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Hiking China’s ‘wild wall’

At restored sections of the Wall, one could be surrounded by thousands of people. At Gubeikou, though, there may only be a handful.

Laura Kranish for the Boston Globe

At restored sections of the Wall, one could be surrounded by thousands of people. At Gubeikou, though, there may only be a handful.

GUBEIKOU — Mountain peaks grew higher and lusher as our driver headed through a tunnel, ascended a freshly paved road, and stopped abruptly at a driveway. After two hours on buses and 45 minutes in a taxi, we were a world away from the crowds of dusty, frenetic Beijing. My daughter, Laura, and I climbed out of the sedan as our driver carried our bags, refusing to take a tip. He left us standing before a handmade sign that said, “Great Wall Box House — Breathe, Smile, Go Slowly.”

We exhaled as instructed, smiled, and walked down a sloping brick pathway to the hostel where we were staying. We passed a garden, tall with crops that would yield ingredients for our meals, and entered a courtyard. The surrounding single-story structures, with roofs of traditional Chinese tile, completed an arrangement known as a “siheyuan,” dating from the Han dynasty, in which four buildings are arrayed around a courtyard. Elsewhere in the village, such areas served as gardens, eating areas, or animal pens. Here, the courtyard had tables, lounge chairs, and a swing. A hill loomed just beyond the roofs, topped by remains of the Great Wall and a watchtower. In another direction, a scattering of trees stood sentinel on a misty ridgeline, creating a shadowy effect that was every bit as dramatic as the watchtower’s.

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This was our outpost for several days of hiking on what some call “the wild wall,” miles upon miles of remote, unrestored sections of the Great Wall.

Months earlier, Laura, who was spending a year teaching English at a Chinese university, had visited one of the best-known and restored sections of the wall at Badaling, which she described in her journal as “perfectly restored, replete with tourist stalls at the bottom and a cable car to whisk you to the top.” This is welcome for many travelers, particularly those with limited time or physical constraints. When I told Laura that I wanted to visit the wall, she warned me of the crowds and, as she later described it, said she wanted to go to a section that was “blissfully untouched, stones wearing away and seemingly blending into the hillsides.” This led us to Gubeikou and the Great Wall Box House.

From the outside, the Box House looked like many other structures in the village that still served as farmhouses, but the interior had been gutted and turned into comfortable rooms. There was a traditional hostel setup of bunkbeds, as well as some hotel-quality rooms, which we booked. Mine was comfortably modern, Ikea-like in some respects, with fabricated wood, wide windows that let in natural light, and an assortment of pebbles in a floor container, giving the lodging a sensibility that put me in harmony with my surroundings. Laura and I dropped our bags and took up the host’s offer of lunch.

Sated by the meal of noodles, tomatoes, and eggs, we headed toward the old village of Gubeikou (not to be confused with Gubeikou Town, which was over a hill and only slightly more modern). Throughout the area, wooden signs advertised residences as “folk houses,” part of a fledgling government effort to turn the village into a tourist haven. We saw few signs of tourism but many indications that it could come, from the newly paved roads to the parking lot that had been beautifully landscaped and lined with stone pavers — but which had only a couple of cars.

A canal ran through the village, the rippling water crossed by a series of small bridges. Transportation was mostly by bicycle, motorbike, or very old automobiles, although we saw a few Audis that likely were driven by local government officials. Farmers worked nearby fields, while children raced up and down the roads.

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One thing was dominant: the wall. Remnants of the ramparts were everywhere — in the bricks of local homes and the remains on the hillsides.

Two parallel sections of the Great Wall rose above the village: Wohu Shan (Crouching Tiger Mountain) and Panlong Shan (Curling Dragon Mountain). Laura and I circled through the village and then the town, searching for the pathway to Wohu Shan. We finally found our way to a path and, for an hour or so, hiked up and down, and then headed to the hostel for dinner.

The meal was the best I had in my week in China. Cucumbers, string beans, and other greens were freshly picked from the garden. Chased by a Tsingtao beer, it was a meal to savor. Laura and I looked at a hand-drawn map and plotted our hike for the next day, eventually retiring to our rooms. I read a book called “Country Driving,” by Peter Hessler, about a journey across China to see sections of the Great Wall, and life in a village similar to Gubeikou. The humid summer air had cooled enough so that an open window provided ideal sleeping weather.

The next morning, after I had a breakfast of eggs, toast, and coffee, we set off with an American couple and a hostel employee who served as a trail guide. The hostel workers left us a village treat for the trail: whole cucumbers, crisp and delicious. We headed to the Curling Dragon section of the wall. Walking again through the village, we headed up a path to the first overlook, which gave us a view of the series of ridgelines that we would soon traverse. The wall snaked and curved along the ridges, indeed like a curling dragon.

The heat last August was overwhelming and the sky hazy, but it was a stunning setting. We soon were in wilderness, with mountains in all directions, but the imprint of man from hundreds of years ago was visible everywhere in the form of the Great Wall, which connects to watchtowers, closely spaced.

As we began the hike, our guide noted the difference between the restored section at Badaling and this wild, unrestored area. “If you want to see people, go to Badaling. If you want to see the wall, come here,” our guide said, capturing why we had come to Gubeikou.

Indeed, while the restored sections of the wall are a marvel, one could be surrounded by thousands of people. Here, we saw perhaps 30 hikers in six hours. While the Gubeikou section is rugged compared with Badaling, it is in excellent condition compared with a typical hiking trail in the United States.

Our goal on this day was a watchtower known as 24 Windows. What we found was a partial tower with perhaps 18 windows remaining. It provided views over the mountains back to the village in one direction, and many more tower-topped mountains in the other. We could go no farther on the ridge trail due to a military installation, which meant we either had to dip down into the valley or turn around. We turned around, making good time on a mostly downhill section, then took a pathway back to the village.

The path ended at a folk house where the residents sold us cold water and gave us a business card with their website, budding entrepreneurs who envision a future in hosting tourists. We walked another 20 minutes back to the village, passing farms and modest traditional homes. Stacks of bricks lined the pathway, evidently to be used in the construction or repair of homes. We had hiked six hours by the time we returned to the hostel.

After showering, we joined other guests in the dining room, where we were served many delicious plates. In the classic mode of hostel life, we gathered at the same table with an interesting mix of nationalities: two Slovenians, a backpacking American, a Canadian amateur hockey player, and a Brazilian model. The talk was of hikes past and future, of Lonely Planet recommendations, bus and train routes, and whether tomorrow would unfold on the Crouching Tiger or Curling Dragon. For Laura and me tomorrow would mean two bus rides and a return to crowded Beijing. We had seen the Great Wall, the wild wall, and once again, we would see the people.

Laura Kranish contributed to this
article. Michael Kranish can be reached at kranish@globe.com.

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