Full of excitement, I woke up every few hours last night with the anticipation of seeing the Great Wall today. Lynn slept quite soundly, perhaps because she’s already seen it before. Finally, at 6 am we got up and had a quick breakfast of Ritz crackers and marmalade, before heading downstairs to meet our hired driver for the day. We loaded up into the van and started off only to immediately sit in traffic. Today is China’s National Day (their 4th of July) and the highway was full of people getting out of town for the day like us.
I dozed off and on for the next two hours as we made our way into the mountains through sleepy little villages. Every so often I would awake to our driver honking and quickly speeding around another car. We only almost had head on collisions twice, so it was certainly safer than Mongolian driving.
We arrived in the little town of Xizhazi and parked down an alley a little ways where the trail started. Lynn and I both agreed that the driver was well worth it, we would have never been able to find this place on the busses. Our driver laced up a pair of hiking boots and off we set up the trail, marked with a vodka bottle upside down on a tree branch.
The trail started off easily enough, but it soon got very steep and we both definitely felt out of shape as our slightly overweight, middle-aged driver, wearing slacks and a dress shirt, kicked our ass up the mountainside. He would stop every so often when he could hear our breathing get heavy, or maybe feel the heat off of our burning thighs, and let us rest and admire the view.
After an hour hike we turned a corner of the trail and were suddenly standing at the base of a tower hidden in the trees. We climbed a rickety ladder made out of tree limbs and were finally on the Great Wall of China. In both directions the wall snaked along the ridge line of the mountains we had just climbed, a thin strip of white limestone against the green trees, until it disappeared into the distance. Our driver, we had learned on the way didn’t really speak or understand English, but he managed to communicate how to use the Chinese phone he gave us to call him when we got to the end of the hike. He also showed us the portion of the wall that most people skip because it’s too steep and then wished us luck and headed back down the mountain.
The Jiankou portion of the wall is largely untouched since it was built in 1368, and it shows. Most of the towers are collapsed, portions of the wall have too, some of the bricks have been scavenged by locals over the years to build other buildings, and large trees and bushes cover most of the top of the wall that you walk along, making it difficult to hike. This is exactly why we chose this portion of the wall, it’s difficulty makes it virtually deserted. In fact with the exception of some rowdy youths who were fascinated by the concept of their yells echoing, we did not see anyone else on the whole Jiankou portion of the wall.
Lynn and I made good progress along the wall, despite stopping every few feet for pictures just because it was such a unique place to see. We quickly arrived at the turn off where most hikers of the Jiankou portion cut through the woods to avoid a very steep jut in the wall that runs along a cliff. Having made such good progress so far, and feeling pretty confident in our hiking abilities, I managed to convince Lynn to ignore her fear of heights and take on the steep wall. It was indeed quite steep and the rocks underfoot were pretty slick, but the archer’s cutouts in the wall and the trees growing everywhere made nice handholds to help us up.
We arrived at the top and the view was pretty spectacular, unfortunately this is where we encountered the howling youths who, between puffs of their cigarettes, would scream into the valley and then get excited about their echoes. Heading down the other side was even more precarious, and pictures sadly don’t do the incline justice, but we made it down without incident by taking it very slowly. From here, we came upon the most collapsed part of the wall, at points it looked like you were just on a trail through the woods rather than on the longest man made structure in the world.
Finally, our wonderful hike came to an end as we reached the restored portion of the wall at Tower 23 of Mutianyu. From here we had a few kilometers of the restored portion of the wall to climb down to get back to our driver. We both were quite happy we went the way we did as we saw many tourists trying to make it up the never-ending stairs we now gladly got to walk down.
We reached the bottom, forgoing the cable car and the toboggan and walking the whole wa, and arrived in what can best be described as a ski resort village. We walked through the small shopping and restaurant town, both amused at how much it looked like we had been transported to a Chinese version of Breckenridge, before calling our driver. He had shown us a very poorly drawn map before we parted ways of where to call and meet him and we had done our best to follow it. When we got a hold of him he asked “Ticket Office?” and we both had no idea where that was so Lynn tried to tell him what building we were next to only to be met with more “ticket office?” with increasing worry in his voice. We decided it was probably best to meet him at the ticket office, wherever that was.
We wandered back up the village to where you buy tickets for the shuttle bus and didn’t see him so we sat down on a bench to wait. After a few minutes of waiting Lynn managed to decipher the Chinese phone well enough to be able to text the owner of the company we had hired who could speak English with our location, only getting lost in a Chinese keyboard once. We managed to find our driver after a little while longer and decided to suggest he find a better way of meeting clients when they were done with the wall.
On the way back to Beijing we stopped at a fish restaurant where they pulled trout fresh out of the water for you to eat. We sat down and were asked if we could read Chinese, which we thought was a pretty obvious no given our communication only in English so far to the host, but were flattered at the confidence he had in us. The host who had sat us then rattled off a few items which he thought we might enjoy and we ordered all of. One by one, the food came out as it was ready: sauteed mushrooms, fried trout, grilled trout, and rice. And it was all delicious.
We made our way the rest of the way back to Beijing without incident, paid our driver, said our goodbyes, and headed up to our room for some well earned showers and naps. During nap time, neither of us actually slept, instead we both became increasingly irate at the terrible internet connectivity as we attempted to research and book things in Vietnam for next week and publish the blog post from yesterday. Getting fed up, Lynn suggested we try a coffee house with reportedly good Wi-Fi a block or so away. We packed up our stuff and set out to find it.
We made our way down the block and found it pretty easily only to see the lights off and doors locked. It seems 6 pm is way too late for coffee and internet in this neighborhood. Growing more and more frustrated, we decided that dinner might turn things around for us. We had read on trip adviser about “Ghost Street,” a street lined with restaurants with outdoor seating. It was a lovely evening and it turned out the street was nearby so we thought we would give it a shot.
We wound our way through a lot of ambling locals who seemed to enjoy walking slowly while taking up the whole sidewalk or stopping suddenly in front of you, and arrived at the street holding on to what little remained of my patience. Lynn did a decent job of keeping me calm with Bubble Tea, which we had finally found, but I have decided I am not a busy city person. The street itself was indeed full of restaurants, all serving crawfish, and there was not in fact any outdoor seating unless you count plastic chairs where people wait for their place on the list to be called. We made our way up and down the street amused at how some restaurants had throngs of people waiting, while others were completely empty despite all of them looking alike and serving the exact same thing.
Deciding that we didn’t feel like eating crawfish we headed back to a grilled chicken skewer place Lynn had read about near our hostel and ate there instead. After some initial confusion about the menu, we ordered 20 chicken wings (10 garlic, 10 spicy) and some grilled bacon, as well as cucumber salad and a spicy potato salad Lynn was particularly excited about. The food came in a metal bucket and it was delicious albeit very messy. Covered in sauce and crushed red pepper from the wings, we headed home to clean up and call it a night.
Daily Walking Mileage : 13.3
Bonus Fact – Floors Climbed : 221
- Chinese people seem to have no taboo against coughing openly and on others or spitting wherever they feel like. Lynn knows first hand, she got coughed on walking down the street tonight.
- The Great Wall is not actually visible from space, let alone the moon as some people believe. That would be equivalent to seeing a human hair from 2 miles away.