Runners carrying the Olympic torch ascended the Great Wall of China on Thursday in a well-controlled relay ceremony just one day before the Beijing Summer Games officially begin.

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A torchbearer carries the Olympic flame on Thursday on the Great Wall of China at Badaling, north of Beijing. ((Ricardo Mazalan/Associated Press))

Eighteen runners alternated carrying the torch along the iconic structure with no sign of the numerous protests that plagued its earlier processions in cities across the world. 

Rousing music blared through speakers, backed by live drums and the crash of cymbals in a carefully choreographed ceremony. A local Communist party secretary was the first to hold the torch aloft as the crowd was showered in confetti.

Completed in the 14th century, the 6,400-kilometre-long Great Wall dates back to China's first dynasty in 220 BC as a barrier against nomadic raiders from the north.

Opening ceremonies a day away

The torch's six-continent tour, which has served a lightning rod for protests over China's human rights records and policies on Tibet, ends on Friday when the cauldron is lit at the Beijing National Stadium during the Olympic opening ceremonies.

The stadium, dubbed the Bird's Nest for its distinctive shell, was itself not immune to protesters on Wednesday, as four activists scaled lamp posts near the stadium to unfurl banners calling for a free Tibet.

The torch arrived back in the capital late Tuesday, after an emotional run in Sichuan province, the site of China's deadly May 12 earthquake, which killed almost 70,000 people and left about five million homeless.

Protests greeted the Olympic flame relay in London, Paris, San Francisco and other cities earlier this year.

Police in Nepal break up Buddhist protest

Also Thursday, police in the Nepalese capital of Kathmandu broke up a protest by about 2,000 Buddhists, among them monks, nuns and schoolchildren, against what they call China's violation of religious freedom in Tibet.

Video footage showed Nepalese police beating Tibetan exiles with sticks, pushing and kicking them after the protesters refused to disperse. Some protesters were then seen being dragged away.   Nepalese authorities said protesters threw rocks and bricks at police, who retaliated by beating some of them with bamboo batons.

Police official Bharat Lama said 570 protesters were detained and no one was seriously injured.

Nepalese officials have said they will allow peaceful demonstrations, but not near foreign embassies or ones that target friendly nations, including China, which has faced international criticism following this spring's violent crackdown on protests in Tibet.

With files from the Associated Press