The Great Wall at Simitai
She scooted down the craggy hillside, navigating the terrain like an Olympic ski medalist. The ferocious icy winds didn't hinder her progress in the least bit. Along with a few other Chinese employees of the facility, she glided down the mountain side, making it look easy. Of course, she had probably scaled these wriggly brown hills, the ones on which sit the Great Wall of China at Simitai, since she was a kid. She was a true mountain girl.
The Wall is what everyone wants to see when they come to China and most people visit the Wall at Badaling, a location about 45 miles northwest of Beijing which is usually infested with homogeneous herds of tourists. Here, the wall is totally reconstructed to facilitate tourism: handrails and flags have been installed, and a small city of gaudy trinket shops exist for the would-be sightseer. A plethora of "I Walked on the Wall" t-shirts are available for your entertainment pleasure. You have to literally claw your way through the mob of tourists before you can glean the least bit of sum and substance from the place.
So, to quench our thirst for less tourist-oriented forays, we visited the Great Wall at Simitai: a remote but awe-inspiring section of the structure located about three hours northwest of Beijing, in the mountains, near a poverty-stricken town called Gubeikou. Simitai is a much more intriguing section of the wall due to its isolation, its grandeur, and its definitive lack of tourist mobs. Even though the t-shirt vendors have already set up shop there, the location has yet to be attacked by the mainstream flow of commercial tourism. This is mostly because Simitai wasn't even accessible by a tour bus until recently, and the trip itself is a grueling one that takes most of the day.
Simitai is too much out of the way for most "wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am" itineraries. You can't just hop off the bus, dance on the wall, buy your souvenir musical Chairman Mao cigarette lighter and leave. To reach the wall you must climb an odious mountain, which, in turn, is just as exhausting on the way back down. Or, if you're not the adventurous type, you can take a gondola halfway up the mountain, leaving the rest of the journey to your feet. I assure you that the catch is well worth the chase.
Beginning at Beijing, we boarded the sky blue tour bus and watched the rural Chinese countryside pass by as the road narrowed and narrowed and narrowed up into the mountains. I nearly grimaced at the poverty. Three hours later we arrived at our designated stopping point--a parking lot at the bottom of the jagged mountain range on which the wall sits. Two flanks of trinket shops sat before us, but hardly anyone else was there.
We had seen a few snapshots of Simitai, most of them depicting travelers jumping along the wall with their shirts off, the wall sneaking its way through the greenish brush of the sharply carved mountain tops behind them. We arrived at the end of October, so the scenario was quite different. The mountains were a dusty brown color and there was no greenery to be found. And it was below freezing. Apparently October is not the time to visit Simitai. The frigid, polar gusts and the below freezing wind chill factor nearly turned us into blocks of ice.
This is where they get you. None of us were prepared for the weather, so the t-shirt vendors, all of which had plenty of hats, gloves, and overcoats for sale, made a fortune. I chose to venture forth with only a light windbreaker. Bad move. I nearly collapsed.
Of the two ways to reach the top of the mountain--trekking the entire way, or taking the gondola halfway and then hiking the rest--we chose the latter, due to the cold and our lack of regular physical activities. Since the temperature showed no signs of rising above freezing and our skin was beginning to pickle in the frigid winds, we deemed this a responsible decision.
About six American dollars got two of us into a gondola car and away we went. Inch by inch we floated ever so slowly above the cavernous valleys below. Craggy chocolate-brown hills stretched forth in every direction and they looked like someone had carved them into the earth with a dull pocket knife. The Great Wall, like a monumental, uncompromising serpent, snaked its way in, out, and around the jagged tops of these dark brown mountains. The gargantuan desolation of it all is what hits you first. You can't realize how remote this part of China is unless you actually get there.
From our vantage point way up in the gondola we watched the female employees of the Simitai facility scooting down the steep mountainside. They hung out at various places on the steep trail up the mountain, usually to help out the hikers and guide them. These women must have been lifelong residents of the area, as it seemed like they could run down the 70 degree slopes with their eyes closed. Seeing these Chinese women descend the hill with the utmost finesse was a postcard picture sight.
After about twenty minutes of riding the gondola and braving the wind, we got off the mechanical ride at its final destination: a point halfway up the mountain. We immediately dashed into the snack shop, where everyone sat at tables, downing hot Chinese tea. The tea was necessary in order to get warmed up for the final ascent to the mountaintop and the Great Wall.
Uneven steps made of stone, brick, and dirt comprised the almost vertical path up the rest of the mountain. The steep incline and the piercing winds made the hike one of the most grueling 45 minutes I had ever endured. My nose ran profusely, due to the cold. The Great Wall seemed to be mysteriously whispering to us, "Can you make it, can you make it?"
Once we finally made it to the top, took in the Great Wall, and reveled in its grandiosity, the rigors of the climb all became worth it. The overall magnitude of the structure transcends any possible photograph of it. The view is unreal. Again, as far over the horizon as our eyes could see, the wall stretched, all by itself amidst miles and miles of dirt-colored mountains, most of which were sharp, jagged, and irregularly shaped. It was hard to fathom that the wall itself stretched across China for 1800 more miles than what we could see from this particular vantage point. Like Chinese thought, the whole scenario seemed like a pair of opposites: noble and awe-inspiring, while somehow austere and grim at the same time.
Originally, builders designed the wall at Simitai with defense and offense in mind. It originally connected to a series of underground caves. Just from looking through the towers and the shooting holes, one can easily imagine the hoards of soldiers defending their land from the enemy. Like the local girls who scoot down the hill, they definitely had the home field advantage.
Simitai is also the only place to see the wall exactly as it was built in the Ming Dynasty. Unlike Badaling, it hasn't been totally reconstructed yet. If you wander enough down the top of the wall here, you'll come across parts that are so un-reconstructed that a daunting 1000 foot drop off the edge will wake you up immediately.
When you come to Simitai, bring lots of film. You'll need it. Don't bother yourself with going to Badaling. Simitai is ten thousand times more picturesque. Just don't visit in late October. Try Spring or Summer instead, when the scenery is unmatched.
Of course, at the time of this adventure, Simitai had not been invaded by horrendous throngs of tourists yet. But it will someday (if it isn't already). The Chinese government and the Simitai Great Wall Administration plan on developing it more as a tourist site (primarily to help eliminate the miserable poverty of the city and get it back on track). Usually, I would play the elitist snob and refrain from spreading the word about Simitai to just anyone, in order to weed out the hideous tourists and keep it for ourselves, the interstitial voyagers who travel between the "here" and the "there." But I can't. Simitai will always be an awe-inspiring place, whether or not it gets usurped by commodity.
© 2000 Gary Singh