Lying like a giant dragon to the North of China, the Great Wall records thousands of years of history in its bricks and buttresses. Winding across mountains and deserts, its grand presence beautifully blends in with its natural surroundings.

For photographer Yang Dong, the Great Wall has become part of his life. He uses Hasselblad cameras to capture the Great Wall in every season, against the backdrops of outspread clouds, tree branches dressed in snow, and the flame of a glowing sunset. Capturing the sheer mass of this complex landmark on medium format, he spends endless hours waiting for the right moments to capture its grandeur.

Yang Dong’s obsession with the Great Wall started with a single moment. He begins at the start of this unexpected visual journey.

CAMERA: X1D-50C
LENS: XCD 3,5/30

There was a time that I went to the Jinshanling section of the Great Wall, located in the Hebei Province. The moment I ascended, I was stunned by the splendour of the Wall shrouded in the rolling sea of clouds and the arduous work and wisdom of our ancestors who built this masterpiece. It was the moment that my calling for beauty reached its peak – I had found the view I had been seeking.

Over the proceeding years, I have taken hundreds of thousands of photos of the Great Wall from the northeast, all the way to Xinjiang. Every time I pay it a visit, the complex structure greets me with a different facet. I see its shape and scale through the terrain it traverses, its historical trail through every inch of details, and its symbolic significance from different perspectives. I’m offered a different kind of beauty every time I meet it.

CAMERA: X1D-50C
LENS: XCD 3,5/30

In June 2019, I changed my equipment to the Hasselblad X1D-50c with XCD 3,5/30, XCD 3,5/45, and XCD 3,2/90 lenses for yet another journey to the Great Wall.

I normally shoot in the morning and at night as the sharp contrast between light and darkness serves well to deliver the beauty of time, mystery, and serenity of the Great Wall. Bad weather is a good thing for shooting as it can help create unique and grand scenes. I would rush to the Great Wall whenever there was a thunderstorm in the summer or wait on the mountain top when it’s -20 to -30 °C in the winter.

Small as I am compared to the Great Wall, I could always absorb endless power from this mammoth complex.

CAMERA: X1D-50C
LENS: XCD 3,2/90

The Great Wall in Rolling Summer Clouds

I can’t remember how many times I have been to the Jinshanling section after rainfall. At 3 a.m. in June, I climbed the Great Wall alone and waited. By then, the sea of clouds had sprawled over the wall and my heart was pounding with excitement. All of a sudden, the first rays of sunrise poured down as if some button was switched on, lighting the entire view. Thrilled, I pressed the shutter button. That was the most beautiful sunrise at the Great Wall in the sea of clouds I have ever seen.

A beam of light cast on the wall amongst the mist solemnly and mysteriously. The scene, especially the airy vibe, was perfectly captured by my Hasselblad camera in superb quality and accurate colours.

CAMERA: X1D-50C
LENS: XCD 3,5/30
CAMERA: X1D-50C
LENS: XCD 3,2/90

One day in July, it had been raining heavily the whole day in the Xigou Great Wall in Suizhong County, Liaoning Province. Once I heard about this, I set off through the night and arrived at the foot of the Great Wall at around 4 a.m. the next day. Embraced by heavy fog, I carried the camera and tripod with a head lamp and rushed to the fortress on the mountain top. My clothes and shoes become soaked with the dew.

I captured this photo (below, left) at sunrise, when the mist surrounded the Great Wall, but it wasn’t as good as I expected. But that’s just how it is. Your efforts don’t always pay off. To get the best shot, sometimes you just need more time.

So I waited three days. On an early morning after the rain and before sunrise, I climbed to the highest fortress and began my wait. Finally, as the sea of clouds drifted across the Great Wall, I pressed the shutter button and there I had it – the photo I wanted (below, right).

CAMERA: X1D-50C
LENS: XCD 3,2/90
CAMERA: X1D-50C
LENS: XCD 3,5/30

I also waited for three days to shoot the wild Great Wall at sunset. I camped nearby, and just as I was about to leave the next day, I checked the forecast and knew that it was going to rain in the afternoon, giving a chance to capture a rainbow. So I waited at the best possible location, if it were to appear.

The afternoon was filled with lightning, thunder, heavy rain, and roaring wind, throwing wet dirt all over. I had to escape my tent for the safety of my car, which wobbled under the gale-force winds. An hour passed, and the sun’s rays showered through a seam in the clouds, brightening the entire landscape. With the sun came not just one, but two rainbows! I pressed the shutter right away. This kind of joy and luck only comes when you hang on for just a little bit more.

CAMERA: X1D-50C
LENS: XCD 3,5/30

The Great Wall in Golden Autumn

In September, I ascended the Mutianyu section in Huairou, Beijing, bathed in pre-dawn moonlight.

The rising sun lit the clouds on fire, so I aimed the camera to capture the scene. In a composition like this, I usually worry about the fortress becoming distorted so far from the center of the frame, but Hasselblad lenses capture a sharp and clear picture, even at the edges of the shot. Results like this make me want to capture my older Great Wall photos again with this camera.

In Jinshanling, the Great Wall in cool autumn can become grey, cloudy and stuffy in the evening. There, I waited again for a miracle. Just after sunset, the clouds ignited in the air. That’s the Great Wall – always offering you more than what you expect.

CAMERA: X1D-50C
LENS: XCD 3,5/30
CAMERA: X1D-50C
LENS: XCD 3,5/30

October is the best time of year to capture the Great Wall in autumn, right as the leaves turn yellow. But the recurring smog makes the sky grey and strong winds can strip the trees of their golden leaves, leaving you to wait for the ideal shot until next year, or the year after that.

But I was fully prepared last year. First came the fog and then the rain when I climbed and waited in the early morning in the East Wuyan building at Jinshanling, which was entirely lost in the grey. Once the mist began to disperse, the picture unfolded like a dream.

The rain pulled the golden leaves to the ground, so I shot from a low angle to display them to the fullest. I composed the frame to reveal the lane on the upper left, highlighting the wall’s structure and enrich the overall picture.

The Great Wall in Winter

The snow that fell in November coated the Great Wall in pure white. What a Northern grandeur! I ascended the East Wuyan building and was impressed by the trees decorated in snow. I began shooting right away before the snow could melt.

CAMERA: X1D-50C
LENS: XCD 3,5/30

Beijing had a second heavier snow in December. I rushed to the Simatai section but arrived late in the day. Halfway up, the sky revealed a sea of clouds. I had to hurry to not miss the best timing.

I pulled myself together and climbed alongside the cliff to a tower at the mountaintop. Sweating, breathless, and feet nearly numb, I took out the Hasselblad to capture the wall at sunset, after snowfall. The wind was chilly but all I could feel was the strength that the view had given me.

After sunset, a purple and pink sunset glow appeared and gave radiance to the lights at the foot of the Great Wall. What an enriched and serene scene. Shooting on snowy days is not only about the breathtaking scenery, but the willpower of the photographer.

CAMERA: X1D-50C
LENS: XCD 3,5/30

The Great Wall houses a history as long as the wall itself and embodies an affection for our country that is too profound to specify. Standing there alone with the complex, I feel I’m connecting to this history. I feel in awe and grateful, and even small and naive when I’m exposed to things that form a part of our brilliant culture and glowing history.

The Great Wall sits still in the vast land of China. Every time you get closer, it greets you with a gift. For me, these gifts are ideals, knowledge, willpower, and affection. So every time I capture the Great Wall, I feel a hefty responsibility on me that I need to do all I can to present its genuine beauty to the world. It’s safe to say that the Great Wall has become my spiritual home.

CAMERA: X1D-50C
LENS: XCD 3,5/45

About Yang Dong

Yang Dong is a Great Wall Photographer Member of the China Great Wall Society and Spokesperson for the China Great Wall International Foto Week. His works have been covered by Wenhui Daily, China Heritage, and National Geographic.

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