There are several bits of the Great Wall of China which you can visit, each of which offer very different Great Wall experiences. There’s the very touristy bit, which has been completely restored and is jam packed full of, well, tourists. There is the slightly touristy bit, which has only been slightly restored and has a few tourists on, but not many. And there is the not so touristy bit, which has hardly been touched, and is harder to get too, and has only a handful of tourists on it.
Yesterday we went to the middle one – the section of the Great Wall known as Mutianyu. This part of the wall doesn’t suffer from the hoards of tourists that flock to the more popular Badaling section.
Mutianyu takes about two hours to get too from Beijing. You do have the option to hike up from the car park at the bottom to the wall itself, but unless you’re a hardened hiker you might want to consider using the chair lift to get up to the wall – walking along the wall is itself no easy feat, and you could do with preserving some energy.
I’ve been to the Great Wall before, of course. Last time, in 2010, I went to Jinshanling – the very dilapidated, very un-touristy bit of the wall. I quite liked it back then, and came away pleased that I’d seen the wall in its untouched, crumbling state. I mean, this is a wall that was built hundreds and even thousands of years ago. Its not meant to be in pristine condition, surely
Thus I was concerned yesterday to discover that not only had the Mutianyu section of the wall been extensively restored, but that in fact it had been restored by a German chemical manufacturing company, based in Dusseldorf, named Henkel.
To be fair, the restoration at Mutianyu has been done reasonably sensitively – the bricks look broadly in keeping with what you’d expect to see on the wall, and don’t quite have the ‘breezeblocks and mortar’ feel of other restored sections of the wall I’ve seen photos of. So its not as bad as it could be.
…But I couldn’t help but feel that, as we walked along, we simply weren’t walking along the Great Wall of China. We were just walking along another big wall that had been built where the Great Wall of China had once been.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a pretty spectacular sight, seeing the wall rise and fall over dramatic hills for miles into the distance. We were treated to a misty day yesterday, the hills cloaked in low clouds and (probably) a bit of smog, adding an eery coolness to the view. The wall itself remains a formidable challenge to negotiate. Some sections are extremely steep. Its hard work. The drinks sellers who line the route do good business.
…But its still just not the original wall!
Alas, all was not lost. After two hours of climbing, we reached a sign which told us we could go no further (you’ll never go more than 10 minutes in China without seeing a sign telling you not to do something). We had to turn back, it said. Except, looking beyond the sign, we could see that the wall didn’t stop. It continued, only it was completely unrestored, and indeed completely unkempt, covered over in bushes and weeds and trees. We didn’t hesitate, and stepping past the sign, we finally stepped onto the real Great Wall of China and continued forward. Sure, it felt more like the Amazon, only a narrow trodden path through the dense overgrowth showing the way forward. But this was finally what you’d expect from a centuries old wall.
We worked our way through the bushes and finally came up on the rocky remains of a watch tower that had long since crumbled away into the valley below. Stepping up onto the rocks, we were rewarded with spectacular views down across the whole valley, the peaks of the wall stabbing the horizon into the distance. It felt like standing on top of the whole world!
Stopping for a quick picnic (beer and pringles), we looked back along the dilapidated stretch of the wall along which we’d come. Finally, we said, we’d walked on the Great Wall of China!