Ask the majority of foreign tourists who come to Beijing to share their opinions of the Great Wall, and their description might not be befitting of a UNESCO World Heritage Site or one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Crowds, hawkers, huge chain restaurants, slides and immaculately precise, modern brickwork seem to be the first few responses that I’ve heard from those who have visited the Wall (most probably the most tourist-orientated site, Badaling (八达岭Bādálĭng)). There is accordingly a section in my Lonely Planet guidebook entitled Badaling Blues, in which the writer’s experience of the Great Wall is described as little more than an opportunity to be conned out of time, money and energy. Last term Peking University had organised an excursion to the Mutianyu (慕田峪 Mùtiányù) section of the Great Wall, which was not too dissimilar from what I had heard of Badaling; I therefore fitted into the “I’ve been disappointed by the Wall” camp.
And then we set off for Jinshanling (金山岭 Jīnshānlĭng). It was simply amazing. I definitely understand what keeps the crowds from flocking here, though; the distance and the practicalities of getting here are something of a headache, and would be even more so for non-Chinese speakers. It involved a subway ride, a bus ride to another city called Miyun (密云 Mìyún), and then a minibus ride for a further hour and a half up into the rugged mountains.
But before we clapped eyes upon the wall, we discovered exactly how determined some minibus drivers were to take us to Jinshanling. From the moment we got off the Beijing Subway at Dongzhimen Station, a middle-aged lady accosted us and, in her high-pitched, nasal voice (which grew to be aggravating), directed us through the bus station, came on the bus with us, sat in front of us and instructed us to get off at the first stop in Miyun (instead of staying on until the final stop, which was supposedly the central bus station). We assumed that at the central bus station there would be multiple options of minibuses with whom we could bargain on price, and so we were relieved when our new best friend got off the bus before us. But alas, when we finally disembarked, she had followed us there. My hat goes off to her perseverance; despite our persistent snubbing and ignoring of her, she followed us along a street, into a convenience shop, and back to the bus station for second attempt to find another minibus. Seeing very few alternatives and reluctantly accepting her price slightly higher than we had expected, we eventually resigned. We climbed into her minibus and started the journey up into the mountains. We arrived at a small car park, agreed our meeting time for our driver to come and collect us late afternoon, and commenced the climb.
And then we realised why all this hassle was worth it. At this time of year, the mountains are parched to a harsh brown, which added to the inhospitable yet stunning nature of this landscape. It must have been a god-forsaken place to be stationed here in winter during the Wall’s functional years, and even more so for the army conscripted for the Wall’s construction back in the 16th century (during the Ming Dynasty). Climbing up a narrow path which wound its way up towards a ridge, the views spoiled us for choice: behind us the mountains extended for inconceivable distances, like layered pieces of ripped paper, the colours gradually fading towards the horizon; or alternatively, we could crane our necks up ahead, to the watchtowers, gazing over the surrounding valleys, standing exposed to the northern winds and northern invaders.
It must have been a fair while that we had been walking until we finally reached the mountain ridge on which the Wall stands. Perhaps we could have moved faster without the frequent stops to gaze around at the landscape in amazement. We climbed a metal flight of stairs onto the Great Wall itself, and immediately the views struck us, in a way that none of us had imagined possible. Looking west, the Wall (less than 10 meters in width) snaked in every direction over the mountain ridge, up steep cliffs, down sheer precipices, until only the horizon prevented us from tracing its route further. We ran into a mere five or six French tourists who were on their way down, and a man half-heartedly selling drinks, indifferent to our arrival. The handful of other tourists left, the vendor wandered into a nearby watchtower, and the view was entirely ours. The scrubby brown grass on the mountain slopes and the brickwork of the Wall starkly clashed with the deep blue sky, with not a cloud in sight. The air was totally clear, and dead silent.
We attempted to head east towards Simatai (司马台 Sīmătái), walking along the Wall’s un-made-up and uneven walkway, having to climb down through the scrub to bypass the derelict watchtowers and being careful not to fall off the sheer drops to either side due to the crumbling walls. After a few watchtowers, we were stopped by a man whose job it was to stand up here alone all day, just in case anyone were to try to continue on to Simatai, which was closed for renovation works. I asked myself why anybody would bother to restore this isolated section of the Wall, given the fact that I could count on one hand the number of tourists we had crossed so far. The view from this point was equally as stunning as when we had arrived, the Wall determinedly winding upwards, mounting sheer cliff faces, before it veered off along the jagged ridge into the distance.
With no other option, we returned along the same route, climbing up the slopes which we had previously descended. We continued in the other direction, west, snaking further along the mountaintops. We met one more hawker and a Chinese family, but apart from that, it was entirely ours. The exhausting climbs and descents continued, and then the wall’s walkway changed from a dilapidated track into a nicely flat and smooth paved surface. UNESCO or other benefactors must be the sole source of money for this renovation in such a remote location, as tourist revenue must be insignificantly small. Of course money has to be invested to preserve the Great Wall, yet it must be a delicate balance to keep it from losing all authentic appeal, while at the same time preventing the structure from falling entirely into disrepair.
It simply wasn’t the same place as Mutianyu or Badaling. It’s a total to cliché to claim that we visited the “real” Great Wall, but I see no other way to describe it – the reason authorities prevent Jinshanling from dereliction is surely to protect heritage for its cultural value, rather than to keep a grip on tourist revenue. Yet as a whole, the appeal of the Great Wall is surprisingly hard to boil down to one factor. Maybe it lies in the wonder that such a magnificent structure stands in such a hostile location. Perhaps it’s the vast and visible length of the Wall. Possibly its historical significance. Or it might just be the fact that there’s not a soul there to take away from your experience. Either way, I dare say that it’s just taken the spot of my best memory from my time in China, an accolade that Mutianyu miserably fails at taking.
It is probably a sign that I’m hugely selfish when I say that I’m very glad the majority of tourists only make it to Badaling or Mutianyu – it keeps them away from the awe-inspiringly peaceful yet mighty majesty of Jinshanling.