A dif­fer­ent kind of GreatWall

China Daily (USA) - - LIFE - By RAYMONDZHOU and ZHANG YU in Zhangji­akou

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

ZHANG GUOQUAN / FOR CHINA DAILY

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