June 4, 2002
Despite the dire forebodings of Jing, back at the guesthouse, I had made it to the Dong Zhi Men bus station successfully on bus number 416 and now I had to find the 916. I sputtered out the Chinese phrase I had been told to say, sounding – at least to my ears – close enough the actual pronunciation. I knew though, my chances of being shown the bus and shown the way to a fruit juice stand were about fifty-fifty at best. If not a fruit juice stand, I might be ushered toward a bicycle shop or perhaps pointed toward a hair salon. Such are the dubious delights of tonalities in this language. But I have over the years, perfected a foolproof method. I ask a number of people for directions and then choose the most popular response from the pool of invariably conflicting information. Once again it worked like a charm, and I was soon trundling along on bus 916. One more change of buses and I would reach my destination, Huang Hua.
Some sixty kilometers to the north of Beijing, Huang Hua is a rural area, home to a smattering of villages which lie beneath a section of the Great Wall of China. I fully intended to do my tourist duty of visiting the Great Wall, but was not inclined to visit the section closer to Beijing with its circus of tour buses, touts and souvenir stalls. This section near Huang Hua snaking along the ridges of the low hills, is remote, lonely and unspoiled. There are no signposts, no hassles from souvenir sellers, no tour buses and no hordes of tourists. I was going to walk on this wild wall and camp out on it. At least, that was my plan.
As the hustle and bustle of Beijing fell away, so did the super wide streets with its three lanes of cars, one for bicycles and the one nearest the pavement, for buses. The roads still remained well paved but the traffic became less chaotic and the breathing room in buses increased dramatically. Boarding this last bus, number 961, I was unsurprisingly, the cynosure of all eyes. Staring unblinkingly at a foreigner is a time-honored pastime in China, especially in areas that see few foreigners. Sometimes, if proximity allows, an occasional jab with a forefinger is added to the staring, yielding no doubt additional information that can then be dissected with neighbors. The inevitable discussion that follows, is conducted at high decibel levels, often within a few inches from one’s face. And usually with no interaction with the said foreigner. In fact, any attempts at interaction by the foreigner are routinely ignored. My co-passengers fell to the task with relish but instead of feeling like a laboratory specimen under close scrutiny, I was asked questions and happily fell into conversation. One of the passengers, a woman who liked to call herself Coco was a local English teacher and spoke communicable if not perfect, English. She lost no time in appointing herself translator, and kept us all busy slinging questions and answers. The ride flew past as I explained that I wanted to walk the wall, maybe camp, eliciting a collective head-shaking at the bizarre ways of foreigners. They were still shaking their heads when I got off at the little roadside restaurant, from where a small path led to the nearest section of the wall.
Shuang Long Jin was basic but apparently rated high on the local popularity charts. A couple of men sitting at one of the tables, were occupied with scarfing down a large number of dishes on the table in front of them. At another, sat four men, well into the post-lunch phase of smoking and playing cards. The rounds of beer that accompanied the game ensured that the decibel level climbed steadily and the cards were not so much placed on the table, but slapped down with enough force to make the cups rattle. A young woman finished her work in the kitchen and came out to watch the play. Her occasional remarks about the play earned her snorting derision from the players. She shrugged them off easily as she fanned herself with a plastic fan in an eye-popping shade of purple. The days at this time of year shuffle between hot and sultry and today was no exception. A shimmering haze hung over the fields and through it I could see bits of the wall up the road. Having guzzled down the cold Coca Cola, I hefted my pack and set off for the wall.
The narrow road is lined with trees in regimented rows and meanders between fields. I don’t recognize the crops but here and there I see the postcard-perfect silhouette of a farmer in the large straw hat. I exchange hellos with some of the locals as I walk past. A small river has bits of broken cement blocks that masquerade as a dam and following local advice, I walk across the top and soon come to the crumbling remains that signal the beginning of the wall. This section of the wall climbs down from the western ridge of the nearby mountains, to the river. What had once been a smooth path paved with hefty stone blocks, is now mostly rubble. The uneven surface, scattered with bits and pieces of loose stones makes it hard to get firm footholds as I clamber up the steep angle. A climb up a rickety ladder made of branches lashed together gets me to one of the crumbling towers. But who would bother to put up a ladder here, I wondered.
No sooner had the thought formed than the answer grinned at me. Squatting in the traditional manner in the shade of a boulder was a man. He paused in his task of picking his teeth to smile at me. A jam jar of tea sat next to him. Decayed and crumbling as it is, this section of the wall has escaped tourists and attendant circus of the souvenir shops and food stalls. Not to be outdone of what they deem their fair share of the tourist dollar, a few of the enterprising locals have set themselves up at some of the towers as self-appointed ticket sellers. They charge a modest two yuan a head when they are in the mood to scramble up here. This man even came armed with a Chinese-English dictionary just in case there was difficulty in translation.
I clamber up to the top and pause, awe-struck at the sight before me. The mountains with their sharp steep slopes are odd-shaped. They look like paper-cut-outs, the haze so dense that even the nearest ones look blurred. The more distant ones look like an unfinished watercolor, their shapes only to be guessed at. And through these marches the Great Wall of China. Snaking its way down slopes, across valley floors and up more slopes, it lies in the hazy sunshine like a somnolent beast. Like the tail of a sleeping dragon glowing faintly yellow in the sun, it drapes across the land.
The wall is not just a wall but a grand road, wide as a normal car lane. The ramparts march along on either side, some with holes, presumably to accommodate canons. Studded along the length of the wall, are watchtowers. Although most are roofless now, I can see holes where the support beams would have held the roof. All the towers have chambers on each side. The ones aligned with the wall, form the entry and exit from the tower while the other two, at right angles, are small rooms with arched roofs. Each is set with a small arched window. I can see holes carved into the sill; there must have held bars once. Walking along the wall, I had passed a few of the towers. Eyeing the view from one, I thought, what a great place to camp! But I had to wait a while until those self-appointed ticket checkers had left along with the one or two other tourists I’d seen. I wasn’t at all sure if I was allowed to camp here. I took out my journal and affected a pensive pose while waiting for the coast to clear. It did, soon enough and I was left to the fat sinking sun and birdcall.
Thinking the breeze would be welcome, I had left off the rainfly but no sooner had I settled in than I heard a roll of thunder in the distance. Then came added growls of more thunder and a few drops of rain. High on the ridge with no roof for shelter is not the smartest idea I’ve had, I found myself thinking. And then the wind picked up bringing with it spatters of sand, needle-sharp when they hit. The broken doorways of the towers mimicked a wind tunnel, funneling in gusts strong enough to make the tent shudder. I stumbled around trying to pitch the rainfly, looking for creative ways to anchor it down with larger bits of bricks and rocks. Through the window I could see the swirling clouds of dust and sand that moved across the plain. I could just imagine the sight all those years ago, when sentries posted at these towers saw similar dust clouds come roaring out of the plains. And on their heels, the Mongol hordes. My imagination took flight on the wind and I could almost see the banners snapping in the wind and hear the thunder of a thousand hooves.
June 5, 2002
All that wind had brought more sand and dirt than rain and I woke to a thick film of sand on everything. Despite burrowing into the sleeping bag I seem to have acquired a new layer as well. I had thought to walk along the wall some more before heading back to Beijing. Another watchtower a bit further up was located at a perfect viewpoint but there was no view to be had. The dust in the air combined with the haze made it worse than the day before. I wandered on for a bit and then decided to climb down. An even steeper descent all but guaranteed my rear end had more intimate contact with the wall than I might have wished. And then down a little path, through a fruit orchard, past and old barrack and I was headed toward the bus stop. Most of the people I saw, were working in the orchard. We smiled and nodded our greetings as I walked past. A woman washing dishes at the pump house grinned broadly. She gave me a thumbs-up, pointing to the wall in the distance. Ha! I thought. So much for my stealth in camping out; the whole village had probably been placing bets!
But they seem to have an open friendliness here and I am never one to shy away from a conversation. Despite the obvious language barrier, our conversations stuttered along with vigorous miming on both sides. At the roadside shop, while I sat sipping green tea while scribbling in my journal, a group came by. Smiles and hellos quickly evolved into the usual questions. Where was I from and how old I was seemed to make the top of the charts more often than not in these parts. Nods of approval came my way, along with a few more thumbs-up signs when the woman behind the counter called out something. When the old man mimed sleeping, I understood that they too now knew I’d been camping out on their wall. One of the women wanted to test my pack to check its weight. Her grunts made the others break out in laughter as she staggered at first but then walked jauntily back and forth. A bus rumbled in and my companions solicitously sent out a volley of shouts. The bus came to a shuddering halt with a screech of brakes. I boarded, waving goodbye to the group and found myself jolting back to Beijing.