The main reason I wanted to see Beijing was to climb the Great Wall of China. At a total length of 3000 to 5500 kilometers -depending on how you measure its parts- it definitely lives up to its name. Its huge size, however, didn't make it any easier for us to decide which part we would hike.
While doing research I stumbled upon a funny series of misconceptions about this huge man-made wonder.
Which part to visit?
Starting from Beijing, there's different parts of the wall you can visit. The most accessible one is the Badaling section, but this is one part I wouldn't visit, even if I was paid to go. It is so busy it is hard to actually see the wall through the crowds. There is a strong likelihood that it will disappoint you, just as it did Karl Pilkington: "To be honest with you, it's not the "great" wall, it's an "all right" wall. It's the All Right Wall of China."
The hike between from Jinshanling to Simatai seemed beautiful and not too crowded. Unfortunately, at the time of our visit, this part was closed for restauration.
There was another option that started in Jiankou. It would be more challenging, but at least free from large crowds. The Jiankou section is a rather dangerous part of the Great Wall because it has not yet been restored, which is why it is officially closed for tourists. No measures are taken, though, to prevent people from climbing that part of the wall. Beware that if anything happens, you bear all responsibility. We would start in Jiankou and make our way to Mutianyu, a part that -in contrast- had been completely restored.
A guesthouse we'll remember
Having left Beijing in the afternoon, we spent the night in a guesthouse in the little village of Xhizazi. Our room was very basic, yet quite luxurious to Chinese standards. Even though they were not larger than 20 to 50 centimeters, we were thrilled to find real towels in our room. (Fellow backpackers who travel with microfiber towels all the time will understand the joy of a real towel.) We had our own little bathroom, which was designed in an ingenious space-saving way with a 2-in-1 shower and toilet. You basically squat under the shower or you shower over the toilet...
After we had ordered food, the waitress set the table with a plate and bowl still wrapped in plastic, as if the service was brand-new and thus still unpacked. We were intrigued by this unusual package, and left it right where the waitress had put it. When the lady came back with our food, she looked suprised to see we hadn't unpacked our plates yet. She made clear she was waiting for us to do so, so that she could serve our food.
The woman who ran the guesthouse did not speak a word of English. To make ourselves clear, we had to recur to miming, hand gestures, drawing, our offline Chinese dictionary, some random words of English or a combination of all of the latter. We racked our brains to decipher the directions we were given: "Blue." She points left. "Blue." She points right, then points to the drawing of a mountain.
Need translation? "In order to follow the right track, you turn left when you encounter a blue signpost, and at the next signpost, you turn right, after which you will reach the wall." Easy, right?
The journey begins
The next morning, we woke up at 4h30 to get a headstart before the sun would rise and the temperatures peak. We followed our accurate instructions 'Blue left, blue right', consciously ignoring the signs stating access was forbidden. When the road split more than two times and our instructions failed, we improvised and took the path that 'felt best'. Everything seemed to go well, as it didn't take long before we saw a section of the wall known as the Sky Stairs rise in front of us.
There was just one little problem... How could we get onto the wall? We felt locked out. Following the wall on both sides, we climbed along the mountain ridge looking for an entrance. Holding on to the wall, we made our way over small, slippery stretches of land while looking down over a steep cliff on our side. It was obvious that we were not meant to be on this path and this is not how we would get in.
We started backtracking, which was even more difficult and dangerous than climbing up. We stopped to analyse how we would tackle the descent, when the sun rose out over the mist and over the wall winding through the mountains as far as the eye can see. Even if we wouldn't make it back down, a sight like this would've been a beautiful ending.
We returned and took a path in the other direction, that unfortunately led to the same outcome: a high wall and no entrance. We had lost a lot of time already and were still standing on the wrong side of the wall. We didn't know what to do. Should we keep on trying different paths or return to the village and take an easier path from there? We agreed on trying one last path and yay... The saying 'Third time's the charm' applied!
Ahead of us was a big opening in the wall, through which we could climb onto the wall. It was 6h40 and we could finally begin. Behind us lay a very steep and impressive flight of crumbling stairs. Ahead of us, the wall, still surrounded by mist, curved for miles and miles through the green mountains. It was an impressive sight. But there wasn't much time to muse, it was time to start our hike.
The first part of the hike was a continuous repetition of climbing up and down vertical sections of the wall. Since there wasn't much left of the original stairs, it was a bit like rock-climbing, but without the gear. At the top, watchtowers offered some awesome views over the surroundings, but less awesome views of the next stretch of the wall we had to cover. Everything we had climbed up, we now had to descend again. Without stairs, this was a real challenge at times. I understand why it is officially not allowed to come here. A little misstep suffices to fall and break a leg (not in the good way).
Nevertheless, this was exactly the experience I was hoping for. We had the wall entirely to ourselves, the only other people around were the occasional Chinese hikers coming from the other direction. At some point, we ran into two Chinese guys who had spent the night on the wall and were now packing their camping gear. They introduced themselves as Fred and Andlei (I couldn't remember their Chinese names). They were still having breakfast when we continued and waved them goodbye. Little did we know that we would be seeing them again frequently in the next few hours.
On the next part, we slowed down as it became increasingly hard to climb up and down all the time. The sun had risen to its highest point and I was soaked with sweat and thirsty as a camel. I got mad at the wall because it put me in so much pain and had vivid hallucinations of flat stretches of shady grassland. It was time for a break, and brunch. As we sat down, we saw Fred and Andlei hopping up the stairs.
Seeing how effortless they were proceeding, we hadn't expected to run into them again. But a little later we did. They had stopped and engaged in a heated discussion with a local villager. This old man was guarding a ladder in the middle of the path and charged 5 CNY to anyone who wanted to pass. Convinced that the Wall should be free for all, our Chinese friends did not agree and kept on argueing. Realising the local would not budge, they made a deal: the four of us would pass for the price of two. Later on the trail, this happened two more times. It was good to have Fred and Andlei around.
We ended up hiking the entire thing together. Whenever they disappeared in the distance, we found them again waiting for us somewhere in the shade. Catching up with them meant... break time! Not having seen each other for so many hills and meters, there was a lot to catch up and talk about, obviously. (Yes, every excuse for a break is welcome.) Fred was carrying some snacks and handed me an egg. Based on its brown colour, I thought it was a chocolate egg. It wasn't. It was a normal egg in vacuum wrapping, that can be conserved up to one year.
Gradually running into more and more tourists, it became clear that we were approaching the Mutianyu section of the Wall. This part is easier to walk on, because it has been restored, altough there still are some difficult stretches to cover too, such as the long slippery slope after Ox Horn Edge. In order not to fall, we had to hold on to wall with both hands and slowly walk sideways as crabs on dry land.
Restored in 1982, the beauty of the Mutianyu section is very different from Jiankou. It gives you an idea of what the wall looked like in ancient times, and there's actual steps here. Lots of them. But there's tourists too... It's not so crowded to get stuck or annoyed, but still enough to turn making pictures without tourists in the background into a challenge.
This entire hike had required a lot of effort from my -by now- wobbly legs and knees. I couldn't take no more steps and feared that my knees would not hold me anymore. Every so often, I overheard tourists coming from the other direction complaining about how hard it was. "Every time we get up a flight of stairs, all we see is another flight of stairs!" That is true, but they don't realise how grateful they should be to have stairs at least. It is much worse without.
Luckily, the end was near. We waved the wall goodbye and headed towards the village of Mutianyu. Or so we thought. Suddenly we found ourselves on the wall again, and going down more steps. A bit further we left it again, for real this time, but not without one last -but endless- flight of stairs that led us all the way down the mountain. When exited through the gate in Mutianyu, our adventurous hike was really over. We just had to figure out now where could we buy a gallon of water and cold beer?