Although I have visited the Great Wall many times, including both the eastern and western termini at Shanhaiguan 山海关 and Jiayuguan 嘉峪关 respectively, I have never quite experienced it like this before. Our research team is staying in a farmhouse at the foot of the Wall in Beigou Village 北沟村. From our patio, we have an unobstructed view of the Wall at Mutianyu 慕田峪. It is said that many of the residents here in Beigou and neighboring villages are descendants of Ming dynasty (1368-1644) laborers who built this section of the Wall, which links up to Juyongguan to the west and Gubeikou to the east.
Yesterday, it was a beautiful morning in Beigou Village; clear skies and clean air. We started our research by going into a valley that eventually leads up to the Wall. Mr. Cao, our host in the farmhouse, told us we may have better luck finding pollinators up there since the locals use pesticides around the village and in the valley below. After spending nearly two hours doing observations, we decided to make an attempt on the south face. After getting off a narrow paved road, we started our climb, which was well marked with arrows and dots painted on rocks, on a muddy path up the steep slope and to the Wall above us several hundred meters. At one point, we lost sight of the Wall on our ascent. It suddenly re-appeared after the final turn of a switch back on the path. At this point, I was in front and announced that we had arrived. The students behind me were rather skeptical, until they made that final turn and saw, too, before us all the foot of the Great Wall. It was a splendid sight, especially after our brisk climb up.
Of course, the way we had ascended meant that we still needed to get on to the Wall after climbing up to it. There was no official entrance where we had ended up. Obviously, there was only one way: we had to climb up and over the Wall to get on it. Now, this may sound rather daunting. Wasn’t the Wall constructed precisely to prevent such breaches? How could a group of seven docile pollinator researchers scale such a rampart?
Actually, the Wall here was on the inside, or south side, facing “China,” and was not as high as the outside Wall erected to keep out the “barbarians.” It was no more than 10 feet high and the uneven stones on the Wall face and crenellation at the top provided solid foot and hand holds to scale up and climb over. I scrambled up and was over quickly. Landing on top of the Wall the first thing I saw was the quizzical look of a Chinese tourist. Imagine her surprise at the sight of a sweaty barbarian in a bright, red t-shirt (our official team apparel) climbing over the Wall. She appeared even more surprised, and somewhat amused, by the other six members of our group following suit one after another. So, this is how we got on the Great Wall. After heading up the Wall toward Tower 23, we noticed a small opening on the side of the Wall where one could simply enter or exit to level ground. Easier, but I’m sure we all preferred our more adventurous route up and on to the Wall.
We continued west along the Wall, away from the chairlift, cable car, and toboggan ride that take visitors up and down the Wall. There were fewer tourists along this section, and many of them, like us, wanted to go as far as possible. At one point, the Wall is “closed,” though it is easy to continue hiking on “hors piste.” Trees and other vegetation grow on top of the Wall here, making the hike more challenging, especially with sections and beacon towers in disrepair. Unlike Mutianyu, which was rebuilt in the early 1980s (after being initially constructed in the early years of the Ming dynasty), this part of the Wall exudes a different historical sense. This made the extra challenge of hiking here worth it. The team pushed on as far as we could go given time constraints. After a break at the final beacon tower we would visit, our group turned around to hike back down. Around 4:30, we reached the Mutianyu parking lot and caught a ride back to our village farm house in Beigou. We had been hiking for over 5 hours (including the ascent to the Wall itself). That evening, we enjoyed yet another delicious meal at the farm house, which was followed by some well-deserved Erguotou cocktails on the rooftop patio as the sun set, concluding another wonderful day on our 2014 adventure through China.