One of the first places I visited after moving to Beijing was the Great Wall at Mutianyu. It sits above a charming village that has benefited greatly from tourism. Group buses from Beijing, only 70 km away, whiz past farmers carrying wood and crops on narrow roads all day long.
The road that leads to the Wall has been taken over on both sides by vendors hawking T-shirts (I climbed the Great Wall!), Chairman Mao hats, poster prints of the Wall and dozens of other souvenirs. There’s even a Subway restaurant, but sadly no McDonald’s or Starbucks. I thought about turning around but kept going.
To get on the Wall you can either walk a steep trail or ride a ski lift. I chose the ski lift and as I waited in line, I walked past pictures of foreign dignitaries who had visited Mutianyu. One of the pictures was of a sweaty Bill Clinton boarding the lift (“Must have been sitting behind some young co-eds,” an American in front of me quipped).
It was a clear day, and the views of the mountains were spectacular. But the Wall, still intact in most places, had a sanitized feel. Many of the towers and bricks at Mutianyu have been restored. I wanted to experience the Great Wall in its natural, crumbling state.
Several months later, I went with three friends to an unrestored section called Huanghua (Yellow Flower). We hired a cab driver named Mr. Li to take us there. Our only request was that he get us to the Wall before dawn so we could take pictures of it at sunrise. We didn’t quite make it in time, but it wasn’t for a lack of effort. Mr. Li drove like a man possessed, stopping in the middle of a fork in the road to get directions while oncoming traffic swerved around his black sedan – with me and my companions still inside, nervously watching.
Unlike Mutianyu, Huanghua didn’t have scores of peasants peddling souvenirs. It did not even have an official entrance. To get there, we had to walk across a dam, cut through a family’s yard – after first paying a small fee – and scale a rickety ladder latched to a Wall tower.
The views at Huanghua were even more spectacular than Mutianyu. It was early spring and some of the trees had sprouted flowers with pink and white petals. From a distance, they looked like little patches of snow dotting the hillside.
A section of the Wall had been demolished to make room for the dam and a highway. The peaks were steep, and climbing them took time. There were no signs warning hikers of the dangers, but the loose steps that shifted below my feet as I walked were enough to make me slow down. In a few areas, the sides of the wall were missing, exposing a 5-meter drop.
It was quiet, and we didn’t see any other people for the first couple of hours. I thought of the centuries the Chinese spent carrying millions of stones and bricks, through the snow, the whipping wind and blazing hot summers, to the tops of mountains, and the time it took to put them together. I imagined that the builders of the Wall had more in mind than just protecting themselves against intruders or guarding a border. The Great Wall tested the limits of man and made a statement to the world about the will of an ancient society to persevere.