What It’s Really Like to Restore the Great Wall of China (Hint: It’s a Pretty Dangerous Job!)
Restoration workers are putting their lives on the line.
It should come as no surprise that a wall that’s thousands of years old takes just a bit of upkeep. Restorers are now working on the Great Wall of China’s Jiankou section, built during the Ming Dynasty in 1368, and the job is intense—these workers are risking their lives in the name of preserving this bucket list destination.
The Jiankou section of the Great Wall of China sits on top of mountain ridges, with cliffs dropping far down on both side. Vehicles can’t climb the steep path, so mules carry the bricks, according to Reuters. Unlike another section restored with cement that received outrage in 2016, this repair work is sticking with historical accuracy. To keep the Great Wall authentic, restorers use either old, fallen bricks or make new ones using the same materials and design as the originals. Each one can weigh more than 300 pounds.
Just getting to the 12-mile section takes 40 minutes, according to National Geographic, and it’s not easy to keep the mules motivated. In intense heat of a beating sun, the laborers beg and curse at the animals until they finally carry on. (Find out the scientific reason heat makes us cranky.)
Things don’t get easier when the workers arrive at the Jiankou section. Where the floors aren’t flat, workers need to drag supplies up crumbling steps to reach the right spot.
Because the trek to the site is so strenuous, repairers can only carry basic tools. There are no power tools or cranes. Instead, bricklayers use pickaxes, chisels, shovels, and hammers.
A ladder wouldn’t stay steady on the steep cliffs, so restoration workers have to reach the wall’s sides from the top. One will tie a rope around his waist, while another holds on from above. “It’s very dangerous. It’s windy underneath,” a worker says in a video. With such a far drop down, surviving a fall would be a miracle.
Repairs have been going on at the Jiankou section since 2005, but with such tough conditions, it hasn’t been a quick and easy task. Despite the drawn-out process, Dong Yaohui, vice president of the China Great Wall Association, is proud the work is about honoring and preserving the wall—not just making money. “In the past, we would restore the walls so that they would be visited as tourist hot spots,” he tells Reuters. “This is progress.”
It’s not quite as perilous as Great Wall repairs, but check out this story of an American who spends his free time restoring veterans’ tombstones.