Obviously, part of our visit to China and Beijing was going to involve visiting the Great Wall of China. It’s probably the single most famous thing in the country and pretty damn spectacular. And unlike that great Australian ad from a view years back, it wasn’t built to keep the rabbits out.
The Great Wall wasn’t all built in one hit. It’s a massive series of fortifications built, added to and restored over centuries. While parts of the wall may have been constructed as early as the seventh century BCE, the most famous wall was built by China’s first emperor Qin Shi Huang – the same fellow that ordered the creation of an also-well-known army of terracotta warriors. Little of this wall, more than two thousand years old, remains – most of the wall extant today was built or reconstructed during the Ming dynasty. Archaeological surveys claim that the wall stretches for a total of 8850km. So it’s pretty long. Today only sections remain, with restoration work at many of these ongoing. I remember being taught in high school that some of the original construction methods remain unknown, and only a few years ago [long after I’d left school!] it was discovered that the secret to the mortar used may have actually been rice! I find it fascinating and remarkable that there are still so many unknowns, so much still waiting to be discovered or explained.
There are a number of sections of the wall accessible from Beijing, and we’d both independently concluded that we didn’t want to visit the nearby, popular sections of Badaling or Mutianyu. We wanted to be able to enjoy the wall with a little more space to ourselves, and were interested in the more ‘original’ and less restored sections. A combination of research and recommendations from other travellers led us to decide on Jinshanling, a section 125km from Beijing. Note that, as usual in China, the distance bears no relation to the time it takes to get there!
We booked a tour through our hostel that included transport there, as with our limited time we didn’t want to waste the day on transport. If I did it again I’d get there myself and spend the night, as what we were told beforehand didn’t entirely match what we got. We’d been advised we had at least five hours on the wall when in fact upon arrival we were told we had a maximum of three…which was rather disappointing. We’d also been told that we would be dropped off at Jinshanling and picked up at Simatai, a nearby section we could hike to. This wasn’t the case – we were leaving from Jinshanling. The bus took almost four hours to get there from Beijing, and on the way our English-speaking guide spoke briefly about the history of the wall. The most memorable part was when she asked if anyone on the bus knew why the wall was built, and answered herself that it was to keep the Mongolians out. She proceeded to sincerely advise us all that ‘the Mongolians are bigger and stronger than us, because they eat lamb and drink milk.’
Arriving finally at the wall and given our now-limited time, we decided to take the cable car up to the top. With only three hours to spend up there we didn’t want to waste 40 minutes hiking up there, and another 40 or so back down.
Disembarking from the little cable-car at the top of the mountain we were both blown away by the view, and it only got better. It was unfortunate that for most of the time we were up there the sky was dirty-white and hazy, but we got a little blue sky for a short time. It was a grubby polluted-blue, but still better than nothing!
From the top, we had the option to go west along the reconstructed wall or east along the older section in the direction of Simatai. We headed east. It was incredible.
It’s hard to describe the wall. It’s massive, it’s magnificent, and WE GOT TO WALK ALONG IT! I was so excited, and John was too. The feeling of being on top of this ancient fortification, one that’s survived hundreds if not thousands of years of history, was unbelievable. The things that wall has seen…it’s hard to imagine. All the people who have walked there before, who fought along the wall or laboured in its construction, it was like stepping into a little slice of the past.
Along the wall are multiple towers at regular intervals, and in each of these women sat selling cold water, Coke, beer, ice-creams, t-shirts and random souvenirs. The further we walked and the hotter it became, the higher the prices. We’d come prepared fortunately! You could climb onto the roof of a number of the towers, which only added to the spectacular views.
The best part was that although there had been about forty people on the bus, once atop the wall we didn’t really see them. In fact, we hardly saw anyone. While every now and then we’d pass another couple we felt as though for the most part we had the wall to ourselves. It was brilliant. The mountains were remote, the trees green, the huge bricks crumbling and often our path somewhat precarious. The steps were steep and narrow, some only half as long as my feet, and I have rather small feet.
After a long curved section we scaled a tower and found a very steep set of steps staring ominously at us. Another couple were waiting there, deciding whether to ascend – the man was exceedingly overweight and fortunately decided against it. I struggled up those stairs, and the combination of the height of them and the excessive heat along with his weight may have been a little too much. Still, although they were challenging I felt pretty good reaching the top of them!
Another tower along and John was having some difficulty so I left him in the shade of the tower and continued to the next one. It was beautiful, and the view looking back pretty special. Who’d have thought that the smoker would have made it further!
We had to head back towards the cable car before we went too much further, as we didn’t really want to miss the bus. We had a little time still and decided to head in the other direction for a bit to see some of the restored section and compare it. We were both pleased that we’d spent the majority of our time on the old part, even if we had to be a little careful and watch our step!