We wake up easily at sunrise, break camp, and try to make some distance before the full heat of the day sets in. Water on the high, dry ridgelines is the only limiting factor to the journey, and we figure that tomorrow we'll have to duck down to a village and refill. Angus sings "All Along the Watchtower" to himself, which immediately becomes lodged in my head. We tell jokes and recite movie lines and speculate on the poor buggers who had to build this bloody thing. Much to my chagrin, I start talking like an Australian.
Each guard tower is a new haunted house to explore, with peach trees growing through its arrow slits and lizards skittering across the stones as we pass. The constant up and down is a welcome change, and the views are so breathtaking I scarcely notice that we've climbed and descended thousands of vertical feet in a relatively narrow band of altitude. It's like walking laps on the track of a roller coaster.
At one point we arrive, through a tangle of bushes, at the spot that Lindesay must have meant was "sheer suicide." The wall drops over the edge of a precipice like a cataract of stone, and the treetops are a hundred feet below us. One step and I'd be mortar. We backtrack to one of the exit stairs (only on the China side of the wall, of course) and follow a rough trail through brambles and oak scrub until we pick up the wall again, far below. I spend lunchtime digging splinters out of my palms with the tip of my knife. There's no reason to rush along the wilderness wall. It is an utterly fantastical landscape, and we laze around one particularly scenic tower-topped pinnacle for the better part of the afternoon, like goldbricking Ming sentries.
The next day we wake again at sunrise and make our way up to a great platform of stone from which the wall falls sharply away, splitting into two directions. This is a problem Lindesay encountered numerous times in his long trek across China. He would lose track of the wall and ask for directions, and a local farmer would draw two lines in the dirt with a stick. The wall is doubled in many places, a strategic fail-safe device. Here, the northern route branches off toward a high mountain and seems to fade out in the forest. The southern route heads steeply down toward a village by a river. Low on water and sick of trail mix, we head for it. The steps are vertigo-inducing, and we work our way down hundreds of feet, one move at a time, to the valley bottom.
Dirty, sunburned, and laughing we stumble into a village. The language barrier is nearly total, though Angus possesses a handful of Mandarin words. We sit down in a little riverside restaurant, and I puzzle over the Chinese characters on the menu. The last English menu we had seen, in another small town at the base of the wall, had included such delicacies as "burnt hare," "deep-fried sparrow," and "spicy sliced mule." We had ended up being served a dish I would call "lawn-mowered chicken." Beak, feet, and all. So you'll forgive me if I was a bit skeptical. We order fish. A few minutes later, the chef comes out holding a beautiful 18-inch (45-centimeter) rainbow trout, its gills still pulsing. He produces a scale and makes a show of weighing it in front of us, though I have no idea how to read it. Not ten minutes later we are brought the fish, split open and fried with chilies and garlic, along with mustard greens, tofu, rice and green tea. It makes a perfect meal. All Angus can say is "brilliant!"
From the village we have to make our way back up to the wall on the far side of the river. The river is flanked by a huge cliff, and it seems that the Ming let nature do the work here and they picked up wall building high on the far side. We can see the wall, far above on the ridge, and start making for it along a stone path through terraced farm fields. A local party official with a red armband comes over to us, trying to sign that we shouldn't go up. We sign that we want to take pictures. This is a place where foreign tourists are a curiosity.
Upon returning to the capital the following week, we will find out some information from Lindesay that puts the official's actions into context. Two years earlier the Beijing municipality had enacted regulations to discourage people from walking on unreconstructed sections of the wall. The municipality is an area the size of New Jersey, and its northern mountains contain about 400 miles of wall, of which only a few miles have been reconstructed. However, static preservation of the wall is an impossible task; it would require as much work as it took to build the thing in the first place. So what is to be done to conserve so precious a piece of world heritage?
Lindesay, for his part, took a break from the wall after the regulations were introduced, but when he saw hundreds of walkers still venturing out onto the wilderness sections and the authorities making no effort to enforce the regulations, he returned. "The conclusion, I felt, was that educating people about conservation issues on the wall itself and allowing them to carefully experience the Great Wall in its wild state were more important than following the letter of the law," he told me back in Beijing.
Lindesay's suggestion, and I see his point, is that the only way to truly preserve the wall is to create a culture of stewardship and conservationism among the thousands of rural villages that live in its shadow. The wall doesn't need to be sealed off from outsiders; practically speaking, it can't be. What can happen is that local farmers can protect and guide and watch over the wall, as part of their heritage. Perhaps a pipe dream, certainly a complicated idea to explain in sign language. The party official relents and waves us on.
We hike up through the terraces, but somewhere get split off from the main trail, and our path peters out into bracken. We can still see the wall a few hundred yards above us, so we bush-bash through the underbrush, snagging packs and skin and clothing on the sharp branches. Finally, after an hour of hot, dirty scrambling, we find ourselves sitting on our packs at the base of the wall.
"Say, are we on the China side or the Mongolia side?" asks Angus.
"Well, we came up on the left side of the crag, but then the path hooked right over that ridge, and . . . oh, crap."
I look from side to side and realize we've made it to the wall, all right, and just like a bunch of hard-luck Mongols, we're staring at a sheer, unbroken, excellently preserved section of the Ming defense, 20 feet (6 meters) of limestone blocks topped by a four-foot (one-meter) parapet of bricks. The stairway, of course, is on the China side. We appear to be stuck, but in keeping with the improvisational nature of our adventure, I figure there must be some way over. You just have to think like a Mongol. Certainly not hand-jamming between blocks; besides not wanting to risk damaging the wall, the five-century-old masonry is amazingly flush. I can barely get my fingertips into the seams.
We walk along the base of the wall, looking for a crack in the Ming's defenses. Finally, a bit of luck. The Ming engineers had made use of a natural stone outcropping and built the wall around it. The stone is set out enough from the wall that standing on top of it, one could almost reach the edge. Plus, a section of clay bricks has fallen and lies like huge dominoes on top of the outcrop. We climb up and stack the fallen bricks into a little platform. I stand on that, and Angus (luckily six-foot-four or almost two meters) climbs on to my shoulders and hoists himself onto the wall. Then he pulls up our packs and finally grabs my wrists and hauls me, grunting, over the rampart.
"Do you think the Ming sentries would have noticed us?" he asks.
"I think we would have been pincushions."
Exhausted, we settle in a half-collapsed tower for the night then pack up at dawn and continue on, day after day along the wall, exploring decaying battlements, puzzling our way around obstacles, following the insane route plotted centuries before by the defenders of the Middle Kingdom. We duck into towns for water, but are always relieved to get back on the wall. In one tower, we find a marble tablet, faintly carved with ancient characters. We sit out a day and long night of thunderstorms, sheltered in a half-standing tower, lightning flashing along the ridge. The thunder sounds like an approaching army and seems to rattle the huge stones. We walk a long section in the high mountains that was built a thousand years before the Ming, rough-hewn stones and dry masonry that vanishes at times in the underbrush. At one point we run into an outing club from Beijing that insists we join their nine-course picnic. Mostly, though, we are alone with the wall.
The Mandarin character for "China" is a square with a line through it, representing an arrow hitting a bull's-eye. The Middle Kingdom was at the center of the world, with concentric rings of order fanning outward. From out here on the perimeter, a signal message might have taken only a few hours to reach the throne of the emperor at the Gate of Heavenly Peace in the Forbidden City. The center of that world is now long gone, the empty throne in the Forbidden City is thronged by tourists, and a huge portrait of the most recent emperor, Chairman Mao, hangs over its gate. Out here on the boundary of the known world, swells of frost and the sprouts of bird-dropped and windblown seeds are clawing the old stones apart.
Nature inevitably has the final say, even more final than the state. That first morning, when Lindesay walked us to the wall, he described a conversation he'd had with a friend where he'd asked how long the wildwall could last. Maybe, the friend had said, order must return to chaos. Lindesay's voice was filled with a resigned sadness at the thought. Out on the wall on our final night, it seems an extraordinary and fragile privilege to be watching a full moon rise from an ancient tower near the beginning of what many are calling "the Chinese Century." I look out over the moonlit peaks, traced by the ghostly line of wall, wondering what sort of equilibrium will ever be reached between humans and nature, between gravity and stacked stones.