Wed, March 28, 2012
Technology > Science

The man who discovered the lost Great Wall

2012-03-28 04:00:44 GMT2012-03-28 12:00:44(Beijing Time)  Xinhua English

Photo courtesy of National Geographic

On April 22nd, 2012, William Lindesay speaks at Beijing's Trends Lounge, where he shares stories and insights about the Great Wall, including the "lost section" he verified outside of China's borders. (Photo: /William Wang)

On April 22nd, 2012, William Lindesay discusses the problems of the Great Wall at Beijing's Trends Lounge. (Photo: /William Wang)

BEIJING, Mar. 28 (Xinhuanet) -- Recently, an Englishman who is possibly the world's most prominent Great Wall enthusiast has made headlines in over 40 countries around the world. His story regarding the "lost Great Wall" has been the most read story on National Geographic's website. He recently spoke at Beijing's Trends Lounge, where he shared stories and insights.

In 1987, William Lindesay came to China to trek the wall's entire 2470 km length, where he was arrested nine times, and deported once. At the time, it was very difficult for foreigners to gain entry to China, and Lindesay knew that his goal of hiking the wall was technically forbidden. "I had to come to terms that if I wanted to succeed on my mission I had to have a philosophy of trespass I call it. Because I'm a very law-abiding citizen. Trespass is a crime, I suppose."

Armed with a negligible grasp of Chinese and a small rucksack, he began hiking the wall. He also had a notebook in which he had a message written in Chinese, asking for the essentials for survival.

"I just hoped that they'd give me the water, food and shelter that I needed. And they did. Day after day after day. Actually… my journey in '87 was 78 days and I stayed with more than 60 farming families, and they were all incredibly warm-hearted."

The message also asked his hosts to write their names and village name for him. Incredibly, 20 years later Lindesay used his notebook to pay a surprise second visit to the families who had helped him before. They were amazed that the strange visitor hadn't forgotten them.

Not only did Lindesay meet with families, he also was reunited with the police officers who had arrested and deported him. But this time, he wasn't a trespasser: he was a hero. He met the mayor and the party secretary, and was made an honorary citizen for his esteemed work preserving the Great Wall. Photos he'd taken on his first trip were exhibited in the Yulin cultural square. Lindesay's story was now a symbol for China's opening up, as Beijing Evening News ran a feature called "From Trespasser to Honorary Citizen in Yulin."

William Lindesay's research on the great wall was greatly influenced by another William: William Geil. Lindesay was amazed to receive a book by William Geil, which contained photos of the Great Wall taken in 1905. The book was passed on to him by Geil's widow, who knew that Lindesay could appreciate it.

Not only did Lindesay appreciate it; it became the basis for his next research project. Lindesay knew that re-shooting Geil's photos of the Great Wall would concretely prove how well the wall was surviving, or how badly it was crumbling.

Lindesay appreciated how he and Geil not only shared their given names and a propensity for Indiana-Jones-style hats; they also shared a love for China's Great Wall, often having photographed identical pictures of its curves and towers.

Lindesay's appreciation for Geil called him to find Geil's relatives in the states. Lindesay knew Geil must have had journal writings, notes, and a large collection of photos. Lindesay combed the internet, called hospitals and funeral homes, but to no avail.

He resigned himself to just one way to find Geil. "I thought the more stories I get out about William Geil, the more chance there is of someone realizing that this man is very important in China, [that] this man is very important for the conservation of the wall. And I hoped they would contact me."

Incredibly, he was indeed later contacted by a historian at Doylestown historical society who informed him that he had just been given a collection of Geil's boxes. A quick Google search revealed to the historian that Lindesay was extremely interested in Geil.

Lindesay was deservingly given full access to Geil's work, and was also given the privilege of informing Geil's family about the importance of their grandfather, who had been all but forgotten.

Recently, Lindesay has again been making headlines, having discovered a section of the Great Wall outside of China, in Mongolia. He'd been pondering the possibility of its existence in the late 90s since he knew that sections of the wall approached the China-Mongolia border.

Lindesay explained, "This has become a quest to ascertain whether these are ancient dynastic Great Walls of China marooned in inner Mongolia, or to take on board what the Mongolians say about these walls, a particularly interesting story about a wall being constructed to stop the gazelle from migrating off the steppe. Because as you know, during the time of Genghis Khan these were a great food and clothing resource, and the horn was used for weapons and decorative objects."

With the aid of his Atlas of Genghis Kahn and Google Earth, Lindesay located a faint line in the desert which appeared to be a wall in Mongolia. Lindesay had to go there in person in order to make comparisons with the wall in China.

Lindesay was exulted to find that the wall indeed looked like a wall, up to 2.75 metres in place. "It was a mash of mud and sticks. And the sticks were a very unusual drought resistant desert shrub called saxaul… so that was a great discovery and surprise."

This wall stretched up to the peak of an extinct volcano, a single peak in a sea of flatness. The view from the top was panoramic, enabling viewers to see approaching enemies or to follow the movements of gazelle.

Having seen the wall firsthand, Lindesay was particularly pleased that he'd gotten his hands on some wood samples from the wall, which would be able to be radiocarbon dated.

He expected the samples to be 2100 years old, but he was amazed when the samples only turned out to be only 900 years old. "It kind of put the spanner in the works. Immediately I wondered, is this Han wall? From 2100 years ago? Then I thought because of the jigsaw theory, it matches up with the wall in China… so I'm adamant that it's Han dynasty Great Wall, but what I think the radiocarbon dating proves is that the wall was reused at some stage later."

Lindesay proposed that the Western Xia dynasty rebuilt the wall in preparation against the Mongols. But this theory was not without its problems. There's no record of the western Xia dynasty building a Great Wall, so Lindesay argued that as Genghis Kahn's legacy included annihilating those who opposed him and everything that they built, it would be unsurprising to find a lack of evidence.

If the western Xia dynasty's history was obliterated, Lindesay is well aware of the problems that would result from the damaged historical record. The existing history of the western Xia was written over a century later by Chinese historians employed by Mongol conquerors of China. "I think there must be a lot of questions about the accuracy, the comprehensiveness and authenticity of the records," Lindesay conceded.

Undoubtedly, some of the questions around this section of the "lost" Great Wall may ultimately be unanswerable. But perhaps in Lindesay's case, the questions may be more important than the answers.

"I like to either go out and prove history right or prove it wrong and dig up some questions, and this present trip from China to Outer Mongolia has been a classic case of that."



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