So there we were wandering along the unrestored part of the wall. Clambering around fallen masonry and occasionally through foliage that was growing on the wall itself, like mini bush walks. There was not a soul to be seen, only the wall hugging the hills away into the distance.
Every so often we would come to a guard tower. We realised there were three or four varieties of tower depending on the terrain the wall was on at that point. Some were in almost perfect condition with abandoned hallways and arches. You could almost imagine a platoon of armoured guards on patrol around the next corner. Some of the towers were in worse condition and you had to clamber over piles of rubble to explore. I can only imagine how cold the bare, sandy inner rooms were in the winter snows. It was only autumn and already there was a bite in the air.
We set our pace by these towers. Stopping ever few outposts to explore, have a snack or, if the tower was in good condition, climb to the roof to admire the endless scenery. Not long after the dodgy ladder climb we decided to camp the night in one of the towers. We chose a tower we could barely see in the distance and continued along the wall as it appeared and disappeared around the mountains. The path, except for the occasional place where the wall had fallen to rubble and required a mad scramble, was for the most part in decent condition and I suspected used fairly regulally. Except for a few points, where we had to clamber down off the wall and walk alongside, we could amble along at an easy pace and soak up the history. Even with stops to explore the guard houses we made our goal outpost by early evening.
The guard house we had picked looked quite sturdy. There was a fair amount of stone debris in the outer halls but the structure and the stairs to the roof looked solid. We climbed out onto the roof to an awe-inspiring view and some strange sounds. Turns out the guard tower we had chosen was connected to a road by a walking path. What did we find on the other side of the tower but a fashion shoot in progress. Complete with silver reflectors and a little assistant, whose job it was to throw the long billow train of the model's gown into the air and duck for cover while the photographer snapped away.
It was surreal! All day we had seen no sign of civilisation except glimpses of towns in the distance and here we were in the middle of a Vogue shoot. We talked about going on but, as we couldn’t get past the shoot without being visible in the photos for quite some distance, decided to stick with the plan and stay where we were. We ate dinner sitting on the ramparts watching the poor assistant throw and duck and throw and duck. I’m sure the pictures were amazing with her 20-meter red train billowing into the air and the crumbling wall as a backdrop.
Just before it got dark the fashion crew started packing up but the photographers started mysteriously multiplying. Turns out it was the local spot for photographers to capture the sun set and they were just as perplexed to see us as we were to see them. With the dark they disappeared, as fast as they had appeared, and we were left alone on the wall under the rising moon - a magical feeling I cannot begin to capture. The cold had set in, however, and we worked our way down to a sheltered corridor where we had cleared the worst of the rubble and sand from the stone floor.
I lay out my silver foil emergency blanket and we lay down fully clothed with our one sleeping bag open over both of us. It was not a comfortable night! I was freezing cold being only partially covered by the sleeping bag. At the time I thought that was just what you get free camping. In the morning I discovered my friend had rolled over taking the blanket with her and was wrapped up nice and warm. Her response? “What? I didn’t know, I was asleep” mutter curse mutter….
We were woken early the next day, just before dawn, by strange sounds and noisy Chinese. Our magical photographers were back. This time a new bunch who were shocked, after hiking through the night to catch the sunrise, to see two grumpy white girls emerge from their cocoon. We sat on the roof of the guard tower with half a dozen photographers and watched dawn break in a slash of orange across the mountains highlighting the wall against the dark green of the trees. I was once again captured by what an amazing achievement the wall was marching over 21 thousand kilometres through some rough and varied terrain. What it must have been like as a soldier, seeing this majestic sight every morning as you patrolled, speaks of the empire they were defending in a way that is hard to express.
Though the sunrise was brilliant the day was cold and we started early in an attempt to keep warm. The wall at this point was in good condition and we ran and skipped and scrambled along, happy to be alone again and trying to get the blood back into our frozen feet. The wall, though still with its customary swoops and turns, was heading steadily uphill and the guard towers were larger and better preserved.
We crested one final rise and realised that just ahead, without any fan fair, a single metal bar marked the start of the restored portion of the wall. We had made it to Badaling. Luckily my map reading had been pretty on course because I didn’t fancy another night on the cold stones of a guard tower. Occasionally you get lucky and even the most hair-brained of schemes works out.
As it was still before lunch there were not too many tourists at this far end of the wall. When no one was looking we casually ducked under the gate and headed on to explore this new section. The changes in the restored section were fascinating. The stone was a richer red-brown, the ramparts were fully formed and fitted with small cannons but the biggest change was the stairs. What we had been scrambling over and wandering up yesterday must have been the remains of thousands and thousands of tiny stairs. In the restored section any incline was crafted from these small stairs. No two were exactly the same height causing your legs to work over time. Talk about leg day! Those poor soldiers. We spent most of the day exploring this section of the wall. Though it was intriguing to explore the towers in more detail the sheer amount of tourists and unending steps made me glad I had seen the unrestored part of the wall as a sort of more authentic comparison.
The Badaling portion of the wall is not actually that big. A kind of crescent of wall with tourist buses letting out in the middle. It is a beautiful example of the restoration of this amazing monument and has some perfect photo opportunities. However if you’re looking for a quieter, less touristy experience, this is definitely not it! In fact, when we decided it was time to leave, instead of taking the stairs to the car park we opted to take a luge down. (Yes you read right. There is a short luge off the side of the wall) Big explorer that I am, I was a bit nervous of the luge. Remember I don’t like heights and leaving them at speed, but you know how it is, you can’t let a 7-year-old tourist kid show you up right.... I hung onto the little toboggan thing for dear life and lived to fight another day.
From this much more touristy part of the wall it was a much simpler task to catch a bus into town and then onto Beijing. Our couch surfer host showed no surprise that we hadn’t died when we showed up to return his sleeping bag and I happily ticked the Great Wall of China off my bucket list.
Now I know this style of adventure is not for everyone, and I wouldn’t recommend breaking the law, but this was one of my all-time best travel experiences. I think it was a combination of the history and beauty of the wall itself, and the self-lead exploration nature of our adventure. I would encourage anyone who is planning to visit the Great Wall of China, to get out past the restored parts of the wall, even a short way, and experience that feeling of history that is so hard to capture when surrounded by tourists. Even if you never get to China, a spontaneous adventure, looking at something typical from another angle, is a sure way to have amazing travel experiences.