The Great Wall of China is one of the country’s most famous tourist attractions. It stretches across several cities and provinces, but only a handful of sections are easily accessible and have since become the popular visiting locations of both Chinese and foreign tourists.
William Lindesay, while already fascinated by the Great Wall, is even more fascinated by the sections that are found deep in the wilderness and he has built a life dedicated to the education and preservation of the Great Wall.
Lindesay spoke about his life’s work at an FCC Club Lunch on November 21st. Sitting alongside him was FCC Journalist Board Member Joe Pan, as well as copies of his latest book Wild Wall. The new two-volume series documents Lindesay’s life from his first trip to China in 1986 to his most recent endeavors.
He began the talk by explaining how he first became interested in the Great Wall back when he was a schoolboy. His headmaster said that all his students should have a Bible, a prayer book, and an atlas at their bedside. Lindesay loved his copy of the Oxford Atlas, and when he saw the geographic symbols representing the Great Wall, he instantly knew what he wanted to do when he grew up.
“As soon as I saw that symbol on the Wall, I could see my future,” he said.
Lindesay talked to his headmaster about his idea of studying geography at university and then traveling to China to explore the Great Wall. It was 1967 at the time, and the headmaster was supportive, but gave the young Lindesay honest advice.
“That’s a marvelous idea, William,” his headmaster began. “But you know, I don’t know anyone who’s ever been to China. But maybe in your lifetime, the situation will change.”
Lindesay ended up studying geography at the University of Liverpool, but didn’t make his first trip to China until he was 28 years old. His plan was to become the first foreigner to make a journey across the Great Wall, which resulted in him being stopped 9 times by police for trespassing.
He pressed on. His actions earned him the self-described reputation as China’s first ever “serial foreign trespasser” with many of the tickets and fines he paid being the very first of their kind. He was also arrested twice before eventually being deported from the country.
Hong Kong played a special part in his deportation in that he was able to come to the city and get a new passport to re-enter the mainland and continue his journey. Lindesay expressed his gratitude for Hong Kong playing a crucial part in his life.
In total, Lindesay traveled nearly 2,500 kilometers along the Great Wall by foot — an easy task for the experienced marathon runner. Along the way he received much praise and recognition from both the British and Chinese governments. The highest of his awards include the Friendship Award, China’s highest award for foreign experts, and being knighted as an Officer of the British Empire (OBE) by Queen Elizabeth II.
During this journey was also when Lindesay met his wife Wu Qi who he has been married to for the past 35 years. Their sons, Jimmy and Tommy, also share their father’s fascination with the Great Wall, and they went so far as to — quite literally — follow their father’s footsteps along the Wall in 2022 while China was still under heavy restrictions due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
But they were determined to outdo their father by traveling a total of 3,800 kilometers, starting in Jiayuguan and traveling to “Old Dragon’s Head,” the most eastern part of the Great Wall that ends at the Bohai Sea.
“We’re a family of wall-nuts,” Lindesay said with a chuckle.
In the talk, Lindesay also shared stories about how he and his wife bought a farmhouse near Jiankou, how he began his Great Wall conservation efforts, becoming a full-time tour guide, and China’s improving policies towards preserving the Great Wall.
Watch the full talk on our YouTube channel below: