Foot-first along a remote stretch of China's Great Wall, author Matthew Power digs into the landmark's past, and catches a glimpse of it's future.
Scaling and dropping, at times nearly closing back on itself to maintain the high ground, it runs a relentless serpentine over the horizon. Coursing through a dozen ranges of sharp limestone peaks, it is a perspectival ink drawing in which we are the lone figures, providing human scale. The Great Wall is nothing like a trail, although there is a clearly worn path along it. There are no switchbacks and no contours, no respite. The ribbon of stone stretches out more than 1,500 miles (2,414 kilometers) before us, from the Yellow Sea to the Gobi. In some spots it thrusts up crnags at 60 degrees, so close to vertical that it's practically a ladder of stone. The wall seizes the absolute highest points along its route, bringing to mind Sun Tzu's Art of War observation that "all armies prefer high ground to low."
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Even with heavy packs we walk carefully, applying even pressure on the fragile brick steps, as though we are walking on ice. Blooming lilac bushes cover the top of the wall like a hanging garden, and wild peach trees, the fruit still green and hard in late May, split the clay tiles with their roots. China's Great Wall has been called the world's largest outdoor museum, and my partner, Australian photographer Angus McDonald, and I have come for a tour. Ours is a deeply improvised mission: We will spend ten days trekking the wilderness sections of the Great Wall that snake through the forested limestone and granite ranges to the north of Beijing. Wherever possible, we will walk atop the wall, beside it everywhere else, and use the guard towers for shelter each night, making as much distance as we can and exploring the wall as we go. Away from the fray of the cities, I want to see how the greatest building project in history is faring in the brave new world of modern China.
Angus and I walk the wall with a sort of reverence. We duck through the crumbling archways of ancient guard towers, the 50-pound (22-kilogram) keystones dangling like rotten teeth. Looking back along the miles of wall we have covered since sunrise, Angus says, "What an absolutely insane enterprise." I'm not sure if he means the building of the wall or our idea of walking along it.
My first view of the Great Wall, appropriate for a 21st-century invader of the Middle Kingdom, had been a week earlier, out an economy-class window in the 14th hour of a direct flight from New York City over the North Pole. My seatmate, a 23-year-old Chinese deportee, kindly offered to switch places so I could stare out the window at the landscape that he had no desire to set eyes on again. He had just been released from a ten-month Immigration and Naturalization Service detention in Louisiana, where he picked up the dress and mannerisms of a Mexican cholo, and was returning to Beijing for the first time in 15 years. He knew without looking that he would find it greatly changed. My face pressed to the Plexiglas, we crossed the wall low enough to pick out the individual guard towers dotting a jumble of mountains. The ranks of limestone spurs passed below and behind, and the megalopolis of Beijing appeared, hundreds of construction cranes—the national bird of modern China—perched in the concentric circles of expressways. A vast array of new public works, constructed for a new empire.
The Great Wall. Of the mythologized structures of my childhood imagination, there were none that surpassed it. The Pyramids, the Empire State Building, the Eiffel Tower: None, in real life, turned out to be quite as enormous as I'd hoped. But the Great Wall! Barbarian hordes would break against its ramparts like waves on the shore! It took 18 centuries to build! You could see it from outer space!
Well, not really. When Chinese taikonaut Yang Liwei touched down after his 21-hour journey in low Earth-orbit in 2003, he was asked the inevitable question. Despite the likely pressure of national pride and government minders, he responded that no, he could not see the Great Wall spread across the bosom of the motherland. The wall is only 12 feet wide in most places, so it would be a good deal easier to see, say, I-95.
But debunked legends matter little. The Great Wall is hyperbole defined in masonry: not a single wall but a series of strategic ramparts and redoubts, built by succeeding dynasties over a span of 1,800 years. In places there are as many as 20 parallel sections, and ruins thought to be remnants of the Great Wall have been found as far afield as North Korea and Russia. It's said that the total volume of stone and earth of which the wall is constructed could create a barrier three feet high and three feet wide around the world at the Equator. Four hundred heads of state have visited, including President Richard Nixon, who woodenly opined: "This is a great wall, and it had to be built by a great people." Some 10,000 visitors come daily to see the wall at Badaling outside Beijing, making it one of the most popular tourist attractions in the world. I had come to China, paradoxically, to get away from the crowds and see what ghosts of history I could find in the wild and remote sections of the Great Wall.
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Adventure Guide: China's Great Wall
+ The author's liaison, William Lindesay, leads tours, including a ten-day hiking and biking tour along 24 miles (39 kilometers) of wilderness wall in the Beijing municipality ($1,700; www.mountainbikingasia.com). Trekkers camp alongside the wall or overnight at adjacent farmhouses. Lindesay also leads tours in neighboring Hebei Province, which has excellent and little-visited Ming-era defenses.
+ There is some debate as to whether DIY trekkers are welcome on the Great Wall (see Rules and Regulations, below), but your best bet is the rugged six-mile (10-kilometer) stretch between Jinshanling and Simatai, 55 miles (89 kilometers) northeast of Beijing. Taxis are easy to arrange in the capital to either site ($60 round-trip). Plan on taking at least four hours for the walk: The trail is stony and notoriously steep.
+ Other well-preserved and accessible sections of the "wildwall" are Huanghuacheng and Mutianyu, north of Beijing. For far-flung travelers, the province of Hebei has no restrictions on wall walking, but almost no infrastructure for trekkers.
+ If you want to act like a Chinese tourist, take the zip line in Simatai ($4) or head to the reconstructed section of the wall at Badaling ($6) for an afternoon. You'll face fierce crowds and even fiercer vendors, but it's probably the easiest way to see the wall.
Rules and Regulations: The Great Wall is seriously threatened by development and encroachment, so walks must be undertaken with a leave-no-trace ethic and caution for the fragile structure. The Beijing municipality enacted regulations in 2003 to conserve the 400-plus miles (644-plus kilometers) of wall within its border, which include limiting access to undeveloped portions. What this means in practice can be difficult to discern, though. International Friends of the Great Wall (www.friendsofgreatwall.org), Lindesay's group, has an English translation of the law.
Getting There: Air China (www.airchina.com.cn/en) has daily direct flights to Beijing from Los Angeles ($700).
Lodging: The Haoyuan Hotel ($58; www.haoyuanhotel.com) in downtown Beijing has comfortable rooms surrounding a historic Qing dynasty courtyard and on-site restaurants. On the wall, camping is usually the only option.
Supplies: China might be the world's best place to score knockoff camping gear, but don't expect your ten-dollar "NorthFake" jacket to be either waterproof or breathable. Stock up on trekking food for the Western palate in the Chaoyang District at Jenny Lou's Shop (1 Nong Zhan South Road), near the west gate of Beijing's Chaoyang Park.
Resources: Lonely Planet China (Lonely Planet, $30) has extensive listings, a section devoted to Great Wall trekking, and practical trip-planning tips. The University of Pennsylvania historian Arthur Waldron's The Great Wall of China: From History to Myth (Cambridge University Press, $25) is the most comprehensive English-language book on the subject. Lindesay's memoir, Alone on the Great Wall (Fulcrum, $15), details his epic 1987 trek.
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