IT’S A TWO-AND-A-HALF hour drive to the Simatai section of the Great Wall from Beijing. My friends and I opted for this longer and considerably more expensive trek as the closer Badaling section attracts more tourists and gives less variety. And to be fair, this section was no less awesome than expected – it went far beyond expectations. It had both restored and unrestored sections. It was peaceful. The trek was challenging and steep, steeper than other ancient structures like Teotihuacan. And the view from the top is nothing short of epic, to give you the true sense of conquering thousands of years of history.
For most travellers and tourists, the drive is a chance to catch up on lost sleep, compensating for the early wake-up call for the carpool. I must admit that I dozed off a few times. But in general, I’m the type of person who can’t sleep on the way there. For the journey is sometimes just as enchanting as the destination itself, scenery and all.
For those who engage themselves with this scenery, the roads provide a glimpse revealing the true nature of life outside a huge city like Beijing, especially off the expressways. Huts and warehouse-like buildings line the roadside. But it’s a far flung type of dwelling you see, more reminiscent of the shacks you would see among rice fields in Indochina, with handwritten signs and tired-looking gates – or even bare doors and windows. Between them are forests with piles of wood.
The Beijing city limit is indistinguishable – one moment you’re in the country, the next you’re among swathes of brownfield land cleared for condominiums – with complete blocks in the background. The abruptness by which you can witness this contrast is quite the sight – and a testament to how China is growing. There has been talk of a ‘dual economy’ among economists regarding China – while cities race ahead, poverty is still rampant in many rural areas. In many ways, rural communities appear to be just another brick in this Great Wall – a vital part of keeping China afloat, yet hardly seen individually, only as part of the whole, and with untapped strength and potential. And the contrast may be closer than you think. Or, of course, it is all part of the growing pains of such a dynamic nation.