Review: A Story as Compelling as the Great Wall

William Lindesay OBE is a British geographer, a research fellow at his alma mater, Liverpool University, and a recipient of The Special Award of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs. After a milestone journey of 2,500 km on foot along the Great Wall in 1987, Lindesay returned to China in 1990 to retrace sections of the Long March. Since 2000, he has dedicated himself to the Great Wall in a myriad ways. He lives beside a section of Wild Wall at Jiankou, and has published six books on the subject, including Alone on the Great WallThe Great Wall Explained and The Great Wall in 50 Objects. Lindesay received the Friendship Award of China in 1998, was made an Officer, Order of the British Empire by HM Queen Elizabeth II in 2006, and was awarded the Great Wall Friendship Medal of Beijing in 2008. Recently he has been named as a luminary member of ‘The Explorers Club 50, Class of 2022’. William Lindesay is married to Wu Qi, and they have two children, James and Thomas.

The above is taken straight from “About the Author” in the first volume of his 2-part new memoir published yesterday by Earnshaw Books. The title is Wild Wall: The Foundation Years. The author bio above misses one important detail: William is a treasured friend of the Laycock family which I write about in this review of his new memoir — a story truly as compelling as the Great Wall itself.


Sometimes you learn the most about yourself from a stranger. In 1908 my grandfather became the first person ever documented to have walked the entire length of China’s Great Wall. My family knew of this achievement but for reasons that seem hard to understand now, we discounted it. We have old heavy glass slides of pictures he took all along the Wall — probably state of the art back then — but we viewed these as curiosities, completely missing their historical significance.

It was only when we met William Lindesay that we awakened to the significance of our family history. William, we learned, was born in the United Kingdom not far from the Beatles’ hometown of Liverpool. Almost as if embedded in his DNA, William became enchanted as a schoolboy with that Great Wall in a far away land that few people knew or understood. At age 12, he might have surprised even himself when he suddenly announced in class that he was going to travel to China for an expedition along the Great Wall. He ended up not only exploring the Wall, but has lived along side it and dedicated his life to it.

William was a runner and frequently ran with his brother along Hadrian’s Wall in the UK near their home. They stopped to rest one day during their run. It was about 15 years since William’s classroom announcement when his brother suggested out of nowhere, “Will, d’you know what, you should do the same thing on the Great Wall of China.” William writes that this passing comment stirred something deep in his subconscious.

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In this first volume of a two-part memoir, William covers his decision to walk the Great Wall and the enormous challenges he faced doing so in 1987 — of which only part was the actual walk itself over 2,470 kilometers (1,535 miles). He fought blisters, dysentery, the threat of bubonic plague, stress fractures, a sandstorm, vicious dogs… and police (‘the boys in green’). He was arrested nine times by the police for trespassing China’s “closed areas,” comprising virtually the entire country. And he was deported once. He also tells heartwarming stories of kind farm families who gave shelter and food to this tall mysterious foreigner.

William met his future wife along this journey and soon after he “met” my grandfather, Dr. William Edgar Geil, by way of Geil’s book ‘The Great Wall of China.’ William photographed the Wall extensively along the journey — protecting this film from confiscation was another challenge — and later he discovered my grandfather’s photos in the book. One scene in particular had been photographed by both from almost exactly the same spot, showing that scene in 1908 and again 80 years later. William writes, “It was almost as if our meeting had been scheduled by William Geil as long ago as 1908, and my going there in 1987 was my acceptance to become acquainted.” 

Clearly this memoir has deep personal meaning to me, bringing both tears and goosebumps at different times. But its interest and importance goes far beyond. The Great Wall embodies history dating as far back as the 7th century BC. Some sections today are totally obliterated or barely discernible. My grandfather died before William Lindesay was born, but these “Two Williams” have together assembled a living history of the Wall. And their work continues. William today gives lectures and tours of the Great Wall, and regularly organizes outings to clean up litter and trash. He has two grown sons who, at this very writing, are taking their turn walking and jogging the full Wall from west to east.

Throughout all these centuries, William Lindesay is only the second person documented to have traversed the entire length of the Great Wall. From this vantage point, he has a perspective no one else can provide. His story is as compelling as the Wall itself. 


As mentioned above, William’s sons are currently walking and jogging the entire length of the Great Wall, following in the footsteps of their father and my grandfather. You can see their videos here at my blog or at their YouTube channel. New ones are posted every few days.


Title image is by Siggy Nowak from Pixabay with the cover of William Lindesay’s memoir inset.


Learn more about my grandfather, Dr. William Edgar Geil, and his historic walk in 1908 along the entire length of China’s Great Wall.


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