You're not a real man if you haven't climbed the Great Wall.
When Casey and I were shooting emails back and forth in August regarding our rendezvous in China, he mentioned something that stuck with me "...a really cool Great Wall hike that I enjoy..." Hike the Great Wall? Can you do that? At that point though, it was hard to fathom even being in China - much less even getting to see the wall.
A few months later....
At about 8:30 am, we started gearing up - pasting on Sun block and packing bottles of Gatorade into our backpacks. At around 9:00 we headed down to the lobby to meet Mr. Liu. It turns out Jen and Casey have "a driver." I know, very cool. Now he's not like solely devoted to them or anything, but he's proved to be a reliable and economical source of transportation to the airport, to the Wall... wherever a taxi might not be the best option.
As advertised, the kind and courteous Mr. Liu was waiting for us out front in his ultra-clean black VW. We had to fight our way through the morning traffic; a slow ooze full of honks and lights, bicycles and pedestrians. After about 20 minutes we made it to the highway, and found a bit of open road.
Casey and Jen warned me about it, but I found out for myself that Mr. Liu can put his foot down. We passed damn near everything in sight. Weaving this way and that, barely missing that truck, just sailing by that motorcycle. Never once did it feel out of control, but we were pushing 140 kph (around 85 mph) or so for most of the way through pretty solid traffic. I found it was best just not to look.
The drive took us out into the hills north of Beijing. To be honest, it was awesome to get out of the city for a while. There's only so much concrete and steel you can handle before longing for a little green. The air became clearer, the traffic thinner, and my expectations higher. We were actually heading to a section of the wall a little further out from Beijing. Casey and Jen had hiked it before, and found it to be a good, challenging climb, and a good deal less populated than the pieces of wall closer to the city.
After another 30 minutes or so, we climbed up into some small, rolling mountains. It really was a very pretty scene. We ended up on some smaller roads where we passed donkey carts loaded with leaves or stacks of cardboard - people riding three-wheeled bikes loaded with huge jugs of water - people on foot carrying bamboo poles and baskets of fruit.
We rounded a little bend in the road, where off to the left I got my first glimpse of The Wall - just peeking over the top of a green hill in the distance. Holy crap! The Great Wall! I can't really be here, right?
We continued on - rolling deeper into the little mountains, passing rows of roadside vendors selling bags of huge walnuts and bottles of water. Small, beat-up buildings popped up here and there - adorned with the requisite tourist catching signs. Restaurants and small diners, souvenir shops and tiny markets.
At around 11:30 or so, we made it to the entrance we were looking for. Mr. Liu dropped us off; making sure we each had a bottle of water from the cooler in his trunk before we left.
It was an absolutely beautiful day. The temperature was around 70 degrees with a gentle breeze, and the sky was a brilliant blue with just a few fluffy white brushstrokes here and there. A definite departure from the city, where the smog and haze had almost erased my memory of a clear sky. Casey and Jen mentioned that the last time they were here it was about 30 degrees warmer, and 20% more humid. We were all happy. A perfect day for a hike.
After we passed the small visitor's center, I could see the wall in front of and above us. We headed toward a set of stone stairs that led up through some trees to the tower directly above us. The first bit was tough - the stairs were really steep, and I'm really out of shape. My legs were burning and I was breathing hard by the time we actually reached the tower.
The structure of the tower itself was pretty plain - simply a large stone building with stairs lining both sides, leading up to the top of the wall. We ascended the flight to the left, and walked out into the sun. The scene is really hard to describe. A ribbon of stone draped the hills in front and behind us; stretching and rolling over hills, curving suddenly, and disappearing... then re-appearing atop another hill and snaking off some other way. I couldn't quite comprehend what I was seeing.
I of course started taking pictures like a true tourist. Casey assured me it would get much better. We started walking, climbing up to the next tower, getting an even better view than the last one. I see what he meant.
We walked and walked and climbed and climbed. Flat footpaths were followed by steep stairs and narrow walkways. As you might expect, the wall is starting to fall apart in places, some areas becoming pretty treacherous. Parts of the stairs have worn away or been broken in places. Sections of the wall itself crumbling down. It's easy to see why though - How could you maintain this? Miles upon miles of stonework, all getting beat down by the elements and human traffic. The cost would be astronomical.
It was such a great day - every view from every tower was spectacular. The beautiful blue sky, the wispy clouds, the contrast of the sandy brown stone against the green hills... I had to apologize profusely for slowing us down to take pictures. I just couldn't stop.
Reality came crashing in, however, as we ran up on a covey of school kids about a mile long. There had to be hundreds of them, all dressed in white and red jumpsuits. They were about 12-15 years old or so I'd guess. They were absolutely everywhere. The girls were moving slowly in packs, chattering and giggling. The boys were racing around, jumping from stone to stone, finding ways to scare the girls. The problem became one of numbers - There are enough bottlenecks in the wall to make the trek agonizingly slow. We'd actually got to some points where it was a stand-still. A narrow, somewhat dangerous staircase had turned a pack of girls into a crying mess because they couldn't get down. Then, another bawl fest broke out due to a little bee flying around. Painful. Casey, Jen and I figured out a way to get around most of them, but it took a good half-hour to navigate the crowd.
In hind-sight, there were actually some pretty tough spots. At some points you had to be pretty careful, or you'd take a pretty good header. It was definitely not a school trip that would be taken in the US. I applaud the Chinese school system for getting their kids out there. I have enough teacher friends to know that a trip like that would likely result in 12-15 lawsuits against the teacher and the school district. It's times like these where I worry for our kids - about how we've become a society of child-proofed, risk-resistant wusses. Ok, ok, I won't get on my soap box now. Makes you think though.
Our hike was supposed to take about three and a half to four hours. We ended up stopping several times - some for the dodging and weaving of the crowds, but mainly for me to take pictures. Fortunately for all involved, I got a few good ones.
We stopped about halfway and downed the rest of our Gatorades. Casey and I talked about how cool it was that we were here together. From riding our bikes in Imperial, Nebraska, to hiking the Great Wall of China. What are the odds?
Eventually we made it to a little suspension bridge, which crossed a small river. The wall itself actually stopped for the river, and picked back up on the other side, leaving me wondering how they defended this part.
As we were starting to get a bit tired, we were all happy the end was just beyond the bridge. Unfortunately, after the bridge, the last section of stairs was basically vertical. A little torture to finish off the day. It was painful! Why am I so out of shape? Coach Corn would kick my ass right now.
Mercifully, we made it to the exit, and rested for a bit. We were now about 70-80 feet above the little river that we'd passed earlier which from this viewpoint opened up into a little lake to our left. We picked ourselves up and started down the path. I could see it winding and curling along the hill quite a distance - our destination being a set of structures on the far side of the lake. It looked like a long way, but it was all downhill, thankfully.
A few feet later, there was a fork in the road - left down the path, or right toward a little walkway with a sign - which looked to be a zip line. A zip line? Holy crap. My stomach sank. I looked around the corner and saw it. From a little covered platform, a few thin wires ran all the way down to the other side of the lake. Holy crap.
Casey was all smiles and Jen was calm and collected. I was a wreck inside, but tried to hide it. "This is a lot faster," he said. I forced a weak smile and looked out of the platform down the wire to the other side - I nearly shat myself at that point. It's a long f'ng way down. And the line was long - crossing a long body of water. And, there were no seats, just a little harness that you put on around your waist and under your legs. To top it off, it was run by a little Chinese dude that I probably wouldn't have trusted with my backpack, much less my life. When was the last time this was inspected? I felt like I was shaking, but tried to hide it. Casey had already bought my ticket - I couldn't back out. They'd both done it before and had obviously survived. Besides - I can't bail after my little diatribe about risk-taking, can I?
Jen went first, which, admittedly, I was glad for. She seemed confident, put on her harness, and let the guy hook her up to the line. She then sat down, eased into it, and was off... dangling over the water, sliding down, down. Her trip was actually, pretty smooth and controlled - not a free-fall like I thought it might be.
I was up next. Appropriately, the little guy with the harnesses gave me a triple look, and searched through his stash to find one for me. That didn't help my Zen. Then of course, I had trouble getting the harness on over my Sasquatch feet. I then tried to secure all the stuff in my pockets, which I was pretty sure would end up at the bottom of the river. I got settled, stepped to the edge of the platform and stupidly looked down.
The little dude hooked me up to the line. He didn't instill a lot of confidence - not a lot of assurances thrown my way. He just seemed a little annoyed I was taking so long. He told me to sit down into the harness. Easier said than done with legs like mine. I managed to get them over the edge. Then, a little push later, I was off, dangling, over the water, my heart buzzing like mad.
Fortunately, the ride was smooth. And, after a few seconds, it was actually pretty peaceful. I started rotating a bit - got the full view.
Getting out of the harness was a bit of an adventure. Again, these things aren't really made with 6'9" in mind. I think both the little gal at the bottom of the line and Jen got a good laugh at seeing me try to untangle myself.
Once Casey came down, we walked around a corner to a little boat, which was to take us the rest of the distance. It was already loaded with about ten people, all tourists who had completed the same run we did. After the excruciatingly slow ride, we made our way to the reception area, where we found ourselves a coke and a bathroom. Soon after, we walked through the parking lot where we found Mr. Liu, fast asleep in his clean black car. He provided us with some moist towels and cranked up the A/C. Good man.
I know I've said this before in my writings - It was a great day. However, it would be pretty tough to top this one. A great hike on a great day with great people. It really doesn't get much better.