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Great Wall of China

The main reason I wanted to see Beijing was to climb the Great Wall of China. At a total length of 3000 to 5500 kilometers -depending on how you measure its parts- it definitely lives up to its name. Its huge size, however, didn’t make it any easier for us to decide which part we would hike.

Common misconceptions

While doing research I stumbled upon a funny series of misconceptions about this huge man-made wonder.

  • A long-held belief is that it is possible to see the Great Wall of china from space. Uttered in 1932 by Robert Ripley, this fake belief became an instant urban myth. With the Wall being just 6 meters wide, it is as hard to see the wall from space as to see a pencil from the top of the Empire State Building.
  • Originally, it wasn’t called the Great Wall of China. The Chinese never considered it a really important achievement, so in Chinese, they just call it ‘The long wall’.
  • There is no such thing as THE Great Wall of China. Different parts of the wall have been built at different periods of time. Later on, these different sections have been connected.
  • My favourite: The Great Wall has been built to protect China against rabbits. Although I’m sure its a challenge for rabbits to jump over the wall, it was actually built against invasions from various nomadic groups from the Eurasian steppe.

Which part to visit?

Starting from Beijing, there’s different parts of the wall you can visit. The most accessible one is the Badaling section, but this is one part I wouldn’t visit, even if I was paid to go. It is so busy it is hard to actually see the wall through the crowds. There is a strong likelihood that it will disappoint you, just as it did Karl Pilkington: “To be honest with you, it’s not the “great” wall, it’s an “all right” wall. It’s the All Right Wall of China.”

The hike between from Jinshanling to Simatai seemed beautiful and not too crowded. Unfortunately, at the time of our visit, this part was closed for restauration.

There was another option that started in Jiankou. It would be more challenging, but at least free from large crowds. The Jiankou section is a rather dangerous part of the Great Wall because it has not yet been restored, which is why it is officially closed for tourists. No measures are taken, though, to prevent people from climbing that part of the wall. Beware that if anything happens, you bear all responsibility. We would start in Jiankou and make our way to Mutianyu, a part that -in contrast- had been completely restored.

A guesthouse we’ll remember

Having left Beijing in the afternoon, we spent the night in a guesthouse in the little village of Xhizazi. Our room was very basic, yet quite luxurious to Chinese standards. Even though they were not larger than 20 to 50 centimeters, we were thrilled to find real towels in our room. (Fellow backpackers who travel with microfiber towels all the time will understand the joy of a real towel.) We had our own little bathroom, which was designed in an ingenious space-saving way with a 2-in-1 shower and toilet. You basically squat under the shower or you shower over the toilet…

After we had ordered food, the waitress set the table with a plate and bowl still wrapped in plastic, as if the service was brand-new and thus still unpacked. We were intrigued by this unusual package, and left it right where the waitress had put it. When the lady came back with our food, she looked suprised to see we hadn’t unpacked our plates yet. She made clear she was waiting for us to do so, so that she could serve our food.

The woman who ran the guesthouse did not speak a word of English. To make ourselves clear, we had to recur to miming, hand gestures, drawing, our offline Chinese dictionary, some random words of English or a combination of all of the latter. We racked our brains to decipher the directions we were given: “Blue.” She points left. “Blue.” She points right, then points to the drawing of a mountain.

Need translation? “In order to follow the right track, you turn left when you encounter a blue signpost, and at the next signpost, you turn right, after which you will reach the wall.” Easy, right?

The journey begins

The next morning, we woke up at 4h30 to get a headstart before the sun would rise and the temperatures peak. We followed our accurate instructions ‘Blue left, blue right’, consciously ignoring the signs stating access was forbidden. When the road split more than two times and our instructions failed, we improvised and took the path that ‘felt best’. Everything seemed to go well, as it didn’t take long before we saw a section of the wall known as the Sky Stairs rise in front of us.

There was just one little problem… How could we get onto the wall? We felt locked out. Following the wall on both sides, we climbed along the mountain ridge looking for an entrance. Holding on to the wall, we made our way over small, slippery stretches of land while looking down over a steep cliff on our side. It was obvious that we were not meant to be on this path and this is not how we would get in.

We started backtracking, which was even more difficult and dangerous than climbing up. We stopped to analyse how we would tackle the descent, when the sun rose out over the mist and over the wall winding through the mountains as far as the eye can see. Even if we wouldn’t make it back down, a sight like this would’ve been a beautiful ending.

We returned and took a path in the other direction, that unfortunately led to the same outcome: a high wall and no entrance. We had lost a lot of time already and were still standing on the wrong side of the wall. We didn’t know what to do. Should we keep on trying different paths or return to the village and take an easier path from there? We agreed on trying one last path and yay… The saying ‘Third time’s the charm’ applied!

Ahead of us was a big opening in the wall, through which we could climb onto the wall. It was 6h40 and we could finally begin. Behind us lay a very steep and impressive flight of crumbling stairs. Ahead of us, the wall, still surrounded by mist, curved for miles and miles through the green mountains. It was an impressive sight. But there wasn’t much time to muse, it was time to start our hike.

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