Regular readers of this blog know that we do some fairly foolish and pretty challenging things when we head out on hikes. As a few examples: we walked along railway tracks and across a water-less island in Russia. In Mongolia we set out for a walk through the desert, and accidentally extended our route in the mountains to twice as far as we intended to go. But I think we didn’t underestimate any of these as much as we underestimated the Great Wall of China.
We had planned a seven kilometre walk along the Great Wall, following the guidebook’s instructions, from an old section to the new. We had wanted to see the crumbling rock and the ‘original’ wall before seeing it as it would have been shortly after the rock-based version was built (The wall was originally a wooden barricade, and was expanded over the years, fortified, and rebuilt, different sections at different times. The Lonely Planet ‘recommended’ (read: inspired us by calling it ‘challenging’ and ‘dangerous’) a 3 hour walk from the Jiankou section to the refurbished Mutianyu section.
As luck would have it, Luke’s curse of ‘the death bimble’ struck again, however, and we ended up doing around 15 km in 33 degree heat, in the baking sun. The fundamental problem was that we didn’t have any real idea of where we were meant to start. We gave the driver the characters in the guidebook, and started wherever he dropped us off. This turned out to be several kilometres from where we were meant to be dropped off- a misunderstanding based on the fact that we had not remembered the key sentence in the guidebook description of ‘getting there’.
The day had started with difficulty anyway, as a quarter of our party had to drop out due to illness. We left Laura at home and embarked on a bus and taxi journey to the small town of Huairou which would provide the starting point for our walk. The path from the centre of town led us up through a dense jungle like forest, up and up towards the wall, so far only sighted from a distance. When we finally arrived it was a surprise, we stepped out of the forest and suddenly it was there. We faced an old man under an awning selling water, rocks crumbling around him. Following the instructions (and thinking we were on route), we headed east along the wall. Our way took us through stretches of wall nearly obscured through random tree growth, along balancing stretches where the wall seemed to drop away from both sides, and in places, stretches where the wall was no longer a wall, and more of a vertical climb.
This itself was tiring, and we soon ran out of water in the heat and sun. We stopped at nearly every vendor to enquire what price they wanted. The woman who wanted 10 Yuan for 500 ml of water was a shock. She sat at the top of a watch tower, feet dangling over the side onto a ladder, and refused to give a more reasonable price. Deciding that it was not worth it, we made to climb the ladder- and she held out her hand and demanded five yuan for the privilege. There was absolutely nothing that gave her the right to ask for money to use a ladder, and we were taken aback. We attempted to find another route and a helpful citizen who informed us that there was another ladder further on. As we headed off we heard the lady shout and above us, a conspirator appeared, blocking the second ladder. As Luke made to climb it, the man grabbed the ladder and went to push it away. He seemed completely likely to push Luke off, angry at our refusal to pay him for something he had no right asking money for. The forest on the side of the wall fell away to a steeper incline, and we faced the potential of falling off the side before reaching the next point where we could easily clamber back onto the wall.
We came up with another solution, and used our (very rusty) climbing skills to scale the wall, pushing our feet into the small gaps between the rocks and fingers sliding between into the cracks. Tourists walking over from the other side were alarmed. Needless to say, we all survived, but all of us had racing hearts for quite a while. We found ourselves thankful that this particular section of the wall was fairly well maintained, unlike some of the crumbling walls we had seen earlier.
This event aside, we were in awe of the size, scale, and state of the wall as it made its way up and down the cliffsides. When we finally arrived at the new part of the wall we were relieved to find even steps, wide paths and significantly easier walking. It did feel less epic, though. Our path was suddenly predominantly downhill, and we walked down the steps haltingly, legs exhausted from the constant uphill the rest of the day. The death bimble had struck again, exhaustion had won again, but we all felt very accomplished. Some of us even had the audacity to consider it a great, fun day- I wonder if enough time has passed that the whole group would agree?
Do it yourself:
From central Beijing take the Metro (line 2 or 13) to Dongzhimen Transport hub. Here find the 916 and wait in the queue, you pay the driver when you get on (12 Yuan). Get off in Huairou, a few stops after people start trying to lure you off the bus by shouting the names of the sections of wall at you- they want to make extra money by driving a longer distance. If you want an epic death bimble, rent a taxi (negotiate hard and don’t be afraid to walk away!) and get them to drive you to Xīzhàzi village (I think we paid 30 Yuan). Here you pay your entrance fee and begin your epic day out. Don’t forget sunscreen and lots of water, or be prepared to splash out quite a bit of change on refills!