The first time I took my daughter hiking without her mother, she was just learning to walk (the kid, I mean!). Because this was a test run, I brought my sister along (now a new mum herself). But the challenge arose from the fact little W was still breast-feeding. My sister’s great, but (back then) she couldn’t help with that. Instead, I had a bottle of frozen milk and my PocketRocket…
^ With Ben (left) on top of the cliff at Huangyukou
Most navigation arguments have little real consequence. “You missed the exit!” “That was the exit?” “I told you to get in the right lane!” You might be late, but you won’t have to sleep outside in the cold.
But on the side of a cliff in failing light, they take on a different complexion. So it was in Autumn 2013 near Huangyukou.
There were four of us, but really we were two couples. My regular hiking partner Ben and I on one hand, and my German friend Chinoook and his hiking partner Hin on the other. A simple but understandable error with GPS had left us beating a path up a steep, scrubby and rocky slope as the sun sank inevitably towards the ridgeline.
Finally, it was crunch time. “We should turn around”, I said. “Well, I think if we continue across this face we can probably make it to that tower”, said Chinoook. I looked up. Far across the valley, on a high ridge, a beautiful tower glowed yellow in the setting sun. It was hours away, even if we could traverse the rocky wall ahead – much of which we couldn’t actually see from here. I have had some unpleasant experiences on steep Great Wall hillsides at night – I had no intention of doing it again.
“The sun’s setting”, I reminded everyone. Chinook consulted his GPS. “The sun doesn’t set for three hours”. At that moment, I lost my patience. “Look at the f****g sky, man. Use your eyes. We have ninety minutes of light, max. You do what you like. I’m going down”.
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.
Far to Beijing’s north, the Great Wall runs roughly along the border with Hebei Province. Just west of the well-known “wild wall” at Gubeikou is a little-visited but wonderful section of Ming Dynasty Great Wall called Beihualing – Beihua Ridge. It has everything: dramatic towers, ridgeline wall, remoteness, beautiful Ming stonework lying just where it fell centuries ago, and a really big fort. Just up the road is the equally impressive White Horse Pass, or Baimaguan.
Click through for photos of this incredible area.
“When I first met you, you were expecting your kid”, he laughed, this guy I know who came hiking last weekend with me, my wife, our two year old and some friends. “I remember you telling me you hoped to continue hiking as much as you could, and I went home thinking, ‘nup, won’t happen'”.
“But here you are, hiking with your kid”!
Here I am. But the truth is, when we were expecting our child, I did have darker moments where I imagined all that really was over. That my hiking-most-weekends lifestyle was over; that I wouldn’t get to go wild camping again for a long time. Determined not to let this happen, I started hunting around for gear that could help me take a small child into the hills. Somewhere on youtube – and I can’t find it anymore – was a Dad who took his one year old into the mountains using the baby carrier I ended up buying. He really inspired me. It’s fair to say, he changed my entire attitude to impending and subsequent actual fatherhood. From the moment I saw that clip, I wanted to do the same: solo camping with my little kid (my own youtube clip is at the very end of this post).
June 2016: For only my fourth dayhike without a child on my back in the 16 months since she was born, I headed out to the far northeastern corner of Beijing Municipality. Deep in the forest, beyond an impressive fort, lies this remarkable gate structure. Complete with the stone framework for the gate raising mechanism, and apparently original dragon face decoration, it’s like nothing I’ve seen anywhere else on the Great Wall around Beijing.
Click through for more photos of this remote area.
People moan about Badaling – the crowds, the commercialism – but few realise that just a short way away from the tourist site is a long stretch of isolated, and very interesting, tamped earth Great Wall. Finding it is easy enough, and even if there are 10,000 people at Badaling, you’ll have this place to yourself.
Frozen exhalation eyelash crystals. It’s trending, but you saw it here first.
Minus 21C doesn’t always look very cold. In photos, at least. But believe me, it is! We discovered this on what turned out to be Beijing’s coldest day in three decades. With wind chill, it was probably closer to -25C, maybe lower still, but -21C was certainly cold enough.
At that temperature, there’s no margin for error. Dressed well, and moving, you can keep your body temperature quite comfortable. But stop, or expose your hands for more than a minute, and you lose sensation in your fingers frighteningly fast. Sitting or even just standing around, you soon feel the warmth depleting. So if you fall and hurt your leg, say, you’re going to have bigger problems than that, really fast. Devices fail in that cold, too, as batteries and LCD screens die. Lucky we knew the way, because the GPS was cactus after less than an hour.
All in all, below about minus 15, I think it’s better to stay home and drink coffee!
Click through for more photos.