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Trekking China’s Great Wall

All stories have to start somewhere and mine in a roundabout way begins in Barcelona. Well actually it is Edinburgh, Scotland where I had been living on and off for the past 2 years. Finally deciding to take the long way back to Australia, my native home through Europe, Russia, and finally China by road, rail, ferry, bicycle and most importantly foot.

On leaving Edinburgh, my employer bought me as a going away gift, a new pair of hiking shoes, needless to say I was extremely grateful and looked forward to braking them in quickly, trampling around Europe. They got off to a blinding start, getting me from Putney to the Stepney Green tube station in the East End of London during a tube strike without a single blister! Moving quickly to the continent, one of the first stops on the whirlwind trip across Europe was Barcelona where I had arranged to meet 3 other buddies from my hometown Perth for a bit of fun in the Catalan sun.

Despite two separate instances of theft, involving credit cards and passports, and the loss of my shoes and a diary containing all those priceless travel reflections, we all had an excellent time. The pinnacle of the weekend was joining our local Spanish friends for a night out in one of the trendier clubs in the city. My hikers were considered unacceptable footwear for this extremely reputable establishment so I was forced to borrow a set of swanky leather numbers from one of my Catalan amigo’s. The problem arising in that I’m 6’4″ and he was 5’8″. Not letting minor discomfort get the better of me I high stepped onto the dance floor to boogie the night away.

We have all been there before, thanks to the mix of music, lights and alcohol. Casually glancing around I see her hair glistening under the revolving disco ball. She looked simply fantastic as she grooves with her friends on the other side of the floor. Our eyes meet, and linger for that millisecond too long, and that smile forms those gorgeous lips. Unfortunately, our exuberance for the Barcelona nightlife well outlasted our local friends and they were ready to depart with a good two hours clubbing time remaining. Having left my new hiking boots in the back of one of their cars, I faced a dilemma. Whether to leave, cut my losses and at least walk away with my new shoes or stay and try my luck with the blonde bombshell I am sure was still glancing from afar. I was leaving Barcelona the next day to continue my journey, not until the evening mind you but realistically there was little chance I could organize myself to go and collect my shoes. Was there ever any doubt! I sacrificed my shoes then and there and grooved on over. There was only one problem, she didn’t speak English and therefore didn’t want to have anything to do with me!

I am far too stubborn to simply go out and buy a new pair. Now my footwear options for the remainder of the trip consisted of my old Nike runners. I had faith in the old joggers. They had already taken me around a half marathon on the streets of Glasgow in the pouring rain. They were great, despite the lack of traction and any form of valuable insulation, they took me for morning jogs along the Rhine in Cologne, kept me sure footed on the icy streets of St Petersburg, and even tramped up numerous hills of the snow covered Mongolian steppe.

It all brings me in a roundabout way to hiking on the Great Wall of China. For an undeveloped and I feel authentic Great Wall experience, head to the Huanghua section, (it is listed in the Lonely Planet). It is about 80 kilometres from Beijing and easily reached by public bus. If you have any fear about getting lost, don’t. The bus operators all know where you are going, they have seen you all before. Don’t expect too much when you get there in terms of tourist infrastructure, although within five years it will all be transformed. There are a couple of rudimentary guesthouses where we dumped our bags for 20 Yuan per night, and a restaurant across the street that serves good relatively inexpensive but extremely tasty food. The nearby village of Huanghuacheng is the starting point for a free hike on the wall. Meandering past the locals, picking the last fruits from the trees, past “Eeeeowww” the local donkey, up through the somewhat barren terraced fields along a well trodden path we reach the first guard tower.

Fantastic! Another one of those “things I must do before I die” experiences ticked off the list. The section we were to traverse was not restored. It is as it has been for 300 odd years. I think it was last renovated during the Ming Dynasty. This section is not at all like the tourist traps where you can hike the wall like at Simatai or Badaling. There, the officials charge you 30 yuan just to get onto the damn thing. We were a group of three, a German lass, a Dutch dude and myself. I had met my fellow hikers over some tea in the ding car of the Trans Mongolian Express. We quickly established that hiking this section is not for the faint hearted. While the going isn’t that tough in terms of the peaks and valleys and their angle of inclination, the effort arises because of the dilapidated state of the path and the overgrowth of the surrounding vegetation, it takes time. Add to this the fact that you want to stop every 50 metres to admire the view of the surrounding mountains as the wall stretches it’s way to the horizon makes it all pretty slow going. The guard towers are situated about every 500 metres, I am sure there is an exact measurement between each but oops! I forgot my tape measure. Some are in good condition, others aren’t. The villagers have removed many of the wall’s bricks over the centuries to be used for their own residential construction. In general all the outposts walls remain intact however the roofs of each of the outposts are missing.

After a good kilometre or so, the wall came to a t-junction. It was our hope that we could make a loop along the wall heading back to our guesthouse before dark. So we set off, turning right with the next guardhouse well and truly in sight. Soon after the turn the path almost disintegrated, the wall eroded down to being little more than a ridge on to of the hill. The ground began to get crumbly and for the first time my trusty Nike runners were out of their depth. I began slipping on the loose gravel on numerous occasions, but for the dense vegetation I may have gone over a couple of times. Thankfully, the limb of tree saved me. Talk about unprepared! I thought I would also be fine hiking in a pair of track pants I purchased at the Izmailovsky Park markets outside Moscow for the well haggled price of $1.50. Once again wrong! One species of shrub in particular whose seeds stuck to my pants like glue, there were so many of the small cylindrical pods sticking out of my pants that I began to resemble a porcupine! My two friends and I had a truly bonding experience in one of the guard towers, stopping for 20 minutes to pick them all out. Don’t know why, two steps outside and I became “porcupined” all over again.

The trail seemed to be getting from bad to worse, in some points, there was no wall, and definitely no trail, we were merely hiking through the surrounding scrub. I was slipping over almost once every 20 metres; it was taking about 30 minutes to travel 500 metres. This section was the most dangerous part of the day. We had reached the highest peak and from here we could see the way down to the village below except that there really wasn’t any distinct trail leading to it. Oh well! Cross-country! Taking two steps, the land beneath me disintegrated and I was left hanging precariously by a tree limb from the side of the hill! Damn I want my hiking shoes back! With difficulty and the help of my friends I managed to resurrect myself and continue on, my heart beating all the more faster. I began thinking, what a way to go, falling off the great wall! Thankfully, the scrub began to thin out as we decreased altitude until we reached a road and headed back to the village day one of our trek ended.

The lady who owned the restaurant where we dined that evening was someone special. The menu was pretty limited, but tasty. For something different, why not try donkey? “Eeeowww’s” cousin was part of the main course! What else can I say, tasted like chicken! After our meal, the phrasebooks came out and we began language lessons. This woman was amazing, tell her in English once and she remembers. I was still struggling to count to ten in Mandarin and she had already mastered the terms for every article of clothing that I wore. The Mandarin that I learnt that night lasted me for the rest of the trip.

The following days hike, along the part of the wall in the opposite direction sees the greater majority of the tourists that reach Hunghua. There is still no official fee charged by the government for hiking any of these sections however many of the local farmers, with fields that lie along the wall have begun charging 2 or 3 yuan for trekking along the path that leads up to the wall. I personally didn’t mind paying directly to the people, seeing the money put to better use than the coffers of the Chinese Communist Party.

This section of the wall is in much better shape. For most of the days’ hike the wall is still mostly intact, the parapets all still obvious and the defensive features of the towers still clearly evident. Unlike yesterday when we were hiking amongst scrub, today was all wall, sometimes the bricks would rise up as much as 6 or 7 metres from the ground. Ignoring the sign printed in English that stated, “Not developed! Danger! Do not enter!” we moved on. To my disadvantage the ground was no less slippery, and the danger of falling seemed that much greater. The angles of ascent and decent were also much greater than the previous day. So the hike was just as hard and took just as long to cover a comparable distance. Unlike the day before the weather was against us, sometimes we couldn’t see the next portion we were to hike for the low hanging clouds that enveloped the many peaks. However from our vantage points along the way the development of the surrounding region for tourism was all too obvious. Beside a serene lake, the idyllic stillness of the predominantly agricultural region was disturbed by the sounds of construction as a group of new hotels were nearing completion to accommodate the hordes, both Chinese and foreign, in the lead up to the 2008 Summer Olympics. No wonder our friendly host at the restaurant was so keen to learn as much English as possible!

The whole adventure couldn’t be over without one more slip, which was almost the end of me, coming down what was the to be the last section. We completed another loop on the second day, somewhat shorter than the first, but due to the inclement weather we weren’t so fussed. I guess I got complacent, jaunting along, already tasting the lunch ahead when over I went. The drop down to the ground below was a good ten metres and there was nothing to stop my fall, and there was nothing to hold onto! When I eventually stopped sliding one leg was dangling over the edge. Phew! I made a wish, got up and moved on. I think I have learnt my lesson. Don’t follow unknown girls off around crowded nightclub dance floors, knowing the consequences, it could kill you!

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