There are so many elements to our day at The Great Wall, that I don’t know what to keep or what to omit. I’ll attempt to stay as true to form as possible and start by saying that a) it was a memorable journey, and b) I’ve never been so afraid in my life. Read on if you’re keen, or skip down to the photos. The last one was the best shot I got.
We did some research and found that there were bits and pieces of the Wall that you could hike. We weren’t too keen on sharing the space with hundreds of tourists so we opted out of the famous Badaling site, where I went on my last Beijing trip. We decided instead on Jiankou, a rather ‘popular’ area, featured on many a website and in our Lonely Planet guide for its picturesque landscapes. They said to expect the trek to be between 2 – 5 hours, and to expect it to be family friendly. I can’t remember where I read that, but I’d like to find the author and slash their tyres.
My two uncles escorted us, both of whom were helpful and a little (HEAPS) overprotective. So when they said he and the family didn’t think Jiankou was a good idea, I wrote it off as that. They went on about the dangers of the area, how it’s wild, the paths loose and that there’s no one to help should we get into any trouble.
As someone who avoids confrontation like the plague, it was difficult deciding to stand our ground, explaining in very minimal Chinese that we had been looking forward to this for months and that we’d like to go ahead with it with their blessing, please, thanks. They decided to come with us when we said they could if they were so concerned for our safety. Oops. We had a black (illegal, but helpful) taxi driver take us to Jiankou, and explained that we’ll call for him when we got to the other end at Mutianyu (a more well-kept, more touristy area).
After the hour-long climb to actually get up to the wall on the mountain, the view proved spectacular, but it was already 2pm. We started climbing peaks and scrambling down rocks, and found out rather quickly that it’s a lot more difficult than anticipated. But that’s okay, because it should get easier the closer we get to the end… *cough*
Difficult is a serious understatement. We scaled very awkward, very steep areas of mountainous terrain and were often centimetres away from certain death. The paths were crumbly, the steps were worse, and it’s very stressful not being able to trust the ground you’re standing on. The seat of my pants were shredded from sliding down rocks. There’s one area where the angle of the descent was at 70°, where we found a small, shivering dog. It’s a wonder how he got up, or how long he’s been there, but he was certainly stuck. We fed him some baozi and Dan carried him down to a flatter area.
The worst part was knowing that my uncles were being stoic about the entire situation, but I felt totally awful about it. The younger one was helping the older one out a lot. The entire time I thought that it’s one thing to put your own life in danger… but when there are two others… older others… Not a nice feeling.
And it didn’t let up! The hours went by and we went up and down peaks, through and around watchtowers, bush-bashed and weight-shifted to find more seemingly impossible peaks, and then suddenly we hit a literal wall. We couldn’t figure out how to get past it. We had relied on the red and yellow ribbon showing us that there’s a potential route around most watchtowers, but couldn’t figure this one out.
My morale had been slipping slowly with the time, and I lost it when the sun disappeared behind a mountain. The sun sets quickly in the mountains, and sets quickly in winter. We were in a desperate situation and we had to make a call. We needed to turn back.
By the time we found a path that led us out onto a very remote road, it was totally dark and started to get cold (really cold). I apologised profusely to my uncles, who were very gracious and said that we were all unfortunately misinformed. We called the driver who came and picked us up, who told us that the walk is actually meant to be approx 7 hours in length, and that there are mishaps and accidents all the time.
What was interesting was that the entire time we were up there, there was fantastic phone reception. The driver explained later that it’s so lost hikers can contact emergency services, who can then zero in on your location. There have been numbers of deaths (especially at night) where hikers have lost their footing.
An good indicator of stress levels are how few photos I took, despite how beautiful the scenery was. But we can laugh about it now, kind of…
P.S. If you don’t believe that it was as dangers as I claim, here’s a recount of another optimist’s trek. His photos give you a better idea of the craziness…