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UNLOCKING CHINA / COUNTDOWN TO THE BEIJING OLYMPICS

Delicate dragon

The Great Wall, an endangered wonder, was built to keep out Mongols. Now tourists are the invaders. But beyond the crowds, wild, winding stretches beckon.

August 03, 2008|Susan Spano | Times Staff Writer

BADALING, CHINA — At Badaling, the Great Wall rides the ridgelines like a dragon, its gray brick scales glinting and its crenelated spine writhing. Built at a strategic pass in the mountains north of Beijing, it crosses stout gates, plunges into narrow defiles, climbs back up to the heights and seems to go on forever.

Long after this month's Olympic Games end in Beijing, people will flock to Badaling, where seeing is believing in the Ten Thousand Li Long Wall of ancient annals and legend.

But contrary to the impression it makes at Badaling, the Great Wall may never have crossed China in one mighty, continuous span, nor is its length precisely known. (Some say it's 4,500 miles, others a mere 3,100.) Experts now think of it as a series of disjointed segments built at different times in the last two millenniums and scattered in a maze all over northern China.

William Lindesay, a preservationist who walked 1,500 miles of far-flung wall in 1987 -- from Jiayuguan in the desert of Gansu province to Shanhaiguan in eastern Hebei province, where the Great Wall meets the Yellow Sea -- called it a giant jigsaw puzzle.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, August 13, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Peacock throne: An Aug. 3 article about China in the Travel section referred to the seat of power in imperial China as the peacock throne. That was the traditional symbol for the monarchs of Iran, not China.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, August 17, 2008 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 3 Features Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Peacock throne: An Aug. 3 article about China incorrectly referred to the seat of power in imperial China as the peacock throne. That was the traditional symbol for the monarchs of Iran, not China.

"You have to imagine and believe," he told me last year in Beijing. "There is no place to see it all."

Nor is there just one wall to see. Its character varies widely from one vantage point to the next, as I discovered last year. During a stay in Beijing to study Mandarin, I made forays to various stretches of the wall.

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Ming and models

Badaling is a starting place, the centerpiece of an estimated 380 miles of Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) fortifications in the capital region, the highest concentration of Great Wall in China.

The site is easily accessible from Beijing by bus and train, and there's also a multilane expressway. It opened as a tourist attraction in 1957, with plentiful visitor facilities and well-maintained, relatively gradual steps to the top where visitors see long stretches of reconstructed brick and stone wall, together with a knot of spurs and cunningly engineered Ming watchtowers.

The Badaling section would be the picture-perfect Great Wall. But about 4.5 million people visit each year, resulting in crowds and commercial exploitation that make it difficult for the casual visitor to enjoy the wall.

The gridlocked road up to the ticket booths leads past a dilapidated zoo. Inside the complex are moldering museums, cable cars, espresso stands, ersatz antiques shops and a Great Wall Circle-Vision theater. Bus exhaust billows, hot dogs steam, tour groups assemble and souvenir hawkers swarm.

So, on my first visit to China 10 years ago, I went to Mutianyu, east of Badaling, favored for its architecture and forested landscape. The Mutianyu wall was begun in the 6th century and reconstructed 1,000 years later. After that, the wall was neglected; Communist Party leaders even once encouraged vandalism, viewing the wall as a vestige of the nation's long, dark feudal past.

Concerted reconstruction began after Deng Xiaoping came to power in 1978 and began to reverse Mao Tse-tung-era policies. "Let us love our China and restore our Great Wall," Deng wrote in 1984, launching restoration projects along the length of it, including work at Mutianyu.

Here, the Great Wall stretches for almost 1.4 miles, interspersed by 22 watchtowers, including three connected bastions at the lowest part of the pass. Its parapets are lined with merlons and embrasures from which the emperor's men rained arrows and gunpowder bombs on mounted warriors from the north.

As I discovered on my return trip to China last year, visitors now encounter Badaling-force crowds and relentless souvenir peddlers at Mutianyu. It's a stiff, 45-minute climb to the wall, so many visitors avoid aching leg muscles by taking the cable car up and the toboggan ride down.

A decade of development, encouraged by the economic opening of China, has brought great changes to the Great Wall region north of Beijing. After decades of being pent up in the city, newly flush Beijingers now drive their own cars, loaded with bikes, skis and camping gear, into the mountains or go on family outings to see peach blossoms in the spring and pick apples in the fall.

Some have bought fancy new condos near the wall or country places in old stone garrison towns deserted by farmers drawn to the city for work. Hotels and resorts have sprung up, such as the deluxe Commune by the Great Wall Kempinski near Badaling, where contemporary architecture competes for attention with the ancient monument.

Meanwhile, the wall is being put to surprising new uses. In 2004, the Chinese government staged a rock concert headlined by Cyndi Lauper on a revolving stage built atop a watchtower. Every spring, thousands of runners gather in a village 80 miles north of Beijing to compete in the grueling Great Wall Marathon. And in 2007, the wall served as a catwalk for fashion models in Karl Lagerfeld couture.

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