The next morning, after I had a breakfast of eggs, toast, and coffee, we set off with an American couple and a hostel employee who served as a trail guide. The hostel workers left us a village treat for the trail: whole cucumbers, crisp and delicious. We headed to the Curling Dragon section of the wall. Walking again through the village, we headed up a path to the first overlook, which gave us a view of the series of ridgelines that we would soon traverse. The wall snaked and curved along the ridges, indeed like a curling dragon.
The heat last August was overwhelming and the sky hazy, but it was a stunning setting. We soon were in wilderness, with mountains in all directions, but the imprint of man from hundreds of years ago was visible everywhere in the form of the Great Wall, which connects to watchtowers, closely spaced.
As we began the hike, our guide noted the difference between the restored section at Badaling and this wild, unrestored area. “If you want to see people, go to Badaling. If you want to see the wall, come here,” our guide said, capturing why we had come to Gubeikou.
Indeed, while the restored sections of the wall are a marvel, one could be surrounded by thousands of people. Here, we saw perhaps 30 hikers in six hours. While the Gubeikou section is rugged compared with Badaling, it is in excellent condition compared with a typical hiking trail in the United States.
Our goal on this day was a watchtower known as 24 Windows. What we found was a partial tower with perhaps 18 windows remaining. It provided views over the mountains back to the village in one direction, and many more tower-topped mountains in the other. We could go no farther on the ridge trail due to a military installation, which meant we either had to dip down into the valley or turn around. We turned around, making good time on a mostly downhill section, then took a pathway back to the village.
The path ended at a folk house where the residents sold us cold water and gave us a business card with their website, budding entrepreneurs who envision a future in hosting tourists. We walked another 20 minutes back to the village, passing farms and modest traditional homes. Stacks of bricks lined the pathway, evidently to be used in the construction or repair of homes. We had hiked six hours by the time we returned to the hostel.
After showering, we joined other guests in the dining room, where we were served many delicious plates. In the classic mode of hostel life, we gathered at the same table with an interesting mix of nationalities: two Slovenians, a backpacking American, a Canadian amateur hockey player, and a Brazilian model. The talk was of hikes past and future, of Lonely Planet recommendations, bus and train routes, and whether tomorrow would unfold on the Crouching Tiger or Curling Dragon. For Laura and me tomorrow would mean two bus rides and a return to crowded Beijing. We had seen the Great Wall, the wild wall, and once again, we would see the people.
Laura Kranish contributed to thisarticle. Michael Kranish can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.