Without doubt the Great Wall of China is one of mankind’s most remarkable structures. Stretching 8,850kms (5,500m) across eleven provinces, it dates back to 206BC and the reign of China’s first Emperor Qin Shihuang.
The Wall appears as a never-ending stone fortification, punctuated by a series of military forts, look-out towers and guards’ houses, snaking along the historical Chinese northern borders. Although the construction, shapes and designs vary depending on which section you visit, the sense of enormity is evident throughout. Famously visible from space, the Wall was designed not only to keep marauding northern nomads at bay, but also to safeguard the Silk Road trading caravans, allowing for centuries of trade regulation, consumerism and all-important taxation.
I first visited the Great Wall in the mid-1980s when China was beginning to open up to international visitors. The country was then a sea of shy people in Mao suits and never-ending bureaucratic red tape. Very few Chinese people were allowed to travel outside their local jurisdiction so the Great Wall was as elusive to them as it was to the rest of the world.
Since then the opening up and explosion of development throughout China has allowed for many more people to cast their eyes on this most famous of Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) masterpieces. Today the majority of visitors, numbering over 10 million a year, tend to concentrate on the regions closest to Beijing in the East. As with any World Heritage Site the strain of such numbers has been a challenge. We at Nomadic Thoughts have been arranging trips to the Great Wall for nearly three decades, and have always tried to offer the most exciting and sensitive of visits. We arrange private excursions around the most appropriate Wall locations at the best times of day. After years of practice we can confidently rely on our chosen local partner’s expertise on how, when and where best it is best to visit.
These photos offer an insight into how different the Wall is from end to end. I snapped them all during my visit to the eastern end of the Wall (near Beijing), as well as when I first visited the impressive Jiayuguan Pass in Gansu. Jiayuguan is where the ancient military fort stands at the most western starting point of the Great Wall.
The eastern end of the Wall stands solid as stone itself. Visited by many over the centuries, the twisting structure follows the contours like a termite tunnel weaving its way into the distance along the high ground with steep banks dropping off on each side. Some parts of the Wall are as immaculately maintained as when they were first built; other sections are broken and crumbled. Either way the vast collection of weaving stone masonry has remained intact, allowing for a never-ending line of fortification unparalleled anywhere in the world.
When I took these photos it was mid-winter – which means that both the eastern and western ends of the Wall are surrounded by a bleak, stark landscape. Although this changes dramatically with the onset of spring and summer in the east, it alters little year round at Jiayuguan Fort, where a Gobi desert-like landscape dominates throughout the year.
Ramparts made with slide-rule precision stand proud with pagoda style look-outs and the Grand Fortress Gate. All gazing down across the less formidable Wall that shrinks into the distance towards the snow capped Xinjiang mountains.