William Lindsay has always had a deep fascination for the Great Wall of China. Ever since he was a child that long line on ancient maps kept him staring and imagining what this mammoth structure would be like. And he became more and more determined to one day visit and explore the entire length of it!
Running the length of the Great Wall of China
A long-distance runner in his native England, the idea to conquer the Great Wall came during a job with his brother along more familiar terrain, Hadrian’s Wall on the border with Scotland. It sparked his imagination and Lindsay started by running the 120km length of this famous and ancient British structure.
In 1986 William Lindsay arrived in China to fulfill his dream and explore the full length of the great wall. Growing up he had turned himself in an accomplished long distance runner and he had altered his plan of ‘exploration’ a bit to include his running hobby. His new mission was to run the entire length of the Wall!
Lindsay was drawn to make the grueling 2500-kilometer run along the length of China’s Great Wall because it was “the last great adventure opportunity in the modern world”. He set off from the Western part of the wall in Gansu province at the JiaYuGuan Pass from where he would run his way all the way to the East.
The trip was full of trouble and mishap due to bad planning, sickness and the inevitable bureaucracy of China in the eighties.
Along the route, he meets his future wife and gains the rare privilege of seeing behind the facade of a totalitarian state and into the faces of its people.
In the end it took him more than two years, on and off, to cover the entire distance on foot. Of those Lindsay spent 78 days running on the wall covering the 2500 km before reaching the ShanHaiGuan pass in Hebei province. There he became the first foreigner to complete running the entire length of the Great Wall of china.
At that time China’s Xinhua News Agency described it as “the most successful foreign exploration of the Great Wall” and he was heralded as a grand hero!
Just in Time to be the First Foreigner
Lindsay had reached his goal to become the first foreigner to cover the Great Wall’s full lenght just in time as only one year later notorious performance artists Marina Abramović and Ulay made a unique trip across the great wall of China by hiking the wall’s full length, both starting from opposite ends. It was an art exploit and stunt named “The lovers: the Great Wall Walk” enacted to end their 12-year intense personal love and art collaboration with a spiritual journey!
Each of them therefore walked half the length of the Great Wall of China, starting from the two opposite ends and meeting in the middle. There they would end it all…..
Tribulations on the Wall
Lindsay’s foreign appearance, and tallness, made him stand out in a China that had very few foreign visitors at the time. He attracted a lot of attention while running the wall. Local villagers started noticing him and wondered “What is he doing here? Where is he from?”. Eventually, police came to investigate his motive behind his seemingly weird behavior. He explained and showed his love for the wall, but in vain. He got arrested several times and at some point had to leave the country for a while.
Lindsay did not give up and kept coming back. His love for the wall and his obsession with running its entire length was just too strong. And his persistence eventually paid off.
Protector of the Great Wall of China
Lindsay not only loved the Great Wall, but as a graduate majoring in geology, he made many geographical analyses of the wall as well. After his successful run he was determined to keep on protecting this ‘World Wonder’ that he had experienced from so close by. In 2001, he established an international association “Friends of the Great Wall” to do exactly that.
In the following years he has been recognized by both the Chinese and international community as an expert and major protector of this piece of cultural heritage.
He was awarded the “Friendship Honorary” by the State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs, P.R. China. He also received the “Order of the British Empire” and was decorated by the British Queen Elizabeth II, honoring his effort in protecting the Great Wall as well as in promoting the cultural relationship between China and Great Britain.
The Book: Alone on the Great Wall
During his trip running the Great Wall of China Lindesay kept a trip diary which formed the basis for a book he released in 1991. The book portrays a great affinity for the people of China and their history. From the soldiers of the imperial frontier, the merchants of the Silk road and the heroes of the Long March to the simple peasant farmers who wrote messages of encouragement in his diary, Lindesay came to know the many people of China who extended the hand of friendship.
It is a well-written and entertaining book that should appeal to runners, who vicariously will share the author’s travails and cheer his determination and ultimate good fortune. Tourists with a particular interest in China will enjoy the wealth of information about the Middle Kingdom and the daily lives of its citizens. And people with a fascination for the Great Wall of China will get to know a whole lot of interesting details about the world’s longest structure!
The Great Wall Marathon
If the latter piece served as a great deal of inspiration to hike or run the Chinese wall yourself then the Great Wall Marathon might be the perfect event for you.
The Great Wall Marathon is a full length marathon that gives you a chance to run a full 42,195km over and on the great wall. The many staircases and the lack of flat sections make it one of the hardest marathons in the world. It features 5,164 steps as a matter of fact! But as a once in a lifetime experience this is all more than worth it! You can sign up here.