Authentic Great Wall experience
Hiking the Great Wall of China is an activity that probably figures on most people’s bucket list. One of the “new” seven wonders of the world, the Great Wall is one of the most extraordinary human constructions to be seen. That said, it stretches for an astonishing 21,196 kilometers, so you might wonder where is the best place to go see it.
The Wall has been built over many centuries, starting as early as the 7th century BC, but most of what remains today dates from the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Obviously, depending on the epoch a section was built in, it looks and feels different.
Another thing to consider is location. As you would imagine, a structure that long, that took this much time to complete, wasn’t built with the same material all along. The most famous sections are made of stone or brick, but most sections located in the Gobi desert for instance, are made of rammed earth, giving them a much different, sandy look.
If you’re coming on a trip to China and want to see the Wall, you’re most likely going to fly to Beijing, from which you can go to a fair few different sections.
One last thing to consider, and perhaps the most important, is how heavily restored a section has been. This will also determine how many tourists you’ll be likely to share the place with.
Two of the most popular sections near Beijing are Badaling and Juyongguan. Both have been extensively restored, which in a way gives you an idea of how the Wall would have looked in its prime era of grandeur. But on the other hand, it kinda looks like it was built only 10 years ago, and that diminishes the “wow” factor a fair bit. For this reason, when the great British explorer Karl Pilkington visited the Badaling section, he wasn’t impressed and dubbed it the “Alright Wall of China”.
I have personally been to three different sections of the Wall so far : Juyongguan (touristy, heavily restored), Jiayuguan (located in the Gobi desert, made of rammed earth, partially restored and quite touristy), and Chenjiapu (unrestored, lost in the middle of the countryside outside Beijing). In my experience, the latter was by far the best. I intend to visit more sections of the Wall, and ultimately I’ll write a comprehensive Great Wall guide, but in this article I’ll focus on Chenjiapu.
Chenjiapu is a remote little village about 90 kilometers outside Beijing. For a while I knew the part of the Wall located here as “Mr Chen’s section”. Mr Chen is a local man who owns a property in the village, and has turned it into a homestay. It seems to work very well with word of mouth among Western tourists, and that’s because the experience is fantastic.
Mr Chen doesn’t really speak any English, but he goes out of his way to make your stay as good as can be. He runs his business with his wife and sons, and everything is taken care of for you.
We had taken an overnight train from Nanjing to Beijing, from which one of Mr Chen’s son picked us up. There was 6 of us in a normal-sized car, so the hour and a half long drive was funky but not excessively comfortable, and I was quite happy when we arrived.
I was rather impressed at the sight of Chenjiapu. Having lived in China for quite a few months and traveled to quite a few different cities, I had never seen a place as remote as this. In a country where a city of 1 million inhabitants is considered small, seeing a rural village where only a few hundred people live feels quite special.
I haven’t taken any good photos of Mr Chen’s place, but I have a few short videos that I’ll try to compile to give you a good feel of the atmosphere.
Upon arrival, we checked out his garden, which had a variety of animals running around, chickens, ducks, rabbits… I told you this place was rural ! Then we got settled in our room, which consisted of one single bed and one super large bed that would easily fit half a dozen people. We also had a classic piece of Chinese decoration on one of the walls, a big portrait of Mao.
After this we went to the dining room, where the Chens fed us a delicious meal composed of many different dishes.
Once our stomachs were full, we were ready to set out on our Great Wall adventure. Mr Chen supplied us with a hand drawn map of the Wall and drove us to the starting point of the trek.
The trek to the wall isn’t too arduous, but what made it challenging was the unbelievably cold weather, with a windy -9 degrees Celsius. To give you an idea, my moustache froze off !
On top of my head, it took about half an hour to reach the Wall. Once we climbed on it, we didn’t have any protection from trees anymore and were fully exposed to the wind, which meant it got even colder !
We stopped for a while on the first watchtower to get a few photos, and within that time, the battery of my camera AND my spare battery, which were both fully charged, died. These really don’t do well in cold weather…
After less than 30 minutes on the Wall, we came across a path that was going away from it. It was just before a hill where the Wall was relatively damaged. Since we knew from the map that we would have to get off the Wall and then back on at times, due to sections being too damaged, this led several of my friends to believe we had to follow this path. It was marked by a cross, which in my mind meant we weren’t supposed to go in that direction and should stay on the Wall. However, the others seemed adamant it was the right way, so I followed along.
We walked down and down for quite some time, getting rather far from the Wall with no sign of the path going back up at any point. I questioned again whether we should really have gone on this path, but the others still seemed sure we were going the right way.
Eventually we had been walking off the Wall for over an hour, and reached a little cabin with two security agents. We asked them about directions, however with them speaking no English and us speaking almost no Chinese, communication wasn’t easy. They seemed to be telling us to go back on ourselves, but for some reason we pushed on forward.
After what must have been a good two hours since we left the Wall, we reached… a cement factory. At this point we knew for sure we had gone the wrong way, and decided we’d just go back where we came from, since it was getting late and we had just about enough time to reach the starting point of the trek before dark.
We started going back, when two old security guards started yelling, making gestures indicating we couldn’t go. This made no sense, since we came from there and there was nothing sensitive that way. I advocated to my friends that we should go anyway, going back the way we came from (the only way we knew) was our only chance to arrive back to the starting point before dark, and the guards were most likely not going to do anything if we just went off without listening to them.
My friends however felt like this could lead us into trouble and didn’t want to take the risk. We were told we could find taxis if we kept walking down the road past the cement factory, so we carried on walking, hoping for the best.
We walked and walked, passed some deserted villages with no soul to be seen, and eventually it was dawning on us that we would find no taxis. We must have walked for at least two hours since the cement factory, with still no sign of getting near any inhabited place. We started contemplating the thought of having to spend the night outside in the freezing cold, and the atmosphere was getting a bit tense.
But then, my friend Lily took it upon herself to save the day, and started hailing every car or truck that drove past us. There weren’t many of those, and the first couple of trucks just laughed at us and drove away. At one point she stopped a small van with two Chinese men inside, who didn’t want anything to do with us at first but couldn’t resist her power of persuasion for too long. Hallelujah, we were saved.
The tiny problem we had, was that we had no idea how to direct them, and none of us had any reception on our phones. So they dropped us at a nearby town, where we were able to contact Mr Chen and asked him to pick us up. The look on his face when he arrived was quite funny, you could tell he was thinking “How on Earth did these imbeciles manage to land here ?!”
Our original plan was to spend the following day sightseeing in Beijing, but since we had kind of wasted our time on the Wall, we agreed we would go again the next day, and this time we would not get lost.
Once back at Mr Chen’s place, we met two Australian girls who had been trekking the Wall too, although more successfully than us. The Chens told us they were expecting one more group before they’d serve dinner. Eventually they arrived, three South Africans, looking like they came back from hell and left their souls there.
They had gotten lost too, however they were more unlucky than us. They had to come back from the Wall after nightfall… This must have been a rather distressing experience ! Some parts of the Wall are tricky enough in daylight, you could easily injure yourself if you’re not careful. I can’t imagine what it must have been like in the dark…
Anyway, we were all alive, so we had food and a few drinks whilst getting acquainted. We discovered that two of the South-Africans were also working for First Leap. Small world ! What felt somewhat strange but also cool, was that in a group of ten English speakers, I was the only European. Six South-Africans, two Australians, one Canadian, and me, the French-British. Quite a mix !
The next day, we had another go on the Wall, and this time, we didn’t get lost. The weather was also much more forgiving, and it was a superb experience. We had the Wall completely to ourselves, with nothing but nature in our immediate surroundings, and this gave a sensation of calm and serenity.
The fact that the Wall is in its original state makes you feel like you’re literally walking on history. You can picture that many centuries ago, on the very rocks you’re stepping on, Chinese sentries were walking from one watchtower to another, looking out for an invading Mongol army. And that, my friends, is definitely something for the bucketlist.
Once we finished the trek, we gathered our things, took a photo with Mr Chen (and his adorable dog that we nicknamed Mr Chao), then Mr Chen drove us back to Beijing where we took our return train to Nanjing.
Our first day may have been a bit of a failure, but in the end it only becomes a funny story to tell. “How we went to see the Great Wall and landed at a cement factory.”
Overall it was an amazing trip with awesome friends, and it will remain a great memory !
If you’re interested in staying with Mr Chen, here’s his website : http://www.greatwallfresh.com/