Ah, the Great Wall. An icon of China. To some, it's a symbol of that country's rich history and a monument to the grandeur the human mind can conceive of and the physical endurance needed to build massive structures. To others, it's a symbol of Imperial excess and a monument to folly. No matter what you believe, however, the spectacular nature of the Great Wall is self evident.
On our recent trip to China, my wife and I had the good fortune to see the Great Wall up close and personal on two hikes along unrestored and un-touristed sections. Specifically, we hiked a section of the wall between Gu Bei and Jin Shan Ling on one day, and then a section of the Jin Shan Ling part of the wall the next. While I've never been to the completely restored and extremely crowded section of the Wall closest to Beijing where most tourists go, my recommendation is to skip that and go to these unrestored sections for a more authentic and equally breathtaking experience. Any reputable tour company can arrange it for you - we went with REI Adventures - or, if you know where you're going, you can get where you need to go on your own.
Mongolians, Peanut Butter and the Chinese Army
Our first hike took place on a hazy, overcast and muggy day in the rural border areas of Beijing province. Most people think of Beijing the city, but it's also a very large province, and our hike was at a section of the wall at the edge of this.
Proceeding off the main road and through a small village on our way to the Wall, our 14-person hiking entourage encountered a problem. The local farmer lady did not want us passing through "her" land to get to the Wall. While nobody in China owns any land - it's owned by the government - this lady was adamant that we were NOT going any further. An argument ensued in which, in the end, we were allowed to pass. Turns out that the woman thought that we careless westerners would stomp all over her crops. It also came out that the woman was of Mongolian decent, did not really like westerners, and - perhaps more to the point - did not necessarily like our ethnically Han Chinese guides. I suspect our guides paid her off, but I'm not sure. In any case, we were on our way up to our destiny of hiking one of the world's most recognizable structures. Speaking of how recognizable the Great Wall is, I learned on this trip that the Wall is not - in fact - visible from the Moon. That is a myth, pure and simple.
Eventually, we spied the first crumbly, brick-built and overgrown section of the Wall and climbed up on it. Each and every one of us was simultaneously awed by the history we were literally walking amongst and excited at achieving a lifelong dream of seeing the Wall. During the day, our trail meandered alongside of and on top of the Wall as it snaked over hills, down valleys and around corners. I would call the hike aggressive, but not too difficult.
We worked up a sweat for sure, but never felt in danger or like any section was too much. After a couple hours of treading the ramparts that countless Chinese soldiers had inhabited and protected going back through the centuries, we stopped at an old guard tower for a lunch...of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches! Yep, in this very Chinese moment we were having a very American lunch. Surreal? Yes. Ironic? Yes. Highly satisfying? You bet!
After lunch it was more hiking. One of our fellow hikers actually fell off the wall and has the video to prove it - here. At any rate, later, with a beautiful section of wall laid out in front of us (see picture at right), we saw two figures running along the Wall up ahead - rushing towards an old guard tower (top left of picture) that we ourselves were heading to. Our guide said, "That's the Army, put away your cameras." When you're in China in a remote area and the one Chinese person with you says anything remotely like, "That's the Army, put your cameras away," you do it - quickly. And we did. We then marched forward to our rendezvous with the military.
Turns out we were near a restricted military zone. And, it also turns out there had been some threats from "Tibetan terrorists" that they would damage the Wall or unfurl a "Free Tibet" sign on it and take a picture for the world to see. While certainly none of us could ever pass for Tibetan anything, I could see why the Chinese army might wonder why a group of foreigners were hiking on the Wall in a rural area near a restricted military zone. For the next hour, the two army soldiers - looking more like 19 year old police cadets - systematically went through all of our bags and all of our cameras to see what we had or may be up to. Satisfied that we were no threat and would leave the area, they let us go. We never felt in any real trouble, but being out in the middle of nowhere with the army investigating you was a little disconcerting.
We climbed off the wall, hiked through the coutryside and back to our transportation. On the way, we stopped at an old man's house for a visit to see how people in the area lived. To the left, here is a picture of our guide talking to him. I think this picture says a lot about change in China. What do you think?
Beautiful Views on Day Two
Our second hike on the Great Wall was on the Jin Shan Ling section. The weather was nicer clearer and the views spectacular. We encountered no army and no angry Mongolians on this day, just uninterrupted spectacular views of the Wall criss-crossing through the countryside as we hiked up, down and around it. This was a photographer's field day as it seemed no matter which direction you pointed your camera, you would inevitably capture a breathtaking scene. Below are a few examples. See also the first picture at the top of this post.
Truly, the highlights of this day were the unending jaw-dropping views and enjoying time with new friends we now had been with for the better part of two weeks...that, and the satisfaction of buying and drinking an ice cold beer on the Wall from a local man selling snacks out of a pack (not sure how the beer was so cold).
We ended the long day at the base of the Simatai section of the Wall where all of us decided to head back to our guest house rather than hoist ourselves up another section. To get down, most of us opted for a very fun zip line across a lake and down almost to the guest house - an exhilarating way to end a day on the wall to say the least!
In the end, our Wall experience ranks right up there with the most profound travel experiences my wife and I have ever had. To think about the long history of China and all those slaves, builders, officials, soldiers, officers, enemies and others who trod there, lived there, died there and passed on the Wall to further generations - well, it's just overwhelming. In many ways, the Wall is symbolic for today's China too.
Traditionally a way of keeping the rest of the world out, the Wall today can be seen as a symbol of the communist government trying to keep out too much political influence lest its hold on power crumble - not too much different than the emperors of old. But, at the same time, the far side of the Wall serves as a metaphor for what the outside world can offer a China craving to modernize and raise the standard of living. Which side will win out?
Who can say? But, one thing I can say for sure is - see the Great Wall if you can, and when you do, bring your hiking boots and take the time to explore the less touristy areas. You'll never regret it.