Walking on Wild Wall

AS OUR TRAIN ROLLED into Beijing on Saturday, it was drizzling rain and remarkably cool compared to the dusty heat of Xian. I dug into my bag to pull out my coat, which I hadn’t worn since spring. This was good. This was hiking weather.

We didn’t have much in the way of an itinerary: J and I first visited Beijing five years ago, and so what we wanted most was to just get a sense of how the city had changed, and maybe to see the Forbidden City without its pre-Olympics scaffolding.

But the one thing I was particularly eager to do was to head to the hills with Beijing Hikers, a group I’d read about in the newspaper. We’d seen so much of China’s cities that spending time out in nature seemed essential to making our trip feel whole.

The hike we settled on was The Great Wall Spur, a three-plus difficulty rating on their one-to-five scale. As we rode a chartered bus Sunday morning out north of town, Zach, our guide leader, told us the route would involve walking on what is called “wild wall.” This was a section built in the Ming dynasty that had been left to fallow, with trees and bushes and wildflowers digging their roots into the soil that had accumulated on top.

Not to worry, said Zach, a native of Chicago, to our group of 30. Beijing Hikers had gone out and done some trail maintenance. “We’ll see if we did enough when we get out there.”

It started to get warm as we made out ascent up a steep trail before reaching the wall. The brush was thick enough that I would have felt justified in some machete-wielding. When we started to sweat, J and I made the mistake of rolling up our sleeves; by the time we made it up to the watchtower our arms were stinging and red in spots where we’d been stuck by a spiny plant’s defenses.

The view was nearly indescribable. “Majestic” doesn’t do it. To the north sat a deep valley, on the other side of which the mountains rose to even more precipitous heights, causing me to wonder why they bothered to build the wall at all. To the south the spines of hills gradually descended, draped in lush late-summer green.

After lunch, we began to walk along the wall itself. Parts of the structure were suprisingly well-preserved for having been left alone. Other stretches had become little more than piles of weathered bricks. We walked along these sections carefully, with nothing at our sides to keep us from tumbling down the mountain. Along the whole thing the vegetation was thick but navigable; Zach later said his team had spent four hours in the rain one day last week, hacking at the brush.

J and I managed to get in between a couple clumps of hikers, and here we paused. We breathed in the sweet air and listened to the cicadas and the crickets and the absence of traffic. The towns that sat far below were barely towns. More like handfuls of buildings. For miles around us things were moving slowly and quietly, and mostly there was just a lot of swaying with the breeze.

Before we made our descent, Zach stopped at one tower to point out a stele upon which were inscribed the names of people who had presided over the building of this part of the wall. The stone lay on its back but was still legible; according to it, this section had been built in the eighth year of the emperor Wanli — sometime in the late 1500s.

As we came down off the trail and onto the pavement, a fellow hiker said to me, “It feels like we just went back in time.” And in a way it did. Away from the tourists, the wall felt alive rather than something that had crystallized into an attraction. It stood there, resisting its own erosion, long after its meaning had diminished.

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