There’s a rumor in Beijing that when George W. Bush saw the Great Wall, he said, “It is a great wall!” I’m going to have to side with Dubya on this one. One of my most memorable travel experiences was when I climbed the Great Wall in the summer of 2007, when I was studying in Beijing. My friends and I woke up around three or four in the morning and clamored our way up the Wall with flashlights, making it to the top just in time for a glorious sunrise and sweeping views of the Simatai section of the Wall.
Recently my friends and I decided to go camping overnight on another section of the Great Wall, called Jiankou, that was also unrestored. Friends who had done the trip warned me that it was a tough trek but also the opportunity of a lifetime. A college friend, Julia, was visiting me from Thailand and we decided to rough it together with a couple of expat pals of mine and a guide.
A bumpy, two-hour van ride delivered us to a village outside the Wall, where a kind, toothless Chinese man served us lunch at his very, very rustic guesthouse. “This looks like an Al Qaeda compound,” said a friend as he surveyed the strewn garbage in the courtyard, where some of the rooms had bedsheets instead of doors. We all agreed that we were glad to be sleeping outside, instead of at the guesthouse.
After a rough, 30-minute hike up to the Wall, we encountered another old toothless Chinese man who stood as a watchman. “The Great Wall is protected,” he said. “I can’t let you up here.” Our guide handed him a couple of dollars, and the old man held his ladder down for us so we could climb up. The old man seemed to be self-employed—a vigilante protector of the Great Wall, or maybe just a self-starting entrepreneur.
However difficult the hike to the Wall was, climbing the Wall at Jiankou was definitely a climb and not a hike. There were times when I felt like a video game heroine. I’d climb up a fairly steep set of steps, only to face a completely vertical wall of rocks and broken steps. They call this part of the Wall “wild,” and for good reason—often, I’d grab the step or stone in front of me to pull myself up, only to find it wobbling underneath my weight.
Even the quietest parts of the Great Wall are still crowded in a country of 1.3 billion people. My Caucasian friends would be sweating and struggling to scale a particularly steep bit of the Wall and suddenly feel an arm around their shoulders and a blinding flashbulb in their faces. Chinese tourists love taking photos with foreigners. “Why doesn’t anyone want to take a photo with me?” I pouted. “We can take a photo with you,” said a group of English-speaking tourists from South Korea, my parents’ motherland. That certainly kept my mouth sealed for the rest of the trip.
After four hours of sliding down, huffing and puffing up the Wall with our 40-lb. backpacks and taking photos with an endless stream of Chinese tourists from the countryside who had never before seen non-Chinese people, we finally made it to our final destination—a gorgeous, crumbling watchtower overlooking a valley of forests. We were pitching our tents when we heard steps in the dead leaves and heavy breathing. The workers from the guesthouse had come to deliver our hot dinner on their wooden A-frame backpacks. They smoked cigarettes as they hiked up and unloaded our hot beef and potato stew, green beans, chive omelettes and rice. I’ve never had a better tasting Chinese meal, but I suspect that has more to do with the circumstances than the actual food itself.
Inside the open watchtower we lit a campfire and cooked smores alongside our Chinese sausages. We climbed on top of the tower and watched stars in a sky that is only clear outside of Beijing, and admired the cherry blossoms on either side of the seemingly never-ending wall as our legs dangled. My year in China was coming to a close, and I couldn’t imagine a better way to bookend my experiences in China than with two spectacular trips to the Great Wall.