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Saving the Great Wall From Being Loved to Death

THE Great Wall of China was up there, above the treetops, hidden from view as our small group followed our guide, Yan Xinqiang, up a narrow, rutted trail toward a remote section of the wall known as Jiankou. At 61, Mr. Yan is old enough to be a grandfather but he practically skipped with excitement as we approached this relatively remote section part of what is known as the Wild Wall.

We had driven almost three hours north of Beijing, parked in a small farming village and walked uphill for more than an hour until we finally clambered onto the spine of the Great Wall. The sky unfolded with green, jagged mountains in the foreground; the wall was draped over the ridges like a stone necklace.

The view was breathtaking, but there is one notable problem: The Great Wall is falling apart. For the next few hours, Mr. Yan, a wall enthusiast, showed us where vandals have pilfered bricks or stones. In many stretches, small trees and bushes had pushed through the walls stone flooring. In another spot, the flooring had simply vanished: a rusted metal ladder, installed to help navigate one potentially fatal descent, hung precariously in the air.

When I was here a few years ago, it was in pretty good shape, said Mr. Yan, as he stood in the collapsed archway of an ancient watchtower. I have a picture of myself standing here in the doorway. But now it has all crumbled.

And Jiankou is just one of many places suffering; at the Jinshanling section, some watchtowers, including one named Yao Gou Lou, are falling apart.

But the Great Wall is not just crumbling. It is disappearing. Roughly half of the estimated 4,000 miles of the wall built during the Ming Dynasty no longer exists, according to a recent report.

It is also regularly being abused. Recently, a company was fined about $50,000 for building a road through a section of the Ming-era wall in Inner Mongolia. Last year, the police broke up a huge dance party of Chinese ravers atop the wall a few hours drive outside Beijing.

The Chinese government is now alarmed enough that the first national regulations to protect the wall go into effect on Dec. 1. Anyone who defaces the wall with graffiti, removes bricks or organizes events atop sections not open to tourists would face stiff fines and possible criminal penalties.

The walls most inescapable problem is the burden caused by its growing popularity. Nationally, an estimated 13 million tourists visited the wall last year, more than double the six million of a decade ago, according to the Great Wall Society, a nonprofit group of wall enthusiasts.

The biggest attractions outside Beijing continue to be Badaling and Mutianyu, each with long sections of restored wall. Badaling, a favorite photo op for visiting presidents, had 4.5 million tourists last year. The views are dazzling and, other than traffic, the trip is easy enough that you can buy an I Climbed the Great Wall T-shirt and barely break a sweat.

But a growing number of Chinese tourists are looking for a different experience on the Wild Wall. This appetite for new destinations and outdoor experiences is transforming the mountainous northern outskirts of Beijing, which, according to one survey, has about 400 miles of the wall.

Weekenders are pouring out of the city to escape noise and pollution. In the city, outdoor shops are selling hiking and camping gear, while the great leap in car ownership means that people can more easily visit remote areas. The Great Wall, built to keep out Mongols and other marauders, is now under siege from yuppies.

Now that people are more affluent, they are not satisfied with just the tourist spots, said Dong Yaohui, head of the Great Wall Society. They want to go out and camp near the Wild Wall.

A decade or so ago, few people knew much about Jiankou, our destination, other than local farmers. We rented a van and edged along in brutal Saturday traffic through the suburban city of Huairou before turning onto a narrow mountain road. The road was a revelation, given that many farmers still ride on carts behind mules: a few stylish hotels and restaurants were tucked into a wooden canyon; a cluster of small, rental chalets rose on a green hillside; and, everywhere, people zipped around in shiny cars, some headed to or from weekend homes.

We drove several more miles to Xijia, a village that is the entry, of sorts, for Jiankou. A farmer in a peasants jacket stood at a metal gate and collected the equivalent of a few dollars in admission fees. No restaurants here: farmers sold nuts, crackers and drinks out of a flatbed truck.

On the trail and atop the wall, we kept running into people. A few dozen employees from a local company were walking the Wild Wall on a group retreat. Couples stepped gingerly on the stone flooring.

At one point, we met a local woman, Yang Xiuming, 50, working as guide for a small group of tourists. Her village, Hejia, was nestled below the wall and she said tourism had allowed local farmers to sell tickets. Other villagers earned money as guides while some had converted their homes into small restaurants. Yet she agreed that the wall had suffered since her childhood.

Now, it is broken, she said before walking off with her group. It didnt use to be like this.

THE same pattern is being repeated elsewhere along the wall as the right to sell entrance fees and make other profits has become something for which villages are willing to fight. Earlier this year, officials in adjacent counties in Beijing and neighboring Hebei Province broke into a brawl over which side had caretaker rights over a 1,000-meter section a little more than a half-mile of the wall. Neither was fighting to restore the contested section of the wall, but rather for the right to sell tickets.

The incident became such an embarrassment that newspapers editorialized about the need to eliminate local profiteering and promote preservation.

Deterioration, to a degree, was inevitable, given that construction of the wall ended with the end of the Ming Dynasty in 1644. The Ming wall was the last of 16 built by different dynasties a reminder that there is no such thing as a single Great Wall but rather a succession of walls. By one estimate, these walls collectively would stretch 31,000 miles were they all still standing.

In the first half of the last century, the wall suffered during a protracted war against Japan, as well as during the Chinese civil war. But the ascension to power of the Communist Party in 1949 marked a period of serious decline.

Mao regarded the wall and many other historical relics as remnants of Chinas feudal past and saw little justification for preservation. Farmers were encouraged to use bricks to build homes. An entire reservoir outside Beijing was built from bricks and stones taken from the wall.

The worst destruction came during the 1950s through the 1970s, said Mr. Dong, the Great Wall Society official. There was absolutely no protection. And the government encouraged people to take bricks. They didnt know about tourism. They thought the Great Wall was absolutely useless.

Today, the new national regulations are part of a government effort to improve protection. Officials concede they still do not truly know how much of the wall remains intact from its western origins in Gansu Province to its eastern terminus at the city of Shanhaiguan, where it touches the Bohai Sea. This year, researchers have launched a long-term project to determine the length and location of the wall by using satellites and other technology.

For now, though, the most passionate protectors of the wall are people like Mr. Yan. He worked for years in Beijing at a publishing house and began visiting the wall outside the city in 1984 as part of an effort to cheer up his 6-year-old son.

My wife went to America to study, and I needed a way to make my son happy, so we went to the wall and walked, he said. There was no one up there, not even villagers. We would sleep in the watchtowers.

His son lost interest after high school, but Mr. Yan had found his passion. He now makes regular trips to different parts of the wall photographing crumbling watchtowers for evidence that he can use to prod local officials into action.

They say there is only so much they can do because they dont have enough money, Mr. Yan said. Their attitude is that as long as we have a few tourist sections on the Great Wall that we can protect, that is enough.

We followed Mr. Yan for hours as he navigated the uncertain footing atop the wall with the agility of a mountain goat. At one point, we stumbled upon three young men in full camping regalia who greeted him like a favorite uncle. They were among about 100 people who had connected via the Internet because of their shared interest in the wall. They were camping out together to celebrate the groups sixth anniversary.

Our motto is, Love the Great Wall, Protect the Great Wall, said Lian Da, who had come from the coastal city of Dalian. The Great Wall is being ruined. The purpose of our group is to photograph it before it falls apart.

Mr. Yan planned to join the campers the next day for their celebration. But first he led our small group off the wall and onto another trail through the woods. This trail led us to a clearing with the weekend getaway house of William Lindesay, an excitable Briton who is a leading foreign expert on the wall and the director general of the International Friends of the Great Wall.

As a boy, Mr. Lindesay opened an atlas to a map of China and saw with awe and puzzlement that the mapmaker had included a jagged line to indicate the route of the wall. Mr. Lindesay has never shaken his boyish wonder over the wall: he has walked its entire length and written a book about it.

But like Mr. Yan, he now spends much of his time trying to focus attention on the walls fragile condition. He is staging a Dec. 6 exhibition at Beijings Capital Museum that compares historic and contemporary photographs of different locations of the wall to show how much has been lost.

He is still confident that much of the wall can be saved, but he notes with sadness that many current maps of China no longer include the wall, presumably because so much of it has disappeared.

There is great hope from people who live near the wall, and from experts who study it, that the Great Wall can be recovered, Mr. Lindesay said. It had a bad century in the 20th century.

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