The Great Wall of China

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We set off before dawn with the uncle of our Beijing hostesses to head to Simitai – the less touristy and less frequently visited part of the wall. It’d take 4-5 hours to hike to Jinshanling where we’d be picked up around lunchtime.

The journey to Simitai should, I’m convinced, have taken longer than it did, though the reckless disregard for speed limits on Chinese highways and motorways meant that we arrived at the entrance well before sunrise. This gave us chance to watch the sunrise slowly over the towers of the wall and provided a rare opportunity for some sunrise photography.

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There were about 6-8 other people waiting to hike the wall so we allowed them to set off ahead of us, meaning we could hike the wall in solitude and take some stunning shots of the wall without any people in shot. However, two people hung behind, a young Chinese man and woman. She immediately gravitated towards myself, and him toward Ali.  I wasn’t impressed – this was not the solitude we craved. When we walked, they did, when we stopped, they did too. It was like having a human mirror, and their presence was becoming an irritation. We decided to press on regardless.Now whilst the guidebooks tell you that the Simitai to Jinshanling stretch of the wall is a bit ramshackled, what they do not tell you is that in parts, it’s extremely difficult to hike. In fact, hike does not do it justice – for the first part, if not 3/4s of the hike, you’re actually scrambling up ‘steps’ that are three feet high and it’s uphill all the way. Loose boulders crumble under your feet and your fingertips ache as you pull yourself up ‘step’ after ‘step’. It was indeed wise to heed the advice of the locals and wears layers – within half an hour of the cold morning sun, you’ve shed most of them.

As we ‘walked’ on laden with photography gear, breath panting and perspiring heavily, our companions bounded on barely out of breath. For them as locals, this was a brief stroll taken daily. As I struggled to heave my little 5 foot 4 frame over some of the boulders on the wall, Lou (our female companion) would bound on ahead. Sure footed, and with the strength of an ox she’d offer her hand to me. Being too proud, I resisted her help the first few times. Then the going got really tough and I caved in. She effortlessly pulled me onto higher ground. She was half my age, height and weight, but time after time she offered her strength to help me scale the wall. My heart began to melt a little, and each time I struggled, I saw her huge smile appear from above me and a skeletal hand would grab mine. I’d smile back and thank her in Mandarin, to which she’d reply in English ‘No problem’. Hour after hour, the only sounds to interrupt the silence were those of our polite greetings to one another as we stumbled across the wall, hand in hand whilst the men walked on together in the distance in silent companionship.

As we reached each tower we’d shed the backpack and sit as a group of 4. We’d take the time together to appreciate the incredible views, tracing the immense wall across hills and mountainsides of rural Beijing. We’d be surrounded by conical topped hills, upon which bonsai shaped trees would be silhouetted. The light would change in front of our very eyes and the smog would thin and thicken as the morning progressed, creating a haze over the landscape and blocking the view to the city beyond. Lou and her brother would point out points of interest, and in their (excellent) broken English would explain the history of the wall, highlighting areas of original construction and restoration. This was the beginning of a brief but lovely friendship.

I think we walked about 13-14 towers in total – each one higher than the next. Between towers, we had the opportunity to learn about the local area from Lou and her brother, and got to know them better. They’d highlight short cuts to us, but we’d smile, refuse and carry on. In reply, they’d highlight the tourists at the foot of the wall, scrambling through the undergrowth in desperate search of the short cut and we’d giggle, watch them for a while and take pity and then shout directions to them to help them navigate themselves back onto the wall.

The views are stupendous, and despite the physical effort required, it really did feel like a once in a lifetime experience. I find it difficult to describe the feeling of elation you have, when standing on top of a high tower in the wall, looking North, South, East and West and not seeing a soul for miles and miles.

As the morning progressed, we’d note through our camera lenses that some tourists had started to walk the wall in groups – favouring a later start. We were very glad we’d got up early to get a head start and have the place to ‘ourselves’.

10 or so towers in, the wall started to flatten a little and the steep steps would decrease. For this we were truly grateful. We started to notice small villages and lodgings off both sides of the wall; this was where Lou and her family lived. They took this opportunity to bid us farewell and I gave Lou the biggest bear hug I could. We wanted to give them money to thank them for their help and companionship, but, as proud people, they insisted that we should purchase something in return for our money. We bought everything we could feasible carry along the rest of the walk and bode them farewell. They jumped off the side of the wall into the undergrowth and we were alone in the middle of the most incredible landscape. We walked on, hand in hand, laden with the ‘gifts’ we’d bought and promptly took 10 minutes out to have a snack and a drink we’d purchased from a vendor on the wall previously (the only one we saw). At this point, it’s worth highlighting how strange this was – in the middle of such a wonder and with no one else in sight, a man selling ice cold beer and cold coke had suddenly appeared out of nowhere. He was warmly welcomed.

The mid morning sun was kissing the wall with a golden glow, highlighting its decaying beauty. We stopped to take photos and it started to snow. It was brief, and refreshing, but lasted long enough to cover the wall in a magical layer of white crystals which reflected the sun beautifully.

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I became aware of a motionless hunched figure on the wall ahead, wrapped in scarves for protection against the snow. It was a local elderly woman who’d come to guide us along the last part of the wall to Jinshanling. Encouraged by our experiences with Lou and her brother, we eagerly approached the old lady and introduced ourselves.  She did not speak any English, and our Mandarin was limited to basic introductions, but we spent a happy 40 minutes walking the wall with her, chatting animatedly, language was no barrier to companionship.

At Jinshanling she bade farewell, but not after we’d emptied our wallet as a thank you, and had ‘purchased’ a silken purse woven by her daughter.

Now we knew from the guidebooks we had to pay an ‘entrance fee’ at Jinshanling to be able to exit the wall – so we’d reserved exactly enough money to hand to the guide and be permitted entry. We did so and carefully pocketed the tickets. What the guidebooks had not told us, was that part of the wall has totally collapsed in Jinshanling, and the only way to continue across the wall was by a long swing bridge, at the end of which was a guard who asked for payment. The payment amount was very insignificant, but we had literally given away our last yen to the elderly woman on the wall. Without payment, the guard with the gun would not let us pass, and he didn’t look in the mood to compromise. Crestfallen, we stood staring at the guard at the end of the bridge and discussed our options. Run? Compromise? Head 5 hours back to Simitai? Find the woman and beg for a few yen back? None of these were feasible as we’d have to pay the guard at the entrance again to get past – and that defeated the object and was just as impossible. We decided to wing it. Ali had found a pound coin in his wallet, and we strode purposefully over the wobbly bridge to the guard and pressed the shiny English coin into his hands. We tried to explain that it was worth much more than the Yen he requested. He stood in silence with no discernible expression on his face. He turned the coin over, and over in his hands. Through a mixture of fear and fatigue my legs began to wobble. After what seemed like an eternity he gestured for us to pass, and we quickly walked by, thanking him profusely and daring not to look back. We’d made it. We’d walked one of the wonders of the world, met some amazing people and had learned a valuable lesson about curbing our generosity to ensure our own safety. With that, we collapsed into the awaiting car and fell promptly asleep.

Additional images of the Great Wall are available in our online gallery and in our China book.

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