This is a story about the Great Wall, but even more than that it’s a story about a guy I know who’s really, really into the Great Wall. Yes, I know I’m into the Wall – every second entry on this blog is about it – but I am nothing more than a young, naive Luke Skywalker to this guy’s Yoda. In May 2013 I joined him on an expedition to explore obscure, remote parts of the wall out in Gansu Province, as far west as historical China extended during the Han and Ming dynasties. In a week with Yoda, I would climb a rockface, navigate by night, gather Han potsherds, thumb rides by the side of the freeway, and eat stir fried gizzards. I also learned a lot about the Great Wall, and made a good friend.
Flying west out of Beijing was very bumpy – it was a hot day, heat was rising off the mountains below and I was in the tail end of a jet putting up a wicked shimmy. Far down below I realised we were tracking right over Juyongguan and then over Chenjiabu and the High Tower at Huangtaizi. Bumping against the window with each jolt from the turbulence, I managed to get a few shots of the Great Wall down below, and marveled at my expertise in recognising it from a moving plane – the payoff of many nights studying Google Earth imagery.
But my friend – let’s call him by his online nickname Chinoook – was a real expert, someone who knew a daunting amount about the wall, the dynasties which built it, and the way they built it and why. And he had hiked more than 3,000 kilometers on it, discovered walls hitherto lost to history, and stored up an encyclopedia of data in his photographic memory that would hopefully one day be set out fully on paper (and possibly translated by me for the English edition).
Joining the “Inner Circle”
I transited Lanzhou, Gansu’s capital that straddles the Yellow River, and thought about how I’d ended up here. My own obsession with the wall started in March 2010, just before leaving China for 18 months to do other things. I spent a night tracing what I could see of the wall on Google Earth, marking pins and discovering most of the main Ming line from Simatai to Badaling and then further west to Shuitoucun. I thought that looked like a quirky destination, and in researching it on line I quickly discovered the Great Wall Forum. With the information I found there (including a map that already covered everything I had seen on GE), I planned a trip. When I got to that remote village and climbed the wall there, I was instantly hooked. My actual hike was foiled that day by what I call the Chasm of Doom, but I posted my photos on the forum nonetheless.
It caused a mini-sensation (and I do emphasise “mini”) amongst the small group of dedicated wall fans there – one even posted it on the Chinese-language Great Wall Forum where I was briefly the topic of bemused discussion. We left China not long after, but on returning, I picked up my interest in the wall. My notes on the forum about my winter hike to Moyashike won me an invitation to join the inner circle (as Yon likes to call it), a small group of people who have a deep interest in finding and understanding the Great Wall.
One of them was Bryan Feldman, the forum’s founder, whose guidebook “Walk the Great Wall” I helped edit and contributed some images to. Another was Chinoook.
Chinoook lives in Europe and since first visiting Mutianyu – the touristy Great Wall – has made it his goal to traverse the entire Ming Great Wall from Jiayuguan in Gansu to Shanhaiguan on the eastern seaboard. Each year he devotes a month or two to this, picking up exactly where he left off the previous visit. At the time of writing, he’d covered every step – and I mean every step, not missing huge swathes like most so-called “through hikers” – between Jiayuguan and Simatai, NE of Beijing. Along the way he has also hiked many kilometers of Han dynasty walls, and those lesser known walls of dynasties like the Yan and Western Xia. He has found, through careful study of Google Earth and diligent field work in China, walls that even Chinese researchers were not aware existed.
Chinoook, in other words, is the real deal.
Jiayuguan and Roadside Forts
I waited at Jiayuguan’s funny little airport for Chinoook to pick me up. He rolled up in a Hyundai SUV driven by his friend Chen Huai. Old Chen was another character, as I would discover later. But for now we got straight into it and drove out to the famous fort at Jiayuguan. Built in beautiful Ming style, legend has it that the engineer in charge was so confident of his calculations that he ordered precisely the correct number of bricks required to build it. The general overseeing the project commanded him to get extras, just in case. To make a point, the engineer ordered a single extra brick, and when the fort was complete, he laid that solitary surplus brick on a ledge outside. It is still there today.
But Chinoook showed me the far more interesting aspects of the (restored) fort at Jiayuguan – the intersection between the Ming line and the much older Han Dynasty wall; contemporary tombs on the rocky desert plateau; bee-hive shaped signal fire structures high up on a ridge beyond, undisturbed for nearly 500 years. It was a convincing early demonstration of the depth of his knowledge and a promising preview of the week to come.
We walked back into town, getting lost on the way, and wound up at our hotel to meet Chen Huai. A dedicated historian of his local region, Old Chen is a warm, eccentric fellow with any number of quirky little habits (doing u-turns on dangerous spots on the freeway is just the start). In each town he has his favourite place to eat, somewhere he knows the boss, considers clean, and likes the food. We tucked in to hotpot at a little place in the corner of the night market, hitting the first of too many beers I would drink that week.
Over the next day we drove many kilometers east to Dunhuang, stopping along the highway regularly to check out watchtowers and forts. Some were as recent as the Qing Dynasty (China’s last, 1644-1911CE); others dated back to the Han (206BCE – 220CE). Of the many, the most memorable was a complex ruin at Shanmacheng (literally, the horse castrating fort) that had a large Han fort, half washed away by the changing course of a river, with a smaller Ming (1368-1644CE) fort behind it, and a third fortified compound, probably Han, in the village behind it. It was my first introduction to Chinoook’s freewheeling ways, and Chen Huai’s loose interpretation of the road rules. But hey, This Is China!
We parked on the hard shoulder, climbed the barbed wire fence, walked through the river bed and up to the fort. I was amazed by the untouched quality of this place – we walked right into the fort – and by the quantity and size of Han and Ming potsherds just lying around on the ground. One smashed Ming water vessel, or pickle jar, looked for all the world like it had been kicked over just last week, not half a millennium ago. Chinoook was quite excited by the smaller Ming fort, which had interesting construction elements he normally associated with the Han, but potsherds clearly showing usage by the Ming.
It was lonely country and a long drive from here. We did a little more of Chen Huai style cross country driving near an interesting tower-and-fort combination as we came closer to town, and then found ourselves in a nice room at “mates rates” in a fancy hotel owned by a guy Chen Huai knew somehow. Dinner was a big one of Chen Huai’s ordering in another funny little place tucked away behind Dunhuang’s famous night market.
Chinoook and I visited the famous Mogang Grotto and climbed the Singing Dunes – a topic for another day – before we left for Chen Huai’s home further to the east. He lived near the town of Shandan – probably a fifth-tier city if the informal grading system even goes that far down. Old Chen had a large, but very basic, compound right by the highway and quite literally on the Great Wall. It ran no more than 20 meters north of his house, a huge great Ming era rammed earth wall cut in half by the freeway at a place called Chang Cheng Kou – Great Wall Pass. Apart from his place, there was nothing here but a great big truck stop served by some gritty noodle joints, a few stores and a guy who made 20,000 a month (a fantastic salary for China, especially in a province where most wouldn’t make that in a year) selling brake cooling water to truckers from a tank by the side of the road.
The High Han Wall at Longshoushan
A year or two before, Chinook had followed a hunch from some inconclusive GE imagery and pushed up into the mountains north of here. A shepherd told him of an “old tower” far into the hills – he’d climbed up there and discovered an 80-odd kilometer stretch of Han wall. He traversed the whole thing westwards over a few days until a big rocky mountain blocked his path in failing light. Would I be willing to try to overcome that obstacle with him, and see whether the wall continued?
Well, I was here, wasn’t I? We set off early with Chen Huai behind the wheel. He never walks anywhere – even preferring to rough ride it over dodgy terrain off the side of the freeway than to walk a few hundred meters to a fort. We arranged to call him at the end of the day for a pickup, and said farewell when the road was too rough even for his driving.
It was a spectacular hike with a frightening open scramble up a fairly serious rockface – lots of exposure and with a quickening wind more than a few heartstopping moments. My inner monologue kicked in as it always does in places like that – “just breathe easy, don’t worry, three points on, keep it together”. Actually, the inner voice is a little more self-critical than that, and more than a little more profane, but hey, my sister might read this. But we scrambled and struggled our way up to a tiny temple on the summit – just over 3,000 meters above sea level and 1,200 meters above the valley floor – and enjoyed phenomenal views into the deserts of Inner Mongolia to our north.
High up there was untouched country. In a meadow nestled between peaks and ridges was a clear continuation of the wall, double-structured in the Han style of that area, and completely removed from any conceivable access point. Only an expert would even recognise it as Great Wall. We continued further along the line of the range and were surprised to discover Ming potsherds outside the line of the Han wall. Had the Ming also manned this wall (it ran parallel to, but north of, the main Ming wall near Chen Huai’s place)? Had a patrol come out to what would have been the badlands and left a smashed pickle jar? Another mystery goes unsolved.
We were late down on this hike. As the evening light failed we looked for a route down to the valley below. In the yellow setting sun, across a smaller valley, I saw a beautiful herd of deer race across the hillside, their coats reflecting the sun as they passed. It was nearly dark by the time we found ourselves hiking out a dry riverbed canyon onto the plateau. The lights of trucks on the highway twinkled some miles away.
It was here that I worked out a simple little navigation problem. It was tricky, in the failing light, to estimate our distance to the highway so we could tell Chen Huai when to leave home and pick us up. We’d come downhill several kilometers short of our planned exit point, and on my GPS I only had one lat/long waypoint on the highway, due south of that planned exit point, but diagonally away from us. I realised that the highway here was generally straight and that therefore that stored point diagonally off to my right must have the same latitude as the point directly ahead of me. I looked it up and compared it to my current position – we were two minutes of latitude north of the highway (you know, degrees, minutes and seconds of latitude or longitude). From my geeky study of the topic, I knew that a minute of latitude equated to one nautical mile.* And I knew that in this situation, longitude was irrelevant because I only wanted to measure the distance directly ahead of me. So using the cool slide rule bezel on my watch, I converted two nautical miles into kilometers (it’s 3.7) and announced that we would reach the highway in about an hour at the pace we were managing (which was about 2 km/h over that ground, in the near-dark, while doing maths in my head). After calling Chen Huai, Chinoook asked me how I’d estimated it. I think (ok, I like to think) he liked my explanation.
We arrived home at 11 pm after hunkering down by the highway until Old Chen found us using GPS coordinates we sms’d him. He had kindly asked the truckstop next door to prepare us some dinner, so it wasn’t long before we were tucking into a whole chicken and some cold beers. It was a damn long day but a pleasing one, with a couple of meaningful discoveries for Chinoook. And it was just a fraction of what we’d do that week – more in Part II.
*This is how they came up with a nautical mile in the first place – it is the length of one minute of arc of latitude along a meridian (ie a minute north or south). It doesn’t work with longitude because the closer you get to the poles, the less distance there is between the lines of longitude. At north China’s latitude, around 40 degrees north, a degree of longitude (ie east-west) is about 3/4 of a nautical mile. At the equator, a minute of longitude is a nautical mile.
A nautical mile differs from a statute mile, being longer.
A nautical mile is 1.85 km; a statute mile is 1.6km.