I am standing at the Second Tower on the Great Wall of China at Badaling and yet another aggressive vendor is trying to sell me overpriced postcards. I have hiked west up the Wall from the gate in the canyon below. Beijing and the rest of China are to my left. Outer and Inner Mongolia – ancient home of the Mongol hordes – are to my right. In front of me, through the parapets, I can see miles of Wall snaking across the ridges. Unlike where I have been and where I stand, the Wall I see in front of me is in ruins. Six hundred year old Ming dynasty bricks lie broken and scattered; a tree is growing in the middle of what was once the broad concourse of the Wall; off in the distance are the tumbled ruins of the next tower. What I see is the Wildwall, one of those vast stretches of the Wall that have never been repaired or restored, and I want to be there! But the section of the Wall where I stand – all recently rebuilt, swept clean every day, and infested with aggressive vendors of souvenir kitsch – ends here at the Second Tower, and I can see no way to get down from the tower and out onto the beckoning ruins.
All of the guide books I read advised me not to go to Badaling to see the Great Wall – it is overdeveloped, plagued by vendors, restored to look like it was built yesterday, and generally overrun with busloads of tourists. Unless you really want to have your picture taken on a camel or ride a cable car up to the First Tower, said the guide books, avoid Badaling and go to one of the less-visited and less-developed sites a little further out from Beijing where you can walk for miles along stretches of Wildwall.
But we are hosting a tour group of thirty-four Americans from the Midwest and West with a median age of 65, and our job is to stay with the group and make sure everyone is having a good time, so early on I adjusted my expectations accordingly. Badaling may be a tourist trap, but it is the Great Wall and this would probably be my one and only opportunity to see it. So I was mentally prepared for most of what Badaling had to offer. Just seeing the Great Wall and walking along part of it – no matter that it was of recent construction – would be enough.
We boarded the tour bus at our Beijing hotel at 7:30 a.m. and headed northwest out of the smog and traffic of the city. As the mountains came into view ahead of us I was surprised by how familiar the scene appeared. The mountains of Beijing look exactly like the Wasatch Mountains which form the eastern border of my hometown, Salt Lake City – dry foothills covered with scrub oak, just beginning to turn red in this second week of October. The Badaling expressway is a beautiful six lane highway that looks exactly like I-80, except the green freeway signs, rather than reading “Slower Traffic Keep Right,” announce that the left lane is the “Overtaking Lane.” And then, of course, there is that enormous stone wall snaking along the ridge line for miles in the distance!
Leaving the freeway, we headed up a canyon road – we could have been traveling up Emigration Canyon in Utah – and finally arrived at Badaling. Badaling is everything the guide books say, so I was well prepared for it. In fact, the tour buses, the gift shops, the rows of souvenir stands, even the hawkers on the Wall itself are part of the local color. Here one can buy anything from an “I Hiked the Great Wall” t-shirt to a genuine Chinese paper parasol to a genuine $5-dollar “Rolex” watch with a picture of Mao on the face. It is like walking into a caricature of the curio shop at the Old Faithful Lodge in Yellowstone National Park, then moving with the crowds out to watch Old Faithful erupt. I could deal with this. I could even enjoy it.
We moved with the crowds out past the rows of vendors, through the turnstiles, up the steps and onto the Wall. One guidebook had mentioned that most visitors turn right when they enter the Wall and that the crowds would be smaller if we turned left. So we turned left.
But I had read about those long stretches of ruins known as Wildwall; about intrepid backpackers who hike for days along the ruins, camping among the fallen bricks of ancient watchtowers, scrambling up 75-degree grades through loose scree. And much to my surprise, I can see miles of Wall ruins from where I stand in the newly constructed Tower Two right here at Badaling! But the Great Wall, which had ultimately failed to keep out the Mongol horsemen from the north, is doing a very good job today of keeping me away from the Wildwall.
“Three dollars, American. Very beautiful.” The postcard vendor keeps trying to sell me a package of cards but has not yet lowered his asking price; I know the going price is one dollar. I ignore his sales pitch and gesture to the ruins below, asking how to get down there. I can see that even if I could get off the Wall, there is a 10-foot iron fence and a coil of barbed wire designed to prevent me from getting out to the ruins. But I can also see that there must be a way, for a well-worn trail runs along the top of the ruins.
The postcard vendor is unresponsive. Maybe he finds the combination of my English and exaggerated hand signals confusing. Maybe he is only interested in an easy sale. Ignoring him, I determine to find a way off the Wall to the trail below. If I can get down on the ground next the iron fence perhaps I can find a way over, through or around it.
I begin walking back down the Wall looking for a place where I can get down to the ground below. I find a stairway off the Wall just 20 yards back, but it is blocked by a padlocked iron door. I check just in case; the lock holds. I continue back down the Wall where the tourists are getting more numerous. Another twenty or thirty yards brings what I am looking for – a public exit off the south side of the Wall. I jump over a granite railing and start back up the hill, following a dirt path that parallels the base of the Wall.
Within a few minutes I am at the base of the Second Tower facing the ten-foot iron fence. I try to squeeze between the bars but they are too close together. I step back to survey my options, and see the postcard vendor above me signaling for me to stay where I am and motioning that he is coming down. So he does understand exaggerated hand signals. He climbs over the parapet using some hand and footholds with which he is very familiar – which in fact, he probably put there – and he is at my side in seconds, waving for me to follow him. I follow him through the bush and scrub oak down a narrow dusty trail that parallels the iron fence. A surprisingly short distance ahead the fence ends where the hillside drops off steeply, and following his lead, I swing around the end of the fence and start back up towards the Wall.
My guide points the way and then hesitates expectantly. I pull a dollar bill out of my pocket and hand it to him. Then I notice he has unzipped his fleece jacket and is wearing a police uniform. He pockets the dollar and waves me on.
The Chinese name for the Great Wall is wàn lĭ cháng chéng [萬里長城], literally 10,000 li great wall. To the ancient Chinese 10,000 was such a big number that it was used the way we use “infinite.” But 10,000 actual li is about 3,850 miles, and as it turns out, this distance is a pretty good estimate of the length of the Great Wall, which is generally reported to extend 4,000 to 4,500 miles. Distance estimates vary, partly because the Great Wall is not one wall but a series of disconnected fortifications across a broad territory. And to complicate matters, sections of ancient walls continue to be discovered as Chinese construction projects turn up more wall ruins.
The earliest known sections of the Wall were probably built sometime in the fifth to third centuries B.C., a period known in Chinese history as the Warring States. Succeeding dynasties strenghtened older sections of the Wall and built new ones, depending on the enemy de jour. Most of the Wall that is seen today was built during the Ming Dynasty, whose rulers built a remarkable series of fortifications running from the Yalu River in the east to Jiayu Pass in the west. The Ming-era wall improved upon, connected, and added to older fortifications. It was built largely with convict labor, and the need for workers required that even minor indiscretions be punished with a sentence laboring on the wall. Brick kilns were built along the way, and the forests on either side of the Wall were stripped to provide fuel for the ovens. It was the greatest construction project in history.
My guide/postcard vendor/policeman turns back to resume his post in the Second Tower while I walk back up the hill parallel to the iron fence and barbed wire. At the base of the Second Tower I step onto the rubble – I am standing on the Wildwall. In front of me the ruins of the Great Wall meander along the crest of the hill to another tower. Beyond that the Wall turns and heads up the steep ridge of the next peak at what appears to be an angle of at least 60 degrees. At the top of the peak it dissappears down the ridge, hidden from view for a while, but reappearing at intervals for as far as I can see on this crystal clear autumn morning.
I step slowly forward, beginning my walk along the Wildwall. The trail where I am standing is covered with light yellow dust, the remains of crumbled bricks and broken stones. It is the same color and consitency of the Bright Angel Trail as it descends through the Coconino sandstone in the Grand Canyon. The base of the wall is constructed with stones, still largely in place. On this foundation the Ming-era laborers laid up brick walls to create a walkway protected from potential enemies on both sides. Most of the bricks along this section have either fallen or been stolen. With the challenges of feeding, clothing and housing a billion people, protecting the Great Wall has had to take its place in the list of Chinese priorities. In many areas, entire sections of the Wall have been dismantled to build houses and roads. It has been cheaper and easier to reuse 600-year-old Ming Dynasty bricks than to manufacture new ones.
A few yards further along I make my way around the oak tree that has taken root in the ruins and is growing up through the very center of the Wall. A little further, a section of the foundation has given way, and I have to climb down to ground level and walk a few yards before climbing back back onto the ruins. In a few minutes I reach the tower I had seen in the distance.
If I were backpacking for a few days along the Wall – and I wish I were – this would make a wonderful campsite. Portions of the walls and roof are intact, providing shelter from wind and rain. Nary a postcard vendor is in sight. Far from the smog and noise of Beijing, the skies are a bright October blue and the only noise is made by the wind blowing through the the ancient ruins. I linger for a while, fingering the ancient bricks and wondering about the young soldiers who once reported for duty at this lonely spot.
Beyond the tower I continue to the point where the Wall makes a sharp turn and climbs steeply up the ridge. Here the brick walls are partially intact, but the ancient steps have long crumbled away, leaving a scree covered slope where the stones seem to be resting at the angle of repose. It would be a difficult climb to hike up this section. I glance at my watch and remember that I have to meet a tour bus that is parked somewhere back in my memory. I take a few photographs and start my return trek.
Back at the Second Tower I discover that there is an alternative to hiking down and around the iron fence as I had done to get where I am now standing. My guide points from the top of the tower to some “modifications” he has made in the fence that I had not noticed earlier – a makeshift step made out of what appears to be baling wire. I fix one foot on the wire step and swing myself up and over the fence as the guide climbs down to greet me.
Remembering that my guide is also a policeman and a postcard vendor, I give him another two dollars in exchange for his package of postcards. Back at the bus, I am not willing to admit to members of my tour group that I paid three dollars for a set of postcards. I report that I paid a three-dollar bribe but got the postcards for free.
The Ming rulers built the Wall to protect their kingdom from the fierce Mongol hordes to the north. It is hard to imagine that an army on horseback could have ever penetrated the Great Wall, and in essence, they never did. In 1644, however, they successfully bribed some high-ranking Chinese officials to allow an army of Manchu horseman to pass through the gates near Shanhaiguan. The horsemen rode on to Beijing and captured the capital, ending the Ming Dynasty.
No one knows the amount or nature of the bribe paid by the Mongols, but whatever it was, it was a small price to pay as it gave them the kingdom. I suspect they felt a certain smugness at how easily they breached the world’s greatest defense works.
I can appreciate their smugness. I consider the three dollar bribe I paid at Badaling to be the single best deal I made in China.© 2013 Clark B. Hinckley