In the Autumn of 2005, I was directing a study abroad group in China. In mid-October we traveled to Beijing to see the sights. This was a great time to be there. The weather was cool, and there were not too many tourists. If you have never been to the Great Wall, you do need to go; it is pretty impressive. Though there are lots of myths about the Wall, like that you can see it from space (you cannot), or that it was built in 200 BC (only very short sections are that old), and so on, it is still quite impressive and fun way to spend a day.
The vast majority of tourists go to either Bādálǐng(八达岭) or Jūyōngguān (居庸关). This is where the big tour groups will take you. They are also the closest to Beijing. I had already been to both places and was less than impressed. They have been completely rebuilt, there are cable cars, hundreds of souvenir booths, and hordes of tourists, both Chinese and foreign.
I had a friend who had done a trek on a less visited part of the Wall; this sounded much more appealing. I arranged for a bus to drop us off at a section of the Wall called 金山岭 jīnshānlǐng and pick us up at 司马台 sīmǎtái. This would give us a 10 kilometer hike along the wall. It was a beautiful, cool, clear, Autumn day. This section of the Wall is less developed, less rebuilt, has far fewer tourists, and at that time had zero souvenir shops.
We had a great time hiking this section of the Wall. It had a much wilder feel than the other more touristy sections. Some sections of the Wall were literally broken down with bricks laying all over the place.
I had heard from a friend that on the top of one of the towers in this area of the Wall there is a stone carving of a qílín 麒麟. This mythical beast is sometimes called a Chinese unicorn. It is actually an auspicious beast that has the body of a deer, the legs of a horse, the paws of a wolf, the tail of a cow, and either one or two horns. Apparently not many people know about this stone carving, or where to find it.
As we were hiking along the wall I asked a peasant, who was following us trying sell us some trinkets, about it. He got all excited and said it was in the tower that we had just past. So several students and I ran back to the tower. The problem was that the 麒麟 was on top of the tower and there were no stairs or ladders to get up there. We ended up climbing a vertical wall about twelve to fifteen feet high to an square entrance in the roof. There were cracks and holes where partial bricks were missing that we used for hand and foot holds. The climbing was not too difficult, but was a little unnerving. The view was quite nice from up on top of the tower. The 麒麟 was carved into one of the walls. It’s kind of hard to make out in this photograph.
When we did this trek we had our four year old son along. It was pretty tough going for him but we kept him motivated with small pieces of candy that we would give him when we arrived at each tower. That kept him motivated. I only ended up carrying him for a total of about twenty minutes of the 5 hour hike.
Right near the end of the trek, the wall descends a very steep slope into a narrow canyon. We saw this guy tending his sheep right near the end of this section of the wall.
This was by far the best experience we had in Beijing. It was really nice to get away from the crowds for a change. We only saw one small group of European tourists, and a handful of Chinese tourists the entire day. The only slight drawback were the several peasants who followed us the entire way trying to sell us books about the Great Wall, or t-shirts and other trinkets. The guy that followed my wife and son and I was pretty nice and we had a nice long conversation. Since it was past harvest time, he did this to make some extra money. He was from a small village nearby.
I highly recommend this section of the Great Wall. The only difficult part is the logistics. If you are traveling solo, or with just a couple friends, your best, and maybe only option, is to hire a taxi to take you to 金山岭 jīnshānlǐng and arrange to get picked up at 司马台 sīmǎtái. It is advisable to negotiate a flat rate before you set off. There may be public transportation, but it would be pretty long and potentially complicated. It’s also possible to go with a tour company to handle the logistics. Trips like this can often be arranged through tour companies in larger hotels.