Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Days 190 and 192: Some Walls: Juyongguan and Jiankou (to Mutianyu)

Another day, another wall. In this case, the days were Sunday and Tuesday, and the walls, the Juyongguan and Jiankou sections of the Great Wall of China.

Juyongguan to begin with, reported to be the closest section of the Great Wall to Beijing, being about 12 kilometres closer than its more famous sibling, Badaling. In a very rare excursion after weeks confined to the hostel or its vicinity, Burness deigned to join me too. He's still on the slow road to recovery, but of late has been spending less time in his bed in a darkened room, moaning in pain, and has been seen in public, even cracking a joke from time to time. By doctor's orders, he is to rest more and stay in Beijing, but the darkest hour seems to be behind him. Eventually, we might even be able to recommence the travels.

Due to his illness, Burness has only been able to join me for one other part of the Great Wall, at the most visited section, Badaling. We both enjoyed Badaling, and were hugely impressed by it, but subsequent visits to other sections have taught me that is merely the most promoted section of Wall rather than the most spectacular. It is often called the Disneyland of the Great Wall, and with the huge tacky tourist complex swarming around the base like an energised beehive, it's not difficult to see why. Nonetheless, once on the Wall, it looks great. That would be my basic surmise of Badaling: very touristy but nonetheless great. By the end of the visit I was already certain that the Great Wall would be among the top bunch of the Wonders I've seen to date.

Juyongguan, on the other hand, has all of the tat and little of the charm of Badaling. It also has none of the convenience, despite being overrun with tourists. I can only imagine they all come by tour group, or direct taxi from Beijing, because getting there by any other means is a mission. All online and guidebook advice indicated that the 919 bus passed by, but at the bus station we were told very definitively that it did not. And despite having a train station, catching a train seemed equally elusive. In the end, we simply had to catch a bus to Badaling and get an inexpensive taxi from there; on the way back, we were pointed in the way of the number 68 bus which connected to the fabled 919. The closest part of the Wall to Beijing and packed with tourists, yet no easy means to get there - very odd.

It quickly turned out that Juyongguan was a little different from the rest of the Walls I've visited. The name means "The Pass where the Commoners Live", with "pass" being the operative word ("The Pass where the Vendors Live" would fit just as well). The Juyongguan section of the Wall is actually in a mountain pass, built between mountain peaks and defending what was once the only road leading to Beijing. It's a historically significant section, and once a key part of the defence, but unfortunately lacks two key elements that have made the other parts of the Wall so impressive.

The first of these is the position in relation to the mountains. Some of the most spectacular sections of the Great Wall ride along the tops of mountains, clinging to ridges, and adding an extra eight metres or so to the mountain's height. Less so Juyongguan. It once defended a pass, therefore is nestled down the sides of some steep slopes and across a valley. It still has the nice zigzag effects, and it still runs along the tops of ridges as it descends into the valley, but unlike other sections it doesn't soar above the world.

The other key element it lacks is probably what lets it down more: it's not connected to the rest of the Great Wall. Juyongguan is a looped section of Wall that runs up and down a mountainside as though someone had chucked a gigantic spaghetti hoop into the valley and let it settle into place. It's a straightforward, if steep, walk of a few hours, arriving back at where you started. Running up a mountain, as it does, some of it is extremely steep indeed, about the steepest climb I've experienced on the Wall - but without the pay-off. Perhaps the single-most highlight of the Great Wall is reaching a summit, seeing the Wall stretch into the horizon along mountain tops. It is these moments that it becomes very evident that is the biggest thing ever built by mankind. But reach the top of Juyongguan and you simply see the Wall below, looping around, self-contained and without the rest of the Great Wall in sight. It's a little disappointing. It seems like a wall, rather than The Wall.

But all this is from the view of someone who has just visited a few excellent sections of Great Wall. Juyongguan is still a mighty construction, albeit the whole thing being a full restoration from a few decades ago. The view is still good, with the Wall meandering around the craggy backdrop. If it was the only section of Wall you ever visited, you'd still be impressed, though perhaps not awestruck. And you'll have absolutely no problem buying as many souvenirs or postcards as you could ever desire. But overall, it's not great. And I like my Walls to be Great.

So, poor Burness has managed to see the two most touristified parts of the Wall. Nothing wrong with them, but they lack some of the magic that being on a rugged, unreconstructed part of the Wall has, standing in isolation and silence, admiring the view. This was what I'd hoped for my next - and possibly, for now, final - part of the Wall I saw, at a section called Jiankou. The name means "Arrow Nock", a nock being the little notch in the arrowhead that the bowstring fits into. I'll leave it to the archers amongst you, but this is what the Jiankou range is supposed to resemble.

After the peace and beauty of the Huanghua section, I'd been hoping for something similar. On paper, Jiankou looked to fit the bill. It certainly started off as quite an adventure. After some hard but unexpectedly enjoyable negotiating with taxi drivers in the nearby town of Huairou, I was dropped off at a tiny village at the foot of some mountains. At the top was the Wall, augmenting, as it does, the natural drama of the range. Now, how to get there...

It turned out that getting to Jiankou was half the fun, if scrambling up snowy slopes on hand and foot could be described as fun. There is supposed to be a well-worn path leading there, but with the snow coverage I'll be damned if I could find it. Instead, I quickly found myself in a forest of bare trees, using whatever trunks and branches I could find to pull myself uphill. It was somewhat tiring, and made all the worse by knowing that one slip would send me tumbling down to the bottom. Initially, there wasn't much danger, but once I'd ascended one slope and started climbing up rocks I realised the risk had grown. At one point, there was a sheer drop of perhaps fifty metres, which I didn't fancy. However, at the time my only concern was refusing to turn back, being determined that this ridiculous route I'd taken and the effort involved would be worth it. And eventually, it was. I reached a minor summit, allowing me a view of the Wall quite close by, and better, the view of the path leading to it. In no time, I was there. And it was Great.

My plan for the day was to begin here, and walk to the nearby Mutianyu section of the Wall, which I'd read would be about four or five hours away. I began the walk in high spirits, enjoying the peace and sensational view I'd been hoping for. But some doubts began to enter my head when I met a Canadian man coming the other way. He was very friendly and we had a good conversation, but it transpired he'd started at Mutianyu. Really? Yes, just a couple of hours walking, he said. I walked on, and passed a few more people. Jiankou was a little busier than I'd expected. And suddenly, after barely an hour of Wall walking, the broken-down ruins of the Wall changed into a heavily restored part: I was at Mutianyu. And it dawned on me - I had been here before. During my visit to Mutianyu, I had walked all this way myself. This photo, taken on my earlier visit to Mutianyu, was as far as I'd come then: it was exactly my starting point this time for Jiankou.

The weather, at least, was much more pleasant this time, giving a much clearer view, but I was still a little annoyed as I marched past growing numbers of tourists, quietly cursing them. I realised I had become a Wall snob. My first time here, I hadn't cared about the presence of others, but now, as a Wall veteran, I wanted it all to myself. Rare among Wonders, the sheer size of the Wall means that it's very possible to enjoy it in total peace, and having tasted that, being back in the tourist zone was suddenly less appealing. My expectations for Jiankou had been for peace and dramatic sections of Wall, but I'd wandered into Mutianyu too quickly. Instead, I now recognise, I should simply started and finished at Jiankou, focussing on the scenic sections that had first met me upon my ascent.

I quickly got over my huff, and walked along the entire reconstructed section of Mutianyu, and into parts I'd not been during my last visit. The reconstructed section can only be four or five kilometres along, but by the time you reach either side, there's virtually no-one around. Go beyond and into the crumbling parts, and again, you have the Wall all to yourself.

After a little time in the further reaches of Mutianyu, I wandered back, intending to descend and get transport back to Beijing. It's a pretty steep slope down, and not easy on legs that have been walking for five hours. But guess what I found?

Mass tourism, all is forgiven.

Whereas the section of Wall at Juyongguan didn't really feel that essential, visiting Jiankou only further whetted my appetite. I had a glimpse at the drama in the distance, but took the easy route back to Mutianyu; in the future, I'd love to tackle what Jiankou really has to offer. And this applies to the Great Wall in general. Jiankou is the sixth section I've visited, and thus the sixth snapshot of the Wall I've seen. But snapshots are all I've seen - I don't feel like I've yet fully experienced it. To do so, I'd really need to do a trek of at least a few days along the Great Wall, camping at night. It's certainly too cold to do so right now, but in the future, definitely. I feel I've seen enough to make my judgement call on the Wall - which I'll do so soon in my review - but not enough to satisfy myself. More - that's been my feeling each time I've visited a section, each time I want to see more. More will have to wait, but like the other big boy of this World Wonders business, the Taj Mahal, I'm just counting the days till my next visit.

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