Posted by on May 30, 2011 | 0 comments

23 April 2011

We got up very early on Saturday morning. Today was the day we were going to visit the Great Wall of China. But we weren’t going to one of the normal tourist destinations, and competing with the usual throngs of visitors. We wouldn’t be walking on one of those sections of the wall that has been restored and made to look brand new. Quite the opposite, in fact. We would be travelling to a remote, mountainous area, climbing up to the top of the ridge, then hiking along a length of the Great Wall that is mostly in ruins, as it rises and falls across the rocky cliffs. I was warned that this would not be easy, but I really could not have imagined how challenging it would turn out to be.

We had been invited to partake in this adventure by Yan (pronounced “Ian”), who is the husband of Guirong, Yuan’s former business partner. Yan is a retired teacher who is good-natured, gregarious, and very active. He is an avid photographer, and today he was carrying a Canon camera with a very large, heavy lens. I couldn’t imagine how he was going to be able to lug that thing around all day. I was carrying a backpack full of food and water, along with my own much smaller Canon camera.

We were travelling on a bus with a group of experienced climbers, most of whom were very young and energetic. The group was large enough that we occupied two buses. During the trip, our bus driver spent most of the time driving dangerously close to the bus in front of us. As he drove, I kept hearing a voice at the front of the bus making announcements. Yuan explained that this was the GPS giving detailed directions. At one point, as we were driving through a small town, the GPS was telling the driver that up ahead there was a traffic camera, and that he was going over the speed limit and should slow down. I was impressed that the GPS system possessed such detailed knowledge.

The seats on the bus were very uncomfortable. Each seat was equipped with a wooden rod that I can only assume was intended to provide some sort of lumbar support. Instead it felt like someone was behind me with their knee in my back constantly during the trip.

Nut Vendors

Great Wall Village

Chinese Chess

Rural Refrigeration

Village Trail

Roasting Corn

Trail Head Left

Trail Head Right

Lower Trail

Reaching the Great Wall

Rain Clouds From Wall

Crumbling Walkway

After about an hour and a half, we finally reached our destination, in a small village. I was told that I should use the restroom before we started climbing, as there would be no more opportunities for the rest of the day. I followed the crowd into the building with the toilets, but I had to turn around and walk right back out again. What I saw was pretty horrifying: a crowd of men lined up in front of a single long urinal. They weren’t exactly being careful about the direction they were aiming, if you understand my meaning. And the place smelled incredibly foul. I just couldn’t bring myself to participate in this horror show. Fortunately Yuan was able to find me an alternative restroom nearby and convince the caretakers there to let me use it.

At last we were ready to hit the trail. As we walked along we passed a campfire where someone was roasting walnuts and corn. Nearby there was a pool filled with cold drinks and beverages. There was a stream of water pouring into the pool, which appeared to be providing a primitive form of refrigeration. The proprietor must have stepped out, because I didn’t see anyone around.

Soon we had left the village, and we made our way to the trail head and prepared to start climbing. There were identical signs on either side of the trail that said, “This section of the Great Wall is not open to the public.” But of course, this is China, where rules only apply to other people. We knew we were in the right place, and off we went.

Yan on Lower Trail

Lower Trail Ladder

Reached the Wall 1

Reached the Wall 2

Crumbling Wall 1

Looking Back Along Wall

Brian Stands On Wall

Crumbling Wall 2

Steep Climbing

Brian Sits On Wall

Cliffs Viewed From Wall

View From Wall

Wall Ruins (Back)

Wall Ruins (Front)

The trail (such as it was) was quite primitive. Many sections consisted of nothing more than rocky areas, and it was often hard to tell if we were still following an actual trail. At one particularly steep section, someone had been kind enough to install a ladder. This was a tough climb. The trail was so steep that most of the time it felt as if we were running up an endless flight of stairs, and taking them three steps at a time. But instead of nice, even stairs, we were walking on dirt, gravel and loose rocks that required stepping very carefully and struggling to maintain balance.

When we started out, it was cool and overcast. Before long, the sun came out and it warmed up. I quickly found myself working up a sweat as we climbed up the steep trail. Then, after almost an hour, the clouds rolled in and it cooled off and started to rain. I put on my jacket. Someone warned us that we should make sure our cell phones were switched off. Apparently there have been cases where people were struck by lightning on the mountain, and the theory was that it might have been because of their cell phone.

The rain didn’t last long, and before we knew it the sun was out again. We finally reached the Great Wall after about an hour and a half of climbing. I was soaked with sweat and glad for the cool breeze that was blowing through. I stopped to catch my breath and take in the amazing views.

Forward Along Wall

Back Along Wall

Back Along Wall 2

Crumbling Path

Looking Back Closeup 1

Looking Back Closeup 2

Back Along Wall 3

Climbing Outside Wall

Wall With Cliffs

Steep Wall Steps

Wall Overgrowth

Climbing Outside Wall 2

Wall Continues

Standing On Wall

Wall Continues On

The wall itself was completely in ruins. From where we were standing it rose steeply in both directions, a crumbling pile of large rocks, haphazardly arranged in a menacingly chaotic pattern. Climbing this was going to be quite a challenge. The path was steep, and the rocks were loose and unevenly shaped, requiring us to keep our attention constantly focused on every step. Our diligent efforts were rewarded at every turn, however, with ever-changing panoramic views from the dizzying heights of the wall.

The weather was extremely variable, just as the terrain was. Before long that cool initial breeze had turned into a strong, cold wind, with more clouds coming in, and I had to put my jacket back on. Then a few minutes later, the sun came back, the wind died down, and it became hot and dry. Winding its way over the top of the ridge, the wall stretched out across this mountainous terrain as far as the eye could see in both directions. It was going to be a long day, but we were up for the challenge.

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