As the crow flies, we covered only a small part of the total distance traced by the Great Wall, about 350 kilometers one way. However, this nomad-repellant barrier rarely runs conveniently alongside major highways, nor are some of the more interesting segments accessible without deep forays by vehicle and on foot into the Chinese countryside. I would estimate that, crows aside, we put 2,000 kilometers on the mini-bus speedometer by the time we returned to Beijing, and many more kilometers on our feet.
By the time I had spent two weeks climbing up, down and along ten very different segments of the Great Wall dotted between China’s capital, Beijing, and the Yellow Sea to the east, I had physically challenged myself and powerfully adjusted my preconceived notions about this extraordinary wonder of the world.
Any day of the week, the easily accessible Badaling section, two hours drive from Beijing on good roads, is packed with mainly Chinese tourists from every part of the country.
Usually we walked for two to four hours on both Great Wall days and sightseeing days, sometimes even less. However, the Great Wall cut straight to my physical weakspot that first hiking day at Badaling: my moderately arthritic knee joints went into rebellion over the 3,000 steps up, down and along this introductory taste of what was to come.
I can walk for hours unimpeded on flat or undulating terrain, but hundreds, never mind thousands, of stairs, especially coming down, can be a killer. That night I discussed the options with my California roommate, Elizabeth, and we both agreed to go in search of walking sticks before the next day’s hike came upon us. Elizabeth’s knees were just fine, but she was already missing the hiking stick she commonly used in the California mountains. Fearing that it would be confiscated at airport security, she had left this old friend at home.
Next morning, we bargained for two carved and polished walking sticks made of local wood and decorated with handsome dragon head handles. These became our constant companions through the rest of the Great Wall encounter, during which we estimated that another 25,000 steps, some three or four bricks high, needed to be navigated.
Commonly misty vistas add to the Great Wall’s mystique.
As part of their hiking uniform, our colleagues from Calgary, Ann and Allan, broke out their state-of-the-art adjustable metal poles without which they never leave home, but at no time did I see Chinese vacationers of any age use a walking stick on the many segments of the Great Wall we scaled together. No doubt hiking with a stick is a foreign idiosyncracy!
Fellow hikers, Ann Campbell of Alberta and Elizabeth Pomeroy of California, catch their breath.
When Deng Xiaoping became premier of China in 1977, he organized a concerted repair campaign on a massive scale, with all segments of society – organizations, businesses and individuals – contributing money, expertise and volunteer time. His oft quoted slogan was: “If you love China, repair the Great Wall!”
The Great Wall is on average eight to ten meters high [27 to 32 feet] and five meters [16 feet] wide. While it is said that five horses could canter abreast along the ramparts, the main defenders were definitely foot soldiers and expert bowmen housed in garrison towns located at strategic intervals or on the fortifications themselves. Imagine how bleak that would be in winter! In fact, horses would have found little hope of cantering on a surface largely consisting of thousands of steps.
Where the wall dips into the strategic Huangyaguan Pass, a large fortified garrison from the Ming dynasty has been somewhat modernized into visitor accommodation with the best view in town.
The Shanhai or Number One Pass, is the first mountainside the Great Wall scales after it heads west from the shores of the Yellow Sea seen in the distance.
Over a period of more than 2,000 years, the building and re-building of pieces of this defense network were carried out by many Chinese lords and emperors during some 20 dynasties (7th century B.C. to 17th century A.D.). Number one objective was to keep the disruptive northern nomads out of the fertile Central Plain where the agriculture-based rulers held sway.
Most of the wall visible today was rebuilt in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), covering some 6,300 kilometers in total from east to west and boasting 10,000 individual watchtowers. As pieces have fallen or been carried away for other building projects, earlier military architecture and building styles have been revealed beneath the precisely-cut dark gray brick of the Ming style.
At Panjiakou Reservoir, the Great Wall marches down into the water and emerges in equally unrestored form on the far shore.
In 1987, the Great Wall of China was designated by the United Nations as a cultural World Heritage Site.
The Great Wall often etches the horizon as it crosses hundreds of strategic mountain passes with magnificent views that change with every season. Where logistically possible, it followed the area’s steepest terrain to ensure that the enemy could not get above the defenders either on foot or on horseback. The wall was never breached in battle.
To reach this unrestored Luowenyu Great Wall, we went truly off the beaten path, fjording a shallow stream and climbing for an hour through terraced orchards before scrambling up onto the wall itself.
In many areas, bricks and supplies could only be carried to the steepest building sites by either goats or men. Construction was not a popular assignment for the frequently press-ganged or prison work force whose life span was considerably shortened by this assignment.
Our explorations of the Great Wall provided enough challenges and food for thought to encompass several vacations, but we did not stop there. We visited modern department stores and traditional community markets, priceless royal tombs and bustling Internet cafes where 30 minutes of time cost 25 cents and often we were the only foreigners.
As our hike draws to a close, National guide, Natalie Han, and our leader, Tony Pau, break out a bottle of Great Wall red wine to celebrate our arrival at the Old Dragon’s Head, where the wall descends into the sea.
We learned a little about calligraphy and traditional papercut art, and a lot about the cuisine that was always a much anticipated highlight of each day. For a small taste of the total travel menu, I invite you to explore two more Great Wall articles hotlinked from their image buttons below.
FOLLOW UP FACTS
A number of travelers are the fans of Great Wall Hiking. They immerse in hiking various sections of Great Wall on their trips to China.
The company with which I hiked the Great Wall of China no longer offers hiking in China. While I have no personal knowledge of other tour operators that offer similar experiences in China, here are four potential operators to check out: Exodus, Mountain Kingdoms, China Adventure Tours, and Great Wall Hiking. If you are personally informed about another company you would like to recommend, contact the author.
Recommended guidebooks: both the Lonely Planet Guide to China and The Rough Guide to China offer informative coverage of the Great Wall and its surrounding cities and historical landmarks.
Alison Gardner is a travel journalist, magazine editor, guidebook author, and consultant. She specializes in researching alternative vacations throughout the world, suitable for people over 50 and for women travelers of all ages. She is also the publisher and editor of Travel with a Challenge Web magazine.