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Hiking the Great Wall might be no big deal for people who live in its shadow, but it was for me

I had long wanted to visit the Great Wall of China. It had been on my “list of things to do” for a very long time. On my last trip to Beijing, I finally had the opportunity. I could have visited the section of the Great Wall at Badaling – where it has been restored and fitted out specifically for visitors. However, I wanted to do something out of the ordinary and I had heard that it wasn’t a difficult thing to arrange – I wanted to hike on the Great Wall ruins. I knew that some tours offer this as part of their excursions, but after spending several days in Beijing and fighting the crowds at all the major cultural attractions, I was yearning for some space and solitude away from all the “other” tourists.

I was encouraged by Michael Saso, our contributing editor, who told me that it was easy to find taxis that will take me to a “wild section” of the wall. He urged me to forgo hiring a guide or joining a tour and instead have a real adventure.

I took his advice and decided to venture out of Beijing via the Badaling Highway – the most popular route to go to the Great Wall. However, instead of going all the way to the Badaling section of the Great Wall, I went to another in the Shuiguan valley, where a smaller “tourist-friendly” section of the wall was open to the public. But I passed this up too and went further into the valley to where the gorgeous hotel retreat Commune by the Great Wall Kempinski is located. From there, I found a path that took me up to a section of breathtaking Great Wall ruins.

The hike up to the wall took only forty minutes and although I huffed and puffed at times, it wasn’t that difficult. The reward for this little bit of exercise was a literal birds-eye view of the valley below and a fantastic stretch of the Great Wall ruins awaiting me ahead. The bonus – no other people around! Not only was it awesome to finally be on the wall, but also to enjoy it in some relative solitude and quiet contemplation was brilliant. The only camera shutter clicking away was my own.

Once started, I couldn’t stop thinking how lucky I was. It was one of the coolest things I had ever done, and the spirit of my archaeologists-adventurer other-self took over. I took my time making my way through the wild grasses and brush. I examined closely the parapet [outer defensive wall] made from brick and stone. Because this section of the wall was still standing, its foundation made with cut stone and built up with brick, I guessed that it was relatively new – perhaps only a few hundred years old.

I had read that although the construction of the Great Wall started in earnest over two thousand years ago, the parts of the wall that remain are the efforts of more “recent” dynasties. During the Ming Dynasty there was vigorous effort to maintain and continue the construction of the wall. One of the most significant changes the Ming Dynasty brought into the construction was the use of brick and stone. Before this, the wall was built primarily with rammed earth and wood – building materials that eroded easily over time.

A lot of vegetation had grown in and around the ruins but some of the fortifications still looked strong. The bricks looked building worthy and the huge boulders supporting the base stood their ground. The breadth between the parapets was generous and wide enough for marching soldiers and wagons.

The view from this section was spectacular. From one side I could see the wall, like the back of a sinuous dragon making its way along the top ridges of the mountains. The wall went north and extended as far as I could see. I knew that this “wonder of the world” required the labour of millions of Chinese soldiers, peasants, and criminals and that it is regarded as one of the ancient world’s engineering marvels. From my vantage point, I could see why. The efforts to build and maintain the wall had to have been a monumental undertaking.

After climbing onto the second story of the ruins of a beacon tower, I imagined how it must have been for the soldiers who were stationed here. The two-storied tower provided a strategic 360-degree vantage over the terrain and view of the other beacon towers that dotted the length of the wall. The beacon towers were used not only to watch for the movement of enemy troops but also had a unique function: they served as a relay station for military messages. Fire and smoke provided communication to the other soldiers on watch in the other towers. On this bright and pristine day, I could see “hordes” of tourists walking along a fully restored section of the wall. They were probably several kilometres away but from this vantage point, their movements were visible.

I hiked and wandered along this section of the wall for about an hour. I would have liked to continue but had to stop and double back when the path along the wall stopped. The wall looked as if a whole section had been broken off. It may have eroded naturally. But more likely the bricks and stones from the wall were taken by local people who recycled the materials for the construction of their village homes. This is one of the reasons why some parts of the wall have disappeared. And indeed, the huge section that was missing looked like it could have fallen fate to a recycling effort since I couldn’t see any debris from the wall nearby.

My next destination gave me a better Great Wall adventure. From the Shuiguan valley, I headed back to Beijing then northeast to the Red Capital Ranch, a “Manchurian style hunting lodge beside the Great Wall.”

The trip from the Shuiguan valley took about three hours, so by the time I got to the ranch, it was too late to hike. On the way there, I could see the ruins of the wall from the road and was very much looking forward to trying out this section.

The next day, armed with a packed lunch and lots of water, I followed the ranch staff off the property and was shown where to start “looking for the wall.” The start was a pile of loose stones only several hundred metres from the entrance to the ranch. I was told that the Red Capital Ranch was nestled close to the Great Wall; this was very close.

I hiked up and up. At times it was a steep climb. But the weather was gorgeous and after the short hike the day before, I was ready for a longer one. This section of the wall was indeed in ruins. Sometimes I could barely make it out. Gone were the twenty-five-foot-high crenellated walls with merlons and pathways along the breadth of the parapets. I had to look hard for a stone or boulder that would signal the remnants of the wall. Or find the tell-tale man-made steps carved into the granite to indicate where to continue. But what fun it was to discover the wall when it looked like there was no more to be found!

The clearest indication that a wall had existed somewhere close by was the beacon towers that still stood. They offered the best clue to finding the path. On this hike I made it to four towers, and they were surprisingly in good shape in comparison to the wall. Some still had roofs and remains of the second storey. The cavernous first floors in some, with their ceilings, arched doorways, and paved stone floors, reminded me of the photos I had seen of Roman ruins. The similarities of their engineering are remarkable.

From one beacon tower, the next one higher up would beckon me forth. The trick was to find the path that connected towers. When I could not find the route the only thing to do was try to forge one of my own. I had to plough through thick bushes, crawl under trees, climb on granite faces to go forward. I was prepared for this; good shoes, long trousers and a shirt with long sleeves saved me for the most part. It was a triumph to enter each one of the beacon towers. I was not able to enter the last one because the steps leading up to the entrance of the tower were gone and I could not leap up high enough to get in. That signalled the end to the onward journey of this hike.

In all, the hike with a quick picnic lunch break took about three hours. The trip going up was a challenge but easy on the way down. I saw a few locals doing the hike too. I guess for the town people below, who live in the shadow of the Great Wall, it is probably no big deal to walk up and down along the wall ruins. I even found one elderly man in one of the beacon towers sitting quietly enjoying the view.

Officials are wary of anyone traipsing on the wall for fear of more damage and destruction to it. If all hikers follow the eco-friendly mantra of not taking and not leaving anything behind and to look and to not disturb, then hiking on the Great Wall ruins should be on the “list of things to do” for all adventurers.

Text & Photos Cammy Yiu