The Great Wall of China has a tendency to make you feel small, more accurately, insignificant. When placed alongside the size and history of this extraordinary achievement, one’s own accomplishments gain an unflattering perspective. The fact that the Great Wall proved completely inadequate as a means of defence, shouldn’t take away from the fact that it is an utterly spellbinding place to walk in the early morning sun.
Against a backdrop of jagged mountains, the Wall snakes over hilltop-after-hilltop into the distance. From Jinshanling to Simatai the wall is mostly well preserved or renovated, making it a straightforward walk without a group or a guide – its hard to lose your way when walking on top of the largest man-made structure on the planet. You still have to climb some very steep sections but, when you’re gasping for breath and cursing those who built it so inconveniently on a mountain top, you just need to take a look around. It is magnificent.
I’d left Beijing early – very early – intending to reach the Jinshanling section of the Great Wall with enough time to avoid walking during the heat of the day. 12km without shade under a hot sun isn’t my idea of good time, plus the light and air quality are much better in the early morning. I’d expected to see some people, but with the exception of a couple of women selling t-shirts and cold drinks I spent four hours in splendid isolation. It was a wonderful and tranquil walk, only close to Simatai did I start to meet other people.
This section of the Wall was built during the Ming Dynasty towards the end of the 16th Century, although there have been fortifications here since the Northern Qi Dynasty in the 6th Century. The Wall is seven metres high, six metres wide at the bottom and about four metres wide along the walkway on top. I didn’t count, but I’m told there are sixty-seven watchtowers on this route. These are mainly regular towers, but there are some large two-tiered towers.
Close to Simatai the landscape is less mountainous, but never stops being a series of ups-and-downs. Eventually you drop down to a reservoir and then a road, which was once a strategically important pass protected by the Great Wall. I could have headed to the visitor centre at this point, but there was one final bit of Wall to walk. I headed back up a jagged ridge, at the top of which awaited the most spectacular views of the day. I could see to where my walk had started hours earlier. The Great Wall of China is breathtaking.
More than the views though, the top of the ridge at Simatai is home to something very exciting…a cable car with open air gondolas to transport you back to civilisation. It was a fun, if a little hair raising, way to end a extraordinary walk.