Avoid the tourist hordes by climbing the Great Wall with this family and their private Chinese guide, for an insider's look at one of the 7 New Wonders of the World.
When we first heard about hiring our own guide for a ‘private’ tour of the Great Wall, far from the maddening tourist crowds, we were delighted. It was late June of 2007 and our July visit to China was still very unstructured. “He’s great,” raved the email from Jacqueline Frank, director of Lonely Planet TV’s “Guide to Beijing.” She was recommending Mark Yan, a local she’d met while location scouting for her docudrama. Ms. Frank claimed this young man had a deep passion for all things Great Wall.
Fortunately for family travelers interested in doing things a bit off the standard tourist path in China, these kinds of behind-the-scenes adventures are easier to find than ever before.
But back to that unforgettable day when, from the air-conditioned lobby, we saw a dusty white Jeep Cherokee pull up in front of the posh Shangri-La Kerry Centre Hotel. A slight young man in glasses jumped out. Mark strode right in, looking around for a family of three, and firmly grasped our hands. Though he wasn’t much taller than our 10-year-old, we immediately knew who was in charge. As we walked out, we grabbed a few of the hotel’s courtesy bottles of mineral water to add to the case Mark brought.
On the sweltering drive to the Mutianyu area, our son rode shotgun, entranced by Mark’s tales. For 90 minutes, he narrated the skyscrapers and neighborhoods emerging beyond Beijing’s Central Business District (CBD) along the 4th Ring Road. In late 2003, the 5th Ring Road was completed as one of Beijing’s extensive preparations for the 2008 Olympics, when it expects an influx of millions of international visitors. China is changing quickly since its days as an insular nation. Mark lived alone — a social state unheard of just a decade ago — like several employed young people we met.
He pointed out the neighborhood of his small, family-owned apartment and dreaming of future rentals proudly noted, “It’s a great location for tourists coming to the Olympics.”
With the temperature hovering at 40ºC (around 100°F), Mark had planned for us to hike slowly around two areas of the Great Wall. We started at the village of Huanghuacheng, about 20 kms west of Mutianyu, which rose from the concrete walls of a small reservoir, or man-made recreational lake, known as “Little West Lake.” As he parked beyond several women selling peaches by the road’s shoulder, he pointed out a small resort hotel that had failed to attract guests, and the new wing they were constructing despite their lack of success.
A Chinese Icon: The Great Wall
What we now think of as The Great Wall was, for seven centuries before the birth of Christ, a series of hilltop mud and packed earth fortifications constructed by vassal States of the Chou Dynasty for self protection. Qin Shihuangdi, the first Emperor of the Qin dynasty (and the one whose tomb is protected by thousands of terra cotta warriors on view at Xi’an), began to connect segments of wall in order to unify the peoples within its boundaries. It is said his men were able to build about one mile of wall per day.
Beginning in 221BC and lasting for centuries, each dynasty used forced labor alongside troops protecting them from marauders to enlarge, widen and elongate the wall to 5,000 kms or 10,000 li. In this mountainous, arid and inhospitable region, through frigid winters and scalding summers, millions of workers were supported by supplies brought from far-off villages. The Han Dynasty, inventors of the wheelbarrow, extended the Great Wall across the Gobi Desert to protect their caravans along the Silk Road.
Throughout the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), after both the Huns and the Mongols were overthrown, this very effective barrier to the North was renovated and fortified with watch towers, ramparts housing cannon bought from the Portuguese and the paved chariot-wide path we see today. Using the skills of their master ceramic artisans, the Ming enlarged the wall with kiln-fired bricks of mud and stone. Under the Ming, the Great Wall reached 6,000 kms, running from the Jiayu Pass in Gansu Province east to the Yalu River in Liaoning Province. In parts, it rises nearly eight meters high and six meters wide, at a 70 degree angle.
Because we’d explained that we were active but un-fit New Yorkers, Mark decided to scale only five of the Ming Dynasty-era towers, which rose along the crest for about two miles. The section of the wall between Gubeikou and Badaling (the main tourist entry point, a very crowded place with huge parking lots and a funicular for those who want to summit the wall with little effort) is known as Mutianyu. Though we were not at its official entry, this crenellated length of wall had many forts in excellent condition which could be entered. Swatting flies, sweating, stumbling, we climbed, until we were high enough to appreciate the remarkable vista of rolling hills and snaking walls.
Impressive, yes, but can the Great Wall really be seen from the moon?
Mark said, “Of course.”
NASA says: “The Great Wall can barely be seen from the Shuttle, so it would not be possible to see it from the Moon with the naked eye.”
A Chinese Custom: The Great Wall Tip
Along its length, archeologists found signs of garrisons and piles of straw and dung to build signal fires as an early defense; it is believed that the Han used one column of smoke to indicate an attack of fewer than 500 troops, two columns to indicate 3,000 troops, etc. There was little evidence of nearby villages.
On the outskirts of Beijing that changed, as generations of farmers were encouraged to use Great Wall rubble to build homes on free land. Since the 1980s, a steadily increasing stream of tourists also made a Great Wall address more desirable for entrepreneurs. In 2002, the Wall was taken under the protective wing of the World Monuments Fund and recent laws forbid construction within one-third of a mile of either face. The Great Wall of China was also named one of the 7 New Wonders of the World in July 2007.
Our son was taken aback by the young squatters who demanded one yuan (RMB1) for every tower we crossed, but he was impressed by the man who demanded RMB3 each to climb up a twig ladder he had made. After all, this entrepreneur had created access to the best views of all, those that armed Manchu warriors must have enjoyed as they waited endlessly for the Mongols to attack. As my husband reached for his wallet, Mark reached for his, reassuring us that all ‘entrance fees’ were included in our daytrip, as if reciting the fine print from a brochure that was never printed.
We descended by another route, passing a serious looking crew who were carrying a dismantled radio transmitter and tower downhill. “Probably some group was broadcasting anti-government messages,” explained our quiet guide. In many places, sections of the Great Wall have been dismantled for building material by recent generations, making a hike along any of the “unofficial” portions, now largely made of sand, somewhat hazardous.
Scrambling down the hillside, through the ghosts of camps occupied by troops holding China’s northern border, we came upon a scruffy, unkempt vegetable garden with a plaintiff sign demanding one yuan to support its maintenance. Mark scoffed at this one.
Back at the car, huge luscious peaches in hand, we drove on towards Xi Shui Yu, a small village leading to another large man-made lake within the Xiao Rigeiwa Park. Here, too, was a homemade barricade, this time manned by an elderly gentleman who represented himself or his village (we never knew) in demanding RMB5 to drive down the only lane before us. Mark paid up, somewhat chagrined, and craned his head forward to see what lay ahead. After a few small brick homes and shops, we came to the end of the village and a state-run parking area. There, another man asked for RMB5 to ‘watch’ the car as we strolled toward the picturesque lake – actually a manmade reservoir – and Mark’s favorite restaurant, ahead.
A Chinese Ending: The Great Wall Feast
This outing turned out to be the highlight of our day because 1) we were starving, 2) we were tired and 3) we found Mark fascinating and wanted to know more about his life. Together we hiked an easy half-mile through the trees, along a retaining wall and over to a small island “owned” by a family who annually open their small, summer-only, country style restaurant.
A country meal is a popular Back Door excursion for young couples and those in-the-know. The tables were full but they greeted Mark and us, his guests, warmly.
After ordering roast chicken, we watched a young family member chase one across the yard, knife in hand. Its squawking awakened the dog, who awakened the cats, who stirred up the goats and the pigs. As the great circle of life swirled around us, it was relaxing to rest at the folding table and sit, enjoying the unusually quiet landscape. As a few boaters rowed by, we sampled greens, sautÃ©ed and steamed, mountain mushrooms from the nearby hills, the aforementioned chicken, large round buns of steamed corn bread baked with local corn, a rich vegetable broth and some oranges. It was one of the best meals we ate in China and really gave us a feel for how rural Chinese lived. Our son was especially fascinated by the many animals living with the family on their summer island.
After lunch, Mark hired a row boat and we skimmed across the reservoir (appearing much larger now than it had seemed from the car park) to a heavily wooded glen. Reassuringly, he led us up a steep but blessedly shady, hand-cut path to another section of the Great Wall.
We hiked on for a minute and collapsed on a crumbling section of wall to admire the view, the scale and the realization of just where we were.
From the vantage of an unrestored tower, the lush woodlands and glimmering lake below offered startling proof of the enormous impact the Wall still has in the day-to-day lives of the Chinese.
Now we believe you really can see the Great Wall from the moon.
Guides like Mark Yan (who preferred that his email address not be published) can often be found through the internet, but we suggest you ask your hotel concierge or call one of the English language schools once you arrive in Beijing. The alternative China adventure tour operator, Wild China is another resource for private guides. Mark’s fee for an all-day excursion, including transportation, lunch, “admission” fees and tips, was US$150 for up to six people but the rate must have gone up since our visit.
In March 2010, we were made aware of a new company called Great Wall Hiking, a Beijing-based sustainable travel tour operator that offers a variety of trekking and camping itineraries on the Great Wall. According to their press release, “Great Wall Hiking employs local guides, supports local guesthouses, and contributes to local projects to ensure tourist dollars directly benefit the community’s cultural and economic preservation.” This sounds great to us and, with a guide from GWH, your family can even camp out in the region. You can read more about their suggested two-day Great Wall Hiking itinerary on their site.
Of course, there are dozens of group bus tours to various parts of the Great Wall, as well as many hotels who can provide you with a guide and private driver to explore it together. Note that many of the organized tours make a brief stop at the Ming Tombs, burial site of the Ming Dynasty’s royalty, but we chose to forego this, knowing that soon — in Xi’an — we would be at the greatest excavated tomb complex in all of China.
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.