Those trapped in the languid places of no seasons can’t understand the way a winter will change a place; or the way spring will bring new hope; summer will bring sun and Autumn the golden end of a season. I was saddened when Beijing had a few warm days in February that I’d missed my chance to see the Great Wall in Snow. I had already visited the wall in winter but just without snow. When a winter storm blew in on the first Friday of March I had Robert call the Zhao’s to see if there was snow at the Wall. His report was : “a lot”.
Saturday I awoke at 4 am. The dark morning is now no longer a dreadful hour; its an time of dull excitement at possible adventure that grows as I slowly waken. By 4:30 I am in my Hyundai heading north on the 4th Ring Road. The highways are clear of cars and I make great time driving 130 kmh. The Huairou exit is finally complete but the joining highway is still under construction so I make my way along surface streets to the left turn that begins climbing up through the fields. Snow lined the street sides as I made my way past the narrow street of the villages and resorts. As I climbed up over the pass there was 1-2 inches of snow covering the road as I slipped and slid in several places. Down the other side I made my way past the many mountain resorts until the left turn to the valley of Jiankou. Up until now the roads had been mostly clear but from here the road was solid snow a good 4-5 inches deep. I drove 30 kmh up the road, passing several cars that had slid off the night before and even a large tour bus that had pulled off the road before a small rise in the road.
In the dark ahead I saw a group of people walking up the road. There were more than a dozen Chinese people dressed in winter gear, all in their shells, their waterproof pants and gaiters. They looked like one eye cyclops as each one wore a headlamp on the forehead. I passed them slowly before coming to the village gate. The guard house was dark and I stopped the car and walked up to the window as the caretaker turned on the light and took my 20 rmb in exchange for my entrance ticket. The last kilometer through the village brought me to the end of the road and the parking beneath the big blue line that declared the Great Wall was closed to the public. (What it really means is the Great Wall isn’t under public maintenance and travel at your own risk).
I changed into my boots and threw my cameras in my pack and headed up the valley toward the far back end and the wall. This trail gradually approaches the Wall and only in the last few 100 meters does it gradually climb to the Wall. From here I headed north along the wall towards the 9 Eye Tower though I had no intention of climbing all the way to the large tower. The snow didn’t pose much of an issue as there actually floor of the wall is all but gone in this section, the flagstones long ago cracked, broken and covered by the encroaching trees and shrubberies. A slight fog blew over the further sections and the Wall only revealed itself a little at a time.
I spent several hours climbing along the familiar Wall, only different in the snow and fog. The old towers, their large wooden doors long decayed and lost, watched over the winter Wall with their crumbling ceilings and their ever faithful arches. After reaching a high point, I returned. Along the way I noticed that many of the trees had “beards” of snow hanging from their branches, almost light hoar frost but more wispy and feathery. I watched for a while as these branches of snow blew gently in the wind. Back to the entry point I climbed down off the wall and slipped and slid down the trail to the valley below. A quick step made short time of the trail and I was back at the village. It was only 9:30 and I wandered up towards Zhao’s to say hello. The youngest daughter was peering down from the courtyard as I said hello. I asked her if I could buy some breakfast and she ushered me in.
While she cooked I stood in courtyard conversing in broken sentences with the mother who had just finished making a large box of dofu (tofu) and was sweeping out the hearth. She carried a bowl of waste water out to the edge of the steep steps and threw it off as she turned back toward the house she heard a car coming and stopped to see who was approaching. When you live literally at the end of the road and its winter when things are slow, every passing car is something to be inspected and considered. A local was puttering down the road in a three wheeled tractor with a big bundle of clothes or something.
The daughter returned with two pieces of steamed bread and a couple of fried eggs. She welcomed me into their home to sit on the kang and eat in warmth. The eldest daughter lay sound asleep next to me and the mother came in to watch some awful tacky singers on TV. The daughter brought me a large bowl of zhou (congee or porridge) made of corn and rice. I ate and showed them pictures of the wall and the trees covered in snow. The mother proclaimed how beautiful they were and how special it was that I’d been able to see such a sight. She told me how smart I was for not going up to ZhengBeiLou where everyone else was headed this morning. As we laughed and joked on their warm kang she told me as should write a book about JianKou and I said to myself maybe I will. Now that I’ve finally seen it in every season in all the colors and the starkness of the snow.