“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…..

-Chris-

photo credit: Dani Fraser

Joe’s Place

(The Great Wall Box House)

There was a golden square of light down the hill, framed by a set of solid wooden doors. The doors hadn’t been closed and locked for the night because we were expected, and they were waiting for us.

I let out a sigh as I heaved my backpack one last time for this part of our journey and slung it over my shoulder. Sleepily, Dani and Jake did the same. We silently wrestled with handles that twisted in our hands as the wheels of our second backpack-slash-suitcases, bumped and bounced behind us down the dirt path. The golden light growing bigger as we walked closer, a finish line that felt as good in crossing as what I imagined an Ultra race finish line must feel for any runner brave enough to run.

I’ll have to admit, when our driver first pulled up to what seemed like the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, I had a uneasy sense of trepidation. Trust issues are like my extra set of contacts. For years, I’ve been packing them along for the just in case. Two hours of a drive in a dark landscape to somewhere in the nowhere after a many hour flight, I was shell shocked by the passing traffic of beat-up work trucks with Character writings all over them. I was back in China and a really long way from home. And as much as I thought I was oozing independence and had this journey all under control, the reality of it was, this trip depended also on the help that others were to offer along the way…

The night air had a cold bite to it and it was hard to stop shivering, let alone stop the chattering of my teeth. So when our driver Pong, opened a modern version of a front door that was set inside the building a couple of feet from the wooden outer doors, it was a relief to feel the warmth of the front room that went along with the golden light.

Joe was behind a large tea table with two other men sitting on stools, sipping tea in their quiet companionship. I put my backpack down, and slid onto an empty stool, Dani and Jake doing the same. My brain was fast shutting down after twenty-four hours and more of no sleep except the head-bobbing, cat-napping that had occurred on the plane. But I knew I had several important arrangements that needed to be checked off my list for the next part of my trip in two days. And Joe, in our variety pack of internet conversations, (Facebook, WeChat, and phone calls), a few weeks prior, had offered to help with what needed to be done.

The room we were in was a contrast of new
blended with the old building that I had observed it to be from the outside. Walls of honey colored wood reflected the light and warmth of the room and there was a faint smoky smell of what I assumed must be someone’s outdoor campfire or maybe a wood stove. This made perfect sense to me because the air outside felt like the cold that the night brings to the mountains of the Pacific Northwest where the warmth of a campfire or stove would be more than welcome.

Joe’s Zen-like manner quickly put me at ease as he introduced his friends, and offered hot tea in a little glass cup that I drank in two gulps. With concern he explained that because of Qingming Festival, train tickets to Guangzhou were almost completely full for the following Tuesday, the day we needed to travel. He had managed to find three seats on a very early train and advised me to buy them that night. Joe and his friends didn’t understand why I couldn’t purchase my tickets via WeChat. I didn’t understand the why and how that could even be done at all. To make it all simple, Joe’s young friend Jimmy, who became our new friend in the following days, made the purchase for us.

photo credit: Dani Fraser

Relieved and oh so ready to meet with some sleep, I thanked Joe as he had Jimmy show us the way out a narrow side door by the tea table, out to a small courtyard. Too dark to see much, the smoke smell was stronger in the courtyard. In an odd way, it mingled with the cold mountain air. Surprisingly clean and fresh, I drew in a deep breath before ducking past Jimmy who held the door to our room open for us.

Our room had hardwood floors and there were several Asian antique-looking dressers that reminded me of the fact that we really were in China. But the very best part were two twin beds pushed together with snow-white, puffy down comforters. Jake sailed his way to jump on the bed, leaving his things in a heap in the middle of the floor. Dani was more careful, placing her backpacks in a corner, before leaping her own way to bounce at his side. Jimmy showed us how to use the heater, than said goodnight and we were left to ourselves.

Exclamations from the kids on how amazing our room was, the lights were quickly turned off and they were fast asleep. I crawled under the comforter and closed my eyes to the dark of the room. As tired as I was, in the funny way that seems to happen, my mind revved up, staving off the sleep I would have gladly welcomed.

I thought about how stressed I had been in the weeks prior to traveling. It had woken me up in the middle of many nights, sometimes to the point of keeping me up for hours at a time. But the minute I had walked out of my house and stepped onto the first flight of this trip, I had gone into a state of auto-pilot calmness.  I wondered about that and thought of the reasons why.

Sure thing, I had been unsettled when our driver was gone-missing when we landed in Beijing. But there truly had been a light shining on us when a lady approached to ask if we needed help. She was able to locate our driver and keep in contact with him until he found us.

Pong had that same light in his presence. Even though it was late, he was thoughtful in his offer to stop if we were hungry so that we might find something to eat. He was patient in my questions as to why he would live in Gubeikou, the village that we were on our way to.  His answers of clear blue skies and beautiful mountains, and concern for the ever increasing pollutants of our Earth, reflections of what I held to be of great importance as well.

Than there was Joe who gave us one of his best rooms at no extra charge because we had arrived late in the night. Inviting us to sit at his table, he had included us as if we were already a part of his circle of friends, and not the three strangers that we really were, having barely just walked in the door ten minutes before.

photo credit: Dani Fraser

The same light just kept shining through the people we were meeting, the places we were going. Somewhere outside and very close, was the Great Wall of China. I was excited for the morning and the adventure it would bring. In the silence of the late night I was also at peace, thankful that I could feel so safe in a place so far away from my home. Instinctively I knew we were staying with good people and that we were exactly where we were supposed to be. As the peace in knowing this eased my mind to rest, it was with trust that I finally
fell asleep….

-Chris…