The Great Wall of China is big. Nothing new about that statement you may be thinking, but for the first time traveller to Beijing wishing to see a part of this ancient horde-repelling superstructure, it provides something of a quandary choosing exactly which part. There’s Badaling or its neighbour Juyongguan, restored sections close to Beijing that attract their fair share of tourists (and the touts they attract). Then there are the sections at Mutianyu and Huanghua, less restored in parts but still close to town. Or there’s Simatai and Jinshanling; further out of Beijing (about three hours away) and less restored but less crowded and seen by some as a more authentic section of the Great Wall. Each part has their own pros and cons, but a bit of on-line research led me to a unique opportunity… to not only visit and walk along the Great Wall of China but to sleep on top of it overnight! And sure enough, with a couple of e-mails to a company in Beijing I was on my way.
Flying into Beijing from Xi’an, I made my way to a hotel on Jianguomenwai Dajie where I met up with my guide and the three other members of the trip. From there a three hour drive in a minivan through the madness that it Beijing traffic ensued. The further out of the city we drove, the more adventurous the driver became; with some high speed overtaking waking us from our afternoon slumber to discover that there is probably no literal Chinese translation for ‘margin for error’.
We eventually pull up in a car park near the small town of Jinshanling as the sun is preparing to set amongst the mountains of Hebei province, and it is here that we first come face-to-brick with the Great Wall. Passing a town of tents which will soon be filled with backpackers and photographers, we climb the first of what will end up being tens of thousands of steps over the course of the following day. And even from this low vista, you gain a sense of the sheer magnitude of this most impressive of boundary markers. The lowering light allows time for a few pictures before it’s time to head back down for dinner.
The town of Jinshanling is small, and not just by Chinese standards; there are towns on the Nullarbor Plain that are larger. A couple of dorms, a gift shop, a couple of places to eat and a fragrant outdoor public toilet with no lighting is pretty much it. Tonight it’s the family who run the gift shop that act as our hosts, and as we’re seated at a table in front of the gift shop plate after plate of simple yet delicious food arrives, closely followed by bottles of water and Yunhu beer to wash it down. After a bit of souvenir purchasing (the amount of purchasing directly proportional to the amount of Yunhu imbibed), we get to talking with our hosts about life on the Wall. Children are introduced, gifts are given (a pack of small toy koalas make for convenient yet distinctly Australian gifts), and once-adventurous drivers become more passive with each passing drink.
Before too long it was time to make our way to where we were to stay for the night. Once provided with torches, the tour guide and the owner of the gift shop lead us through complete darkness up a steep path towards one of the Great Wall’s watchtowers. Once on the uppermost level we are given the option of whether to sleep under a roof or under the stars, with the latter option proving by far the most popular one. So after a nightcap or two and the usual pre-bed routines, our guide retires inside the hut on top of the tower for the evening while the gift shop proprietor descends to the Wall level of the watchtower to guard the entrance from any potential interlopers (Mongols perhaps?); leaving the four of us on the top balcony to settle into our bedding of sleeping bags, pillows and yoga mats.
After a couple of weeks travelling through the most populous country in the World, the all-encompassing darkness and unbroken silence that confronts you in the middle of the night on top of the Great Wall of China is as extreme a juxtaposition as you can imagine; an environment of sensory deprivation that before too long lulls you into the slumber that you require for the following day’s exertions. A slumber which is suddenly broken by a group of European backpackers wanting to know the way to Simatai. After pointing them in the general direction, wondering how they will make the 10 kilometer journey in pitch darkness and expressing concern at the level of security afforded to us, we once again found ourselves asleep on top of the Great Wall.
We woke the next morning in a pre-dawn light, with mist still collected in nearby valleys and an early autumn chill in the air. As the blue sky paled into yellow and orange hues, the solitude was being broken by the first hikers of the day; while atop a mountain stood a group of photographers aiming to catch this scene of dawn on the Great Wall for money and posterity. We take in a breakfast of coffee and bananas (and noodles for some), and then freshen ourselves up in preparation for the journey ahead as the sun begins to break over the hilly horizon. It is at this point that the scenery around us truly comes alive, as the Wall itself seems to glow as it snakes off into the distance; a distance that we will be shortly meandering towards. And as we pack up our belongings, we are provided with as many bottles of water as we can carry with us which, over the course of the morning, will prove to be worth its weight in gold. Saying farewell to the gift shop owner perched atop our 600 year old lodgings, we head off towards Simatai some 10 kilometers away.
After a relatively flat introduction, it soon became apparent why people who come here state that they have climbed the Great Wall of China rather than just walked along it. With gradients in some places in excess of sixty percent you’re literally on all fours; using arms as well as legs to propel you upwards towards the next watchtower, or holding on for balance as you descend steps as steep as any found leading to an attic. Then there are the portions of the Wall in this section in varying degrees of restoration; ranging from those that require careful steps to those that require steadying hand holds to counter loose bricks underfoot to those that require you to walk around what essentially are piles of rubble navigable only by sherpas.
We stop periodically to take in the unfolding scenery, the water that we have brought with us and food to replenish our energy. This consisted mainly of bananas, but at one watchtower somebody started handing out candy with the coincidentally humorous name of White Rabbits, thus proving once and for all that the Great Wall was built to keep the rabbits out! Sugar fix taken care of, it was time to move on; and after some time you come to realise that the number of people passing you on the Wall (or more appropriately overtaking you) is still, by Chinese standards, insignificant. Not as empty as it was at dawn mind you, but by the same token nowhere near the crowds that you come to expect from an attraction of such significance.
After what seems like an eternity of over hill and under dale atop Chinese masonry we come across a sign that states “You have got into Simatai Great Wall, buy the ticket please!”; which meant that we were at least half way through our hike. And sure enough, at the next watchtower sat a sole person with their newspaper selling tickets for entry to the next section of the Wall; something that our guide took care of for us but it once again epitomised the remoteness of the location – no turnstiles, no queues, no large group of people in matching caps and name tags. We did however come across two or three hawkers that had hiked from Simatai to sell various wares; old but amazingly fit people carrying bags full of drinks and postcards, eager to find a new captive market. At least some things never change in China, even in out of the way places!
Just before midday we come to a watchtower that marks the beginning of a descent that leads towards a river and, beyond that, the town of Simatai. It’s still the best part of half an hour to make our way down to a suspension bridge that spans the river but as we get to that point we look to the other side and notice that the Wall rises again on the wrong side of 45 degrees. The good news is that the path that leads to Simatai is only a hundred metres of what is a long and steep portion of the Wall; the bad news however is that the path that leads to Simatai is a hundred metres of steep climbing away. The Great Wall of China is breathtaking, and nowhere proved it as much as here; after the energy exerted over the previous four and a bit hours, this final hundred metres was the hardest hundred metres of all.
I had kept one last bottle of water in case of emergency. Once we reached the landing that adjoined the path to Simatai I cracked it open, and no water in all the World would have tasted as good. A few minutes of rest, recovery and contemplation of what we’ve just accomplished soon followed; where I noticed a sign that ironically stated “Do not stay on the Great Wall overnight!” Directly underneath is a sign saying “Go by flying fox”, and as we set off along the path we discover what the sign is referring to; a line stretching from the path down to the opposite bank of the river below affording us the opportunity to get to Simatai in a rapid manner, fuelled by adrenalin and gravity. For us however adrenalin and gravity had long ago made way for lactic acid and momentum, so we continued walking past the flying fox and before too long we entered Simatai.
The town of Simatai is larger than Jinshanling and more obviously geared toward the tourist yuan. Gift shops, ticket offices and food vendors of various guises abound (including the one with the travel-savvy name of Lonely Planet Restaurant); and it is to one of these dining establishments that we are led. Plates of food arrive as do refreshments; water, soft drink and the hardest-earned beer since the Wall’s construction. Once replenished, it’s time to be driven back to Beijing by a more subdued driver – hangovers do that to you!
As we are about to get into the van I stop to look back past Simatai to catch my last glimpse of the Great Wall of China, and with it I took a moment or two to reflect. It may now be just a dividing line between the green of the mountain and the blue of the sky, but for the previous thirteen or so hours it provided a stage for one of the most inspirational, surreal yet remarkable experiences of my life; an experience as big as the Wall itself.