Every now and then, Elaine and I find ourselves on a sight somewhere around the world that hardly requires any introduction or further explanation. To date, these sights would typically include places like Christ the Redeemer in Brazil, the pyramids of Chichen Itza in Mexico, the Grand Canyon in the States, Vic Falls in Zimbabwe, a quick glimpse of the Northern Lights in Finland, the White Cliffs of Dover in England or the beautiful Cliffs of Moher in Ireland, but today, we added (arguably) the most famous global sight to our list – the Great Wall of China!

After a few hours of sleep, our private tour guide picked us up from the hotel at 08:00 am and we travelled north to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. The journey by car took roughly an hour and this was a great opportunity to ask him all our questions on Chinese culture, religion and their general way of life. It was also quite fascinating to get a local’s point of view on their Communist state and how they perceive the outside world. At 09:00 am, we arrived at the Wall and took a cable car to the top.

The Great Wall has many names but the one we like most is ‘The Concrete Dragon’. When you stand on any part of the Wall and look at how it stretches thousands of kilometres over the horison then it actually does look like a dragon’s body resting on the mountain top, guarding a nation. However, if you translate the name of the Wall from the original Chinese phrase to English, then the locals don’t call it ‘The Great Wall’, but instead refer to it as ‘The Long City’. This is because, historically, every city in China had a wall around it. If it didn’t have a wall to protect it, it wasn’t a city, and since this wall was built to protect mostly Beijing as a city, the Wall became known as ‘The Long City’.

Now there are tons of myths when it comes to the Great Wall of China and whilst some myths have been debunked, others remain plausible. Examples include the stories that the skeletons of the people who died during the construction of the Wall are buried inside the Wall, or that the Great Wall is the only man-made structure you can see from space, but to date, they haven’t found any human remains (yet) within the Wall (including those sections of the Wall that no longer exists) and according to NASA, there are many man-made structures (like large bridges) that can be seen from space during low earth orbits. Even though some stories you may have heard are completely inaccurate, it doesn’t take away anything from this masterpiece the Chinese managed to construct almost 2700 years ago, with the first construction dating back to 770 BC. What do you think happened in South Africa 2700 years ago?

One thing I learned today was that the Great Wall is not one single wall but actually many different walls, located on different parts of the northern border. Some sections have already disappeared whilst other sections remain perfectly intact. Some parts are safe for the public to visit whilst other parts of the Wall are covered by trees and other plant species. Over the last 10 years, a massive project got underway with the aim to determine the total length of the Wall where they’ve used helicopters and drones with special software to measure and map out the remaining visible Wall whilst a group of archaeologists were tasked to measure the ‘invisible’ wall (the sections that deteriorated over the years and where only bits of the foundation remains). The result was mindblowing, to say the least! The ‘visible’ Wall today is roughly 12,000 km long whilst the ‘invisible’ Wall is estimated to add another 9,000 km to the total. This means the total length of the Wall is about 21,000km (13,125 miles). To put that into perspective, assuming that figure is accurate, the Wall is roughly a 1000km longer than the distance stretching from the North Pole to the South Pole OR just over half the distance of the earth’s circumference! The Wall itself is on average 6.5 metres wide and 8 metres high, with the highest point at 14 metres. Another thing to point out is the rough terrain on which the Wall has been constructed thousands of years ago – a task that would seem impossible without today’s machinery and technologies. I like to believe that the Chinese Emporer who chose the location of the Wall was either an incredible visionary or a complete drunk.

The reason for building the Concrete Dragon was to protect the country against enemy invasions. Remember, there was a time, back in the day, where one nation simply invaded another nation to claim their land and its resources. When I heard this, I realised that our South African school system doesn’t really teach us the history of what happened in the far east. From a South African point of view, we are always very fast to point fingers to the English, Dutch and French (and a few in between) who rocked up on African shores to claim the land, and we tend to think we’re the only victims because the incident happened in isolation, but this happened all over the world. It was a global trend. Size of the country did not matter. The wealth of a country did not matter either. In an age where conquering a nation was the name of the game, the only thing that mattered was who’s stronger. The great irony about the Great Wall is that China spent over 2000 years building the wall on probably the toughest mountain range in the country, which even included special watchtowers where soldiers used fire and smoke signals to communicate when enemies were spotted, yet, the wall did a terrible job at protecting the nation as the Mongols breached it several times. It makes you question whether a wall on the southern border of America is indeed a good idea…?

The Great Wall of China is really an exceptional sight to see and we’d definitely recommend it to everyone visiting Beijing. We’d also like to give a special shout-out to Herbie, our very knowledgeable private tour guide who made the day so much fun! Herbie also pointed out that, to get back to our car, we can either walk down all the thousands of stairs, take the cable car as we did on our way up OR slide down the mountain on what I can only describe as a glorified skateboard or mini-bobsled. Of course, this was the easiest decision of the day.

Thanks Herbie, you’re a rockstar!