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All along the watchtowers

Everyone will tell you that you can't go to China without seeing the Great Wall and one of the most accessible stretches from Beijing is Simatai, less 150kms from the capital. It's 19km ramble of ruins that zags across the ridges like a dragon's spine. The stone sign at the trailhead says it's "most famous for five characteristics precipitous, dense, ingenious, peculiar and comprehensive". You'd think before getting something carved, you'd give it a quick proofread.

Even after so many images in films and books, the wall is still stunning. As we start to ascend I even have a turn that I attribute to MSG, heights and maybe just a sneaking bit of awe. Where the wall starts in Simatai and Jinshanling it's been renovated to look like the set of a medieval movie. At the start of our hike 3-hour hike there's even a flying fox that swoops over the river, making me feel the height even more. After a while the budgets of the regional authorities must have worn thin and there's rubble to scramble over, ruggedness to dirty up your hiking boots and it's definitely "precipitous".

When Ming Emperor Hongwu built this stretch it would have had sentries stationed at each watchtower keeping an eagley eye out for any pesky Mongols or hoardes de jour who might have wanted to rape and pillage their way to Beijing. Today the sentries have been replaced by touts, who keep an equally zealous guard out so they can yell "Coke! Beer!" to repel new invaders. One tout follows us a fair distance despite our insistence we don't need beer or cola products, giving me the odd helping hand at the most "peculiar" spots so I start to feel that she actually might be hoping to throw me off balance. When we finally convince her to go she throws an impressive tantrum of scowling and saying "Long way! Long way! I lose money!" then tries to convince us to buy some postcards to make her feel better.

The people round here still farm (see corn fields coming into Jinshanling) but it must put a lot of pressure on them with a tourist gold mine like the Great Wall in their backyard. Why would you till a field when there's a regular stream of relative millionaires with bulging wallets and empty heads strolling past your house?

We're relieved to see the cable car of Jinshanling after 10km of slogging. It's getting late in the afternoon and we're sore, but still snapping photos. We got stung for a second wall fee of Y50 when we crossed over into Jinshanling (it's in a different province so it's fair enough) but some of the bored touts wander along with us. We're the last people coming up from Simatai today so they chat with us and say "Careful" when we come to a tricky step. Jinshanling feels a million miles from the tourist town at Simatai and we're content to buy a book of postcards and call it a day. It has been truly "comprehensive".

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