John Howe

The View from Outer Space

Or A Walk Along a Wall

When I was a kid, I remember being told (and of course believing, since adults repeated it with great conviction) that the Great Wall of China was the only man-made structure that could be seen from space. Now, I was going to see it from rather closer up.

April 27th: bags packed, we set out early, skirted the perimeter of Beijing and drove towards the northeast. While Beijing is flat, it is only a hundred kilometers from a rugged and extensive mountain range that stretches all the way to Mongolia, traditionally the source of invaders and trouble from afar. As the road began to climb, the roadside attractions, state sculptures and various vendors that tourism spawn the world over began to appear, culminating in a parking lot at the base of the mountain below the wall. After running the colourful if clamorous gauntlet of merchant’s stalls. (“What size t-shirt you like, sir? One dollar.” This was generally followed by “Two for one dollar!” as we kept resolutely on our way.)  We got our tickets and began the long climb up to the wall itself. Naturally, we did not deign to take the cable car; visiting the wall properly means going up on foot. (We rode the cable car back down afterwards).


Left: Motorway driving in China is quite exciting; at one point we watched cars driving back UP the on ramp to escape a traffic jam. Our driver, though, was very skilled at squeezing through impossibly tight spots at speed. Centre: Signspotting, a favorite activity in foreign lands. Right: Mongol on the wrong side of the wall, though he was rather more peaceable than his ancestors.

Spring is very short in Beijing, an afterthought winter has before summer gets down to the business of a long hot dry season. While the trees were still spring-green, the ground beneath them was already dry, and fires started by careless cigarettes are a common occurrence despite warning signs everywhere.
This section of the wall is one of the most visited, due of course to its proximity to the capital. There are many great walls, built by successive empires, covering thousands of miles. Many are now ridges of crumbling clay bricks, especially where it traverses the wilderness, but huge sections have been preserved and restored. Most of the Great Wall visible today was rebuilt during the Ming Dynasty, over nearly three centuries, from 1368 to 1644, and measures some 6,300 kilometers in total, studded with nearly 10,000 watchtowers.



Along the Wall. We only walked a short way – a couple of miles at most – but the section open to the public stretched on for some distance. Beyond that, the wall kept ot the ridges until it went out of sight. It was a shame we could not arrive at dawn, or stay until evening, when the low light makes it the most beautiful.
It is striking, especially how it lays like some vast angular snake, disobeying architectural convention to most efficiently follow the backbone of the mountains. Countless times my eye was thrown off by details so astonishingly unfamiliar that it was like reading a book where you understand the words but the story and plot escape you. (Not to mention that your feet can’t take anything for granted, as steps blend into slopes and back into steps without warning, changing size all the while.) I’ll spare you a pointless accumulation of superlatives. We could see it snaking off for at least 20 kilometers in both directions,

But, can you really see it from space?

Of course, it’s patently obvious that you could never see the Great Wall from space, much less from the moon, which, all proportion respected, (the moon is 384,400 kilometers from the Earth) would be like expecting to see a human hair from 2 miles away.

The average human eye can apparently distinguish an object 10 meters square at a distance of 36 kilometers (assuming you have perfect vision and optimal conditions). A low orbit for a spacecraft would be 160 kilometers, much too far to make out something the width of a highway, and while admittedly it would be more readily visible by its shadow at sunrise or sunset, it espouses so closely the relief upon which it is constructed, following ridges like some elegant backbone, it’s hard to imagine that it can really stand out. So far, the organizations and astronauts who claim to have seen it have actually been looking at something else entirely or add rather awkward postscriptum qualifiers to their initial statements. Human vision just isn’t sharp enough. So where did the idea originate?

According to most sources, the origin of the myth goes back to none other than Mr. Ripley, (Robert Leroy), he of the eponymous “Believe It or Not!”. The ubiquitous Mr. Ripley was born in 1890, and began his long career of turning credulity and voyeurism into cash in the 1920’s. “Believe It or Not!” was syndicated and made its debut in seventeen newspapers in 1929. It went on to become one of the more popular Sunday comics pages in history (believe it nor not) and never swerved from its mix of sensationalist banality and urban legend revisited. (It also became a rather forgettable television series with none other than Jack Palance as host.)

The original page about the Great Wall is really rather vapid where it is not simply stupid and absent-mindedly racist, but that’s the Believe it or Not! style – syllabubs disguised as sophistication. Somehow, though, the notion stuck, as if something man-made had to be able to be seen from the moon or space, a question of cosmic self-esteem.

Ripley was an active businessman and entertainer: amongst his most unusual endeavours were his Odditoriums, genteel 20th-century equivalents of the freak shows and traveling oddities that the Victorian era so enjoyed with such exquisite distaste. The first one opened in Chicago in 1933, and to date there are between 30 and 40 of them, mostly in the USA, with a dozen of so scattered over Canada, the UK, Australia, Mexico, Denmark, India, Thailand and Malaysia. They are generally collections of curiosities of limited real interest.


The Ripley’s “Believe It Or Not!” page where the whole notion started.

Another suspect is Richard Haliburton, a sympathetic and slightly crackpot adventurer who claimed to have been the first to pen the statement “Astronomers say that the Great Wall is the only man-made thing on our planet visible to the human eye from the moon.” in his “Second Book of Marvels” in 1938. (Haliburton is best known for having swum the Panama Canal and paying 36 cents toll; he disappeared in 1939 aboard a Chinese junk, the Sea Dragon, attempting to sail from San Francisco to Hong Kong.) An earlier source might be a letter written in 1754 by English antiquary William Stukeley. Stukeley, who wrote, referring to Hadrian’s Wall, “This mighty wall of four score miles in length is only exceeded by the Chinese Wall, which makes a considerable figure upon the terrestrial globe, and may be discerned at the moon.”* It’s doubtful that Ripley knew of the latter, and the former is more or less contemporary.

Whatever the genesis of the notion, the whole business is of course much more fascinating as metaphor than anecdote. We might as well be looking at most of the world from space for all we really know about it. I’ve lived for nearly three decades in Switzerland and don’t really know it very well yet, and only speak (after a fashion) one out of the four official languages. (My wife might say that could be remedied if I only got out of the house a little more.) It’s always amusing to analyze what we “know”, usually to realize that very little of it is first-hand, and most of it not even second-hand. It struck me so forcibly that what I thought I knew about China was about as true as Ripley’s view from space, and by extension, the little I know of the small bits of the world I have actually seen is a drop of water in a vast ocean. There are times when I truly wonder if I really know anything, all I notice is what I’ve missed.

But, for the time being, I was more interested in not missing one of the uneven and unexpectedly steep steps and embarrassing my hosts by taking a plunge. It was time to head back to the cable car.


I can never get enough of vendor’s stalls, although I rarely buy anything (as was being particularly circumspect in this case, since if I picked anything up, one of the organizers rushed forward to buy it for me) and prefer to simply browse for imagery. I am fascinated by what is made and sold, to tourists especially, and by the profusion of colour and the repetition of motifs.
Left: Chairman Mao and Tintin occupied the top two spots for t-shirts, closely followed by the “I climbed the…” variety. Center: Bronze Buddhas. Right: Carved ivory eggs, though most of them were molded resin.


Left: A Bactrian camel, the first I have ever seen outside a zoo, with a stentorious owner who did not at all appreciate tourists taking photos. Center: The concubine from the evening before. Right: A profusion of hats.

Back in the car, then to lunch at a restaurant near the wall, with the innumerable toasts that punctuate most meals in China (I was also finally beginning to feel dexterous enough with my chopsticks to pluck food from the dishes as they sped past without making a fool of myself), and then back to Beijing and dinner – Chinese fondue – and then off again to Beijing airport to catch a plane to Hangzhou, and everything once again receded into that blurred view I end up with when things just go to fast. The next morning, book signings were scheduled at one of the biggest comic and cartoon conventions in China.


Left: Indulging again in through-the-windshield photography. Center: Chinese fondue. (My hosts were mildly shocked when I explained that, in America, chocolate fondue is a popular. Actually, the Swiss, who more or less invented fondue, are shocked by that too. So am I, for that matter…) Right. On the way to the airport; we have a plane to catch… and once again, things recede into that blur to which I always succumb on whirlwind journeys.

* The Family Memoirs of the Rev. William Stukeley (Durham: Surtees Society, 1882-1887) Vol. 3, p. 142.
DRAGON’S WRATH (And Other Tales)

For someone accustomed to having one’s work put on books, having a book put on one’s work is a novel treat. Arte & Letra – Editora in Sao Paulo, Brasil will be publishing “Dragon’s Wrath and Other Tales” this fall, with fantasy stories based on a selection of my illustrations. It will only be available in Portuguese for the moment, but should an English-language edition appear at some point, I’ll provide a link.



There will be more news very shortly about the Middle-earth Sculptures. The Workshop site will be releasing photos shortly.