During the 70’s in the remote Northern Territory we had only the ABC, the government funded Australian Broadcasting Corporation to deliver us the news, soaps and educational viewing. As the 80’s dawned we started to receive commercial television courtesy of a set of videos flown in from Darwin and replayed locally. The news was a day or two late and so was the weather. Aside from these anomalies it opened up a whole new viewing experience and one of the programs that captured my imagination was The World Around Us.
It inspired a generation to explore our environment, with spectacular footage of the some of the most amazing places on earth. In one such episode the host adventurer was exploring the Great Wall of China. I was captivated by the history, the construction and most of all the environment, towering steep mountains and narrow ridge lines. I dreamt of walking it myself, stepping on its ancient stones and hearing the distinct music of China as I moved across the landscape.
It was just a pipe dream and I didn’t truly expect I would ever visit the far flung communist nation, but I could imagine. There were many documentaries throughout my teenage years that explored the Great Wall of China experience and I remained captivated by it.
In the early 80’s my parents went on holiday to Hong Kong, the shopping mecca of the world at the time. Unlike now, electronics were cheap and easily accessible. I’m talking video recorders, not iPhones, the mobile phone had even been birthed at that point. During their stay they visited China for a day. A popular side attraction was to cross the broader at Macau and experience this effectively closed country. I remember them recounting the strict and structured place it was, in distinct contrast to Hong Kong which was still part of the British Commonwealth.
Buses transported the naive but curious tourists and adventure travelers to a fortified border. Armed soldiers with stern expressions and limited English, demanded passports and checked documents with a sense of distrust for the rest of the world. China was truly a closed place and most of what we knew about it from the outside were the stories of communism attached to reports of human rights abuses. Not a place that attracted the masses for a holiday!
Mum and Dad were taken with the place, no harm came to them but their eyes had been opened to another civilisation. Mum was a keen photographer and her best shots of life across the border adorned the hall way of our house, every day I would pass them I would wonder what it was like to experience the mysterious China and the ancient east at large.
While I never lost the desire to explore China, it dulled as I moved into adulthood, university and then the workforce. In our early family years it was all about making ends meet and dreams of travel would have to be put on hold, possibly indefinitely.
It would be another 20 years before that passion reawakened in me and it came in a way that was completely unexpected, fleeting, but created memories that would last a lifetime. I had been privileged to be appointed to the largest technology infrastructure transformation program my organisation had ever undertaken and given responsibility for the Asia, Pacific, Europe and American locations.
This in turn meant traveling to many locations which afforded me many wonderful experiences I’m yet to write about including the Dragons Back walk, Japanese Alps and the Chu Chi Tunnels, a moving window into the brutal Vietnam War.
China loomed large on the schedule and I knew this was the opportunity to squeeze in a trip to the Great Wall, the conundrum being the weekend layover would be in Shanghai, the opposite end to where I needed to be. Thanks be to God for fast rail, something we sorely lack in Australia and with that the plan was set into motion. I’d take a late night flight into Beijing, visit the wall the following day and then take China’s Maglev fast train to Shanghai.
20 years on and China is a very different place, none of the stern faced guards or the airport feeling like it is a remnant of the cultural revolution. I guess the Beijing Olympics has had something to do with that. Beijing International was clean, modern and easy to get around. Time to shed my 1980’s view of the China, at least in part.
As I froze waiting for a taxi amongst the many Chinese, it was becoming clear that China is still for the Chinese and it was an adventure just getting to the hotel, the language barrier well and truly in place. A little after midnight and a few phone calls later I was safely in my room, about to make a rookie travel mistake that would cause the walk to be more stressful than it needed to be. I can sum it up in one word, insurance. I had not realised that insurance is nigh on impossible to acquire after leaving your country of origin and even harder when behind the Great Firewall of China that definitely doesn’t like Facebook!
Being the risk averse person I am it played on my mind through the night, that my big day, or really just a few hours of adventure could end in costly disaster. I could feel it dampening my spirit of excitement and adventure. So I did the only thing I knew to do in situations outside of my control, I gave it to God. He tells me I can cast my burdens on him so I did and with that sorted and at peace, resolved to sleep for the few hours left and enjoy my day of high adventure, a lifetime in the making.
Waiting in the foyer, a well dressed Chinese man entered and speaking very good English asked me if I was going on the Great Wall walk, I certainly was and it turned out I was the only one interested, in the sub zero temperatures and hence a private tour, bonus!
It was bitterly cold in the car, sitting in the back of the sedan, the frigid air draining straight through the rear window and onto my neck. For some reason the heating in the car struggled to reach the back seat. Squirming I tried to make up for lost sleep as building after building gave way to farm after farm, barren land and then the mountains, which looked every bit as Chinese as I had seen on TV.
We were headed for Jinshanling, a 132 km journey from Beijing, a beautiful piece of the wall, a mix of restored and original, set high on the steep peaks of the mountains running through the Hebei province.
Originally built in 1368, the Jinshanling portion was later rebuilt between 1567 – 1582 during the Ming Dynasty. This section stretches 10.5km of the some 21,000 km that was the defense against the invading Mongols to the north. The section features unique architecture , including brick inscriptions and engravings, horse blocking walls , parapets and 67 watch towers traversing 5 mountain passes. In 1987 it was listed as an important cultural relic of world heritage value. As it is further from Beijing the crowds are generally less than the more popular Badaling, which works just fine for me.
Biting wind stings my face as I exit the car in front of the grand and great entrance, I wouldn’t expect anything less in China. Donning a jacket and gloves, I fight to warm up but know the moment we get walking the cold will be the last thing on my mind. It’s off season, so pretty quiet. The piercing winter air, silence and vast mountain vista of a barren landscape draw you into the emptiness and beckon you to let go of the business of life and just be present in this overwhelming and infinitely revealing landscape.
Through the ticket gate along the path to the stairs that elevate to a platform that joins to the walk, I pick up a seller or two. The downside of few people is you become a target. My guide cautions me not to buy anything and one by one they drop off, except for one…
Now trying to take in the history of this amazing place my silence is broken by, mister, mister you buy, you buy. My guide assures me, he won’t persist, but on the wall proper I’ve a new companion, the seller.
Trying to block him out of my mind and abiding by my guides wishes we push on. My new friend is getting more vocal and really invading my personal space. My guide has words with him, nothing I can understand, but it just emboldens him and it’s now getting beyond a joke as I move through the first watch tower.
After saying something to me which I’m sure was neither commending or encouraging, my friend was no more and only the sound of silence and crackling stone under feet was all that could be heard. This is such an amazing place and in the business of life, I stop and breathe in the frigid air, mentally noting where I am. I was fulfilling a childhood dream and I just wanted all the other thoughts of the week ahead to take a back seat while I enjoyed these rare and precious moments.
Gloves off I let me hands touch the rock and feel the history, listen to the wind that from ancient times has whistled over this wall and imagine what life must have been like in the dynasties now passed into legend. I was walking on the tombs of thousands, but I had experienced nothing yet.
The restored section is a beautiful walk, easy underfoot, safe and clean but that would change in an instant. Stepping out into the light having explored many of the watch towers, their narrow corridors and even narrower stairs. The safety of the built up walls abandon me. So does the smooth path, instead repelled back to a far more ancient and broken time. Stones fight to remain part of the wall and not succumb to the unrelenting weather transforming them into an ever growing pile of rubble cascaded down the steep mountain slopes.
Walking is a much more serious affair crossing the threshold the of the Big Jinshan Tower. The lack of protective walls and the straight high edges heighten my senses and careful sure footing is needed. Unlike the wide smooth paths this section of the wall tempts you to walk over short side passages to the skirt the voids.
The character of the wall changes here and the years of history cry out if you just but stop and listen. Towers stand and crumble in their ruined state. Rays of the sun occasionally break through the smog to piece the glassless window frames, laying out jagged shadows of broken stone. I stand on the rubble for a photo, but there is no conquering or victory here, only the overwhelming enormity of the wall itself as it climbs the jagged peaks toward Simatai.
The meandering gives way to climbing, as the wall sticks to the steep cliff snaking its way a long the peaked range, heralding the end of this short but impacting experience for the average tourist. With time flown by, but believing we should go further I negotiate with my guide and he agrees to let me go two more towers, experiencing this steeper section on my own.
I waste no time taking him up on the offer and without my guide or fear of an accident, I’m drawn to this even more decrepit part of the wall. Sucking in frigid air my muscles warm to the task like a steam train, the cold awakening my curiosity quickly followed by a sense of adventure.
Making the first tower I can see clearly where we’ve come from and the towers already explored. The wall in this area is a bit like a horse shoe making it an ideal loop walk. The mountains stretch to the horizon layer on layer and even in the smog, differentiate themselves. The sun’s rays gives an otherwise frostbitten environment a warm hue and it’s impossible not to stop and feel the gentle biting breeze on your face. Gazing over the landscape long ago in battle, one cannot escape the sense of a mighty and proud empire or of a society largely built on subsistence farming.
The final tower proudly sits a top a jagged peak. How they built these incredibly intricate multi story arched towers on the tops of needles truly makes the wall a wonder of the ancient world. The wall now better described as steps makes no welcome for the uninitiated. Steep, crumbling and with may of the parapets disintegrated, this is not only an exercise in endurance, but a nerve steeling challenge to push from your mind the exposed edges and fear of falling backwards. It’s no surprise then to see some not make it and others like me on all fours, feet and hand firmly planted on the aged and crumbling structure. Maybe not as secure as I thought.
At the top the vista is immensely rewarding and the climb quickly fades from memory in its favour. This is the end of my Great Wall exploration and I sit atop the tower, stilling myself to take in every feeling, emotion, sight and sound. Acutely aware that in the blink of an eye, I will be whisked away and may never return to this ancient place that has captivated me from childhood.