30 August 2011

Scenes from a (Great) Wall

Violet Dear conquers China.

The Great Wall of China. When I was a little girl my grandfather would call me out of bed, no matter what the time, to show me noteworthy television programs about science, politics or travel. As a result I was probably the only 8 year old on my block to miss a day of school to watch the Berlin Wall come down.

National Geographic programs were my grandfather's favourite, and I was pulled out of many a night's slumber to watch sea creatures snake their way through technicolour coral reefs, intrepid mountaineers scale K2 and treasure hunters search through Egyptian tombs. Shows about outer space always fascinated me above all else, and I remember quivering with anticipation when I would hear Carl Sagan's voice inform me about the “billions and billions” of stars in the sky. Billions. Those are big numbers for a little girl.

It was around that time that I learned of the only man-made structure visible from space- something so colossal, so monumental that it marred the earth's surface like a jagged, winding scar – the Great Wall of China.

Slithering its way across the tops of breakneck mountains and rocky crags, the Wall was started around 200 BC and restored by the Ming Dynasty in the 15th century as a defense mechanism against the barbarian Mongols (I have a little experience with them myself. My grandmother was Ukrainian and had more than a dash of Mongolian blood running through her veins, as evidenced by her epicanthal fold, and my mother and uncle get asked if they if half Asian or Inuit. Thanks Genghis!)

All the king's horses and all the king's men....

When I decided to come here to Beijing it was my one major thing on my “must-see” list, so I was shocked to find out that there are dozens of different Wall sites. Other than a few that have been repaired and maintained, most of the Wall is crumbling and wild, with many stretches far too dangerous to climb. My friend living here in China works for a motorbike sidecar tour company that specializes in trips to the Great Wall, and so he spends his days traversing its lesser known sections. He was excited to take me on a 3 day trip to visit a few that tourists rarely see.

Wild Wall at Jiankou.

We started our tour at Jiankou, a low point in a valley between two peaks. Once we stepped up from the forest trail and onto the Wall itself I was struck with the raw and ravaged beauty of the ancient stones, the sheer size of the structure snaking its way off into the hills on all sides of me. The Wall is less like one long continuous ribbon than a map of the London Underground - it branches off schizophrenically and winds across multiple mountain tops and connects with the ancient guard towers that dot the tops of the hills.

It's a hot mess.

Guard towers, the site of a lot of hot "Brokeback Great Wall" shenanigans, I'm sure.

Jiankou was a serious hike – we spent a lot of the day scrambling up the sides of destroyed towers, scuttling over rubble on hands and feet and climbing up staircases so steep they had to be ascended like a ladder. I'm not normally afraid of heights, but at some points the trail was so treacherous that my knees were shaking like little earthquakes and I thought I would lose my balance and tumble down the side of the mountain below.

Oh, that's ok. I think I'll take the elevator.

After four hours of trekking, and witnessing a fellow Canadian take a nasty spill down a destroyed staircase, we reached another low elevation point in the Wall where we could safely descend back down the mountain and head to the guesthouse. Jiankou was wild, eerie and wonderful.

Huanghuacheng at dusk. The prettiest ever.

The next day, after a motorbike trip though more mountains, we trekked up the side of another Wall site, this time to visit the slightly less ruinous ruins of Huanghuacheng. After a series of steeeeeeep climbs (too steep for stairs – that tells you something) we reached the plateau of the Wall and began the equally steep downhill walk. It was with knees bent and doing a strange little shuffle that I kind of bunnyhopped my way back down. The trademark Beijing haze in the sky couldn't ruin the view of this strange, haphazard Wall zigzagging its way into the distance.

"Stairway to Eternal Palace of Unending Happinesses" just never caught on.

By skipping the typical tourist Wall sites and heading into the wilder, less reconstructed sections we missed out on the throngs of domestic tourists fighting their way along the paths and managed to experience one of the world's most important landmarks in relative peace and quiet. Not quite like seeing it from a space shuttle, but I do think that my grandfather would have approved...

The author with her grandfather, eating ice cream and watching some Jacques Cousteau.


Jiunn Yann Alex Ng said...

nice site, hope to see more updates.

Loco YaYa said...

how beautiful! and i am afraid of heights. i would have been a nervous wreck.

Wong Ricky said...

Well done ! These are great pictures of the Great Wall! Which reminds me... I should go through my Inida pictures and post some. I log on to your blog on a regular basis. Having read this I thought it was rather informative. I appreciate you finding the time and energy to put this article together. I once again find myself personally spending a significant amount of time both reading and leaving comments. But so what, it was still worth it!

I also found a great blog of Jiankou travel tips, I'd love to share it here with you and for future travelers. http://www.wildgreatwall.com/how-difficult-is-it-to-hike-from-jiankou-to-mutianyu/