Several years ago I visited the Badaling section of the Great Wall. The first moment that one sees the wall high above and snaking up to tower-topped peaks is unforgettable. Getting closer however, drains a bit of the excitement as trudging along the fume-filled parking lot toward a gate means being among thousands of others who all seem to need to get their ticket at the same time. Hawkers chased us and the noise and chaos were disconcerting and disorienting.
At the gate, there was still more pushing and shoving as there were seemingly thousands trying to go up and thousands trying to get down. It was my first experience of having people hold the whole works up so that they could take the mandatory photos, each member of the group, in turn, apparently oblivious that massive groups of people were pressing to go up or down.
I almost gave up, but the thought of spending my allotted time in that parking lot seemed even worse, so I pressed on, desperately hoping to not get shoved off balance. One tower, then two, then the miracle of Badaling! Fewer and fewer were willing to climb further on those very steep and small steps. At tower three, the air freshened and by tower four there were only a handful of us. The blessed quiet and magnificence of the view made me realize why this incredible structure inspires the poets.
This year I chose to go to the World Heritage Simatai section. Good choice. This section of the wall has a small village which offers souvenirs, but no one chases after you. The wall beckons in a very different way. It is not "picture perfect" like the fully restored Badaling section, so it gives a better feel how the wall was constructed and a sense of the people who built and populated it.
There were no crowds climbing, and all those who met on the way exchanged a bit of a greeting or smiles. There was a great feeling of the shared pleasure and camaraderie of those who are doing something wonderful together. Photographers were in heaven because here it is the views, not the crowds, that prevail.
Having conquered eight towers and feeling quite heroic indeed, we found the restaurant back at the village very welcome. The driver, though, had received disturbing news from the villagers. They said that the area would be closed shortly for an indeterminate time. They didn't know where they were to go.
Back home, stories in the paper confirmed that the Minyun county government was evacuating them for "reconstruction to develop tourism".
Oh dear. Here is the conundrum that occurs all over China. People like me prefer the quieter, less developed places to visit. "Reconstruction" often removes the very charm and unique culture of the area. As spectacular as Badaling is, it has a feeling of being a bit too perfect and prettified and the crowds can detract from any real experience of the place. Simatai goes deep into the traveler's soul. The charming village and villagers seem as eternal as the wall itself.
Can reconstruction with the attendant revenues it will bring be stopped? The answer is clearly no, but will this reflect progress or simply pave over a priceless heritage? A question for the times.
Well, all this will be decided without my opinion holding sway. Let's just say that sometimes one is in the right place at the right time as I was this summer at spectacular, serene, Simatai - before its "improvement".