He who has not climbed the Great Wall is not a true man. – Mao Zedong
Photo above of the Great Wall of China at Badaling, the most heavily visited and fully restored part of the wall. Photo credited to Wikipedia Commons (Free images).
As a diehard wanderlust whose main goal in life is to see the greatest and latest of this amazing world, I’d always set my sights on leaving my footprints across the Great Wall of China. Like Machu Picchu, Ancient Rome, the mighty Himalayas and the Great Barrier Reef, the Great Wall of China was something that could not be missed.
Seeing the wall was so important to me and my dad, that it was one of the main reasons why we both wanted to go to China. If there was nothing else we liked or enjoyed during the entire trip, we would be satisfied to have walked along the Great Wall, known as one of China’s greatest engineering triumphs and perhaps one of the most remarkable manmade structures in the world.
Given my unique, thirdeye perspective to traveling, our visit to the Great Wall would be anything but normal. Most tourists choose to sign up with a Chinese tour company, jump on a huge, overcrowded tour bus and take a long, annoying day-trip to the Badaling section of the wall (which is the most-photographed and most-visited “tourist” trap in China). Most tours to Badaling start at the crack of dawn, waking unsuspected tourists out of their warm, cozy beds to lead them on an eight-hour nightmare expedition to the Wall that includes multiple stops. Instead of spending the entire time at the wall, the tour herds the tourists off like a flock of sheep to the famous Ming Tombs (who really wants to see a bunch of boring tombs?) followed by several stops to nearby jade, silk and porcelain stores where everything is way over-priced and the sales people are totally in your face. In my opinion, a visit to Badaling sounded like going to Disneyland! Who wants to ride a bus up to the fully restored wall, walk along this magnificent piece of architecture to be surrounded by loads of tourists and ride a toboggan down? It sounded like a complete joke!
So, instead of doing what most or some would say “normal” tourists would do, I decided singlehandedly to do the complete opposite. I convinced my dad into booking our own tour guide and driver through our hotel, to visit a relatively unknown, unrestored section of the wall, called Jiankou (which of course I found out about through my beloved Lonely Planet guide.
Lonely Planet describes Jiankou as follows:
For stupefying gorgeous hikes along perhaps Beijing’s most incomparable section of wall, head to the rear section of the Jiankou Great Wall. It’s a 40-minute walk uphill from the drop-off at Xizhazi Village….Tantalizsing panoramic views spread out either direction as the brickwork meanders dramatically along a mountain ridge; the settings is truly magnificent.
After reading the inviting description, I was hooked. I just needed to pry my dad a little bit which was fairly easy after a few glasses of wine.
We woke up early Sunday morning, our second day in China, to have a full breakfast and prepare makeshift sandwiches at our hotel. We knew there would be no food options available and we were more than happy to use the hotel’s french baguette and cheese (a rare find in China!) for our meal.
By 8:30 am, we were introduced to “Jackie” (of course his western name), our twenty-six-year-old tour guide who was drastically inappropriately dressed for a hike. While we were wearing hiking shoes, pants and dri-fit shirts, Jackie was dressed in slacks, a pinkish colored button down shirt, a sweater vest and sneakers. He looked like he was off to teach Sunday school, not hike the Great Wall.
We met our driver, who did not speak any english, and climbed into our four-door sedan (with no seat belts) and headed off on our forty-five minute ride to the Jiankou section of the Great Wall. The drive was our first real experience outside of crazy, congested, polluted Beijing and I was pleasantly surprised to find the road conditions to be excellent. We passed through several suburbs, villages and farms, talking the entire way long about China.
I discovered that Jackie was a wealth of information (I took several pages of thorough notes that I will use on my upcoming posts) and highly educated. He is a first generation university graduate and comes from rural China. Both of his parents are farmers and are illiterate. He is one of two children and is hopeful about the future of China. Like most Chinese, Jackie is very proud of the enormous economic changes that China has made in his lifetime. Jackie’s parents grew up wearing only one of three colors: Blue, Black or Gray. And, they ate meat only once a month. Now, many urban Chinese proudly dress like most westerners and eat meat every day. In his eyes, this was a great leap forward. Jackie believed that China was a long way’s off having a democracy. As long as the average Chinese life is impoving, the rest can wait.
We arrived in Xizhazi Village around ten o’clock. There wasn’t much there as it is very small and quite rural however we did manage to find a squat toilet and a small farmer’s market where I found a supply of dried fruits. The most notable thing I saw in the village was this fish farm below as well as the bag of Chicken’s feet (see earlier post on Chinese Street Food):
After a few minutes of asking around, Jackie finally identified the unmarked trail leading up to the Great Wall. This should have been a sign but unfortunately it was ignored.
The trail was nothing special. Just gravel littered with trash (something I still will never understand: why people litter so much on hiking trails!). The day was unfortunately overcast and the mountains were covered in China’s telltale blanket of smog. My earlier elation at being here faded fast once I realized the smog was probably here to stay.
As we hiked up the slowly escalating path, Jackie filled us in on the main details and history behind the Great Wall. The Great Wall is not one continuous wall but a collection of walls that were built and rebuilt starting in the 5th century BC through the 16th century by various dynasties. The “original”, most famous part of the wall was first built between 220-206 BC years ago by the Qin dynasty, yet little of that wall remains. The majority of the existing wall was built during the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644) and that is what most tourists see today.
The wall was built to keep the Mongolian and other various nomadic tribes out of the Chinese Empire. As winter set in and food became scarce, the brutal Mongolian warriors headed south in search of food, and in the process terrorized the native Chinese. Thus the wall was built as a defending line from east to west to keep these northern invadors out. Unfortunately it didn’t always work.
The statistics behind the wall are mind-boggling yet inconclusive as nobody truly knows the exact length of the wall and most figures vary. Per Wikipedia, the wall itself is measured at 6,259.6 km (3,889.5 miles) and includes 359.7 km (223.5 miles) of trenches and 2,232.5 km (1,387.2 miles) of natural barriers.
Map of the Great Wall of China (Wikipedia Commons).
As we hiked, I became infatuated with the history of the wall and what it took to build it. Slaves, indentured servants and other poor souls from the lower peasant class were forced into constructing one of the largest, most impressive engineering projects in the world. Thousands of people died and it is said that their remains were mixed in and used as building materials in the construction of the wall. Each stone of the wall was carried by hand or on the backs of the workers over 2,000 years ago! It was hard to grasp.
Fall is the perfect time to visit China’s Great Wall. The crowds are less, the temperature is good and you have a 50% chance of a relatively clear day (unfortunately we were the other 50%). The fall foliage is also quite stunning. We were at the tail end of the colors yet it was still quite beautiful.
I became so enamoured in the historical significance of the wall, that I didn’t notice the lack of fellow hikers on the trail or the thick beads of sweat dripping down Jackie’s young face. I was still severely jet-lagged and had “Sichuan” pork stomach after the questionable hot ‘n spicy meal the night before. Perhaps that was why I was lagging behind? I was tired.
As we hiked away from the village we saw a few birds and could hear the echo of dogs barking from down below. We had hoped the smog would lift but unfortunately it was there to stay. What a pity!
As the time passed, and the forty minutes guaranteed that it would take to reach the wall per Lonely Planet, I begin to wonder where in the heck we were going. The mountains were still covered in smog and the wall was no where in sight. The trail kept heading up up up and into the mist. I was starting to sweat myself so I stripped down to a t-shirt and wished I had worn shorts. The exertion of the hike was getting to me as I realized that the lackadaisical trail was becoming more steep and more unkept.
After an hour of wondering where in the hell we were, we finally passed another small group of Chinese. The sun desperately tried to peek out of the clouds and then I saw it. The first of three large “hills”.
Where is the wall? I asked Jackie. “Up there?” I said and pointed at the first large, steep hill. “No” Jackie replied, short of breath. “It is there” he declared, pointing up behind the first hill. That was my first realization that we were in for a ride. This was no forty minute walk in the park. It was a hike from hell. A real live adventure. Was I ready for it? You bet!
Stay tuned….next post will be about our “climb” up to the Great Wall. Yes, we were actually using our hands to grasp rocks and tree limbs. If my mother would have known, she would have freaked. Would we make it to the top? You’ll have to wait and see!
Author’s note: I decided to break this post down into parts due to my high level of photos and commentary. I thought it would be easier and better to read. Stay posted.
Wow, I can’t wait to hear what comes next! I hope this ends well, my friend. Take care and have a great weekend.
Thanks Kathy! It does end well. I’m glad I didn’t break a leg though. It was so amazing. My only regret was the poor visability. I find these ancient marvels to be amazing. It is so hard to believe that the wall was man made and it stretches as far as the eye can see on the peaks of the mountain ridges. Wow. Sometimes I truly wonder what life was like back then. I’m certain horrible yet I find history to be fascinating. Have a nice weekend too! We just got our first coat of SNOW!!!! We went sledding tonight. I must say I love it! The kids are starting ski lessons next weekend. Got to embrace the weather and nature! P.S. Did I ever mention the BlogHer conference? It is this August in NYC and our editor for World Mom’s Blog (another great blog I write for) attended. She has received amazing contacts with the UN and other noteworthing foundations. I think you should definitely consider it. I am hoping to go. Google it!
A bona fide cliff hanger 🙂 Love the China posts – thanks for sharing the thirdeye view – love the little culture notes, historical information and pictures!
Glad you enjoyed! Let’s just say I needed several $16 massages afterwards. I can’t believe its been two weeks since I’ve been back! Glad you enjoyed so far. It is hard to write and do this trip justice!
I would love to go to the wall, but I don’t know if I am up to this walk. I can’t wait to hear the rest.
Wait until the end of my post…there is a much nicer option than Badaling where you can take a gondola up and ride it down. Clinton did I guess.
You do know how to make your readers curious! 🙂 And by the way, I believe you made the right choice for choosing to book a tour guide by yourself (we will find out about this soon, right?).
THANKS!!!!!! I will have to really think hard on the next one so it doesn’t disappoint! It is truly a fun story! Ha Ha….
Awesome! The hike from hell! What a great story I can’t wait to read more. I often wonder myself why ppl still litter, it’s baffling at how lazy some ppl are in society.
This is one awesome post! I’m totally sharing it, everywhere!
This should be Freshly Pressed, I felt like I was right there. Good job. Thank you!
Thank you so much! This was one crazy adventure! It is taking me time to digest it even two weeks after the fact! Now….back to having 10 kids over for my children’s birthday party!!!!!!
haha great post but I hope you got to see the wall eventually!
On my visit to China years ago I didn’t make it to Beijing or the Great Wall so they’re still places I want to visit. I did make it to lots of other interesting places though including the Terracotta Army and the Shaolin temple where kung fu originated. I was traveling with my younger brother and he had a black belt in kung fu so it was a must. We took a container ship back from Shanghai to Hongkong which was an adventure in itself!
LIke you, I avoid tour groups like the plague and do everything independently. Much more adventurous!
Can’t wait to read your next post!
Reading all your Great Wall posts made me smile, because I went through the Badaling Route, and it was hysterical. Had I known about your route earlier, I would have had choices. But then I can also imagine your tough climb, but rewarding views nonetheless. Mine was like a mob scene, and for a photographer like me, a frustrating dilemma trying to get historical mood shots when am being pushed and shoved in all directions. And damn right, it was too steep for comfort. But it was, despite everything, a great and unforgettable experience, wasn’t it?
Good luck on your other journeys! 🙂
Thanks for your comment! I can only imagine what a massive tourist hell it must have been. Did you manage to get any good shots? Are they on your blog? I’ll have to check it out. I would have been unbelievably frustrated if I was a photographer at any big tourist site in China. The population and density of people is truly overwhelming. The Forbidden City was like this for us as well. As for the Wall, it is still the highlight of my trip and the best thing I did in China. Where else did you go? I went to Shanghai as well. Someday I hope to return and see the lovely countryside. That is more my style and I hope to do it. Thanks again for reading!
Hehe in all honesty I went through your site looking for other perspectives to the Great Wall, and I wasn’t disappointed. I wanted to borrow that image of you and your Dad hiking perilously over a stretch of crumbling rocks. It was like we went through two different provinces to reach the ancient wonder. While I hear crickets and birds chirping as I look at your images, you will HEAR differently with mine (soon as I post them). I can barely contain my laughter now as I imagine your jaw drop at the scenes I will post. It’s like a flea market rush in the sky. And now I am inspired to post tonight, hahaha!
I haven’t gone to Shanghai yet, but I went to Guangzhou, and I had the best and cheapest shopping of all time there, but that’s another story. 🙂
We must talk again soon. I need to hear about your reaction! (wink)
I will look forward to seeing your post! I just subscribed last night so I’ll get them all emailed now. I’ll let you know my thoughts. Great blog by the way!!!!
Hahah thanks. Following you as well. 🙂