Some parts of the wall date back to 700BC
The draw of an excursion from Beijing has always been strong but Matt Damon’s new historical adventure movie, The Great Wall, makes it even more so.
It is a must-do once you have ticked off the magnificent Forbidden City – the palaces where the old Imperial rulers of the country used to live, the entrance of which is dominated by a huge Chairman Mao portrait – explored the vastness of Tiananmen Square, where children fly kites, and visited the city’s many beautiful temples (the ornate, wooden Temple of Heaven should definitely be on your list).
I arrived at the wall’s Mutianyu section, a 90-minute drive from Beijing, through the traffic of the city, and into peaceful, mountainous countryside.
And as we pass through occasional small villages, overtaking locals on bicycles, the roads are lined with bright orange ginkgo trees.
Hike, then have a nice cup of tea
This section of wall is three and half miles long, and was built in the 6th century.
The entire wall, with bits going back to the 7th century BC, used to cover 13,000 miles although now, at 5,000 miles, there’s still a decent chunk left to explore.
China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang had much built in 221BC to defend his country from neighbouring Mongolians and other rogue tribes and it grew every time China captured some more territory that it needed to protect.
You can toboggan across the beautiful landscape
Starting on the crest of a hill, it can be reached by cable car but I wanted to walk and experience it in the way the soldiers and emperors had done in ancient times.
About 10 minutes in, though, I was cursing myself for not being as fit as an ancient Chinese soldier; it’s a steady, uphill hike and I’m puffing and panting behind my sprightly guide Ray.
But once we get on the wall itself, my breath is taken away for a different reason: it’s magnificent.
Having bypassed the crowds of the more popular Badaling section, we almost have it to ourselves.
As it is October, the surrounding hills are carpeted by trees boasting dark green, fiery-red, burnt orange and bright yellow leaves.
All that was missing was a brilliant blue sky rather than our dull, hazy grey one – a by-product of the nearby industrial cities, their factories pumping out smoke which heads towards Beijing.
Some days it can be so concentrated that face masks are a must but we are lucky today.
The air feels relatively fresh and the occasional bird song is all that breaks the peaceful silence. As you’d expect, much of the wall has crumbled and deteriorated due to its age.
As majestic as the wall is, you cannot see it from space
The sections still standing are intermittently renovated and preserved but walking along them can still be a slightly hazardous process due to the steep steps and occasional chunks of rock lying around.
Disappointingly, Ray tells me that it’s a myth that the wall can be seen from space.
He also points out long, thin, rectangular holes on the side of the wall – which would have faced the enemy – for soldiers to shoot arrows through, stone barriers to stop horses climbing up and, somewhat surprisingly, beautiful carved details on the watchtower roofs.
Back then the guards who manned them would alert each other to approaching invaders by lighting bonfires and sending smoke signals, much like the characters in The Great Wall.
Damon plays a mercenary who is taken prisoner by Chinese soldiers on the wall – and then has to defend them from an attack by monsters.
We walked along the wall for a couple ofhours, glad of the comfortable trainers that we were wearing.
It is mesmerising simply watching it curve and twist and disappear over the hills in the distance.
It is difficult not to think about the one million labourers who grafted during its construction, building it by hand from rocks and hard-packed earth, creating walls of up to 27ft high, punctuated at intervals by substantial watch towers.
Today there are only enterprising stallholders along the route, cheerfully selling steaming cups of tea and chilled drinks.
Although there are options in getting down again, by foot or cable car, we decided to try the toboggan. It was constructed in 1998 yet surprisingly it’s not on the mainstream, tourist radar.
There are beautiful carved details on the watchtowers
After a quick safety briefing – keep your feet in, push forward on the bar to accelerate and pull back to brake – we were ready to go.
It turns out it’s not very scary at all.
It takes a good few minutes to head down to the bottom, passing through the hillside and you can, of course, control your speed.
It may not be how the emperors and soldiers of ancient China used to chase after enemies but it’s much more fun.
Travelbag (0871 402 1623/travelbag.co.uk) offers five nights in Beijing from £479pp (two sharing), room only.
Price includes return flights. Viator.com offers Mutianyu day tour from £53 with pick-up (toboggan/cable car extra).
China tourism: cnto.org