I’d read about the ‘Wild Wall’, an alternative to the hyper-touristed stretch of the Great Wall of China close to Beijing at Badaling. I’d seen enough photos of thousands of people crowded onto the Wall, to know that I didn’t want to experience one of humanity’s greatest feats of engineering with hundreds of tour groups for company. Saying that, I hadn’t expected to end up in the Chinese countryside clinging to crumbling rocks with a drop of several hundred feet below me.
Searching online I came across a name on a forum, a man who facilitated visits to the Wild Wall. A while later I had an email address and had sent a request for more information. It turned out that Peter Zhao was an old hand at taking people into the countryside and along overgrown, decrepit and little used sections of the Great Wall of China. I arranged to meet Peter before dawn one morning, and we set off through the quiet streets towards a small village north of Beijing called Xizhazi.
The Jiankou section of the wall where we were headed was constructed in the 1360s during the Ming Dynasty, although its origins are older. Its a dramatic sight from a distance, the white rock easily spotted even on a day as hazy as it was when I was there. Getting out of the car in the middle of nowhere, above us the wall snaked across jagged mountain tops. Our first hike of the day involved trekking across farmland and up a long steep hill until we reached a gap in the wall and started our trek along its spine.
It is not a trek for the faint hearted. The wall climbs up and over seriously steep mountains, precipitous drops on all sides. The wall seems to hug the mountains as if its life depends upon it; on more than one occasion I found myself clinging to the wall because my life did depend upon it. The wall is overgrown and sections were in very poor condition, forcing us to scramble and climb up near vertical sections of crumbling rock. As always, going up is only ever half as bad as coming down again.
Not for the first or last time in my travels, I found myself musing on the fact that abroad you put yourself into situations, and into the hands of strangers, that you’d never countenance at home. There was the time when I allowed an old bloke called Juni to convince me to swim with sharks off the coast of Belize; the incident of the stampeding bulls in Bolivia; and the stupidity of accepting a lift in Chihuahua, Mexico, in the middle of the night. Just some of the many joys of travel.
Despite the adrenaline inducing climbs and descents, this has to count as one of the more magical places I’ve ever visited. It is a truly beautiful area, with the ever present wall as a reminder of the history you’re walking through. A history imprinted in the evocative names of the guard towers and other features of this enormous construction, Arrow Nock, Sky Stair, Eagles Fly Facing Upward, Beijing Knot and Nine Eye Tower.
After walking, climbing, scrambling and sweating for several hours we suddenly came across a group of people from Beijing. The only other person we’d met all day was an old farmer from a nearby village, yet mirage-like there was a group of people in the middle of nowhere. They worked for a finance company and walking this section of the wall was a odd form of team building. Remarkably they all spoke English. We took the obligatory photos – someone always does the ‘V’ sign – and exchanged email addresses.
Peter and I trundled off towards the much anticipated Sky Stair. The only man-made structures I can compare this with are Inca trails, also constructed over ridiculously precipitous hills. The Sky Stair has an angle of 70 – 80 degrees, and they are so narrow that you have to squeeze through while desperately searching for a foothold. My heart was racing by the time I reached the bottom, but the views were spectacular. I couldn’t begin to imagine the effort needed to construct this section of wall.
We were finally descending back to another village where Peter had arranged for food with a local farmer. It was like stepping back in time: villagers were collecting crops and the overwhelming quiet of the village was a complete contrast to the madness of Beijing. However fleeting, this was a glimpse of a China that is disappearing, I felt privileged to be there, but even more privileged that the farmer had bottles of cold beer.