David Spindler an American, 41, is an unlikely, almost accidental scholar of one of China’s most beloved landmarks, a Harvard Law School graduate who left his job as a consultant and lived off savings to pursue his grand obsession thousands of miles from his Massachusetts roots. Someday soon, he hopes to publish a book on all he has learned. He stands along a crenelated crown of the Great Wall and gestures toward a river valley that snakes away northward into the gloom. “Over there,” he says, his voice lilting in a sense of discovery. “That’s the direction from which the Mongols attacked.”
For two hours on Oct. 23, 1554, a bloody battle raged. The raiders used ropes to reach the Chinese defenders, climbing the wall “like ants,” Spindler explains. He talks of a Chinese soldier who hacked off the hand of an attacker only to be killed moments later, his head pierced by an enemy arrow.
Spindler has done his homework, much of it in the National Library of China, where he has pored over government reports and military archives detailing the clash along this isolated mountain ridge 75 miles northwest of Beijing, deciphering the ancient Chinese characters that hold clues to a past 454 years old.
Without academic affiliation or funding, Spindler has spent 14 years traveling across China. And he has spent more than 830 days clambering over the Greatwall’s far-flung ramparts around Beijing, enough to wear through several pairs of hiking boots.
Dressed in a wide-brimmed Tilley hat, red-checked hunting jacket, and arm-length work gloves, he has endured the humid 100-degree days of summer and shortened snow-blown days of December.
Spindler’s relationship with the Great Wall was not love at first sight. He initially visited there as a tourist in 1987 while on a summer study program in China.
Years later, after moving to Beijing to study premodern Chinese history, he still saw the wall less as its own destination than as a respite from the stress of a teeming foreign capital with 17 million residents.
In 1994, a friend suggested that they take an overnight hiking trip there. Always athletic – he was a collegiate rower and cross-country skier – Spindler was challenged by the physical exertion of tracing the structure’s roller-coaster rises and falls.
In the fall of 1997, he returned to the United States to attend Harvard Law School. But Spindler kept a map of his beloved barricade over his dorm room desk.
In 2000, he returned to Beijing and worked as a management consultant as he pursued his research. In early 2002, Spindler surprised even his closest friends: He left his consulting job and soon began to study the wall full time.
“He manages to communicate his love for this subject and the excitement he feels when he gets up on the stones and gazes out over the hills and the twists and turns of the wall.”
Spindler’s research has also separated myth from fact.
He has learned, for example, that the Great Wall is not one continuous structure but a series of fortifications, built with various materials, including packed earth, bricks and mortar, field stones and quarried rock. In some places, it isn’t a wall at all, but a string of unconnected signal towers. No one has determined exactly how long it runs, but estimates vary from thousands to tens of thousands of miles.
He plans to finish a book on the Great Wall by the end of 2010. But no one, least of all Spindler, thinks that will mark the closing chapter of his adventure.
He has hiked for days without seeing another soul, explored abandoned villages, gotten lost, and watched fellow hikers break arms and legs in falls – all while tracing the route and origins of the meandering wall.
“I always like sitting around here and looking around,” he says during a recent hike. “I see new things all the time. It’s also a great vista.” He paused, then spoke again. “This is a wonderful workplace.”