If your Camelbak crumples with a demoralising gurgle, you know you’ve run out of water. It’s a particularly disappointing realisation when you still have several hours of climbing ahead and it’s getting hotter by the moment. Such was my predicament on the Great Wall above Sancha a few weekends back. How I got through it is a short tale of “adapt and overcome”, sprinkled with the never-exhausted “kindness of strangers” that makes life in China much easier than one might think it is. Click through for more on my solo overnight microadventure, and discover how I got from here to beer:

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Spring had well and truly sprung in Beijing in late April when I decided to try a solo overnight trip to connect the Great Wall at Jiugongshan I’d reached in 2011 with the passes at Dazhenyu I visited at Easter this year. Between the two lie two quite different stretches, the first looking like an older stone wall of the early Ming Dynasty (1400s), and the latter clearly a fine stone and brick wall of the height of Ming achievement (somewhere around 1569-1576). From Google Earth, the first stretch had taunted me for a few years; the second seemed straightforward enough. Indeed, I wasn’t completely sure I could even do the first stretch in under two days. Though short – about 5 km – it looked very overgrown. So I planned for an overnight trip, in the worst case to make it as far as Tiekuangyu, and in the best case I thought I could go beyond Dazhenyu and get to Moyashike. If I could pull that off, I’d have completed the entire wall from Longquanyu to Shentangyu, covering about 50 km of the finest, most beautiful Great Wall China has to offer.

Fifty kilometers doesn’t sound like much, but remember, on the so-called Wild Wall the average rate of movement is one km/h. It’s steep, crumbly, and overgrown:

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Things started very well on Saturday morning with a smooth ride on the express bus to Huairou where my new driver, Mr Ling, met me in his little car. This guy talks at high speed about an ever-changing series of topics, so while I pick up at least half of it, I have become practised at nodding, grunting, and expressing agreement at what I think are the appropriate times. We raced west of Beijing’s satellite town and passed the imposing south face of the Jiankou ridge, sitting beneath a clear blue sky like the very end of the civilised world. It really isn’t too much to stretch the imagination and think that a Ming-era person staring at that cliff must have wondered what manner of barbarians and monsters dwelt on the other side of that mountain, thanking their lucky stars for the mighty Great Wall on top.

Jiugongshan itself is a revolutionaries’ cemetery, nestled in a quiet mountain valley with lovely sun and peaks all around. I recognised the place from my first visit and farewelled Mr Ling before heading uphill to the wall. The empty graves of still living cadres waited quietly for the inevitable – I wondered whether some would never be filled, if their intended tenants fell victim to President Xi’s current purge (also known as the anti-corruption drive).

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Before long, I left the present and entered the past. The Ming wall here is rough stone, quite high and in good shape (to help distinguish it from earlier dynasties like Northern Qi, although from the route alone this is clearly Ming). I pushed uphill quickly, into the quiet, nothing but wind and the occasional loose stone reaching my ears.

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↑ The first climb, heading north

This long stretch of wall, of which Jiugongshan is just a fraction, was mostly rebuilt during 1567-1576, part of the Ming Empire’s effort to buff up Beijing’s defences after the Mongol army made it all the way to the city gates in 1550 (burning and pillaging along the way). Before that, the wall looked like it does here – stone, without brick battlements (though sometimes with stone ones). For one reason or another, this stretch had not been upgraded even though the sections on either side (Huanghuacheng and Sancha) were of much higher quality, upgraded design.

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There were one or two original watchtowers, just square piles of rock without an interior (though they probably had a small hut built on top). Further to the east, though, more modern (better said, later Ming) towers had been built at tactically advantageous points along the old wall.

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I had initially planned to bivvy in the first of these towers (its ruins pictured above), but my pace was much faster than I’d expected. The wall was easy to walk, without the heavy scrub I’d feared, so I continued right past here and climbed up onto the high ridge. I took lunch in a funny little revetment built into the wall, not nearly a tower but, it seemed to me, probably an original shelter of some kind.

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Bees buzzed. Birds sang. The breeze breezed, the leaves rustled. All was at peace as I sat alone on the wall. I like my hiking buddies, I appreciate the safety margin of being in the hills with a friend. But sometimes you crave the solitude, perhaps especially when you live in a city of 20 million, though I think it’s deeper than that. For me, this trip was about challenging myself – to do something hard and do it on my own, without help, without outside encouragement. Just me, my skills and my determination.

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↑ The few remaining bricks of a newly mapped tower.

The wall went deeper into the forest now, and the going was a little slower. As I walked, I looked down at my feet and noticed a randomly placed door piece (technically, a “sill”), complete with the typical hole for the door to pivot in.

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Looking around a bit more carefully, I realised I was on the basement of a tower, more or less completely ruined. Had I not looked down at that very moment, I probably would have walked right past without noticing. Another tower, added to the map.

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↑ Out of the forest again and looking east. The Sancha wall runs perpendicular to my track, across the valley, and in the far distance, left to right, Black Camel Mountain, the Nine Eye Tower and the Beijing Knot were all visible.

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↑ Some potsherds I found in one of the watchtowers, including one with an unusual metal attachment

By now it was getting into the late afternoon. Rather than tackle the climb up to the east side of Tiekuangyu valley, I thought about bivvying. Suddenly I came across another tower we didn’t have on our map – it just appeared out of nowhere, half buried in the hillside. Another fine late Ming tower on an early stone stretch, this one turned out to be a perfect place to spend the night (and was Great Wall Tower of the Week #18).

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↑ This was about the last thing I expected to see just then

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↑ The best interior of all the towers on this stretch, it made a very comfortable bivvy…

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↑ …with an amazing late-light view east to tomorrow’s route

I boiled up some water that evening, for a cup of tea, and spent the last daylight trying to paint the scene using a tiny watercolour set I had with me. There was scarcely breath of wind, or so I thought. The only sound I heard, as the light disappeared for good, was a weird rustling noise at the back end of the tower. Fearing a scorpion or giant centipede – horrors! – I crept around with my headlamp trying to see what it was. Turns out it was an autumn leaf, left over from last autumn, flapping in the one breath of wind that was in fact blowing, almost imperceptibly, into the tower. I flicked away the leaf and all fell still. It stayed quiet all night long, but it was a peaceful silence, not a deathly one. People sometimes wonder if it isn’t creepy, sleeping in a ruined watchtower, alone on the wall. It could be, if you let it, but I don’t. I enjoy the solitude and the warmth of my bivvy.

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↑ Ready to go the next morning, still looking tired

Next day I woke at about 6, pretty tired, and dozed a bit longer. The climb downhill to the valley floor was very steep but straightforward enough. The quality of the wall improved, too, changing from stone to brick.

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↑ A bit of a shimmy is needed to get down this part

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↑ The final stair is really quite steep but in good condition

Towards the very bottom, the wall continues right down an enormous boulder, just a few bricks wide and very steep. Insanely dangerous, in other words. Not for nothing has someone, at great effort, placed an enormous rock to block the passage (I climbed right over it, but just for the photo).

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↑ Going this way was asking for trouble

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↑ You. Shall. Not. Pass. (said Gandalf the Boulder)

To the right of that rock, I left the wall on a small path that took me down to the road. Here I faced a choice. Turn left, walk a few kilometers to Sancha village to resupply with water; turn right, walk a few kilometers down to another village, and resupply, or take my chances with what I had left.

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↑ There are signs like this all over the place, but no-one, Chinese or foreign, pays them any attention. It’s just the way it is here.

When I reached the point where the path to the next stretch of began I decided, on a whim, to go with option three: take my chances. The reason was that the path was blocked, and I wasn’t sure that if I went down to the village I would be able to climb past the blockage without someone trying to prevent me doing it. So after a rough (and apparently inaccurate) calculation of my water consumption, I quickly walked up the steps and through a small building. The path was blocked with a pile of brush and a low stone wall, so I skirted round that and quickly shimmied up the side of a little retaining wall about 1.4 meters high. This got me onto the paved path, but further ahead was another blockage. Someone really didn’t want people going up this path. I skirted round that too and made my way uphill as quickly as I could. I didn’t have any problems, but had people been around, I might have.

It was heating up already, even though it was only about 9am. I was already thirsty, but conscious of the need to ration my water. So I took meagre sips from the Camelbak and slowed my pace a bit. I hit the wall about 45 minutes from the valley floor, and what a wall it was!

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↑ The first tower was enormous and in very good external condition

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↑ Inside, it had lost its central ceiling, and had recently been used as a cattle pen, but had wonderful solid arches and an internal sign board (see the indentation above the arch)

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↑ Outside, the towers on this stretch stood on huge stone basements.

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↑ The Sancha wall is split into two sections by this big rocky outcrop. The wall literally goes straight into it, but the path is around the base to the right, leaving from the tower.

Just beyond this tower, I sucked on my drinking tube and heard a depressing crumpling sound – it was almost a feeling, really. A feeling of disappointment, combined with a little of the emotion that these days is usually described with the letters FML. I knew I had a few hours to go, most of them uphill, and I knew it was going to keep getting hotter. How hard can it be, I told myself, to walk a few kilometers with no water. Besides, there’s always a bit more in the bottom of the Camelbak, the drops you can’t suck out, so I can look forward to those when I reach the high tower. Still, I was annoyed at myself for the miscalculation. Another litre would have been more than enough.

You can see the route to the high tower on the ridge behind the rocky outcrop in the picture above. Not the tower itself – that’s further along and further up.

There was nothing for it to press on, and to admire the stunning Ming stonework (to keep my mind off my dry throat).

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↑ This fantastic tower had a small name board on its front (see the framework for it at right)…

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↑ …but even more remarkably, this huge interior board facing the entrance to the wall from the friendly side. All the original marble plaques or tablets have long since disappeared, leaving just the stone frame and brick backing.

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↑ These area of wall also clearly shows how the towers were positioned before the walls were built, as the walls often meet the tower in a less-than-well-planned fashion.

I pushed along as best I could, really quite thirsty by now. I knew the village was not that far away – less than a few kilometers even by the wall. But there was one big climb, followed by a very long descent. When you’re getting dehydrated, you get tired, and that’s when you make mistakes. And on those big downclimbs, you don’t want to make mistakes. A couple of times I stopped, opened up my Camelbak and slurped up a few remaining drops that couldn’t be sucked out. I also found several discarded water bottles (sadly, Chinese hikers are not very litter-conscious) and tipped the remaining drops of water into my mouth. Not something to be proud of, really, but it did help.

It was a big long climb up to the highest tower. I took it slowly, knowing that I wouldn’t have anything to drink when I got there, and not wanting to arrive even hotter than I already was. Towards the top, there’s an imposing looking blanked-off section of wall, several meters high. I was confident, though not sure, I wouldn’t have to climb it, and sure enough, there was a detour on the right side. Beyond that and downhill a little, an archway allowed access to the wall, and then I climbed the steps back uphill to the tower.

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In the cool, sunless chamber of this tower, I saw a big water bottle, half full of beautiful, clear water. I could hear voices up above. And then, because I was really very thirsty, I opened the bottle and took a small mouthful. Around the corner behind a column was another, and I did the same. I was careful to take just a very small amount, and hoped that whoever owned these bottles, cool and fresh inside the tower, would understand.

Upstairs, I stood on the roof and let the wind cool my face. The Chinese hikers there were enjoying a picnic, and talking about me, literally behind my back. “He’s French”, said one. “No way, I saw a French guy, he didn’t look like this. Maybe he’s American”. I turned around with a smile and said “You can ask me”. A huge grin broke over the older one’s face. “Where you from?” I told him, and he said, “Oh, I met a foreigner once and I was talking about her and then she turned out to speak really perfect Mandarin!” I laughed and said, “more and more of us can” (though mine, of course, is far from good, let alone perfect). He then offered me a slug of his baijiu – China’s favourite rocket fuel liquor. That’s foul enough at the best of times, but dehydrated at the top of a ruined tower on the Great Wall it seemed like a particularly bad idea. I said, “If I have that, I’ll…” – and here I spun my hand around my head and mimed sailing over the side, screaming to my death. They laughed at that, and we said our farewells.

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↑ Heading down, with the village of Dazhenyu in sight

Despite the relief of the furtively stolen gulps of water, I was tired now and my mouth was so dry I can’t describe it. As quickly as I safely could, I shuffled down the increasingly steep steps. Another group of locals slaved their way uphill. Keen but not super fit, they were suffering in the heat and sweating profusely. I offered some encouraging words and then I finally reached the top of the last pitch down to the pass. I knew from a previous visit to the bottom of that pass that there was no safe way down. I located the safe path off to the side, and followed it down.

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↑ The view downhill to the pass below.

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↑ The pass seen from the other side showing the danger area. Where that band of rock is split by the wall, the steps have totally fallen away, making it extremely difficult and quite dangerous to continue on the wall

Just before the bottom of the path (which goes to the left side of the wall in the picture above, off the right as you come down), I heard a bubbling, gurgling sound. Unbelievably, it was a natural spring! I knew from my last visit that this village had a spring, and here I was right by a point where the water was tapped to be piped down to the village. Beautiful, cold clear water spurted from the overflow valve and I wasted not a second in greedily slurping down as much as I could. I felt like one of those old Gatorade ads, where the exhausted athlete drinks a bottle and you see all the energy flowing through his green veins.

Finally I was down. It was still a kilometer or more into the village, but it was easy going. And then, another of those lovely acts of Chinese kindness. “Where can I buy some water, boss?” “Buy water? Not here! We have a spring, come with me”. And he led me into the nearest farmhouse where two ancient old farmers, man and wife, were stooped over their work. “Foreign friend needs a drink!”. The wife gave me a bowl and showed me the tap that stood in the middle of their courtyard. “Drink, drink!”, she said. The old man was pretty bemused when I told him I was two days out of Jiugongshan, and shook his head when I said I’d followed the Great Wall the whole way. I drank another bowl of that glorious water, thanked them, and got out of their way.

Back down in the village center, I picked up a bottle or two of cold water and, amazingly, bumped into Driver Ling as he exited the village. We agreed he’d come back in 90 minutes, saving me the effort of calling him. I decided to eat lunch at a little place I know in Dazhenyu, ordering the house special of crispy sweet eggplant and the stir-fried green beans.

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And, of course, a very cold beer.

As I sat on the bus home, contemplating the experience, I drew just one conclusion. Next time, Take. More. Water.

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