To stand on the Great Wall of China is an awesome experience. But unless something is done to protect its future, this wonder of the ancient world won’t be around forever. WORDS: Lynette Eyb

It’s not until you’re standing on the Great Wall of China that its enormity sinks in. This great, big, crumbling structure snakes its way through the villages and valleys of China. From the outskirts of Beijing, it reaches out and touches the Gobi Desert.

Here in the Hebei Province, where we were spending some five hours hiking the Jin Shan Ling-Simatai stretch, the wall clocks in at 10.5km long, and boasts 67 watchtowers at 150m intervals. It is an awe-inspiring sight.

While the wall at Badaling, 75km north-west of Beijing, sees thousands of visitors a day during peak times – there’s even a cable car for those less inclined to climb over crumbling bricks and mortar – Jin Shan Ling offers fewer tourists and fewer touts. On some stretches of the wall, it is possible to have watchtowers to yourself, sparing you a moment to ponder the isolation which must have been felt by those tasked in ancient times with patrolling its perimeters.

Emperor Qin Shihuang of the Qin Dynasty (221-206BC) is credited with unifying ancient China when, under his direction, various individual walls were joined to establish one principal defensive line.

While it is debatable whether the final product was effective in protecting China from her enemies, it did leave an enduring legacy that only now, more than 2000 years later, is truly showing its age.

Weather, the tourist trade and China’s modernisation are proving debilitating, a problem aggravated by deliberate human destruction.

The Chinese Government began restoring the wall in the 1940s, with the first sections open to the public along Juyongguan, Badaling and Shanhaiguan. There are now dozens of access points for the wall, with travellers and trekkers of all ages and nationalities making the pilgrimage to one of the world’s wonders.

But while tourism brings money and prosperity to some of China’s most impoverished regions, it also threatens to cloud the future of the country’s premier attraction. One guide told me there had been increasing reports of tourists souveniring bricks and stones, while he also claimed local families were taking the materials for use in renovating their ramshackle homes.

China’s move into the industrialised world is also posing problems. A report citing the deliberate damage of one section in Ningxia is but one example of negligence clouding the future of the wall.

The company gained approval to build a road through a natural breach in the wall that is metres away from the man-made opening,” Cheng Dalin, the chairman of the Great Wall Research Institute, told Chinese television. “Simply to save money, the company chose to destroy the wall.”

Wei Zhong, of the cultural heritage bureau in the area, said funding for restoration and preservation was part of the problem, with insufficient money and little legal support available for local authorities. “All we can do is to arrange more frequent scrutiny,” he said.

Three years ago, Great Wall Society members spent two months charting the 9000km from Hushan to Jiayuguan in the west, the largest ever investigation of the Great Wall.

While concluding that the Jin Shan Ling-Simatai section remains the most captivating, they also reported that up to one-third of the wall had been lost forever.

It’s a sad reality which, as you approach the final steep ascents to Simatai, will make you appreciate even more the intense labour and sweat expended on building these walls all those years ago.”