Hiking independently on the Great Wall of China (less crowds, more geese)

We’re alone.

The low grumble of the bus dwindles into the distance, and we’re left with silence. And dark.

In front of us a towering decorative archway marks the entrance to the village. Through it the street curves away down the hill, flanked by dark, silent buildings. We can barely see a hundred metres, but it’s clear there’s nobody around.

I guess we’ve arrived outside normal business hours.

This post is part two of our Great Wall of China adventure, read part one for the story so far.

When we decided to try our luck at staying in a relatively small rural Chinese village in the off-season, I wasn’t expecting it to be busy. I mean, that was part of the appeal. But I wasn’t expecting this. This is eerie. It’s like a ghost town. Or the start of a zombie movie.

No going back now though.

My heart in a ghost town

Apprehension blooms in my chest. A quickening heartbeat, slight nausea, a dry mouth. It’s already below freezing, and it’s only 6 pm. Please let us find somewhere to stay. Somewhere, somehow, in the depths of this dark.

Our footsteps sound supernaturally loud in the cold-deadened night air. In the distance there’s a tiny hint of light. Maybe from an uncovered window, or a briefly opened door. Not a ghost town then, just hiding.

This would not be the last time it crossed my mind that night that we probably should have brought a map.

By the time we’ve walked from one end of the village to the other, I’m cursing us for this omission. It’s strange for us to walk along a street in China without being stared at, but on this occasion we’re desperate for attention. We’ve seen nothing identifiable as a guest house or hotel, and the only people we met quickly hurried past us to vanish into the dark.

Do they know something we don’t?

We keep walking, in the hope there’s more to this village, just out of sight. But there isn’t.

Hmm.

We walk back, more slowly this time. Looking for any sign of welcome. There’s light coming from one doorway, but when we try to peek in we’re met with uncomprehending stares. We might have just pried into somebody’s living room. I found it unnervingly hard to tell in China whether buildings were homes or businesses.

Tense discussions ensue. We conclude that the only thing for it is to find a likely looking door to knock on.

After some deliberation, we find a series of barely visible signs that look like they might be aimed at tourists, and are led round the back of a building and down a narrow alley to a entrance with a sign above it proclaiming HOME AND FOOD. There’s a tiny crack of light between the double doors.

A long-shot is better than no shot at all.

Now is probably a good time to explain that I am an utter scaredy cat. I think that travelling as we do, independently, pretty much without planning, and often to less mainstream locations, can give the impression that this stuff doesn’t scare us. It absolutely does. Arthur and I are both pretty introverted, and even situations which normal humans seem to find completely manageable cause us anxiety. Like phoning a restaurant to book a table. This is embarrassing for me to write, but sadly true.

And I’m also a worrier. So not knowing where my next meal or bed is coming from kind of freaks me out. I am not the image of the carefree traveller. So why do I do it? Because curiosity. Because the joy and wonder is worth the strife, or maybe even enhanced by it. And because I don’t want to be scared and worried. Who would?

If I don’t do these things, I’ll never learn to be less afraid. A friend told me before we left on our round the world adventure that I was brave. At the time I thought heck no, I’m scared crapless. But being brave isn’t being unafraid — it’s being scared and doing the damn thing anyway.

So, with trepidation, we walked up to our long-shot door, and we knocked.

Those seconds while we waited to see if this door concealed our bed for the night were very, very long ones. But they were worth it!

The door opens a sliver, and then a wedge. The man behind it looks out at us bemused, but smiling. We quickly ascertain that he doesn’t speak English, and our feeble attempts at Mandarin are met with escalated bafflement. Sign language it is.

A pen and paper haggling match ensues. We lose, of course.

Before too long we were installed in a room, which the elderly owners had clearly not been expecting to be occupied any time soon, and the kind (if confused) man who had opened the door to us was busy finding us a beer, while his wife cooked us dinner. I have never been so glad for a hard bed in an unheated, tiled room. It has blankets. And water, though it isn’t hot. And a TV beaming out a Chinese reality show where the (presumably famous?) star tries out manual jobs, to hilarious effect.

Little do we know, in a few days we too will be climbing the steps he’s struggling up with a heavily loaded bamboo pole across his shoulders. The frenetic city on the screen, abuzz with commerce, brightly coloured merchandise, and steaming food stalls, seems a world away from our little room beneath the austere haunches of the Great Wall.

We eat our meal on low stools, crammed into the gap between the bed and the net-curtained window. We’re thrilled to be served bottles of beer with the rice and vegetables, but the lady owner is livid.

Her husband hasn’t given us any glasses! Much tutting and head-shaking ensues. And what’s more, he hasn’t brought a rice scoop with the pot of rice. Or any napkins!

I mean, can you believe it? His wife clearly couldn’t.

We tried our best to stay out of it. Smiling, nodding. Wishing we could communicate that we didn’t mind, that we were so bowled-over grateful to be housed and fed, we would’ve happily eaten with our hands, straight from the rice pot.

Relieved and replete, it was a struggle to get ourselves back outside for our planned night time venture onto the wall itself. It was even more of a struggle to try and explain to our hosts that we were going for a walk, and would be back in a couple of hours. Monthy-Pythonesque miming was involved. I’m pretty sure they thought we were out of our minds.

Wrapped up for the Great Wall by night. Yes, we have towels on our faces.

We were expecting a short walk to the wall. Like, five minutes, tops. The bit of the wall we’d seen from the bus wasn’t directly accessible from the village, but there was a section that passed very close. In the dark though, we couldn’t follow the directions we had, and instead wandered lost for a while, until we picked up a sign to the wall. We followed it, and then we followed the next one, and the next.

Before long we were several miles away from where we’d started, in what appeared to be farmland, in the almost pitch black, and with the Great Wall nowhere to be seen. So we carried on, obviously. And on, and on. After some time we reached another village, and the signs were directing us to turn down a narrower road still. And that’s when the geese started screaming.

Until that moment the only sound for miles had been our muffled frosty footsteps. We looked round at the low, traditional farmhouses surrounding us, whitewashed walls glowing in the gloom, windows dark. By now it was close to 9 pm, and the village was definitely asleep. Or had been, until the screeching goose honks sliced through the night. Then the dogs joined in the racket, one testing bark at first, then another, and then a crescendo of howling, honking, barking, screeching…

We legged it.

Fortune favours the brave

Still panting, hearts racing, we finally reach a signal that we’re somewhere near the wall. There’s a car park, and a ticket office, with a light on. This we had not been expecting.

We’d definitely gone the wrong way. I mean, that should have been clear by the fact that we’d taken 90 minutes to reach the wall, not five. But still. We reasoned we didn’t want to be spotted passing the ticket office — at best they’d charge us an entry fee, at worst they’d stop us from going onto the wall at night. So we snuck past. One at a time, as fast and silent as we could manage, using the dark for cover. Like well-intentioned but ultimately inept extras in a detective show. My heart was racing from nerves now, not just exertion. The wall was close, and the moon beginning to light our way a little, but dogs still barked behind us. Every snapping twig sounded like an irate ticket office guard come to haul us away, or possibly shoot us.

As we climbed the steps towards the wall our feet began to crunch on snow underfoot, and the wind to rise in the trees. At the crest of the ridge shapes started to resolve themselves into meaning. A tower. A wall. The wall.

Trying not to slip on the steep icy steps, it was an effort to take it slowly in these last few moments. I was really about to step onto the Great Wall of China. We’d made it, and it was truly beautiful. Snow topped and windswept, trailing along ridges and over peaks into the distance.

We stood for a long time, taking it all in. And then we tried taking photos. Unfortunately, my night photography skills are shocking, and I captured nothing useful. Fortunately Sabine is much better, so you can see some cool photos she took in her blog post on the Great Wall.

The best I got was this shot of the more popular section of the wall where we’d end our hike the next day, lit up in the distance.

Photo opportunities exhausted, we lay on the roof of a nearby half-ruined tower, watching the stars, sipping plum brandy against the cold, and soaking up the feeling of being here and now. On the roof of a tower on the Great Wall of China, in the moonlight and the snow. Alive, and filled with wonder. Not feeling too cold, we almost wished we had decided to camp after all. The tower, though barely intact, would have afforded shelter from the wind, and being up on this structure in the quiet and the dark was genuinely magical. I hesitate to use such a word, but on this occasion I don’t know what else to say. It felt like magic. If you ever get the chance to spend a night on the Great Wall, I suggest you seize it. And bring plum brandy.

The old man at the guest house was still up when we crept back in, several hours later than planned. By the looks of it he’d been keeping warm with a bottle of brandy too. In minutes we were wrapped up, fully clothed, in bed, with alarms set to rouse us in the pre-dawn light.

Mufflers at Dawn

If anything it was even colder at dawn than it had been at midnight. Wearing every single item of clothing in our packs, including our towels as scarfs again, we ventured out into the dawn. Even in this low light it was easy to find the landmarks that showed us the start of the hike, where we should have joined the wall the night before. It wasn’t even a five minute walk.

A couple of minutes after leaving our home for the night we were clambering up a rocky, overgrown path onto the wall, and taking in the full scope of what we’d only half glimpsed the night before. The wall was everywhere.

Snaking off to the left, splitting into two branches to the right, on distant peaks, and following far-off ridges. Just, everywhere.

Before we came to China I thought the Great Wall was basically that — a great long wall, stretching across the country. Nope. It’s actually a collection of various walls built during different eras, interrupted by sections of natural protection like cliffs and mountains. It does broadly run East-West across northern China, but there are all sorts of side branches and detours.

This stone section of wall that we’re standing on, taking in the sunrise, is 1500 years old. It predates Islam, and King Arthur.

The first iterations of the Great Wall are thought to have sprung up in the 7th Century BC, but most of the wall that’s still standing today was built in brick during the Ming Dynasty. (No, me neither. Apparently it’s roughly mid 14th to mid 17th Century.) We were starting our walk on a very old section of wall, but most of the day would be spent walking on Ming Dynasty brickwork, and right at the end we’d reach a restored section at Jinshanling, which is mostly brand new. Our guide for the day would be the left-over way markers from a marathon that was run along the wall a few years ago — a daub of paint on a rock here, a bright scrap of tape round a tree there.

You’d think that following the Great Wall of China would be easy, but it’s not really all that clear. There are so many branches, and awkward detours round crumbling steps and tumble-down towers, that these flashes of guiding colour are welcome. We’re the first people to walk this way since snow last fell, and the only footsteps we have to follow belong to something with four legs.

We spend a few minutes sitting on the stones eating taro pastries and taking in the spectacle. Suddenly the sun appears behind a distant ridge, catching the rise and fall of the wall’s journey into the distance in fiery rays.  It’s our cue to pack away the remains of our picnic breakfast, stretch out our chilled limbs, and begin.

Miles to go before we sleep

Our hike will take about seven hours, and we’re booked onto a sleeper train leaving Beijing for Xi’an that night. So we don’t have much time to dawdle. We walk, and we walk. Through ruined tower after ruined tower, up and down, snaking over the hills. New views unfold from every peak, through every crumbling door. Mostly the land around us is silent. This peace is so very welcome to us after the clamour of Beijing. One foot in front of the other. And again, and again.

When we stop for a break, I can’t eat my long-awaited snickers bar; it’s frozen solid. The biting cold is spurring us on our way as much as our waiting train tickets.

There’s a strange beauty for me in this winter-deadened landscape of dry cold. The pictures of the Great Wall elsewhere, in other seasons, are pretty. Proud grey standing out against lush green. But this monochrome, bare bones landscape has more majesty for me.

You know that piece of trivia that the Great Wall of China is the only man made structure visible from the moon? Yeah, nah.

You can’t see any man made structures from the moon with the naked eye. There are plenty of structures that are visible from low earth orbit, like bridges and stadiums, and the pyramids at Giza. But the Great Wall is barely discernible, because it’s such a similar colour to the surrounding landscape. Brown.

North of the Wall

The wall was originally built to protect China from nomadic groups to the North, so the North side is the scary one. Here be nomads.

It wasn’t built so much to prevent invasion, as to stop raids on towns and villages at what were then the northern reaches of China. It’s broadly thought to have worked in this respect, and thus turned these northern hinterlands into a stable agricultural region. No longer the wild wild North.

When our route forced us off the wall to avoid a controlled military area, it was this bucolic agrarian landscape that we ventured through. (I have no idea why they need a military zone here. Are they still practising defending the wall? I suppose border walls are coming back into vogue. Sob.)

It must be a hard existence still, eeking out a living from these narrow valley fields, and their oft frozen soil. But it’s peaceful here. A world away from the spewing industry that marks much of China’s landscape. We see almost nobody on our tramp through the farms, just a couple who hail us from the front step of their farmhouse. I wonder how long it’s been since they had visitors.

It’s a breathless climb to regain the crest of the wall, but worth it for the warmth of the sun that reaches us here, and the views.

Oh, the views.

As we get closer to Jinshanling, and the restored section of the wall, the presence of people becomes more apparent. The first sign is an increase in litter. Piles of rubbish are a sadly constant companion to anywhere vaguely popular with tourists in China. It’s so ubiquitous that it’s almost as though littering is a key part of the experience. Been there, done that, dropped a water bottle.

The next clue to human presence is loud wooping. I guess somebody else can’t believe they’ve made it to the Great Wall either. The sound echoes out across the dry, empty landscape.

But despite this siren call, we meet almost nobody, not even a ticket attendant. It’s supposed to cost 65 RMB (about £7) to enter the Jinshanling section of the wall, but there’s nobody there to take it. On we wander, along restored wall and through rebuilt towers. Here the wall looks brand new, because it basically is.

On this section of the wall it’s easier to imagine soldiers stationed here, as they would have been when the wall last looked this new. I imagine them far from home, staring out into the cold winds, alert to the possibility of attack. Some sections are icy, and precipitously steep. I wouldn’t fancy fighting my way up these steps to take the tower.

Back to humanity

The magic of a whole day on the Great Wall by ourselves begins to recede as we get closer and closer to descending from the wall. At first we only meet one other tourist, then two more, then four. Then a man selling hot tea and souvenirs. He’s walked up at least an hour from the nearest village to do so. There’s still almost nobody up here though, I wonder that it’s worth his while for the few sales he’ll make, and the cold he’s enduring. Can’t beat the view from the office though.

I hope (vainly?) that it’s this and not pure desperation that’s driven him up here. I often don’t know what to do in these situations. Buying something will probably help feed his family, and also help bring more people to set up shop here. Here comes tourist hell, and there goes a beautiful tranquil experience. We don’t buy anything. Is this the right thing to do? At the time it felt like it, but now I’m not so sure.

One upside of this increased tourist traffic, we think, is that getting back to Beijing should be much easier than getting out here was.

Ha.

We make it down off the wall, and twenty minutes down the road to the highway with no problem. Under the flyover, and to the service station carpark where the Beijing bus leaves from. So far so good.

Within a few minutes a bus arrives. Great.

We’re not allowed on. Maybe it’s the wrong bus? Try the next one.

Nope.

And the next one…

It takes two hours, much confused back and forth, and eventually being rescued by an English speaking Chinese girl and her American friend, before we’re on the road. It turns out that the bus we were trying to catch only picks up passengers here if there is space, which there never is. You have to phone ahead to the previous town to get a space reserved for you on the bus. How we would ever have worked that out without help is beyond me.

Well, we wouldn’t. We’d still be in the carpark, stuck North of the wall. Doomed to survive on mysterious corn snacks forever.

Instead, by nightfall we’ve made it to Beijing. And by 9 o’clock we’re running through the train station waiting room towards the gate for our platform, which the ticket lady is closing. She’s reaching to lock the gate, as we’re still fifty metres away. Our wails of protest are drowned out by the racket of the mass of people in the huge echoey hall.

Next stop Xi’an..?


If you’d like to see more shots of our Great Wall adventure, check out our Great Wall Facebook album — we took so many photos of the Great Wall, I couldn’t possibly include all the good/comic ones in this post.

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