Discovering the wild Great Wall
Table of Contents
Simone is an explorer and a lover of travel and photography. In recent years, Simone was fascinated by the East and decided to visit a large number of countries. From 2017 to 2022 he settled in China, where he still lives and where he traveled widely throughout the country, discovering its most evocative places. Over the past two years, he explored abandoned, unrestored stretches of the Great Wall. The project of this work is to collect images to share them through a photographic exhibition for all lovers of photography and travel. By following the link you can visit his Instagram profile.
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How did you get to Beijing? What did you do before COVID?
I decided to go to China for many different reasons. The most important one was to take a challenge and try a new life experience. About six years ago, I moved to Beijing and started studying the Chinese language. I am a travel lover and, before Covid, I worked for a travel agency; I organized tailor-made trips for foreigners who wanted to discover the most authentic China. … But then, Covid changed all my plans, turned all my dreams upside down … eh eh
What prompted you to explore the Great Wall? What are you looking for during your explorations?
The first time I visited the Great Wall I did it like everyone else, as a tourist; I bought my ticket and followed the classic route. I said to myself, ok, nice, but until then, it didn’t give me any special emotion … that day, my luck was to go beyond the classic path, to “jump the wall” and continue along an abandoned section of the wall. It was a terrific surprise! The vegetation that had grown on the Wall over the years was very dense, at times difficult to cross. The further I advanced and gradually discovered the ruins of the abandoned watchtowers now immersed in the lush vegetation, the more I was able to visualize how nice it would have been to be there a few hundred years ago, a witness to a time now past. After that day, I decided that I would try to venture as much as possible to other parts of the Great Wall. Every time I visit a new stretch, I get lost in the adventure and I can taste the decadent charm that this monumental work conveys. I’m a lover of photography, and sooner or later I will put together the thousands of photos I take every time I go there, and maybe I will make a photo book.
Why does the unknown lure our curiosity and attention?
Good question! Perhaps it is human nature to always try to give answers to everything. When we are unable to find an answer, we are more intrigued. The human mind is always in need of new stimuli. It needs to flee from the inevitability of everyday life. Humankind has always pushed itself further … both in the field of exploration and in the field of personal research.
What are your main sources of inspiration as a traveler and photographer?
This need for adventure, exploration, and to “lose myself” in nature, was born from the experiences I had as a child. From an early age, I was used to exploring the mountains with my parents. Although at the time I did not love that very much because I thought it was too tiring, I loved playing surrounded by nature, imagining being an explorer at times, or a ‘Robinson Crusoe’, having to build my tree house. When I reached the top of the mountain, I could see what lay beyond, widening my curiosity. This curiosity, that is, reaching the summit to enjoy the view below, has remained within me. Perhaps this is the reason why I love to venture along the Chinese Wall, because every time I reach a higher point, I can enjoy a unique view. Most of the excursions I do on the Great Wall start from point A and end at point B, allowing me to consistently have a different view. I rarely go back along the path I started from.
I’ve never been a great reader; I’m more a lover of cinema. From an early age, I was more attracted to images. Reading a book took too long, too much effort. I was too lazy. The only reads I liked were comics, especially Tex Willer. If I had to mention a book that inspired me, I would probably say Kon Tiki, or In Vespa by Giorgio Bettinelli. As for cinema, I love adventure films; as a child, I have seen many times Indiana Jones, Rambo, Cliffhanger, and Waterworld while more recently The Lord of the Rings, Into the Wild, Everest or The way back. In recent years, I have also been lucky enough to participate in evenings, where, each time a special guest, sometimes an alpinist or a traveler or an explorer, shared their experience. Roberto Ghidoni, who crossed a stretch of Alaska on foot, and Alex Bellini who attempted to row across the Pacific inspired me more than others. Every time I went home, I told myself that sooner or later I too would leave for a solo adventure. Among the photographers who probably inspired me the most, there are Michael Yamashita and Salgado. Their photographs always give me emotions.
What precautions do you take when embarking on an exploration?
Usually, I don’t take many precautions besides understanding my limits and knowing when to stop when crossing a dangerous section. I always wear clothing suitable for this type of excursion, trekking shoes, and technical clothing, and I always try to be autonomous about provisions.
Often, before exploring a new area, I do some online research on the place I want to go and discover; I study the topography of the place to have an idea of what could be the best way to get to the Great Wall. Sometimes, if I can, I also get suggestions from those who have been there before me.
I prefer to carry out these explorations during the cold months, not only for “photographic” reasons but also to avoid snakes along the way … eh eh
What is the strangest thing you’ve ever seen on your travels?
In recent years I have made many trips, especially to Asia, and I happened to come across many strange situations, especially because they are very far from our culture. If I had to mention a special one, I could tell about an episode I witnessed during one of my trips to India. In many Indian cities, it is common to see cows walking / grazing everywhere on the street; after a while, one no longer even pays attention to it. One morning, however, while I was walking across a small square with a local market, a very curious thing happened. While one of the many cows that wandered around the city center was urinating on the street, a lady, a florist, approached the cow, put her hands under the spout, and used the cow’s pee to wet the flowers for sale, to bless them. Perhaps this was one of the most particular and curious experiences that have ever happened to me. One day, in Indonesia, on the island of Sumatra, while I was wandering around with my motorbike in a hilly, mountainous area near a village where I was a guest for a few weeks, I slipped due to the not “clean” terrain. Fortunately, nothing broke, but still, I was very badly hurt. I couldn’t walk because of the pain in my leg. Back in the village, they accompanied me to the home of an elderly woman. This lady, with her mouth and teeth completely red due to the constant chewing of the Bethel nut (a very common practice in the area), as soon as she saw my sore leg, prepared a mixture of herbs which she then spread on the wound. I have no idea what it was. I just know that the next day I no longer had any pain, I was completely healed. I was impressed with this experience. The day after I went back to her house and gave her some sugar (considered a very precious gift) to thank her.
Another experience happened on a very remote island in Indonesia. I arrived there after a few days of traveling, after taking several small boats called Speedboat, but the only thing that was pace was the speed at which we took on the water into the boat. Once I arrived on the beach of this tiny island, I went in search of a village in the hope of finding someone willing to host me. I found a young family who hosted me. In the afternoon I gave him some money and asked him if it was possible to help me cook fresh fish. In the evening, as soon as I returned to the wooden and straw house, I found eggs instead of fish (later I discovered that chicken eggs are considered a more precious commodity than fish). What a disappointment! And they thought they had done me a favor …
I couldn’t sleep at night, it was very hot, and the humidity was unbearable; in addition to this, perhaps because of the dinner, I had stomach problems. As I left the hut to go to the bathroom, that is to say on the beach, I saw the couple who was hosting me with their newborn child sleeping on the floor in the room, with a bible resting on the pillow next to the baby’s head to protect him during the night from some evil spirit.
Have you met other people during your observation of the most remote areas of the Great Wall? What were they doing?
In some abandoned stretches of the Great Wall, I often meet other trekkers and photographers. While in the most remote areas, I usually don’t meet anyone, besides some local farmers at the foot of the valley. Usually, in these stretches, there are very few who venture, also because at times they are very dangerous. However, I always prefer not to meet anyone, especially the locals to avoid too many questions or the usual local elder who does not allow me to continue along my path.
Before arriving in China, have you ever accomplished this kind of trip?
I’ve always been a lover of travel, and exploration. Before arriving in China, I made many very adventurous trips, such as Sumatra in Indonesia. Less than 24 hours after my arrival, I bought a second-hand motorcycle, tied my backpack as best I could, opened the map, marked a point, looked for the smallest and most winding road that crossed a mountainous and sparsely inhabited area, and left immediately without even thinking about where I could have arrived that day, what I would find and where I could sleep, etc.
I have made many trips of this type. A few years ago I made a trip of about a year and a half, always here in Asia. This trip has greatly increased my need for exploration and knowledge, in fact, as soon as I returned to Italy I decided to enroll at university and start studying, which until then was very far from my thoughts … and so after a few years, I graduated in oriental languages and arrived in China.
What’s your next project?
As soon as the Covid situation in China is settled, and tourists can come back, I would like to continue working in tourism, sharing my knowledge of this beautiful country with foreign travelers. In addition to this, I would like to organize a photographic exhibition on the Great Wall, and maybe in the future also about other areas of China. Perhaps I will organize the photographic exhibition in Italy in a few months, as soon as I return there.
I would also like to do a photo book, but for the moment it is still early, I need more time to continue exploring other parts of the Great Wall, perhaps even those further away from Beijing. For the moment I just share my photos regularly on my Instagram profile.