BEIJING -- The steps are in blissful shade. We are climbing them under the cool pine trees up to the Great Wall where there is little escape from the heat and haze. Just to get to the wall, we walk up 1,000 nice, even steps.
This is Mutianyu, about 45 miles northeast of Beijing, a section of Chang Cheng -- as the Great Wall is called in Chinese, meaning, variously, "Long City" or "Long Fortification" -- built first in the sixth century and again in the 14th. We reach the wall and start up even more steps. The wall looks like an eagle, two wings spread across a crest of mountains. We rest in a watchtower, a brief escape from the sweltering humidity.
The tower served as a photo op during President Clinton's 1998 visit. I turn to our guide and ask if the former president climbed all the steps we did, including those first thousand. "He took the cable car," the guide says, smiling.
Stretching for more than 4,000 miles across northern China to the Yellow Sea, the wall, its origins almost 3,000 years old, was constructed as a defense against marauders. It is a symbol of China and once was an important transportation system, a kind of mountain highway. Beacons were used with flags and smoke as a way to communicate approaching army positions. The varying architecture is impressive, as is its strategic military placement in valleys and along ridges. The wall is also sinister. The enemy was lured into courtyards with false doors, deathtraps called "jar cities," where hot oil was poured on them by soldiers overhead.
The Great Wall is also like a carnival. Pay admission and step right up. Ride the cable car, take the chairlift. Zip down on an alpine slide or toboggan. Visit the China Great Wall Museum or stand and watch the battles in the Great Wall Circle Vision Theatre. Take a picture on a camel or a horse. Have annoying and tenacious vendors hound and even follow you to sell items like bottled water, backpacks, hats, postcards, books, "I Climbed the Great Wall" T-shirts. Bargain them down!
The wall is also an opening to rural China. Terraced fields of corn and rows of apple trees with little bags protecting the fruit are planted in sight of the wall in dusty brick villages where residents use hand pumps for water and animals live in the yards. Squirrels, butterflies, and passing songbirds are spotted. The Yanshan Mountains ripple like the sea, watchtowers floating in the distance.
The Great Wall is the world's largest staircase. There are old steps and new steps, some broken, others worn. Low steps, shin-high steps, and dizzyingly steep steps are climbed in dress shoes, hiking boots, sandals, sneakers, pointy shoes, and high-tops, worn by loud schoolchildren, quiet senior citizens, straining tourists, and scurrying workers.
On the steps at Badaling, a most congested and popular spot on the wall about 40 miles from Beijing, we meet three robed monks. They speak no English.We don't speak their language. One stops us, and through the international language of pantomine, gestures for us to take their pictures -- together with us!
Our guide later explains that our group is a curiosity to people who don't see many Westerners. Throughout the two-week tour by Toronto-based China Hiking, all six members of our party were asked to have their photos taken while on the wall. The most requests went to an African-American social worker from Maryland. People stopped, stared, pointed, and some even had to touch her. She took it in stride.
The focus of the trip was to hike portions of the Great Wall from outside Beijing to the Bohai Sea, about 200 miles east in northern China. (The Bohai is an arm of the Yellow Sea.) The hikes were mostly morning outings, far from satisfying to the three dedicated hikers in our group, though we separated into two parties based on ability. A bus ferried us on chaotic roads and we spent the nights in three- and four-star hotels. Sometimes, lunch was in a restaurant; other times, it was peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, chunks of cucumbers, sliced tomatoes, and bottled water while sitting in a watchtower.
The wall was the connecting thread to see various parts of China. At Juyong Pass, nearly 35 miles from Beijing, wall walkers can hike a loop. We passed a music video being taped and a line of locks, called "love locks," strung on the wall. Couples announce their love for each other and then throw away the key. We looked upon ancient barracks where generals once lived and temples sat, while also seeing an outside function being set up with tables, speakers, and waitstaff. The longer we walked up the steep, narrow stairs packed with people, the fewer people there were.
A police escort is not on the itinerary, but one morning, our group followed a pair of plainclothes policemen with walkie-talkies. The police were clearing the riffraff so they wouldn't bother us on the spectacular 7-mile hike from the wall at Jinshanling in Hebei province (about 55 miles from Chengde city) to the incredible knife-edge peaks at Simatai. The vendors have a reputation of following tourists the whole way.
With it nearly to ourselves (we did eventually find vendors waiting in a watchtower, and you needn't have spoken Chinese to understand they were peeved at missing out on business), the spectacle that is the wall was on display. From each watchtower (67 are said to grace this section), it is like seeing the Great Wall for the first time. Atop towers reached through steep, narrow steps are million-dollar vistas of an endless dragon's tail. Here, the wall fades into yesteryear with broken steps, patches overgrown with weeds, and unsafe ruins where trails lead along the wall to the next passable place. Bricks bear the inscription of where they were made hundreds of years ago. On the Great Wall are more walls, outfitted with slots where archers could safely ward off intruders. A swaying cable bridge crosses to Simatai.
If hiking the Great Wall isn't taxing enough, there are those who run it. Huangyaguan in Tianjin province hosts The Great Wall Marathon, an annual marathon, half-marathon, 10-kilometer and 5K race. Runners have to ascend and descend about 3,700 steps. We walked them, then left the wall for a narrow hiking trail that led out of a pass. There were handrails once we rejoined the wall, some hot to the touch, others wrapped in cloth. A polite vendor in a watchtower got us for pineapple Popsicles at 12 cents each, T-shirts for $1.25, and a hardcover Great Wall book for $3.75. We hiked to Yellow Mountain and touched it. The wall stops at the mountain and picks up later. It isn't continuous, often stopping at rivers and inhospitable peaks.
The farther from Beijing we traveled, the less populated the wall became. The only person we saw at the crumbling section in the village of Luo Wen Yu was a farmer. No vendors, no admission, nothing. We followed a signless trail over a dry riverbed and under terraced chestnut trees to reach a decaying section of the wall that had not been rebuilt for tourists. Sandy soil, rows of corn along it, a sea of mountains in the distance, the old wall was between two cellphone towers and our guide could get a signal. Four of us ended up bushwhacking down a ravine to a dirt road, passing rows of peanuts, chestnut trees, walnut trees, and trees with pine nuts.
As we waited in a small village for the bus, we practiced the little Chinese we knew, starting with "ni hao," which is "hello." Children giggled and answered with "hellos." A family with a toddler is surprised when we ask to take a picture with them. They smile seeing the digital image. A little "ni hao" goes a long way.
Jiumenkou is on the border of Hebei and Liaoning provinces and the wall features a flat bridge that crosses a river, dry in June. We head into the dusty village to find a soda. Always, villagers ask our Chinese guide where we are from.
Gunshots ring out from a nearby military base at the wall in Jiashan, the first mountain the Great Wall climbs. The vendors are mellow and nicely manicured bushes line the way. We ascend as Elton John sings from "The Lion King" through outside speakers and workers carry 75-pound bags of cement up to the Qi Xian monastery undergoing construction. They make the long trip three times daily. At the top, we gaze out upon the jagged hills surrounding Yansai Lake.
At Shanhaiguan, the wall fades out to the Bohai Sea with the smell of the ocean strong after we have spent days in the mountains. With imagination, the wall looks like a dragon's head by the sea, and the rest of the wall its body. Me, I see the start of a grand staircase through the heart of China.
Marty Basch is a freelance writer in New Hampshire.