How Great is Your Wall, How Heavenly Your Temple?

Every visitor to China succumbs to the inevitable urge to visit the Great Wall or risks leaving the country disappointed. Though the wall was ineffective as a defense from invaders, it stands today as a monument to medieval ambition and a boon to the modern Chinese tourism industry. We chose to visit the most remote sections accessible from Beijing, hoping to avoid crowds and experience the stone behemoth in its primitive, unreconstructed state. This meant a 3-hour bus ride, and for half of us, a strenuous 4-hour hike. Tom and I debated who should get to hike the 8-km stretch of the wall between Jinshanling and Simatai with the big boys. The other would take the “easy” route and go directly to the terminus by bus with the little kids. Since I got to abseil in New Zealand, we agreed it was Tom’s turn for adventure. The day was perfect. By some miracle after Saturday’s rain and Sunday’s reduced traffic, the sky was clear and the smog had not yet settled back into its comfortable repose above the city. As we literally hurtled past the city limits in a minibus driven by a madman, we watched people sweeping sidewalks with handmade twig brooms, riding overworked bicycles to daytime jobs, and going about the business of life in the countryside. When we looked a little farther into the distance, we noticed something even more exciting: leaves in brilliant hues of red and yellow. It’s autumn here! With the air cool and crisp, the sun bright and warm, and the views unobstructed by nature or man, we were poised for a momentous day at the wall.

Tom and the big boys starting their hike

After the bus dropped Tom and the boys off at the more remote Jinshanling site, our Chinese Andretti drove Kieran, Asher, and I to Simatai. Though we had been warned there would be no food at the wall, we disembarked at a hostel and restaurant, which made a welcome starting point for our own tame version of the Great Wall Adventure. Joining only a handful of other visitors we entered through the official gates which sit at least a thousand feet below the wall itself. There was a long, gradually ascending path that led to the top, and I figured the little ones could make it over the course of an hour or so. Much to our surprise and delight, however, we discovered that the Chinese government had provided both the age- and height-challenged with a mechanical means of ascent: cable cars.

Kieran on the old cable car

Without hesitation we decided to climb halfway up the mountain on some rather aged cable cars. The little kids didn’t know enough to be scared and I figured there was a slim chance we’d be the first to plummet to our deaths on the contraption, so we jumped in. This was no easy task since the cars move rapidly–like a ski lift on steroids–and the employees, who are more interested in eating noodles than ensuring safety, don’t slow them down at all. We had approximately 4 seconds to leap into the 2 foot wide opening, take our seats, and get the door locked. Intrepid travelers that we’ve become, we pulled off our entry with a second to spare. We were rewarded with spectacular scenery on all sides: sprawling tree-covered hills, a shimmering blue-green lake, and the Great Wall spanning the crest of the mountains as far as our eyes could see.

After a running dismount we prepared for our trek up the remaining half of the mountain.

Ready for the climb

But then we were greeted once again by a marvelous surprise: a “ground cable car.” I could only describe this particular contraption as something between an inclined railway and a horse-drawn wagon without wheels. Once again we anted up our money and hopped on board with faith that despite the lack of any apparent safety measures we would survive the ascent. All that stood between us and a bloody demise was a steel, grease-encased cable latched to the car and emanating from some unknown point up the mountain.

Ground Cable Car

The ride took no more than a minute and we were soon on the path to Watchtower #8, which loomed precipitously above the surrounding landscape. Kieran and Asher were troopers, and skilled Utah hikers that they are, had little problem climbing the remaining way. We picked up a Mongolian trinket salesman shortly before the summit, who took it upon himself to act as our chaperone. He cautiously herded the kids up the steep, irregular stairs and discouraged them from killing the unusual beetles and millipedes they found at every turn. He claimed to be a farmer from the village just to the north and lost interest in us when I declined to buy a souvenir book, postcards, or “I climbed the Great Wall” T-shirt from his bag of goodies. I did, however, give him a 10 yuan note (about $1.20) and thank him for his assistance.

Having entered the wall at its highest point, we were able to appreciate it with the relative comfort of descent.

Tom, Dax, and McKane had quite the opposite experience, making what all three described as a butt-kicking hike and what one guidebook described as a trail filled with “vertiginous drops” and ascents. The only regret I had about staying behind with the little ones was having to pass up on the Flying Fox on the way down. This was a cleverly named zipline that took tired trekkers the final few hundred feet down the mountain over a dazzling, peaceful river. Exhausted from their journey, Tom and the boys enjoyed the ride, making it back to the base just in time for our scheduled departure.

McKane on the flying fox

As we made the three hour journey back to the city, we could see the smog already filling in the horizon. We would have liked to sleep after our strenuous efforts of the day, but old Mario found the rush hour traffic a fine excuse for testing the minibus horn. Nothing he did, however, could diminish the magic of our day. It is certainly one we’ll never forget.

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