Monday, October 6
Great Wall Adventures
We have returned to Beijing after our days on the Great Wall near Gubeikou. Just getting to the subway stop was an adventure, as we made the mistake of taking a cab, which dropped us on a busy street, with no sign of the subway. I drew the subway symbol as best as I could remember it, and finally some who spoke English pointed us in the right direction. We were nearly an hour early on a chilly foggy morning after a rain, and there were no coffee shops or businesses of any kind, so we took turns sitting on a stack of paving stones near our luggage and exploring the neighborhood. Eventually other hikers arrived, and we got sorted into two vans for the campers and day-trippers. Fred from Belgium and Heidi from China were our guides.
After over two hours on traffic-clogged roads and a little rain, we stopped for lunch at a farmhouse near the Wall. Then, off we went, lugging our day packs, through pleasantly aromatic wet woods and tall grass, up steep slopes, until we were high enough to see the wall and some magnificent towers. This was a most interesting section of the wall, unrestored, but in fairly good condition. We climbed to the first tower, then on to the highest one, before retracing our steps and walking for about two more magnificent hours, sometimes in sun and sometimes in rain, always toward a jagged peak that loomed through clouds and mist, looking more like Bali Hai than northern China. Little did we know then that on the next day Kent and I would climb along the wall almost to its summit. It looked less impossibly tall the next morning in full sunshine, when we could see the wall climbing up its face.
I kept puzzling over the craziness of it all. Why in the world would someone go to such immense effort to build an enormous wall up over the summits of mountains that alone must have been daunting barriers? And how did they get all that stone and brick up there? We could barely make it up and down the ridges with just light packs. The next day in the distance we could see more wall along an entire jagged length of a mountain range.
And what about the enormous walls the Americans have built in Texas and Arizona? As Robert Frost wrote, "Something there is that doesn't love a wall," and much more on the dangers of walls. What are we walling in, what out?
Fred pointed to our tents, already set up, on a flat mound a few hundred yards off the wall. The next day we were also to see the few remaining tents from the mountain opposite.
As usual, we were by far the oldest trekkers in the group. The other 7 or 8 were a British couple living and working in Shanghai with visiting friend, a petite nurse from England, an Australian man and Chinese partner also living and working in China, and 3 young American women, all working in China, two of them teachers. That night after a delicious meal hauled up from the farmhouse below, we all gathered around a campfire telling stories and even singing a few songs. We were joined by a group of Chinese visitors staying in the farmhouse. The fire was often smoky with sparks flying from the wet wood, and I managed to get two small holes burned in my hiking pants, one of the two pairs of pants I have with me. There was a 3-quarters full moon playing hide and seek in the clouds, and when I stepped out of the tent at 4 a.m. Orion sparkled overhead.
We stood around in the cold early morning waiting for the sun to rise over the wall above us, which of course it finally did. We packed up some of the tents, took our stuff, and trekked down to the farmhouse where we had breakfast. We walked perhaps a mile into town, down a sometimes muddy dirt lane past harvested corn fields, then through the town to a lively small market. Heidi gave Kent and me directions along the way, and I took a photo at one intersection so we'd have a record of where to turn to return to the farmhouse, as only Kent and I would be staying another night. We said good-bye to the others, crossed the highway and a bridge over a river, then headed up to climb what I think wad Crouching Tiger Mountain. We were surprised that we had to pay an admission fee here to walk on the wall, 50 yuan, or about $8.
Where we climbed later that day
We had a wonderful day climbing up the mountain on and beside the wall. There were a few other walkers, mostly couples or small family groups, but we met one large group, mostly British, with a guide. The guide wanted to know how we got there on our own. We followed the trail, we told him, although, really, we would not have found the trail or even gotten to Gubeikou without Fred and Heidi pointing the way to us. Near the top, I was finding the steep vertical stretches and the sometimes very high steps a bit scary and hard on my knees, so I told Kent to go on ahead. Then after he disappeared into the tower, I started up at my own pace, and ended up going all the way up, too, climbing the worn and crumbling ancient steps using hands and feet, although I knew that coming down would be even harder and scarier (one slip and there would not be much to stop a tumble), and it was. I climbed into that last tower by stepping on piled up stones below the entrance and just managed to pull myself in. Inside there was another steep climb to the roof through a narrow passage via steps so worn as to be barely there. The view from the roof was amazing, but it was going to be a long hard way down. We decided not to continue up to the two higher towers we could see yet above us. We were already higher than we'd ever thought we'd go. Kent's knee, which inexplicably gives him great pain while walking on flat ground, is fine on the steep slopes up and down, whereas my knees hurt on the steep steps down, which I tend to take slowly.
No more time to write this morning as we want to get out to enjoy our last day in Beijing.