When I went to the Great Wall on that first weekend I arrived in China, I simultaneously learned about the “rest of the wall.” By this, I mean the “wild wall” that isn’t a tourist attraction but lies along the spines of mountains across China, crumbling and often forgotten.
National Geographic Adventure Magazine ran an article called “Astride the Dragon’s Back” (written by Matthew Power). My friend here loaned it to me after we returned from seeing that tourist section of the Great Wall. I read it twice. I was fascinated.
This weekend, a friend of mine took mercy on my country girl self and took me to the outskirts of Beijing so that I could breathe some fresh air. Our plans were simply to see green mountains, fresh water and breathe deeply. On Saturday morning, we were climbing the mountain roads just one hour north of Beijing on his motorbike and I finally felt the city fall away from my skin. The air was fresh and the view was breathtaking. I was laughing and singing out loud into the wind when even my laughter was replaced by a gasp at what I saw.
There, on the mountain, was the Great Wall of China, climbing like a stony vine up the ridge, sporadically spiked with watchtowers and jagged in its uneven state of deterioration.
I yelled into the wind and my friend’s ear, “Look! It’s the Great Wall!” He yelled back, “No, Ember, that’s just the wild wall. The Great Wall is over there!” and he pointed to where “Mu Tian Yu,” the tourist site that I visited two months ago is located a few miles away. I yelled back , “but that’s still the Great Wall and it’s even more gorgeous! No McDonald’s and postcard vendors!” and he laughed.
And then, suddenly, he slowed down, turned off the road and parked the bike. It turns out that walking up to the wild wall is very easy. You just park your vehicle, find a path and walk up the mountain! Some paths are more worn in than others. We found this out the hard way and had to descend once before finding a more worn way that didn’t require crawling through weeds and overgrown spiked bushes!
Fifteen minutes later in the 38 degree heat, sweating and winded from the climb, I was standing on the Great Wall of China… speechless. There it was, just stretching before me like an open palm of history and I was on its back, atop piles of stone that had long fallen in on itself and formed more of a rounded ridge than a defensive squared-off one.
It was solid, though, and felt safe to stand on. It had been trekked before. There was evidence of footsteps and rubbish by other curious hikers, which was the only sad fact to what was otherwise a glorious moment of discovery for me. The rubbish, I mean. Happily, though, the trash was just on the flatter sections that had obviously been used as picnic sites. When we walked along, it was just stone and greenery for “gongli” after “gongli” (kilometre after kilometre.)
The article I read two months ago spoke about the first non-Chinese person to trek the Great Wall, British ex-pat William Lindsay, and his non-profit organization called “International Friends of the Great Wall,” an organization that he set up to promote both the exploration and the preservation of the “vast, unreconstructed, overgrown sections that are free of tourist kitsch, trash, vendors, graffiti, and all the encroachments of modernity.”
The article explained that some of the really remote sections are under threat. Apparently, one section of the wall located northwest of Beijing was dismantled stone by stone to pave a local highway. It was a thousand yards in length. Furthermore, the tourist areas “have been rebuilt and paved over, essentially, with little concern for historical accuracy or respect for the wall’s landscape.”
When I read about these situations, I really craved the wild wall and what it would feel like under my feet or against the palm of my hand. I really wondered if I had felt the history fully at the tourist site. I even wondered if the stones under my feet had truly been ancient stones or if they had all been replaced to accommodate the excessive traffic at those sites. For example, I have heard that Badaling, the most popular location of the Great Wall, gets over 10,000 visitors a day.
So on Saturday when I stood there on that wild section of the Great Wall, I felt huge and miniscule at once; I felt vividly alive and simultaneously conscious of the dead under my feet in a more raw way than I had before. The dust and dirt between the stones was grey and brown and black and white and I couldn’t help but wonder if those white flecks were ancient bones. I knelt down and took a handful of dirt into my right palm and circled the colours with my left fingers. I still couldn’t speak. I just heard the wind. I just breathed time into my lungs through the scent of the nearby lilacs mixed with my own sweat.
Time is all we have.
After awhile, we decided to climb up to the closest watchtower. It took another fifteen minutes to get there, but we made it. Peering out those old windows into the foothills and valley below, I felt a solemnity with time. These old stone buildings were still standing and still telling their stories. They’re not going anywhere fast. I was reminded that the earliest fortifications were built in the 7th century BC. While I have no idea when these specific sections were built, they are still ancient to this Canadian! And, there’s fierceness in how solid the rock sits against the mountain. Resolute. Determined. Stubborn.
I felt myself flood with respect.
I also wanted to clean up the rubbish and wished I had brought an extra plastic bag or twelve. The place was littered with plastic bottles and garbage and cigarette butts, not to mention covered in graffiti.
The article explained that recent economic growth in the past twenty years has meant the advent of the first “Chinese hiker,” or city people (once having emptied the countryside for the city in hopes of finding urban work) now exploring the countryside again, this time as wealthy tourists. One of my favourite quotes from the article is this one: “It seems ironic that the city the Great Wall was built to protect is now, in a sense, its greatest threat.”
Environmentalism is not exactly thriving here, but Lindsay’s organization is trying to promote a sense of mutual ownership, conservation and stewardship of this huge piece of ancient history. And, really, in terms of the municipality of Beijing (which is about the size of New Jersey) we’re talking about four hundred miles of The Great Wall that line its northern mountains, of which only a few have been reconstructed for tourism. Constant preservation is impossible, but instilling a sense of respect and honour for such an important piece of history is not.
My friend, who is Chinese, had never seen the wild wall before. He stood there as amazed as I was. He, too, was silent. He told me it would not be his last visit to see the wall in its natural state, crumbling back into the chaos of nature where it began.
William Lindsay is quoted as saying, “The Great Wall is an entire landscape, not just the wall itself. Its greatness is in its wholeness, and every alteration, every tourist trap makes it less.”
I wholeheartedly agree.