Hiking China's Great Wall
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Astride the Dragon's Back
By Matthew Power
In the predawn blackness there is a sharp rap on my door. An overly cheerful (given the ungodly hour) voice calls out, "Come on boys, the sun's coming up!" The sun is doing no such thing. It is our hyperkinetic British-expatriate host, William Lindesay, and we are staying in a cabin at his farm in the forested mountains, three hours north of the capital. Angus sticks his head out of his sleeping bag. "Bloody hell, what time is it?" he mutters. Our wake-up call is as relentless as a Chairman Mao alarm clock.
The previous evening, after an exquisite nine-course Chinese meal, from steamed trout to lychee nuts, topped off with several Tsingtao beers, Lindesay had talked late into the night about his personal relationship with the wall and how it had come to play a central role in his life. He has an extraordinary singularity of focus, as stubborn and direct as the wall itself. This is evidenced by the fact that when he was a child, he vowed to a primary school teacher that he would one day trek the whole of the Great Wall of China with a rucksack on his back.
Lindesay may have elicited laughter from his classmates at the time, but in 1987, at 29, he arrived in China to do just that. Beginning at the western end of the wall near the desert fortress of Jiayuguan, Lindesay walked—an avid marathoner, he actually ran much of the way—1,500 miles (2,414 kilometers) along the Great Wall. He passed through deserts, mountain ranges, and vast stretches of territory that were then closed to foreigners. He was arrested nine times, deported once, and suffered bubonic plague and a stress fracture. But nine months later he reached the eastern terminus of the wall, Shanhaiguan (Old Dragon's Head) near the Yellow Sea. He was the first non-Chinese person ever to complete such a journey.
No such epic would be complete without a love interest, and Lindesay had fallen for a Chinese woman, Wu Qi, whom he met en route. After three marriage proposals, she relented (at that time, in 1987, it had only been three years since Chinese were allowed to marry foreigners). They have two sons and divide their time between Beijing and two farms they lease adjacent to the wall.
After his adventure, Lindesay made exploration and preservation of the Great Wall his life's work. Now silver-haired, but certainly as energetic as the man who jogged the span almost 20 years ago, he runs a nonprofit organization, International Friends of the Great Wall, and in between lectures and conferences he leads educational treks along wilderness sections of the wall. Lindesay doesn't have time to accompany Angus and me on our trek, but he's agreed to take us up to the wall behind his farm and send us on our way.
With headlamps on in the moonlight, we shoulder our packs and follow Lindesay through his garden and up a stony path through a dark oak forest. The little village is still asleep, its inhabitants likely descendants of the wall builders. Angus and I are carrying enough food and water to last us several days. Because we plan to camp on or near the wall, Lindesay gives us a thorough grounding on the ethic of leave-no-trace exploration. "Every step on the wildwall has the potential to damage it in a tiny way. The key is to minimize it and watch each step." Lindesay's protectiveness of the wall, his sense of being the guardian of an ancient and fragile secret, is contagious.
Lindesay's passion is what he calls "wildwall," or the wilderness Great Wall: the vast, unreconstructed, overgrown sections that are free of tourist kitsch, trash, vendors, graffiti, and all the encroachments of modernity. "I love ruins," he tells me, and it seems, really, as simple as that. As we walk, Lindesay outlines the wildwall sections that are under serious threat from the forces of change in today's China. Some remote sections have been damaged by building projects, like a thousand-yard section near the town of Zhangjiakou, about a hundred miles northwest of Beijing, that was dismantled stone by stone to pave a section of local highway. The areas that have had the most tourist development, like Badaling, Mutianyu, and Simatai, are scarcely recognizable. The original wall has been rebuilt, paved over essentially, with little concern for historical accuracy or respect for the wall's landscape.
Moreover, the busiest tourist sites are in something of an arms race with one another, tarting up their venues with all manner of kitschy attractions. There are zip lines, go-carts, giant slides, and even gondolas to take hordes of tourists to and from the parking lots. At Badaling there is an utterly depressing "bear garden," where traumatized Asian black bears pace back and forth in concrete pits. Tourists pose on Bactrian camels in Ming-era costumes or alongside cardboard cut-outs of Chairman Mao. "It's horrifying," says Lindesay, "The Great Wall is an entire landscape, not just the wall itself. Its greatness is in its wholeness, and every alteration, every tourist trap makes it less."
While my sense of aesthetics is in complete agreement, had I been raised during the Cultural Revolution, when fun was considered a bourgeois abomination, I think I might like to whiz down a slide alongside the Great Wall, too. But Lindesay is a purist: "My concern is the wall. I'm not a sociologist." It's true though, the changing economy of China is greatly increasing the pressure on the wall's environment. And with the economy booming and the Olympics coming in 2008, there's no end in sight to the development creeping out from Beijing.
Lindesay tells us that the state has made a cash offer to everyone in his little village, many of whom have farmed alongside the wall for generations. While development rules prevent building new structures so close to the wall, the Chinese government wants to retrofit the village's houses as a high-end resort for the Olympics. "In that case, I really would lie down in front of the bulldozers," says Lindesay.
The fact that he is foreign-born affords him the right to be a gadfly in a way that would be unthinkable for most Chinese, even in the current atmosphere of relative openness and reform. Still, he has discovered his limitations. Lindesay approached UNESCO, the United Nations body that administers cultural treasures the world over, and tried to get them to place the Great Wall on their list of most threatened sites. "I was told, cryptically, 'The Dragon should not be antagonized,'" he says to me. "Saving face is very important to the state, and the worst way to get what you want is to tell them they are doing something wrong."
The sky is beginning to lighten. We see the dark ridgeline above us, and silhouetted against the sunrise is the serrated edge of the Great Wall. Lindesay segues into a brief history of Chinese wall building. The earliest large-scale fortifications were built in the seventh century B.C., just prior to the Warring States period, before any notion of China had been formed from a host of clashing fiefdoms. Successive dynasties continued the construction, linking together existing defenses and adding new ones to keep the nomadic hordes to the north of the empire at bay. After the wall had been breached in 1211 by the Mongol armies of Genghis Khan, it took a century and a half for the Chinese Ming to establish power. Over the next 300 years, the Ming constructed the most elaborate and complete defense walls the world has ever known.
This Ming dynasty wall, the one we plan to walk, is a testament to an obsessive, desperate xenophobia, a desire to keep the greater world at bay, which, it could be argued, did not truly begin to recede until market reforms were put in place by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s. As Lindesay views it, the Ming wall was the greatest epitaph to the Mongols and the utter dread they instilled. "This is their wall," he says, in an ominous tone that seems to augur distant hoofbeats.
After a last scramble we find ourselves standing in a crumbling, Ming-era guard tower, built sometime between 1368 and 1644, the year some traitorous high-ranking officials let a massive army of Manchu horsemen breach the wall near Shanhaiguan and capture the capital. With the barbarian hordes it had been built to keep out sitting on the throne in the Forbidden City, the Great Wall was rendered obsolete while its mortar was still drying. Now, oak trees sprout in the tower between torn-up tiles on the floor and create a canopy where, centuries before, a peaked wooden roof had been. The dawn is totally still, except for the rustle of leaves in the breeze and the cry of a cuckoo echoing through the hills.
To the left the wall climbs a steep face up to another tower on a limestone pinnacle high above us. To the right and as far as I can see over an endless march of green peaks receding in the morning haze, the wall zigzags, plummets, and soars, sticking to the highest points as it follows its relentless path west. Guard towers at regular intervals mark its progress. They would have stationed perhaps a dozen soldiers each, but their main use was as relays for an elaborate smoke-signaling system. Lindesay tells us that in the far west, the army conducted an experiment to see which would send a message the fastest: jeeps, horses, or smoke signals. The smoke signals far outpaced the horsemen, and the jeeps were bogged to their axles in sand in short order. The Ming had made signals from a mixture of wolf dung, sulfur, and potassium nitrate. The thick black smoke was such an effective warning signal that to this day the Chinese phrase "wolf smoke" means crisis.
In his rapid Liverpool brogue, Lindesay keeps adding bits of advice right up to the moment of departure. "Now, there's no point attempting to walk down anything that's too dangerous. You can always backtrack, get off the wall, and walk alongside it. There's one bit about a day's walk from here that'd be suicide if you tried to get down it. You must be supremely careful."
"And do watch out for lightning. You'll be up on high ridgelines the whole time. I got struck once. Didn't hurt me but stopped my watch dead and fried my digital camera."
Righty-o. And with that, we bid Lindesay farewell and set off along the wall.
The sun has broken the horizon, burning off the haze that now retracts into an extraordinary landscape of forested crags and valleys. All along the surface of the wall, the fired-clay bricks of the parapets lie in jumbled heaps in stands of saplings and blooming lilacs. We have arrived in a place where time and weather have progressed toward their final victory over the works of man. The great imposed order of the wall is returning to the chaos from whence it came.
We stop for lunch in the shade of a roofless guard tower. The menu consists of rye crackers and tuna fish with mustard, polished off with British digestives. "That would be 'cookies' to you Yanks," offers Angus. We had stocked up on food at one of the new Western shops that have sprung up in Beijing's diplomatic enclave. The city has fallen in love with the trappings of Western consumerism, ranging from 45 (count 'em) Starbucks shops to one lonesome Lamborghini dealership a few blocks away from the Great Hall of the People. As much as I like to submerge myself in the culinary options of countries I visit, the Chinese have some disquieting offerings in the trekking food department. I wanted to be brave, but I confess that the dried cuttlefish and salted plums I picked up stayed tucked safely in the bottom of my pack, reserved for an emergency that, mercifully, never arose.
Along the wall we continue, sometimes pushing our way through overgrowth, sometimes getting on hands and knees to fit under an eroded archway. The towers are cool respites from the day's heat, most of them with intact alcoves inside. We don't see anyone. The going, in places, is incredibly dangerous. Time and again we pass spots where a misstep would send us over the parapet, crashing down into the trees and scree fields far below the ridgeline. We walk at times like ballerinas, a slow tiptoe.
Occasionally we reach points where the wall falls away over a drop and we climb down to walk alongside it through the thick undergrowth, getting scraped up in the process. The lack of any well-marked trail, any tickets or any guardrails to keep us from falling off, gets right to the heart of adventure. Nothing has passed this way, it seems, but a great deal of time. "I do love some good bush-bashing," says Angus, forcing his way through a thicket. "Reminds me of when I was a kid." I explain to Angus that Bush-bashing in America is more of a political pastime than a recreational one.
In the valley bottoms far below, there are farming villages, but up here the only sign of human passage is the rough trail and the occasional carelessly dropped water bottle. We pick up every bit of refuse we come across. There is, as yet, little environmental ethic in China. The society is still too close to its impoverished past, too busy extracting wealth to think much of impact and conservation. China is well on its way to catching up with the United States in energy consumption, and, with a population nearly five times ours, the effect will be that much greater.
The recent and titanic industrialization of Chinese society is emptying out the countryside, and this movement has been the main engine of economic growth. Increasing prosperity has lifted 223 million Chinese out of poverty in the past two decades. While Lindesay had said that 20 years ago there was no such thing as a Chinese hiker, with wealth comes leisure time. Beijing has gone from a handful of private cars 15 years ago to 1.7 million today, and now people are starting to explore the countryside again, this time as tourists. It seems ironic that the city the Great Wall was built to protect is now, in a sense, its greatest threat.
After a few more hours of stair climbing and making our way down steep inclines, we settle on a guard tower in the distance and decide to make it our camp for the night. We clamber up to it in the afternoon light and each pick an alcove to bunk down in. We are traveling as light as we can; a bivvy sack with an air mattress makes a fine cocoon for the night. After the sun sets, Angus and I talk in the twilight, and the wind picks up, moaning through the tower. We forgot to bring a camp stove, and a fire is out of the question on the dry ridgeline, so it's trail mix for dinner. "I wish I knew the wolf-dung signal for 'bring us a cup of tea,'" says Angus.
It's not hard to conjure the lonesome life of a Ming sentry up here, waiting for something to happen, wishing for the rumble of an invading horse-army to break the monotony. Winters, with icy winds blowing off the Mongolian steppes, would have been brutal. The wall, atop this high ridgeline, must have been an imposing deterrent to any Mongol scouts who scoped it out from below. The Ming soldiers wore armor of hide stretched over wicker. They would have been armed with bows and crossbows, and the most strategic points on the wall—passes and valley bottoms—would have had cannons after the Chinese invention of gunpowder in the ninth century. But the wall was really a last line of defense, and the Ming would often use more diplomatic strategies to ward off invasion, usually involving payment of tribute—protection money, so to speak. The Mongols were a fearsome lot, and the Chinese jealously guarded their prosperous kingdom, but it was an act of nature that sparked the most devastating clashes between the two civilizations.
The Mongolian steppes are periodically hit with a weather phenomenon known as a zud: a winter with severe blizzards and months of subzero temperatures, which kills millions of head of livestock and decimates the economy. The most recent zud occurred three years ago, and Mongolia was nearly bankrupted by the disaster. In ancient times, a zud would throw Mongolian society into utter disarray, threatening disease and famine. It left little choice to the Mongol horsemen but to set off en masse and plunder the wealthy, fertile North China Plain. Horses, with which the nomads had an almost mystical connection, were their secret weapon; they helped concentrate vast numbers of archers in a surprise attack with terrifying swiftness.
So out of fear of that gathering storm, the Ming improved on the fortifications built by a dozen dynasties before them and created the Wanli Changcheng, "the Great Wall of 10,000 li." A li was the distance an arrow traveled when shot (about a third of a mile), and 10,000 was a number so large as to be considered infinite, hence an endless wall.
During construction, Lindesay had told us, the landscape surrounding the wall would have been utterly different, the forests razed for scaffolding and to fire the brick furnaces, the hillsides gouged by quarries for the foundation stones. The air would have been thick with smoke and the ring of iron against stone. I run my fingertips along the lime mortar pressed between the tower's clay bricks and realize it was pointed and smoothed this same way by builders 500 years before. Legend has it that the white mortar was made of the crushed bones of builders. Each block of stone, carved, carried, and stacked in place, has a story. Under the Ming, wall building was a national priority, and a draconian penal code swelled the ranks of forced laborers. Dozens of minor offenses brought a life sentence laboring on the wall; more serious crimes were given "perpetual" sentences, which meant that if a prisoner was worked to death, a member of
his family would inherit the sentence and be forced to build the wall. As I drift off in an alcove of the tower, with the wind blowing through the arched windows, all that dark and violent history seems alive, and the tower is swirling with ghosts. The night passes full of strange dreams.