Badaling or Mutianyu? As the two most popular stretches of restored Great Wall, this is a repeated conundrum for visitors. The guidebooks will send you to Mutianyu on the vague promise of fewer tourists and lighter development. Badaling, a victim of its own fame, has few promoters, but it shouldn't be overlooked. This article attempts to give the much maligned Badaling the context it deserves.
"Baodou, baodou,” calls the train attendant, moving through the carriage with a single bag of microwave popcorn on a silver tray. There are no takers. Outside the window, the Beijing outskirts roll by, a hinterland of highways, light industry and the mournful skeletons of half-built apartments framed against a grey winter sky.
I’m riding the ‘S’ train that connects downtown Beijing to the county of Yanqing in the far reaches of the municipality. This suburban route is notable for two things – it follows the old Imperial Peking to Zhangjiakou railway, the first railway designed and built by the Chinese towards the end of the Qing Dynasty. And it has a rather special stop along its route: Badaling.
About 60km northwest of Beijing, Badaling is a pass through a high gorge in the Jundu Mountains. Historically a strategic portal between the fertile lands of the capital and the more arid plains beyond, it has been called the ‘Key to Northern China’, and is the site for what has become the defining section of the Great Wall.
As the train ascends into the foothills, we get our first glimpse of battlements perched precariously on rocky cliffs. There have been numerous eras of Great Wall building throughout China’s history, but most of the wall that endures around Beijing, like the Badaling section, dates to the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644).
The Ming built or rebuilt atop older stretches of wall to form an undulating, overlapping defensive barrier stretching from ocean to desert, shielding the northern reaches of their vast territory from the ‘barbarians’– the Mongols, Manchu and other pastoral people. The absolute length, including every branch and tributary, of the Ming Great Wall has put at about 8,000km; a 5-year archaeological survey of every single bit of wall within today’s expanded PRC borders, existing or long vanished, from around twenty dynasties (aside from the most recent Qing), put the total at over 20,000km.
The reality is that vast tracts of wall have been lost to the ravages of time and civilisation, and what remains exists in a state of precarious disrepair. For logistical reasons, the Great Wall was fashioned, chameleon-like, from whatever materials were to hand. Along China’s arid northern plains this equated mostly to tamped earth. The strategically critical upland sections around Beijing, amounting to around 600km of the Ming Great Wall, were far sturdier, built from local granite and bricks, lined with watchtowers and often following the high ridgelines of mountains.
But despite the Ming’s mastery of wall defence, the Manchu found a way through (walls are only as reliable as their gatekeepers), conquered Beijing and established the Great Qing, China’s last imperial dynasty. Although the Qing had some use for the Ming walls, and added a few of their own, the greatest era of wall building in the history of mankind had come to an end, and the battlements were eventually abandoned, their unmanned bricks and stone at the mercy of scavengers.
Badaling too had fallen into ruin, but enough of the wall remained intact that, with the formation of the People’s Republic of China in the 1950s, it was decided that the Great Wall at Badaling should be the site of the first major wall restoration since the Ming Dynasty. In the mid ‘50s and again in 1987, two restoration projects have resurrected around 8km of wall and more than 20 watchtowers. Hundreds of foreign heads of state including Nixon, Thatcher, Gorbachev and Obama have smiled for the cameras on its battlements, and hundreds of millions of tourists, both Chinese and foreign, have huffed and puffed up its steep steps.
The train attendant makes another pass as we near our destination, but this time she’s selling tickets to something ominously called the Circle Vision Great Wall Theatre. Yes, Badaling offers far more than mere wall. The size of a modest North American ski resort, it has a Starbucks, a KFC, and countless souvenir shops and snack vendors. There are banks, the Badaling Hotel, a museum, the aforementioned theatre attraction, acres of car parks, a cable car, camels to ride and Asian black bears to feed.
Factor in the crowds (Badaling is famously swamped in holiday season), and the modern appearance of its restoration, and you approach what was described in a New York Times article from 1985 as “too great an obtrusion of the present into the precincts of the past.”
This is why the western guidebooks tend to suggest visitors skip Badaling, a victim of its own fame, and instead seek another officially sanctioned section of restored Great Wall: Mutianyu. Rebuilt in the early Ming Dynasty, and restored and opened in the 1980s in order to ease the pressure on Badaling, Mutianyu is a lofty, 4km stretch of wall in a verdant mountain landscape. Though it too boasts cable cars and gift shops, the crowds have never quite reached Badaling levels, the surrounding villages are bucolic and in low season you might have Mutianyu mostly to yourself.
Not so in Badaling. It’s a cold December afternoon but the crenulated battlements jostle with sightseers. I introduce myself to Xiao Lan from subtropical Guangdong, visiting the Great Wall for the first time with his shivering wife and young son. Marcus and Hilda, from Norway, are munching processed sausages and sporting souvenir woolly hats. I chat with Samir, an IT Consultant from Hyderabad, and we are joined by two female students from Nanning in Guangxi Province, posing for photos together.
This concentration of visitors exacts a toll, of course. The Great Wall may be many thousands of kilometres long, but tourists can only officially access a tiny fraction – probably less than 50km – of the whole structure. Barely a brick at Badaling is free of etched graffiti. As well as Badaling and Mutianyi, one can travel further afield from Beijing to restored sections at Jinshanling, Simatai, and Huanghuacheng. One can view the Great Wall as it plunges into the ocean at ‘Old Dragon’s Head’ in Shanhaiguan. And for the completionist, one might travel all the way west to Jiayuguan, a lonely fortified outpost in the deserts of Gansu province, the end of the Ming Great Wall and the final barrier between Chinese civilisation and the ‘outer darkness’.
Increasingly, China’s new breed of outdoors enthusiasts (and intrepid tourists) are eschewing the official sections and seeking out the ‘Wild Wall’, a phrase coined by British Great Wall scholar William Lindesay to describe derelict battlements overgrown with vegetation and free from tourists – a world away from the elbow-to-elbow jollity at Badaling.
This is the Great Wall of the poetic imagination; its romantic vistas of crumbling stone a moving testament to the rise and fall of empires and the perpetual ebb and flow of power. The flipside is that these sections can be dangerous, hiking boots extol further damage to the fragile structures, and to walk here at all is, strictly speaking, illegal.
Still, if you've already seen the likes of Badaling or Mutianyu - or if their crowds are too much of a turn off - then this is the Great Wall for you. If you can do without the popcorn.
This feature first appeared in Higher View Magazine, the inflight magazine of China Eastern Airlines.