It sure is a great wall

Despite sounding like a master of the obvious, our 37th President was right on during his visit back in ’72. The day I spent on the Great Wall was one of the most amazing I can remember in a long time.

Since my arrival in Beijing I have been staying with Adam and Abby Ross from DC, plus their two beautiful daughters Teagan and Maeve. Adam is working as a Foreign Service Officer at the US Embassy in Beijing, finishing up a two year stint in December before moving on to another two year assignment at the US Consulate in Cape Town. Living the good life. I first met Adam back in’99 when I had just moved back to DC. He and Abby had just finished a year and a half trip around the world, and the more I asked the more he would fill my head with tales from places like Thailand. That pretty much was where this all got started for me. And here we are six years later, I’m traveling the world, I show up in Beijing, and end up staying in his apartment. Pretty cool.

According to Adam and most of the guide books I had read, there are some really touristy parts to the Great Wall, and some parts less visited. Adam highly recommended visiting the section between Simatai and Jinshanling, and actually hiking the 10 km between the two points. As I read about it, a little apprehension surfaced based on the Lonely Planet description:

It’s not for the faint hearted: This rough section of the Wall is very steep. A few slopes have a 70-degree incline and you need both hands free, so bring a day-pack to hold your camera and other essentials. One narrow section of footpath has a 1500 foot drop, so it’s no place for acrophobics.”

After being ridiculed by Adam for my hesitation, and given his assurances that it was not a big deal if you take your time (4-5 hours), I agreed. Some friends of Adam and Abby also had a guest visiting Beijing, so we were put in contact to share a ride out for the two hour journey to Simatai.

By around 7:30 a.m., Jen and I were on our way to Simatai, our biggest concern being the huge amount of haze/pollution that was clouding up the air. We couldn’t see more than a half mile ahead. Around 10 a.m., as we prepared to climb up to the Wall, the situation had not improved too much, so we just accepted that was how the day would be and moved on. Here is a shot from Simatai of the path we climbed to take us up to the Wall which runs along the mountain ridge


As we got up to the Wall, the section by Simatai was in pretty good shape, obviously maintained for the benefit of visitors


But it wasn’t long before we reached sections of the Wall that were in disrepair, and you had to be conscious of avoiding falling off the sides into ravines



Something we did not discover until a good two hours into our hike was that almost everybody goes in the opposite direction, to Sumatai as opposed to from it – apparently it is easier to get a ride back to Beijing from Sumatai than from Jinshanling. Since we had a driver waiting for us at Jinshanling, that wasn’t something we needed to worry about. The amazing part to this was that for the first two hours, we hiked the Great Wall almost completely alone. In a country of over a billion people, on one of the wonders of the world, we hiked for 120 minutes up and down peaks, in and out of Great Wall Guard Towers, in almost complete isolation. It was unbelievable





There were times when my lungs were burning, especially after a few brutal climbs like this one, but after you caught your breath, a quick look around would replace the fatigue with immense satisfaction


Eventually we started running into people moving in the other direction, but not until we were in our third hour on the go. I think the really early start helped a lot too. One bizarre aspect of the Wall is the relentless ladies who make a living walking the Wall trying to sell drinks, post cards, t-shirts, etc. They would follow you for an hour just on the hope that you would buy something, anything from them. Even more impressive is their conditioning, we would reach a peak, me gasping for air, sweating profusely, barely able to stand, and one of these woman would be next to me, smiling and not out of breath, trying to sell me a bottle of water. There she is, right behind me


And shadowing Jen as she would do for the next hour


See what I mean?


The more peaks we climbed and the more towers we passed through the less daunting they became, although these climbs do take it out of you


It did seem that in the direction we went, the harder part was the earlier part, with the latter peaks at lower elevations. Jen had researched this and had thought it made more sense to go in that direction, and for that, I will be eternally grateful.

Looking back at what we had done gave an amazing sense of accomplishment. We went through 28 Great Wall Guard Towers and up and down all of the sections of the Wall connecting them. Two days later my legs still ache





The day could have been clearer which would have given way to more stunning views, but that will have to wait until the next time. And although the drive back to Beijing took well over three hours in rush hour traffic, I quickly put that out of my mind. Jen was really cool, it was good to have company for the hike, and overall I would have to say it was one of the most rewarding things I have done in years, maybe even ever. Great suggestion Adam.

I agree with the former President, it sure is a great wall


Leave a comment