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Travel & Holiday

Climb of the wild

Going up an unrestored part of the Great Wall was a nerve-racking and rewarding experience
The Straits Times - July 5, 2011
By: nicholas yong
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Climb of the wild Some tourists opt for Jiankou, which snakes up and down Beijing's mountainside, for a more authentic experience of the Great Wall. -- ST PHOTOS: NICHOLAS YONG

Somewhere on Jiankou, one of the unrestored 'wild walls' of the Great Wall of China, I am having a Tom Cruise moment. With loose bricks on my left and loose soil on my right, I am stuck on a crumbling stretch of Jiankou, not daring to move as I hang on for dear life in a cross-shaped position. I can think only of the scene in Mission Impossible II (2000), where Cruise hangs with both arms from the precipice of a mountain.

How did climbing the Great Wall turn into a death-defying experience?

Jiankou, hailed by Lonely Planet travel guide as the most incomparable section of the almost 9,000km long Great Wall, snakes up and down the mountainside in Beijing.

It is also badly crumbling and overgrown with plants and saplings in parts. I have wandered into a particularly unstable section and find myself in this precarious position.

While the drop is not quite life-threatening and I eventually (slowly) make my way down unharmed, it is still a nerve-racking moment.

Jiankou was one of my stops on a six-day trip to the Chinese capital in May. While the Great Wall is a must-see, my two travelling companions and I are determined not to visit touristy sections of the wall such as Badaling, notorious for touts and inundated with visitors.

Instead, we travel to the rear section of Jiankou in search of a more authentic experience. This requires a 45-minute ride to the town of Huairou, followed by an hour's drive to the foot of Jiankou. While there are other wild walls such as Jinshanling and Mutianyu, Jiankou is the nearest.

We get a hint of what is to come when our driver mumbles in Mandarin: 'Be careful up there, there are injuries every year.'

We later discover that we were dropped off at the front of the mountain where the rear section of Jiankou begins. If we had gone by the rear from the village of Xizhazi, Jiankou would have been only a 40-minute trek away.

Instead, it takes us a 21/2-hour uphill climb just to reach the foot of it.

But 'trek' does not quite describe the journey there. Sometimes on all fours, sometimes traversing narrow ledges with a sheer drop by the side, we quickly realise that we might have taken on more than we can handle.

The thought of turning back even crosses my mind several times. But as my travelling companion Jeremy Koh, 31, a Beiijng-based civil servant, points out: 'If you turn back now, you can't say that you have gone to the Great Wall, you have gone only on a hike.'

Wearing the wrong footwear certainly does not help. A Beijinger kitted out in hiking shoes, hat and walking stick on his way down the mountain, takes one look at my girlfriend's slip-on shoes and exclaims: 'You wore cloth shoes here?'

We finally come to a homemade 5m-high ladder made of sturdy branches that will take us to Jiankou - and there is a man charging 3 yuan (S$0.60) for its use. Evidently, even the Great Wall stands helpless against the forces of capitalism.

But after scrambling up the ladder, we are rewarded with a magnificent sight - the sprawling expanse of Jiankou, with mountain ridges dotted by watchtowers that once warned of the approach of Mongol invaders.

Other visitors are already there, including a group of about 30 Beijingers, evidently regulars at Jiankou, judging by their climbing gear.

We forget our fatigue and spend three hours exploring this roller-coaster stretch of the Great Wall. Some stretches are at 45 degrees, and even perpendicular, to the ground. At times, we even have to dismount the wall to bypass those that have completely disintegrated.

With aching limbs, we eventually get back to level ground in one piece. But it is an excursion unlikely to be repeated.

If you are thinking of venturing to Jiankou, you might want to wear hiking shoes and comfortable clothes. Be prepared for an unforgettable experience - and make sure you go up from the rear.



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