On the Great Wall of China

Margaret and I have been travelling in China over the past ten days, after she expressed a wish to “walk on the Great Wall of China on my birthday!” Her birthday was on the 25th April, so on the 24th we found ourselves aboard a British Airways flight to Beijing, with our boots, cameras and sketchbooks with us.

The Great Wall is around 5,000 kms. long, but actually most of the sections that are still intact are within a couple of hundred kilometres of the Chinese capital. There are quite a few myths about the Wall, one being that you can see it from space. You can’t, apparently, but that doesn’t stop it being one of the wonders of the world, built with sweat of millions of labourers over hundreds of years.

Over the course of our visit we walked on several sections of the Wall. Some were completely original, and often not much more that a pile of stones dotted with the ruins of watchtowers. Others had been totally restored, or maybe even over-restored, and looked a bit shiny and new. The best section we visited was probably at Jinshaling, where there has been some rebuilding but there’s still a lot of original stonework preserved.

Sketch of Great Wall of China 1
Nine watchtowers on the Great Wall of China. This section is between Jinshaling and Simatai. Ink on cartridge paper, A5 size.

Sketch of Great Wall watchtowers
Two of the watchtowers near Jinshaling. Ink on cartridge paper, A5 size.

Stephen Martyn sketching
With the sketchbook on my knees as the Wall snakes into the distance. A blue sky day near Jinshaling.

When you climb the steep path to the Wall for the first time it is a breathtaking sight. The stone pathway is wide enough for five horsemen to ride abreast, and it winds it’s way into the distance, peppered with huge fortified watchtowers every few hundred yards. At Jinshaling it is very hilly, so the wall plunges and soars over the landscape like a huge stone roller-coaster. There are many, many steps to climb when you walk the Wall, it is certainly not for the faint-hearted. You must have good knees!

As is often the case on trips abroad, I didn’t find much free time for sketching, but I did manage a couple of quick ink drawings in my little A5 sketchbook. I will use them, together with photographs, as a reference for some larger works in the the next few days. Hopefully one or two of those will feature in my solo exhibition coming up in June. See the previous post for full details.

It was a great trip, and all the arrangements were very well handed by the trekking company Explore and their local leader Bobby Yang. However, after ten days of Chinese food for breakfast lunch and dinner, and the delights of some of the rather rustic hotels, we were quite glad to fly home!