After the BBQ I dropped the family off at Park Avenue and I jumped on to the 4th Ring Road heading north. From there to the G45 DaGuang expressway heading for the village of XiZhaZi. Traffic was light and it was odd to be driving down the road in China. It was only my second time driving and things felt familiar and yet different as I watched for trucks wandering into my lane and as the road narrowed I had to be on the look out for folks walking along the edge of the road in the dark.
I pulled into the village around 9:30 and walked up to the Zhao’s Hostel. Robert had told them I was coming in late. The daughter showed me to my room and I was asleep by 10 pm. My alarm went off at 3:45 am and I was up and out the door by 4. The fog was blowing so thick I could barely see the road as my headlight glared against the mist. I at first thought I was on the wrong road, but nope they had only paved the trail since I had been here last. Progress waits for no one in China. A quick 30 minute hike brought me to the Wall itself and I made my way along its course. The Heavenly Ladder was just as steep as when Miles and I hiked it. At the next peak : “Where even the Eagle Flys Upward” I opted to follow the “path” just to the left of the wall where I scrambled up the roots, tree trunk and rock to reach the tower. I paused to watch the sunrise weakly shine a faint distant pink glow as the fog blew over the ridge.
Down and up and down again. Along the wall the center was mostly a path through the small trees that grew on the top of the wall. Here the Wall is wild. Time and nature have torn down as much of the wall as possible. Gravity has toppled bricks and towers. In any place the Wall would be an amazing feat of engineering, just stretching along a flat plain would be enough; However around Beijing the Wall snakes along the tops of mountain ridges where the steep sides are cliffs in many places. Here you wonder at the amount of human labor that it took. Crushed rock was piled first and then filled with earth. Along the Jiankou Wall in places the crenellations had fallen in on the top of the wall and you walked along the parallel stacks of bricks. The base of much of the wall here is magnificent, carved solid blocks of white rock. Shaped hundreds of years ago by some method of chiseling. Atop these sit the kiln fired gray bricks which formed the well known u-shaped crenelations reminiscent of any English castle wall. And then atop of those again are slanted capstones. More often than not these capstones lie loose on along the top, their cement long having deteriorated. The floor of the Wall, where it exists at JianKou is paved with large square bricks again of kiln fired gray. The wall is beset with holes for arrows. And along the JianKou section each notch is framed by a beautifully carved peaked arch. The attention to detail is stunning, especially given the height and distance from the lowlands. Hundreds of backs must have creaked beneath heavy loads as they carried and lugged the materials over this rugged terrain.
Along each peak towers sometimes stand complete, other times they are crumpled masses of rock and brick. The towers have a common pattern of arched doorways and windows. Very few in Jiankou still have their upper floors intact. Many of them are magnificent gleaming white as their base is made from the white native stone. As I approached one tower I heard voices and several called out “Ni Hao” (hello). I climbed up the stairs to the tower roof to find a group of 6 huddled in a circle enjoying some breakfast. They had camped there the night before. I enquired which tower this was and the direction of JiuYanLou (9 Eye Tower). They informed it was impossible to reach except with climbing rope and to not go further unless I was very experienced. I informed them I had done a fair bit of hiking. They offered me some rope and I said no, if its unpassable I won’t attempt it.
In many places as you walk along the top of the wall you are almost perched up on a path high above the very dense green trees and vegetation that lie far below. The height is even more striking because the Wall snakes the ridge line and the mountainside drops off steeply on either side. There is no way down or up onto the Wall in these sections, a formidable height of 20-30 feet between the top of the wall and the ground.
Onward I went. Twice I came to precipitous drop offs where the wall crumbled and a cliff was the only way down. Here indeed if you stayed on the Wall you’d need rope, but both times there were side trails that dropped off to the north side of the wall allowed you to wend your way down the ridge through the trees, around the cliff and back to the Wall again. Once I down-climbed a very crumbled section that while dicey if you slipped was doable with care and attention to ones feet and hand placement. Finally the Wall gave way to a jumbled mass of white stone. The bricks long ago fallen far to either side and the stone base a pile of rock. A trail led up the rock and into the trees. A steep trail along the ridge upward through the trees with very little sign the Wall had even been here. By this time I was going on 4+ hours of hiking. I had gained over 650 vertical meters all told with all the ups and downs and had covered roughly 6 kilometers. Unfortuatenely I’d gotten confused when entering the way point for the 9 Eye tower and with all the fog I’d had no visual confirmation of the tower itself. Based on my incorrect coordinates I thought I was heading in the wrong direction. I was running out of time and since I could no longer even see the Wall, I decided to turn around and head back for the village. I am now convinced I was almost there, but hindsight is 20-20.
I didn’t want to have to retraverse the Wall so I made my way back down the ridge line to a small tower and found a well worn trail that dropped off into the valley. I had a heading of the hostel and it lay just over a ridge probably 200 meters high. The trail ran down the valley at a 90 degree angle away from the village. I guessed that the trail followed the small valley down around the end of the ridge where I could turn right and walk back up the road to the village. I opted for the more direct approach up over the ridge. I had a small flat land to cross to reach the ridge. At first I attempted to just crash through the vegetation to the opposite ridge between me and the village. This was a mistake. Even though this small valley was filled with walled terraces that had once been farmed this was over a 100 years ago and the vegetation was thick and very prickly. My iPhone (by which I was navigating with a GPS app) was almost dead of battery and I’d plugged it into my back up battery. But in the thick shrubbery the cord pulled out gone forever and I was almost out of juice. I crashed my way back to the trail and retraced my steps until I came to a fainter side trail which lead in the direction of the ridge and the village.
The ridge itself was full of leaves and the forest floor on the slope was mostly open. I lost the trail among the leaves but it was straight forward to top the ridge, just go up. From here on the downward side the vegetation changed back to thick bushes full of pricklies and dense enough that I couldn’t see much ahead let along down. I stumbled a couple of times and as my legs started to bleed from the scratches I thought to myself : “Bushwhacking sucks no matter what country your in”. Finally I came to more terraced rock walls; evidence of farming from long ago. These were easy to make my way down without too much trouble and eventually the terraces were actually tended to, the land cultivated and a trail led me down to the village. I stumbled onto the cement road. I was tired, hot and thirsty (I ran out of water back on the Wall). I walked back to the hostel where they all commented on my disheveled look. I asked for a couple of bottles of water and went to my room to shower and clean up.
I hadn’t seen the sunrise; I hadn’t made it to 9 Eye Tower but I had hiked an amazing section of the Wall; I’d only come across those few campers the entire trip and I had many reasons to return again. Not the least of which is to catch a sunrise and to make it to 9 Eye Tower.