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Night after night, Great Wall guardian's lonely vigil spans years

China Daily | Updated: 2021-09-02 09:10
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Li Shixiang rests on the ruins of Xi'anzhou, a front-line city-fortress contested during the war between the Song and Xixia dynasties about 1,000 years ago, in Haiyuan, Ningxia Hui autonomous region, last month. FENG KAIHUA/XINHUA

YINCHUAN-As night fell on Helan Mountain, Li Shixiang lit a mosquito-repellent coil, opened a book about the Great Wall of China and made notes by the light of his car headlights beside a section of the ancient wall.

"It feels like we are guarding each other," Li, 45, said. He spent the night in his car, as usual.

Li lives in Haiyuan county in Northwest China's Ningxia Hui autonomous region, known as a "museum of the Great Wall".Ningxia contains over 1,500 kilometers of the Great Wall that were built during different dynasties, with the oldest section 2,000 years old.

Born near the ruins of an ancient city, Li spent a lot of time after school playing with bronze coins and broken arrows he found there. He said the fun the cultural relics brought him was unforgettable.

Li dropped out of a local college about 20 years ago and painted advertisements on walls for a living.

When he was traveling and painting advertisements in rural areas, he noticed a lot of Great Wall sections and beacon towers that were left unrecorded and unprotected. He felt an urge to do something to remedy that.

"The Great Wall symbolizes the Chinese nation as it conveys spirits such as solidarity, courage and peace," Li said. "I have a responsibility to get to know it and better protect it."

Not academically trained, Li has his own research method. He first plots an area where wall relics might exist based on books and documents and then searches on a satellite map.

If a promising location appears, he rides his motorbike or drives a car there as quickly as possible, with just a pen, a notebook, a tape measure, a cellphone and some food.

Most frequently, he drives all the way to a site only to find nothing. But there have also been surprises. In 2019, after five hours of driving, he found the relics of an ancient city in the desert of neighboring Gansu province.

"There was not a single footprint around. I was so excited that I cried and forgot my tiredness," Li said.

He has explored almost all of the areas the Great Wall runs through in China, including Beijing, the provinces of Shaanxi and Hebei, and the Inner Mongolia autonomous region. He has driven over 300,000 km, taken tens of thousands of photos and his writings have filled over 300 notebooks.

Over the years, he has encountered wolves and fallen into icy water. He once fell down a cliff and broke a toe. But he said the pain was nothing compared to the pain he felt when he saw sections of the Great Wall destroyed.

"Whether the culprits are plants, wind, rain, animals or people, the sight of damaged Great Wall sections makes me feel as if my own flesh has been gouged out," he said.

China has been pouring efforts into the protection of the Great Wall. Li was hired as a Great Wall keeper by the local government in 2016, and his work has been acknowledged by the cultural relics protection department.

In August, China issued a plan for the construction of a Great Wall national cultural park, which will integrate the cultural relics and resources of 15 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities along the Great Wall for better protection and preservation.

Li said he plans to write a book about the Great Wall.

"There is a limit to what I can do," he said. "But at least I can make people remember."


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