I first visited the Great Wall during the Great Family Meet-Up (Beijing Edition) in the winter of 2005. I had gone to visit my parents who were spending the year in Beijing, to fulfill my mother’s lifelong dream of mastering Mandarin in the country where the language originated. Thus, I bought a plane ticket and found myself soon ensconced in a spartan dorm at the Beijing Language and Culture University, from whence I would seek out adventure.
Beijing is generally quite cold in the winter. Not really surprising, considering the literal translation of the Chinese name is Northern Capital (北 bei = North, 京 jing = capital). While it does snow occasionally, Beijing winters tend to be fairly dry.
Of course, no trip to Beijing is not complete without a trip to the Great Wall. Can you even say you’ve visited the city if you have never even glimpsed this World Wonder? My mother had arranged for a driver to take us out on our Great Wall adventure, and we were all excitedly anticipating it. Of course, in the spirit of Murphy’s Law, it snowed for the first time that year on Great Wall Day of all days. For a while, we weren’t even sure if we would be able to make it out there at all, but luckily, we did. The wall was magnificent. Breath-taking. Picturesque.
The section of the wall that we went to was Badaling (八达岭), one of the sections closest to Beijing, and as a result, one of the more touristy sections. If you went to the Great Wall, and you went from Beijing, chances are, you went to Badaling. If you came in the summer, you were probably squeezed onto the wall with hordes of Chinese tourists, smashed in cheek-to-jowl as they, too, proudly came to survey a World Wonder built by one of their ancestors.
We were lucky. It was winter, and it had snowed. There were fewer tourists than normal, and the light sprinkling of snow that had seemed so unlucky earlier that morning had kept away all but the most foolhardy of tourists. Even as we dangled high above the parking plaza in the cable car that would take us to the wall, I could see it in all its crenellated glory, stretching across the rugged wilds of the Chinese countryside.
The light dusting of snow had turned a barren land denuded of foliage into a crystallized fairy land. The sky was a soft purplish, pinkish grey, welcoming and gentle, not forbidding like it had seemed in the city. As we clambered up the slick, icy steps and actually set foot onto the legendary wall itself, I could only think that I had seen the best that the wall had to offer. This must be the best way to see it, I thought.
I was wrong.
I did not visit the Wall again for four more years. When I next visited the Wall, it was February 2009. I had been living in Beijing for just over six months by then, and a friend’s family was coming to visit. A few of our friends and I tagged along for the ride. This time, though, we went to a different section of the wall. After a year in Beijing, we all knew the Great Wall lingo: Badaling for generic touristy stuff; Mutianyu (慕田峪) for Badaling with marginally fewer tourists; Jinshanling (金山岭) which was farther out for somewhat more of a hike; Simatai (司马台) if you were really adventurous and had even more time to drive all the way out there.
My French friend, eager to give his family a better-than-average Great Wall experience devoid of the aggressive touts and souvenir-toting sellers, arranged for us to go out to Simatai. It was a good day for the trip. Dry, somewhat dusty, still cold, and when we were at the Wall, quite windy. The drive was long, but the company good.
It was quite the trek up to the Wall, but the path up was smooth and somewhat patched up. The Wall here seemed even more sprawling than before. It was a clear day, with no fog, and we could see far into the horizon, where the Wall sprawled out in its serpentine glory. The Wall was in pretty good repair, though there were some parts with some wear and tear. Pretty acceptable for a structure with over a thousand years of history, in my opinion! Despite it being a clear day, there was nobody on the wall at all, just us and an enterprising group of farmers who managed to talk my friend and his parents into buying some T-shirts to commemorate their Great Wall adventure.
The Simatai section of the Great Wall seemed much more rugged than the section at Badaling. The inclines here were steeper, and the Wall was correspondingly harder to climb. It seemed like a ravening beast clawing its way up the steep slopes of the Chinese mountainside, a brick serpent that stretched up and over rock, conquering all in its sight.
Despite the lack of snow and ice that characterised my first trip to the Great Wall, Simatai was more difficult to climb. The Wall at Badaling by contrast, seemed a gentle, tamed beast, its undulations mild as it made its sinuous way across the Chinese countryside. This Wall was like climbing up a cliff-face, with nary an end in sight. It was majestic, as always, but also lacked the delicate beauty of Badaling. This wall was power and strength, rampaging across mountain passes, as wild and barbaric as any Mongol horde.
Nine months later, I had another chance to visit the Great Wall. Unlike my first two trips out there, the purpose of this trip was not to see the Wall itself, but rather, a class trip to visit a small village just outside of Beijing that happened to be situated close to a section of the Wall. By then, my Great Wall romance had ended. I’d already been there twice and seen both the “civilised”, reconstructed part, and the more wild, savage part. I was jaded. I was more interested to speak with a real Chinese villager and hear of his experiences living in rural China.
When we had finished visiting the village, our teacher took our class on the long trek up to the Wall. Unlike my first two trips, there was no parking plaza, no cable car, no fancy signage declaiming the awesome history and symbolism of the Great Wall. We were going to a section of the Wall that the public doesn’t get to see. It was like being let into a secret group of people, a group that was privileged enough to view this awesome structure from a new perspective.
We followed our teacher out of the village and into the surrounding forests for the hike up to the Wall. The trek up there was long, but worth it. It had snowed heavily that year, and the path up there was steep. Parts of it were covered in snow, and parts of it were sand and rock. The views were spectacular, with mountains stretching out as far as the eye could see. And then we turned round a bend in the path, and there it was, our first glimpse of the Wall peeking out over the barren trees.
This Wall was, by far, the most beautiful and haunting of the sections I have seen. It wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t repaired. Sections of it were crumbling with age. A veritable forest of trees had sprung up on it. Moss and lichen grew on the walls. Wild grasses grew up from the grout and swayed in the chill winter wind. A rudimentary path had been carved through the trees growing on this wall. This Wall was wild, untamed, remote, lonely. This Wall defied all imagination.
It was a mad collision of man and nature, and it was spectacular.
There was nobody on this Wall but us, exulting in its beauty and wildness, and luxuriating in the unexpected delight of a Great Wall that was unlike anything we had ever seen.
In many ways, the many faces of the Great Wall are like the many faces of China: civilised and delicate, rugged and majestic, wild and lonely. I am reminded often that most people who visit China merely see the bustling metropolises, and not the rest of this vast country. And I am reminded that there is more to any country than just the face it shows to the world.