Throwback, Travel

Throwback: Hiking Hero’s Peak, or The Magic of Seeing The Great Wall Alone

Every once in a while, I’ll be bringing back an old post from a previous site. This was originally published in July 2011. 

Recently, I left my apartment in Beijing at about 11 am to pick up my ticket to Badaling, the closest train station to one of the Great Wall entrances (the closest to Beijing and therefore one of the most touristy). Since I had some extra time to kill, I had some lunch with my friend Rachel (best noodles ever, picked up from a little roadside stand for less than a dollar for two bowls) before getting on the 2 pm train. I should add here that I did the whole trip alone, and that I’m very glad I did.

The train ride to Badaling was nice, very beautiful–as soon as you leave the city, you’re surrounded by mountains and greenery and its so calming, especially after weeks of city life. The first time I saw the wall was from the train, and, I immediately started smiling pretty wide – I just couldn’t help it. I’ve heard about The Great Wall so often since I was a kid that it was pretty intense to finally be within its presence. It looked so beautiful – everything around it was so green and the way the sunlight struck it made it shine like gold.
Once I got to Badaling, I started the hike up to the Great Wall from the train station. Its high in the mountains, so the hike starts practically the second you get out of the train. The air is much cleaner up there, but of course its so thin its really not that different from breathing in Beijing. Unfortunately, it was about 4 by the time we got there and my train back to Beijing left at 6:30, so I didn’t actually have that much time to hike.
The place itself is amazing. It kind of sucks at first because there’s just so many people, but once I hiked about twenty minutes the crowd really thinned out. Unfortunately, Badaling is a restored section of the wall (the last unrestored section was put under construction a few months ago), so it wasn’t completely “authentic” but the restoration stuck pretty close to original specifications from what I can tell. At least, sections of the wall are so incredibly steep that I had to pause to rest as I scaled them. I climbed pretty far along and made it to the top of Hero’s Peak, which is either the tallest point on the wall or just near Badaling, I’m not entirely sure. Judging by how rough the hike was though, I’d totally believe the first one.
Before I got to Hero’s Peak, I met two people here, a guy who moved here 19 years ago after falling in love with China during a study abroad trip, and his uncle who teaches at Purdue. They were the first people on this trip that recognized my Texas Aggie tshirt.
After I got to the top of Hero’s Peak, I turned off my camera and sat down in some shade, trying to meditate on the fact that I was there, that I was sitting on The Great Wall of China. I tried to memorize the way the breeze felt and the cool, solid stones behind my back; I wanted to focus on the living part of it. I so often feel like I get stuck behind the camera, seeing everything but not really witnessing it, and I wanted to be a witness to that moment. It was one of the rare ones where there was no one within sight or hearing distance and I almost felt like I had the wall all to myself. I leaned back and stared at the sky, the first time I’d seen it truly blue in over a month, and with my eyes I followed the snaking progression the Wall made in either direction from the point where I sat, the tan stone battlements and watch towers one with the mountains and nature they curled through.

The whole scene had a pure earthly quality about it. I almost wrote “other-worldly,” but that’s entirely false–it was perfectly earthly. The whole place seemed like it belonged, like it had sprung up straight from nature, like it had always been there and always would be. The place was stoic–it had seen attacks waged, battles won. It had been forgotten, allowed to fall apart, and rediscovered, rebuilt. Over and over again it has been rebuilt by men, and still it is something beyond man, something ancient, wise, that can never be reckoned with. It will watch the sun set tonight, the sun rise tomorrow, and the same will go on beyond us, beyond our children, and beyond their children.

Of course, the moment there couldn’t last forever. More hikers arrived, and I realized I had reached the time when I needed to turn back in order to make the last train back to Beijing.

I found my way off the wall and hiked in the actual woods to the side of the wall on my way back down. I’m not sure if this is actually legal, so I won’t recommend you do it, but I’m not going to say don’t do it either. There are sections of the wall, especially in Badaling, where people are allowed to sell things, but if you hike in the woods you can escape them. That walk gave me views of the wall I would have never seen otherwise, and it was very peaceful (not to mention cool in the shade). The hike down was also a little easier, which my body seriously appreciated.
After such a nice time hiking (though I’ll admit it was insanely hot, and it definitely showed me that I’m not in the best shape of my life), I was reluctant to return to the city. In fact, when I noticed I could actually see the brown cloud of pollution hanging over the city from pretty far out, I momentarily wanted to turn back. But I knew a bed and a job and friends awaited me, so I didn’t.

On the train ride back I was already thinking I’d like to go back to the Great Wall someday. If its ever done being under construction and the Chinese government allows it, I think it would be cool to hike the whole length of it, and to sleep on it at night. Apparently you can get special dispensations to camp there overnight now, so I assume it wouldn’t be terribly hard to wrangle a week or two long hike.

Someday, I’ll return to China and hike another part of the Wall.

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