Walking the Great Wall of China

This article is from the Travelodium archive and was first published in 2010.

As the mist dispersed and the snaking, seemingly endless form of the wall appeared I could almost see the Mongol hordes charging over the hills. And it wasn’t just the eerie weather that was making for such an atmospheric Great Wall experience – it was the crumbling rocks beneath my cheap hiking boots and the fact that we were alone in a silent spot far from Beijing’s hustle and bustle.

Great Wall of China

My First Great Wall Trip

This was worlds apart from my first Great Wall encounter. As a fresh-faced backpacker straight out of university I’d soon tired of China’s constant challenges – where simple acts like ordering lunch always found me on the losing side of a 20-minute game of charades. On reaching the capital I cringed at the idea of taking the numerous buses, taxis and rickshaws required to get to my preferred part of the wall, settling instead for a tour bus to the much-visited and easy-to-reach Badaling section.

The Shops

Two silk shops and a pearl factory later I finally arrived at Badaling – bustling, immaculately restored and heartbreakingly disappointing. In fact I was so disappointed with my long-awaited trip to see one of the world’s top sights, I actually cried – as much for my laziness in not aiming for a wilder slice of wall as for the pristine paving stones packed with tourists, touts and souvenir stands.

Failing to fulfill my dreams of walking the wall became my top travel regret over the years and as soon as the chance to head back to China arose I was Beijing-bound and determined not to make the same mistake again. And so a decade later I found myself sheltering in a dilapidated watchtower clad in the kind of cheap mac you buy for a buck in theme parks, sheltering from a summer downpour.

The Morning

The day hadn’t started too well. After foolishly following a seemingly charitable bus passenger who turned out to be a money-hungry tout, we jumped into an overpriced taxi bound for Jinshanling and arrived a few hundred Yuan poorer than planned. Briefly fuming at our stupidity in believing that this passerby was just out to help two confused hikers, we quickly forgot our misfortune when met by the undeniably impressive sight of flag-, tout- and almost tourist-free wall.

The Trip

The 130km trip from Beijing shaves down the number of visitors who make it to Jinshanling, though of course a few hardy hawkers set up their wares each morning to catch the handful of tour buses and the hikers seeking some quiet time with the Wall. Still, the occasional trader peddling ‘I climbed the Great Wall’ caps or miniature watchtower trinkets was such a welcome sight compared to Badaling’s shoulder-to-shoulder tourists and cheesy photo opportunities with fake Ming guards  that I even bought a ‘The Wall’ snow globe.

Great Wall of China

We had just enough time to capture perfect shots for our Facebook profiles before the clouds gathered and tried to rain on our parade. Rain they did, but somehow sheltering in an ancient watchtower waiting for the weather to brighten just added to the atmosphere. For half an hour we alternated between gazing into the mist and watching security guards take advantage of the weather to play a quick game of mah jong.

Taxi Driver

With the rain letting up we decided to make a start. It is 10 undulating kilometres from Jinshanling to Simatai and we had a date with a particularly surly taxi driver in just over three hours. Worrying whether he’d wait if we arrived too long after our agreed rendezvous time, we congratulated ourselves on not being foolish enough to pay the return fare in advance.

The mist swirled below us as we climbed the steep approach to each watchtower and blissfully cleared as we reached the highest point of our hike, affording us the sweeping, serpentine views I’d yearned to see for so long. And the best part of all was that the tricky-to-reach location coupled with the dismal weather meant we only saw a smattering of other hikers along the route. Of course, no amount of rain could keep the hardcore hawkers from trekking to their pitch each day to sell water, offer their photographic services or capitalise on their Mongolian routes to sell a few Genghis-inspired ornaments.

The Afternoon

After picnicking on a pile of bricks that looked like no one had paid them any attention in 2000 years, we tackled the second leg of the hike. Nearing the half way point, we reached the watchtower that marked the start of the Great Wall’s Simatai section, where we were met with a reception that was all-too-common in the wall’s early days. As an architectural feat, no-one would argue with the wall’s prowess, but as a military bastion, it never quite fulfilled its potential.

Scammed Again

Scaling the vertiginous walls must have become a whole lot easier when the sentries guarding them would look the other way for the right price. And we found the spirit of capitalism as sturdy as the wall’s foundations as we tried to continue our hike to Simatai. Arguing that our entry fee had already been paid or that we didn’t even know if those demanding a second tariff were employed to guard it or were just entrepreneurial passersby proved futile. Faced with an alternative of backtracking to a spot with no return transport, we begrudgingly paid again and continued, our momentarily dampened spirits quickly lifted as we scaled some of the most deserted and rugged segments yet.

Great Wall of China

We paused briefly to savour the solitude and silence – both rarities in China – but couldn’t linger too long for fear that our driver might desert us. Thirty-two watchtowers after leaving the car park at Jinshanling, we reached the end of the trek, our arrival heralded by another perfectly polished section of wall that looked like it could have been built last year.

The ride home

Just to remind us that China’s communism is complemented by a generous helping of capitalism, we followed the wobbly suspension bridge spanning the gorge, only to be met by a real-life troll, demanding payment for crossing his bridge. The alternative was a 5km walk to avoid the bridge so we paid the fee (a minimal amount, but still an annoyance) and sought out our driver.

Checking our photos as we settled into the taxi, I couldn’t help but smile. Sure, it had been a day of trying, and failing, to avoid rip-offs, but it had also been a day of hazy skies, eerie mists and of stumbling over loose rocks. And that might not sound much like an ideal afternoon, but at least I could clear my travel regrets list and look at my photographs without bursting into tears.