The Great Wall. We have all heard of it before. It is a historic structure that was first formed during the Qin Dynasty to thwart the attacks from the North. It has been built and rebuilt over generations, and it remains one of the largest man-made structures to have ever been created. The legacy of the Great Wall is one that is heavily disputed, for it plays such an integral role in the history of China, yet speaks of injustice and torture during the stages of formation. Regardless of whatever, it is undoubtedly one of the most majestic creations that mankind has ever made.
In June 2019, my friend and I decided to head to Mongolia for a month-long adventure. Because we wanted to save on airfare, we decided to take a cheaper, albeit longer, alternative. On 13 June, we landed in Beijing to rest for 3 days before we would head to Ulaanbaatar over land. As we were two young boys with bounds of energy, there was no way we were going to just “rest” for three days. On Day 2 of Beijing, we picked up our daypacks and headed for the Huanghuacheng Great Wall.
There are many sections of the Great Wall around Beijing. If you were to follow a tour group, more likely or not you will end up at the Badaling or Mutianyu sections. These sections have been renovated to their original forms. The steps were in near perfect condition, and there were even CCTVs on some stretches. My friend and I scoffed at that idea. We wanted to visit the authentic Great Wall, or the locals call it, the Wild Wall, because of the vegetation growing and animals inhabiting. As such, we took a 2-hour public transport ride away from the city center, to Huairou Town where the entrance to the Huanghuacheng Wild Wall lie.
The Huanghuacheng, also known as the Water Great Wall due to the proximity to the lake
Upon reaching Huairou Town, we could see the Wild Walls, and I was literally squealing in excitement. That excitement, however, was soon to dissipate, when we realized the Chinese government had rebuilt part of the Wall to resemble that of Badaling and Mutianyu, including the almost-too-perfect steps and the CCTVs. Our disappointment was evident on our faces as we trekked the “artificial” Wall. What made it worse, however, was that the Wild Walls were right in front of our eyes, but the dirt paths that led up to it were all blocked as part of a Government initiative. We spent the next 6 hours trekking up and down, looking for a possible entrance to the Wild Walls, but to no avail.
Climbing the Great Wall in 38 degree weather was no easy feat
Crestfallen, we started to head back to the bus stop. On our way, we stopped to purchase a drink from a vendor. Upon noticing our peculiar accent, she started making light conversation with us, and we explained our situation to her. She told us she knew a way up to the Wild Wall, and offered to take us up for a small fee. Elated, we agreed and hopped onto her motorbike. She took us to the village she lived in, where there was a small and unnoticeable dirt path through an apricot plantation. Like a commander leading his troops, she gestured for us to follow her on the path. We duly obliged.
Follow the leader!
The vendor was called Zhao. She was in her late 40s presumably, with a short but strong stature. She had dark skin, similar to mine. Except my complexion was a result of swimming lessons my parents paid for every month as a child, while hers was a result of the long days spent working in the plantation to feed her child. She had a kind smile on her face that never seemed to fade, even when there were branches and spiderwebs in her way.
After trekking for nearly 2 hours, we could finally see a clear path up to the Wild Wall. Zhao told us she could not take us up anymore, as the skies were about to darken and she had to attend to her family. As we were about to part our ways, she had a look of concern on her face, like that of a mother looking at her son. She asked us how we were going to make it down in the darkness. We told her that we might just camp on the Wall overnight. She looked at us with a mixture of anger and bewilderment, and said under her breath, “Sha Hai Zi (Silly kids)”. She warned us of snakes on the Wild Wall, and passed us her contact number, in case anything went wrong. We took a picture together before she made her way down again.
Zhao imparting some of her wisdom to us
After another 30 minutes of trekking on the path, we finally stood on the Wild Wall. It was an immense sight to see. From ground up we could only see a small section of the Wall. Standing on top however, the structure spanned for kilometers and kilometers, all untouched and preserved in its original glory. We spent the next hour or so exploring the Wall, before we decided to rest on a watchtower to catch the sunset.
Feeling of elation as we finally stand on top of the wild wall
When night fell, we were miserable. We were completely unprepared for a night on the Wall. High above, the wind was strong and never seemed to cease. Apart from a thin sweater each, we had little to cover ourselves. It was impossible to sleep in the watchtower as there was dirt and dust everywhere. To make matters worse, we had no food (we ate some apricots from the plantation earlier) and very limited water. All we could do was to crouch behind a stone barricade and wait for the sun to rise again.
The sunrise in the morning was glorious. I sat on the edge of the watchtower to see the sun rise over the Wild Walls, with each kilometer of structure becoming more visible as the minutes pass. When it was finally bright enough, we made our way back down to the town again. When we walked to the bus stop, we noticed that Zhao was not there yet, and so we left her a text message to thank her and let her know we were fine.
The sunrise in the morning made the discomfort through the night worth it
The impression that the Wild Wall left on me was great. To read and learn about the history and culture is one thing, but to see and feel it for myself is another. We could say that we finally made it to the Wild Wall because of our perseverance, but of course, we would be lying. The real hero in this story is Zhao, for the kindness and warmth she showed us. She spoke of herself lowly, as just another villager. But we saw her as a hardworking and respectable figure, providing for her family.
Enjoyed my experience thoroughly
There are many such figures like Zhao in China. The “Gung Ho” industrial cooperatives movement in the 1930’s started as a way to organize in order to increase production to aid in China’s ‘War of Resistance’ against occupying Japanese forces. The term, ‘Gung Ho,’ has become part of the English language meaning hard work and total dedication to a cause. In modern China, there are hundreds of thousands of Chinese cooperatives, especially in the agricultural sector. It is no surprise that the diligence of the Chinese people, much like Zhao, has contributed to the rise of the country into the economic powerhouse it is today.
This article was written by Tok Yin Jie, who is a first-year Accountancy and Business Undergraduate from Nanyang Technological University currently interning in SNCF, Campus and Youth team. He is passionate about travelling and learning about new cultures. He hopes to be able to make a change in society in the future