Hiking the authentic Great Wall of China, without the crush

The “Great Wall” is a bit of a misnomer, as there was never one single structure that spanned modern-day China. Rather, a number of large defensive walls were built by various rulers from as early as the Fifth Century B.C. through the mid-17th century, often hundreds of miles apart and with little relationship to one another.

Yet one of those sections, the “Ming Wall,” is recognized all over the world. Built during the Ming dynasty (1368 — 1644) it stretches from a fort at Jiayuguan near the Gobi Desert in the west, all the way past Beijing to the sea at Shanhaiguan in the east. By some estimates, it is 5,500 miles long.

Unlike other sections that were made of rammed earth and straw, most of the Ming Wall around Beijing is built on a foundation of cut stone and bricks held together with an early — but very strong — mortar made of lime and sticky rice glue. With crenelated ramparts and tall towers, it is the Great Wall of the imagination.

All over China, sections of the wall are being rebuilt by unregulated private contractors who are keen to capitalize on tourist dollars but show little interest in historically accurate restorations. Foot by foot, the largest man-made structure in the world is being paved over, funded by visitors who funnel through them every year, largely unaware of what they are missing.

But, a longtime Beijing resident, also a keen amateur explorer, is writing a field guide about hiking on the wild, unrestored sections of the wall — his particular area of interest.

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