The Great Wall of China – Excerpt from our book Trekking the Globe with Mostly Gentle Footsteps
The following day, we made an exception to the rule of no early risings. We dragged ourselves out of bed at 5:30 a.m. and hustled to catch a bus at Xuanwumen Station, making it there by 6:15. The bus that was supposed to leave at 6:45 a.m. finally got rolling at 8:10, but nothing could sour my mood. I was about to spend my 57th birthday on the Great Wall (Changcheng)!
Our choice section of Wall was Simatai (chosen over the restored Badaling and Mutianyu sections, which are where the majority of Great Wall viewers go). The 19-kilometre (12-mi) section open to tourists at Simatai was left in its natural crumbling magnificence, and its high elevation grants rewarding views of the surrounding mountains.
While investigating Simatai, we reviewed other accesses that had not been restored. One in particular, Huanghua, is said to offer a wild Wall experience, being very remote and unspoiled, with none of the usual tourist trappings. A ticket was not even needed to walk the wall at Huanghua, but it was difficult to get there because there were no direct bus routes. We ended up rationalizing that this would be a goal to pursue if we were ever lucky enough to return to Beijing in the future.
It was novel to be travelling on the highway. Train travel in China is better for long trips, but the action of the highway was missed. There was a steady stream of oncoming cars and rickety trucks. A few daredevils chanced darting out from behind to pass our bus only a hair’s-breadth away from a head-on collision. Donkey carts competed with bicycles and motorcycles for space on the roadsides. Every so many miles, crews with hefty brooms swept the shoulders with only surgical masks to protect them from the whirling clouds of dust. Sheep and cattle grazed in the fields. We passed village after village where old men sat on benches smoking, peasants transported wares in yoke baskets, and cyclists stirred up fine powder from arid paths. Roadside fruit stalls displayed big slabs of deep red watermelon.
The bus unexpectedly pulled into a park for yi xiaoshi (one hour). Oy! We thought the bus was to go straight to Simatai. Only a few people paid the entry fee to go into the park, and after about 10 minutes they were back and reported it was not worth the 20 yuan. We got off the bus during the wait for a breath of fresh air, and were serenaded by a dynamic cricket orchestration. The bus driver waded in the thick grass to catch a few “good luck” crickets. He brought them back onto the bus and built little homes for them out of paper, stuffing grass on top to keep them in. When the bus was en route again, one escaped. More than half the passengers were on all fours searching, and eventually retrieved it.
At last we arrived at Simatai. Passing by the T-shirt stands, we headed straight for the cable car that would take us halfway up the mountain. Out of the busload of people, two ladies laying-in-wait pounced on us (because we were the whitest and tallest, according to Rick). They flailed a large, heavy, exorbitantly priced Great Wall book at us; just what a budgeting backpacker needs. They were hardworking peasants by the look of their rough hands and feet, short-bobbed hair, plain and well-worn loose shirts, and capri-style pants; they were indistinguishably aged somewhere between 30 and 40. I said “Bu yao (don’t want),” and smiled to be polite.
“Aren’t those the same two women?” Rick said as our cable car rose up the mountain. Sure enough, there they were, charging up the winding path below us.
“See, I told you not to talk to them. You should have just walked past them.” When the cable car unloaded, the ladies were already there to badger us as we climbed a series of stone steps that would take us onto the Wall.
“No. No. Bu yao!” I said squeezing past them. They aggressively followed us onto the wall. We almost toppled over the edge as they waved the book in our faces. This left me no other option but to raise my voice to the “never in a million years” calibre. They looked downcast and turned to start down. Then I felt bad. I ran up behind them and passed them some yuan so their efforts at making a living would not go totally unrewarded.
Now that I was free to gaze about, my breath caught at the sight of the ancient stone path wending its way across mountain ridges. The greens of forests and grasses and the brown rocky patches melded into shades of shadowy blue where the distant peaks met the sky. I inhaled and exhaled slowly to still my racing heart. It seemed surreal that a lifelong dream was now in the present moment: we were standing on the Great Wall of China!
I bent down and ran my hand over the stones, rounded smooth from the elements and from guards treading over the centuries. My mind swirled with the immensity of it. Extending over 6,530 km (4,058 mi) from the East China Sea to the Gobi Desert in Central Asia, the building of this massive monument surmounted all difficulties caused by mountains, valleys, rivers, and deserts. Its length is equivalent to the breadth of Canada from the Pacific coast to the Atlantic coast, which we knew from experience to be a ten-hour-per-day eight-day drive on the Trans-Canada Highway, which added a stark reality to the Wall’s awesome length.
In attempts to keep out marauding nomads from the north, the first defensive walls had been unconnected mounds of earth, which dated back over 2,500 years. The First Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang (259–210 BC), after unifying the warring states in 221 BC, took on the major feat of joining these sections. Huge masses of earth were moved to fill in the dips between the mountains, making this a continuous stronghold snaking across the miles. It took 10 years to complete, mostly with prison labour.
This Great Wall, however, did not prove to be a deterrent to Genghis Khan in 1215 when he overtook Beijing, or to his grandson Kublai Khan who established the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368). When the Mongol rule collapsed at the hands of the Ming rulers (1368–1644), major reconstruction of the wall was undertaken. Lengthening and restoring this mega-structure took 60 million cubic metres (79 million cubic yards) of stone and brick and the manual labour of hundreds of thousands of workers over a span of 272 years. The costs in resources and human life were staggering. It gained the gruesome nickname “longest graveyard on earth.” Many believe thousands of bodies were actually buried within the wall, but others say this would not have been sanctioned, because decomposing bodies would have weakened the structure. The wall was mostly forgotten during the Cultural Revolution, with the exception of neighbouring peasants pilfering the stones to build their homes and other structures.
As we proceeded along the top of the wall, which was only a little more than a metre wide, without guardrails or handholds, the precipitous drop on either side was a bit unnerving, especially when groups—which tend to move in clumps—passed by. Pausing at each of the five turreted watchtowers along the way, our eyes scanned the horizon, keeping watch like the soldiers of yesteryear. The levelness of the path was sporadically interrupted by dips and inclines; the most challenging was an 8-metre (26-ft) drop followed by a 60-degree incline, which brought us down on all fours to negotiate our way along.
Just when I thought the panorama could not get any more spectacular, we reached a peak from which the view of the convoluting path was not obstructed by other peaks. The magnitude of the structure reached a new level of intensity. It was one of those times when logic registers something as being impossible, yet there it exists to boggle the mind. With the breeze fanning the sun’s torrid rays, I stood wrapped in a cloud of euphoria, not wanting the moment to end.
In the cable car on the way down, we opened our bag of small birthday cakes.
“Being on-the-wall takes the lead as my most off-the-wall birthday,” I declared between mouthfuls. Rick did not mention the budget when we finished the day splurging at a white-tablecloth restaurant.