Rebuilding the Great Wall of China

At one of the most treacherous and less-restored stretches of the Great Wall, a line of pack mules halted upon emerging from the gloom of a dense forest draped in mist and dew.

Laden with 150 kg (330 pounds) of bricks each, the seven animals finally got moving in response to the coaxing and swearing of their masters, eager to gain altitude before the sun climbed high in the sky.

For more than a decade, mules have been crucial in the effort to restore Jiankou, a serpentine 20-km (12-mile) section of the wall about 70 km (44 miles) north of central Beijing that is notorious for its ridges and perilous slopes.

“The path is too steep and the mountains are too high, so the bricks can only be transported by mules,” said local mule owner Cao Xinhua, who has worked on Great Wall restoration projects in the mountains north of Beijing for 10 years.

Where they could, workers would use the original bricks that have come off the wall over the centuries. When they found none, they used new bricks made to exacting specifications.

“We have to stick to the original format, the original material and the original craftsmanship, so that we can better preserve the historical and cultural values,” said Cheng Yongmao, the engineer leading Jiankou’s restoration.

Cheng, 61, who has repaired 17 km (11 miles) of the Great Wall since 2003, belongs to the 16th generation in a long line of traditional brick makers. (Reuters)

Photography by Damir Sagolj/Reuters

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Rebuilding the Great Wall of China

People work on the reconstruction of the Jiankou section of the Great Wall, located in Huairou District, north of Beijing, China, June 7, 2017. (Photo: Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

Rebuilding the Great Wall of China

Early morning fog covers the Jiankou section of the Great Wall, located in Huairou District, north of Beijing, China, June 7, 2017. (Photo: Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

Rebuilding the Great Wall of China

A man smokes a cigarette whilst working on the reconstruction of the Jiankou section of the Great Wall, located in Huairou District, north of Beijing, China, June 7, 2017. (Photo: Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

Rebuilding the Great Wall of China

A mule decorated with red tassels carries bricks and other construction materials up the steep path towards the Jiankou section of the Great Wall, located in Huairou District, north of Beijing, China, June 7, 2017. “The path is too steep and the mountains are too high, so bricks can only be transported by mules,” said local mule owner Cao Xinhua. (Photo: Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

Rebuilding the Great Wall of China

People work on the reconstruction of the Jiankou section of the Great Wall, located in Huairou District, north of Beijing, China, June 7, 2017. (Photo: Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

Rebuilding the Great Wall of China

People rest after working on the reconstruction of the Jiankou section of the Great Wall, located in Huairou District, north of Beijing, China, June 7, 2017. (Photo: Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

Rebuilding the Great Wall of China

People wait for bricks and other equipment to be delivered as they work on the reconstruction of the Jiankou section of the Great Wall, located in Huairou District, north of Beijing, China, June 7, 2017. (Photo: Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

Rebuilding the Great Wall of China

People work on the reconstruction of the Jiankou section of the Great Wall, located in Huairou District, north of Beijing, China, June 7, 2017. (Photo: Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

Rebuilding the Great Wall of China

A worker waits for bricks and other construction materials to be delivered on the Jiankou section of the Great Wall, located in Huairou District, north of Beijing, China, June 7, 2017. (Photo: Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

Rebuilding the Great Wall of China

A man rests while working on the reconstruction of the Jiankou section of the Great Wall, located in Huairou District, north of Beijing, China, June 7, 2017. (Photo: Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

Rebuilding the Great Wall of China

A bird flies over the Jiankou section of the Great Wall, located in Huairou District, north of Beijing, China, June 7, 2017. (Photo: Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

Rebuilding the Great Wall of China

A man walks behind a mule carrying bricks up the steep path towards the Jiankou section of the Great Wall, located in Huairou District, north of Beijing, China, June 7, 2017. “The path is too steep and the mountains are too high, so bricks can only be transported by mules,” said local mule owner Cao Xinhua. (Photo: Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

Rebuilding the Great Wall of China

Mules carry bricks and other construction material up the steep path towards the Jiankou section of the Great Wall, located in Huairou District, north of Beijing, China, June 7, 2017. “The path is too steep and the mountains are too high, so bricks can only be transported by mules,” said local mule owner Cao Xinhua. (Photo: Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

Rebuilding the Great Wall of China

Early morning fog covers the Jiankou section of the Great Wall, located in Huairou District, north of Beijing, China, June 7, 2017. (Photo: Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

Rebuilding the Great Wall of China

Vegetation grows over parts of the Jiankou section of the Great Wall, located in Huairou District, north of Beijing, China, June 7, 2017. (Photo: Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

Rebuilding the Great Wall of China

People work on the reconstruction of the Jiankou section of the Great Wall, located in Huairou District, north of Beijing, China, June 7, 2017. (Photo: Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

Rebuilding the Great Wall of China

A man takes a break from work on the reconstruction of the Jiankou section of the Great Wall, located in Huairou District, north of Beijing, China, June 7, 2017. (Photo: Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

Rebuilding the Great Wall of China

A cameraman documenting the reconstruction project of the Jiankou section of the Great Wall, films as the sun rises over the wall, located in Huairou District, north of Beijing, China, June 7, 2017. (Photo: Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

Rebuilding the Great Wall of China

An airplane flies over the Jiankou section of the Great Wall, located in Huairou District, north of Beijing, China, June 7, 2017. (Photo: Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

Rebuilding the Great Wall of China

A worker unloads bricks from mules at the Jiankou section of the Great Wall, located in Huairou District, north of Beijing, China, June 7, 2017. “The path is too steep and the mountains are too high, so bricks can only be transported by mules,” said local mule owner Cao Xinhua. (Photo: Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

Rebuilding the Great Wall of China

Workers carry their tools and belongings as they climb down the Jiankou section of the Great Wall, located in Huairou District, north of Beijing, China, June 7, 2017. (Photo: Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

Rebuilding the Great Wall of China

Cheng Yongmao, the engineer in charge of the reconstruction project on the Jiankou section of the Great Wall, looks as the sun rises over the wall, located in Huairou District, north of Beijing, China, June 7, 2017. (Photo: Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

Rebuilding the Great Wall of China

People rest after working on the reconstruction of the Jiankou section of the Great Wall, located in Huairou District, north of Beijing, China, June 7, 2017. (Photo: Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

Rebuilding the Great Wall of China

People pause from working on the reconstruction of the Jiankou section of the Great Wall, located in Huairou District, north of Beijing, China, June 7, 2017. (Photo: Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

Rebuilding the Great Wall of China

An engineer points to the line between old (L) and newly built parts of the Jiankou section of the Great Wall, located in Huairou District, north of Beijing, China, June 7, 2017. (Photo: Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

Rebuilding the Great Wall of China

Early morning fog covers the Jiankou section of the Great Wall, located in Huairou District, north of Beijing, China, June 7, 2017. (Photo: Damir Sagolj/Reuters)