Explore some of the amazing facts and fictions about the longest man-made structure on Earth
It’s one of China’s most famous sites, and the stuff of legends for thousands of years. Today the Great Wall of China attracts more than 10 million visitors a year, and is a must-see on any itinerary when visiting China. Certain areas can easily be visited as a day trip, but venture away from the big cities and you’ll find the ‘wild walls’ where few tourists ever venture out.
The oldest parts of the Great Wall date back to more than 500 B.C., but the Western world would not hear about the wall until roughly the 12th century, when travellers, explorers and missionaries would return with accounts of a ‘tremendous wall’, said to be hundreds of miles long, without an end in sight.
It is, therefore, no wonder that even today this incredible structure which snakes its way through some of the most rural and inhospitable terrains of China still carries with it a lot of mysticism, and quite a few myths. So read on to learn a few things about one of China’s most revered national symbols, and a few things that we've all got wrong.
20 Long is an understatement
The name in Chinese - 万里长城 - translates to ‘The Long Wall of 10,000 Miles’, though it is estimated to be more than 13,000 miles in length. This is more than half of the circumference of the equator, making it the longest man-made structure in the world, and one of the most impressive archaeological undertakings in human history.
The Wall crosses through deserts, mountains and plateaus, as it zig-zags its way across eight provinces in China. It also functioned as a key part of the Silk Road.
19 Myth: NASA proved us wrong
The most common myth about the Great Wall is that it can be seen from space, or that it is the only man-made structure visible from space. This has been proven to be untrue by NASA satellite images, but the rumours still persist.
According to Wikipedia, when many foreign visitors began visiting China in the 19th century, elaborate stories about the Great Wall began circulating, including the widespread belief that it could be seen from space.
However, today one can simply load up Google Earth, or just Google Maps, to zoom in on the more well preserved areas of the Wall.
18 And it isn't a world wonder!
Not in the way you think - despite its long history, the Great Wall is not on the list of Wonders of the Ancient World, which includes sites such as The Great Pyramid of Giza, and the Colossus of Rhodes.
However, in 2007, it was voted one of the 'New 7 Wonders of the World', an initiative to recognize a number of other incredible sites around the globe, alongside icons such as Jordan's Petra and Peru's Machu Picchu. Since 1987 it has been recognized as a World Heritage Site, and according to UNESCO it is 'the world's largest military structure', with its 'historic and strategic importance matched only by its architectural significance'.
17 There is more than one wall
The Great Wall is not one continuous wall, but a series of walls. Because it has been built in so many different stages over the centuries by various clan leaders, the walls were not somewhat ‘connected’ until the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, conquered the other warring states and unified all of China in 221 BC. He then ordered the walls to be expanded, fortified and linked.
Later dynasties expanded the wall, though not always along Emperor Qin’s routes, meaning that some sections of the older walls abruptly end, or veer off, or have been left in disrepair alongside a newer, stronger wall.
Most of the Great Wall that we know today was built much later during the Ming Dynasty, from 1369–1644.
16 Emperor Qin had another trick up his sleeve
So, now you know that Emperor Qin was not the man who 'ordered the wall to be built', but he did unify China and begin the expansion of what would eventually be The Great Wall. What you might not know is that this powerful leader had another incredible and ambitious project, which unlike the Great Wall lay hidden for thousands of years - the Terracotta Army. The Emperor's tomb, with thousands of soldiers built out of terracotta, was discovered by accident in 1974 by a peasant digging in the fields in Xi'an, and today have also become one of the top sites in China.
15 The oldest parts are more than 2,500 years old
The oldest sections of the Wall, mostly found in remote parts of Western China, are thousands of years old. These were built using stone, rammed earth, straw, and sand, and are now under threat of erosion from sun, wind, and rain. Archaeologists studying the Wall have found that one of the reasons why the structures have stood the test of time is that glutinous rice flour paste was once used to bind the materials together. Gives a whole new meaning to 'sticky rice'!
14 Sticks and stones, and perhaps a few bones
So who built the Great Wall anyway? It has been estimated that up to a million ‘labourers’ built it over the centuries. Historians have found that prisoners through forced labor had the back-breaking job of moving the building materials, with many perishing on the job.
One of the more rough legends, yet to be proven, is that The Great Wall is the ‘longest cemetery in the world’, whereby labourers who perished were actually buried in the walls.
A well-known folklore tells the tale of Lady Meng Jiang, whose husband was forced to be a labourer on the Great Wall. When she travelled to the Wall to find her beloved husband and learned of his passing, she wailed and weeped so loudly that a section of the wall collapsed, revealing her husband's bones. A statue of Lady Men Jiang stands in Shanghai County, Hebei Province, and this story is well known all over China.
13 Myth: It was not built to keep out Mongols
Another very popular myth is that the Great Wall was originally built to keep out Mongolian hordes. However, the earliest walls built in 500-700 B.C. were built to defend against northern nomadic tribes, or to repel their neighbours. It was not until the 11th century A.D. that the Mongols became more powerful and began raiding and invading China. And in the 13th century, the armies of Genghis Khan indeed did breach the Great Wall, leading to 100 years of Mongol rule.
12 The wall is not just a wall
One of the most iconic sights of the Great Wall are the numerous stone watchtowers, where guards would keep an eye out for approaching enemies, and if in danger, use smoke signals to communicate with the other towers.
According to Travel China Guide, there are also impressive passes which allowed entry into cities, along with gates, moats, ramps for horses and carriages, drainage systems to collect rain water, and storage rooms for food, supplies and artillery. Because the Great Wall served as a sort of safeguard for many routes of the Silk Road, there were border controls, and even tax collection.
11 One part ends in the sea
The most eastern part of the wall within China's borders is the Shanhaiguan Pass, where the hills go down into the Bohai Sea. The spot where the Wall meets its watery end is known as the ‘Old Dragon’s Head’ and was used for centuries to guard the narrow pass between Northeast and Central East China. Many battles have been held at this very spot with invaders and rebel armies - most recently in 1945, during WWII.
Today this area hasbecome popular with tourists who want to see where the wall ‘ends’, though the small sandy beach area in front of the Old Dragon's Head attracts locals looking for a scenic swim.
10 You'll want to avoid this one area
If you ever make a trip to the Great Wall, be warned - there are some areas you should avoid at all costs if you hate crowds or are claustrophobic.
The Badaling Section, which is very close to Beijing, was the first area officially opened to tourists in 1957 and has been heavily reconstructed. It is notorious for its immense crowds, especially on holidays. There are cable cars, a roller coaster, a Great Wall Museum, a circular-screen cinema, shopping, and dining facilities, including a McDonalds. Slowly other areas of the wall close to Beijing are becoming heavily commercialized as the tourists bring in the big bucks, so if you want to see the 'real wall', best to go as far away from the big cities as possible.
9 Seek out the wild wall
If visiting the wall from Beijing, tour guides tend to group the wall it into two distinct sections - the 'restored wall', and the 'wild wall'. Jiankou, considered one of the most scenic, untouched, and difficult parts of the wild walls, requires serious hiking boots and a good balance, because it is crumbling, steep, and at times a bit dangerous. Its rugged topography is a photographer's dream, and you're unlikely to even run into another tourist at this area. Visitors are always amazed by the seemingly impossible task of building the wall up and down these incredibly rugged mountains.
8 Don't forget your sleeping bag
Spending a night or more on the Great Wall is an unforgettable experience. But not everyone is willing to rough it. Earlier this year Airbnb did its best to hold an event called 'Night at the Great Wall', whereby lucky contestant winners would get to spend a night in one of the watchtowers, sleeping on a four-poster bed, with candlelight, local cuisine, and an unbeatable view. Unfortunately, this event was cancelled, so if you want to stay on the wall, you'll have to camp out.
Many tour guides who take tourists to the far-flung areas of the 'Wild Wall' - meaning far from the maddening crowds and encroaching civilization - do organize camping, but I'm afraid it won't be quite as comfy as what Airbnb was offering.
7 Say Hello to The Northern Neighbors
One little-known fact about the Wall is that it comes precariously close to what is now the border with North Korea. According to CNN Travel, the easternmost section of the Great Wall, known as the Hu Shan Great Wall, overlooks Sinuiju, North Korea.
From the top of the wall's watchtowers, and with some binoculars, you can get a good look into the planet's most secretive hermit kingdom. The article did warn, however, that their neighbors don't like being spied on.
6 You can dive on the Great Wall
Sounds crazy, but it's true! According to Culture Trip, in the 1970s, the government began an ambitious dam building project, flooding an area of roughly 70 square kilometres in Hebei Province, including part of the Great Wall built during the Ming Dynasty.
One enterprising dive operator based out of Beijing, called SinoScuba, runs dive trips to the Panjiakou Dam, where divers can see a 400-metre section of the wall underwater. This is surely one of the most unique experiences when 'visiting' the Great Wall.
5 The wall is disappearing
Archaeologists estimate that almost 1/3 of the Great Wall has already disappeared, specifically the old, original structures made of earth, sand, straw, and rocks. After all, it is hard to stand up to 2,000 years of Mother Nature.
According to Travel China Guide, other than natural erosion, the wall is under threat from villagers who take bricks and stones from the wall to build their own structures; livestock that climb and walk on the dirt walls leading to erosion; and sections getting knocked down to make way for highways and other infrastructure projects, such as the dam we mentioned above.
4 A Bad idea with good intentions
Since 2006, the Great Wall has been officially protected by law. The State Administration of Cultural Heritage is responsible for restoration work projects, but sometimes good intentions go awry. In 2016, archaeologists, historians and photography enthusiasts were outraged after the media reported that a 700-year-old section of the wall had been covered over with cement to 'protect' it. Online forums criticized the move, saying “it would be better if they hadn’t restored it – this is worse than destruction.”
3 The Great Wall on the Big Screen
From reality TV to animated kids' movies, the Great Wall is an icon that has been used in pop culture and international events all around the world.
In 2015, to promote Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Disney hosted an event at the Great Wall, with 500 Stormtroopers in full costume. It was also featured in animated hits Planes and Mulan, both of which did better than the 2017 box office flop The Great Wall, featuring Matt Damon. The awesome aerial footage from Karate Kid II starring Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith show them training at the Mutianyu Section, close to Beijing.
2 The wall welcomes world leaders
Many of the world's leaders have visited the Great Wall, including Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Q. Elizabeth II, Boris Yeltsin, George W. Bush, Vladimir Putin, Nelson Mandela, and Emperor Akihito of Japan, to name a few. Basketballers Kobe Bryant, Micheal Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal have all stood on the wall to admire the view, as well as popstar Beyonce, actors Tom Cruise and Dwayne Johnson, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. The A-List goes on and on.
1 The wall of the future
The people who built the original parts of the Great Wall, 2,000 years ago in a remote, dark area in the west of China, never could have imagined that one day, the wall would be so big, and so popular, that the entire world would know about it.
Today the Wall is becoming a popular spot for big events, like marathons, yoga festivals, raves, parties, fashion shows by the likes of Fendi, weddings, and product launches.
Time does not stand still, and neither does humanity's need for entertainment and 'unique experiences', especially at awesome locations. If you ever make it to the Great Wall, be sure to venture out, step back in time, and see the wall as it once was.
References: Wikipedia, Travel China Guide, CNN Travel