29 June 2014 by Jazz
â€œYou come to China and you don’t speak Chinese? Ohhh. You very brave…â€
The look in the girl’s eyes suggested that what she meant was, â€œYou very stupidâ€. Moe, Adrian and I were standing at a bus stop in a small town a few hours drive out of Beijing. Our intentions were to catch another bus out to a quiet section of The Great Wall of China and camp there for the night, but finding our way was proving to be difficult. After being accosted by numerous taxi drivers, asking for help from clueless locals, and becoming thoroughly confused, we had eventually made our way back to the bus stop we got off at, convinced we’d disembarked too early. Fortunately this young woman had taken pity on the three bewildered white people and, with a better command of English than anyone we’d met in China so far, had gone far out of her way to help us find the right bus. The commentary on our bravery was an added bonus.
After bidding farewell to our new friend and finally climbing aboard the correct bus, we found ourselves disembarking an hour later in a tiny village that rests peacefully between two old sections of the Wall. Looking east we saw the line of old crumbling stones, winding its way towards a military zone. To the west we traced the Great Wall, with its iconic turrets, as it snaked its way up a mountain and along the ridges of the hills further on. Deciding on the more impressive looking west section, we crossed through the village and found a small but well-traveled path beaten through the bush towards the mountain. Unlike Huashan, this was an undertaking I had been thoroughly enthusiastic about from the get-go. Hoisting up our packs loaded with sleeping bags, mattresses and a day’s supply of food and water, we started our journey.
Soon we reached the first ancient stone paths. This part of the wall was completely unrestored and looked very different to the iconic images of The Great Wall of China printed on the nation’s currency and plastered on every travel agent and hostel wall in Beijing. Instead of neat, ordered paths and towering stone turrets, we found ourselves trekking along barely intact stone ridges, overgrown with bushes and brambles, all but crumbling beneath our steps. Often the wall itself was too treacherous to climb and we made our way beside it along roughly hewn dirt tracks. Far from the shiny, sterilised tourist experience, we were seeing the Wall as it has become after years of use, through hundreds of years of history. With not another tourist in sight, we followed the Great Wall of China into the mountains.
From the village we had seen a watchtower perched atop the mountain peak and resolved to settle in there for the night. Allowing three or four hours to reach it, we were surprised when after only an hour and a half we found ourselves traversing the vertical stone face that lead to the turret’s entrance. As we approached, we saw a Chinese couple climbing down, on their way out. By this time it was 5:30pm and they indicated it was very late for us to be heading up there. Perhaps they were turning a blind eye to the sleeping bags hanging from our backpacks.
Climbing into our mountaintop turret, we surveyed our surroundings from the highest point of the wall. Until we looked behind us and realised we were nowhere near the top. Along the ridge line, four turrets away was what seemed to be the actual highest point. It was the top and we wanted to be at the top. So, abandoning our previous camp, we pressed on.
Crossing through the ancient watchtowers, in various states of disrepair, we stopped briefly to admire the beautiful stone archways and the view of the Wall we had already traversed. As the sun began to sink towards the horizon we pushed our way through painful thorny brambles and clouds of flying insects before traversing a slippery stone face and arriving at our destination â€“ the top. Devoid of a watchtower, the peak held only a small natural stone platform and the remains of a once functioning aircraft warning light. Our trio – hot, dirty, exhausted and scratched up â€“ stopped to take in the sunset and appreciate just where we were. In the middle of nowhere on an abandoned stretch of The Great Wall of China, Adrian, Moses and I could add another great feat to our growing lists.
Peering down at the view below, we stopped for long enough to appreciate the scenery. The Wall stretched out behind and around us in several directions, going on and on and on, rising and falling with the terrain. Moe eloquently summarised it, as no doubt countless Mongolians have over the millenia; â€œMan, this thing goes on for fucking EVER.â€ On either side of our mountain peak, we could watch both nature and civilization unfold. To one side we watched, hypnotized, as freight and passenger trains slid along the shining tracks, glistening with the sun’s last rays, before disappearing into tunnels cut through the mountainside. To the other side, rolling green hills undulated before us in a perfectly picturesque Chinese countryside landscape.
We stayed as long as we could, taking in the land that lay around us before scrambling back down the stone face and back towards the path. Now we were racing the sun and we chased the last moments of light back to a lower watchtower we’d chosen as our home for the night.
Setting up our blow up mats and sleeping bags in the fading light, we settled in for the evening. We managed to climb up a stone wall that, judging from the worn hand and footholds, many travellers had climbed before, and found ourselves atop the tower. Over the years, the tower’s roof had been transformed into a garden and grass, bushes and wildflowers grew freely on the stone structure. Resting amongst the flora, we stopped once more to appreciate the view before climbing back down into our refuge. Adrian had brought his portable speaker and we spent hours sitting in the tower’s windows, thinking of close friends back home and watching the sky turn dark and the village below light up to the sounds of Onra and Jose Gonzales.
I was awoken early the next morning to the sound of Moses groaning loudly as he stretched awake. Opening my eyes, I saw the sky already growing light. My watch blinked 4:15am and as we all came to, we eagerly climbed out of our sleeping bags, hoping we hadn’t missed the sunrise. Climbing groggily up the stone wall once more, we clambered onto the watchtower roof to see the clouds on the horizon already turning a pale shade of pink. Sunrise was predicted for 4:58am and we waited eagerly, hoping the sky would be clear enough to see the sun. Our hope waned as the sky continued to lighten with no sun in sight. Then, as we were ready to give up, the glowing red orb emerged from behind the horizon. Through the clouds (and the pollution) the sun appeared deep orange, dulled enough to look at through the filter of the haze. We stared in awe, taken aback by this unique sunrise, over such an incredible place. This felt, to me, to be a rare moment of peace, amongst the hectic pace of the last week, and I drank in the stillness of the dawn.
Soon, though, we were on our way again and after a quick breakfast of bananas and peanuts, we packed up our belongings and started the trek back towards the village at the foot of the mountain. As we reached the bottom of the steep mountain path, we approached the train tunnel that we had spent so long watching the day before. Keeping an ear out for approaching locomotives, we picked our way along the tracks for a while before we heard the tell-tale blast of a train horn. Moving aside, we watched and waved from right beside the train lines as a freight train thundered past us, the driver happily waving back.
Moving away from the train tracks and back towards the village, we passed quaint little houses and hordes of beautiful wildflowers that I eagerly picked. Coming across a goat herder dressed in military camouflage, I presented him with a purple flower which he happily accepted and waved as we went on our way past the ugly and smelly goats that he tended to.
Moe and I had slept soundly the night before, on the dirt floor of the ancient watchtower and we were relatively energised and rested. Adrian, however, had been kept awake by the sound (and occasionally the sight) of rats scurrying around and tearing into the rubbish from Moe’s dinner and he began to struggle with the walk. Nevertheless, he was eager to continue with the plan of exploring the east Wall for a few hours before we left for Beijing. So up the east Wall we went. This section quickly proved to be the inferior section, barely standing and barely recognisable as a wall at all. But looking out across the village, we saw the peak that we had slept upon the night before and I felt that same sense of accomplishment as I did when looking back up at Huashan.
Coming to a crossroads, Adrian and I stopped to rest and appreciate the view for a while, as Moe pressed on. Expecting to see him emerge on the next peak, we waited to signal to him that we were staying put. But Moe never emerged. Not knowing which road he had taken, we rested in the shade, hoping he would come back the same way. Eventually, an hour or so later, he called asking what happened to us. After confirming that nobody was lost in the Chinese wilderness, Moe met us back in our resting spot and we all, exhausted, made our way back to the village just in time to catch the once-hourly bus back to the larger town and, eventually, back to Beijing.
Dirty and sweaty, we all fell asleep on the bus back, exhausted but thoroughly pleased with ourselves and knowing this would be an experience to look back upon fondly.