Fall on the Great Wall: Part 1

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.

Adventure Travel China TRAVEL BY REGION Trekking/Hiking