MUTIANYU, CHINA - They say China's Great Wall is the only man-made object you can see from space. But on this hazy morning, we can barely see the small portion of the UNESCO World Heritage Wall that snakes through this remote outpost, a two-hour drive from Beijing.
There are several places where viewing China’s wonder of the world are recommended. Badaling and the newly opened Guyongguan are the most popular gathering spots for tourists, mainly because of their close proximity to the capital. And isolated Simatai, a section of the Wall that is now being restored, requires hikers; skills, we are told. But, according to our guide, Mutianyu offers the best views of the stone dragon that stretches out over 4,000 miles across China’s mountains and valleys. As we get closer to this small town where visiting prime ministers, presidents and royalty are brought to walk on one of the most secluded sections of the Great Wall, our driver keeps promising the “fog” will clear “any moment” — but no such luck.
Finally, the man we know as Mr. Lu, pulls the car off the road and tells us to follow him up a steep path, past an army of vendors trying to sell us a variety of Great Wall souvenirs. A few minutes along the path, we reach a cable car station and Mr. Lu points to a glass pod with the words “Bill Clinton” written on it. “That is the car the U.S. president rode in when he visited the Great Wall – so you ride in that one,” he tells me. “I will ride in the John Majors (the former British prime minister) car,” says Mr. Lu. It's a slow ride to the point where we disembark and follow Mr. Lu up another narrow path and then through a small stone opening onto a rocky platform. “How much further to the Great Wall?” I gasp. “You’re standing on it,” says Mr. Lu. A rush of excitement overcomes me. There is no greater thrill than to stand on this engineering marvel that was started in 200 BC and cuts through six of China’s provinces. From our vantage point, the Wall stretches out as far as the eye can see in either direction. An eerie quiet and a stunning Yen Shan Mountain backdrop make the moment even more surreal.
Above: The Badaling scetion of the Wall, right, is the most visited but the Mutianyu, left, is loveliest.
The rollercoaster effect of the Wall at this point is quite amazing. It snakes through lush valleys and then rises many metres to the top of forested plateaus. The guard towers that interrupt its flow every few hundred metres can only be reached by climbing steep steps. Hikers and joggers exchange pleasantries as they meet along this section of the Great Wall built 500 years ago during the Ming Dynasty. Mr. Lu encourages me to venture out on my own but warns: “Don’t pick up the broken bricks. There are very severe penalties for anyone caught taking parts of the Great Wall home with them.” As I walk, the sound of music suddenly fills the air. “Where was the music coming from?” I later asked the guide. “From the village.” “What village?" I wonder while scanning the empty valley. “The village is 40 kilometres away. The air is so clear here, sound carries great distances,” says Mr. Lu. Each of China’s emperors had portions of the Wall built to keep the Mongolians out. Ironically, 1,000 years after it was started, a Mongolian became emperor of China. He, too, continued construction, though. A plaque on the Wall states: "Once intended to ward off enemy attacks, today it (the Great Wall) brings the peoples of the world together." Swedes, Brits, Americans, Australians, Canadians and a few Chinese stood together reading the sign – proving its point. Despite being repaired recently, the Wall’s walking path is littered with small pieces of decaying bricks, which are made from a mixture of rice and limestone.
Temptation finally overcomes me and I pick up a small piece of brick, only to have Mr. Lu throw me a menacing glare. “Did I tell you what the penalty is for taking pieces of the Wall?” asks Mr. Lu. “No,” I respond. “Death,” he tells me. I drop the brick.
A few days later, as my plane takes off from Beijing, the pilot directs his passengers' attention to the Great Wall and people crane their necks to get a view of one of history's great monuments.
"I've been to China many times on business but I've never had time to walk to Great Wall," the woman sitting next to me says.
"You don't know what you're missing," I tell her.