Writer Shelley Seale explores a section of China’s Great Wall that is rarely visited by tourists.
I was hiking slowly through the fall foliage in the woods surrounding the Shuiguan Mountains, about an hour outside Beijing. Vivid orange and yellow leaves swayed on the breeze in the branches around me as I picked my way carefully along the rocky path. My footsteps were the only sound I could hear.
Suddenly, there it was. Emerging through the trees was a rocky wall just in front of me. I peered up at the top of it, thirty feet above my head. Following the path as it veered off to the left and up a steep rise, I found myself standing upon a crumbling, original section of the Great Wall of China. Boulders and smaller stones were scattered wherever they had come loose from the wall, resting where they lay for who knows how many years. Grass and weeds sprouted up from the remaining rocks that made up the top of the wall. This part of the Wall had not been repaired since the day it was constructed over a thousand years ago. This piece of ancient, undisturbed history that lay beneath my feet undulated across the mountains in front of me. There was no one else in sight.
I was at a private, untouched part of the Great Wall, on the grounds of the Commune Kempinski resort. A few minutes later my small group of traveling companions caught up with me, and we walked along the wall in silence, marveling at our incredible experience of leaving the well-worn tourist trail behind. A short while later, as the sun began to set, we popped open a bottle of champagne to toast the end of a two-week trip.
After an astonishing journey throughout the magnificent country with East Tours, this moment was the highlight of my travels in China. While the Great Wall is a must-see monument, most such trips are made at spots where busloads of tourists are dropped off every morning. Yet there are some places still unmarked by restoration or tourism, and surprisingly few people go there. The rare, serene experience of discovering the “wild wall” this way, unmolested by modern human hands, is simply magnificent.
The Simatai-Jinshanling section of the wall is one such place; the Xiangshui Lake scenic area also has two beautiful, solitary stretches of untouched wall, as well as a restored section. To get there, instead of walking ahead to the main gate, turn right or left; both directions will lead farther into the village where original sections of the wall await. There are also companies that offer horseback riding along spots of the Wild Wall, and two hotels where you can have completely private access. Red Capital Ranch is one; it’s the first eco-tourism resort in China, set on a private 50-acre estate and features vista views of the Great Wall from the ten restored villas on the property.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
The Kempinski resort I visited, Commune by the Great Wall, is another. The Commune showcases the work of 12 contemporary Asian architects, and its grounds are comprised of forty-two villas with 190 suites. But the biggest perk is that it boasts a private path to the Wall that is accessible only to guests (they will provide gourmet picnic baskets on request). It was here that I shared a champagne toast with my fellow travelers atop the rugged Wild Wall and bid farewell to China. In the world’s most populated country, we saw no one else in sight.
Photos: Shelley Seale