April 2015: Half way up a narrow, steep, crumbling, five hundred year old staircase is not the place to decide to turn around and climb down. It’s still less the place to switch places with your friend. But when I looked at the sagging lower layer of bricks and the loose sand around them, I decided that hauling myself over the top of the nearly two meter brick wall in front of me was too risky. It was the last obstacle before the top, but I didn’t want it to be my last obstacle ever. Cause of death? Crushed in a rockfall. No thanks.
Ben, on the other hand, thought it was manageable, and wanted a closer look. So he squeezed past as I hung on grimly to the cold bricks. My feet were on a sandy ledge about the width of my foot. The wind raced above our heads. Ben was determined to continue, so asked him to wait until I was down and out of the way. With Rob below me doing the same, I gingerly downclimbed the small (and I mean small – an inch or two deep at most) steps and looked back up. Ben quickly and easily cleared the obstacle. As we set off on the half-hour hike up the hillside to meet him, I thought “Ben’s going to rib me about this on every hike from now on”.
You have to go with your instinct on the Great Wall. Everything is five centuries old, at best. Ming Dynasty stonework is incredible, and in many places it has held up remarkably well against the ravages of five hundred winters. But in other places, it hasn’t. My feeling, looking at the bricks and the sand, was that this was one of those places. Maybe I was wrong, or maybe Ben just got lucky. Either way, he was pretty good about it. When we caught up to him, sitting at the next tower, I said “well, you finally snapped me like a twig”. “Well”, he replied graciously, “I was right at the edge of my comfort zone too”.
This was my first trip back to the wall since the birth of our daughter. Though tired, I was looking forward to the day and had planned something a little more ambitious than usual. Far to the northeast of Beijing, on the border with Hebei Province, the small village of Dajiaoyu has a good stretch of wall either side of a major water gate. I decided to see if I could hike both stretches, as well as a nearby older wall, and maybe pick up a few extra towers as well. In all it was about a 20 kilometer effort, with plenty of climbing and some cross country navigation. My brother-in-law Rob joined us. On his first trip to China, he worried briefly that he was wearing jungle camo, the first jacket he’d grabbed when packing. Don’t worry, I said. Ben might be wearing “Desert Storm”. Sure enough, as Ben rolled up to meet us at the subway station, he appeared in his desert fatigues. In the end, I was the odd one out (having left my Indian Army disposal shirt at home).
Before trying the stairs, we swung northeast to come up around behind the higher towers on the east side. This involved a bit of cross country navigation – following our noses really – until we intercepted a path I had seen on Google Earth. That brought us right to the top of a mountain, over 1,100 meters above sea level and with commanding views southeast to southwest.
This stretch had two well-preserved towers, one with some locally applied protective scaffolding made of old logs. It was the Tomb Sweeping Festival weekend, and we bumped into a family group of hikers led by the local Mr Bai, a sort of ranger for the nearby village of Wudaoliang (across the border in Hebei). One of the women had that annoying Chinese habit of yelling as loudly as possible in the great outdoors, and she gave a demonstration from the roof of the tower. We had to hand it to her – she had an incredible pair of lungs. Mr Bai, a wiry old guy, asked us to sign a sheet of paper which seemed like a register of everyone who had visited this stretch of wall. We bade them farewell and descended to the sound of another almighty yell from the woman.
I’ve often thought that Ming engineers were sometimes just showing off. Soaring towers on knife-edge ridges which would be unscalable by modern mountaineers, much less Mongolian raiders, are commonplace around Beijing. As we continued downhill back towards the staircase and watergate, we came across a narrow, high wall curving across a gap in the ridge. For good measure, there was an extra span of wall below it, butting into the sheer cliff beyond. The curved brickwork was beautiful and quite unfamiliar to me.
Further down, we had to negotiate two cliffs, one behind the lovely curved wall pictured above, and another still lower down. The first was easy enough, and a path revealed a fantastic mountain lair made of old Great Wall bricks. The second was a bit more challenging. It ended in a long, steep, scrubby bush bash down the hillside, following our noses (again) to the watergate. Scratched and tired, we returned there about noon and looked at the staircase.
The staircase started out well enough. The steps were very short, generally an inch or two deep, meaning it was safest to go up sideways. The high walls either side were welcome, sheltering us from the worst of the wind. It was my turn to lead out, so up I went, step by step. About two thirds of the way up, I looked with concern at the wall ahead of me. Although the platform slightly above me was larger, the wall in front of it was almost vertical and looked structurally weak. A few bricks poked out in random directions, and one layer of bricks was distinctly saggy. Dry sand rather than mortar lay between the bricks. My instincts warned me. Ordinarily such an obstacle – one that steep and high – would be manageable for me, if a bit tricky. I wasn’t afraid of the climb. I was afraid that the wall would crumble under my weight, or under Ben or Rob’s weight as the followed me. I called my concern down the line.
A windblown discussion followed which culminated in Ben climbing up and squeezing past me to take a look for himself. While he pondered the wall, I climbed carefully down. Rob did the same. At the bottom, I looked up and, of course, watched Ben clear the obstacle with apparent ease. But I didn’t go back up. Once you make these decisions, I think it’s important to stick to them. So Rob and I headed up past the water gate again and then doubled back on a path that brought us, after a half hour hustle, to the tower above the steps. Ben waited patiently for us and we made lunch in a ruined tower. A gentle dig was the most Ben gave me – gracious as always.
It was past two when we set out for the second half of the route, unsure about whether we could do the whole thing. The next section was very easy walking. I was tail end charlie for a while now, and arrived to find the other two staring at a tree. What’s up, I asked. Rob, who’d been in front, answered. “My Australian paranoid fear of snakes kicked in at the last second – I just saw this out of the corner of my eye”. I looked more closely. A beautiful snake clung to the small tree beside the path. Like Rob, I was wary. Coming from Australia, home to six of the world’s seven most venomous land snakes, a little caution before serpents is well advised. But I was fairly sure that Beijing’s snakes are generally not venomous (ah, wrong!) and so I chanced my hand for a photo. I believe, following research, that this fellow was a “Dione Ratsnake“, a common, non-venomous member of the elaphe genus.
Beyond the ridge, the wall dropped steeply into a small valley then climbed back out. A staircase, even steeper and more ruined than the other one, threatened to block us for good. But when we reached it, a path revealed itself and we were able to scramble up the hillside to the higher towers. This was good news, because it meant there would probably be time to complete the full loop (and still have some daylight).
Further up the wall deteriorated in quality of construction and general condition. Before long, though, we reached the tower where a subsidiary wall headed south then east, back to the watergate. That was our way home. After looking wistfully at the very high towers I had hoped to reach, we set off with a vague idea to come back one day and complete the journey.
The return loop was lovely walking, with the yellow evening light leaving everything glowing. The wind blew birdsong across our faces and a little pool of happiness surrounded me. Back at the valley, still high above the water gate, we had some navigation by trial and error before deciding to cross the hillside to the main wall and return the way we came. The path we found must have dated back to the Ming Dynasty, because it led directly to an arch in the main wall that was clearly a contemporary feature – from time to time a small gate was built in the wall to allow small parties in and out more discretely than marching through a major gateway.
I suffered a few painful leg cramps around this time – nearly nine hours into the hike. Ben came to the rescue with some salt, which I licked off my palm with as much dignity as I could assemble.
In the failing light, we made it back to the water gate and then down the long access path to Dajiaoyu Village. There, locals were strolling the dark streets in the early evening, and we shared a few remarks with them. Hungry, and facing a two hour drive to Beijing, we pitched up at a tiny compound Ben remembered from an earlier trip.
I rolled down my window and asked in my best Chinese, “Excuse me, is there somewhere around here we can eat? A restaurant?” Her reply was thick and accented, “Come in, you can eat here”. So we parked, and drank tea and beer while the lovely lady and her friendly husband prepared us a meal.
We didn’t get home until nearly 11pm. Tired, sore, but satisfied and full, and most of all, happy.