As the t-shirts all around Beijing say, “I climbed the Great Wall of China.” This two-day hike was the activity I most looked forward to on this trip, and it completely lived up to my expectations. I heard constantly how crowded the Great Wall was. We must have done this right. On our first day, we only saw one other person in the entire four-hour hike.
Our hike began in Gubeikou, a tiny farming village. This place is clearly off the beaten path as there were barely any signs that this was a starting location for the Wall. The views from here were stunning. This section is unrestored and in many places falling apart due to years of disrepair and locals taking the bricks for their homes.
We hiked for about an hour and half before we stopped for lunch. Bill, our guide, had mentioned several times during the morning that he brought hamburgers for us. Because it is in my nature to be fixated on where I’ll be getting my next meal, I spent much of the hike wondering about the hamburgers. Where did he get them? Are they just sitting in Bill’s backpack? Or worse- does he have ground beef in his bag with a plan for a Wall cookout? Finally as we climbed a steep staircase to a watchtower, Bill announced we’d be stopping for lunch. A local woman was in the watchtower selling souvenirs and drinks. Could she be the one making us hamburgers? As we crouched down on support beams, Bill produced a brown McDonald’s bag from his pack. I have never been so happy to see those Golden Arches! Hamburgers, they were not. Instead, Bill pulled out a hash brown, a Filet-O-Fish and a McChicken. Chris took the Chicken, I took the fish. It was delicious.
As we descended from that tower, Bill pointed to a military base along the Wall. Because of the base’s location, we were not allowed to walk along that section. Bill explained we’d walk down a valley along a path and then back up to the Wall. Easy enough, I figured. We quickly descended into thick forests, broken only by cornfields cleared into the valley floors. While there was a “path”, the vegetation was so thick I could barely see below my waist. At some point Chris announced, “The Wall really seems to be doing its job. The Chinese army is one side and us foreigners are the other.”
Finally, we were back up along the wall. The sun was high and we were hot! Cool breezes through the windows of the guard towers were often our only respite from the heat. Through the entire hike, Bill shared fascinating history tidbits about the Wall. Most interesting was to see how the wall continued to change throughout the journey from brick types to even mud at certain points.
After about 3 hours, I looked down at my feet only to notice that my trusty hiking boots looked a little funny. Upon closer inspection, I noticed the bottoms of both boots were coming off. We continued anyway, eventually coming to Jinshanling where we would be resting, eating, and sleeping.
We descended to a tiny outpost along the base of the Wall. Here we spent the night playing an extremely confusing Chinese card game, eating a delicious meal prepared by a local family, and relaxing. After nightfall, a van took the three of us – Bill, Chris, and I – up to the Wall with camping equipment. Up high in a watchtower we set up two tents and got ready for bed. For months, the prospect of sleeping on the Great Wall sounded thrilling. Now reality set in, and it was actually somewhat scary. We were at the highest point on top of a mountain in the summer where thunderstorms were frequent. To make matters worse, a very large metal table with several metal chairs sat only feet away from our tent. Throughout the night we could hear thunder and see lightning in the distance, but fortunately it never came our way. Chris kept saying that he heard critters scurrying around the outside of our tent, but I’d like to say that was just the wind. I must say I was relieved at daybreak.
We went back to the outpost in the morning where the same family served us a giant breakfast of congee, noodles, fried bread, stir-fried eggs, spicy tofu, and pickled vegetables. It was delicious!
Because of my broken boots, we changed our planned route. We were supposed to drive two hours to then do a four-hour hike. Because my boots were in such bad shape, our guide suggested we just hike from Jinshanling to Simatai. This would only be a two-hour hike. The nice man who owned the outpost near the wall provided rope and our driver, Mr. Zhi, helped tie my boots to their soles. Despite a noble effort, this only lasts about fifteen minutes. I ended up just pulling the soles off the boots completely. They became more like hiking slippers, but they did the job.
This two-hour hike was tough! The previous day was grueling, but this was far more difficult. Looking at photos of the Chinese countryside that is home to the Great Wall, you can see the undulating mountains. We walked up and down these mountains for two hours with small breaks here and there. Our photos do not properly capture the difficulty of this trek as were were either out of breath or on a steep section. Some parts of the Wall had stairs; other parts were more like rubble. We kept counting the guard towers, as we knew which one was our destination. How amazing it was to finally reach the end! Celebratory pictures were taken and my legs felt like jelly.
While my tale sounds dramatic, this experience was unforgettable and worth every moment.