The first glimpse of this massive structure snaking its way across precipitous, rocky ridges, sometimes even lain across iron beams to bridge windy chasms, is breathtaking. The second is more breathtaking, as the viewer begins to absorb the ambition of the undertaking: From modern-day North Korea to the Taklamakan Desert, this thing on which you are standing, through its various iterations, stretches a good 5,500 miles.
Thousands of slaves were sacrificed joining the dots between the northern frontier walls of various adjacent kingdoms of ancient China to create the first unified Imperial Great Wall. As subsequent dynasties expanded or contracted, so layers and lengths of new wall were added or heightened, as the strategy towards dealing with northern tribes vacillated between negotiating and repelling them.
Contrary to the lazy myth, the wall worked, and worked rather well, at least in the opinion of a top Great Wall expert who can join you for lunch at a Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) Great Wall guard tower. He can best explain how when Mongolian hordes finally breached the wall in 1271, this illiterate, nomadic tribe did not limit itself to the merciless murder, rape and pillage of people and cities.
Such was their appetite for conquest that the wild nomads even burned their mark into vast swathes of cultivated farmland: The Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) marked the first time non-native Chinese people ruled all of China, and the traumatic scar that these belligerent foreigners left on the Chinese psyche can be measured today in millions upon millions of cubic meters: the vast dimensions of this great, incredible wall.