Hiking Along the Great Wall of China
By Fiona Tunstall
Yao Zi Yu is a village just two hours’ travel from the cosmopolitan Beijing city center. A bus ride out of town to this speck of a village is like time travel linking us with the past, a treasured part of the Great Wall reached by trekking in the Huang Hua Cheng area.
Most tourists head for the better-known tourist haunt at Badaling where the wall has been restored and the route is impressive but easy. However, at Yao Zi Yu, the wall is like a remnant of an old piece of material, a recognizable pattern but steep, weathered, worn, and crumbling.
Where villagers live much the same way as their ancestors before them, only the vegetation growing on the bricks around them lets us know this hamlet has history buried in its walls.
At the entrance to the village, there is a grand pock-marked millstone that sits like a monument to another age and a reminder of the creation of the Great Wall.
Built originally as a garrison for soldiers to guard the construction, the tiny hamlet still lies undisturbed by electricity and running water.
Weekend Hikes with the BJ Hikers
Trekking to these more inaccessible parts of the Great Wall of China has been the weekly pastime of the Beijing Hikers, a group of ex-pats with an appetite for walking in the wild and remote areas. Huilin Pinnegar is a native Beijinger and she and her husband set up BJ Hikers for the ex-pat community living in Beijing.
“I started organizing hikes for friends and colleagues and positive feedback gave us the idea to publish our hikes,” said Huilin, “Gary and I discovered the trails. We are both outdoor people.
The Yao Zi Yu trail from Zhuang Dao Ku to Er Dao Gan was spotted by Gary and Huilin when they were on the peak of a mountain nearby. From 1995 to 2003 we spent all of our Sundays and other days off in the mountains around Beijing looking for new trails. The interest from friends kept us going with organized hikes every Sunday, all year round from 2001.”
“The trail was clearly visible and we found a landmark at the starting point of the trail”, commented Huilin, “and we came back the following day. We were pleasantly surprised when we found the walled village.”
The description in the Pinnegars’ Hiking Round Beijing guidebook describes the path as an ancient one in the Huang Hua Cheng area which leads up to an archway in the Great Wall where there is an old fort to explore and a particularly interesting walled village at the end.
Walking with the BJs
What it did not mention were the turrets on the wall at strategic vantage points. Fine rain, low mist, and a dull sky kept the best views from the trek that day which meant a closer look at the vegetation, buildings, and people which perhaps drew us a little bit closer than the usual picture-snapping of great views and scenery.
The BJ Hikers are keen to share their knowledge of the terrain and, a local history which creates an instant sense of camaraderie. It seemed as though we had known each other longer and had spent more time together in this vintage corner of China.
On each day hike, around 40 people representing as many as 20 different countries congregate to explore a rural and wild part of the wall. Sketch maps of the trek of the day are handed out on the bus. Simple on paper but in reality, the sense of distance and terrain are difficult to gauge.
A BJ Hiker’s View
At the start, our local guide met us and proceeded to show us to his own outdoor toilet before we set off with his patient family watching from nearby as this unusual procession passed by the window.
As we walked seasoned BJ Hikers, Dave and Sue Young said: “It’s a long way from Northland, New Zealand to Beijing and we found that one of the best ways to acclimatize in a cultural sense was by taking part in these weekly adventures. We have shared hikes with people from many parts of the world, so it can be very worthwhile to trade experiences from so many different perspectives.”
“A typical outing involves a bus ride of around two hours beyond the city limits, then a hike over the hills for four hours or so. One of our most memorable walks took us past the home of an 80 -year-old man who had lived all his life on the remote hillside overlooking a valley.
He invited us into his house that he had built himself and was obviously very proud of it and invited us to ask questions, through Huijie, the regular guide, and interpreter.
“We find the adventures with BJ Hikers more than a physical challenge; we meet interesting people and our understanding and affection for China deepen. Being so close to the landscape there is a chance to look at the vegetation at close quarters.”
“When asked what his experiences were during the Cultural Revolution, he said ‘I was a teacher, so they left me alone.’ Was he affected by the Japanese invasion? He told us he was able to observe the movements of Japanese troops in the distance, but he was able to remain in hiding.
Crumbling and Ancient Walls
New to the group, I found the first hour of exertion hard until, fortunately, the group stopped at a dry riverbed and used the large boulders as support while we snacked. Once we regained strength we continued hiking through a remote marsh valley where farm mules and donkeys tethered in cool havens flicked flies away, ready to clip anyone who came to close to their heels. Rising out of the valley the path turned to cracked clay and resilient scrub.
The wild wall is essentially made up of segments of the Great Wall that are now in ruins and difficult to access as the brickwork is much eroded. At a large archway through the wall, I joined those game enough to scramble up to the top of the wall over very loose scree and shrubs, before proceeding to climb up the weathered and crumbly remnants of the stairway to the first hill turret.
This should have afforded an incredible view looking down the Great Wall as it rounded its way up and down the mountainous terrain but the heat haze and light rain created a heavy mist that shaded most of the horizon but we were sure the best was yet to come.
Hitting 40 on the Great Wall
The chosen route was described as a route suitable for children of eight and up, but we were now off the official route. The temptation to reach the walled fort was too much. Like worker ants moving toward their goal we were strung out along the wall determined to get to the top.
At this point, I realized this was a whole different trek. The rest of the group took a more sedate low-level route. Fulfilling a long-held dream was proving to be a lot tougher than I originally planned.
Reaching our hill fort was no ordinary scramble but a feeling that despite eating some flies, and sweat rings that would have you thrown out of polite society, we were about to view with awe the land below us as our reward.
Huijie, our very experienced trek leader was fleet of foot, knowledgeable, and was keen to share all she knew. She had promised to take us to see a glimpse of living history, but the temptation to skip the walled fort and rest in the bus was very strong and almost robbed us of one of the most exciting images of the day’s trek.
Fellow hiker Richard Stewart, who booked the trek as a 40th birthday treat, said: ”As we drank the last of our water and the humidity increased, Huijie the guide pointed upwards to the next hill fort in the distance and cried ‘one more’ as the wall grew even steeper and narrower.
After a well-earned rest at the second hill fort, we finally headed off the wall into thick vegetation – so high we nearly got lost as we tried to re-join the original route. Thankfully GPS technology came to the rescue.”
Climbing across the terraced lands, a peasant farmer is hoeing his ground in the late afternoon. He looked up and with a nod of acknowledgment continued as though a troupe of Europeans appeared every day. He was old, bent over, and working at 1000 ft. So where did he go to sleep and eat and did he climb up there every day?
Yao Zi Yu – the Old Walled Village
Reaching Yao Zi Yu in the late afternoon – we explored the nooks and crannies of the pantiled buildings, once the barracks for the soldiers guarding the building of the Wall. People still inhabit this tiny crumb of a village holding on to it like a precious inheritance.
The wind soughed through the lane-lets and bushes stuck out like hair bunches from walls that had changed little since the construction of the Great Wall.
Imagine breakfast and then off to work on a structure that can now be viewed from outer space, construction of this monumental kind from such a humble place. A miniature village with tiny lanes with abandoned buildings but such strong brick it would still be there for generations to come.
At the end of the day, we congregated near the bus to drink coffee and beer as the local people came out to watch us. They were as shy of us as we were of them and for the short time we were there they looked on but neither group broke ranks except for the little children who smiled and chased around us.
Back in Beijing
In contrast to this rural scene, back in Beijing, an army of drills shrieks, and the might of construction roars on every street. People cook on the streets, clean their teeth and live their lives, and after a hard day’s work some sleep there, too, in the shadow of Beijing’s many cranes.
That silk thread of Chinese history from Zhuang Dao Kou to Er Dao Guan leads us on a path we could never have anticipated and as we arrived in Beijing, we knew we would always feel grateful for a walk back into a way of life that has changed little in the thousands of years since the construction of the Great Wall. However, this will all change soon as New China swiftly evolves into a modern society. We may have just got there in time.
The Beijing Hikers (1391 002 5516), 200 RMB per adult, 150RMB per child under 12. Hikes take place every Sunday. There are also shorter midweek hikes on Wednesdays for people. Weekend hikes leave from the Starbucks in the Lido Hotel complex at 8:30 Sunday morning and return there around 4:00 or 5:00.
“Hiking Around Beijing” by Huilin Pinnegar is printed by Foreign Languages Press Beijing
Fiona Tunstall, a former news reporter, works in travel and tourism PR in Scotland. She admires women travelers and adventurers such as Dervla Murphy and Polly Evans.