How to enjoy the Great Wall of China’s wild side: tips and drone footage from an expert
British geographer, author and unofficial wall ambassador who lives nearby urges visitors to get fit, rise early and take in the wilderness at weekends
To describe William Lindesay as an aficionado on the Great Wall of China doesn’t do justice to his in-depth knowledge, and the lengths he has gone to over three decades.
The British geographer, who estimates he has clocked 2,800 days on the wall, has run its length , written five books about it, and curated historical exhibitions.
“These days there are two walls; the tourist wall and the wilderness wall,” says Lindesay, who leads about 30 guided weekend tours a year and undertakes conservation initiatives there.
Thirty-one years after first setting foot on the wall, his boyish enthusiasm remains undiminished and he retains the lean features of a long-distance runner. Last year, to mark the 30th anniversary of that first trip to China, and his 60th year, he collaborated with his two sons, Jim and Tommy, who have set up their own production company Depictograph. Together, they travelled the entire length of the wall in 60 days and filmed the journey from a drone.
The footage, which includes aerial images of Jiayuguan Fortress at the western end of the Ming Wall and Zhenbeitai in Shaanxi province, was part of a presentation Lindesay gave to the Royal Geographic Society last week. It is also being collated into a 52-minute documentary to be released next year.
Lindesay says the public’s perception of the wall has changed since his first visit in 1986. His attempt to traverse it became entangled in the bureaucratic restrictions on foreigners travelling in China, so he returned the following year with a more carefully prepared plan.
“In 1987 I had a strategy and followed 2,470km of the Ming wall,” he says. An accomplished marathon runner, he ran the entire distance with no support crew or modern communications.
“I stayed with farmers for over 60 nights – I called it ‘the great wall of friendship’ – but I was arrested nine times, deported once, I needed two passports and made three marriage proposals,” he says.
Lindesay now lives in an old farmhouse at the foot of the wall on the northern periphery of the Beijing suburbs with his wife, Wu Qi (the one he proposed to three times during that second expedition in 1987) and their two sons. He admits his family is obsessed with the wall and are all involved in offering his popular WildWall weekend tours (wildwall.com), designed for visitors eager to explore a less trodden path.
“We like to say we are a family of wall-nuts; very eccentric,” he says.
With 21 million people in the Beijing area not far from the wall, the Lindesay family are not the only ones fascinated. No longer content with spending their weekends in shopping malls, these days many Chinese want to be outside, Lindesay says.
“In the last 15 years, the Chinese have rediscovered the great outdoors,” he says. “We have witnessed the rediscovery of the Great Wall by Chinese people armed with WeChat. ”
This puts pressure on sections of the wall in terms of conservation and environmental degradation.
“Many are not sensitive to the fact that this is the world’s largest open-air museum,” says Lindesay, adding that Badaling, around 80km northwest of Beijing city in Yanqing District, is visited most. But even this area of the wall extends for 388km so there is plenty of room.
“There is something for everyone on the wall around Beijing, depending on how much time you have,” he says.
Five tips for enjoying the wall’s wilder side
1. Get fit. The former marathon runner suggests visitors acquire a basic level of fitness – and it’s not just required for walking along the crumbling ruins. “You may need to hike up steep hills through forests to really appreciate the immense effort the builders went to to occupy the high ground,” he says. The highlights of his own wild wall weekends are two 10km dawn hikes. Groups are typically four to eight people and are popular with Western visitors and expatriates living in China’s big cities.
2. Take your time. The Chinese name for the wall, Wan Li Chang Cheng, literally translates as the ‘Ten-thousand li (a ‘li’ is about 500m) long wall’ – but Lindesay suggests a more elegant translation might be the “endless wall”. He advises visitors to walk along it for at least a few kilometres.
“Given the story of the wall, I am surprised people don’t give it more time,” he says. Despite increasing popularity, Lindesay says the wild side of the wall is still considered “out of reach” for most people.
3. Get reading. There is no one Great Wall of China, explains Lindesay: there are at least 16, spanning 2,500 years of Chinese history. “To appreciate the story, you need to embrace archaeology, geography, history, military strategy and conservation,” says Lindesay. His tours aim to unravel the story of the wall – built to avoid open field battle with nomads from the North – in a systematic way and include his story of roaming beyond the wall to better understand the enemies it was designed keep out.
4. Leave it better than you found it. Lindesay led his first clean-up operation in his assumed role of wall ambassador in April 1998, after seeing increasing amounts of litter and graffiti. “I have just filled my 330th bag of garbage this year,” he says. With 20 million visitors a year, the environmental pressure is building. If people can’t care for a national icon, what hope is there for elsewhere, Lindesay asks.
5. Time your visit for the best light. Some visitors worry about air pollution but Lindesay says that’s improving – but try to avoid the height of summer. “We have had beautiful clear autumn days around Beijing this year.” Aim for dawn or early evening to best enjoy the stunning scenery. “When I stand on the wall at sunrise, it takes one hour and 20 minutes for the entire length of the wall to be lit up,” he says. “This is something not just on a map, it’s on a vast landscape and to see it at sunrise is the absolute tops.”