Group hikes on the wild side of China's Great Wall

by Will Ford
Special to The Washington Post

On the outskirts of Beijing, it’s easy to find a ride to the Great Wall.

The drivers of unregistered taxis and vans call out to me in broken English. Some pull at my clothes.

“Sir! Great Wall! Great Wall! I take you!”

“Where you go?”

“Great Wall! One hundred kuai!”

“Fast car! You come!”

But I defer to companions on the Freedom Team, a group of 25 middle-aged Chinese hikers.

“Don’t talk to me,” I say, switching to Mandarin. “Talk to the man with the green walking stick. He’s in charge.”

I point to Sun Zhenguang. He’s in his late 50s with a dark, saggy face. The other hikers call him Old Sun. He wears knockoff aviators and a fitted Red Sox cap, an upgrade from the adjustable one I gave him years ago as an exchange student.

The drivers converge on Old Sun and the Freedom Team. It’s like a standoff between rival gangs, although they’re just negotiating a price. Once they settle, we hop into a few small vans and set off.

We’re in Huairou, a rural district in the mountainous outlying regions of Beijing. It’s here, a two- or three-hour drive from downtown, that you’ll find some of the most spectacular sections of the Great Wall. (UNESCO cites its length as more than 12,000 miles, but the topic is debated by scholars.)

My fellow hikers are largely outliers in China. Old Sun once told me that Chinese tend to find hiking as sport bizarre — a kind of countryside hardship that people in the modern world were supposed to have escaped. But as China’s economy has grown, recreational hiking has attracted some urban professionals looking for an outdoor pastime.

Several years ago, Old Sun and some friends began hiking on weekends with a tour group that charged a fee. After a year or so, they quit paying the fee and started hiking themselves — freely. The Freedom Team was born.

I’ve been hiking with them since 2006, when I was an exchange student and Old Sun was my host father.

For hikers across Beijing, the Great Wall is as functional as it is legendary. Thick, dry shrub covers the mountains here, and a trail with a view is a rare find. In contrast, the Great Wall is an elevated highway, although sometimes a disintegrating one. When the Freedom Team comes to the occasional cliff or eroded section, the hikers start bickering over whether to go up or maneuver around it. At some point, an impatient member inevitably breaks the impasse and starts climbing. From below, the rest of the hikers turn into a judgmental peanut gallery.

We arrive at a small village and get out of the vans, and the Freedom Team members take off their jackets. They’re better equipped than they were when I first knew them. Over the years, when one member bought some new hiking gear, the others followed. Now the entire team is outfitted in ultra-light backpacks, adjustable hiking poles, kneepads, gloves and — although it rarely rains in Beijing — quick-drying outerwear. Before most outings, Old Sun posts a list of suggested equipment on their blog.

We cross a dry riverbed. Ahead of us, a path winds its way through terraced fields of walnut trees, leading up to a ridge where the wall clings to exposed rock.

As we begin to climb, my blue jeans seem clumsy compared to their light hiking pants. When I reach the wall, my blond hair draws the attention of a group of Manchurian tourists, who surround me for a photo. We hike east for another half hour or so until we reach the split of Beijing Link, where we stop at a guard tower — one of many spaced out along the wall — and break for lunch. Everyone shares.

A lone pine tree grows out of top of the wall in front of us, the sole shelter on the windswept ridge. Gusts scour the mountainside and rustle the shrubs below.

Lower down, pink blossoms faintly coat the valleys. The wall slithers over ridges like a snake, clinging to exposed rock, until it fades away in the distance. The air seems drier than on other Great Wall hikes I’ve taken, and my clothes are covered with dust. The sandstorms are getting worse in Beijing, scouring the city each March as the Gobi Desert expands. My hair feels like straw.

Except for the few weeks of sandstorms, spring is generally a good time to hike the Great Wall: not too hot or cold, with the mountainside beginning to blossom. In the summer, Old Sun often turns to hiking at night to catch sunrises, escape the heat and avoid paying entrance fees.

On a trip four years ago to Shandong’s Mount Tai, three American friends and I trekked with the Freedom Team from 11 p.m. until noon the next day. The team used flashlights and we used our cellphones to find our way through pitch-black fog. We slept at the summit.

Old Sun is used to hiking with young Americans. His son attended a high school that ran a small American-immersion program, and his family has hosted 11 American students, including me. We all hiked.

Political discussions have always been a feature of Freedom Team hikes. My presence as a Chinese-speaking American inspires debates about Sino-U.S. relations. Once, after hearing that I taught history, a friend of Old Sun’s brought up the Korean War. Although the war ended in a stalemate, Douglas MacArthur’s troops were beaten back by Chinese-led forces, and most Chinese consider it an American defeat. The U.S. military could still learn a lot from China, the friend said.

On the same hike in 2013, others discussed whether Xi Jinping, who had recently assumed China’s leadership, would be better than his predecessors. No one thought there would be much difference. In Chinese, “Chairman Xi” sounds the same read backward and forward, and the Freedom Team agreed this described his vague politics as well. The massive anti-corruption campaign that Xi later launched wouldn’t have anything to do with average Chinese people like the Freedom Team. From the top of the Great Wall, which had seen more than one dynasty, China’s leaders of the moment seemed almost insignificant.

Today I teach Chinese history and contemporary politics in Beijing in the same program I once attended as a student. I try to impress upon my students that China’s authoritarianism is complicated — the government dominates society in some places but is ignored in others. Academics like to call this “fragmented authoritarianism,” and the Great Wall backcountry always reminds me of it. Signs that prohibit hiking are everywhere, placed next to worn paths and entrances to the wall: No one ever obeys them. Villagers construct ladders over steep inclines and drop-offs with no safety regulations or approval to do so. They sell entrance tickets without certification. Some hikers pay and others refuse.

Where the wall crumbles is where there’s the most freedom to maneuver. But in the reconstructed tourist areas, polished for the outside world to see, it’s harder to find a way in without buying a formal ticket.

I’ve always found the crumbling remnants, like China, to be the most compelling: fighting against time while holding on to a withering kind of beauty. That’s where you’ll find the Freedom Team, its members coming and going as they please, calling out to each other as they roam the backcountry ridges.

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