May Break 2012: Great Wall; Mutianyu and the Wild Wall

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May 1st 2012
Published: May 2nd 2012
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Tuesday May 1

After living more than 1 year in China, on this date I finally climbed the Great Wall.

This blog is a split off of the main blog on my Beijing trip (mainly for the pictures).

The bus ride to the wall was almost 3 hours long. The base of the wall was of course exclusively touristy. It was a combination of high end China with a fancy mural map description, cable car, sled but with the tourist stalls more reminiscent of developing Asia. I decided to walk up the wall and take the sled down.

It was a good idea but if I was able to do it again I would've just started in a village by the wild wall and walked to Mutianyu. This way the fee is tiny (a couple of locals tolling you along the way) and there is no backtracking. That said it is challenging long and technical at times.

Instead I climbed at Mutianyu which is a fully restored section paying the full fees, and then walked for some time to the end of the restored section past the 'no tourist zone' and well into the wild wall, and then back to the sled and down.

The trek up to the wall was along stairs up the side of a hill. It was a bit tiring but more or less the same as walking along the wall anyways, so you don't save much by doing the cable car up instead. Many of the Chinese were of course struggling up the hills. Many were clearly poorly dressed for the activity or didn't know how to pace themselves. Or just generally struggling.

About halfway up the hill I caught my first glimpse of the wall; the silhouette on the top of the hill. After a few more minutes I was at the base. To my initial surprise the wall wasn't all that higher than the hill and could've easily been scaled by a short ladder or a grappling hook or similar device. Heck you could probably climb a nearby tree and jump over. However as I climbed up the stairs to the main section of the wall, I realized that I was on the China side, which didn't need to be so high. The Mongol side needed to be much higher, and as I reached the top of the wall, I realized this was correct. That said, it still wasn't incredibly high and still easily climbed by a tall ladder. No wonder it didn't really stop the Mongols.

I entered at the western and northern most path to the wall, which was roughly in the middle of the Mutianyu section. To the east was the sled and some kind of waystation that you could ride a donkey up to. To the west was where I went and it had the cable car, and beyond the wild wall.

The first part was relatively flat, or more specifically the net gain of altitude was roughly zero, with plenty of up and downs, but none too concerning for anyone competent at walking or hiking. It was fairly crowded but only to the point that you couldn't take pictures without someone else in it. The actual moving along the wall was relatively unimpeded except at the choke points (staircases up and down watchtowers). About every few hundred meters was a watchtower. The watch towers were restored and were two levels although most towers the second level was inaccessible (the hatch to the top was open but the ladder was missing).

The wall itself was a few meters wide with fairly low parapets and small holes dug out at the bottom partly to let rain water out and partly as a place to jab a spear at a Mongol climbing the wall. The pathway was fully tiled with square stones carefully laid down. Stairs were common. You could see the wall snaking along the top of the mountain ridge going for quite some distance each way. Along the way I got approached a few times to be in a picture with a Chinese person.

I hiked along the wall for about 30 minutes before reaching the access point of the cable car. It was built onto an extension of the wall built solely for this purpose. As you'd might expect the areas around the cable car and to the sled were the most crowded. I headed beyond and you could see the wall rising out of the relative low point that Mutianyu was based on. It headed straight up the mountain before it disappeared out of sight. I made a promise to myself to at least make it to the farthest I could see.

Along the way many stands selling drinks and snacks were set up and inflated prices (roughly 3-20 times retail price). But if you're desperate, you're desperate.

Soon enough I hit the uphill and with the temperature hitting the high 28's I and everyone else was slogging up the wall, sweating along the way. With each successive watchtower on the way up, was a better view of the valley below. Eventually I reached a "No Tourists" sign, which I ignored. I kept climbing up and up, until it started to flatten out a bit. The stones ceasesd to be well cut squares and became broken shapes fit together. The path became that much more bumpy. I came to one last watchtower which was partially crumbling. There was one last food/drink stand before the restorated section ended. It went from carefully cut to the broken shapes to barely any stones.

The Wild Wall.

The wild wall initially was more or less a hike through a forest with small trees, dirt occaisional stones and every so often a crumbling watchtower. I passed a few intrepid groups of chinese hikers coming the other way. They were decked out in full backpacking gear. I weaved my way along the top of the wall following the little trail through the trees and over the stones. Before long I was at a watchtower which was basically gone. I was still trying to get to that high point I could see earlier. I kept climbing up, until I passed a group of European students coming down a particularly steep and slippery section that led to the highest point in the nearby sections. I scrampled up the wall, pulling on trees and handholds in the wall up. When I reached the top there was another Chinese group with a guide and a couple of European men all coming from a small village. They told me how beautiful the next section was so I headed on, taking in the last view back of the entire Mutianyu section.

The path got more technically challenging as I went on. The first part headed back down the ridge which was fairly slippery at points before flattening out for a short while. Off to the distance a fairly intact watchtower came into view which would turn out to have the best views of the trip. On the way there I passes one Chinese man who brought a camping stove and was making soup and then another Chinese man who was selling drinks. As I was somewhat concerned about my stock of water remaining I bought some water. I made it to the watchtower and climbed to the top. It was a stunning view of the area. Looking backwards you could see the outline of the wall snaking up to the high part I had been. But looking forward was where it was the most beautiful.

It was a series of about 4 watchtowers along some precipitous cliffs descending down that produced some very dramatic scenery. I took the obligatory pictures, before heading down. My camera battery was getting low so I connected my external usb battery to it to start charging. But I took it out for one last picture and in doing so flung the battery off the side of the wall. I climbed down to the wall and there was another Chinese man sitting there selling drinks and as I found later charging admission to use his ladder (going up apparently as he didn't charge me to go down). He also had a ladder heading down to the base of the wall where I climbed down to grab my battery. It was still somewhat functional although a few pieces were rattled loose inside.

I kept descending down the wall past a couple of the watchtowers. Some sections were quite tricky as there was less than half a meter of footing before it plunged off 100's of meters down. I went down as far as I could before I started to run out of time. The last public bus was at 4:00 and it was now 1:30 having taken 4 hours to get to my location. I headed back up the hills, paid the 5 yuan toll. I had seen what looked to be a shortcut to bypass the tallest section as the walls ran fairly close to each other but ran up quite some distance to the highest point. I found a trail that looked promising, took it down and figured out which one went back to the next section of the wall. Once back on the wall, I made my way quickly back to the main section. Once there it was almost entirely downhill so I went at a torrid pace down the steps. I ended up arriving at the sled at 3:00 so decided to use the extra time to explore the north-easterly section. It went down to a few buildings and there were some donkeys there for taking up tourists (and likely supplies). It then ascended back up quickly. It was not very far before the restored wall ended and the ' No tourist' sign propped up again. With not much time to spare I headed back down to the sled section.

I waited in line for a few minutes before hopping into my sled. It was a wheeled sled with going down a metal tube. The only control was a large handle break. It was at the Great Wall but had no real interaction or view of it. There were several video camera's, lots of signs and a few staff with walkie-talkies along the way. They were serious about not letting people go too fast. It was a moot point because the chinese group before me went at a snail's pace anyways.

I got to the bottom, had a real lunch and waited for the bus. Being the last bus of the day and there being more people than seats, when the bus did arrive it was a crush to get on. I got on but had to sit on the floor at the back for the 2.5 hour ride back to Beijing.

Additional photos below
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