That was the name of the tour and that’s what we did, on each of five successive days. It was exhausting and thrilling and educational and yielded more good pictures than good stories. So herewith an illustrated narrative of what you might expect to do and see if you take this sort of tour.

[This is part of The Surface of China series.]

Tour stuff · Our party comprised 14 and our tour-guide Lijuan, of whom more later. We piled into a little minibus with our backpacks in the first couple of rows and headed north out of Beijing.

Inside the tour bus

The party included four Canadian tech geeks and their two 12-year-old daughters and a wine merchant from Sydney; The rest were from the south of England. They included a contractor/handyman, a rental-real-estate manager, four golfing friends, and young person between jobs. We were lucky; they were all good company.

The first thing you learn about the Wall is that it doesn’t run across the Chinese flatlands, but from mountaintop to mountaintop. So before you can start walking, you have to climb a mountain. Then you proceed up a steep slope to the mountain’s top, then down the other side and up to the top of the next. Which is to say, it’s tough walking.

Uphill on the Great Wall

慕田峪 · In our letters, Mutianyu. It’s not the main close-to-Beijing tourist destination that World Leaders visit, but neither too distant nor too difficult. It’s pretty civilized; you can take a lift to the top of the wall and a weird sort of tube-slider down. You can buy a nice cold beer up on top and enjoy the view. We did all those things.

View from the Mutianyu Great Wall

Yeah, those views, they’re definitely the thing you’ll remember if you visit the Wall, which while impressive is basically just a wall. But the mountains and skies are different every minute. On about the twentieth occasion that after climbing up some brutally steep staircase I said “Oh… wow” a tourmate said “The views don’t get tired, do they?

箭扣 · In our letters, Jiankou. After we got off the wall we drove there, not that far, to a guesthouse in the village of 西栅子 (Xizhazi), which is too small for a Wikipedia entry. Here’s the lane up to the guesthouse.

In Xizhazi village

It’s really small, and the guesthouse was, uh, rustically sincere. It’s a regular stop for climbing clubs, whose banners festooned the central courtyard.

Guesthouse in Xizhazi

Just down the lane from the guesthouse was this thing, which I had to walk right up to to figure out.

Chicken coop in Xizhazi

Chicken coop in Xizhazi.

That place may have been primitive, but they served us what I remember as the best food we got on the whole vacation, including Hong Kong and Beijing. We had lots of beers and then it turned out Mr Fong, our driver, had a karaoke machine. Festivities broke out. Lauren sang Both Sides Now. A few of the tourist ladies sang Dancing Queen and Valerie. The two twelve-year-olds sang Shut Up and Dance. Mr Fong sang a romantic Chinese song by himself — a real crooner’s voice — and then a duet with Lijuan the guide.

Karoke duet in Xizhazi

I want to stop and pay tribute to her. Lijuan Duan, is a special person, with endless expertise and energy. She also owns the Meking Cafe, a well-reviewed restaurant in Southern China, and is generally an excellent person.

Speaking of excellent people, so is Mr Fong. Among other things, a fantastically deft driver and a fine singer. Well, as far as we could make out, because he doesn’t speak much English.

It was a freezing cold night and the guesthouse was mostly unheated. We were bundled up, enjoying the company, eating and drinking, and the guesthouse owner joined us. Then I saw a lovely tired lined face looking at us from out in the unsheltered courtyard, looking amazed at the blonde people and the singing, not daring to come in. I’m betting she’s the one who made that excellent food. In the villages of China you see the occasional child but no young people.

Anyhow, we got up the next morning to start climbing, and found that it was snowing pretty hard.

Snow in Xizhazi

Fortunately, the guesthouse was not completely without heat.

Stove in Xizhazi

It was an hour’s pretty ambitious hike up to the Wall in the snow.

Climbing up to the Jiankou great wall
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Climbing up to the Jiankou great wall
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Climbing up to the Jiankou great wall

See Mr Fong there with his umbrella? What you can’t see is that he’s wearing shiny street shoes. In spite of which he was by a mile our best climber on the scary parts of the climb. And boy, were there ever a lot of them.

The Jiankou Great Wall in snow
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The Jiankou Great Wall in snow

I think that was our best day on the Wall. I’ll never see anything like that again.

When we came down, we were exhausted. What with all the snow and having taken a few minor tumbles and general exhaustion, my hands were sufficiently beat-up that for two solid days I couldn’t fingerprint-unlock my phone.

古北口 · In our letters, Gubeikou. We drove there after we came down off the snowy Wall, and the guesthouse was a little more modern but not as welcoming nor was the food as good. But it’s got a nice little riverfront park and some excellent temples.

Cooking rice in Gubeikou
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Drying cabbage in Gubeikou

The Long March · The Gubeikou wall is OK, nothing special, neither the views nor the Wall itself equaled what we’d already seen. But that day was brutal. We walked for six hours cross-country along the wall, or beside it in ruined sectors, to our next stop, and it was really cold and windy nearly every step. It was about 12km, which I’d have no trouble walking horizontally at a decent temperature, neither of which applied here. Here’s our tour-group, and a section of the Wall that we walked every inch of.

Tour group on Gubeikou Great Wall
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Gubeikou Great Wall

Finally, we limped down the mountain, and I have rarely been as happy to see a human face as Mr Fong’s, waving “come this way!” at the bottom of the path.

金山岭 · In our letters, Jinshanling. Probably the nicest and best-maintained part of the Wall. When we stumbled into our guesthouse there, it was under construction outside, but squeaky-clean inside, and in our room the heater had been turned on and set to 30°C, unreasonably warm unless you’ve just spent six hours trudging over Chinese mountaintops in a freezing wind. After 45 minutes or so, I was somewhat thawed.

Here’s the dining room, where we got in a few games of Mah Jongg. You don’t see a ceiling like that every day.

Guesthouse in Jinshanling
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Guesthouse in Jinshanling

If you wanted to make a one-day Wall visit and maybe didn’t want to take on the near-verticals of Jiankou, I’d say Jinshanling is the place to go.

Jinshanling Great Wall
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Jinshanling Great Wall
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Jinshanling Great Wall

There was one more day on the wall, at 黄崖关 (Huangyaguan) in Tianjin province, but meh, nothing to write home about after what we’d already seen.

Take-aways · It’s fantastic. Belongs on most bucket lists. Take a guide.

Lijuan says the best time to go is in Autumn, and I think that’s probably right. I’ll never forget those views.


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April 22, 2019
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