Facing ghosts of the past atop the Great Wall

Special to The Times

Beijing at first glance looks like a modern city, full of tall glass buildings, bright lights and broad highways. Even its nearby well-preserved ancient sights, like the Great Wall, are so inundated with tourists and trinket sellers that the essence of the past evaporates in the cacophony of the present.

But if you know where to look, just beyond the glare and bustle of new Beijing, the aura of the past is still so vibrant and close that it is almost tangible. I found it in spring two years ago while hiking and sleeping atop an unrestored and deserted stretch of the Great Wall.

The wall's reputation as a world wonder is no exaggeration. When I saw it for the first time -- a 24-foot-high, 18-foot-wide mammoth snaking up the sides of ravines and along jagged mountain ridges almost as though it had grown there naturally -- I found it hard to grasp its enormousness.

The idea of massive defensive walls is as old as China itself. In the Qin Dynasty of the 3rd century BC, the connection of these series of rammed-earth walls was ordered for protection against invasions from northern nomads. Subsequent dynasties continued the Great Wall project, repairing and reconstructing the wall over centuries.

The wall we know was built in the 15th and 16th centuries, during the Ming Dynasty. Laborers enclosed its rubble core within stone siding, then topped it with brick to form its familiar towers, turrets and crenelations.

Although the 4,000-mile wall has two distinct endpoints -- at Shanhaiguan, on the Pacific Ocean near Beijing, and Jiayuguan more than halfway across China in the west -- it is not a single connected line but actually a series of walls, often built in strategic, inaccessible places, from mountain ridges to desolate swaths of desert. Because Beijing was the Ming Dynasty's capital, there are several sections of wall close to the capital, and since 1984 a few sections have been restored, bringing throngs of tourists.

The trick to spending the night, or doing some out-of-the-way hiking, is finding a well-preserved but unrestored part of the wall. The Huang Hua section was perfect for my overnight stay. Two hours north of Beijing by bus, it has no souvenir stands, no crowds, no pay telephones or lighting systems. There's only a dramatic slice of countryside that happens to have a 500-year-old wall draped spectacularly over its mountains. And although Huang Hua has not been restored since the 1500s, it is in remarkably good shape.

A section of the wall at Huang Hua was removed to make room for a road and a reservoir. The bus drops passengers here amid a small collection of restaurants, and a trail across the dam takes hikers to the more-trafficked and less-steep eastern section of the wall.

But a jolly woman working at a tiny shop next to the path to the reservoir urged me to take the western route instead. "Plenty of people have already headed up the east side for the night. It'll be crowded," she said.

"What's your idea of crowded?" I asked.

"Six, maybe seven people. But nobody's headed up the west side today. And you know, the people who come back here again and again say the west side is better."

She pointed out a small dirt path through some orchards. I followed it up a slope and along the base of the wall to an ancient stone staircase, which I climbed.

The birds and the breeze

A crisp breeze welcomed me at the top of the wall, and a panorama of my challenging route stretched before me. The wall climbed steeply to the top of a high hill, then ran along the ridge before descending sharply.

Two hours later, as I stood at the point where the wall cut sharply down, I could see that an even steeper climb up another hill lay ahead of me. Whenever the path cut through brambles, the rubble beneath my feet grew treacherous, and I almost lost my balance several times. The wall's designers, unfortunately, had a tendency to leave out stairs at some of its steepest places. In other areas it had crumbled away, and the path snaked across a large pile of stone.

But my slow, careful pace allowed me to take in the wall's subtle beauty. Though impressive from afar, the Great Wall is even more rewarding up close. Ancient stones mottled with lichens quietly grew warm in the sunshine. Next to an old staircase, a buzzing bee drew my attention to a vine-covered inscription left by the laborers who laid those stones.

On this late-spring afternoon, blossoms shaded the hillsides pink, and petals hovered in the air about me. In more than one place I discovered a flowering tree growing from a crack between two stones in the wall's side. A cuckoo called lazily from the brush, and I found myself falling into a quiet rhythm. My soul felt at peace as I walked this ancient structure with only birds and breeze for companions.

The sun began to lower in the sky, and as the slanting light lent the stones a golden hue, scenes from the past rose before my eyes. As I climbed, I thought about the wall's history with a growing sense of unease.

Conscripted laborers built the wall, quarrying stones, hauling rubble, spreading mortar, laying bricks. Many had been forcibly taken from their families to work on a frozen frontier. Many died of exhaustion. An ancient Chinese ballad says the wall is stacked with the bones of fallen laborers. Those skeletons might rest beneath my feet.

Later, when the wall was complete, it crawled with soldiers watching for signs of a raid. For them, the wall marked the edge of civilization. Behind lay their mighty empire; before them stretched a perilous and unforgiving world. I could not see any sign of other people, but once lives had ended all around me here, part of a huge effort to keep out the rest of the world.

I reached the top of the last rise just as the sun dangled above the jagged hills. Beyond the watchtower where I stood, the wall made a sharp left turn downward, then continued over mountain after mountain until it disappeared into the mottled mists and shadows of sunset. The air had turned pleasantly cool, but the stones held on to the heat of the day.

The weather was warm enough that I decided to sleep under the stars rather than inside the tower. I found a relatively flat spot, rolled out my mat and bunched up a shirt into a pillow. As I contentedly munched my dinner -- a banana, bread and some ramen noodles -- insects took up buzzing in the brush below the wall, and a cuckoo let out a few plaintive notes. I stretched out under the single sheet of my makeshift bed, and before I knew it, I was asleep.

A divide that unifies

I woke in the middle of the night. The nearly full moon bathed everything in milky white, and stars twinkled through the windows of the watchtower above me. I felt alone in this ethereal scene, but it was a loneliness I relished. In the darkness, I could almost believe that the wall beneath me was new. That soldiers were asleep in the tower next to me. That fires were roaring in the beacon towers. That lonesome watchmen stared tiredly into the chilly night air. In a way, wrapped in the silence of the wall, I was closer to those long-vanished ghosts than to any living person.

I thought of the bustle and fanfare of the restored sections of the wall, where international crowds snap photos and talk into cell phones in a variety of tongues. What would these ancient ghosts make of that rambunctious scene?

Far from keeping out the rest of the world, the Great Wall brings together people from its farthest corners. In the eyes of those who gave their lives here, was this unintended result a success or failure?

Wondering, I soon fell asleep again. When I woke, one edge of the horizon had begun to grow bright. The idea of hiking the wall in the emerging light of a new day got me on my feet and walking. The brush on the wall waved in the cool morning wind. The cuckoo stirred drowsily, and the sparse clouds above the mountains began to glow.

Sunrise would light the way back to my century.

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David C. Atherton, who has a degree in East Asian studies from Harvard, teaches English in rural Japan.

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