The red and ochre autumn leaves have been at their best along the Great Wall in the past week, luring Beijingers out for a last excursion before winter. Well before dawn some set off from the valley below the most famous tower, Ying Dao Yang, which literally means 'eagle reaches the sky', to catch the early-morning rays. Amateur photographers, burdened with cameras and tripods, huff and puff their way up through the woods to catch the moment when the crag swims out of the morning mist . . . making the tower appear as if it is floating majestically above the clouds. To get the best view of this scene you have to scramble up on your hands and knees, along the crumbling ramparts to reach Zhengbai Lou, the highest tower. Nowadays, many people make the perilous trek across a tiny suspension between two pinnacles to reach Ying Dao Yang itself. Ordinary Beijingers have also been making this daring journey, some even with their city leather shoes which make it harder for them to keep their footing on the narrow paths. All along this famous stretch of the Great Wall, locals have been tearing up the streams to build concrete trout fishing pools. Weekend visitors not only come to eat the trout they catch but also to set off firecrackers outlawed in Beijing. These days gangs of superbikers can also be seen roaring around the new roads being built through the valleys. He Zhengsheng, an old peasant from the village of Nanjili who guided my party up to the top, says it will be a good thing to have more and more people visit in the next few years. 'The plans are all ready,' he said with confidence. 'Within three years there will be two cable cars taking tourists to the topmost points. 'And the whole stretch of wall will be repaired to look new and everyone will make a lot of money, lifting Nanjili and its inhabitants out of poverty. 'Now, no one cares about it,' he added. 'Later it will be different.' Today, even the most inaccessible corners of the wall are littered with rubbish - empty yellow camera film boxes, plastic water bottles, red wrappings from sausages. William Lindesay, one of the first Westerners to walk the wall from end to end and author of several books on the Great Wall (including a guide to wild-walking in Beijing), is trying to do something to preserve it. Living in a country retreat which he built, in Mr He's village, Mr Lindesay is organising several groups this autumn to take part in clean-up walks, and says he would like to see the Chinese Great Wall Society get more Chinese involved. 'There are sections devoted to photography, literature or history but not for environmental protection although this is the year of eco-tourism,' he said. And even though all young schoolchildren are taught to chant 'I deeply love the motherland, I deeply love the Great Wall', he feels too few people really care about its fate. The Great Wall is a Unesco World Heritage site which, in theory, should protect it from any alteration, but no single authority on the mainland appears to be responsible for its preservation. Its conservation will, however, mean different things to different people. Many Chinese, like Mr He, believe restoration spells crass commercialisation and mass tourism, like the areas of the wall passing through Badaling, Mutianyu and Simatai which have already been restored. Now it will not be long before the best of the wild wall is gone forever and its fantastic battlements, built with such extravagance on the most inaccessible crags, lose their magic.