Trekking along the Great Wall of China
“We are outlaws now.” - These are words that precisely no-one wants to hear, not in a country like China. Of all the Asian nations not to be an outlaw in, China is just about top of my list. Yet, according to my guide Peter Cao, that is what we have become.
We are standing on a precipice of the Jiankou section of the country’s Great Wall, in an area that is supposedly off limits to the public. It’s roughly an hour outside of Beijing but, perhaps because of the illegality, there isn’t another person to be seen.
I say roughly an hour because I was unconscious for much of the drive, a combination of an early start and lingering jet-lag quickly sending me to sleep as we crept through Beijing’s morning rush hour traffic. When I awoke, I was surprised to be suddenly surrounded by snowy hillsides.
Between the smog in the air and the fog in my brain, it took several glances before I realised that it wasn’t snow at all, but blossom. I leaned forward and asked Peter what type it was. “Apricot blossom,” he said, and nothing more.
That was a couple of hours of stiff climbing ago, but I’ve not been able to get a better read on Peter since. Other than when delivering sermons on the history of Great Wall, he is a man of many steps and few words.
I get the impression that as we hike more of the Wall over the next couple of days, with a bit of coaxing, he may reveal a sense of humour. For example, when I manufactured a question to give myself a break during our first climb, asking if some people come unprepared for the strenuousness of the pursuit, Peter nodded as he handed me some water. “Some underestimate the Wall,” he said while I caught my breath. “Or overestimate themselves.”
Then there are those who know very well their limitations, he told me. He had one guest a few years ago who arrived at the bottom of the hill, saw the first watchtower on a ridge over 300m further into the sky, and promptly turned around and got back in the car.
It's a shame they did, as those first hours, though difficult, offered some of the most unspoilt and silent trekking of the whole day. When we stood still, the valley was deathly quiet. Occasional noises seemed amplified: the chirruping of little birds; the cawing of a distant crow; the bass-thud of my heart, which seemed to have moved up to a spot between my ears.
We move on again, now traversing along the top of the Wall, my calf muscles singing an unhappy song. Simply following the Wall isn't easy, but it’s at least easier than the climb up to it. Of course, that was the idea – to make the enemy toil and tire before they'd laid a hand on the intimidating stone.
This is not the world’s only great wall, but it is perhaps its purest. Hadrian’s Wall in Britain, which the Roman Emperor built across the islandlike a tight belt (and which inspired Game of Thrones creator George RR Martin’s Wall) divides scholars on its real purpose. Some say it was conceived as a neat northern border of the Roman territory; others say its purpose was a defence against wild, proto-Scottish tribes known as Caledonians; then there are those who insist that it was really a giant second-century toll gate designed to collect taxes.
There’s no such conjecture over China’s equivalent. Centuries of Mongol invasions required drastic defensive measures. Each autumn, their horse-borne armies would rampage south, seeking to raid the fertile pastoral lands around Beijing. They had little interest in conquering the capital, but while farmers were out harvesting crops, the Mongols arrived to harvest people. They were, in the truest sense of the word, terrorists, and the fear they inspired led to the creation of this gargantuan barrier.
To see the Wall and to consider its vastness is more than a little mind-blowing for a first-time visitor like me; for Peter, it’s just work. Over the last five years he’s spent an average of 20 days each month on the Wall. Around half of those have him trekking this section from Jiankou to Mutianyu, one of the most easily reached from Beijing. He will be 51 this year, but whatever adjustments his body needed to make for this line of business happened long ago. He carries a large, unnecessarily camouflaged rucksack containing several drinks, our meals for the day and an undetermined amount of camera equipment. It must weigh over 15kg, but he frequently darts ahead of me in order to position himself as my personal photographer. This is part of the service with his company, Great Wall Hiking, though when I look at the shots later I’m never quite sure whether my face is grimacing or grinning.
Each time we stop, Peter tells me more about the Wall. There is an awful lot to tell. It snakes from the North Korean border to the Gobi Desert, running almost 9,000km (according to one estimate, anyway). Only a few metres wide, it is not, as the popular myth holds, visible from space, though its enormity is difficult to overstate nonetheless. It functioned not just as an elaborate barrier but as a network for information, espionage and surveillance. Hundreds of years, thousands of lives, and millions of man-hours went into its construction, so even now it stretches across 10 Chinese provinces, which probably doesn’t sound all that impressive, and across three time zones, which probably does.
Maybe I should have expected this next point, but Peter tells me the Great Wall is not even really a wall. Instead it is – or was – a series of them, made from different materials at different times, erected, razed, rebuilt, damaged, altered, improved, extended, and ultimately abandoned. It’s understandable that the hosts choose not to call it The Sprawling Dilapidated Half-Walls of China – and even if they did, that’s not what foreigners would really want to hear, either.
“In the popular consciousness, the Great Wall is a unified concept, but in fact northern China is crisscrossed by many different walls built by many different dynasties,” wrote National Geographic journalist Peter Hessler in a 2003 article. “It wasn't until modern times, through a combination of foreign misconception and Chinese patriotism, that the ancient walls were symbolically linked by the use of a singular term. Many of the Great Wall's supposed characteristics – that it is continuous, that the entire structure is over 2,000 years old, that it can be seen from the Moon – are false.”
The focus for Peter Cao and I is the Ming Dynasty Wall, which travels for hundreds of kilometres through Beijing Province, representing a little over five per cent of the massive whole. Some parts around Mutianyu and Jinshanling (where we end our first and second days' trekking, respectively) have been restored for tourists. Not preserved – restored, brought back to what they may or may not have been in their 17th century pomp. At those sections, hawkers sell ‘I Love the Great Wall’ T-shirts. There is a ski-lift to bring people up, and a toboggan run to take them back down. At the bottom there is a Subway and a lot more people selling a lot more Wall-themed junk.
Thankfully the majority of it hasn't been degraded in that way. It hasn't exactly been preserved, either – most of the Great Wall has simply been abandoned to time, the arthritic roots of trees taking hold in fissures, lizards nesting in crannies. However, considering how little has been done to fortify and protect so much of the Wall, it’s in remarkably good condition. It still looks intimidating, still feels unconquerable.
We hike for around four hours on the first day. On the second, we double it, and it’s hot, tiring work, even with the weather on our side. The Beijing climate is one of extremes and I have lucked upon a beautifully clear spring day. Whatever the conditions, though, Wall hikes happen all year: hideously hot and humid in summer, bone-snappingly cold in winter, people scale the old bricks all the same. The risks are considerable: slips, falls and fatigue are common. In rare circumstances it is much worse – four years ago, the worst winter in 60 years sent temperatures down to -21C on the Wall, claiming seven lives.
Spring and autumn bring more bearable temperatures – and winds, which mean the capital's infamous smog may or may not cling to the Wall. On our second day of hiking a breeze that starts as suddenly as a hairdryer means the pollution is soon someone else’s problem. More than once, the gusts cause me to check my balance, but mostly they clear conditions, allowing me to see the Wall stretching to horizon in front and behind me. It lies lank across the landscape, seeming almost organic as it follows ridges like a titanic constrictor. The mind doesn’t have to reach far to look on it as potential invader would have, to see it as infinite and invincible.
Still, there were three major breaches of the Wall, coming almost at hundred-year intervals in 1449 and 1550, then for a final time in 1644, when the Ming Dynasty was overthrown and the great defences were finally abandoned. Each incursion saw tens of thousands of deaths, with the 15th and 16th century events forcing the rulers to re-evaluate the Wall, to improve it and to prepare anew. Fear was their great inspiration. Peter tells me that the Jinshanling section along which we’re walking is significantly different to what had gone before it, as a result the work of legendary general Qi Jiguang. “Wall 2.0”, he says over his shoulder as we near the end of our trek.
The last kilometre feels almost entirely vertical as we hike towards a five-windowed watchtower. At any time it would be a hard slog, but having walked so far I have to pause at the bottom to consider if it might be impossible. Where to find the motivation for this final ascent?
It comes in the form of two American tourists, bare-chested and wearing baseball caps, utterly oblivious to the existence of a wider world. For reasons known only to themselves, the men have Coldplay blaring out of a portable speaker as they walk. Hearing that coming towards me, I scramble up the stone stairs; it comes in many forms, but horror remains an excellent motivator.
Photography by Katy and the Bear