a patch of ice when the wind started blowing.

I can't help but marvel at the incredulous work that was put into building it.
I can’t help but marvel at the incredulous work that was put into building it.

After struggling up the steep stone walkway to the nearest guard tower, I could see that the wall just kept on going. There was an old man selling certificates that proclaimed “You are a real man” at the guard tower. How wonderful! A lot of the tourists just kept on following the wall. I wondered if they were going to walk to the other end of China.

I just wonder where all these people are walking to?
I just wondered where all these people are walking to?
It's not everyday that you find nobody else on the Great Wall. Nowadays, there are hordes of tourists.
It’s not everyday that you find nobody else on the Great Wall. Nowadays, there are hordes of tourists.

The Great Wall is really a wonder. And more so for the people who built it and defended it. For us it was a struggle to climb the steep stairs. For the ancient soldiers who had to do it in their battle armor and weapons, it must have been an almost superhuman feat. Not to mention that the guard towers were far apart with steep slopes in between. I pity the messengers who had to pass messages between towers.

So on that day I became a true man after conquering just a small part of the Great Wall. Hooray!

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