A visit to Beijing, China, isn’t complete without a hike along the Great Wall of China. As I began reviewing the available hiking tours, I was overwhelmed by the number of options.
Popular routes include the Jinshanling to Simatai route and the section around Badaling. These options were not particularly interesting to me because they tended to cater to ultra touristy folks. You know, the fanny pack wearing, mega camera toting, cheesy destination hat (which might say “I Heart China” across the front) wearing , and plastic neon green sunglasses sporting visitors from North America. People on these tours take cable cars up the majestic hills, an artificial and unappealing way to experience the magnificent creation in my opinion. In addition, these routes are engulfed by swarms of hawkers eager to sell all sorts of random kitschy items. Not quite the experience I had envisioned.
I opted for one of the more quiet parts of the wall, the Gubeikou to Jinshanling route. The tour organizer ensured me that we would be able to enjoy a peaceful, organic hike. I was picked up early in the morning at my hotel by my tour guide, Mr. Cheney Wu. I wasn’t quite sure which part of his name was his first name and which his last. It felt a little strange addressing a Chinese tour guide by the name of a former US vice president, so I decided to call him Mr. Wu.
It was a two hour drive to the starting point of the hike. During the drive, Mr. Wu told me some interesting facts about the Great Wall. I always thought it consisted of one big wall. I couldn’t have been further from the truth. “There are many walls in Northern China,” Mr. Wu explained. “They were all built in different eras. The first sections were built in the 7th century B.C. Most of the existing walls have been reconstructed by the Ming Dynasty in the 14th century.” As he dove into the fascinating history of China, I could hear a prominent tone of pride in his voice, something I had previously noticed in similar conversations with other Chinese people.
When we arrived at the wall, I quickly realized the tour agency was spot on. This was not your usual touristy hiking excursion. We were in the middle of nowhere; the area was beautifully serene and untouched by mayhem that surrounded the other more popular routes. I didn’t see any signs of civilization, though I didn’t see the wall either. I was slightly perplexed, and momentarily thought I had misunderstood the nature of the tour. I stretched out my arm to get the tour guide’s attention, trying to inform him that I did indeed wish to see the wall, when I stopped dead in my tracks. We had just arrived at the top of a gently sloping hill…. and there it was, the Great Wall. A shiver ran through my body when I caught the first glimpse. I couldn’t see the beginning or the end, only the endless curvy segments that seemed to slip away into the horizon.
As I walked alongside the Great Wall, I couldn’t stop thinking about the millions of laborers, soldiers, and even criminals who constructed it. The individual walls are made of massive stones, each one shaped to perfection in the local villages. The workers then had to carry the hefty stones up the hills. The work was brutal and many workers got injured or lost their lives. During its construction, it was called “the longest cemetery on earth;” estimates of casualties range from one to six million.
Some of the sections were difficult to traverse. Apparently, the Chinese builders had not adjusted this segment for hiking. We even had to scale a few guard towers in order make our way across the tour. There were no fences to protect us, so we ended up crawling when at the high points to ensure our safety.
Halfway through the hike, we came across a fence with a big sign on top that said the following: “THIS SECTION OF THE WALL IS CLOSED.” It was in Chinese of course, but Mr. Wu was kind enough to translate. “The Chinese army has a training camp in the valley,” Mr. Wu explained. “They value their privacy. A lot.” This made perfect sense, especially for a country that outlaws Facebook.
We climbed down the wall and made our way across the hill. We briefly entered a small village with no more than a 100 people. The town was sparsely populated, mostly comprised of old farms and cornfields. I got a terrific look at local Chinese country life. I saw women calmly plucking ripe vegetables, children running and screaming in glee, and domesticated animals lazily perusing the green grass. In the far distance, I could see a few men collecting firewood and loading it onto the backs of donkeys to haul to their self-built houses.
After walking a few miles, we were at a new section of the Great Wall. The last part of the hike brought us to the popular Jinshanling segment. We had reentered the highly visited areas and, accordingly, we started to see some other hikers. Mr. Wu informed us that this part of the wall had been recently restored. Although this made for facile hiking, it didn’t feel very authentic. I was thoroughly satisfied with my decision to choose the rougher route.
When the tour concluded, Mr Wu’s driver was waiting for us on the road leading down the hill. After four hours of hiking, I was thrilled to see a small eatery. I marched towards it excitedly, hoping to order a large medley of my favorite Chinese delights. I must have had a big smile on my face because Mr. Wu patted me on the back and said “someone is excited to eat!” Yes indeed:). We sat down and ordered some much needed refreshments and entrees. After I slurped down a big bowl of noodles, I leaned back in my chair and looked at the sky. Right then, a huge wave of fulfillment washed across me. Time to pull out my pen, I thought… another item can be crossed off my bucket list!
Jasper Ribbers travels the world full time while running his internet business from his laptop. He documents his journey through his travel blog, The Traveling Dutchman. Connect with him on Facebook or Twitter.