When I lived in Issaquah (just outside Seattle) I could easily visit the mountains almost at anytime; a meeting free morning at work and a late arrival combined with an extra early Dawn Patrol would enable me to spend a few precious hours racing up and down the mountain trails of the Cascades.
The Great Wall are my Cascades in Beijing. There aren’t many hiking trails in the mountains that surround Beijing that don’t lead to the spine of the Great Wall that follows their rugged ridge crests. One can spend many hours climbing their steps. A visit to the Wall is not under taken so easily, though I’ve had the opportunity to visit the Wall in every season and am still working on a goal to visit the wall in each month.
Tom Taylor was in Beijing on business; Friday evening we were joined by Zhang Chao as we drove the JingCheng express way to HuaiRou and towards the valley of JianKou. The traffic of the 4th ring road was slow as usual but eventually gave way to darkness that enveloped us as we became the only car on the winding road out of HuaiRou snaking over the mountain that sit at the edge of Beijing.
The village of XiZha sits at the end of a small narrow road, not much wider than single lane, in a valley surrounded by rugged mountains. There are no roads that leave the valley which sits at 620 meters above sea level, around 580 meters higher than Beijing, the mountain tops that encircle the valley are another 300 meters higher. We called ahead at HuaiRou to order our dinner to be ready when we arrived.
We parked in front of the Zhao’s home and walked up the stairs. Since I’ve now been there around a half dozen times the welcome me when I arrive. They invited us into their home to eat our supper. The have a long courtyard home, a doorway with a thick heavy blanket hanging over the entrance. Inside is a small room, on either side of the doorway is a 1 meter square brick oven/stove. There is a small hole where wood is stoked, on top are two, huge woks that are covered with the largest lids I’ve ever seen. Each of those stoves and woks serve a dual function of cooking as well as providing heat. At the back of the small entry room is a shrine with GuanYin, with fruit offerings and incense burning, a rare sight in China after 50 years of communist influence.
The Zhao’s live in the room to the right as you enter. Half of the length of the entire room is a meter+ high bed known as a kang. The bed is made of bricks, the interior of which is piped with the flue from the stove in the adjacent entryway. The top of the brick is covered with a woven mat; a 1.5 meter stack of quilts at one end of the bed provides covers for sleeping. After seeing these traditional beds you can understand why all beds in China are hard as well bricks. The heat comes from the stove outside. A fire is burned throughout the day, and the bricks in the bed stay hot throughout the entire night.
We sat on the kang, around a small portable table they set up as they brought in a large BBQ trout, two plates of egg fried rice, some fried egg and some greens sautéed with garlic. While eating I had Chao ask Lu Guihong (Zhao Fuqing’s husband) a few questions. She was born in this valley (she appears to be in her mid to late fifties). She said as a little girl they farmed and she never went to the Wall, only crazy people went up to the Wall, it was too dangerous. She didn’t even go to the Wall until she was older. Around 12 years ago a photographer was in the area and needed. Place to spend the night. The Zhao’s offered their home, and fed them dinner. Eventually as word spread they built several guest rooms and started their hostel.
After dinner Tom was tired and settled in for the night. Chao and I sat in his room on his large kang and set up my laptop to watch a movie before turning in. The bed was covered in two quilts but you could feel the heat radiating up from the bottom. When my hands got cold I just lifted up the quilts and put them on the bricks where they quickly warmed up to the point of almost being too hot. After the movie I went to my adjacent room; my kang was heated from the stove in Chao’s room. My quilts didn’t feel warm to the touch and I was worried about being cold. I pulled the two thicker quilts on top of me and as soon as I lay down I could feel the heat radiating up from below. I was toasty warm the entire night, the bed was a bit hard but as long as you lay on your back it was very comfortable.
The next morning my alarm went off at 5:15 as I got up to get my bag ready for the hike. A made a quick dash to the bathroom, three very rustic squatters behind the rooms. Through the open window frame, which thankfully had no glass (the ventilation and fresh air was very welcome) I could see the harvest moon shining over the mountains. By 6 am, Tom and Chao were up and we were off. It was bitter cold, we had on all our layers, hats, gloves, coats etc. We set off up the middle path through the fields and up the valley towards its end. It was dark out still, Chao has his head lamp, I used the flashlight app on my iPhone and Tom walked in between us. We arrived at the Wall and climbed up the rocky steps and onto the crumbled section of the Wall below the Beijing Knot. The morning sky was slowing turning from the dark black, to deep blue with bright reds; the sky was split with the opening of a new day and the sun rising far away behind the horizon. We stopped and took photos along the way as we climbed the Wall heading north towards the 9 Eye Tower. This section of the Wall is one of my favorites because its unrestored but is still in great condition, the foundation is laid in white dolomite granite which offers great contrast to the green in the summer and the dark grays of the bare trees in the winter.
Along the ridge line the wind whipped and tore at us, chaffing our bare skin. As we climbed up the steep ridge line toward the tower where the Wall tumbled to nothing more than a pile of rocks our efforts warmed us. Finally we reached the top of the ridge to where one of the largest towers stands, called the 9 Eyed Tower for its 9 arched windows on each side (typically they only have 3 per side). We climbed the steps and huddled inside trying to escape the wind. I pulled out some Craisens and nuts and a bag of cold but still pliable peanut butter which I squeezed onto a Nature Valley Bar (one which I had, and fortuitously one that Tom brought along). The wind was so cold by the time I finished my hands were numb and aching from the cold. We all had to keep stomping our feet to stay warm, after ten minutes of enjoying this it was time to go. We walked back down the stairs to the side of the tower where we saw the plaque commemorating the Chinese government designating this as a protected zone in 1985 and we peered at the large fading stone stele carved from time of the Ming emperor Wang Li who reigned from 1563 – 1620, amazing to imagine something over 500 years old.
For our return we opted to leave the wall at the bottom of the steep ridge and walk back down the valley towards the valley of JianKou. This long return walks along a pleasant trail; in the winter time you can clearly see all the terracing throughout the valley floor, though agriculture seems to have been abandoned for many years. We stopped at the grave mounds, technically illegal in China as only cremation is allowed, but old traditions carry one. Back down at another section of the village we stopped to talk with an old man with one arm who was carrying a homemade digging stick made from rebar. He was going to hunt for roots to make pipes from that he sells. Back at the road we walked the 2 kilometers back down the road the Zhao’s hostel, admiring the neatly lined river and bridges among the vacant fields.
Another visit to the Wall in winter, though I’ve yet to see it in the snow. I look forward to visiting in January for a white Wall wonderland if the dry northern Beijing winter gives us any snow.