William Lindesay has lived in China for 14 years during which he has spent “more than 800 days on the Great Wall.” In 1987, he made what China’s Xinhua News Agency described as “the most successful foreign exploration of the Great Wall”, and he recounted his 2,470 km solo adventure in “Alone on the Great Wall” published in the UK, USA and Germany. In 2005, “Walking on the Wall with William Lindesay” was listed as one of the 50 travel experiences of a lifetime by the UK edition of Conde Nast Traveller. As one of the world’s foremost experts on the Great Wall, and a phenomenal Wall guide, WildChina is honored to be able to share William’s insights on one of the world’s wonders.
William Lindesay (WL): I guess it was about 10 years ago now. Actually, [we’re talking on] Dec 4th, and 21 years ago on this day I reached Shanhaiguan at the end of my journey along the wall on foot. Obviously, I had a story to tell, so I published my first book. China was not the flavor of the moment like it is now, so it was not perceived as exciting for travelers to come here. Towards the end of the ’90s I began spending a lot of time biking near the Wall, and taking lots of photos. My wife was becoming not a golf widow, but a Wall widow, so I wanted to include her in my passion. We bought a little farmhouse near the wall, and one of my friends suggested that we invite guests to stay with us, so we did that. I found that our first visitors welcomed not just the Great Wall story, but my story – the story of conservation, why I liked the Wall, and how I first discovered it.
WC: What’s your favorite spot on the Wall?
WL: As I like to say, the Wall is not a place – it’s a subcontinent. It’s thousands of different places. To be honest, my favorite place is where there are no other people, but no matter where you go, the Wall never disappoints. At the end of the day on the drive back to Beijing, I feel that the people who’ve seen the Wall and heard my story will remember it for the rest of their lives.
As for specific spots, the Jinshanling to Simatai walk is great. Going to Mutianyu in the autumn is beautiful. Even Badaling has its moments – I’ve taken people there early in the morning or late in the evening when the mobs have gone, and it really is very picturesque.
If you pressed me for one place I love to go to, there’s a part of the Han wall that’s about 2,100 years old, near Dunhuang in the middle of Gobi Desert, about 1,800 km (~1,100 miles) west of Beijing It’s amazing to see that Wall – there are a few short sections that are 4 or 5 meters (13-16 feet) in height even after a few millenniums of weathering.
I always tell people on my trips that we’ve had a great day, but you can only go home and tell people that you’ve seen a tiny bit of the Wall – even in a different season and different weather, it looks and feels completely different, and that’s part of what I think makes it so amazing.
WC: What are some of the conservation issues surrounding the Great Wall?
WL: The problem with the Great Wall is that it’s massive. When it was operated, it consumed a huge number of personnel. To protect it today would take a similarly huge number. You see, what makes it different is that it’s not a palace or temple that’s curated, with a ticket to enter, and guards and staff to clean it at the end of the day. It’s an open air museum crossing huge swaths of China. The wilderness wall crosses the mountains, grasslands and deserts, and is at prey to all kinds of threats; both natural and manmade.
Close to Beijing, with such a huge population that’s fairly wealthy, has a lot of leisure time, high car ownership and good roads, the Wall within 3-4 hours is under threat by a surge in interest in outdoor life. Locals who live near the Wall might build a restaurant near it, or open the area to tourism because they want to capitalize on tourist interest there. This results in some pretty poorly managed tourism sites, and they’re all thinking, “How can we differentiate?” There’s a tendency to add inappropriate sideshows, like the mountain toboggan ride at Mutianyu. So there’s this competition between sites for visitors.
Further away from Beijing, in the interior of China such as Shaanxi and Ningxia provinces, a lot of the Wall has been damaged by neglect or disregard from the local people. Locals don’t call it the Great Wall, but just call the structure a border defense. Because it’s not the magnificent, high, famous Wall you see in pictures, they don’t think it’s worth protecting. A lot of farmers herd goats near the Wall, and they want shortcut back to village so they’ll just bang a hole through the Wall. They’ll build dirt roads through the Wall when they find mineral resources there, which is really a shame.
There are also natural forces that damage the Wall, like torrential summer rains. The towers fill up ankle deep in water in 5 or 10 minutes, and this saturation and drying over centuries has caused the bricks to lose their load bearing capacity – they crack. Earth tremors also damage the Wall, even ones we don’t feel, so the Wall bears the brunt of this kind of event.
We can’t say that the Great Wall suffers from just one problem. If you look in a hospital waiting room, the people have all sorts of problems, and this is similar to the range of problems the Great Wall has. Some are cosmetic, like acne – this is the garbage and graffiti we see on the Wall. Some of the Wall’s problems are like cancer, they’re degenerative diseases, and these are the influences of nature and systematic disregard for parts of the wilderness Wall.
However, everyone can follow these two simple guidelines. 1) Don’t throw garbage off the Wall. 2) Don’t write your name on the wall. Everyone can avoid those, and then they’ve done something positive for the Wall
WC: Do you have one particular story or anecdote that you always tell?
WL: When I’m presenting the Great Wall, people want to know why William from Britain is introducing the Wall when there are 1.3 billion people in China who could do it. When I was 11, my headmaster in Britain used to say that you should keep three books next to your bed: the Bible, a prayer book, and an atlas. I used to look at the maps at night, and that was my first encounter with the Great Wall, right there on a map. I thought it would be a great journey and a great adventure in mysterious China –I thought, “that’s for me”
Luckily in the ’80s when China’s open door policy began to start I had the chance to come over and have the adventure of a lifetime
Another thing people always ask me is “Can you see the Great Wall from the moon?” My short answer is, “I don’t know, I’ve never been there.”
The real answer is that it seems as though it can be seen from the edge of space, from about 212 km (~130 miles) above sea level, but probably not from the moon. Really, I don’t think one needs to go that far to appreciate the wonder of the Wall. The Great Wall from the Ming dynasty is the only building on world maps. It first attracted the attention of cartographers in 1590, and has appeared on world maps ever since. The pyramids are 4,500 years old – they have astronomical significance and they’re still not fully understood. The Taj Mahal is the most beautiful building in the world. But the Ming Great Wall has no comparison. It’s just so massive. This Wall was so long, East to West, that guards on the eastern end would witness sunrise 1 hour and 20 minutes before guards stationed in the west.
WC: What are your Great Wall plans for the future?
WL: Well, about 7 years ago I started a small NGO called International Friends of the Great Wall. At the moment, we have two areas where we employ farmers as rangers on the Wall, and it’s really considered a model project in China. My big project is a book called The Great Wall Revisited, which is a documentation to evidence how the Wall has changed. I use old photographs as a baseline, and put old and new photos together to let people see how it’s changed over time. This is an ongoing project, and I’m currently on the second edition of book. We’re also working on an exhibition of these photos that will probably go overseas, which is moving a bit away from the Wall itself, but I think it’s really important. One way to understand China is to understand its history, and I think it’s important to share the history of the Wall with the world.
As for the future, we’re currently collecting stories and legends from those that live close to the Wall. Often in villages alongside the wall there are relatives and descendants of Wall builders. I think this is precious knowledge. People think the Wall is just bricks and stones, but it has a history that is still alive. It was built 20-23 centuries ago, but people still have these oral histories. One of the farmers we work with in Shanhaiguan has wonderful stories, and so we’re doing a limited edition of his family history
In the’ 50s, ’60s, and ’70s lots of the Wall was damaged during the Great Leap Forward. Some of the Wall’s most important components were taken from it at that time, which are engraved tablets laid in the Wall to record events; the completion of a particular section of the Wall, or the visit of military officials. I’ve seen these stones functioning as doorsteps, as slabs for doing washing, in the walls of pigstys or sheds. Some kind of program to compensate these farmers for their precious relics would be a great project, and I’m currently thinking about how to do that.
Yet I think that’s the wonder of China – there’s so much history just around the corner when you weren’t expecting it. That’s what’s been so wonderful about researching and recording the Wall for 21 years.
Photo credit: NatGeo TV
Thanks for sharing your time and knowledge with us William.
You can find William Lindesay’s fascinating books on the Great Wall here.