Walking the Great Wall of China
Updated: May 27, 2019
There are good walls and there are bad walls...
I decided last month that I would leave China, which means I have just a few weeks to tick everything off my China bucket list. I'm moving to join my boyfriend, Jacques, in Japan. He has just moved out to work as a contractor for Mitsubishi. He's working on MRJ, which is a new jet being developed out here in Japan. It's pretty exciting stuff, and it means that Jacques and I can finally live together. We're both set on not living in the U.K. and Japan seems like an ideal option. The fact that he speaks Japanese is a massive help. I'm learning... slowly.
Mum came to visit for the last two weeks. It was fantastic to see her after over 4 months apart. I think it was the longest time I hadn't seen her. It's funny to be reminded of how similar we are in our mannerisms, habits, and even funny things like political prejudices. We are also extremely different people in many ways, but this can be a good thing - life is never boring when my mum is around!
By far our best trip together was to the Great Wall. There are a ton of ways to visit the Great Wall and lots of blogs online. I did a fair amount of research before booking accommodation and planning our route, but unfortunately it still wasn't enough. We had planned to hike from Simatai to Jinshanling, which are two popular but not overcrowded spots along the wall. I booked a hotel at a village that Trip.com assured me was Simatai; however, when we arrived, we were amused to discover that it was in fact a tourist attraction/resort called Gubeishuizhen. It was not ancient; it was actually built in 2012. No one lived there, but it was packed with restaurants and bars. There were photo spots everywhere and imitations of great artworks such as Van Gogh's Starry Night. As my mum says, China is excellent at imitation. The whole place was built to look like an ancient water town that had been restored. They had even gone to the effort of using different layers and types of brick to imitate stages of renovation.
To an insult to injury, when we tried to walk along the Great Wall, we discovered that only a small part of it was available to the public. A lot of it was closed off. The officials, in their very Chinese way, simply said it was 'closed', but offered no explanation as to why. We decided to get a taxi to Jinshanling, which took around 40 minutes as we had to go around the edge of the national park. The countryside en route was barren and downtrodden. A stark contrast to the feigned beauty of Gubeishuizhen! It seemed there was one China for tourists and quite another kind of China for local residents.
Fortunately, the walk along the wall at Jinshanling was worth it. The views were breathtaking and very soon we were the only hikers in sight. The further we walked, the more dilapidated the wall became. At some points, there were no walls either side, only sheer drops. Some of the steps were easier to climb than others and the gradient varied hugely. There were a few stretches of wall where we had to remove our shoes so we didn't slip. At other points, the steps were steep and crumbly. Mum and I both suffer from vertigo, so there were moments where we thought we might not be able to go on. In the middle of a climb, I had the closest thing I have ever had to a panic attack, but mum managed to talk me into moving forwards.
As soon as the walk finished, I was glad to be on safe earth again. Even so, I haven't stopped thinking about the walk. I can't wait until my next chance to go back. I think it's the kind of thing Jacques would love to do with me. I like the idea of hiking along the wall with a tent and sleeping bags, but doing that risks a fine from the authorities. Technically, you're only allowed to walk along the parts where there is a tourist resort and you pay for access. There are still plenty of hikers who go along the more rural parts anyway.
Walking along the Great Wall does feel like a massive achievement, but what we did pales in comparison to the effort of the people who built the wall thousands of years ago. When you stand on the bricks and look out towards the horizon, the wall seems to stretch forever. It's certainly a way to make yourself feel small. It's also incredible to think how advanced it was for its time. When Chinese generals were overseeing its construction, British people were still living in caves and scrambling around in the dirt. The Great Wall truly is a wonder of the world.