Mutiny at Mutianyu: The Great Wall of China

I don’t know why, but for some reason I have had a longstanding desire to visit the Great Wall of China, to stand upon this engineering marvel, and allow its presence to carry me back many centuries to a long bygone era. Does this place contain such magical properties that it could transport me back in history, back to the times when the wall was being built, so I could see and live the experience of the conscripted workers? Perhaps not, but my excitement mounts as we approach the Great Wall on this, our final day in China.

A segment of the Great Wall known as Mutianyu is where we are headed to this morning. It is about a 1.5 hour drive from our hotel near the Beijing airport. Charles has chosen this section over Badaling because it has less tourist groups, and is surrounded by beautiful natural landscape. As we approach Matianyu we notice that indeed the landscape is becoming quite lush and forested, almost jungle-like in nature.

During the drive we are taking turns asking a few questions. Andrea, forever fearful of nature’s predator animals, asks Charles what types of animals are in these hills. Now, I do have to say that I am telling this story at the expense of Charles, and I beg his pardon should he be embarrassed by it. I have to tell it, though, because it is so funny — and cute at the same time. Charles sounds surprised by this question, the suggestion that there might be any animals in this area. He states in no uncertain terms that there are no animals in the woods here, since there are so many people that live in China.

Now, we were not all entirely convinced that there are no animals in these hills. We start listing potential forest inhabitants. Maybe there are panda bears? Nah, that doesn’t seem right. How about monkeys? I dunno. They get snow here in the winter and it gets really cold. Deer? There’s deer everywhere, so there must be some here! Snakes? Gotta be! Tigers? Yeah!!! There must be tigers!!! That sounds right! Well, whatever the case may be, the animals can’t freely move from one side of the Great Wall to the other unless they can figure out a way to climb over it. We never were able to figure out what kind of animals live in this region of China.

We have no more time to worry about animals. It’s time to get up on the wall. The Great Wall here at Mutianyu has 23 watchtowers, and we are all taking a cable car up to Tower 14. Some of our group will need to take the cable car back down from this location, because of mobility issues. Some of us are going to hike over to Tower 6 from Tower 14. There is a toboggan ride you can take down, and that’s what Charles, Tara and I plan to do. Yes, the newlyweds are our tour guides on the day after the wedding. No honeymooning yet!

I learn that the Mutianyu segment of the Great Wall was built initially by the Northern Qi Dynasty in the years 550-577, over 1400 years ago. It was fortified during the Ming Dynasty about 700 years ago, and fully restored in 1986. The initial construction was completed primarily by conscripted workers and soldiers.

Here is our whole group ready to experience something incredible.

We ascend the final flight of stairs that officially puts us on the Great Wall of China! I can’t really describe how I feel at this moment. My heart skips a beat, and I hear some words escape my lips. “Wow! This is incredible!”

After taking the first few photos, I look to the left, up towards Tower 23. The wall rises precariously up a ridge on the mountain, designed purposely to take advantage of the steep terrain to prevent attackers from being able to approach the Great Wall.

Our hiking plan does not include this section of the wall, but as my eye scans up the long steep hill I find myself longing for a chance to hike there. I imagine my husband, how if he were with me now he would not hesitate to make a run up there. If for no other reason than just for his sake, I begin asking some of our other group members if anyone wants to come with me to Tower 23. Just when it seems hopeless that I will find a hiking partner, Reija suggests that she can join me. Her husband declines the invitation to come along. Reija is just as eager as I am, so we excitedly embark on our adventure, each secretly delighted in our hearts to have found a kindred spirit willing to take on the challenge.

We hike up towards Tower 23, which is towards a place called Jiankou. Apparently you can do a five hour hike from Jiankou to Mutianyu along the Great Wall, which sounds really cool! Next time? Gosh…..why does a person have to work for a living? Honestly, I doubt that I will ever be back here again so I need to take everything out of this moment while I can.

I have heard that many workers died during the building of the 13000 mile long Great Wall of China. Their remains are supposed to have been put into or under the wall in various places. Apparently hundreds of thousands of villagers were called upon to work on the wall. The villagers who were conscripted to work on the wall were not given a proper burial if they died while working. Rather their remains were believed to have been ground in with the mortar that holds the bricks together, or buried in pits under the wall. Not having been buried in the village of their ancestors was considered a great sacrilege, which was believed to result in the person’s soul being an eternally lost and wandering ghost here at the Great Wall. This thought weighs heavily on my mind, and I step gingerly on the brick pathway, as though not to disturb the sleeping dead who lie herein.

In my mind’s eye I can see him now, a young man of perhaps 23 years, stooped low and weather worn from years of hard labor. He had been conscripted to work on the wall construction 5 years ago already, and it’s back breaking labor. Mind not just the back breaking nature of the work, but how it breaks one’s spirit. 

From early morning hours to late evening he labored, the threat of beatings hanging over him each time he slowed his step. As a conscripted worker he worked alongside soldiers who also had been assigned to this drudgery. His stomach growled mercilessly as he reached for one more stone to add to the section of wall he was working on. There was never enough food, often just a bowl of white rice after a long day of hard labor. As he worked his thoughts returned to his home, his mother working her fingers raw in the fields and coming home to tend to the family. She never tired. She would hum a song as she worked. He began to hum a familiar song too, seeking solace from the memory of his patient mother. But he could not hum for long, for his throat was parched and shriveled. He thought of his new wife, so beautiful. He had to leave her just two days after the wedding. The scent of her hair still lingered in his consciousness, and when he remembered it a smile lighted upon his lips momentarily. 

The young man begins to wonder why he is here, placing one stone after another onto this wall that seems to have no end. He longs to be home with his wife, to catch the scent of her hair once again. His knuckles are raw and bleeding. His shoes have long since worn through, and his calloused feet no longer feel pain. There are whispers of mutiny about him, of disobedience to the authority that forces them to work here. It makes sense to him, to join in the brewing mutiny, to rebel against the authorities, to refuse to obey orders. The soldiers he is working alongside have been threatening to fight back against their officers. The more he thinks about it, the more it makes sense. He approaches the leader of the rebels, only to find it is a trap. It is dark,  and he feels himself falling. There is a sickening thud when he hits the ground some 15 feet below. Some other workers are sent to drag him away to a place where his body joins several others who have met the same fate this day. There they lay, a tangle of arms and legs, eyes blankly staring upwards to the heavens, chests no longer rising and falling.

My heart skips a beat as I traverse up a steep row of steps. How is it that this story is forming in my mind? Could this be a true story? Did such a young man work here building this grand structure? Did the workers here indeed dream of mutiny and plan to rebel? Does his spirit still roam upon this wall upon which he labored? I am sure there are probably many similar stories but perhaps they were never recorded, having since become long forgotten tales of human anguish.

No sooner has this story formed in my mind than I discover the legend of Meng Jiangnu’s tears. According to this popular legend Meng’s newly wed husband had indeed been sent to work on the wall in the far north, and as she worried about the upcoming winter she had gone to bring him some warm clothes. When she arrived at the Great Wall she learned that her husband had died from hunger and overwork, and was buried in a pit under the wall. In this legend she becomes so inconsolable that she cries and pounds upon the wall bitterly until the Great Wall mysteriously opens up to reveal hundreds of dead laborers. She finds her husband’s bones and brings them back to their village for a proper burial. This story is eerily similar to the one that my mind has concocted as I walk along this incredible architectural marvel. I shiver slightly at this thought, despite the oppressive heat.

We press onward towards Tower 23 as beads of perspiration roll down my back. My calf muscles are burning with an unpleasant urgency. It’s as though my muscles want to declare a mutiny and rebel against me, like the worker in my vision who lost his life declaring mutinous thoughts. My legs virtually scream at me…..”No, I will not go on!” I am sure that is how it was for the worker with each brick he had to set.

Reija has a commanding lead on me. I stop for a minute, pretending to fix my shoelace, although really it is to calm my rapid heart beat and to catch my breath which has been increasingly becoming more labored. Somehow an inner strength prevails within me and I keep placing one foot in front of the other, slowly and methodically advancing my way up the steep incline, my feet making contact with perhaps the very stones that the young man in my vision set so long ago. There will be no mutiny today! I declare victory when I reach my goal,, and the views from Tower 23 are amazing!

When it’s time to turn back we realize that it’s one thing to climb up here, but it is notably quite another to come down. We plant each foot with great care as not to go tumbling down and meet a fate like perhaps many of the conscripted workers did. We are headed all the way back to Tower 6.

But as much as this massive structure stole human lives and dignity, it remains a remarkable display of ingenuity and perseverance….a determination of sorts that no longer seems to exist in our societies. Honestly, I am tired just thinking of lugging even one brick, spreading mortar on it, and placing it upon a structure. Can you imagine how wearisome it would have been day in and day out to piece together this 13,000 mile structure, one brick at a time?

For a second it appears as though Reija is going to fall off the wall into oblivion.

I think that this cannon is pointing towards Mongolia. Apparently parts of this wall were built to prevent Mongolian invaders from advancing into China. I don’t know that they have much to fear from the Mongolians today. I do have to say that I read this blog once about a couple who did a Mongolian road rally. It looked hilarious. They had to cross this vast dry desert-like landscape with an old Toyota, traversing rivers and driving down these ridiculous roads full of boulders and pot holes. Maybe someday David and I will do the Mongolian road rally, and we will get some friends to join us….

I think it is interesting to note that the brick walls here are angled steeply down, rather than parallel with the stairs. It seems to me that it might be a lot harder to build the wall this way.

I would say it is a jungle out there. I still don’t know what kinds of animals are in these lush forests, but my guess is that there are some big predator animals, too. I seem to sense a tiger crouching behind the bushes, it’s steely eyes fixed upon me as I stand on edge of the Great Wall. I am sure my mind is playing tricks on me, but I move away anyway, away from the open parapet and into the relative safety of the watch tower. The scenery is incredibly beautiful.

If I could reach the fruit I would pluck some to eat. Perhaps other tourists have already picked the ones that grow within reach.

Reija and I meet up with some of our group members at Tower 6. This is the location where you can take the cable car or toboggan down.

Reija and I are drenched from sweat, but we aren’t feeling too bad because we just drank some Gatorade we bought from a vendor. Before the Gatorade we were both feeling a little weak. When we arrive at Tower 6 we both look to the east towards Tower 3.

I look at Reija, Reija looks at me. I think she is thinking what I am thinking. Isn’t that what kindred spirits do? Do you want to go farther? Yes? Awesome! And so it is that we head on up the hill the other way, up towards Tower 3.

Exhilarated we are, and reluctant to leave. But we have a schedule to keep and everyone else is already down off the wall and waiting for us. Now Reija, as adventurous as she is and a fun travel companion willing to try new things, she is NOT interested in taking the toboggan down. She hops on the cable car, and I proceed down the mountain headlong in a crazy toboggan.

We meet up with the rest of our group at the prescribed location in the little tourist shops at the base of Mutianyu.

I am tempted to buy this T-shirt. The woman seems eager to sell it to me, but when I try to get a photo of it she becomes upset.

Baby Jules enjoys some ice cream…..mmmm….
We start driving back to Beijing, but make a mandatory stop at a fruit stand. There are tons of fruit trees and farms in this region. Hopefully they aren’t full of acid rain, because some of the fruit gets eaten in the car even before it is washed.

I get the front seat in the van  today. It’s nice to be able to see the road for a change. This is a pretty serious looking power pole.

And I love these traffic signs…..obviously the Chinese people have a bit of a sense of humor!

Once we are back in Beijing it is time to say goodbye to our driver. Despite the truck dodging while driving the wrong way on a one-way and all that, he has done a great job getting us safely to each destination. We collect a nice fat tip for him. He seems pleased! Adios amigo!

We then head out for our last restaurant dinner in China. Charles picks this restaurant which specializes in lamb. Apparently it’s just recently been opened. I never did find out if this was Charles’ first time eating here, or if he simply “yelped” restaurants close to the airport hotel in which we are housed. 

The grill is outside in front of the restaurant. 

Okay, I can tell you that I am not a huge fan of lamb, so I am a little skeptical. When the dinner arrives I reach for a piece of lamb very cautiously. I take just a small sliver. I am sure you have heard the term “death by chocolate”…..well, I just invented another phrase…..”death by lamb”… is so good that I could just about scream!

It’s so good you even have to eat the bone. Well, not quite, but lick it at least!
After our last supper,  final Chinese supper, we go back to the hotel. The planes fly so low overhead as we walk back to the hotel that we almost feel the need to duck.

We have some fruit left over from earlier today that we need to eat for dessert. We all gather in Charles and Tara’s room for an after dinner party, and for a final few moments that we spend together. Tomorrow we leave back to Finland.

As I reflect upon this day I have to say that, along with the wedding, this day at the Great Wall has certainly been the highlight of this trip to China. It’s as though my soul has been touched by the men who labored to construct this behemoth structure that snakes it’s way through this mountainous region, and the women who were left behind longing for the return of their loved ones. It’s as though, almost in an eerie way, I have communed with the very soul of the young man who lost his life when he listened to the voices crying for mutiny at Mutianyu, even though he is but a figment of my imagination.

One thing that is not a figment of my imagination, however, is the reality that I am exhausted. My calf muscles achingly bring back to life the events of this day. When my eyes seal closed this night, my mind wanders back to the beginning of this trip to China. You may recall when I first arrived I had wondered to myself why I was here in China thousands of miles away from my loved ones. Now I know that I am glad that I came, that I had the opportunity to experience this country with not one, but two private tour guides, and with great friends. That I have a new appreciation for this culture, and the intelligent and diligent and dutiful people herein. These strong people who work hard and expect much from their offspring, who seem to master all the things that they set out to do. Beautiful China, indeed as I am nodding off I am enormously pleased that I have this moment here…..and perhaps….perhaps I will be back soon….yes…..I will come back with my dear husband and my kiddos….they must come to sense the spirit of the man who cried for mutiny….