Tires crunch the gravel as our driver turns around and makes his way back down the narrow access road, leaving my fiance, his mother, and I alone in front of an empty building. The air is cool and fresh, and a few white clouds move briskly across the blue sky. Beijing, with its 20 million inhabitants, gleaming skyscrapers, and layer of smog, is a safe 50 miles to the south. All being well, we'll see the driver again in about four hours, at our pickup location.
I check the WeChat message on my phone again. "Behind [the building] there's a path uphill to the wall. Usually, a farmer can point you to it. Follow it up." There are no farmers to be seen on this bright November morning, but the path is there, and the valley swallows us up in minutes. Overhanging branches graze our jackets and backpacks, and dead leaves scatter underfoot. Something rustles in the undergrowth. A squirrel? This late in the year, the valley — which will become lush and green with the arrival of spring — is brown and quiet.
My gaze drifts up from the uneven, rocky path to scan the tops of the hills. As we round another corner, the view clears, and I shudder with excitement. Standing high over us is a tower of the Great Wall of China.
The "Great Wall" is a bit of a misnomer, as there was never one single structure that spanned modern-day China. Rather, a number of large defensive walls were built by various rulers from as early as the Fifth Century B.C. through the mid-17th century, often hundreds of miles apart and with little relationship to one another.
One of those sections, the "Ming Wall," is recognized all over the world. Built during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) it stretches from a fort at Jiayuguan near the Gobi Desert in the west, all the way past Beijing to the sea at Shanhaiguan in the east. By some estimates, it is 5,500 miles long.
Unlike other sections that were made of rammed earth and straw, most of the Ming Wall around Beijing is built on a foundation of cut stone and bricks held together with an early, but very strong, mortar made of lime and sticky rice glue. With crenelated ramparts and tall towers, it is the Great Wall of my imagination.
As visitors, in China for only about a week, we are lucky to be here at all. Less than half an hour ago, we drove past a large parking lot filled with tour buses at Mutianyu, a popular section of the Great Wall. Dozens of bus drivers stood around chatting, waiting for their groups to return. Sites like that, and Badaling, 40 miles to the west, are immensely in demand among day-trippers, receiving millions of visitors per year, but more closely resemble theme parks than ancient sites.
All over China, sections of the wall are being rebuilt by unregulated private contractors who are keen to capitalize on tourist dollars but show little interest in historically accurate restorations. Foot by foot, the largest man-made structure in the world is being paved over, funded by visitors who funnel through them every year, largely unaware of what they are missing. We might have been among them if not for a fortuitous encounter with a family friend, Richard Fairbrother, over lunch two days before.
A longtime Beijing resident, he is also a keen amateur explorer and is writing a field guide about hiking on the wild, unrestored sections of the wall. Minutes after we parted, my phone lit up with messages recommending an interesting hike in the Moya Shike Natural Scenic Area near the village of Dazhenyu, including drop-off and pickup locations and the kind of familiar directions that only locals can give.
With the tower looming over us, we climb and climb, following the meandering, narrow trail and a line of faded red ribbons. Tied to tree branches at regular intervals, they are markers left by hikers who have come before us. After 45 minutes or so of fairly steep climbing, the trail ends at a brick wall half hidden by bushes, and we clamber through an opening in the side.
From beneath our feet, the wall races away in both directions, zigging and zagging along the ridge like an irregular heartbeat, punctuated by square towers. The wall itself is at once awe-inspiring and smaller than I expected. Here, it is about 10 feet wide, but greatly overgrown and filled with low shrubs, leaf litter, and crumbling bricks, leaving only a narrow path snaking through the debris. Low battlements, about waist height, protect us from the drop on either side.
I consult my phone again. Richard's instructions are clear. "Follow the wall uphill … the downward way finishes at a dead end."
Uphill we go, pushing back branches and steadying ourselves against the walls. The red ribbons continue to pop up on branches. Although thoughtful, they are doubly unnecessary now. Not only could we not get lost here, but there is plenty of evidence that we are on the right path — the floor around us is littered with soda cans, plastic bottles, and empty cigarette packets, their labels faded from the rain and sun, trash probably left by domestic visitors from other parts of the country.
The path loops up and down, and is often very steep, requiring us to lunge up steps and grab onto branches and bricks for support. The three of us spread out, taking the path at our own pace, and sometimes I stop, squeeze between the notches in the rampart and stick my head out to peer at the trees below.
Getting to the first tower is not easy; sections of it have collapsed, blocking the entrance and forcing us to climb up and over, right onto the roof. We take a lunch break, sitting with our legs dangling over the side, quietly munching on our sandwiches and making little piles out of mandarin orange peels. A startlingly clear melody floats past on the breeze, and we spot a white bus in the valley far below, radio blaring.
In centuries past, this spot would have been an ideal place to spy an invading army. The air is fresh and free of smog, and we can see distant purplish hills for miles in every direction.
We collect our citrus peels and clamber down over the rubble. As we progress westward, each tower offers a more beautiful view than the last, their arched doorways and narrow windows framing the spectacular landscape beyond. We stop more often just to take in the view as the early afternoon shadows grow, casting the folds of the mountain range in sharp relief. The wind blows cooler now, and we zip up our jackets under our chins. We are still alone.
Then, the trail just stops. From our vantage point inside a tower, we see the wall crest a hill and then appear to dissolve into nothingness. I shrug off my backpack and creep forward, edging closer until I can see over the crest and down to where the wall becomes treacherously degraded. A brick wall has been built to block the path, and beyond that there is a very steep drop. Stones litter the valley floor, as if scattered by some giant wave.
For today, our hike is done. In a few minutes, we'll begin the steep, scrabbling descent to Dazhenyu, where our driver should be waiting for us. In four hours, we've covered about just four miles, a minuscule fraction of the wall and all that this vast country has to offer. Yet I can already see what draws Richard back here over and over. The lonely wild wall is full of beauty and secrets, and every yard hiked feels like the most wonderful discovery.
Anna Hartley is a writer based in Paris. Her website is annahartleywrites.com.
Many wild sections of the Great Wall of China are located within a two-hour drive of Beijing and are accessible by public transport and private cars, or with private tours and hiking groups. If you plan to take a private car or public transport, be sure to have your exact drop-off and pickup locations, and times, written in Chinese beforehand. (Information: travelchinaguide.com/china_great_wall/scene/beijing)
Leo Hostel (leohostel.com): The affordable and friendly backpackers hostel near Tiananmen Square organizes a well-rated "Secret Wall" tour to a remote section of the Great Wall for about $45 per person. Dorm rooms start at about $13 per night.