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Roughing it out on the untamed Wall


(2010-09-17 22:15:09)

Great Wall

Climbing the Great Wall is a major part of everyone's itinerary when visiting China.
While most head to the Badaling section to marvel at the fascinating history of one of
the greatest wonders of the world, joining the hordes of tourists waiting in line to climb
this enormous engineering feat is simply not enough for some.

For thrill seekers with a lust for adrenaline looking to take a walk on the wild side away
from the 2 million annual tourists at Badaling, there is the Zhuangdaokou section of
the Great Wall, 90 km away from downtown in Huairou district.

While the neighboring Huanghua (yellow flower) section was restored in 2005,
Zhuangdaokou has remained untouched by reconstruction for more than a century.

Thin paths with half crumbled steps lead up the Wall's sharp inclines. Routes
cluttered with vegetation force hikers to choose their direction wisely and their steps

Descending from the watchtowers, the trail is rarely more than 0.5-m wide and is lined
with loose stones next to 10-m drops, making the trek both a stimulating and
treacherous journey.

Our venture, organized by a company called 90 Percent Travel, which specializes in
"off-the-beaten-path" excursions, was specifically termed a hike, not a tour, though it
could more accurately be described as a test of hikers' will. As physically challenging
as it is awe-inspiring, traversing the trails of Zhuangdaokou is not for the faint of heart.

Considering we only spotted two other Chinese hikers equipped with backpacks and
metal walking sticks during our four-hour hike, it is safe to say that Zhuangdaokou is
far off the beaten path. Few tourists choose to engage the precarious passages
crisscrossing the Wall, choosing instead the refurbished Huanghua section.

With just eight slightly caved-in guard towers along the 7-km stretch, Zhuangdaokou
may not be the longest section, but it is surely one of the most hazardous.

Adrenaline junkies should be advised not to cast aside words of warning - the danger
is real. One Chinese tourist scaling a particularly fragmented portion accidentally
pulled on a loose stone, sending a small avalanche of dirt and rock plummeting
below her.

That is not to mention the presence of the "beauty snake" said to inhabit the
surrounding area.

It is no wonder there was a focus on insurance prior to the trip.

Fortunately, our guide was one to err on the side of caution, often opting to take note
of the red strips of cloth that marked alternative paths, allowing us to avoid sections
crumbled to impassability.

According to folklore, Zhuangdaokou (which translates as "bouncing back") was built
early in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) by General Cai Kai and has stood the test of
time while other sections of the Wall have not, due to the detail-oriented mind of the

General Cai, the stories go, was so thorough in his construction of the Wall that it
eventually led to his execution after he was accused of "being too slow and wasting
money" by a political rival. After an inspection was made of the section following his
death, officials repealed their charges and gave Cai a hero's burial, describing the
section with the idiom "as hard as iron and boiling water".

And, though the general's work may have been dedicated to defending against
potential invaders, time has transformed the stout structure into a battleground for
brave tourists looking to pit themselves against nature.




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