Take the path less traveled while hiking Great Wall of China

New York TimesAugust 3, 2013 

  • IF YOU GO

    The Great Wall Adventure Club arranges hikes from one to 12 days, mostly along remote sections of the wall. There may be as many as eight travelers in a group. Some inclines are steep, and there is often stone rubble on the trail and drop-offs to either side. Still, the hike isn’t difficult for someone in average physical condition wearing decent shoes.

    A two-day hike from Gubeikou to Second Valley includes an English-speaking guide, pickup and return to your Beijing hotel, two lunches, a dinner and a breakfast, as well as overnight accommodations in a tent in a watchtower, if the weather cooperates. Sleeping bags and tents are provided.

    Cost is $399 per person, based on double occupancy.

    Info: greatwalladventure.com

    For detailed information about hiking the Great Wall, consult the e-book “Walk the Great Wall,” by Bryan Feldman.

At first, I thought the faded pink pillow on the crumbling stone floor of the watchtower was a remnant of a previous hiking group.

“Are we coming back here to sleep?” I asked our guide, Joe Zhang, at the beginning of a two-day hike along the Great Wall of China, which I was making with my husband, Robb Kendrick, a photographer, and two teenage sons.

Our guide shook his head and guessed that the pillow on the watchtower’s floor was left behind by a local farmer passing through. When I asked where we were going to camp, he pointed to the snaking wall that sliced through lush Panlong (Coiling Dragon) Mountain, part of the Yanshan Range, which stretches across northern Hebei province.

“If we camp tonight, we’ll set up tents inside a watchtower that way,” he said in good English. “If we camp.”

That “if” bothered me. My family had signed up to hike this remote part of the Great Wall because I loved the idea of actually sleeping on the wall. I envisioned drifting off to the same sounds and scents that a Mongol-fighting soldier would have experienced centuries ago and watching the sun burst over the ancient crenellated watchtowers in the morning.

Plenty of tour operators offer half-day trips from Beijing to the Badaling or Mutianyu sections of the Great Wall, which are 40 to 50 miles north of the capital. But I wanted to escape the crowds and get a wilder, deeper experience.

On its website, the Dallas-based Great Wall Adventure Club guaranteed we’d camp on the wall, but I learned the guarantee held only as long as the weather was good. As we prepared for our July outing, I tried not to think of the forecast: 80 percent chance of thunderstorms.

At 8 that morning, Joe — a lively young man who’d studied Great Wall history in college and on his own — and his driver picked us up in a van at our rented Beijing apartment. We made our way about 90 miles northeast, much of it on a new highway that wove through increasingly mountainous terrain, arriving in the village of Gubeikou in two hours.

We took only what we needed that day — water, sunscreen, cameras — and Joe carried our lunch. Our overnight bags stayed in the van with the driver, who would meet us at the end of our day’s 6-mile hike in the town of Jinshanling.

The Great Wall — 5,500 miles by some counts, longer by others — is not one wall but many, built beginning in ancient times, then consolidated and reinforced during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). The purpose: keeping northern raiders from swooping down into the heart of China.

The stretch of wall between Gubeikou and Jinshanling, where we hiked the first day, was built in the late-1500s and is considered a prime example of Ming dynasty construction. It sits atop a 1,000-year-old relic of a wall from the Northern Qi dynasty (550-577).

The area provided a strategic passage to Beijing, and we passed more than 40 closely-spaced watchtowers on this section, which was especially strong and well reinforced, constructed of brick up its 23-foot height.

As we began our hike, I was struck by what felt like an eternal loneliness and loveliness; as far as I could see, nothing but that golden line careening across the crumpled mountains and standing guard alone, whether needed or not, for centuries.

Early in the hike, Joe pointed out a “character brick,” where the stamp of the maker is still visible after almost half a millennium.

“You couldn’t see that at Badaling,” Joe said, referring to the most visited and photographed part of the wall closer to Beijing , crowded with throngs of tourists.

Badaling, he said, also is heavily restored and so modernized that much of it has metal handrails.

The wall around Gubeikou remains relatively untouched, and part of the thrill is to see this man-made edifice surviving the war waged by nature for hundreds of years. Weeds have taken over much of what was once a 13-foot-wide surface, with only a narrow path in places formed by hikers before us.

While many watchtowers were merely ghostly shells with window holes, some were surprisingly intact. On several we saw artful brickwork surrounding arched windows; one tower had a complete domed ceiling.

After a scramble up a rubble-strewn incline, we rested in a large watchtower, each sitting on a sill of one of the several windows. According to one theory, the first floor is where weapons were stored. Behind the wall lies a narrow steep staircase. I climbed it on all fours and exited onto the second floor, where Joe said the soldiers might have slept. And, I thought, where I hoped we’d sleep.

If an enemy was spotted, fires were lighted in the separate beacon towers to send a warning in code to other soldiers along the wall, who would then pass the alert through other beacon towers. Arrows could be shot from windows and slots in the towers. In places where the parapets were still intact, we saw what are called loop holes — square spaces, also for archers.

Over a simple picnic lunch of bread, bananas, sausage and a Chinese version of Lay’s potato chips, Joe told us we were coming to a forbidden section. Along the top of this 2-mile stretch of wall, timeworn brick met shiny razor wire. Joe said that the base’s purpose was a mystery but guessed it was an ammunition depot. I later read that it could be an outpost for military exercises.

Hiking in the brush below the wall to avoid it, we passed by farmers’ cornfields, pear trees and irrigation canals, by old cottages surrounded by bluebells and tiger lilies. Then we returned to the top, not getting down again until we came to Jinshanling, which means Gold Mountain Ridge, having seen only two other groups of hikers the entire day.

If the weather had been good, our driver would have taken us back near Gubeikou to camp and returned us to the same spot the following morning. But I noticed clouds moving in while we walked the half-mile into Jinshanling, a farming area that has fully embraced Great Wall tourism. The town has been spiffed up with restaurants and shops. My husband and I drank beer at an outdoor picnic table as our boys browsed the stores, and Joe consulted with the tour company to decide if we were going to camp.

Finally the word came down: No.

“You don’t want to be in a watchtower during a thunderstorm,” Joe said.

We spent the night at a farmer’s house in a nearby town of Ba Ke Shi Ying. This smart farmer had built a strip of rooms on his property. Calling it Kang Da Homestay, he caters to newly prosperous Beijingers fleeing the city on weekends.

“Tourists from other parts of China go to Badaling; foreign tourists go to Mutianyu, but people from the city come here,” Joe told me.

Our very basic rooms — hard twin beds, bare floors — faced a dense garden bursting with eggplant, kale, cucumbers and green beans.

Our disappointment at not camping was assuaged by the exquisite meal we ate outside under an awning as the rain and thunder began. A seemingly nonstop parade of heaping plates arrived — beans and pork, squash and egg, hot pots of potatoes and peppers — all homemade with the ingredients growing right in front of us.

By the morning, the rain was gone, replaced by humidity and fog. After a short drive to Jinshanling, we walked back up to the wall to tackle three tough roller-coaster miles to reach Second Valley — our adventure’s ending point.

As we hiked, we marveled at the eerie splendor the fog brought to the ruins. At one watchtower, Joe told us a legend of Hei Gu (Black Girl), who came with her father, a Ming dynasty general, to take care of him as he worked.

“One day this tower was hit by lightning, and she died in the fire trying to save it.”

I half-suspected the story was a justification for the decision not to camp until I noticed a plaque that confirmed the legend’s details. I then saw another sign that warned people to get off the wall during thunderstorms. The wall, it said, was the highest point on the ridges and, as such, was especially vulnerable to lightning strikes.

Not camping on the wall, I thought — that was the best idea of the whole trip.

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