William Lindesay

Seated among the businessmen of the Kempinski Hotel’s café, William Lindesay looks rather out of place. Wearing an olive T-shirt, khaki trousers, bush hat and the middle-distance stare of someone used to spending large amounts of time outdoors, the British geographer resembles a modern-day incarnation of his hero, Aurel Stein, the great explorer famous for his archaeological finds in Central Asia.

In the future, Lindesay may also be remembered similarly. His most recent discovery has proved almost as headline-grabbing as Stein’s – and just as controversial. Following a five-day exploration of Mongolia’s Gobi desert, he maintains he now has evidence that a section of wall known as the ‘Genghis Khan Wall’ was actually built by the Chinese.

‘Many Mongolians will never accept this – that the Great Wall of China exists on their territory – the very idea is offensive to them.’ As a result, he has faced nasty web comments and accusations that he is being funded by the Chinese government.

This isn’t the first time the Great Wall has landed him in trouble. He first took on the monument in 1987, when he trekked solo along the 2,470km section of Ming Dynasty wall stretching from the sea to its desert terminus in Gansu province. At that time, only a few hundred towns in China were open to foreigners. ‘The word forbidden is overused but that journey really was,’ says Lindesay. He travelled without GPS or even a decent map, armed only with a few phrases of Cantonese he’d picked up from a Chinese restaurant in Liverpool.

But he made it – despite being arrested nine times, deported once, overcoming sunstroke and having to out-run vicious guard dogs. He was lucky to have made it alive, as he recalls: ‘I met a teacher in Ningxia, the first person I’d spoken English to in a month. He told me, “The next few days may be difficult; there’s a disease in town.” He didn’t know the English word, so he pointed to the dictionary. It read “bubonic plague”.’

What was supposed to be a one-off trip sparked a lifetime obsession. A decade later, he came across the ‘Genghis Khan Wall’ when reading an atlas based on the 800-year-old chronicle, The Secret History of the Mongols. ‘My first reaction was, why would Genghis Khan build walls?’ says Lindesay, ‘He’s the big conqueror, the man who went out and ruled Asia. A wall is normally a form of defence.’

After much research, Lindesay settled on two possible theories. Genghis’s successor, Ogedei, was recorded to have constructed walls to prevent wild beasts migrating – so perhaps the Genghis Wall was simply a giant pen. The other, which Lindesay calls the ‘jigsaw theory’, hypothesises that it is an extension of the Han Dynasty walls in China. Dashing a pencil across paper, Lindesay sketches this out: ‘By taking a map of Mongolia and matching it up with a map of China, it seems as though the walls on either side of the border are one and the same.’

To prove which theory was right, Lindesay first had to find the wall. His friends warned him that ‘It’s impossible, there’s nothing left. It’s just marked on maps.’ But ten years after reading about the wall came a breakthrough: he met Tudevin Baasan, a Mongolian geographer specialising in the Gobi. After vowing to search for it together, there was first the small matter of getting the Mongolian government’s permission to explore this sensitive border area.

That arrived half a year later. Lindesay’s seven-person team got going fast, but not without preparation. In 2010, he had led an expedition with National Geographic to Gansu’s Han wall that almost ended in disaster. Some of the crew collapsed from dehydration during a 30km trek in temperatures of 46°C, and Lindesay was forced to drink his own urine to ‘make it that last mile’. Now he was heading into even scarier territory: the uninhabited heart of the Gobi. ‘If things went wrong there, we’d have had no hope,’ he says.

Laden with enough water (40 litres per person to last over five days), tents, basic provisions and the twin luxuries of HP Sauce (for the Brits) and premium Genghis Khan vodka (for the Mongolian army officers they would meet near the wall), they set off in two old Land Cruisers.

Their destination was the GPS co-ordinates of a 100km section of wall, identified by Google Earth as being potentially interesting. After a day spent traversing plains, salt pans and sand dunes, and a night camped out in the Gobi’s black expanse, they arrived on the afternoon of their second day.

What they found wasn’t the kind of fortification that tourists visit near Beijing, but a wall under three metres high, fashioned from earth and branches, which looked remarkably similar to the Han wall in Gansu. Further along, they discovered a more unusual section.

‘It was made from chunks of jet-black basalt, quarried from nearby – from a distance, it looked like a black snake curling up the mountainside.’ Although it didn’t match anything he’d seen before, Lindesay felt it showed Chinese characteristics: ‘China’s wallbuilders borrowed from nature. Here they used what limited stone was available and made the most of the mountain as a vantage point.’

However, when Lindesay sent samples collected from these sections to the lab, he was surprised. He had expected them to date back over 2,000 years – to the Han period. Instead, the three samples were from 1042, 1131 and 1151AD. The ‘Genghis Wall’ wasn’t Han but, even with the 30-year window that carbon dating must allow, it still predated third son Ogedei Khan’s reign (1229- 1241) and even Genghis’s own ascension in 1206.

Lindesay theorises that the wall was actually built by the Western Xia, a dynasty that ruled over parts of North Western China between 1038 and 1227. He explains: ‘The dates and the line of this wall correlate almost exactly with the extent of the Western Xia.’

This will come as a revelation not only to Mongolians, but also Chinese scholars since the Western Xia are not previously known to have constructed any walls. But, Lindesay retorts, ‘There are no historical records because the Western Xia’s own records were destroyed when Genghis Khan’s army annihilated them.’

This may be a case of history being written by the victors – but not if Lindesay has his way. ‘I am out to prove history right or wrong,’ he says. He intends to further explore the wall to consolidate his theory, even if this means ruffling a few feathers – but hopes, whether the wall was Genghis’s or not, that Mongolians can still feel proud.

‘It should be a shared heritage. As the president of Mongolia once said, “The Chinese people were hard-working and organised to build the Great Wall, but it takes a great people to have a great wall like this built for them.”’

First appeared in Time Out Beijing on  June 1, 2012.