You can't see the entire Greatness. Not really.
Any list of today's Wonders of the World will include the Great Wall of China. It belongs there as surely as do the pyramids of Egypt. And yet . . .
There are higher walls. Thicker walls. More handsome walls. Older walls. Holier walls.
In China, the Great Wall was ignored for centuries, left to crumble, recycled for building materials. In parts of the country, pigs root in sties made from the ancient bricks.
It's still revered mostly by non-Chinese.
"The Chinese are not so curious about the Wall as Westerners," said my guide, Steven Goa. "We climb the Great Wall just as an exercise, for good health, but we can see many such buildings everywhere in China."
Here's one of them: The city wall in Xian is taller and wider and, in its present form, dates from the same dynasty--the Ming (1368-1644)--as most of the current Great Wall. But people don't go to Xian to see the taller, wider wall. They go to see terra-cotta soldiers.
"In past times," said Goa, "every city in China had this kind of city wall."
Moreover, the Great Wall, designed to keep out tribes from the north, never did work very well, one more testament to the inefficiency of fixed, spread-out fortifications.
So why is the Great Wall of China on everyone's list?
Because it's real long, that's why. And when you see it snaking along a mountain ridge as far as the eye can see--and you know it keeps going and going and going beyond as far as the eye can see--it ceases to be just another pile of bricks.
Plus, it must have been a bear to build.
The original Great Wall wasn't constructed so much as it was assembled. Defensive ramparts of various sizes and designs, erected by warlords and many of them little more than earthen mounds reinforced with whatever was handy, existed through much of China in the millennium before Christ.
Around 221 B.C., the first Qin emperor (Qin is pronounced chin--begetting China), having united the region's near- and far-flung provinces, embarked on uniting this series of walls into a single Great one.
The apparent intentions: To create a barrier against marauding northern tribes and, at the same time, formally define the border of this new united empire.
Over the centuries, this Great Wall was expanded, adjusted and improved. It also, for long stretches, dissolved. In time, it became at least in the mind's eye, and the artist's, primarily a structure of relatively uniform bricks and mortar and watchtowers--this Wall we credit to that Ming Dynasty.
That's the Great Wall of China most visitors see. With visible segments miles long, and its watchtowers, following high mountain ridgelines and etched against the sky, it is, indeed, a wonder to behold.
Exactly how much there is of it, and how much of it is wonderful, remains inexact. This isn't the Great Pyramid, whose exterior can be photographed in its entirety by any amateur with a disposable camera, or even Angkor Wat, which sprawls but can nonetheless be explored in a day.
How long is it? A basic question--and unanswerable.
China's tourist agency puts the length at 3,950 miles. No other source agrees with that number, and most disagree with each other. The Encyclopedia Britannica says it's 4,500 miles long; coalition partner Americana puts it at 1,500 miles.
"In the absence of surveys and reliable cartography," wrote Arthur Waldron in his scholarly yet readable "The Great Wall of China: From History to Myth" (Cambridge University Press, 1990), "it must be admitted that the figure cannot be known."
In the end, its actual length and the other unanswerables--how many people it took to build it, how much it cost, how many died building it, how many bricks were used, how much rice was consumed along the way--don't really matter.
It's there, whatever there is of it, and it's a piece of work.
Over three days, with a driver and guide, we checked out three viewpoints easily reached from Beijing. At each, we climbed the wall, touched it, posed with it and tried to imagine the unseen.
Badaling was at once the most and least satisfying of the three.
Most dignitaries are brought to Badaling, and no wonder: Perhaps an hour's drive from the center of Beijing, it is the most convenient, most easily patrolled and makes the best Christmas cards. It looks terrific--especially on our day, when a freak early-November snowstorm (earliest in 13 years, we were told) left it trimmed in white.
It was here that Richard Nixon, the president responsible for the breakthrough in Sino-U.S. relations after decades of distrust, famously declared in 1972:
"This is a great wall."
Or, depending on the source: "That's a great, great wall." Or "It sure is a great wall." Or "This is the Great Wall." Or "This is truly a great wall." Or "Why, it sure is a great wall!"
All of which make Nixon-bashers giggle--but what he actually said, and what has been largely lost to history, was this, taken from a recent CNN transcript of his speech:
"This is a great wall, and it had to be built by a great people. It is certainly a symbol of what China in the past has been and what China in the future can become."
Here, too, Chairman Mao climbed the wall and declared the act to be required of all would-be heroes.
Heroism aside, Badaling was restored in 1957 in an early attempt by the Chinese government to give tourists what they expected to see, then virtually rebuilt with new materials in 1982. So it's the Epcot version of the Great Wall, complete with a nearby fancy hotel and plenty of shops aggressively hawking all manner of souvenirs. And yet, with its expansive views of the Wall riding the mountain crests, this experience shouldn't be dismissed as shameless pandering.
Plus, if you scan the horizon beyond the newer construction, you can see the imperfect real wall, the watchtowers crumbling . . .
So it is at Simatai.
To climb the wall at Simatai--even with a boost part of the way from a cable car--is to climb back centuries.
Here, the Great Wall looks its age (which, here, is probably about 400 years). The sides are ragged, uneven. Weeds and grasses fight for a grip of whatever soil collects between bricks and atop the watchtowers. Some paving stones are loose, and that--plus a sometimes-severe slope--makes walking a challenge.
One more watchtower, you promise your ankles. Just one more. And there is another watchtower ahead, another vantage point, one more promise of a vista you may never see again, and you're drawn on . . .
Always, too, there is the reality that you're up there, in mountains, and a misstep or a stretch for just the right photograph could hurtle you down into the dust of workers long dead.
Ghostly. That's the sensation. The crowds are off in other places bargaining prices on "Great Wall" refrigerator magnets, and all that's here are a very few hardy souls along this near-ruin that goes on and on, and the mountains, and the wind.
There will be no restoration here. What fixing-up has been done is imperceptible.
"We've restored five sections around Beijing as open for the tourists," said Goa. "They're safe, and with beautiful scenery for tourists.
"We kept this as it is, as a cultural relic."
And there is the Great Wall at Mutianyu.
Bill Clinton came here when he was president, and Tony Blair from the U.K.
"Personally," said Goa, "I think Mutianyu has the most beautiful scenery around here." Here the mountains are high, the valleys deep. In fall, the trees are the most beautiful.
There has been restoration, but unlike at Badaling, here the old original bricks were re-used, making this a new-old stretch of the Wall.
On this day, the mountains, and the Wall that hugs the ridge like a great dragon, are partially enveloped in a low-hanging cloud that wraps the peaks and leaves stretches of Wall in flowing cotton.
It is gorgeous.
"I should have brought my camera," said Goa, a serious photographer who has been here hundreds of times and has never seen it like this.
We are not so alone here as we were at Simatai. We share the Wall and the mountain with dozens of schoolchildren who delight in saying "Hello" and delight even more when their hello is returned.
One boy, perhaps 11 or 12 and a little on the heavy side, boldly comes right up to us.
"Welcome," he says, very carefully, as if he has been rehearsing this sentence for months, "to Beijing!"
"Thank you, very much" is our reply--and that generates a big, satisfied grin, his English having gotten an English reply.
A wonderful moment in this special place.
What remains of the Great Wall isn't all like this. Fragments of the Qin wall exist, all of them remote and some barely discernible from the land they rest on. Today's Great Wall of China is not, contrary to the maps, one contiguous Wall across the continent.
"When we walk the whole distance of the Wall," said Goa, who at 26 has walked much if it, "in the center you can only see the wall made of earth." In other areas, the defensive line isn't a wall at all.
"One day," he said, telling of another tour he led, "most of the climb for that day was by the river, and everybody complained, `Why have we lost the Wall? We came to China to walk the Wall, and we can't see any Wall?'"
The Wall, he had to explain, was the river.
"They built the Wall mainly for military defense, and the river was there," he said. "The river was the Wall. We didn't need to build another one.
"Of course, when our forefathers built the Great Wall, they didn't take tourism into account."
Today's China does. Government attempts to limit hikers' access to some stretches of the Great Wall, a concession to preservationists, conflict with the need to care for and feed visitors (by one estimate, 10 million annually) and to distribute a growing tourist crush over a wider expanse to ease crowding, especially at Badaling.
It will be years, if ever, before everyone agrees on the proper balance. Meanwhile, new sections of Wall continue to be unearthed--including a 50-mile stretch in northwestern China in 2002.
Still more Great Wall of China.
More Wonder for everybody . . .
E-mail Alan Solomon:firstname.lastname@example.org
This story contains corrected material, published Sept. 26, 2004.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times