The thing about the Great Wall is, it’s great. There are a lot of different places to see it. I wanted to do more than see it. I wanted to experience it. But how do you experience a wall?
Hoping for something a little more authentic than clinging to a handrail and trying to dodge other people’s cameras, I had decided that I wanted to do the 10 km hike from Jinshanling to Simatái. All I needed was for the weather to cooperate.
Beijing means “northern capital” – a good hint that things can get chilly in the winter. Hiking on the Wall in the ice and snow can be quite dangerous. It was early December, freezing, but still dry. I had a few days in Beijing before flying to Southeast Asia where I would pass the winter in balmy weather, planning to return to China in March. So it was a gamble. Should I trust the weather to hold or wait until March?
March can be pretty ugly where I come from. So I walked up to the desk at the hostel and signed up for the hiking tour the next day.
I awoke to find a world blanketed in snow.
The van picked me up from the hostel as scheduled and I tried to stay awake to take in the scenery as we traveled to Jinshanling. When we arrived the driver pointed us towards the wall, explained that at the end of the hike there was an option to cross a bridge or zip across on a flying fox, and that then we would have time to grab something at the restaurant there before heading back into Beijing.
There were about 14 of us and I fell into pace with a Brit who was in China for the first time. Local “guides” tagged along to help us, asking only that we buy one of their T-shirts at the end. I found this obnoxious and made it clear that I was not planning on buying anything.
The hike was strenuous, more so because of the weather. There were literally thousands of steps. In places, the Wall was falling away, and the snow and ice made for treacherous footing.
But the views were spectacular. We climbed in and out of watchtowers, looked through archways.
A cell phone rang and another member of our group reached into her pocket and answered. She said a few words and hung up. Glancing back, she said, “Wrong number.” We laughed.
“You should have told them where you were,” my hiking companion said. Wonder what that innocent little mis-dial cost them?
The same thought kept occurring to me throughout the hike. Was the Wall really necessary? Did it really work? I know the Mongols were (and are) incredible horsemen, but looking at the jagged hills around me, I just couldn’t imagine an army invading over that terrain.
I commented on this to a fellow hiker and he said, “Well, sometime governments undertake big projects whether they’re needed or not, just to give the people something to rally behind.” Indeed. My country was engaged in a couple of wars at that moment, arguably for that exact purpose.
I was one of the slower hikers and I believe it took me about six hours to complete the hike. At the end, although I did not buy a T-shirt, I decided to give the local woman who had appointed herself as my guide some cash. I could easily have plummeted to my death on multiple occasions without her help. Exhausted and satisfied, I arrived at the end, and being a chicken, elected not to take the Flying Fox. Hot soup in the restaurant tasted wonderful.