Sharleen and I were engaged on the Great Wall in 1998. Returning to the Great Wall was an event we had looked forward to sharing with Kylie and Alyssa for a long time. Most visits to the Great Wall consist of 1-3 bus ride to a small town, a hour climb, then a return. We wanted a different experience, and Sharleen found it with (Great Wall Inn).
We took the two hour local bus from Dongzhimen in Beijing to Gubeikou Water Town. From there Lao Sun picked us up and drove us to his inn. There were several rooms there, but we would not be staying here. Lao Sun was our guide for the next two days. We had an ambitious plan of hiking 20km of the Great Wall. We left after a fantastic lunch prepared by his wife. With our back packs on, we set out.
As we entered Gubeikou Historical Area, Lao Sun showed us the map of this section of the Great Wall, and then we trekked up to the wall. By the time we got there I was already sweating. Temperatures were already topping 33C (90F). We had about 6-8KM of hiking to do in order to make it to our campsite for the night.
This section of the wall was built in the 1300-1400s and had not been restored. The path on top was largely dirt and gravel and plants lined the path. Lao Sun showed Kylie that some of the fruits were edible. To her delight there were small jujubes (or hongjo), something that her grandmother usually buys from the store. They provided a great pick-me-up for her and kept her going strong. How did so many of these plants get here? Perhaps they were decedents of snacks eaten by the workers who built the wall centuries ago.
Lao Sun explained: “Each brick weighed about 12 kilograms, and each worker would have to carry four of those to the wall.” That was a lot of weight. My backpack was just a fraction of that and I was still feeling the weight. As a teacher I always struggle with how to create lasting memories for young people. Here I picked up a half broken brick and asked Kylie to hold it. “Imagine carrying eight of these up to the wall, many times per day, all day, for years.” I don’t know if it stuck for her, but it is that memory that will for me.
The sun beat us down between towers. Upon reaching the shade of each watchtower we let the cool breeze funneling through the stone windows, wash over us. In some towers Lao Sun pointed out date bricks that showed when the tower was constructed. Lao Sun explained “The towers near Gubeikou are in bad condition because of the Japan war, many bombs and bullets fired at them.” Most towers provided some shade and we took a small break in every one. Our spirits were high as we strolled up the gentle grade on the wall, picking jujubees, taking it all in. Lao Sun spoke some English, but mostly Mandarin. We were dependent on Alyssa and Kylie’s Mandarin for most of the trip. They did exceedingly well.
It’s a popular misnomer that there is one great wall built by one emperor. In fact many emperors in many dynasties contributed to building the wall depending on where attacks were coming from, the general’s ambition, and changing boarders. However, it is generally accepted that the first part of the wall was constructed around 220BC and many dynasties thereafter added different sections as needed with the Ming adding the most significant and recent sections. Walking along something that was over 2000 years old and still as grand was impressive.
At the 24 window tower, we had to get off the wall and go on a trail, as the next section was a military zone. The trail was gravelly and slippery. Then it leveled out in a valley. We walked by an abandoned house. “This house, people left 40 years ago.” We walked by a few wells and house foundations. No roads, just old pathways. The people who lived here, did not use cars to get to and from their house. “Maybe 30 years ago, last family members died. The children never came back.” This is the west valley of Touliang. The fields and hills we walked through, that once produced grains and vegetables were now fallow for decades were being reclaimed by nature.
We entered the west gate of Jinshanling Scenic Area and started up for the wall again. The sun was getting low and evening was near. Kylie was moving a little slower. Up, up, up, and then a crossroad. Lao Sun told us to go left. A red banded snake surprised Alyssa who was also getting tired. “Dinner had better be around that corner, I’m going to flip.”
Fortunately for everyone, we saw the roof of a farmhouse.
We had entered an oasis of sorts. Drinks, repast, and relaxation in the shadow of the Great Wall. Our hosts were the property owners. They had converted part of their property to beds for Great Wall hikers. The meal was a beautifully cooked home-made local dishes. While we ate we learned that Lao Sun’s daughter is at college in Chengdu and his son is working in Beijing. The inn keeper’s children are in college as well. There are three families and six total people left in the village and nobody less than sixty years old. Times change. This is not a new problem. Young people around the world are leaving farms for the allure of the city, higher incomes, and less physical labor. However, in Lao Sun’s words: “The farmers are disappearing. How will people get the food they need?” How much longer until this small village was like the one we passed through? I told Alyssa and Kylie: “Life consists of moments in time, everything is always changing, if you choose to come back here in 20 years, this experience, these people, and the way things look now, may not be here.” It is my hope that Touliang will continue to be a stop for visitors along the Great Wall.
We made it up to our campsite and pitched our tents as the sun was just setting. Lao Sun pointed to the lights in the distance: “The light dragon.” At night they light up the Simatai section of the wall for an enhanced effect. At Badaling, a different section of the Great Wall, they have Disneylanded it. It has slides, attractions, bobsleds, and light shows. It is far from what it was originally, and certainly different from the way most of the wall is now. In our little section, the crickets and night bugs became more sonorous and we watched the heavens come alive above. Fireflies darted about with the bats and owls. Being in the presence of such history along with my family was amazing. We stayed up identifying constellations, finding satellites, and discussing astronomy. We fell asleep to the rhythmic night sounds of crickets and the occasional hoot of an owl.
Jinshaling Scenic Area
After packing up our tents and enjoying the sunrise, we headed back down to the farmhouse for a wonderful breakfast. We hit the wall at 8:30am, and temperatures were already high. After a steep climb up there was a steep decent. This section is called Winding Snake Section for a reason, there were to be lots of ups and downs along the craggy ridge line.
There were more interpretative placards helping tourists understand the significant sections of the wall as well. They gave the names of each tower, when they were built, and the purposes of different constructions on the wall. It was interesting, but what captivated us the most was the expanse of the wall. It continued on and on. As far as the eye could see it snaked along the ridge tops.
We also started to see more people walking in this section. In the distance there was small tram that would take people from the valley floor to the wall. Every other tower also had locals selling souvenirs and snacks. Critically damaging to Kylie’s motivation was the lack of Jujube plants. Also, the steps were much larger for her smaller legs, and she had to work harder. We had to supplement her hiking efforts with popsicles from time to time. (To be fair, she wasn’t the only one eating popsicles)
Capturing the size and scope of the wall is difficult. Standing next to a skyscraper, we appreciate how big it is. However, many of the modern feats of engineering were fabricated by machines. This wall was constructed by sheer brute force. Every brick, was laid by hand. Even in renovations, we would pass by stacks of brick and bags of mortar. I explained to Kylie and Alyssa: “Look at this wall and how massive it is. Look at what we can accomplish as a people if we set our mind to creating rather than destroying. If we collectively had the willpower to address our major problems, like climate change, there is little doubt in my mind that we could do it.”
Time fought against us on the hike. The hour rapidly approached when we had to end our journey in order to make all our transportation connections back to Beijing. We ended our journey short of our goal. Kylie was grateful to be done with hiking. Alyssa wanted to reach the end, she still wanted more.
Both Sharleen and I were emotional. We started our journey together on the Great Wall more than twenty years ago. There is over 21,200 kilometers of Great Wall and we walked just under 14 kilometers of it in about ten hours of hiking. Perhaps finishing and reaching the destination wasn’t as important. It is the journey. Walking together with Sharleen for the last twenty years certainly has been a trek with its ups and downs, but we still walk together.
How we got there
We took Beijing Metro to Dongzhimen Station (东直门). The bus station is a short walk from the Metro. The bus to Gubeikou is 980. Look for Gubeikou (古北口) written on paper in the front window of the bus. (Click here)