Sunrise above Shuitoucun. Set off at three in the morning, a cold November Sunday, hike four kilometers through fog and forest to the pass, down to the Watergate and then up the long line of Great Wall. The first light rises as you breach the cloudbase, and then, southeast, to your left, the huge yellow sun bursts into the world from beyond the range.
A fine end to a year’s hiking. And, hopefully, as the kid gets bigger, a sign of more in the year ahead.
This part of the Great Wall is especially fascinating for me. When I got into exploring the wall, this area was one of the first places I really got to know. I tried to walk solo from the point west of Shuitoucun Village all the way to Badaling back in 2012, and failed. I tried again, this time supported by a grant from The Next Challenge, in January 2016, and failed again. I’ll give the long walk one last crack soon. But in November 2016, I revisited with my family and some friends. This time, it was to nail down the alternative route to the small fort below the wall which I’d visited that time in 2012.
Last summer, we tried the alternative route with some very fit friends and our baby on my back. We got off to a good start in fine weather and cleared the pass with time up our sleeves. We also easily found the trailhead for the last few kilometers up to the fort. I’d been that way in late winter 2012, so I knew it was a real route, but in summer 2016 it was heavily overgrown and very hard to find. We gave up when we reached our turnaround time, just 700 meters from the fort.
This time around I was determined to succeed. With friend Ben, another guy called Alex and his teenage daughter, plus Dotty the Dog, we set off from the farmhouse at 3:00am straight into a white out. I know the path well by now, and we reached the pass in total darkness and still complete fog. It was chilly, and once we popped out from behind the protective ridge, it was windy too. Down, down the winding rocky path on the other side until the dirt road that connects the old Ming watergate to the sleepy hamlet of Shuitoucun below.
And then up, up, straight up the rubbly wall in the dark. Just the faint bubble of light from the head lamp, much of it reflecting off cloud, making your personal universe about a meter in diameter. Still cold, still windy, but as we climbed higher the cloud faded ever so slightly. Then, suddenly, we were above the layer of cloud, like poking your head out of the blanket after a long night in a house that’s too cold (like, every winter in Beijing until we moved to a home with real heating…).
Pitch black, but stars! Beijing is so smoggy and light-polluted that stars are almost a forgotten phenomenon, something from another place you used to know. Didn’t you, or was it just a dream? But here they are in front of you, and not just a few but the whole lot.
Dawn’s pale first light was at quarter to seven, a heavy blue roof over a silver-grey eiderdown of cloud. Far behind us the pass above Zhenbiancheng was completely concealed, and only the ridge ahead and the big peaks to the south could be seen at all. Continuing uphill on a rarely-hiked section, we waited for what promised to be a fine sunrise, and to find out exactly where the sun would rise. After all, at Beijing’s latitude, sunrise in winter seems almost closer to south than to the east we’re taught at school.
When it did finally rise, at 7:20am, it came far on the southeastern horizon beyond the only other mountain high enough to breach the cloud. We were already at almost 1,600 meters elevation here. We stood together quietly and absorbed the scene. There was no heat. The sun seemed feeble and weak from here, a bare light bulb, low wattage. But it was beautiful.
Then I brewed some coffee on my PocketRocket and the day really began. Heading higher along the wall we soon reached the infamous (in my mind, anyway) “Chasm of Doom” – a jagged cliff that cuts an ugly notch out of the ridgeline. It defeated me way back in 2010, my first ever proper “wild wall” expedition. Since the second visit in 2012, I knew the detour, and we shimmied down over the side of the wall a few meters short of the chasm and picked up the faint path along the enemy side of the wall. Snow already covered the ground here, and would until well after winter, because only in late Spring does the sun get high enough in the sky to reach this north-facing slope.
Down here it was relatively flat, although the mountainside was steep overall. As we proceeded west, the wall over our shoulder came lower towards us, two routes merging like an on ramp to a free way. After half a kilometer the wall loomed up on the left and we hustled up the scrubby slope to regain it. From here, the glorious rocky fortress of an unnamed mountain dominated the view; further below to the right an equally glorious though far smaller actual fortress formed a half-moon below; a clear terminator pushing the shadow of night eastwards.
I love that fort, though this was only my second visit. I first reached it in 2012, Good Friday, the first time I tried the full route from here to Badaling. Nothing much had changed, though someone had cleaned it up a bit. Twisting left, though, I was appalled to see what had been done to the old wall at the small pass just south of here. I had an inkling from Google Earth, but where once there was a completely original section of wall – the western-most end of the long line of wall from Badaling – now there was a hideous modern …reconstruction is too generous a word, as the “re” implies a resemblance to something that was there before. This bore no such relationship to the past. Instead of the building techniques from the original wall, instead, even, of the same kind of stones, there stood a rude, ugly, concrete-smothered confection. It would be too academic even to call it a simulacra. No. It was just an ugly mess. Truly, it is a scandal that China’s world heritage – as humble as it might seem at that precise place – can in the 21st century be wantonly wiped from the face of the Earth for someone’s ill-considered idea of a, well, what? What they were even thinking at all is difficult to fathom. This is a remote place, a long way from anywhere, and about seven kilomters of steep climbing uphill from the tiny holiday resort that the path leads to from that point.
But I kept my thoughts to myself. The sun was warm now, and bright, and the place is magical. Far to the southwest, through the gap between the regrettable ugliness of that wall and the monstrous natural castle, lay an ocean of white clouds. There’s something about being up high, above the lands below, above the clouds, amongst the peaks and summits, inside the wind.
We left, down into the forest again on the north side, snow underfoot, and before long we were at the point I’d stopped at with my other friends on the way up that day last summer. Of course, I worked out the mistakes lower down; had I not made those, we’d have probably made it that day. This was once a nicely kept little ravine, with terraces built carefully and with two tall stands of birch planted somewhere in the past. From here it was easy to pick up the main valley, below the wall we’d ascended before dawn, and then cross above Shuitoucun towards the pass.
There, I left my friends to wait for their wives who were coming uphill after waking at a civilised hour. I ran down the path to find my own wife and daughter, and her grandmother, and together we played in the orchards by Zhenbiancheng under a sunny blue sky.
As I said at the time on WeChat: “left my girls warm on their kang at 3am and climbed up to see the sun rise over the Great Wall”.
To see the sun rise from a high and ancient place is a special thing.