After three hours I finally climbed the ladder onto the “Wild Wall,” the section of the Great Wall of China left unmaintained and largely untouched by humans. For the next six miles I would trek the Wild Wall. As I began a crow flew and landed on the path that lay before me. In most cultures the crow is considered an ill omen, but in Asiatic mythology, the crow symbolizes love and is a source of creativity. The legend goes that one day ten golden crows took to the sky in an effort to deliver light to the world, but the action instead caused devastating heat that burned the world. Houri, a celestial archer, shot down all but nine of the crows, effectively saving the day, but also leaving one to harmlessly shine its light. That crow is the sun. Guided by these crows, I made my way along this major historical landmark, inspired and privileged.
There was no one around for miles, just my friend and I, and the crumbling almost fully overgrown Wild Wall. The small village, Xizhaizi, we hiked from lay three miles down the precipitous mountain side, cradled in a valley among the mountains. The larger city, Huairou District, we took a taxi from was an hour drive away, and Beijing, the city we took a bus from to Huairou, was another one and a half hours away. Despite being utterly isolated in a country that has the largest population in the world, the Wild Wall was teeming with an ancient history that could be felt – even with it collapsing beneath my feet.
The Great Wall of China was constructed along the historical borders of China to protect from enemies like the Mongols. It is a defensive fortification comprised of a system of watchtowers that once garrisoned troops and relayed messages and warnings using smoke signals, lanterns, and beacon fires. Construction started in 259-210 BC under Emperor Qin Shi Huang and continued to be built for 2,000 years with the majority of it built in the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644 AD). No one knows exactly how long it was, some sections are completely disintegrated now, but it is postulated to have been around 13,000 miles (20,900 km) long at its peak. The original length was 3,100 miles. It took 10 years and over one million laborers to complete. Nearly 300,000 workers died during the construction and many of those workers were buried directly in the wall.
While it didn’t always succeed in keeping out invaders, in 1211 Genghis Khan invaded and conquered China, it is a symbol of Chinese strength and perseverance. Even now, with its foundation in a state of decay, I could feel the majesty of it, and the souls that were intertwined with it in the past.
It wasn’t the safest hike I have ever embarked on. In some parts the path was narrowed because half the wall had broken off and tumbled down the bordering cliff. Some arches looked like a Jenga game ready to topple at the slightest touch. The steps were gone, replaced by a myriad of stones. The surface was uneven and sometimes so steep I had to scoot down it sitting or hold on to the dodgy sides.
Even with the hazy yellowish brown layer of pollution in the air, present even this far from the bustling cities and factories, the views of the rolling mountains and the wall snaking and zig-zagging among them was stunning. The golden crow illuminated it all as we passed through the Zhenbeilou Watchtower, the East Tower, and the Oxhorn.
After four to five hours, the wall began to dramatically change, the surface became even with stones neatly fitting together. The side barriers conformed with each other, and stone steps appeared. The watchtowers stood strong, unlike their battered counterparts on the path behind us. And, we started to see people. We had unquestionably left the Jiankou section and entered the Mutianyu section, the restored portion, of the Great Wall.
There was a local woman waving the Chinese flag at us, hurrahing our victory for completing that section of the hike, though I think she deserved the congrats because she hiked about one and a half miles up to this remote part of the wall with water and other wares to sell. I bought a much needed bottle of water from her, and continued on.
While this section is maintained, it is not without rigorous areas. It has steps, but they are uneven and vary in height. It has its ups and downs, and, a new challenge, a crowd of people with varying paces sometimes stopping to take pictures to navigate through.
Hiking on stone, even with great shoes, is rough. With feet that felt internally bruised, a toboggan ride from the wall, down the steep hill to the bus stop was my ideal activity. There were also cable cars, but I opted for the toboggans.
Getting back to the hotel in the hutong we were staying at in Beijing was just as hard as getting to the hike, but it completed the circle of time of my day, going from modern to primeval and back to modern. And it was all done in the light of the golden crow.
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“We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us.” – Unknown