|A British researcher's dedication to protecting and studying the Great Wall|
William Lindesay (center) with his sons James (right) and Thomas (COURTESY PHOTO)
"I pledge my life and honor to the Night's Watch, for this night and all nights to come," members of the Night’s Watch in George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, vowed as they dedicated their lives to defending the wall in the novels. Like them, British Beijing resident William Lindesay has devoted his life to the defense of a great northern wall of epic proportions. However, this wall is real—and so is its need for protection.
The Great Wall, which has a total length of more than 21,000 km and stands as a symbol of the Chinese nation, has been the subject of numerous legends over the centuries. After becoming the first foreigner to traverse the main length of the wall on foot 36 years ago, Lindesay has been working to protect this icon of world heritage and is now a real-life “watcher of the wall.”
On December 6, 2022, Lindesay’s two sons James and Thomas, aged 28 and 21, posted a then-and-now picture on Twitter with the caption “36 years apart.” The composite image shows Lindesay 36 years ago, standing in front of the Old Dragon’s Head, where it reaches the sea at Beidaihe in Qinhuangdao City, Hebei Province, and his sons standing in the same spot now.
After setting out from the Taolai River near the Jiayuguan Fortress in Gansu Province on July 15, 2022, the brothers arrived at the Old Dragon’s Head at Shanhaiguan on the shoreline of the Bohai Bay on November 22, completing a record-breaking 3,263-km journey running along the main west-to-east length of the wall. They are the first known brothers, and Thomas the youngest person, to succeed in running the stretch of wall in one continuous journey.
“During my father’s Great Wall adventure in 1987, my future parents met in Beijing, and then it was mother’s charms that convinced him to make China their home, and the Great Wall their life’s joint work, and that’s a passion my brother and I have inherited,” Thomas told Beijing Review.
The brothers say they decided to make the journey in tribute to the one that made their father a sensation 36 years ago.
The road not taken
Villagers living at the foot of the wall often see the tall, silver-haired foreigner collecting plastic bottles and other garbage as he passes by in the course of photographing, studying, and protecting the structure.
“It began actually in the 1960s, when I saw the symbol for the Great Wall on the map of China at school. The dream of the Great Wall for me began when I was 11,” Lindesay said.
Coming from Wallasey on Merseyside in the UK, Lindesay first traveled to China in 1986 and set out on his 78-day journey from Jiayuguan to Shanhaiguan in 1987.
“From the perspective of a foreigner, you will see different things,” he said. According to Lindesay, local people, perhaps, become accustomed to seeing the Great Wall every day, but for him, every section of the wall is fresh and has a story.
As the most successful foreign explorer of the Great Wall, Lindesay has been conducting systematic research on the structure since 1994.
To facilitate his research, Lindesay and his wife Wu Qi moved into a farmyard in a village at the foot of the Jiankou section of the wall in 1998.
Located in Huairou District on the outskirts of Beijing, the Jiankou section is one of the most dangerous parts of the Great Wall and is known by hikers as “the wild Great Wall,” a term invented by Lindesay many years ago that later became a proper term. He has traveled all over the wild Great Wall, some sections of which are buried in soil and can only be identified from the air.
Despite its status as a precious cultural heritage site, some sections of the wild Great Wall have been damaged in recent years due to both natural disasters and human impact. These sections are in dire need of maintenance and reinforcement.
“It’s the world’s greatest open-air museum without a curator,” he said. Around the year 2000, Lindesay and his wife began to organize volunteers to participate in the protection of the Great Wall, especially its wild sections. They set up an environmental protection station at the foot of the Jiankou section, and cooperated with the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Cultural Heritage and other institutions to carry out a long-term protection project.
In recognition of his contributions, Lindesay in 1999 received the Friendship Award, the highest award given by the People’s Republic of China to foreign experts who make a significant contribution to the country’s progress. His home country also recognized his contributions in 2006, when Queen Elizabeth II presented him with an Order of the British Empire.
(Above) William Lindesay arrives at the Old Dragon’s Head on the shoreline of the Bohai Gulf in 1987. (Below) The Lindesay brothers arrive at the same spot on November 22, 2022, posing for a photo on the beach with the Great Wall behind them.(COURTESY PHOTO)
A tale of two
Lindesay has written more than 10 books about China with a focus on the Great Wall, and has also made a number of documentaries about the Great Wall together with his two sons, both of whom are graduates of Peking University.
Prior to their five-month-long journey, the Lindesay brothers had already accrued "at least 1,000 days of experience on various parts of the Great Wall." As children, they spent the majority of their weekends on it or right beside it.
In 2016, the brothers spent the whole summer flying drones at scores of locations along the Great Wall. The project led to them producing the first internationally broadcast documentary to show the Great Wall from the air.
“Looking back, I had a ‘wall-spent’ youth, walking, talking, photographing and picking up garbage from the Great Wall—30 weekends a year,” James said.
“We attended pretty much every volunteer event my father [organized], as long as we could hike up or be carried up,” Thomas said. “But we enjoyed it from a young age. Maybe in the early years, we didn’t quite understand what we were doing. We were just told what to do. But later on, we realized that what we were doing had some significance.”
In 2019, the Beijing Government initiated a plan to protect and develop the Great Wall Cultural Belt, an area of 4,929.29 square km, which includes both heritage protection and ecological conservation. In 2021, China began the development of the Great Wall National Park, currently an area of 60 square km approximately 70 km northeast of Beijing.
“Who are we if we cannot cherish the Great Wall” is Lindesay’s catchphrase.
For him, it is not enough to just go to the Great Wall; one must also love and protect it. But he believes there is still a long way to go in protecting the wall and its heritage.
"I have two countries, as I’ve spent exactly half my life in Britain and half my life in China. If we have this more open world, we can get on much better together and really believe in the strength of culture as a bridge to bring people together," he said.
And so his watch continues.
(Printed edition title: Watchers on the Wall)
Copyedited by G.P. Wilson
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