January has proven to be the perfect time to visit Beijing. The weather isn’t too cold, especially in comparison to the Chicago winters. In fact, it has been surprisingly sunny since I arrived. The rush leading up to the Chinese New Year, beginning on February 19th this year, hasn’t quite begun, but the preparations have, imparting a festive mood on the city. And most importantly, there are very few tourists and visitors. But if I have learned anything about Beijing, it’s that the true gems lie where few tourists visit.
The latter is most certainly true for the Great Wall, or at least this was the claim of my high school friend, Kevin, who hosted me for most of my stay in Beijing. While debating which part of the wall to visit, and how to get there, Kevin jumped in with an idea. A few days later we brought that idea to fruition, embarking on the two hour drive to the Simatai Great Wall. According to Kevin, this was a less frequented section of the wall, usually hiked by the locals. To say the least, we were in for a few surprises.
The traffic had been practically nonexistant for about thirty minutes, and with the heavy fog that settled over Beijing and followed us to the end of Miyun county on that quiet Wednesday morning, the wide, empty motorways that carved through the mountains had an eerie appearance. As I scanned the surrounding peaks for a glimpse of that endless ribbon of stone, waiting to savor the first sighting from a distance and replace the collage of photographs in my mind with a fresh, real image, I marveled at the vastness of the countryside, the elegance of the mountain range, and the prominence of what I was about to experience. Just imagining the structure snaking across the peaks, disappearing above the curtain of fog, was enough to inspire a sense of awe. What a remarkable feat of early human engineering, tracing centuries of history and civilization through thousands of kilometers of cracks and debris. Lost somewhere in all of these thoughts, I came back to reality as the car came to a halt. We had arrived, but not at the Great Wall.
Leaving the network of concrete behind, we took a step onto a quartzite pathway and followed as it trailed beside a frozen river, crossed an old stone bridge, and squeezed past a row of compact, traditional houses, scattering into an array of long, winding Hutongs.
This, as we soon found out, was the entrance to the ancient Gubei Water Town. Resting at the foot of the Simatai Great Wall, this village held thousands of years of history within its walls. Recently reopened after three years of construction, the whole town had been restored to become a museum and resort, where visitors can explore the ancient city, experience a variety of local customs and enjoy authentic cuisine while staying in one of the dozens of traditional houses that have been converted into inns.
Did I mention authentic cuisine..
At the other end of the town, we found what we were looking for.
The Simatai section of the Great Wall is a unique stretch in that its architecture and design features characteristics from all of the other varying sections of the Wall. Further, it is one of the steepest segments of the wall, a fact we would soon verify first hand.
After the slowly ascending, scenic 30 minute hike from the town, we made it to the wall and discovered yet another interesting fact – this was part of the Wall known as the “Wild” Great Wall, bereft of any restoration or maintenance efforts, left in the unforgiving hands of nature.
Reaching the first tower after what was truly a steep climb, Kevin and I took a break to catch our breaths and drink some water, while we enjoyed the quiet peacefulness of the surroundings.
After our break, Kevin decided to head back, worn out from all of the walking and climbing, so I continued alone. And shortly, after passing the first tower and what would be the last security guard I would come across, I quickly realized that I was the only person on the wall. We didn’t pass a single visitor on the way up, and there was no one else in sight.
I continued for a few kilometers, climbing higher and higher. Along the way, I noticed a few things. The further I went and the closer to the top of the mountain I got, the steeper the climb became. Along with the incline, the level of dilapidation quickly evolved as well. Each passing tower was more decrepit than the last..
..and beyond the third or fourth tower, the wall itself started to embody a similar form. The barriers on either side of the steps disappeared, exposing emptiness and the rapidly dropping mountainsides, shrinking the already narrow walkway. And then further up, the steps themselves became pretty battered as well, making the already steep climb even more challenging.
After about an hour of ascent, I found myself at the top of the mountain. I figured that I had come far enough and stopped to take it all in. What an extraordinary, unparalleled feeling, to be completely alone at the top of the Great Wall, watching the remnants of history eroding into the earth from which it was built, mankind’s fingerprint slowly reintegrating into its source. All of those thoughts from the car ride earlier, inspired as I stared upwards from the valley below, were exponentially heightened as I stood, a tiny speck in the broad, green expanse, barely visible on one of man’s most impressive creations.