China for me was really about two things, Giant Pandas and The Great Wall. Having left the pandas with a mixture of happiness and sadness combined, I was hoping that The Great Wall would be better. The facts are well known, only man made structure visible from space, built over several dynasties and being more than 8000km’s long etc etc. It only remained now to walk along it.
We’d looked at how to get there and back from Beijing, I didn’t want to just go, get the cable car up, walk a few yards on the Wall just to say I’d done it, and then the slide back down, I wanted to walk a little way. Having studied all the various options, coupled with the fact that there is now a new official parking site in place, and that taking a bus from the end is obligatory, we decided a guide that would come to the hotel in the morning, drive us there, walk the 10km stretch from Jiankou to Mutianyu with us, and then drop us back at the hotel was going to be worth it, and so, for the first time ever, a guide was hired.
An email to http://www.greatwallhiking.com and all was arranged within a few hours. I really would recommend them if you’re thinking of doing the same thing, really exceptional guides, fantastic English and very knowledgable.
The day dawned, and the disappointment was palpable when I saw just how foggy it was in Beijing. Still, I knew we had a good 90 minute drive to the start point in Jiankou so was hoping for better when we got there. Sadly, as we climbed, it got thicker but at least we were going to walk on the Great Wall.
Having not really done much homework, we hadn’t realised that the first hour of the walk was basically uphill. Not at all a complaint, it was hard work but rewarding when we finally puffed and panted our way up the hours climb to arrive at the first of the guard towers, that literally appeared out of the mist.
Our guide, Robert, had told us that not many people did this walk, most people did the up and down from Mutianyu, so we were unlikely to meet people for the first couple of hours. We were somewhat surprised then, when we climbed onto the roof of the first fort to see this:
Keen photographers that had camped out the night before, hoping to get some spectacular sunrise shots, but they’d been foiled.
We were now actually on the Wall itself, and it was an odd feeling, walking where centuries before, soldiers also walked, guarding the Chinese Empire against the Mongol Hordes.
To be fair to Robert, we didn’t see another person for the next two hours, as we were walking along the unrestored part of the wall.
As we walked Robert told us how there are many areas where plenty of the building materials of the wall are no longer there. Not, as one may have thought, due to erosion and time, but in fact due to a policy, in recent history, of “History helping us to live now,” in other words, if you wish, you can pop up to the Wall and take stones to build yourself a new house. Clearly this policy has since been stopped, but there are areas of almost nothing in the unrestored area.
I nearly stepped on this thing, not quite sure how I didn’t see it earlier, was at least 30 cms long:
The day wasn’t warm although we were puffing and sweating from our exertions, but after maybe a couple of hours we started to see signs that the sun was at last starting to burn off the fog. Even though Robert had told us there was nothing really to see either side apart from trees and mountains, I was still a bit miffed that I couldn’t see them.
We then arrived at the point where old meets new, the restored part of the wall was now here. At the last unrestored fort we stopped for a few minutes, to take a drink and eat a few of the apricots we’d picked from the trees along the side of the wall, and we were told a story about how, in order to stop fraud, the surveyor had to write down the exact number of bricks required to build each fort. If there were any left over, he was put to death (as clearly his intentions were to sell the extra bricks elsewhere). At this particular fort, there was one brick left over, so the surveyor, thinking on his feet, told the head military man that this brick was the “good luck brick” which was to be mounted above the entrance, and was never to be removed. Up it went, his life was saved, and it only disappeared a few years ago.
Now we were onto the restored bit, and it was quite eery thinking this is pretty much how it would have been all those years ago, absolutely gibbering in the winter and melting in the summer. First thing, of course, was to change into my trusty walking footwear:
And we continued on. Once onto the easier section, we bumped into people speaking a multitude of languages, proving just how much of a draw this structure really is. Its an absolutely staggering feat of engineering when you look at the entire project.
The sections here were very steep in places, but having been rebuilt the steps were very safe, hard going on the knees though.
Almost vertiginous in places, but to walk along paths, worn smooth by myriad feet is always an amazing feeling for me.
Coming towards the end of our 10km trek, its was getting a bit much for some:
But we struggled on:
Until we reached our exit.
A truly remarkable construction, majestic in places as it followed the curves of steep pinnacles and mountain passes, and a 10km stretch of history that I’m happy to have trodden.
A final word, the descent is fairly tough on the knees. There are close to 2000 steps to get down from where we were, I would recommend you take one of the two mechanical options if (as us two) you aren’t in the first flush of youth. I was in a bit of pain for the last 200 or so.