Dartmouth Does the Great Wall: Simatai to Jinshanling


 Above:  Dartmouth Fall 2007 FSP in Beijing Students at Simatai Great Wall.  For more photos, see my Great Wall photo page

If you want to do a day-hike on the Great Wall, the best place in my reckoning is Simatai to Jinshanling (or vice versa).  This is the trip I chose for our Dartmouth in Beijing program, which I am now running.

On Friday Sept 14, David Spindler (’89) prepared us for our hike by giving a talk on the history of the Great Wall, focusing on the Gubeikou-Jinshanling-Simatai area.  During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), for Mongols bent on a massive raid of the capital city, the Chao River running through Gubeikou (“old north mouth”) was the most favorable path of entry from the mountainous north into the flat Beijing plane.  During the mid-1500s, the Mongols would lead occasional raids to pillage and plunder the area around the capital, killing thousands of Chinese people and bringing livestock, booty, and Chinese slaves back to their homeland in the north.  Thus the Ming embarked on their great wallbuilding project.  Knowing that a major Mongol raid that occurred in 1554 was repulsed by Chinese soldiers manning the wall in that region and that in 1576 another raid in the Simatai area led to the building of the brick walled structure that exists there today makes it a much more interesting hike.  One has to simply imagine the entire land north of the wall swarming with thousands of swarthy Mongol warriors and the Chinese soldiers stoutly defending this highway to the national capital.

On Saturday Sept 15, I took my Dartmouth FSP students to Simatai.  We left the campus of Beijing Normal University at 6 am and headed north by northeast on the newly minted Jing-Cheng expressway, which has cut an hour off the original three plus hours journey to Simatai.  We arrived around 8:30 am and began the trek, heading up to the Simatai Wall.  There we split into two groups.  Twelve students joined me on the four-hour hike westward to Jinshanling, while ten others stayed at Simatai along with our two program assistants, Zhu Laoshi and Carey Li.  

The hike begins by heading down the Simatai Wall to a long footbridge crossing over the reservoir.  After that it’s a steep ascent for around an hour or so, passing through tower after tower as the wall rises up the mountainside.  Then its two more hours of steep ups and downs as the wall follows the highest ridgeline, affording spectacular views in all directions.  Corn and millet grows in terraced fields that rise steeply up the hillsides to our south.  To the east is the impressive dragon’s-back ridge of Simatai, topped by the wall and towers.  Beyond that is a panorama of high mountains receding into the distance with a few lone lookout towers barely visible on the tops.  It’s a scene right out of Lord of the Rings.

After about three hours of hiking, it’s mostly a downhill journey to the Jinshanling area.  By the third hour, we met up with swarms of international tourists heading the other direction.  I’d never seen the area that crowded, but then again, most of my hiking in Simatai-Jinshanling has been in the winter months.

Each area offers a distinctive method of preservation.  Near Simatai, the preservationists who rebuilt the wall attempted to stick closely to what it looked like after 500 years of erosion, giving it a more “authentic” feel as a partially ruined historical site.  In Jinshanling, they attempted as much as possible to reconstruct the wall and towers according to their original design.  One distinctive feature of Jinshanling is the shield walls running up the wall to the towers, with windows in them, which Chinese soldiers could man in case the Mongols made it onto the wall below, in a last-ditch attempt to protect the towers.  Another feature is the small houselike structures with sloping roofs on top of some of the towers.  

We ended our hike around 1:30 pm.  Altogether from the parking lot of Simatai to the parking lot of Jinshanling, it took us around five hours to complete the hike.  I must admit that I had a tough time keeping up with most of my students, who are now half my age.  My cold and my heavy Raichle boots didn’t help, but for an old man, ankle protection is a must.  Most of the kids wore sneakers, but I do recommend to people doing this hike that they wear hiking boots if possible, given the steep ascents and descents over crumbling rocks and loose flagstones.

Still, the path from SMT to JSL is much easier and safer than ten years ago when I took my 60-year old mother on the same hike.  They’ve since fortified many of the more treacherous spots.  Where once you had to make your way across a narrow two-foot wide path with a steep drop on either side, owing to the erosion of the original wall, it has now been restored and the only real challenge is climbing up and down steep staircases that are partially eroded and crumbling.  But if my 60-year old mom could do it, so can you!