Recognise this? (Hint: look at the photo up top)
On our first visit to the Gubeikou-Simatai section of wall, we didn’t really understand how unique it is among Beijing Great Wall sites. While some sites cater to the demands of mass tourism – Badaling, Mutianyu – they’ve done so at the expense of conservation, with long sections of original wall actually destroyed to make way for reconstructions. Other sections we’ve hiked – the Beijing Knot and Jiankou – are beautifully preserved, but unless you’re a pretty fit hiker, you’re not all that likely to see them.
Along the wall from Gubeikou to Simatai, the demands of tourism and conservation are, at least for now, in a kind of balance. The pass at Gubeikou is completely authentic; as one interpretive sign proudly states without exaggeration, every single brick on the Gubeikou wall is original. There is some reconstruction at Jinshanling and Simatai, and while it would have been better if the original wall had been left alone, at least the reconstructed sections are built upon original foundations and seem to us to be well done. In places it’s hard to tell where original wall ends and reconstruction begins.
Emma walking on an original section
This is part of the three-kilometre reconstructed section near Jinshanling
The reddish bricks are original and the newer bricks are grey
At the same time, it’s not difficult to get to the wall at any of the main access points. The walking is challenging in places, but also comfortable enough that even beginning hikers or those with physical limitations can get on the wall for a good stroll.
The hiking was so pleasant . . .
that even Emma was persuaded to smile . . .
while I remained cheerful as ever
It would be nice to think that this happy balance will last forever, but there are a few signs that it might not. The reconstructed section at Jinshanling, near the mid-point of the hike, is quite recent; and this being China, it would be naïve to think that the original stretches of wall from Gubeikou to Simatai are safe from “improvement.” There is more than enough – far more than enough – reconstructed wall in the Beijing area for anyone to get an idea of what the wall looked like 500 years ago. It’s hard to imagine what good could come from additional reconstruction.
When sections are reconstructed, buildings like this are destroyed
A more present-day concern is that the wall just doesn’t seem well managed. We saw numerous recently constructed paved pathways and staircases between Gubeikou and Simatai, and though we can see a place for minor trail improvements built in accordance with an actual management plan, the little projects we saw looked more like ad hoc jobs done more or less for the hell of it.
An example of “21st Century Staircase for Tourists”
You can see a paved path to the left of the wall
In addition, we were asked to pay for “tickets” on five separate occasions: twice from well-marked ticket offices that were obviously legitimate, once from a woman in a Great Wall T-shirt who was probably legitimate, once from a group of women with no identification who were probably not legitimate, and once from a farmer with a hand-written note in English requesting payment for a detour through the fields, which was probably not official but seems reasonable. At the last legal watchtower at Simatai, the security guards offered to look away for 20 RMB if we wanted to hike past the “Entry Prohibited” signs to the dangerous and fragile sixteenth watchtower (we declined the offer). The amount of money involved in this small-time fee gouging and bribery is trivial from the perspective of most tourists, but that’s not really the point – if our experience with fees and regulations is any indicator of the overall quality of the management of the wall from Gubeikou to Simatai, its future is far from secure.
Taken individually, none of the problems we encountered is the end of the world, and they didn’t really affect our enjoyment of the day’s hike. But when problems like this are taken together, multiplied over time, and combined with increasing tourist pressure, this is how places can get ruined. And when you consider that Gubeikou to Simatai is really the only Great Wall site where most people can experience long sections of original, unreconstructed wall without crowds, carnival rides and (too many) vendors, that would be a terrible shame.