Writing, running on the wall

Updated: 2013-04-19 08:22

By Mark Graham (China Daily)

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 Writing, running on the wall

William Lindesay believes the Great Wall will be the ultimate wonder of the world. All wonders in the future will be technological ones, he says. Provided to China Daily

Documenting china's iconic structure is briton's life and passion

When, as a schoolboy, William Lindesay announced grand plans to explore the Great Wall, nobody took him too seriously. But in his adult life Lindesay achieved his goal and much more by running the length of it, spending four years of his life on the iconic structure and becoming one of the world's foremost experts on its rich history.

More than a quarter of a century has passed since Lindesay's solo run along the Great Wall, an epic journey from the far west of China to the point where the structure meets the sea, and to mark the occasion, he has released a new book, The Great Wall Explained, which contains a series of stunning photographs and fascinating essays.

Running the length of the world wonder was a brave, some might say foolhardy, expedition, venturing into sparsely populated regions where there was little chance of help if the runner had a mishap. The Briton endured extreme heat, giant blisters and chronic fatigue during the grueling run, which took place in two parts, during spring and autumn, to avoid the extreme heat of midsummer.

Along the way, Lindesay was helped enormously by friendly village folk, who off ered him shelter and sustenance, although their initial reactions were always puzzlement, wondering why a tall Englishman had suddenly turned up at their isolated villages. When he explained his mission, they were even more baffl ed, unable to understand quite why a foreign visitor would have such a fascination with the Great Wall, or have the urge to run 3,000 kilometers along its length.

Officialdom was rather less tolerant of Lindesay's cavalier approach. He was arrested or detained nine times for not having the right permissions although he has long been forgiven for those transgressions. One town that Lindesay passed through has made him an honorary citizen while in Beijing, where he lives and works, the mayor conferred on him the Beijing Great Wall Friendship Award.

In total, Lindesay estimates he has spent something like 1,600 days of his life or four years on-or by-the Great Wall. On one expedition out in the Gobi Desert, near the town of Dunhuang, the explorer and accompanying camera crew came perilously close to death from dehydration.

More recently, Lindesay and an exploration team again ventured deep into the Gobi Desert, this time in Mongolia, in search of a previously unknown section of the Great Wall. With the help of a Mongolian geographer and the assistance of the Mongolian army, the wall was located. Carbon dating estimated that the rammed-earth structure dated back to the 11th century, meaning it was likely to have been built by the Western Xia Dynasty.

"It sent a shiver down my spine," says Lindesay. "It is totally not known to anybody, I don't know of anyone witnessing this part of the Wall in recent times. It was never known that the Western Xia built a wall, but clearly they needed a wall to deal with attacks from individual tribes, even before Genghis Khan.

"In some ways this is just the beginning. In just that segment alone, there are 250 kilometers of territory to investigate. It is like an unfolding story. Like with all my Great Wall exploits, one thing leads to another."

Lindesay even lives out by the Wall part of the year, in an isolated village some two hours from Beijing. From there, he conducts Wild Wall expeditions for members of the paying public, providing simple farmhouse accommodation and a series of accompanied hikes to lessvisited sections that are close to the Mutianyu strategic pass.

With Lindesay's help, visitors can pick out the diff erent shapes and sizes of the watchtowers. More vulnerable points needed greater fortification and manpower. The quality of the workmanship also varied, depending on the skill and dedication of the military builders, which explains why some parts of the Wall are still solid, while other areas are crumbling.

"It is the largest building project in history," he says. "It took more time to build than any other project in history and, in addition, most of it goes through mountain terrain, really hostile territory.

"It is so huge that it is the only man-made structure that shows up on world maps. It is the ultimate wonder of the world and it will never be surpassed. I think the wonders in future will all be technological.

"It was very time consuming to build, but the Chinese were prepared to go to any lengths to defend their civilization. The Wall was built to diff erent levels of quality - first, second or third class depending on the threat of invasion.

"I like the Wall with all its warts and defects. The bits that are geared for mass tourism I liken to having had plastic surgery. They are not real or genuine. I favor the wild parts of the Wall remaining wild but I do agree with some noninvasive measures to strengthen the walls and roofs with metal. Around Beijing there are probably more than 50 towers in very good condition. What annoys me is people who come to the wall and toss their garbage or write on the Wall or even spray paint on the Wall."

As well as the Wild Wall weekends, Lindesay also undertakes personal tours for VIP guests. He has various other sources of Wallrelated income including making documentaries for the National Geographic channel and writing books.

In one book, Lindesay retraces the steps of American William Geil, who photographed the Wall a century ago, an arduous feat that involved lugging heavy camera equipment up steep hills. The Great Wall Revisited contrasted contemporary pictures with those shot by Geil.

Highlighting that threat has turned into Lindesay's life's work and brought him garlands galore from official bodies such as the World Monuments Fund, and the Order of the British Empire from Queen Elizabeth II. He has been described as the world's leading advocate for Great Wall protection work, and has featured in National Geographic magazine, Newsweek, the BBC and countless Chineselanguage publications.

Little did he realize, when he took those first steps along the Wall, that he was destined to spend his adult life living and working in China, marrying a local woman, Wu Qi, and raising two sons, Jimmy and Tommy.

Looking back, he is still amazed that the 1987 run succeeded, against all the odds. An attempt by him the previous year failed, when he was laid low by dysentery and a foot stress fracture. But Lindesay is nothing if not determined, returning for another stab that resulted in him becoming the first to run the length of the Great Wall and later become a successful author with Alone On the Wall, a book that recounted the epic run.

*The Great Wall Explained is published by China Intercontinental Press

China Daily

(China Daily 04/19/2013 page20)