A Birthday Hike

Posted by on November 25, 2011

Every year I like to take the morning off and hike up to the summit of Mailbox Peak. This year in China that wouldn’t be possible so I opted to take the entire day and go for a solo backpacking trip and hike to the Great Wall. This is my story.

The Birthday Geek on a Peak

There is something surreal about experiencing holidays in a foreign land in a future timezone from most everyone that knows you.  This year my birthday (11/24) fell on a Thursday and coincided with Thanksgiving.  However since Thanksgiving isn’t an observed holiday we will celebrate it on Saturday the 26th (more about that in a future post after its past).  China is 14 hours ahead of the Pacific Timezone, so as of this writing (11/25 at 6am) Thanksgiving is over in the US,  my birthday is already past and we have yet to celebrate Thanksgiving here.   So many birthday wishes via Facebook are already belated and references to Thanksgiving dinner on my birthday are incongruent.  Just part of the surrealism that abounds in China.


This week fierce northern winds blew into Beijing, this brought out the gloves, and scarves and hats and blew out all the pollution.  Beautiful blue skies.   I left work early around 3pm.  I rented a car from Robert so that Stac and the kids wouldn’t be without transportation.  I headed north east on the G45 towards HuaiRou exited at #13 a few km’s sooner than JianKou and headed to the north west on the S308 HuaiChang Lu to the village of HuangHuaCheng. The time was around 4pm and the sun was cresting just above the ridge line of the mountains and casting long shadows. Many narrow country roads in China are lined on both sides with trees every 15 feet or so; result of organized labor programs. Their trunks are always painted white for the first three feet or so, they say to ward off insects. As I drove down the tree-lined lanes their shadows cut across the road; passing country folk riding on bikes and motorcycles. Families gathered to collect their children from school and others huddled against the wall bundled up against the cold chatting with one another. I was suddenly overwhelmed by a surreal feeling of “I’m in China, driving”.

He Guards the Way

I had the location of the section of the Wall on my phone I knew it was coming up on the right and kept my eye out for the road. I drove right past the turn off on my maps and had to turn around. A narrow cement lane between two restaurants matched the map and I asked a lady if this was the way to HuangHuaCheng she confirmed and I turned from the narrow blacktop country road to a single lane of cement winding up through the barren persimmon trees. I soon came to a gate and a compound. A house with dry corn laid in the driveway with a guest house next to a pile of coal, a chicken coup a small stable and 9 dogs chained to poles and in cages all greeted me with a loud choir of barking. An old wrinkled man walked up. I’d been previously warned by Earl about him and so I asked him if I could park my car and how much it would cost. He said 25 for me and 10 rmb for the car. I parked next to the coal and started change my clothes; things had gotten quite cold and so I put on a pair of tights and light hiking pants, two zip tops and longsleev polypro, hat and gloves. Around 4:44 I threw my pack on back and walked carefully up the road past the last of the dogs making sure I stayed out of the reach of the end of their chains.

The end of the Day

The Wall is a short 1/3 of a km walk up the rest of the cement road. The wall to the west (left) has been restored a few years ago, I was headed up the wall the east (right) which is unrestored. My goal was to find a large tower to camp in, there was a large tower in good condition a short 250 meters up the Wall but I wanted to be a bit further up the ridgeline so I kept on going. As is the case with most of the Wall its very steep and as with most ridgelines you can’t often see whats up ahead. Every now and then I’d catch a far off glimpse of what appeared to be the arched windows of a tower high up on the ridge. As I kept hiking the sunset kept fading behind me; given how clear the skies were the color kept lasting on and on. As the last bit of light finally drained out of the sky I finally arrived at the large tower. Typically towers on the Wall have a large arched entrance on either end at the wall with a window on either side and then three windows on the opposite sides. This means that in the corner of the towers there are windows on either side of you, this can get quite breezy when the wind blows. In one corner of the tower someone had filled in the end window with bricks and another doorway this gave me some protection and was just wide enough for me to pitch my Big Agnes tent.

Camping on the Wall

By the time I finished pitching the tent my hands were numb and I quickly crawled inside to snuggle into my bag. I had Big Agnes insulated blow up pad stuffed inside a 15 degree Big Agnes bag (there seems to be a pattern in the gear brand here). I kept on my socks, and pulled on another pair and put on my hooded orange puffy and synched up the bag and curled up with the iPhone and read my book The Litigators by John Grisham. I quickly warmed up and after reading for a couple of hours I set my alarm for 5:15 am and turned in for the night. When I sleep at home in my bed I won’t recall the next morning stirring at all, typically when camping I’ll toss and turn every hour or so though I usually still sleep fine. This night was one of the soundest nights I have had sleeping outdoors.

The next morning I woke a few minutes before the alarm went off. I put on my shoes, bundled up in hat, gloves and a puffy jacket; threw my camera and some water in the pack; put my headlamp on and headed up the Great Wall. Just above the large tower where I was sleeping the Wall hits a large cliff and goes straight up. Amazingly the builders were very committed to the route of the Wall and they built straight up cliffs : putting steps or crenellations anywhere they can fit, or along the sides of the cliff. Given it was dark and knowing that most of these cliff faces are typically unclimbable at worst and sketchy at best I opted to go to the left knowing that trails usually skirt around until you can safely rejoin the Wall. I found a trail and began clawing my way through the brush along the base of the cliffs. Eventually I reached a point where I could trend downward through the brush or try climbing up a fairly steep slope of mixed dirt and rocky cliffs. I decided to go up. I clawed my way up the dirt with a few dried vegetable belays and a couple of holds on the rock. Eventually I reached a small ledge/hole on the steep slope where I could stop and rest.

Smoggy Mountain Morning

From here things became straight rock above me for a short bit until the edge of the Wall 20 meters above; there was a crack but not much to really grab or step on to push up. When things get too hard generally your trying to hard and you should consider alternative routes. But getting back down was not so straight forward, still pitch black dark the headlamp and thick shrubs didn’t really allow me to see far enough to make the right decisions on which direction to head and where to place hands and feet. So I headed back up to my ledge and hunkered down to wait for the sky to lighten enough to see. I pulled out my iPhone and started reading my book again. An hour passed before there was sufficient light; sadly I was on the opposite side of the ridge of the rising sun so I wasn’t even able to enjoy any color. I put everything in my packed, synched it down tight and carefully down climbed. At the base of the cliff I was able to now head down and around where I ran onto an obvious trail and was able to re-climb back onto the wall.

The Winter Wall

From here I followed the wall up several steep hills; a large peak the tallest on the ridge line beckoned me on. The Wall took a left turn heading north west and the ridge line went right heading easterly. From here there was a trail intermixed with a lot of wading through the brush. Eventually I reached the very shrubby peak with a small pile of rocks and an old triangular tower that hand toppled. Tired and warmed by my hike with the sun shining on me I dropped my pack and sat down on a warm flat rock to take a break. Sadly I’d lost my water bottle in the dark wading through the thick brush but I did have a cliff bar and I at it and sat down to finish the last few pages of The Litigators. Satisfied with the end of a good book (finally!, Grisham has written crap for the last few years) I picked up my pack and made my way back down the Wall.

Until It All Falls Down

When I came to the steep section where I’d been cliffed out I stayed on the Wall right up to the cliff and downclimbed this time staying on the “right” if you were climbing up. There were several holds and places where bricks were cemented into the cliff face, using these and some holds it was possible to downclimb and probably would have been even easier to climb up. Arriving at the tower I got in my tent and thirstily downed my other bottle of water and climbed in my sleeping bag to warm up. Then I packed back up and wandered back down the compound of the old wrinkly man; changed and drove back down the village.

The Ancient Wall

I parked on the main road and walked across the street to where a young man was hanging the thick quilts on the door for the winter. I asked about lunch and ordered some fried noodles and some dumplings. He took me into their home and had me sit on their kang, a traditional Chinese bed with a thin reed mat on cement. Outside a square brick firepit was stoked with a fire that transferred heat into the room and under the bed so you could stay warm and toasty. He turned on the English channel of CCTV and left me to sip a cup of hot herbal tea while his mother cooked my lunch. Occasionally he’d wander in and talk to me about how dangerous the Wall was to camp on and how it was way too cold to sleep over night.

After downing my food I headed south down the country lane towards the G-45. Looking at the map I could see an alternative route that went over the mountains and came out north of Huairou, so on a whim I turned and headed east. The small road went through tunnels and around bends. As I came down on the otherside I passed a sign that said MuTianYu was only 4 km away, on a whim I called Julie Lefgren who was in town with a friend; I knew they were out on the Wall and though perhaps they might be at MuTianYu. Julie said yes, they’d just finished hiking and were going to eat at Subway and they’d love a ride home. Merrily we drove home back through the smog and cold to Beijing, but I’d been away from it all for at least one night on the Wild Wall.


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7 Responses to A Birthday Hike

  1. Robert

    I was deeply impressed by how cold and windy that day was. People who have not been to Great Wall on such a freezingly cold, windy day will not able to imagine your experience on those mountain. I did wish you could come back safe and sound from such a hike on such a dark, cold night from that wild Great Wall with those barking dogs bailing in the night. You made it on such a speeeeecail night!

    • Mark Griffith

      Thanks Robert I appreciate the concern, I was nice and warm. I’ve camped in the snow many times and its much much colder than Beijing.

  2. Vida

    What an adventure!! Beautiful photographs Mark.

  3. BWJones

    I love these posts. What an amazing insight into a part of China that I was not able to make it to on my last visit. One of these days, I’ll make it to the Great Wall, but for now, I’ll live vicariously through your amazing photographs and wonderful descriptions.

  4. Chelin Miller

    I admire your spirit of adventure! Great photos and fascinating read.

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