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The Great Wall

Some things are serendipitous.  Were it not for a certain set of circumstances- a NYE plan canceled, a   visitor information guide who didn’t explain what we’d booked- I doubt things would have happened as they did.  But as it happened, we got up at 5:30 on Friday morning, donned five layers of clothing, and hopped in a very cold and dodgy-looking bus to Jinshanling.  In fact, when we got on, we didn’t actually realise that was where we were heading- still labouring under the misconception that we were heading straight to Simatai.

Somewhere along the way, we figured out we had signed up for a hike- 10kms, they told us- along the Great Wall of China.  Most visits the the wall are for just a few hours, taking a chair lift to the wall, walking through between three, five, maybe seven towers, then getting a toboggan back down.  Our trip, it became obvious, was not that.

We had a few, brief moments of panic when we first arrived and it became clear the full walk would be too much for Mum.  But our intrepid guide, Lee, told us there was a shortcut, so Mum could walk less than half the distance and meet us at Simatai.

Right from the beginning, the walk was steep.  Unbelievably so.  There used to be a cable car to get one up to the wall at Jinshanling, but it had long since stopped working, so we were forced to climb up the mountain just to get on to the wall.

The walk took us through 30 towers, which were a variable distance apart.  The first towers were in a restored part of the wall, where the stairs were comparably flat and in good condition.  But STEEP.  Still, the moment we got to the first peak, and looked out over the wall, it was worth the effort.

A group of locals joined up, little old ladies, mainly, walking with us, hoping that, at the end, they could sell us souvenirs.  They were quite irritating, and kept trying to help when we really didn’t need it. But one went with mum, down the shortcut, which allowed Dad and I to do the complete hike.

After about 8 or 9 towers, we bade farewell to Mum and started along the unrestored part of the wall. It was cold, but as long as we had wall on the left blocking the wind, it was okay, and once we got really walking, if anything we were too warm.   Around tower 13 or 14, there were the steepest steps I’ve seen- more closely resembling a ladder than a staircase- but once we made it to the top of those, it was all downhill.  Literally and metaphorically.

Now 10kms isn’t really that far.  It certainly doesn’t sound that far.  But when they give a group made up mostly of 20-something backpackers 4-5 hours to walk that far, you know it’s tough going.  We were following the ridge of the mountains, up and down, climbing the towers then dropping back down into the troughs.  The view was incredible.  We could see the wall stretching back for miles, and forward to Wanjinglou tower, the highest peak on the Great Wall.

Each of the 30 towers we visited was different.  Some were in spectacular condition, with roof in tact and beautiful arched windows.  Some were just rubble.  We accidentally missed a bit of the trail which detoured around one of the towers, and wound up climbing on a precariously-stacked pile of rocks to get up to it. We were puzzled for a minute, trying to figure out where to go next, before we realised we needed to backtrack a ways to take the detour.  There was a local man selling cold beer, coke and water at the intersection.  On the way back, he told us we had gone the wrong way.  A good way to double his chance of getting business, I suppose.

After about four-and-a-half hours, we made it into the Simatai part of the park- after a momentary panic when Dad couldn’t find his entry ticket- and slowly made our way down toward a suspension bridge over a creek which led to a frozen dam.  Once across the other side we had to walk up, up, up again, and were back in the realm of tourists and restored wall.  Those last few steps were unbearable- poor ol’ Dad was having a bit of a hard time.

But soon enough, we finished.  Almost 6 hours after we began, we arrived at a little cafeteria on the shores of the dam at Simatai.  Up til that point, I had been a little scared to eat at the local food places with dubious-looking hygiene standards, but I was so very hungry that I just gobbled down the Gong Bao Chicken they served- the best you could possibly imagine.  I’m a lot braver with my food selection now.  I thought I’d sleep all the way back- for Simatai is 200kms from Beijing- but I was too wired from the thrill of the walk, the amazing things we’d seen, and the indescribably high one gets from finishing something.

If you are to go to the Great Wall, I cannot recommend this trip highly enough.  Unlike Badaling and Mutianyu, the wall is mostly unrestored, and there are comparatively few tourists.  If the 4-5 hours (or 6, if you’re slow like us) isn’t enough, there is also a 30km overnight hike which also ends at Simatai- which I very much hope to do in the coming year or so.  Plus, there is a flying fox over the dam to get you back to the village (which I, admittedly, was too scared to go on. )

Full album of photos here.  More on Beijing, Xi’an and my fantastic trip to China- and my attempts to make my new favourite meal, Gong Bao chicken- later.

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