The best place to visit the Great Wall of China
No trip to China would be complete without a trip to the world famous Great Wall. But with so many people wanting to go there and so much restoration in its recent past, can it live up to the expectation? But when we stand upon it, it is clear that it is not just great by name. It stretches away before us into the distance. It flows from my tired feet, along the valleys and up the peaks, behind and in front, undulating with the ancient curves of the mountainous landscape. It is so old it now seems almost as natural as the trees around it, lying intertwined with the wilderness as it solidly wends its long twisty way through the huge country of China.
There are many stretches of the great wall that can be accessed from the capital Beijing, some very easily and some with a bit more determination. Hoping to beat the extreme crowds of Badaling, we opt for Mutianyu. It is still within an easy day trip of Beijing, yet is not quite so overrun with tourists or people trying to sell you stuff. The stretch of wall here can be accessed by climbing steep steps up through the wooded hills or by ascending above the tree tops via cable car. The cable car is a white and rickety, a park bench that’s all peeling paint and metal slats, with a rocking insubstatial safety bar your only protection. It judders its way vertiginously over the tree tops, hanging precariously above valleys and mountains as it is pulled unceasingly upwards, to a stone platform just below the wall itself. From here you can see the wall snaking away, touching the horizon in both directions. A modest wooden sign reads “To the Great Wall”.
A few final steps and we are standing on the stones of one of the greatest achievements of mankind. It is a feat of organisation, manpower and vision that is startling to behold in person. Turning towards the left we can see the wall climbing effortlessly up the mountain, not straight and rigid as you might expect a man-made boundary to be, but serpentine, weaving through the dips and peaks around hills, disappearing over tree lined crests to re-appear an instant later, hiding its true length and location behind the trough filled landscape.
Guard towers are scattered along its length, imposingly looking out and surveying the hills. These small fortresses possess a much sterner quality, their solid square walls and thick, regular battlements serving as a reminder of the military control that was the ultimate reason for this remarkable feat of engineering. Much of the wall, especially the stretch most accessible from Beijing, has been extensively reconstructed. Accordingly, it lacks the wilderness of more ancient, broken down sections where one imagines you would have a stronger connection to history. This is no-where more apparent than in the guard towers standing so firm, seemingly un-impacted by the passing of time.
However, while reconstruction is apparent, the magnitude of the original project, the vast distance it covers and the beautiful scenery do more than take your breath away. Somehow, they calm the soul. The sandy stones of a million shades lead your footsteps irrepressibly on, where many have walked before you, into the distance. Aiming for the top of the hill, we discover when we reach it that it is not the top at all. You could go on and on, chasing the horizon, seeking the vanishing point that never comes. Days on end could be spent treading the patient stones which, whether ancient or modern, are infused with a sense of pride in a culture that produced something on such a gargantuan scale. The history is omnipotent because of its origins: whether this particular stone is old or new, it is a part of something much greater – a tradition of power, vision and organisation.
The turrets stretch away until the eye struggles to retain their image. Every distant peak holds the possibility of that creamy, serpentine line highlighting its contours. It stretches ahead and it reaches behind. It creates a crossroads and branches out at an angle to us, picking out details of valleys and hillsides that are only noteworthy because of its distinctive line.
A few of the guard towers hold staircases to allow you to scale their modest heights and look out from on high to marvel anew at the road you are privileged enough to be walking. Tourists are plentiful, and yet there are many times when it is possible, even just for a few minutes, to have the wall to yourself. This is a rarity and many other travellers I have spoken to have told us how busy they found the wall and how this affected their experience. We were very lucky, and who knows how long it will stay this way, but for now Mutianyu is definitely the place to go if you want the best experience of the great wall with the ease of a fairly short trip from Beijing.
It is an incredible place. It makes you consider all the hundreds of hands that helped to build it and all the lives lived in its shadow. It makes you realise how small you are in the great scale of things. And how lucky you are to be here, walking on history, witnessing the power of man and the beauty of nature as presented on these wooded hills and towering blue mountains and the determined, undulating stream of stone that weaves through it all.
Words and photographs copyright of Bonnie Radcliffe.