There was excitement and a little apprehension this morning. The smog prevailed. I wondered how this is going affect our (my family and I) hike on the Great Wall today. Apprehension came from the questions on the weather – cold. We had organised a guide and transport. We were picked up at 0730 at our hotel. Our guide was young Leo of Beijing Walks. He seemed pleasant. The traffic on Beijing’s streets were relatively low. Our road trip took us through villages and little towns. As we neared our destination, I had my first glimpse of the Great Wall high above the valley snaking on the mountain ridges. I was excited.
We arrived at Nanjili Village, a sub-village of Xizhazi Village in the Huairou district, the start of our hike. It is sparse village with a small population right under the nose of the wall. It is a farming community.Through the hazy sky, I could make out the silhouette of the wall on the ridges. Our target, Zhengbeilou Tower was visible through the forest. It began to snow lightly. Leo seemed more excited than us as this was his first experience walking in snow. My thoughts were….it is going to be cold and wet! A signage read – This part of the Great Wall is not open to the public. Leo just smiled.
We started at 0915 by walking up a hill behind the village. A few villagers were already on up and about. The walk entered a deciduous forest as most were leafless. Through the shrubs and trees, I could clearly see a few towers on the wall. The trail zigzagged uphill and at times steep. Fortunately, the trek was dry and traction was good. I can imagine the difficulty walking in wet conditions. We seemed well prepared with our gear.
After an hour, we reached Zhengbeilou Tower. Our first steps on this iconic structure, we climbed up a wooden ladder and a few stone steps up. We stood on the top level of the tower. The views, even with the thick smog hanging about, was stupendous. On the west, I could see the partially collapsed towers and the wall meandered along the ridge like a white serpent and disappeared into the mountains. Some looked ridiculously steep and the steps completely broken. Trees and shrubs grew sporadically on and along the wall.
Jiànkòu is considered the ‘wild Great Wall’ as it is completely unrestored and in disrepair. However, it exuded natural beauty and the snow today was just a bonus. Hence, the reason we are here. On Zhengbeilou Tower, the floor moved with every step as snow covered bricks lay strewn all over. Even the walls had partially collapsed. Clumps of shrubs were scattered all over. Voices from a western tower indicated the first sign of other hikers. However, they were moving west. This suggests that there are several treks through the forest leading from the village to the wall. On Zhengbeilou, there were no signs of other hikers. However, there was a man inside the tower and evidence of a fireplace suggest he may be a regular, perhaps a villager.
We continued east. We were all excited including Leo. I liked him. He show full of enthusiasm, knowledgeable and just being a simple guy. The wall here seemed whitish. The wall followed the ebb and flow of the mountain ridge and further on seemed to climb uphill and form a semi-circle and decent towards the valley. That section is call the Ox Horn Edge. The wall from Zhengbeilou descended sharply at almost forty five degrees. Finding traction was difficult with the smooth snow covered pavement stones. We edged forward, a little at time.
Leo was trailing behind. He seemed to walk steadily. He had a weapon, snow nails. Thoughtfully, he had brought us some. These were metal spikes embedded into elastic rubber. We placed them over out boots. It steadied our walking. Leo quipped, “these are not good ones, made in China”. However, they did the job perfectly although repeated adjustment is required as the walking surface is uneven and unsettling. I cannot help wondering about the purpose of the wall, its effectiveness, and the tremendous cost (both in financial resources and human) in building and maintaining them. At times, we walked very close to the edge of the crumbling wall with no protection. A slip or fall can send you tumbling down over 5 meters at places. The thought of the men whom were stationed in these desolate places throughout the seasons. It is an amazing human feat built at a high cost, including human lives. Some are buried within the wall.