We found no sign of life when we arrived at the ticket offices.
We approach the turnstiles to peek beyond the barrier and are detected by a sleepy security guard who, even though he is upset, checks out that early morning presence.
"It's 35 minutes to open, inform us in elementary, hard-working English." We ask you if there is any possibility of letting us in right away and explain why.
The guard lets himself be sensitized. "Very good. If you want to go now, no problem. They give me an ID and then come buy the tickets.”
We can hardly believe in such goodness. We had woken up with the chickens to anticipate the expected flood of visitors that summer weekend. Not only did we manage it, we were the first of the day to climb the wall.
For half an hour, we explore and enjoy the architectural-military colossus in a pure way, under a soft light at the beginning of the day that respects its wavy lines and the surrounding lush vegetation.
We took it step by step until we reached, breathless, tower 8, the highest point in the northern section, the final stop of the cable car and where the first Chinese excursions would soon disembark, many still moved by the latent sound of the historical leader's words Mao Zedong: "He who has never climbed the Great Wall is not a real man."
A clandestine seller of DVDs and themed books appears from a lower portico and ends our exclusivity. He examines the surrounding reality and moves, somewhat suspiciously, towards us.
We noticed that he had entered without authorization or a ticket and that he was taking the opportunity to settle down and do some business before the guards began their patrol.
These and other types of intrusions were what the wall's mentors wanted to avoid. But the purpose would never be perfectly fulfilled.
The Great Stone Defense of the Chinese Empire
Construction began between 221 and 207 BC. During the Qin Dynasty, Emperor Qin Shi Huang finally sealed the unification of China.
By his order, several walls formerly built by independent kingdoms to protect themselves from marauding nomadic tribes were joined by hundreds of thousands of workers, largely prisoners.
The task took ten years. About 180 million cubic meters of earth formed the basis of the original structure. Legend has it that the bones of the dead workers were another of the materials used in the fortification.
Giant Wall, with Feet of Clay
Despite the scope of the work, Genghis Khan summed up its fragility: “The strength of the wall depends on the courage of those who defend it”. Over time, the ease with which sentries were bribed was noticed, among other vulnerabilities.
And also that the fort was very useful as a kind of elevated road that allowed people and goods to be transported along the mountainous terrain.
The Badaling section was only erected in 1505, during the Ming dynasty. Since then, the signaling system with smoke signals produced from tower to tower has allowed an even faster transmission of news about the movement of enemies to Beijing, capital of the empire from 1421 to 1911. Today, the capital is still only 70 km away.
From it depart, by train, buses and other vehicles, the tourist crowds eager to access the Great Wall.
The Almost Omnivision Granted by Bebalou
It is from the highest point of Beibalou (1015 m) that we can see the invasion of visitors taking place, first arriving on foot from the entrance portals into the valley, then from the cable car station in our vicinity.
In a flash, the morning peace and solitude gives way to an inexorable and hard-working pilgrimage that advances up and down ramps and steps and takes over the wide walkways.
We remember, therefore, that we are in a country with 1.3 billion inhabitants, the largest population in the world.
From the 8th tower inwards, the wall plunges towards the depths of the valley. It becomes so vertiginous that it is risky to go down without using the handrails added to the walls.
Certain elderly visitors face this section with obvious fear and cling to the supports with all their strength. When we walk along it, a Buddhist monk takes a strategic break from that extreme pilgrimage.
Their hesitant presence blesses but also disturbs the rest of the passers-by, who are already hampered by the forced transport of parasols, bags and other cargo. But the slope gets even more accentuated.
From almost the foot of the slope, we can see with increasing clarity how the wall curves and curves again, submissive to the whims of the relief.
The Early Visit of the Jesuit Bento de Góis
This is something that can be seen both in Badaling and along its more than 21.196 km, from the Shanhaiguan area that merged with the Pacific Ocean and avoided the attacks of the Manchu people to the western and desert confines of Gansu province where Jiayuguan served as portico to the Chinese section of the Silk Road.
One of the first Westerners to enter China through this last passage was the Portuguese Jesuit Bento de Góis. It arrived from the north of India, in 1605, possibly informed of the accounts present in books that Portuguese merchants had brought to Lisbon.
Of course also by the previous descriptions of the "Asian Decades"Of João de Barros, by the narrations of the Dominican friar Gaspar da Cruz.
And even the failed ambassador Tomé Pires, who saw the project of becoming influential in the court of Emperor Ming Zhengde fail, but despite having witnessed the beginning of a Chinese persecution of Portuguese traders, he lived in China for a few more years.
The Sun on the Wall. Time for Rest and Lunchtime Bell
Time also flows on the day we dedicate to Badaling and the sun quickly sinks. Around one in the afternoon, most families, groups of friends and other entourages are ecstatic, hungry and determined to overcome such ordeals.
They are installed, therefore, in an area of the wall that is hidden below Beibalou and equipped with highly disputed tables and chairs.
They then inaugurate countless picnics, decided on the basis of noodles instants, others more elaborate but still made from delicacies preserved in plastic containers: boiled eggs, dumplings, dried meats and vegetables, food almost always with an industrial aspect and scandalous expiration dates.
We leave behind the 12th tower. We come across Qinlongqiao Station and its entrance. Outside, there is a commercial concentration that attracts thousands of visitors.
We have temporarily abandoned the hold on the wall to join the fair.
Qinlongqiao: the entrance to the China Wall Fair
We soon realized that this was where the sellers took revenge for not being able to work on the wall.
After the turnstiles, we are confronted with a battalion of small businessmen who impose memories of the wall or of China, on the move or on small stands.
We also find a small improvised zoo with camels that people ride to photograph themselves in haughty poses, enclosures full of acrobatic Malay bears, others with monkeys and different species that, despite the pitiful conditions to which they are voted, are fulfilling their function of entertain the crowd.
Onwards, there are also stalls with fresh and dried fruits, mini-kitchens outdoors that serve all kinds of Chinese snacks as a meal, which heat and grease the scorching, dry summer air in those parts.
A Persistence Rewarded with Seclusion and Peace
After the meal and the well-deserved rest, some visitors return to the entrance area. From there, instead of leaving, the younger and more persistent ones set out to conquer the southern section of the wall, as or more time-consuming and strenuous than the north.
We force ourselves and our legs to do it and are rewarded with a peaceful route, endowed with watchtowers grander than those on the opposite cardinal point and embellished by the ever-softer light of the sun, which soon sets.
On our way back to the portico, because we had entered in the morning, the official in charge of ensuring that the doors with visitors on the adarves passes by us.
We are, again, almost the only ones on the wall and we noticed that, close to the valley, the merlons had been alternately decorated with national or Chinese Communist Party (CCP) flags.
During the afternoon, some diplomatic representative had frequented the fortification, and the hosts took the opportunity to show off the nation's political vigor, in addition to its historical sumptuousness.
A few dozen Chinese who persist there enjoy the decoration and leave it. They are photographed between the flags, with the verdant backdrop as a background and proud of the grandeur of their red homeland.