The China Logs: The Great Wall

We hiked the Great Wall a few days ago. The plan was to be dropped off about 11okm north-east of Beijing at the Jinshanling entranceto the Wall, and hike the 10km or so to the Simatai Great Wall portion. Sounds interesting: the Lonely Planet said it was not for the faint-hearted, but would take about 4 hours. I can do that, I said. Let’s book it.

We were picked up with a few others from our hostel at 7am and went off in a small minibus. A few more pick-ups later we were on our way. It took about 2 hours to get out of the built-up area of Beijing itself (bear in mind that the metropolitan area of Beijing is about the size of Belgium!) and soon we saw familiar-looking mountains ahead. Just before noon we passed through the gates of the Jinshanling entrance and parked up. It was fairly chilly so I was glad of my rain jacket and sweater.

The entrance place was well organised with a ticket office (Y30 each to get in – about 2.50 sterling) and plenty of stalls selling drinks, food and “I climbed the Great Wall” sweatshirts. We walked along the nicely-landscaped pathway towards the wall (the signs and litter bins brought to mind a nice country park) and finally saw the way up to the Wall itself – a fairly steep set of stone steps.

My heart sank. I hadn’t even seen the bloody wall and I was already out of breath and getting too hot. I lagged behind badly from the start. Orlando encouraged me to keep up and said I was not to be “the limping gazelle”. That didn’t help- all my life I have been the limping bloody gazelle, struggling up a hill whilst some bloke or group yomped happily ahead. Why do I continuously do this to myself???

We reached the wall in about 5 minutes, and I must say it was quite a thrill to set foot on this amazing structure. The wall stretched for miles as far as the eye could see in both directions, with a tower breaking the snakelike route every 100m or so. We stood and gazed and took photos and took in the moment. Then the hard work began. The wall looks like it undulates gently over the hills from tower to tower. It does nothing of the sort. It climbs steadily and relentlessly up and down some of the steepest inclines I have ever seen. The steps are uneneven and range from 4 inches high to about a foot high. It is hard going and unforgiving. I hated it from about 3 minutes in.

My daypack got heavier and heavier, and I ran through its contents in my head to see what could be jettisoned (where? There were no bins and I was hardly going to litter a World Heritage site). Water? First aid kit? Dried fruit for energy? Our last remaining Sainsburys Diet Red Bull-type drink? Lonely Bloody Planet?

Orlando didn’t even seem to notice the inclines. I knew those muscular thighs of his were useful for something: now I knew.He gently and patiently waited for me every 10 paces (I do not exaggerate). Vendors swarmed around us trying to sell us books and tee-shirts. They were 10 years older than me, and wearing kung fu slippers, not my Ultra-Lite-Weight mountain hiking boots. They hadn’t even broken a sweat, and now and again stretched out their hand to help the poor heaving Western woman up a tricky bit of wall.

Simatai was not to be seen on the horizon. We were still only on a fairly easy stretch. In the distance (about 10 towers ahead) I could see a particularly steep part of the wall going up a hill that looked almost vertical. I was panting like a marathon runner (although I guess they train well and don’t have that problem) and my legs were literally shaking with the effort of every step. We had been walking only 45 minutes. We were less than a quarter of the way, and the bus was leaving the other end in three hours and 15 minutes.

The sellers were looking at me with pity, and they stopped Orlando and spoke to him (as the man of the couple, almost all communication is done through him, which is good as street touts ignore me in favour of him, but occasionally hurts my feminine pride). He told me they had said I wasn’t going to make it. Apparently we were on a easy section of the wall, and if I was struggling now, I was not going to make it across the next part. There was an easy way to Simatai, they said, off the wall and through a valley alongside. One of them would take me if I bought a book from them. My pride was not too strong to consider this get-out-of-jail card carefully before dismissing it. I really did think I was struggling. But could I face the ignominy of accepting defeat? Also I would be ruining Orlando’s experience too.

In the end, Orlando said he would continue on alone and meet me at the other end if I wanted to bail out. I conceded, and we (cheekily) bargained the woman down from Y100 to Y80 to guide me off the wall to the other end. We parted, and I followed the woman off the wall at a nearby tower onto a mountain path heading downhill away from the wall but vaguely going in the same direction. We walked quickly down the hill, the guide walking ahead of me. At first I politely declined her offers of assistance but a one tricky bit I finally accepted her hand and she steadied my progress down the steep and crumbling hill.

Once the pathway evened out I spoke to her. Her name was Li Qui Shu (first two words with a downward tone and the last with an upward tone, like a question or an Australian sentence). She ws 41 years old and a Mongolian farmer. Her husband still lives and works their farm in Mongolia with their oldest 2 children, a 17-year-old girl and a 12-year-old boy. She lives near Beijing with her youngest son who is three, and she sells books and tourist gifts on the wall to make money to keep her children in school. She is 41 years old.

Li Qui Shu led me along a gentle pathway (at a fairly quick pace) which wandered through trees and small crop fields. Whilst walking she helped me with my Chinese pronunciation, gently correcting my numbers and other routine words. The pathway brought us along a small number of houses and smallholdings where corn was growing and people working the fields. She taught me the word for pig (ro), sheep (yang) and chicken (jee). Coming towards us along the path was an ancient-looking person bent almost double with a load of straw on their back and a conical woven hat on their head. All I could see was the crown of the hat and the straw as the person proceeded towards us. As they passed I saw the smiling face of an old woman taking me in – she grinned more broadly and returned my hello.

After an hour’s gentle but brisk walk we turned a corner and there was the wall again. Li Qui Shu pointed out Simatai to me – only two towers away. We did our business (I bought her book) and I thanked her again for her help. She led me along the final approach to the wall and we got back up through another tower. I sat on the edge of the wall and laughed in jubilation – I could see people coming towards me along a fairly dodgy section of wall and thanked my lucky stars I had found an escape route. Li Qui Shu insisted upon waiting with me until my “husband” (Eye-run in Mandarin) caught up with us.

Not 45 minutes later I saw his distinctive figure come into view and a few minutes later we were reunited. He has a few beads of sweat on his forehead but was not even out of breath. What a man. We walked the last stretch of wall before having to come off and down some steep metal stairs to cross a ravine via a cable bridge, as this part of the wall had collapsed. The cable bridge was hairy to say the least – we were miles above a river and the footbridge swung (to my mind) wildly as we crossed. Orlando hummed the Indiana Jones theme tune whilst I tried not to see through the considerable cracks in the planks down to the water far below, and chanted madly to myself that it was all going to be OK.

Half an hour later we were sitting under a tree talking to other travellers, gazing at the wall from a distance. What a day. I was so glad I had come, and even happier that I had escaped the full experience. From Simatai westwards the wall snaked out of view, climbing even steeper inclines that Orlando had walked and I had escaped. I have no comprehension of how the people managed to built this amazing structure, given that I couldn’t even walk along it.

On the way home in the bus, we dozed (although it’s not like I had exerted myself for too long!). We were booked on an overnight sleeper train to Datong that night, which is where I am writing to you now. Datong doesn’t look too big, but apparently 3 million people live here (WHERE? It’s really not that big looking). Max temperature yesterday was 9 degrees, and minimum last night was -3 degrees. We are wearing almost all the clothes we possess.

We got back to our hotel room last night and it was freezing. We complained that the room was cold and were given two more duvets: there is no central heating (or to them it not cold enough to switch on – temperatures here in winter get to -30 degrees so they probably think this is nice autumn weather). We have now checked out of out hotel and we have 7 hours to wait until our overnight sleeper gets us out of here back to Beijing and beyond. Hope we can keep warm until then!!!

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