Features

Wonderwall

29 Jun 2006 by business traveller

When you're in the centre of smoggy, hectic Beijing, it's difficult to imagine the Great Wall of China is so close. Easily accessible from the capital, several sections can be reached in a day trip and the closest part, Badaling, is only an hour's drive away.

According to Mao Zedong, "you are not a real man if you haven't climbed the Great Wall". Nowadays you can take a cable car ride. We sailed up to the section known as Mutianyu, covering in five minutes the mountains that tens of thousands of soldiers, workers and prisoners toiled their way up, centuries ago. If this spoils your approach, you can make things a bit more challenging and hike up instead – to reach the nearest part on foot takes an hour.

No one knows exactly how many people it took to create the wall; estimates range from a fifth up to three-quarters of China's population, but it's believed one million people died in the process, giving rise to its alternative nickname, "the longest cemetery on Earth". Like other great symbols of man's prowess, it must have been hated by the ordinary people who built it, yet today the wall is an essential stop on Beijing's tourist trail.

Mutianyu is 70km northeast of Beijing, and is less commercialised than Badaling; it is also one of the best-preserved parts of the wall. To get into the spirit of Mao, serious walkers can prove their mettle by hiking some of the wilder unrestored sections, such as Simatai, 155km from the city.

The entire wall stretches over 6,000km from eastern China to the Gobi desert, but less than a third of it is intact – the rest lies in disrepair, smothered by encroaching desert or plundered for stones to build houses. Mutianyu is one of the oldest parts, and was first built in the 6th century. That original wall is long-since lost, and the version we visit today is a mere 700 years old. It has been an ongoing maintenance project picked up by successive emperors.

We turned left after leaving the cable car, passing a solitary, bored-looking drinks seller, and headed in the direction that our guide, Rena, told us offered the most unspoilt views. We started at a relaxed pace although I noticed with some concern that a group of fit young men returning in the opposite direction looked hot and exhausted. Visiting on a Wednesday morning there were few other visitors. We headed steadily downhill; every so often the smooth, gently sloping granite turned into a series of tens or hundreds of shallow steps, which promised to accumulate into a thigh-crunching climb on the way back.

Every so often we came to a watch tower. The wall is punctuated by these towers, spaced along it like beads on a necklace. They served to shelter the wall's guards, and each has a unique arrangement of stairs, nooks and crannies to confuse the enemy in the event of an attack. Now they make a handy cover where you can pretend to swoon over the view while you catch your breath.

The wall was built as a barrier against the tribespeople of inner Mongolia. Rena told us it was the fact that their neighbours were so much taller than them that prompted the Chinese to erect this impressive barrier – a strangely prosaic reason for such an impressive accomplishment. It did not always keep them out, but it was also about marking territory and providing a symbolic point for trade. Nowadays it's a symbol of great pride, and has long been hailed as the only man-made object visible from space. Sadly this bubble was unceremoniously burst by China's first astronaut in space, Yang Liwei, who admitted in 2003 that he hadn't seen it during his orbit.

After a half-hour walk we reached a flight of steps that from a distance had looked like a thin, vertical slab of solid granite. Driven on by the prospect of the ultimate view, we plodded upwards on the narrow uneven steps for a long time. A wiry Chinese man in his 50s ran past me on his way up. I pretended I was on the step machine at the gym. I stopped for water. I carried on.

Then we were almost at the viewing platform, apart from a final flight of 20 or so uncomfortably steep steps. Halfway up my legs started shaking. The highest point of the oldest part of the Great Wall is an exciting place to discover you don't trust yourself around heights. Rena had refused to come with us for this part – she was 200 steps below us, babysitting our bags, and now I knew why. I also finally understood why it was called "climbing" the Great Wall: it was mainly for slightly vertiginous cowards like me. The view of the densely forested mountains, with the wall threading its way towards the horizon, was splendid – getting back down the way I had come, that was not so pretty.

FACT BOX

The entrance fee for Mutianyu is RMB35 (£2.40) and the cable car costs RMB50 (£3.40). Pacific World Limited, Beijing (pacificworldhk.com) offers tours for incentive groups and conference delegates to the Great Wall, and can also organise events and tours in Beijing. Panda Tours (pandatourchina.com) charges RMB280pp (£19) for a half-day tour of Mutianyu.

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