If you ever visit the Great Wall, go wild. As in wild, unrestored sections of the wall.
They’re a lot less likely to be crowded and reaching them can be an adventure in itself. Last May, a friend and I hired a driver to take us from downtown Beijing to Jiankou, a section of the wall on the outskirts of Beijing built in the 1300s.
Our driver didn’t speak much English, and my Chinese was pretty bad at the time. I knew we were going to be in for an adventure when our driver, who was already talking on one cell phone, took a call on a second and used his knees to steer the taxi through heavy traffic.
We stopped a few times along the way so he could ask for directions. In one village, he pulled over in front of a huge billboard of Hu Jintao, the former president of China. Hu had come to the village several years ago, and in the picture he was surrounded by a huge entourage. A villager our driver had stopped to ask for directions turned to me and asked if I recognized Hu. “Yes, of course I do,” I said in Chinese. He laughed and complimented my Chinese.
After a few wrong turns, we finally arrived at the foot of the mountain that led to the Jiankou section of the wall. Unlike other sections of the wall I had visited, such as Huanghua and Jinshanling, there were no easy routes to get to Jiankou. It was climb the mountain or bust.
Our driver told us to be careful, and said the path to the top was very dangerous. He held his palm nearly vertical to emphasize just how steep it was.
The trail to the top of the mountain was marked by pieces of red tape that had been tied to tree limbs, and after a couple of hours of following them, we made it to the wall.
The wall was nearly empty, except for an exhausted European man who we ran into at one of the towers. He said he had been hiking all day, and that some of the sections he passed were very scary. Parts of the wall were crumbling, and the stairs were nearly vertical, he said. If you didn’t watch what you were doing, it was very easy to fall. “I’d never do it again,” he said.
Which direction did you come from, I asked. He pointed to the left, where the wall snaked up and down for as far as I could see.
Having already scaled a mountain to get this far, we turned right, which appeared to be a more manageable trek, and began our journey.