Tires grind the gravel as our driver turns around and the narrow access road goes back, leaving my fiancé, mother, and myself alone in front of an empty building. The air is cool and fresh, and a few white clouds are moving swiftly across the blue sky. Beijing, with its 20 million inhabitants, gleaming skyscrapers and a layer of smog, is certainly 50 miles south. All right, we'll see the driver in about four hours, at our pickup point.
I check the WeChat message again on my phone. "Behind [the building] there is a path uphill to the wall, and normally a farmer can point that out to you." On this radiant November morning there are no farmers, but the road is there and the valley swallows us in a few minutes. Overhanging branches graze our jackets and rucksacks, and dead leaves scatter underfoot. Something rustles in the undergrowth. A squirrel? Late this year, the valley, which becomes lush and green at the beginning of spring, is brown and calm.
My gaze wafts up from the uneven, stony path to scour the tops of the hills. As we drive around another corner, the view disappears and I shudder with excitement. Above us rises a tower of the Great Wall of China.
The "Great Wall" is a bit misleading because there was never a single structure that spanned today's China. Rather, already in the 5th century BC. Built by various rulers several large defensive walls. by the middle of the 1
One of these sections, the "Ming Wall", is recognized around the world. Built during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), it extends from a fort in Jiayuguan near the Gobi Desert in the west, across Beijing to the sea at Shanhaiguan in the east. By some estimates, it is 5,500 miles long.
Unlike other sections built from rammed earth and straw, most of the Ming wall around Beijing is built on a foundation of cut stone and bricks that are held together with an early but very large portion of strong, mortar from lime and sticky rice glue. With crenellated ramparts and high towers, it is the Great Wall of my imagination.
As a visitor, in China for only about a week, we are happy to be here at all. Less than half an hour ago, we passed a large parking lot full of tour buses in Mutianyu, a popular section of the Great Wall. Dozens of bus drivers stood around, chatting that their groups would return. Places like these and Badaling, 40 miles west, are in high demand by day trippers, receive millions of visitors each year, but are more like theme parks than ancient sites.
Throughout China, sections of the Wall are rebuilt by unregulated private contractors who want to profit from tourist dollars but show little interest in historically accurate restorations. On foot, the largest man-made structure in the world is paved, financed by visitors who pass through it every year without knowing what they are missing. Maybe we were among them, if it was not by accident that a chance encounter with a family friend, Richard Fairbrother, came for lunch two days ago.
A longtime resident of Beijing, he is also an avid amateur researcher and writes a hiking guide about hiking the wild, unrestored parts of the wall. Minutes after we parted, my phone sounded with messages that recommended an interesting hike in the Moya Shike Natural Scenic Area near the village of Dazhenyu, including drop off and pickup points and the kind of familiar directions that only locals can give.
With the tower rising above us, we climb and climb, following the meandering, narrow path and a series of faded red ribbons. At regular intervals tied to branches, they are marks of hikers who have come before us. After about 45 minutes of fairly steep climb, the path ends at a wall, half hidden by bushes, and we climb through an opening in the side.
We are here.
A section of the Great Wall as seen from a crumbling watchtower. The path runs up and down and is often very steep.
Beneath our feet, the wall races in both directions, like an irregular heartbeat interrupted by square towers. The wall itself is impressive and smaller than I expected. Here it is about 10 feet wide, but heavily overgrown and filled with low shrubs, foliage and crumbling bricks, leaving only a narrow path winding through the debris. Low pinnacles, about waist height, protect us from the fall on both sides.
I consult my phone again. Richard's instructions are clear. "Follow the wall uphill … the descent ends in a dead end."
We go uphill, pushing branches back and supporting ourselves against the walls. The red bands continue to appear on branches. Though thoughtful, they are now doubly unnecessary. Not only could we get lost here, but there's plenty of evidence that we're on the right track – the floor around us is littered with soda cans, plastic bottles and empty cigarette boxes, their labels have faded from rain and sun, garbage that probably left by native visitors from other parts of the country.
The path runs up and down and is often very steep, so we need to climb up some steps and grab branches and stones to support it. The three of us spread out, walking the path at our own pace, and sometimes I stop, forcing myself between the notches in the wall and sticking my head out to look at the trees below.
It's not easy to get to the first tower; Parts of it collapsed, blocking the entrance and forcing us to climb onto the roof. We take a lunch break, sitting with our legs dangling over the side, quietly munching our sandwiches and making small piles of tangerine peel. An amazingly clear melody floats past the breeze, and we see a white bus in the valley far below, listening to the radio.
In past centuries, this place would have been an ideal place to spy on an invading army. The air is fresh and free from smog, and we can see distant crimson hills for miles in every direction.
We collect our citrus peels and climb over the rubble. As we move westwards, each tower offers a more beautiful view than the last, with its arched doors and narrow windows delimiting the spectacular landscape beyond. We stop more often to enjoy the view as the shadows of the early afternoon grow and the crevices of the mountains erode sharply. The wind is blowing cooler now and we pull our jackets under our chin. We are still alone.
Then the trail just stops. From our vantage point in a tower, we see that the wall climbs a hill and then apparently dissolves into nothing. I take off my backpack and sneak forward. I slide closer until I can see over the ridge and down to the spot where the wall worsens treacherously. A wall was built to block the way, and beyond that there is a very steep slope. As if scattered by a huge wave, there are stones in the valley floor.
Today is the end of our hike. In a few minutes we start the steep, fast descent to Dazhenyu, where our driver should wait for us. In four hours, we've covered only four miles, a tiny fraction of the wall, and everything this vast country has to offer. But I can already see what attracts Richard here again and again. The lonely wild wall is full of beauty and secrets, and every wandering yard feels like the most beautiful discovery.
Anna Hartley is a Paris-based writer. Their website is annahartleywrites.com
Seeing the Great Wall
Many wild parts of the Great Wall of China are located two hours drive from Beijing and are accessible by public transport and private cars or with private tours and walking groups. If you want to take a private car or public transport, make sure that your exact departure and pickup locations and times are previously written in Chinese. (Information: trachinaguide.com/china_great_wall/scene/peking)
Leo Hostel (leohostel.com): Affordable and friendly backpacker hostel near Tiananmen Square organizes a well-rated "Secret Wall" Tour to a secluded section of the Great Wall for about $ 45 per person. Dorm rooms start at about $ 13 a night.
Beijing Hikers (bejingjikers.com): The most famous English-speaking walking group in Beijing organizes regular walks on the Great Wall of China, including on many "wild" sections, since 2001. Day hikes around Beijing range from about $ 60 to $ 80, and multi-day tours around Beijing and throughout China range from $ 253 to $ 2,800.