China's Wall of fame

Feature Conquering the majestic, precarious Simatai section of the Great Wall offers a lesson in history and physical endurance.

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Richard Brackett entered one of the 35 beacon towers as the sun was rising, lighting up the stone walls built 650 years ago to house the sentries who watched for signs of an invading force. He was spending his second-to-last day of a year spent travelling the world on the Simatai section of the Great Wall of China. "I had a long trip getting here," he said. "I didn't have enough money to hire a driver so I took the local bus from Beijing. An adventure with the locals was more fun." Brackett has spent much of his life travelling and considers himself a dreamer. As he described it, "a spirit with a vision is a dream with a mission". There's something appropriate about his statement when one thinks of what it took to build this structure. The vision of the emperors and generals who began building the Great Wall was to prevent hostile armies invading China; their dream became the mission of an estimated 300,000 peasant labourers, who spent hundreds of years building what their masters considered to be an impenetrable wall.

The 5.4-kilometre Simatai section, built under the supervision of General Qi Jiguang between 1368 and 1398, is one of the few remaining sections to retain the original features of the Ming Dynasty Great Wall and, with inclines of up to 80 degrees, the section is known for its steepness. According to Professor Luo Zhewen, an expert on the wall, "The Great Wall is the best of the Chinese buildings and Simatai is the best of the Great Wall." This is one reason Simatai was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1987.

Construction of the first parts of the Great Wall (or Wanli Changcheng), "the long wall of 10,000 Li" (approximately 8,851km), began during the spring and autumn periods between 770 and 476BC. During the Warring States Period, between 475 and 221BC, the states of Qi, Yan and Zhao all created walls made mostly by stamping earth and gravel between wood frames. Qin Shi Huang conquered all opposing states and unified China in 221BC, establishing the Qin Dynasty. Once in power Qin ordered the destruction of the walls that divided his new empire and ordered a new wall to be built along its northern border to defend against the Xiongnu, a confederation of nomadic tribes from Mongolia.

Climbing the Simatai section can be laborious. Separated into east and west sections by a reservoir, the eastern section is rugged and steep, but the effort is rewarded with spectacular views - on a clear night, clean across to the lights of Beijing, 120 kilometres away. The western section is less precipitous but still no walkover and for anyone acclimatised to the flat landscape of the UAE physical preparation is a must before tackling the wall's stone pathways. Fortunately I was used to climbs like this; in fact, I had climbed this very section two years ago and was back to experience it again on an overnight trip.

My bed for the night was a floor inside one of the beacon towers; sleeping in them is prohibited but the offence is often overlooked. I had been awake for about 30 minutes when I saw a figure walking down from the tower above mine. We were the only two people on the wall and, after a few minutes of conversation as the sun warmed our faces, we went our separate ways, Brackett heading down towards the village as I started walking up the section.

The small, shallow steps of the western section of the Simatai wall make it harder work than navigating the rocks and loose gravel of a mountainside, but it is easier than the eastern section, which houses the Wangjinglou tower, built at 1,000 metres, the highest point of the wall. The higher I climbed the more of the snaking structure I could see, its outline resembling a dragon whose head remains out of sight, no matter how high one climbs. Far below, farmers grow corn, in what from the wall looks more like a valley of lush grasses.

A dirt path runs parallel to one of the fields and four men leading mules laden with bricks make their way along it to where I am standing on a slippery slope of loose, iron-red soil. Here, the wall is succumbing to erosion and repairs are under way, carried out with hand tools and hard labour. Centuries ago farmers raised goats in these valleys both for food and to carry brick for building the wall. They were to prove the agents of the wall's destruction, as well as its construction. Once the wall was finished the goats remained and fed off the hillside grasses. Eventually more soil than grass remained and through the years rainfall helped speed the erosion process and sections of the wall began crumbling. The government banned goats for a time and the erosion decreased but there are still areas that need repair.

As the climb steepens and the day rubs the sleep from its eyes more faces appear on the wall, belonging to people who appear to live there. Two men sit on a blanket outside one of the beacon towers, playing cards with the wall snaking away in the background. A woman selling souvenirs holds a photographic print of the wall showing white misty clouds floating just below the ridge. A wild-looking old man dressed in a greyish-blue Mao jacket and wearing a headdress of pink roses is smoking what resembles a midwakh pipe, only two feet long and with a larger bowl. A woman is climbing up from the valley with a small backpack of water bottles and cookies she will sell to hikers from her stand inside one of the towers. And an old Chinese man with a hundred wrinkles in his face is smoking the stub of a cigarette, wearing a Mao jacket and Mao hat with red star. Only The Little Red Book is missing.

I meet a group of Korean college students playing a game of Conquest inside one of the towers, on the border where the Simatai and Jinshanling sections meet. The students form teams of two, one riding on the shoulders of the other, fighting to stay on a square mat that is folded smaller and smaller. Standing in a tower, I can hear the voices of hikers 200 metres away as they make their way up the wall towards me, treading a path once walked by Han and Mongol armies. Groups of four or five, some racing each other to the top, couples taking their time, their very presence a comment on the folly of those who once believed the wall would keep China free of invaders.