The Great Wall
Contrary to our nature, Ellie and I decided to heed the advice of several concerned parents and friends and elected to use a tour service for our Great Wall trip. We were told that the Wall was dangerous and that camping along it was illegal. So, for a relatively reasonable fee, we were hooked up with a private tour guide, a car to shuttle us from Beijing to the Wall trail heads, food, and two nights accommodation along the Wall (though we initially thought we’d get a chance at camping ON the Wall with our guide – our preference).
In retrospect, once getting to the Wall, hiking along it and finding somewhere to camp would have been no problem. Parts of it are certainly in disrepair, but nothing that a little re-routing couldn’t fix. Also, we discovered that while it is illegal to camp overnight in the renovated “Scenic Spot” sections of the Wall, most everywhere else is fair game, and undisturbed. Though people will not tell you this. And while I don’t know statistics, I would bet that 98% of tourists going to the Great Wall of China go to one of three renewed, government regulated, built-up spots. This leaves miles and miles of real, often crumbling, but far more authentic sections of the Wall untrafficked and unloved. Naturally, it is these places that held the appeal for us. Further, I’ll put it flatly: we did not get along with our guide, who was a sheltered, young Chinese man the same age as us, who clearly struggled internally with years of hating America (per Chinese propaganda) and his recent idolization of stereotypical America and Americans, as the scales fell from his eyes in regards to his own government. To boot, we were (are) women, and despite the fact that we were paying him for a service (i.e. it was, in fact, our vacation), our desires, abilities, and preferences were nigh taken into account. Not exactly what you look for in a guided personal tour.
Gubeikou Section of the Great Wall
All that said, the Great Wall is an impressive feat in architecture, warfare and protection tactics, manpower, and natural beauty, and I am delighted to have discovered it. Built primarily during the Ming Dynasty (between 1368 and 1644) to protect Beijing from nomadic Mongol invaders to the North, in the end, it did little to keep out the formidable Ghengis Khan. It snakes its way along the ridges of the Yanshan and Xishan mountain ranges, a series of watchtowers interconnected by long expanses of, well, wall. We learned that it was engineered to catch rainfall and funnel it only towards the Beijing side of the mountains, and here and there, the usual bricks along our walk were interspersed with fine carvings and etchings, detailing the year and emperor under which that section was built.
Etchings over top arrow windows
The first day, we began hiking on the Gubeikou section of the Wall, furthest North-East from Beijing. The day was dry, hot, and hazy. This section of the wall, while not renovated, hooks up with Jinshangling, a very popular section of the “Wild Wall,” where we stopped for the night and stayed at an Inn at the base of the Wall in the town proper. The next day, we awoke to mist and cooler temperatures for our hike to Simatai, perhaps the second most well-known section of Wall in the area north of Beijing. (Second after Badaling, which we did not see, but which I hear is a tourist-trap circus.) These sections were rebuilt in the 80s and 90s for tourist revenue, and do give quite a nice idea of the Wall in its hey day. What original stones they could not use for the renovations, they produced similar likenesses. The hiking was not very difficult at all, although some sections were a little stair-masteresque given all the steps. After a late and delicious lunch of grilled trout (a specialty of the region), we drove to a village in a really remote section of the Wall, Jiankou. Here, rather than paying the Chinese government for access, the villagers profited by charging tourists, and I was happier to see my money stay in the remote valley than off somewhere else.
Jinshingling Inn Courtyard - Ellie and I playing with our new birdy toy
View of the Fairy Watchtower in the Simitai section - we were unable to go beyond the spot where we were standing due to "dangerous disrepair." Although for 200 yuan (approx $30), you could bribe the teenage guards to let you pass.
Whole grilled trout in Simitai seasoned with lots of red chilli, cumin, and fennel. Delicious.
That night, we stayed in a guestroom of a local corn farmer, who had become famous in the area for housing many photographers in the 90s. Let’s just say that while the beds looked decent enough, I was happy to have my own cozy sleeping bag with me for the night. The last day was the best weather we’d had. Clear blue skies and a spring breeze to the air. This was officially the “Wild Wall,” off-limits to regular tourists and by far the most delightfully decrepit portion of the Wall we’d seen. Footing was treacherous at times and my adrenaline was definitely pumping as I pulled, sidled, and balanced my way up the mountains, praying not to get hurt in remote China without travelers’ insurance. Here, most of the stones and steps were crumbling away, and plants and trees had reclaimed the watchtowers and paths. Certain sections, we hiked alongside the Wall for safer passage. Looking behind me, I could see the Wall wind its way nearly encircling the entire farming valley below. It was breathtaking and staggering and with sun on my face, my heart swelled.
The entrance and outside patio of the farming family's home with whom we stayed
Jiankou section of the Wall
Pondering upon the highest point of the Jiankou Great Wall
After climbing off the Wall and having lunch on the patio of our farmer family’s home, we returned to civilization in Beijing. Though the distance was covered in less than two hours by car, the quiet view from our remote part of the Wall that morning and our smoggy and noisy evening entry into the city were worlds and worlds removed.
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