A different kind of GreatWall
When you visit Zhangjiakou, you’ve got to take a photo in front of the Big Mirror Gate. It’s the landmark of the city. Also, who can resist a chance to scale the Great Wall in less than a minute and boast about itwhenother sections of the wall are so forbidding?
Built in 1644 in theMing Dynasty (1368-1644), this is the only place along the wall where a crossing is not called a pass, but a gate. Inside the gate is a street flanked with shops, where merchants from various ethnicities conducted business.
Obviously there were also times of tension and military conflict. Not far from this gate is the LittleMirror Gate, which is so small no horse rider could gallop through. You can easily figure out the occasions for war and peace. This section of the wall was constructed in the Ming Dynasty and stretched 450 kilometers. When the subsequent Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) came around, the border was pushed further north, so the wall lost its use for defense.
For much of history, Zhangjiakou was the ultimate frontier town. It’s the transitional area between the Mongolian Plateau and the North China Plains. To defend against the nomadic tribes up north, the Han started erecting barriers from 300 BC onwards. Even when some of the tribes vanquished areas south of the wall, they kept on building more. The sight of a cavalier charging down the mountains would strike fear into anyone.
Zhangjiakou has a total of 1,804 kmof the GreatWall, or rather great walls, out of which 1,303 are still discernible. They date back to eight different dynasties and were built with mud, bricks, stones, slabs or various mixes. Half of what remains is from theMingDynasty, the latest of those represented here, but there are records of Tang Dynasty (AD 618907) constructions, which exist nowhere else in China.
Sections of the walls run parallel to each other and others form a special grid. Many are not easily detectable unless you climb to a nearby vantage point. If your impression of the wall is the touristy Badaling section in Beijing, you’ll be amazed at the variety of forms that exist in this city, which locals proudly call “the GreatWall museum down the corridor of history”.
Other than the walls, there were also military towns that grew out of barracks and, when peace came, turned into boomtowns for business. Xuanhua, controlled by Khitans, Jurchens and Han in succession, is such a place. It was one of the nine key military outposts outside the capital city of Beijing during the Ming Dynasty, when the city evolved into its current configuration.
Nowadays you can ramble from the Bell Tower to the Drum Tower and get a feeling of a smaller Beijing. The 12-km city wall, under repair, encloses 9.7 square kilometers of bustling businesses, fertile vineyards and several structures from the early dynasties. Faiths of various denominations and people of as many as 20 ethnicities have found a home here.
Outside the wall in the Xuanhua suburb are more ancient traces of humancivilization, including tombs from the Liao Dynasty (916-1125) and relics from 6,000 years ago.
Before a military messenger from Beijing could travel the 170-km distance to reach Xuanhua, his horse would get exhausted and need a respite or he simply needed to change horses. The Rooster Crowing Postal Stop, which is 30 km closer to Beijing, looks like a smaller Xuanhua. The square-shaped town has a 300meter wall on each side, fully repaired and ready for tourists.
The 500-year-old town (also called a village) has played host to one royal guest, the Empress Dowager, who, in 1900, on her route to flee the foreign invasion of Beijing, spent a night here. (She also stopped over in Xuanhua and savored the local grapes. Which tickled my mind: Was that running for her life or was that a summer getaway?)
Nowadays you can rent a room from a local resident and enjoy a meal of freshly harvested local food. Afterward you can take a walk on the wall and gaze out into the mountains. You have to resort to a hyperactive imagination if you want to conjure up the battle scenes that took place centuries ago on this land.
Great Wall. is a landmark of the downtown Zhangjiakou section of the