The Great Wall of China, Jinshanling to Simatai

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.

The Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, China

The Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, China

The Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, China

The Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, China

The Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, China

The Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, China

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.

The Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, China

The Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, China

The Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, China

The Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, China

The Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, China

The Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, China

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.

The Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, China

The Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, China

The Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, China

The Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, China

The Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, China

The Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, China

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.

The Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, China

The Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, China

The Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, China

The Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, China

The Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, China

The Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, China

The Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, China

The Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, China

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.

Cable car, the Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, China

Cable car, the Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, China

The Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, China

The Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, China

Cable car, the Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, China

Cable car, the Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, China

Walking the Wild Wall, off the beaten path on the Great Wall of China

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.

Warning sign near Xizhazi, the Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

Warning sign near Xizhazi, the Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

Countryside near Xizhazi, the Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

Countryside near Xizhazi, the Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

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 Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

The Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

One of the vertical climbs, the Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

One of the vertical climbs, the Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

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.

The Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

The Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

The Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

The Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

The Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

The Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

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.

Peter my guide, the Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

Peter my guide, the Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

The Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

The Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

Precipitous drop, the Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

Precipitous drop, the Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

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.

The Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

The Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

The Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

The Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

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.

Meeting people on the Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

Meeting people on the Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

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.

The Sky Stair, Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

The Sky Stair, Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

The Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

The Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

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.

Chinese farmers ,the Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

Chinese farmers ,the Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

Drying chillies, China

Drying chillies, China

Drying corn, China

Drying corn, China

Chinese farmers ,the Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

Chinese farmers ,the Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China