“It’s Easy to Find…”
(The Coiled Dragon)
“It’s easy to find…”
Jimmy explained as he gave directions on how to find the Great Wall. He pointed out where to go on a simple water-colored drawing that served as a map in the front room of The Great Wall Box House. The last thing I wanted was to get lost in China so I listened carefully, intent on memorizing the way, my eyes not leaving the map as he spoke.
After asking a few more questions of Jimmy, he must have felt it best to personally show us the way. His offer wasn’t something I was going to refuse so we all left together out the front door. Dani ran ahead as is her restless manner. Jake was content, walking alongside Jimmy as they spoken animatedly to each other in Chinese.
I walked behind them, examining my camera to make sure it was in working order. Satisfied that it was, I began to look around, not wanting to miss out on all there was to see in Gubeikou, the small village we were staying in.
To be honest, I had hoped to be well into our hike by now. My original plan had been to get up before dawn so that we could see the sunrise on The Great Wall. But when my alarm had gone off, I just couldn’t will myself out of bed that early. My mind had been ready but my body had thought otherwise. So I waited until Dani and Jake were awake. Once they were, the three of us quickly packed our backpacks with food and water, the binoculars and our cameras and headed on our way.
Deep blue sky rimmed the top of the buildings and walls that formed the small courtyard that our hostel room door opened out to. It was cold outside, the air fresh and clean, with the faint but delicious smell of smoke from the night before. I was loving the fact that we had bypassed Beijing and it’s gray overhead pollution of yesterday for the choice of being in the mountains instead.
Winding our way through narrow alleys, I listened as the loud honking of caged geese mingled with the sounds of hammers and electric saws. It sounded as if the village was going through a giant remodel but what we saw was a bit different. Workers were busy with what appeared to be adding on rather than repairing old and dilapidated looking buildings.
We passed people that stared at us curiously. Others stood in small crowds visiting with each other while watching the workers. Occasionally we also passed groups of three or four men gathered on the sides of the street around makeshift tables, smoking cigarettes while playing Mahjong and drinking tea.
There was a temple on a mountain that overlooked the village. Once we reached it, Jimmy again explained the way to the Wall. It seemed that there were two sets of stairs, one to the left, one to the right, with both sets ultimately leading up the mountain. We were to look for a person with tickets to buy in exchange for our access to the Wall. If nobody was around, we were not to worry, just continue on our way. Sooner or later, we would meet someone that would collect the fee.
In a similar manner, Jimmy also explained the way in which we were to exit off the Wall. Evidently there were two sets of stairways, the gray or the white, each descending back into the valley on different routes. Either set of stairs would eventually lead back to the the small village.
We thanked Jimmy and he left to return to the house. Not seeing anyone who was selling tickets, we climbed the first and only set of stairs that we noticed and hesitantly began walking. There really wasn’t a trail so we trudged up the dusty slope hoping we were on the right track.
Stretched away and high above the valley to the left of where we were hiking were layers upon layers of craggy blue mountains. Laced and draped, something that stretches the imagination to no end as to how it’s builders may have constructed it, we saw at last, the Great Wall of China. It threaded its way upward through the mountains, formidable in it’s size and and the steep elevation gain that promised to be a difficult hike. With a large valley positioned between the Wall and where we were hiking, I soon realized we were hiking away from it.
I wasn’t sure what to think as we hiked in the opposite direction except to assume we would circle around at some point. But that’s not the way it happened. The trail we were on looped along the side of a ridge in a different direction altogether. After a while we began to see crumbled chunks of ruin. It was hard to imagine that what we were seeing might be actual segments of the Great Wall.
The sad thing was, that is exactly what the chunks of ruin were. As hard as it was to believe at first, it did make sense. After all, we were to hike the Wild Wall, the section of the wall that had not been restored. After following several faint traces of trail to dead ends, with debate and discussion on which grassy path to continue on, we had found the Wall at last.
I won’t lie. I was thrilled. Completely in my element, I could have hiked forever or at least all day. Dani and Jake, not so much. The cold air of earlier had warmed considerably and continued to rise in temperature. Dani was still wearing her down jacket, with four other layers of clothing underneath. She didn’t see any reasons to shed any of those layers even though it was obvious she was getting uncomfortable in the heat.
Meanwhile, it wasn’t very long before Jake began to ask if we were done hiking yet. Reassuring him that we were going to be hiking for a while, he than asked when it was exactly, we would be done hiking. He felt compelled to repeat this question over and over. Knowing running for Jake was like kryptonite to Superman, I thought maybe he was viewing today’s hike in the same way. Encouraging Dani to get her camera out and take photos while giving Jake a visual of exactly where we were to stop and turn around in our hike helped and we continued on our way.
As we hiked, the crumbled segments turned into a continuous trail of wall. Watchtower after watchtower began to appear, small in the distance at first, growing larger as we hiked closer. We all felt the same sense of accomplishment every time we reached a new one and excitement on how long it would take to get to the next one.
Hiking the Wall where it perched on top of one particular mountain ridge like a king’s crown, Jake was the first to spot a figure on top of a watchtower, the next in line from the one that we were climbing. In the distance, the figure held out his arms to the sky, standing still as if he was a statue. He stayed put as we drew closer.
The man was waiting for us when we reached the tower. Silent and alone, he reminded me of the Wall with his dark weathered face, framed by a blue stocking cap on his head. He smiled a welcome as he smoked a cigarette. Dani spoke to him in Chinese and we soon found out he was the Wall Keeper. We would pay him for tickets to continue our hike on The Wall.
He told us we only had to buy two tickets instead of three for a total of fifty yuan, approximately seven dollars total. I gave him the money and than we sat down with him while eating a snack. With great interest he spoke with Dani and Jake and I could tell he was trying to wrap his brain around the idea of two Asian children having a Caucasian mom.
The Wall Keeper told us basically the same thing that Jimmy had told us earlier. He pointed to the watchtower further up the mountain that would be the turnaround point in our hike because of the military base somewhere in the mountains. He than pointed out the two stairways in the distance, one white, one gray, both leading away from the Wall. Either one of which would take us down the mountainside to where we could follow along the river and find our way back to the village.
As we hiked on, it occurred to all of us that we still had a long way to go to the last watchtower. I wondered if we should just take one of the staircases and work our way back to the village. Dani, Jake, and I discussed this possibility but quickly dismissed the idea. We all agreed we weren’t stopping short of our goal without at least trying to get there first.
This decision was one that would be tested as the day went on. It was apparent why the area we were hiking was called the Wild Wall. Except in rare occasions, the Wall had been left in it’s natural state. Broken and hard to find, sometimes narrow with sheer drop-offs, steep stairways, and watchtowers that sometimes look no more than in the last stages of ruin, hiking was often times dangerous going.
We came to a big sign in Chinese, awkwardly translated into English. It was easy enough to understand that it meant danger. We took the detour indicated and bypassed the watchtower in question. The next watchtower almost brought an end to our hike and I questioned why there wasn’t a danger sign posted there as well.
The extra steep stairs, the only entrance to the tower and continued hike on the wall, were precarious at best. Jake scrambled up ahead, disappearing over the edge of the arched doorway, looking back with a wide grin on his face. Not to be outdone, Dani quickly climbed up after him. They both made it look easy but I still hesitated before following them. Gingerly making my way up the broken steps, I was relieved when I too, was safely over the edge, and standing beside Jake and Dani inside the tower.
Two remaining watch towers left to the turnaround point, we hiked uphill to the stairs of the first one. A big tower, the inside was heavily littered with trash. I remembered that Jimmy had explained that people often camped in or around the towers and that this must be one of them. Two of the walls were relatively intact while the other two were more than halfway gone, crumbled away in the passing of hundreds of years since it’s creation.
The second tower was so close to the first, it was easy to see the huge sheet of metal that sealed off the entrance to it. After we walked around the second tower just to make sure there was no way to pass through it, we retraced our steps and climbed back into the big tower to explore it a bit more.
The section of the Wall we had been hiking and which we now viewed from both sides of the tower was called the Coiled Dragon. It was easy to understand why as we sat in the ancient watchtower taking it all in. The Wall uncoiled from the direction in which we had hiked, on and away into the mountains on the far side. Not hard to imagine that it could go on forever, I was in awe of its sheer power and majestic beauty.
We stayed for a while, mostly sitting in thoughtful silence, aware that this was a place we might only see once in our lifetime. Eventually though, it was time to return to the village. We hiked back to the gray stairs that Jake picked as the way to return and the path quickly led us down to the valley below. Soon the Wall was no longer in sight, hiding behind the mountains it belonged to. Leaving it didn’t take away the gratitude that I felt in being able to share with my children the opportunity to see such an incredible part of China’s history. Thankful, at peace, and excited as well, I looked forward for the tomorrow that would bring with it another opportunity to explore the beauty of the Great Wall…..