Fall on the Wall: Part III Walking the Wall

Author’s note: This is the last post on a three-part series on my hike to the Great Wall of China. To read my earlier posts, click here: Fall on the Wall: Part I and  Fall on the Wall:  Part II

We arrived on top of the Great Wall of China at Jiankou, after two and a half hours of hard climbing up, to see one of the most impressive, spectacular man-made phenomenons I’d ever seen.  I’d been to Machu Picchu, the ancient ruins of Rome and Ephesus in Turkey, and spent six months living in Paris.  All were amazing.  Yet for some reason, the shere magnitude and length of the wall just blew me away.  It snaked up and down and around the ridge of the mountains for as far as the eye could see.  For almost 4,000 miles in total, from east to west, across the Middle Kingdom.  How the ancient Chinese indentured servants built this massive wall of rock and stone was a mystery to me.  At first sight, it took my breath away.

After paying a few yuan to climb the last steps of a make-shift ladder, we finally stepped on the 2,000-year-old Wall.  I took so many pictures it was impossible for me to edit them.  So, I decided to put them all in the post.  The good and the bad.  Unfortunately the smog had not lifted and covered the Wall like a suffocating blanket.  I wanted to cry at the “what if’s“.  But I didn’t let myself go there for today was not the time to dwell on the poor visibility of the Wall.  It was the time to cherish and marvel at one of mankind’s greatest creations.

After my first steps walking along the wall, I understood why it is called the “Great” Wall of China.  It did not disappoint and proved my convictions that no matter how I felt about the rest of the trip, this one moment in time would make it all worth the journey.

Here are my photos, the good and the bad, as I entered and walked along the Wall.  Come take a walk with me! 

The end of the trail.  Here is the last tower at Jiankou.  You cannot go further in this direction past the tower as the trail is dangerous.  (I am sure some adventurous souls do so, despite the absence of the Wall and a trail!). 

The wall in the fog, headed towards Mutianyu, a fully restored and easily accessible part of the Wall.  

Thirdeyemom (aka “me”) gets accosted by the Chinese paparazzi!  These hikers nearly fell over when they saw me.  A almost-forty-year-old-American-blue-eyed-blond!  I couldn’t pass the hiking group and had to get my picture taken with at least ten people!  It was hysterical!  I realized that I would never ever want to be famous.  What a drag!

I am laughing so much in this picture!  As someone who is used to always “fitting” in, it felt strange to stand out in a crowd and capture so much attention. 

This is inside one of many towers.  The bottom level is where the military slept and the top level is where they kept lookout.  It was cramped accommodations, as they had 20-30 men in each chamber.  Luckily, the men would stay here for only a few months at a time and then return to the village for a month off while another group took over watch.  This went on for many years. 

My dad hiking the precarious unrestored section of the Wall. 

View back towards the direction we came at Jiantou. 

Our guide, Jackie, crossing over a bridge.  The photo doesn’t do it justice.  The Wall is relatively steep and high.  The right side was for the invading Mongolians and the left side for the Chinese Empire. Per Jackie, one person died per meter of Wall built.  The servants or slaves had to carry one of these large stones up hand by hand, the same route we came.  Jackie told us that the first part of the Wall as built in only nine years time by over three million Chinese.  It is an astounding 5,000 km long.    

This cut-out was where the early Chinese militants would throw things at their prey.  As time went by, they used guns to kill their enemies.

There are parts of the unrestored section that you have to get off the Wall and follow a trail.  This picture was taken to show you the size of the stones that were carried on the servants backs to build the Wall, as well as the sheer size and height of the Wall.  This goes for almost 4,000 miles!

The Jiantou section of the Wall has never been restored and dates back 600 years to the Ming Dynasty. 

The Chinese had a rather intuitive system of alerts.  They took advantage of the mountains and valleys that carried the sound.  Thus, they used a call system to warn the army against a Mongolian invasion.  During the daytime, they used smoke.  At night, they used fire.  During bad weather, they used sound.  Per our guide extraordinaire, Jackie, here was the call system:

One stream of smoke meant 100 troops.  Two streams of smoke meant 500 troops.  Three meant 1000.  Four meant 5,000.  And, 5 meant 10,000+ troops or a massive invasion!

After walking across the unrestored section for a couple of hours, we finally entered the restored section of the Wall at Mutianyu.  Mutianyu is a popular route for tourists as it has a gondola that whisks you up to the Wall.  Clinton came here during his Presidency which the Chinese like to boast.  Once on the Wall here, though, it is no walk in the park.  It is still quite steep and at times, dangerously steep on the vertical stairwells leading up and down from the towers.  Yet, the path is easier as you don’t have to manoeuver through shrubs and misplaced stones.

This section of the Wall is the restored area called Mutianyu.  It is really too bad that the sun didn’t come up as I am certain the fall colors and the grandeur and scope of the Wall would have been sensational.   Per Jackie, the Great Wall of China passes through nine provinces!  If only I could see that far!

As we entered Mutianyu, along with the restored wall came more people.  Obviously it is much easier to get here than at Jiantou!  The crowds still dull in comparison to Badaling.  Thank goodness I didn’t go there!

If only my pictures turned out and it was clear!  You can vaguely see the lines of the Wall stretching up around the ridges of the mountains. 

Along with the tourists, came the Chinese brides who took the gondola up dressed in white for their pre-wedding photos.

We Americans are superstitious and generally don’t get our photos until after the wedding.  Normally it is considered bad luck to see the bride before you are married.  I know this tradition is changing but I was pretty adamant on this tradition.

After five and a half long hours and aching knees along the Great Wall of China, it was time to be like a tourist and take the lazy way down.  We rode the gondola and it was great!

As we left Mutianyu, we were swarmed by eager Chinese vendors trying to sell us a t-shirt or trinket for less than a dollar.  It was three or four blocks of tourist hell.  And this was Mutianyu!  I can only imagine what the big touristy Badaling must be like!  No wonder they call it the Badaling Blues!

We arrived in the car park at Mutianyu, thrilled to see our driver awaiting our weary feet.  We were tired, dirty and hungry yet elated to have walked the Great Wall of China.  It was the highlight of the trip and a day that I’ll never forget.  For days like these are why I travel.  To marvel and be amazed at our big, brilliant world!

Stay tuned…much more China to come, sprinkled in with some other interesting posts about life, culture and giving back!  Thanks for reading!

Adventure Travel China TRAVEL BY REGION Trekking/Hiking

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