I made my visit to the wall at an entry point adjacent to the outpost of Badaling. It runs through this area on a mountain ridge seventy-five kilometers north-west of China's capital, Beijing and it stands today as it was restored by the thirteen Ming emperors who ruled China from 1368 to 1644. That Dynasty restored the wall, but its construction was begun in the seventh century B.C.
After Qin Shi Huang, first emperor of the Qin (Ch'in) Dynasty brought about the unification of China in 221 B.C., he linked up the existing fortifications of the Qin, Zhao and Yan kingdoms, thus forming a continuous wall. It now starts from the Shanai Pass in the east and ends in the west at a pass called Jiayu. On the way it crosses many mountains and valleys in five of China's northern provinces and two autonomous regions to cover a distance of six thousand kilometers.
These historical facts were ambling through my mind like a mobile, horse-drawn library; but as I walked towards the wall I was jolted back into the twentieth century by the sight and sounds of hordes of people selling memorabilia and a park-like enclosure containing a shop called "The Great Wall Souvenir Store". However, I was soon on top of the wall with other excited tourists, admiring the breath-taking views of the surrounding countryside.
Coming from a country such as Australia (we recently celebrated two hundred years of European settlement) it was an awesome experience to stand and slowly walk along its lofty paths and to meditate on the three thousand years of history embedded there. The meditation was made more magnificent by the vision of the wall streaking off into the distance through a truly beautiful green panorama only now emerging from a mixture of mist and sunbeams.
As I walked and climbed, I gave a thought to the hundreds of human beings who had died here so that succeeding generations of people from all over the world might walk on this Great Wall of history. I felt overpowered by the sheer weight of that history and the train of moving and tragic events that went into its gradual creation; and it struck me that the China of today is a very different country: a nation of unpredictable dynamics; a testing ground of open policies and emerging political tensions; of open windows and free economic zones and attempts to stem corruption; of student and civic demonstrations in the pursuit of greater freedoms and "more democracy"...whatever that may mean!
As these thoughts circulated in my mind I had a vision of the Great Wall nodding its head knowingly as it watched China marching towards its destiny in the twenty-first century.
After I descended and walked towards the bus which would take me back to Beijing I turned and took one last look at the ancient icon I had just traversed. As I mounted the steps into the bus I wondered what epic tales it could hand down if it could talk to us about the great sweep of human history in which it has played such a crucial role.