Sunday, January 18, 2009

Hiking The Great Wall Of China At Jinshanling

While both tourists and Chinese citizens jostle with each other and an array of souvenir vendors at the crowded Badaling section of the Great Wall 70 kilometres northwest of Beijing, I negotiated my way past a farmer and a herd of goats on a narrow mountain path in Jinshanling.

Jinshanling is a poor, tiny village 120 kilometres northeast of Beijing. It's also the starting point for a hike along what is often referred to as the "Wild Wall." I had taken a van with nine other people on the two-and-a-half-hour trip to get here, but quickly left them behind on my 40-minute climb to where this section of the Great Wall begins.

Visiting the Great Wall would be the highlight of my 18 days in China, and I wanted to experience its ruggedness by myself as much as I could. And aside from a handful of intrepid souvenir hawkers — primarily selling books, postcards, T-shirts and drinks — I pretty much achieved my goal.

While I walked quickly, I certainly didn't rush. The incredible views of the surrounding mountains and seemingly endless wall extending into the horizon in both directions made sure of that. Construction of this section of the wall, which extends 10 kilometres to Simitai, began in 1570 during the Ming Dynasty. It's comprised of five main passes, 67 watchtowers and two beacon towers, and was built from 12-kilogram bricks.

It can be tiring just getting up here with a small backpack filled with food, drinks, a camera and extra clothes for in case the weather turns wet or windy, so it's almost unimaginable what it would have been like to haul heavy bricks up the mountain to build the wall. It truly is one of the greatest engineering feats of all time, considering it winds its way through thousands of kilometres of rugged and mountainous terrain. I stopped to eat a pear and soak in the rich atmosphere while paying my respects at one of the spots on the wall where soldiers had carved their names some 400 years ago.

Parts of the wall have been restored to its original condition, while other sections have been allowed to deteriorate and you're forced to take mountain paths where it has become impassable. There are many steep inclines and stairs, and you'll occasionally have to contend with rocks and fragmented bricks, so appropriate footwear, a good fitness level and previous hiking experience are all recommended. Those wary of suspension bridges should also be aware that you have to cross a small one — and pay five yen to do it.

The journey can comfortably be completed in three to five hours, depending on how often you stop to rest, take photos or simply gaze at the wonderful panorama.

While taking in the bright lights of Shanghai, cruising through the three gorges on the Yangtze River, marveling at the terra cotta warriors outside of Xi'an and wandering through the Forbidden Palace in Beijing are all must-sees in China, you won't have a more exhilarating experience in the country than walking the "Wild Wall" in Jinshanling.

Admission fee: 50 yen and an additional five yen to cross suspension bridge