Where there’s a Wall, there’s a way

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.

View from a tower window.

Sunset at Mutianyu.

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 toΒ 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.

Some parts of the Wall, like this one, are crumbling or missing bricks.

A small lake behind the dam at Huanghua.

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.


209 thoughts on “Where there’s a Wall, there’s a way

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  3. Lovely photos. You must have been lucky to get it so empty. We went during Chinese New Year and also found it empty but so many other photos seem to show a conveyor belt of tourists.

  4. Perhaps this was implicit, but somehow your blog inspired me to remember that if the Great Wall of China could be built, than we can also find our path along the way too.

    Thank you for sharing. πŸ˜€


  5. Pingback: The Great Wall of China | All The Places You'll Go

  6. An account so vivid and so beautiful that one feels as if he was there
    I had been wanting to visit the place and now this had made me want to go all the more πŸ™‚
    I will surely visit the place pretty soon now
    Very nicely portrayed

  7. Great post! I spent five weeks in Beijing and Xi’an, mostly Xi’an and the surrounding cities. My experience on the wall was breathtaking (literally). I was not in the best shape, and I made it 2/3 of the way to the top. Thank you for reminding me of a lovely time!

  8. Thank you for the account of your exploits to the Great Wall. You painted wonderful word pictures, apart from your photos. My husband and I visited the Great Wall at Badaling nearly three years ago. Even though it was very ‘touristy’, the feature itself was fascinating.
    What I found equally fascinating was the amount of very over-weight western tourists who were labouring up and down the steps. The day was very hot and I fully expected to have to apply first aid to someone.
    God bless and continue to enjoy your travels.

  9. Hi,

    I was in Shanghai recently for a week or so. Wanted very much to visit Beijing and the great wall, but it didnt quite work out due to time constraints.
    Now looking at your wonderful pics, looks like i missed something truly amazing. 😦

    Have to visit it somehow..

  10. I’ve been to the Greatwall 2 times. Both were from Badaling. Were fun trips with great views, but you made wonderful pics! If I have another chance to visit again I’d like to take Mutianyu route..seems more sureal..

  11. The closest I have ever gotten to the Great Wall is Happy Valley (between Hong Kong and mainland China), but your photos re instill a desire to see the countryside and the wall. I was thinking as I read your piece the whole way through, “What a gargantuan effort to build that thing!?”
    I think that when people approach the Chinese from abroad, this place should be understood. The sheer will power to complete such a product must affect how one approaches a people such as these. What a marvelous tribute to strength. Your photos are great! Thanks.

  12. Amazing! I’ll be heading there at the end of the year and planned to see the Wall at Mutianyu, but will now also consider fitting in Huang Hua to see too. Do you recall how much was the cab ride cost and how long approximately? thanks!

  13. Great post! I was previously unaware that the Wall ran so close to Beijing (or sadly, that there was a Subway there!). It was also interesting to know that parts of the wall have been torn down.

  14. Absolutely beautiful, I love that first photo. I am going to China for the first time soon and I will be spending a few days in Beijing. I wish I had the time to go this far out and really experience the great wall like you have, however I am still extremely excited about going to the tourist spots closer to the city. Reading your blog is fuelling this excitement!

  15. Great photos. I really envy you being able to go around like this and get to witness such beauty.

    I’ve started a photoblog to share my own experiences, and hopefully I’ll be able to match such work, and enjoy more of the world’s spectacles.

  16. One thing I know from the people of the Asia,especially the Chinese is that they are very determined people,that is why they have grown so first in industry and technology. China began on the expedition of expanding it’s economic grip.It is now largely in Africa.Can you imagine the number of people who died during the construction of the Great wall.It must have been big because that was the time when emperors were lords and their were no the contemporary democracy we sing today. every thing was done on orders.Well come back from Asia,indeed where there is a wall,their is a way .You are so adventurous I envy you.

  17. Pingback: Where there’s a Wall, there’s a way | Infos Press

  18. Fabulous. I saw a prog about the history of the parts of the wall and how most of the villages near by were created from the builders encampments. The thought that many of their present day inhabitants are descendants of the builders really adds to the image of the continuity of the Wall. But no rickety ladders, please πŸ˜‰

  19. I wrote a different take on the Wall which you might be interested in, in a very old blog post dating back before the word existed… http://www.mishen.net/trv23/index.html

    Long after I wrote that post I worked for True Run media and had the chance to review different parts of the Wall. There are some very unusual sections – over a river, (Jiumenkou) underground (Zhangjiakou), underwater (Panjiakou), bullethole-ridden (Gubeikou), just-completed for the first time according to original plans (Laohushan, Dandong) and of course, jutting into the sea (Shanhaiguan). It’s a structure worth visiting at many sites!

  20. Beautiful pictures! As my family travels the world for a year, we also try to find the authentic spots not too full of tourists (unfortunately rare at times) and I hope we will enjoy and discover the raw untouched Great Wall as you did when we travel to China soon!
    One World, 4 Girls

  21. Great photos!

    Even after travelling to so many amazing places in the world, the Great Wall left the deepest impression on me. I went to Jin Shan Ling in 2009 and some of the sections there were last restored during 1500s (Ming dynasty). I’m not sure whether it’s been further restored since 2009, but if you are interested in “crumbling” walls you might want to check it out. Look out for interesting details like the Ming dynasty’s “date stamps” on the bricks.

    Happy adventures!

  22. Kandxi, an emperor in Qing Dynasty, thought that to let people in the country to live and work in an affluent society, errecting walls to defense enermy is useless. the most important thing is to serve his people with mercy. i read this from internet.
    i think he is smart.

  23. nice photos.I think it will be beautiful when the great wall in the snow. I recommend jiankou great wall and simatai great wall. those two places are amazing.

    • Thanks! I’d like to make it out there when it’s snowing. Unfortunately, I’ve had to work every time we’ve had a significant snow. I haven’t been to simatai yet, but it’s on my to do list.

      Take care


  24. Great post and congrats on the FP! If you have a chance go to jiantou. It is unrestored and unbelievable. The hike up was brutal and the trail was hardly visible at times. I used my hands to pull my body up. But there was hardly anyone there except a group of Chinese tourists who wanted to take a picture with me. It was unbelievable! There is a great blog I follow on China by Shards of China. Nick is an expat living there and has very enlighting stories.

    • Thank for the recommendation. I’ll check out the blog. I haven’t been to jiantou, but I want to do some more hiking once the weather gets a little nice. I’ll have to check it out.

      Thanks for dropping by!


  25. Wonderful photos…when I first & the only time went there I was little, and I did not explore great wall and feel the astonishment….thanks for uploading….

  26. Nice. When I was in China last May, I visited the section at Badaling. I arrived right as the gates opened to let in tourists and it was already packed. However, for some reason, it seemed almost everybody wanted to go right after entering (it seemed to be some kind of lemming effect or something), so my friend and I went left. For about an hour or two we enjoyed the wall in relative peace. Then the crowd began to fill in our side. I was stopped about a half-dozen times by Chinese tourists wanting to take their photo with a big white-guy. Eventually, It became so congested that, at one point, I was unable to move for about 30 minutes. I was pretty sure someone was gonna get crushed to death, and I’d be genuinely surprised if nobody was injured. I’ll be going to Mutianyu next time.

  27. Great images, really nice. The closest I’ve ever come to the Great Wall was Hong Kong…so not really that close at all! I remember reading, quite a few years back, that the Great Wall of China was never really one long wall at all. The story said that pictures from space showed a bunch of segments of wall, but they weren’t connected. Since China consisted mostly of large fiefdoms back in the day, each overlord had built their own wall. Allegedly the Chinese government wanted to create a vision of a unified country so they put a lot people to work ‘rebuilding’ the Great Wall, when in fact they were building it for the first time (as a single entity). I’m not sure I believe all that, but it was an interesting story πŸ™‚

    • Interesting story. I’ve heard similar things too. I know that some of areas of the wall fell apart quicker than others because villagers who lived nearby stole the bricks and used them to build houses and other structures.


  28. Beautiful!! I’ve been to the Mutianyu section, which I enjoyed. I heard the Badaling section is even more touristy so I thought Mutianyu would be a better choice. I also wasn’t brave enough to go to the really crumbling parts. But it looks like you had a great experience!

    It really was a surreal feeling to be standing on the wall and imagining what it would have been like to stand on it back in the day. Great post! πŸ™‚

    • I’ve heard some horror stories from people who have gone to Badaling during the peak tourist season. A friends of mine compared it to waiting in line for a roller coaster. He said it was so crowded in some places that you couldn’t move for several minutes.

      Thanks for the compliment!


  29. Beautiful pictures! I loved all the different locations and angles. Gave me a better understanding of it than I’ve ever imagined before! Nice work.

  30. Wonderful pictures and great shots. I was lucky enough to visit China many times on business, and visited the wall at least twice, in different sections. The touristy part was interesting, (Even in China Capitalism reigns) but the quiet places were truly inspiring. Thanks for writing this piece

    • Thanks a lot, I appreciate the compliment. One of the great parts about the wild sections of the Wall is that they’re not very crowded, so once you get up pretty high it’s very peaceful, like you said.


    • I hope you get to also. It’s almost worth the trip to China by itself. From the stories I’ve read, there are several sections throughout China that have been destroyed for “progress” purposes, such as building roads.


  31. Somebody once said “You have no idea how significant an event is in your life, until it turns into a memory”. climbing the wall would definitely be a significant event for me πŸ™‚ great pictures and nice narration.

    • It’s definitely worth visiting. There are many other structures and sites around Beijing that are historically significant, so there’s a lot of other things to see too. Thanks for reading!


      • Not to intrude on this comment conversation but Caroline, you should definitely give living abroad a try, at least for 6 months or so. It’s life changing!

        Jimmy, where in Indy are you from? I was born in Terre Haute, my extended family lives in Indianapolis, but I’ve lived in Texas most of my life. I’m in Taiwan now, working as a Technical Writer, but I visited the GWOC last CNY. It was nothing like I expected and absolutely incredible!


      • Hi Mandy,

        I lived in Evansville for five and a half years, but I’m not from there. I was born in Detroit, but spent most of my life in Kentucky. My father got a job there at an engineering company when I was a kid, so that’s why we moved.

        I’ve been to Terre Haute once, for an interview. But I didn’t have a chance to do any exploring … How do you like Taiwan? I’ve read that a lot of the treasures from the Forbidden City are in Taiwan. I’ve always wanted to go there to see some of the exhibits.


      • Taiwan is good, but it’s not right for me long-term. There are some incredible things to see and do here, and I appreciate the Chinese culture without the government interference. If you make it down here before August, let me know and I’ll show you around.

    • Thanks for the kind words! It was easily 25 km. I’m more of word guy than a math guy, so I can’t say for sure whether how far it was. But the skies were crystal clear both times I went to the Wall.


  32. Powerful photos (envoking quite a bit of wanderlust on my part)!

    I sat here for quite a while (okay probably more like 5 minutes, but if you knew me, you’d know that IS quite a while) and thought about walls. Not so much about the challenge of construction / upkeep, not about the historical aspect and the significance – none of that.

    I was thinking about erecting walls for protection and how we all do that (do a certain extent) and I mused about a country, that referred to itself as the country of the middle (rough translation) would make itself so inaccesible from all sides. Obviously it protects those inside from the outside world, but it also estranges them through lack of outside influences.

    I wonder if this is good or bad or neither. -Not sure.

    Sorry, I’m guessing this was too much of my incoherent ramblings for this post, but somehow this just struck a chord in me today.

    Great post – thanks for sharing

    πŸ™‚ K.

    • Thanks for reading! I agree with you about a wall estranging a country from outside influences. China, in many ways, was estranged from the world until its economic reform policies. Now, there are some neighborhoods in Beijing with a Starbucks on the corner and a shopping mall on the other side that don’t look a lot different from a suburb in the US.

  33. Beautiful shots…feels almost like I’m there. Some of our presidetial contenders want to duplicate this effort on the southern US border. One thing I learned as a little kid, once somebody fenced in their yard, there was NO WAY to get in!

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