Ok well, we really didn’t travel thousands of the miles along the wall or even more than a handful, but what we did see was amazing.
The day started off with an early van ride out of the city. Along the drive our guide, David, would pepper us with facts about Beijing…about how all the buses now use natural gas and how, within just two decades nearly the entire population of Beijing switched from mostly bicycles to cars and buses, and look! Do you see that digital sign? The “three” and the “six” means you can’t drive today if your license plate ends with either of those numbers! Also, there was a lot in there about nut and fruit tree planting, which I kinda didn’t get. All of this narrated in a voice meant to be carried to the very back of the van or another car – on the other side of the road. With its windows closed.
Since this was our first actual day in Beijing, we were very excited to try an authentic breakfast and David delivered. About sixty kilometers outside of the city we stopped at a small town and were ushered into a small restaurant. We figured they didn’t get many foreigners there since just about everybody stopped and stared at us. We were quickly ushered into a back room. We couldn’t yet tell if this was the VIP or Elephant Man treatment.
David kept bringing back several different kinds of choices: Long, airy fried bread meant to be dipped in sugar crystals, thick-skinned dumplings with pork and spices or eggs and spinach, and rice porridge. I went up to the front to see what else might be on the menu and there were two large containers with different kinds of salted, spiced cabbage. It was very filling and tasty.
We loaded up and drove another 20 minutes to a small hamlet made up of a few grouped buildings. One of them a convenience store where we loaded up on bottled water. It was also our first real glimpse of the wall. In order to make way, the road’s construction unceremoniously blasted an enormous whole in the wall.
We drove to another small village comprised mostly of former barracks for the soldiers who originally manned the wall’s towers. The barracks have long-since been converted to housing and that’s where David’s aunt and uncle lived. Their housing unit consisted of two buildings behind an exterior wall. One building was being used for storage and the other was their house. No running water and only and an outhouse for a restroom.
We spent a few moments speaking with David’s relatives. They were baffled why we would travel so far to see the wall, or to Beijing for that matter. For them, both had always been there and was something relatively unspectacular. The wall was simply a part of the scenery. And Beijing, well, it was full of too many people moving much too quickly. In all of their 70 years, despite being a mere 100 km away, they had never visited.
We toured around at other buildings. An investor friend of David’s had bought and was fixing up several of the barracks hoping to make them a tourist destination.
We set off for the trail with David continuing to extoll various facts to us…nothing you could really use for Trivial Pursuit dominance…just things about the chestnut groves we were walking through.
As the trail began to go more upward, there was less talk and more grim gazing at the set of feet before you. When we asked David how much longer, it was “forty minutes”, which became the inside joke for the rest of the trip. We seemed to be “forty minutes” from everywhere.
Moments before there was mass mutiny, the trail deposited us on the wall. Finally, on flat(ter) land, we caught our breath and enjoyed the views of both the surrounding mountains and the trail of the wall going in each direction.
Unlike many of the typical tourist pictures showing pristine wall, this part was pretty “rustic”. Volunteer trees and shrubs had taken thick footholds in top part of the wall. We walked for several hundred meters until we came upon a large tower where the wall took a 90-degree turn. Between the next tower, the wall followed the crest line between two mountains but dipped at about a 30% angle both ways.
Walking down was fairly precarious, necessitating us to hold on shrubs or parts of the ramparts as the flat stones were smooth and slippery.
We made it to the next tower, climbed on top and took in the views. It was a spectacular site situated high above a dam.