The Jinshanling area of the Great Wall of China is not as visited as Mutianyu or Badaling – it being a 3 and a half hour trip to get there. What makes up for the journey is that, when you arrive, you’ve practically got the place to yourself. It’s the best part of the Wall you can visit. It’s the best preserved. The wall, fortresses and passes were all constructed in the North Qi Dynasty (550-577) and the ruins of this period are still visible. The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) rebuilt, repaired and reconstructed the wall over the years – indeed, the 7 metre high, 5-6 metre wide wall at Jinshanling is the best place to see the magnificent Ming Dynasty architecture of the Wall. I was looking forward to it immensely, even at 5:30 in the morning as I struggled to come to my senses and get a cup of tea down me. A minivan picked us up at 6 to a place where we were transferred to a coach. 3 hours later, we’d arrived.
The Great Wall of China. It was desolate here. Barren, vast, empty space all around, then the Wall, like a grey and sand coloured spine, it’s undulating ridges twisting and snaking through the landscape, a wonder in every sense of the word. The deep blue sky above was just as endless, just as lonely it seemed as the emptiness stretching out under our feet and all around. This part of the wall stretches from Wangjinglou Tower in the east all the way to Longujou in the west, about 10 kilometres in all. Of course, we wouldn’t be able to walk the whole thing today – but we could at least get to a few of the iconic watchtowers, including the two-tier Jinshan Watchtower, the General Tower and the Taochun Tower. There are other towers of course. More than 100 actually. As we set food on the wall we started to be followed by a group of ruddy-faced farmers who were after selling things. To gain your trust, they follow you for the whole journey, helping you over difficult parts, taking photos, teaching you Chinese. Their smiles shone out of their leathery, weather-beaten faces, and they wore old tattered clothes – outdoors people, hardened to the hardships life here brings. They choose a traveller to latch on to at the beginning of the trip, and stay with them the whole day. Their persistence, inevitably, more out of you feeling pity than actually wanting something, pays off. The reminded me of the Black Hmong people of Sapa in Vietnam, who follow you for days through the rice terraces and villages, selling bits of hand-dyed cloth. I bought a book of the Great Wall for 80RMB after getting the price down from 150RMB. I had to buy something.
The Great Wall was much more impressive than I’d imagined. It wasn’t just the Wall itself, which was charmingly authentic, i.e. in ruin in places, it was also the surrounding scenery – brown mountains and naked trees giving that feeling of beautiful, scary isolation. The patches of forest green stood in welcome contrast to the surroundings. We were at the bottom of a deep sea it seemed, and above us an ocean of perfect blue. Here, our group of 20 people were alone. No other tourists were in sight. It was overwhelming being here, hiking the wall, navigating the steep and rocky paths. I’ve been to all but one of the wonders of the world now – Machu Picchu the only one missing. The Great Wall has been the most impressive of all.
We walked the wall at our leisure, to Tower ‘7’, then back for lunch at a little restaurant that seemed to be an extension of someone’s house. Food was simple – rice and vegetables – but delicious and much appreciated. Others in the group got stuck into the Tsingtao beer, which wasn’t free, unlike the lunch. We were an interesting mix of nationalities. We talked about what we had seen. Waxed lyrical over where we had been. Gave advice, shared tips, asked questions, gathered essential information. A typical travelers lunch.Back in Beijing, Vero and I went on a different kind of hike – to Hou Hai for a beer, then Sanlitun to Bar Blu, where we ate a delicious Mexican dish. We finished at a club called, bizarrely, Youth Hostel. Full of drunk kids, which wasn’t as bizarre. Caught a cab back, full from memories of a truly incredible day in a truly wondrous place. If you go to the Great Wall of China – go to the Jinshanling section – you won’t be disappointed.