The terrain ruffles like the scaly back of an amphibian – a dragon’s back propelling itself through the water, rhythmically. It pops out of seeming nothingness like a hunter surprising its prey. Deep crevices mark the buckled and folded terrain falling into the horizon like an endless and infinite Origami design. Sinister yet playful. Hypnotic yet rational.
Cutting across and over the hills, the wall undulates – up and down, up and down – like a wave. It crashes into one hill before ricocheting off into another like a wayward bullet. Some parts of this stone and brick wall are twenty-two hundred years old. It has been lengthened, destroyed, rebuilt and refortified countless times since the birth of Christ. Its broken and sometimes parallel parts run an estimated twenty-two thousand kilometers. Not visible from space, but the unquestionable marker, and historic protector, of Chinese civilization, the Great Wall looks like a giant eel the way it moves smoothly over the tops of China’s northern rugged mountains. It is undoubtedly one of the most impressive architectural achievements.
Today, we hike the wall at Jinshaling. At three hours from Beijing, this portion of the wall is not the closest but is certainly the quietest. The wall at Badaling is more circus-show than cultural attraction with teams of Chinese entrepreneurs trying to sell trinkets and other goods. Buses of tourists unload by the hour.
A ten kilometer hike from Jinshaling to Simatai used to be possible but a section of the wall near Simatai remains under construction and the walk for the moment has finished. I do not mind. It is a glorious sunny November afternoon and the wall is for the most part quiet.
As I climb the surprisingly steep and sometimes precariously aligned stone-steps, I see the wall snake away from me over smaller hills and off into oblivion. I see a row of hills each topped with a watchtower. As I find refuge in a chilly one, I try to imagine what it must have been like to stand here and watch the thirteenth-century Mongol invaders, led by Ghenis Khan, crash over the wall like a tsunami.
I descend and my knees buckle. Guards must have been incredibly athletic and sure-footed to navigate these big climbs and sharp falls. It is late fall and most of the topography is an appealing gold. Patches of green pines rest among the browning shrubs, the sky a wonderful blue.
I come to the last watchtower before the wall disintegrates into a pile of stone. Just a little ways further, the wall roars to life again and continues to meander along the crisp and cool horizon. Most of today’s wall was built during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), a period of great Chinese flourishing. To protect their newly minted pagodas, temples, cities and bridges, the Ming rulers invested large sums of money into the resurrection of the wall.
I think of all the times that the wall has been re-constructed. I think of all the nameless peasants, soldiers and convicts ve gave their lives building this wall. We never remember cannon fodder. We never reflect on the unimaginable suffering thrown at a piece of land until beauty emerges. Many of their bones were buried within these walls and undoubtedly provided much needed plastering and solidification.
I am ahead of the others on my tour and I can no longer see them. In fact, I cannot see another human being or hear another voice. The wind picks up and the sun shines. I feel fortunate. This is beautiful. This is a special place. But underneath my feet the true builders are forgotten bones. And one should never idolize the brutal, no matter how lovely on the eyes. It is a melancholic beauty, then.
A sad magnificence.
Should we bury a thank-you note?
Maybe a sign for the unknown brick-layer that reads ‘We were too here.’
Shanhaiguan is a place that isn´t too well-known yet in the world of Western tourism, but it is a fantastic location to visit. It´s the place where the Chinese wall meets the sea. The Citadel, also worth visiting, is very nice. Since there usually no tourists there, it´s a delight to walk through the streets while seeing the Pacific Ocean and the Wall of China. It takes about 4 hours by bus from Beijing to Qinhuangdao and from there, you can take a taxi or a city bus.
In the Jinshanling section of the wall there is the possibility of ascending to it by means of a funicular. The views from the funicular are nothing in particular. The climb is not a very hard walk. I therefore recommend, if you have no physical difficulties, to walk up it.