Here’s something else that’s changed in five years: the Great Wall at Jinshanling.
If you want to see the Great Wall—the original wall, the parts that haven’t been rebuilt (because if you go to Badaling, and other more popular locations, that’s all you’ll see—renovated sections)—then you have to leave the beaten path, and strike out for more remote regions. Granted, they’re slightly difficult to reach (in the sense that it takes about two to three hours to get there from Beijing, along winding roads filled with crazy drivers), but well worth the effort if you can make arrangements.
Jinshanling is my favorite section of the Great Wall. Not many tourists are there, the surrounding mountains are beautiful and lush with wildflowers, the wall (like I said earlier) is mostly original—and you can see forever. You can see clear over to Simatai (actually, you could walk there along the wall from Jinshanling—which is something that quite a few people do). And when you stand on that wall, and step upon those stones that have gone smooth with age and use, and you stand in the windows of the towers and stare out at the green hills with that sun blazing in the clear blue sky, and not a sound but the wind…it’s magic. Truly, lovely.
The last time I was there, around five years ago, it was still basically a wilderness. There was a road that led to the base of the wall, a shoulder for parking your car, and a rough outdoor toilet. Also, a very lovely village just a stone’s throw away. No other people.
It’s still a wilderness, but there’s a parking lot now, a ticket booth (you never had to pay money before), a cable car (okay, I can live with that), gift shops, and old women who haunt the wall trying to sell books and postcards. But there still aren’t many tourists there, and Jinshanling is as haunting as ever. Watch your step, though. One thing you might not realize about the Great Wall is that there are sharp ascents (and descents), and when you’re dealing with the original sections, you’ll have to pick your way up and down fragments of solid rock that will test your agility and stamina.