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A personal Independence Day: July 4th at the Great Wall of China

How this famous historical site helped determine the future for one young visitor

By Emily Mark

In June 2014 I travelled to China as part of a study program to learn the language and culture of one of the richest and most ancient cultures in the world. We were housed in dormitories on the campus of Tianjin University in the city of Tianjin. The campus was lovely with lush lawns, winding streams, wooden bridges and terraces; but the surrounding city, heavily industrialized, was not so picturesque.

A portion of the ancient Grand Canal, which runs 1115 miles (1794 km) through China, flows through Tianjin. Begun during the Spring and Autumn Period of China's history in the 6th century BCE, and greatly expanded under the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE), I had expected to find the canal a prominent feature of the city, clearly marked for its historical importance. However it is very easy to miss because the city is so heavily developed around the area of the Hai River, which the canal flows into. Still, there were many sights to see and explore in the city and outskirts, as well as in nearby Beijing, a much prettier city which has profited handsomely from tourism.

Despite its urban development, China is a magical country of early morning mists and brilliant, slow-burning sunsets and every casual stroll through Tianjin seemed an adventure to me. The high point of the entire trip, though, was visiting the famous Great Wall on July 4th. A visit to this vast serpentine structure, stretching across the ancient northern border of China, and centuries into the past, is a profound experience. While my family and friends were celebrating Independence Day back in the United States, I was exploring my personal independence in China, visiting a site I'd always dreamed of seeing.

We got up at 7:00 am that morning to take the three-hour bus ride from town to the Tianjin section of the Great Wall. The bus wound through the city and then out onto open roads where the driver would swerve into the other lane to avoid cars parked on the roadside or people walking in the road with cattle. The sharp, Chinese horns sounded almost constantly as I gazed out the window at the open fields and forests slipping by with the miles. When we arrived, I walked slowly through the beautiful gate and into the gardens which were cultivated under Mao Tse-Tung. There are exhibits which feature Mao's poems; several framed pieces of calligraphy, large etchings of Chinese characters which I gazed at in awe, wondering if I would ever be fluent enough in the language to be able to decipher them. We toured the maze the army used to use to train in and it reminded me of days on my high school track, training for races. I couldn't imagine training for a war; training for the hope of gallant honour in battle which would as likely lead to one's death.

On arrival, I climbed the "easier" path to the wall while the others in the group decided to take the steep and more difficult one. To describe my path as `easy' is not really accurate, however, as the steps are steep and uneven at parts and you have to be careful of your footing. Once we reached the top and I stood on the Great Wall itself, the feeling was indescribable. Even if one knows nothing of Chinese history, one has heard of the Great Wall and seen pictures of it. To me, growing up with parents who both know world history and discussed it frequently, the Great Wall symbolized the ancient past and was synonymous with the word ‘history’. As though in a dream, I gazed around at the lush green landscape, the wall steadily unwinding itself out before me, and I seemed to fall backwards into the past.

China was a country in turmoil between the years 481-221 BCE. It is a time known as The Warring States Period, when the different regions of China fought for control of the country, following the collapse of the Zhou Dynasty. One state emerged victorious from this struggle: the state of Qin which is pronounced ’chin' and gives China its name. The general who led Qin to victory was Prince Ying Zheng who took the name `Qin Shi Huangti' (First Emperor) after subduing the other states. Shi Huangti was not a benevolent ruler and the Chinese historian Sima Qian, as well as all who followed him, paint a picture of a paranoid and ruthless tyrant who burned books and executed scholars.

He began construction of the Great Wall as a means of consolidating his empire. The seven warring states each had walls around them, which Shi Huangti destroyed after he took power. As a sign that all of China was now one, the emperor decreed a great wall would be built along the northern border to defend against the mounted warriors of the nomadic Xiongnu of Mongolia; there would be no more walls marking boundaries between states in China. This wall ran along a line further to the north than the present one. The wall was constructed by unwilling conscripts and convicts who were sent north under guard from all over China for the purpose. It was not regarded by the Chinese people under the Qin Dynasty as a symbol of national pride or unity but as a place where people were sent to labour for the emperor until they died. The present wall whose image is so well known, is not Shi Huangti's wall from c. 221 BCE. There is actually very little of the original wall left today.

When the Qin Dynasty fell in 206 BCE, the country split into the civil war known as the Chou-Han Contention, fought between the generals Xiang-Yu of Chou and Liu-Bang of Han, the two leaders who had emerged as the most powerful of those who had helped topple the Qin Dynasty. When Liu-Bang defeated Xiang-Yu in 202 BCE he became the First Emperor of the Han Dynasty and continued construction of the wall as a means of defense. He was also the first emperor to use the wall as a means of regulating trade along the Silk Routes (better known as the Silk Road) from Europe to China.

The following dynasties all made their own contributions and repairs to the wall until the Ming Dynasty (1368-1664) initiated a massive building project to protect the country from invading nomads from Mongolia, the very same incentive which had played a part in Shi Huangti's original vision. It may be this similarity of purpose that gave rise to the belief that the present wall dates from the Qin Dynasty. The wall built by the Ming Dynasty features over 25,000 massive watchtowers which range in height from 16-26 feet (5-8 meters), 20 feet across the bottom (6 meters) and 16 feet across the top (5 meters). This structure is the wall that has become world famous, and the one on which I stood.

To be precise, I should say it is largely the one on which I stood, since over thirty percent of the Ming Dynasty wall has been lost due to erosion, the passage of time, and human impact. The Ming Dynasty was replaced by the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) who annexed the regions beyond the wall into China, rendering the wall obsolete. No further work was commissioned for the wall and no effort went into its upkeep. It fell into disrepair until the rise of the Republic of China in 1911/1912 when it was found useful in controlling immigration and emigration.

There were efforts over the years to maintain the structure but no concerted effort until as recently as 1980 when the wall was made a priority of the Chinese government as a tourist attraction and source of revenue. It was not designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site until 1987 but even with that designation the wall is still slowly crumbling. The Great Wall stretches through 11 provinces, running either 5,500 miles (8851 KM) or 13,171 miles (21,196 km) depending on which definition and measurement one accepts.

On the day I visited I was told that there are only about 600 miles (372 km) of the wall left in stable condition. Tourism has played a large part in damage to the wall. It is estimated that over 10 million people visit the site every year and many of these people feel the need to leave a record of their visit carved into the stones of the wall or, in some cases, taking bricks as souvenirs. Many others bring picnic lunches to the wall and leave behind their rubbish. I find it incredible that people could do this, considering the history and grandeur of the Great Wall.

Even if you don't know the history of the wall when you visit, you cannot help being affected by the sheer size and length of this enormous fortification built so long ago. The history of the wall announces itself with almost every footfall and everywhere you look you imagine the thousands upon thousands of people who worked to create the structure you are walking on, and the many who have visited since it was first built so long ago. Presidents and Princes and all manner of celebrities aside, the number of people who have visited this site over the centuries is endless. Everywhere you walk, every stone you touch, is alive with the spirit of the past.

The watchtowers are especially interesting to explore. The steps are incredibly narrow and ascend almost two stories high. Walking up the stairs of the one I entered, I could not help but think of all the others whose feet had been where mine were now. Thinking along these lines, I found myself remembering all the other ancient stairs I'd climbed in castles and fortresses and ruins with my parents on our travels. I had visited many different places so far in my life but never alone and this chance to experience the world by myself, without interpreters of what I was seeing, was exhilirating beyond words. Neither of my parents, for all their travels and their time spent living in other countries, had been to China. I was the first person in my family seeing these sights, touching the cold stone walls of the tower as I moved up the stairs, standing at the top and looking out the small window across the landscape of forests to the far away mountains.

After some time lost in thought gazing out the window, I went back down the stairs and walked along the wide expanse of the wall, feeling the heat of the day lightly along my arms. The breeze was warm and carried sweet scents from the forests. I was thinking of the past, my own and the walls, and thinking of the many who had come to this place who were now gone. Someday I would also be gone, I thought, and I needed to make decisions now about how I wanted to live my life and what I wanted it to mean. No matter how comfortable or respectable a life may be, how can it be meaningful if it is not a life you choose for yourself? I understood I could continue living according to other people's expectations or I could begin trying to live up to my own.

Thinking these thoughts, I met up with Taylor and my other friend and we walked on together. I left behind my ’meaning of life' reflections and enjoyed their company, the day, and the feeling of the solid stone of the wall beneath my feet. Chinese locals periodically would stop us and ask for a picture; a picture with a westerner is a prized possession in China. Some Chinese would ask us questions to practice their English and one father forced his obviously embarrassed teenaged son toward us for this very purpose.

Far ahead of us there were colorful umbrellas and awnings over one of the little stands selling souvenirs of small Buddha figurines and other trinkets. A group of tourists milled around beneath the umbrellas as we approached but I didn't stop to look at any of the trinkets with them. Time was short and I wanted to see as much of the wall as I could. My memory of the day was the only souvenir I was interested in taking home with me. I slipped on something under my sneaker just then and almost fell. Looking down, I saw it was a small pebble and picked it up. It was no larger than the nail of my pinkie finger and I put it in my pocket without thinking. I walked on with my two friends through the bright sunshine, looking out at the mountains in the distance which seemed to float as in a dream across the tops of the trees. It seemed to me we had only just arrived at the site when I checked my phone and saw it was time to leave.

As I sat on the bus traveling back to Tianjin, I thought about the wall and its past, where it had been, what it had seen, and what its future might be. I remembered the pebble in my pocket and how I'd taken it without thought, just like how villagers over the years have taken bricks and stones from the wall to sell at a hefty price to tourists or how tourists themselves would pocket those bricks and stones. I had just wanted the tiny pebble for myself as a reminder of the sense of enduring freedom a hike on the great wall had given me and the moment I'd almost slipped but now thought how, if everyone who went there took a small pebble, there could one day be no wall left standing at all. I felt guilty for taking the small stone, especially when I thought of how much the wall had given me in the short time I'd been there.

I found it funny how I felt more free than I ever had in my lifetime standing at the top of an ancient wall in a communist country than I had in the past standing beneath the sparkle of red white and blue fireworks back home on Independence Day. My trip to China was the first international journey I had taken without my parents, the first time I'd had to navigate the streets of a foreign city by myself and deal with foreign currency and a foreign language. It seemed so fitting I had visited the wall on the Fourth of July.

Reflecting on the past and future of the Great Wall and all the people who had walked where I'd walked, I thought of my own past and my own plans for the future. I came to conclusions about where I'd been and changed directions regarding where I wanted to go. The life I am now living, as a veterinary technician and traveling with my rescue dog Hazel Moon, is a life I am grateful for daily; and it all began at the Great Wall of China.


Did You Know?

There are many modern misconceptions concerning the Great Wall of China. The one most often repeated is that it is the only man-made structure on earth which can be seen from space. The claim that the Great Wall can be seen from the moon was made by a man who had never been to the moon at a time when space travel was inconceivable. The English essayist Sir Henry Norman wrote, in 1895, that the wall was "the only work of human hands on the globe visible from the moon." His observation was based on the fact that people on earth could see craters and canals on the moon and so someone on the moon would be able to see something as long and massive as the Great Wall on earth. No modern scholars or scientists support the claim and no one who has been to space has reported seeing the wall.


About the Author

Emily Mark is a vet tech who lives with her rescue-dog Hazel Moon and boyfriend Drew in Upstate New York. Her lifelong passion for travel has brought her across the United States, through Europe, and to China, but she has even grander plans for future trips, including a long stay in Thailand to commune with elephants.  


China is featured in a number of issues of Timeless Travels magazine.

In the Autumn 2015 issue, there is a feature on Dunhaung and the hidden secrets of the Silk Road. Find out more about the content of the Autumn 2015 issue or purchase a digital copy of the issue for just £3.95.

In the Summer 2017 issue, there is a feature on Ancient China. Find out more about the content of the Summer 2017 issue or purchase a digital copy of the issue for just £3.95.

In the Autumn 2018 issue, there is a feature on the top sites to discover in the ancient Ming city of Pingyao - where it really does feel as though you've stepped back in time as you walk the streets there. Find out more about the content of the Autumn 2018 issue or purchase a digital copy of the issue for just £3.95.

Don't forget the whole Timeless Travels Collection (24 magazines) is available for just £49.99 - that's just £2.08 each!


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