x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Adventures in the secret section of the Great Wall of China

Smog engulfed the Beijing skyline and streets to the point where sunlight wasn't visible during my entire week there - even the roof of the Forbidden City and other sites were hidden.

The only element to Beijing's grandeur that bothered me was the grand scale of its pollution. Smog engulfed the skyline and streets to the point where sunlight wasn't visible during my entire week there - even the roof of the Forbidden City and other sites were hidden. A trip to the Olympic area and a closer look at the Bird's Nest revealed traces of rust beginning to cover the stadium bars. If I stayed in Beijing any longer, I would have started using a face mask, like many of the locals already do.

The subway system made it easy and cheap to get around (two yuan [Dh2] for a single journey) but the large station-free areas in the city meant that, occasionally, it was easier to use taxis to get to the areas where the metro couldn't. The sheer size of the crowds also meant that at times I had to wait for one or two trains to go by before squeezing like a sardine into the third one. All good fun at the time, but I wouldn't enjoy it as a commuter.

In a little over two weeks, I had explored many of the great historic and cultural sites China had to offer, with the odd modern spectacle and cultural quirk thrown in. I was ready for the grand finale of my China trip: the Great Wall. As with the other popular tourist sights in China, I resigned myself to the fact that the wall would be swarming with tourists (including myself) and finding a quiet, secluded section of the wall to appreciate would be a challenge. A quick Google search later, I was pleasantly surprised with what I found.

Badaling is the most famous section of the Wall and also rumoured to be painfully busy. There was also the Jinshanling-to-Samatai section that is now very popular with trekkers, but even this had snack vendors along the way. Then I came across a "Secret Wall" tour on offer by Leo Hostel (www.leohostel.com, 00 86 10 6303 1595; 260 yuan [Dh140] including transport to and from the hotel and lunch). It claimed a tour on a part of the wall where you would see "hardly any other visitors", and boasted an area along the wall that had been "untouched" since its completion 2,000 years ago. It sounded promising, so I booked it.

I set off with a group of 14 at 7am. Two hours later we reached the foot of the "Secret Wall". It turned out to be a 10-kilometre trek along a completely unrestored section not far from Badaling. We began our ascent up a flight of stairs to reach the starting tower. Fifteen tough minutes later, I was staring at the undulating semi-broken track ahead, dotted with watchtowers every kilometre or so. I had begun the trek sceptical as to how secret this section would actually be; I wasn't disappointed. There were moments on the trek when I felt completely on my own; the rest of the group may have been a few yards ahead, but with the mist and fog it was too hard to tell. The scale of the wall is remarkable, and not only is it steep, but the eroded section has broken paths, crumbling walls, sprouting hedges and empty towers. It was an afternoon of hard work, with arduous hikes and uneven drops. My appreciation for the builders of the wall and sheer marvel at the ambition of China's ancient dynasties only grew with every step.

I'd sampled Chinatown food in many cities I'd lived in or visited, so when it came to authentic Chinese food, I was looking forward to similar cuisine. Sadly, I've now accepted that I'm one of those people who prefer artificial Chinese food to the rice and dumplings I sampled while in China. Although the food was cheap (20-50 yuan [Dh10-Dh30] per head), I had a few instances where what I ordered wasn't what arrived on my plate. After a fortnight, I began craving the stuff my taste buds had become accustomed to over the years.

I boarded my 10-hour flight to Abu Dhabi and wondered whether Oasis, a not-so-authentic Chinese restaurant in Abu Dhabi, would be open by the time I landed. After almost five months on the road, the thought of a hot shower, a full night's rest in my own bed - and no train, plane or automobile to catch for a few days - made me smile. Next week: Ismat comes home to Abu Dhabi before heading for Africa on the last leg of her round-the-world trip