An Electrifying Experience on the Great Wall

May 1 is Labour Day in China.  Much like Memorial Day in the U.S. symbolizes the start of summer, this long weekend is a prime vacation and travel time across the country.  We decided to make a family trip to Beijing.

My #1 reason to go to Beijing was for a chance to hike on the Great Wall.  I booked a tour with a lovely outfit called Dandelion Tours. (aka China Hiking–why do so many Chinese businesses have multiple names?)  We met the tour leader in Beijing at 9:30 and headed out of town.  About a dozen people had turned out for the tour, and I was pleased to see that there were three other kids.  Because of the holiday, we hit lots of traffic and the two-hour drive to the Wall turned into three hours.  Our first stop was a little farmhouse/guesthouse, where the owners had prepared a fabulous meal for us.  There were no less than a dozen dishes and several things I hadn’t tasted before.  One of my favorites was a radish salad; another great salad was actually made by using the flowers of local trees and dousing them in vinegar and spices.

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Some of the tasty dishes. Clockwise from bottom left: tasty home roasted peanuts; cucumber salad; flowers in vinaigrette; tossed tofu salad; some sort of crunchy peas/nuts/seeds with a cilantro-dill dressing; radish salad; steamed fish in the middle. After I took the picture, about five more dishes came out, including beef, pork, chicken wings, buns, and more I’m forgetting.
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The flowers used to make our flower salad.

After stuffing ourselves, it was time for a hike!  About 30 minutes’ walk from the farmhouse, we caught our first glimpses of the wall.  After a steep climb, we were up on top.  This section of the wall is known as Gubeikou, as that is the name of a nearby town.  The first version of this wall was built during the Northern Qi Dynasty (ca. 550 AD).  It was reinforced with more stone, more towers, and more passes in the early Ming Dynasty (ca. 1368).  The Gubeikou Wall has stood ever since, although it’s certainly in disrepair now.  In the parlance of Wall enthusiasts, it is “wild wall,” as opposed to other sections that have been restored for tourism.  Closer to Beijing, you can find sections of the Great Wall that have been rebuilt.  This rebuilding may feature historically accurate blocks or more economical concrete slabs, as well as souvenir shops, chair lifts, and giant slides.  None of that here–just wall.  Miles and miles of wall.  And despite the holiday, we only bumped into a handful of others trekking the same area.

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One of our first views of the Wall.
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View from the top of the wall.
Dangling my feet over the edge.
Dangling my feet over the edge.
Some of the watchtowers were enclosed enough to let Simon walk around.  His backpack & leash (a Christmas gift from Granny & Grampy) came in handy here!
Some of the watchtowers were enclosed enough to let Simon walk around. His backpack & leash (a Christmas gift from Granny & Grampy) came in handy here!
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Crossing a narrow section.
Simon won't go up or down stairs without holding our hand.  This came in handy at the Wall, where he'd get to a ledge and thrust out a hand for one of us.
Simon won’t go up or down stairs without holding our hand. This came in handy at the Wall, where he’d get to a ledge and thrust out a hand for one of us.

The weather was perfectly broody–misty gray skies were the product of natural fog intermingled with Beijing smog.  The temperature was refreshingly cool and I felt like I could walk for hours.  But about a quarter of the way through our hike, our guide’s walkie talkie crackled with news from camp: there was a huge weather system moving through and we were destined to get caught up in it.  Rain, high winds, thunder and lightning.  I was surprised at the news.  I’m used to being able to look up into the sky and see storm clouds.  But that’s not really possible in China, where the thick haze blocks your view of the clouds brewing further overhead.  We picked up our pace.  It was too bad, really: between the high winds and the uneven footing, plus this newfound sense of urgency, I spent most of my time looking at my feet rather than at the stunning scenery all around me.

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View from a watchtower. The wind was really gusting by now.
Walking this portion of the wall was safe enough, as long as you paid attention to your footing.  It was more like hiking a mountain trail than walking a paved path.
Walking this portion of the wall was safe enough, as long as you paid attention to your footing. It was more like hiking a mountain trail than walking a paved path.

As we pressed on, the winds got stronger.  Soon, we started hearing the rumble of thunder in the distance.  Then the storm was on on top of us.  What do you do when caught in a thunderstorm while atop the Great Wall of China?  Where do you take shelter?  There’s no path below the wall.  There’s no shelter on the wall.  There are occasional guard towers every 150 meters or so, but would one of those sustain a lightning strike or crumble down on our heads?  We gathered into one such tower for a discussion.  After some debate, the group decided to press onwards.  We hiked the last kilometer in a rainstorm with lightning flashing above us.  We could see our destination long before we reached it, a tantalizing promise of shelter.  The rest of the guide team had set up our tents for us on the slope below the Wall.

Last pic before the rain struck.
Last pic before the rain struck.
A welcome sight!
A welcome sight!

It was a great relief to duck inside a tent but still not much protection from the lightning.  We decided to dash back to the farmhouse where we started (as the trail is a loop).  Dinner was served there, with the same abundance and variety as lunch.  The storm eventually passed and our team made our way back to the campsite after dark.  Our guides provided some beer and wine, and we socialized into the night, as tired individuals slowly drifted away for a well-earned sleep.

Morning came early for the youngest member of the expedition.  Simon woke up at about 5:30 in a cranky mood, intent on vocally expressing his discontent to all.  Not wanting to be bad tent neighbors, Joel and I hastily packed a bag and, quite literally, headed for the hills.  It was a beautiful morning.  The storm had blown away all the smog and we were welcomed by the bluest sky we’d seen in at least a month.  As we climbed the hills and onto the Wall, we could look back and see the campsite, a tiny enclave among the undulating hills.

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If you look reaallllly closely, you can see our tents smack in the middle of this photo. The farmhouse (where we took our meals) is the white speck in the ravine to the left.
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As we got closer to the town of Gubiekou, the wall really started to break down. Beyond town, it picks up on the far side of the river and then goes straight up that steep hill beyond. That’s supposed to be a tough hike. We didn’t attempt it.

Simon was having none of it.  I’d hoped to make up for the lack of photography during yesterday’s storm but my prime subject was just not in the mood for smiles.

 

Pretty much how our morning went.
Pretty much how our morning went.
Sick of this!
Sick of this!
Maybe if I fake-smile, she'll let me go home.
Maybe if I fake-smile, she’ll let me go home.

We finally decided to turn back and hung out at the farmhouse, waiting for our fellow campers to wake up and join us for breakfast.  After gorging on yet another fantastic meal, we all walked into the town of Gubeikou, where the van was waiting to return us to Beijing.

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There was a sweet little girl named Annie in our group and she took a liking to Simon. She kept him entertained through the whole van rides and when he was upset before breakfast, she managed to calm him down.
She's holding Simon's hand as Joel carries him towards our meeting point.
She’s holding Simon’s hand as Joel carries him towards our meeting point. (Note the rare blue sky.)

Hiking on the Great Wall was perhaps the one activity I most eagerly anticipated once we decided to travel to China.  This was a fantastic trip.  The scenery, the architecture, and the food were so impressive that even a few hiccups couldn’t detract from the experience.  I only wish we’d had longer, and now I’m pondering the practicality of another hike before we leave…

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