It sure is a great wall!

By Andrew Matheson

That’s what Richard Nixon reportedly said when he visited China in 1972 as relations with the People’s Republic of China were beginning to thaw.  You can see him visiting the Great Wall of China in a film clip on Youtube, and in fact his remarks were a little more nuanced than that.  But, regardless, it sure is a great wall!

We are seeing a very different wall from that near Beijing, visited by Nixon and countless tourists since.  There the wall is made of stone and runs like a spine along the top of ridges that are green and leafy in summer.  Here the wall is made of packed earth, and blends into the arid terrain.

Out in the harsh desert of Gansu province in central China we have visited the western end of the Ming dynasty Great Wall – the imposing fortress at Jiayuguan.  Traffic along the legendary Silk Road was funnelled by landforms through a desert valley surrounded by mountains — the Hexi Corridor — making this a strategic spot for imperial China and a major way point on the Silk Road.  Travellers, treasures and cultural influences entered the empire from the west.  Heading the other way, this was the last outpost of civilisation before entering the vast Gobi Desert.

We are more than 2,000 km from the eastern end of the Ming dynasty wall on the shores of the China Sea at Shanhaiguan.  There is more than one Great Wall, of course.  Near the capital Beijing there is often several layers of wall for added protection.  Earlier dynasties had their walls, too, and 500 km further west from here are the remains of the Han Dynasty wall, more than 1,300 years older than the 14th-century fortress at Jiayuguan.

The scale of distance and the span of time are hard to comprehend.  The Great Wall of China is one of the most impressive human structures on earth.  It sure is a great wall!