The Wild Wall

At the beginning of this summer, I hiked a section of the “Wild Wall”—the remote, less explored sections of the Great Wall—with the Groton global education trip to China. Having lived in Beijing for most of my life, the Great Wall was definitely not new to me. The stone fortification meandering across lush mountains is the iconic symbol of China, representing strength and unity. Although I’ve visited the Great Wall many times, none was more exciting than my experience this summer.

Standing at the top of a watchtower, I couldn’t help but gaze at the magnificent structure that surrounded me; entwining itself into the very fabric of the land, the Great Wall was truly a piece of art. I recalled that I had never once been able to fully appreciate the beauty of the structure. Previously, every visit had been nothing more than a race to see who could jostle through a crowd of tourists and actually appreciate the scenery, rather than the backs of people’s heads. This time, hiking across a derelict trail of the “Wild Wall,” nothing could stop me from truly acknowledging the magnificence of the Wall. We squeezed by overgrown plants that adorned our path, all the while listening to our tour guide’s insightful stories about the history and structure of the Great Wall. We learned about the material used to hold the bricks together (sticky rice), how messages were relayed from one watchtower to another, and traditional legends like the story of Meng Jiang Nu—who supposedly was so grieved at the death of her husband (a construction worker who built the Great Wall) that her cries tore apart every brick in the structure. 

After a delicious lunch of dumplings, we gathered to hear from William Lindesay, a Great Wall expert. He is an avid advocate of the preservation of the Great Wall, and spends his time writing and photographing books on the Wall, making documentary films, and running conservation work. The idea to conquer the Great Wall occurred to him at six years old—when he glimpsed the winding structure on a world map. Ever since then, he has pursued his dream of hiking the Great Wall from end to end, and finally accomplished it in 1987. However, this wasn’t the end of his quest; it was only the beginning. He talked to us about his recent project—the Great Wall Revisited—that was inspired by a missing tower. Upon having seen a old photograph of a tower from a book by another Great Wall hiker, he realized that he knew the area and had a picture of himself hiking there. The only difference was that now, the tower was gone. This picture spurred Lindesay to revisit and rephotograph many landmarks, to see how they had changed in the century that had passed since the production of the book. He produced an impressive book documenting the Great Wall’s transformation throughout the ages. His talk spurred me to consider whether I was doing my part to conserve the historical structure. I was really inspired that a foreign man was more passionate and knew more about the Great Wall than any local.

The experience of hiking and learning about the “Wild Wall” with the China trip was pretty memorable, and a great start to my summer.