The Great Wall is easily China’s most recognizable landmark. Stretching across thousands of kilometers, it’s an architectural wonder that survived almost 3,000 years of history. Well, sort of.
All the segments of the Great Wall you can see today are the result of large re-building projects carried out during the Ming dynasty (that is, long after the Qin dynasty period – 221-207 BC – when the first emperor joined together older fortifications to create the ‘original’ Great Wall of China) and of a long series of restorations that took place since the birth of the PRC. If you thought the Badaling or Mutianyu trails north of Beijing looked brand-new, it’s because they are.
Soon, another notorious stretch of the Wall might be transformed into a more tourist-friendly sightseeing spot. A total of 2,772 meters of the approximately 3,000 meters that compose the Jiankou Great Wall, in the city’s Huairou district, will be involved in an ambitious renovation plan approved by the National Cultural Heritage Administration, according to China.org.
Starting from August of this year, authorities plan to complete work on the east and the southern section, including 17 watchtowers, by 2021, with the ultimate goal to restore the entirety of the Jiankou wall within five years.
Connected at the south-end to the popular (and very, very crowded) Mutianyu Great Wall, the Jiankou stretch is mostly composed of original Ming dynasty fortifications. Long neglected, it has been heavily damaged by the elements throughout the past 600 years, with large sections already collapsed or barely visible.
People work to restore the Jiankou section of the Great Wall in Beijing’s Huairou district on June 2017. Image via Global Times
But if restorations might result in the segment becoming accessible to mass tourism, the news of the works might make many uneasy. While clearly bearing the marks of time, the Jiankou section of the Great Wall has been for years one of the most cherished hiking spots for Beijing-based trekkers. It offers the thrill of a challenging hike along very picturesque, if dangerous, ruins of the wall, and adds captivating sceneries to this sense of authenticity.
“Jiankou’s scenery is like no other,” confirms He Jinyue, who owns an inn in a traditional house in Jiankou village. "Over the past few years, I have served as a guide to hikers from all over the world."
Many organized tours depart every day from Beijing and offer guided hikes and a place for the night to tourists and locals alike. They usually feature trips to the best sightseeing spots, especially to the ‘arrow nock,’ a particularly steep section that goes all the way up a mountain shaped like an arrow with a collapsed ridge, and to the ‘nine-eye tower.’
“Not all sections of the Jiankou Great Wall are dangerous,” says He. “People can choose between easier and harder paths, but given the Great Wall has never been restored, I suggest people with at least a little experience in climbing the Wall approach the Jiankou section.”
“...after all, the final goal should be to make this cultural heritage available to all, while financing its preservation with funds from the touristic activities.”
Indeed, a restoration of the Jiankou Great Wall, if aimed at improving access to the structure, might allow many more than just the most adventurous hikers to benefit from the scenery. Still, there is no way of knowing if ticket access will be introduced, a move that would effectively strip the area of its reputation of a backpackers’ paradise that comes free of charge.
For people whose lives are closely connected to the UNESCO-protected attraction, though, this wouldn’t necessarily mean bad news. He actually is happy about the possibility that more tourists might be able to access this section of the wall. “Our business would benefit from collaborating with the government in providing structures for tourism,” he says, “And after all, the final goal should be to make this cultural heritage available to all, while financing its preservation with funds from the touristic activities.”
Hayden Opie, marketing manager at Beijing Hikers, a business that offers hikes and expeditions popular among Beijing dwellers and foreign visitors alike, says that the current renovations are also not likely to impact their business in the near future. “It seems like the section to be repaired is not one that we currently offer as a hiking trail, because it’s too steep and broken to ensure safety,” he said, signaling that restorations might actually open more, currently out-of-reach sections to visitors.
Opie mentioned instead the quality of the interventions as a possible source of disruption. “If the repairs are poorly done, we would likely stop hiking there,” he told That’s. Recently, the Beijing government has been focusing a lot of conservation efforts on the Jiankou section of the Great Wall, where 1,487 meters of structure have already been renovated. Another 744 meters are expected to be renovated by the end of 2019. From 2007 to 2016, for a total of nine years, the Chinese government invested RMB374 million (USD55.9 million) in reconstruction, according to the Beijing Municipal Cultural Heritage Bureau.
Despite the efforts, the result is not guaranteed, as recent episodes demonstrate. In February 2018, a section of the Great Wall located near Yanmen Pass in Dai County, Shanxi province, collapsed after heavy rainfall, damage that many attributed to poor-quality renovations. In 2016, an 8-km stretch in Suizhong county, Liaoning, made headlines after a heavy-handed restoration left the wall looking like a smooth concrete path.
For now, though, one of China hikers’ favorite camping and walking grounds remain available to all. “Whether fans of the oldest, more realistic-looking sections of the Great Wall will still come back to Jiankou in five years’ time,” concludes He, “will all depend on whether the interventions pend more towards preservation or straight-out refurbishing of the Wall. But we have no way of knowing.”
[Cover image via Pexels.com]