Part Two of Sleeping on the Great Wall of China; to begin at Part One click here…
From the plaza at the base of the mountains, we began the long climb to the upper ramparts of the Great Wall of China. At first, the well-maintained stone walkways and stairs were fairly easy to negotiate but about halfway up, that began to change. Most tourists choose to visit the Great Wall at places like Badaling, where it has been completely restored and commercialized with museums, carnival rides, and restaurants. Our point of access, Jinshanling, was much more remote and little frequented by tourists, thus portions of the Great Wall in this area have fallen into disrepair.
We picked our way up steep staircases littered with gaping holes from missing stones, and tried not to look over waist-high walls at vertigo-inducing drop-offs. Having recently returned from four months of climbing ancient pyramids in Mexico, I was pretty much an old hand at this but my cousin, Loretta, who is afraid of heights, was a bit panicked by the idea that one badly placed foothold would send her tumbling. “Easy does it,” I continually reassured her. “We’re not in any hurry.”
Finally, hand over hand we pulled ourselves up the last set of uber-steep stairs to the final stretch of walkway, a weed-choked strip leading up to a high watchtower where we would view the sunset. At the tower I dragged myself up the last few steps, flung my body over the threshold, and flopped down on the floor to rest. Out of breath, I was grateful we weren’t going any further, but I was doubly grateful when I saw the walkway on the other side of the tower; it was so broken down that the path was little more than a jumble of stones. From the narrow doorway of the watchtower I traced the Great Wall along the razor edge of the mountains; it stretched as far as I could see, and even when the wall faded into the haze, the square, squat towers that punctuate the wall at regular intervals could still be seen protruding from distant mountaintops.
We prolonged our departure as long as possible, but as the sun began its final descent we headed back down to the village for dinner while we still had light enough to see. Forty-five minutes later we were back in Jinshanling for dinner. I was adamant not eating a bite because I was still stuffed from the enormous lunch provided by our tour company, The China Guide, but I took a seat at the long wooden picnic table just to be sociable. Soon the Wong family began delivering plate after heaping plate of food, until every inch of the table was covered. Chicken and pork dishes appeared, along with vegetables and a special dumpling filled with Chinese cabbage for my vegetarian palate.
“You must try at least a little,” our guide urged. Worried that not eating at all might be perceived as an insult, I reached for a dumpling. Oh my God, it melted in my mouth, a sweet-tangy flavor perfectly complemented by the slightly chewy outer dough. I resisted taking more until they wheeled out the sauces: chili pepper, vinegar, and soy sauce were shoved in front of me, and I had no choice but to try one with each type of sauce. Killer, all three of them. But wait, maybe they would taste even better if I mixed two of the sauces together. Mixing and matching carried me through an entire plate of dumplings and the moment I ate the last one, another plate was pushed in front of me. I simply could not stop shoving food in my mouth. Meanwhile, our guide had rolled out a bottle of “Great Wall” Cabernet Sauvignon in honor of Loretta’s 60th birthday, and she and her son, Len, finished off the bottle.
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Too soon, it was time to hike back up to the top of the Great Wall, taking an alternate route to a different watchtower that would afford us great views of the sunrise the following morning. I hefted my backpack, cranked up the manual flashlight thrust into my hand, and followed our guide into the ink-black darkness that enveloped us the moment we stepped away from the table. Though our night route followed a more improved path than earlier in the day, between Loretta’s wine induced giggles and our faint, narrow flashlight beams, the sloping steps and narrow stairs became even more treacherous. By the time we were halfway up, Len and the guides had disappeared, leaving us to fend for ourselves. Finally, we arrived at the watchtower, but there was nowhere to go; the path dead-ended into a wall, and there was not a soul in sight.
“Hello? Where are you guys?” we yelled.
“Up here,” echoed the answer.
“Up where? The path ends.”
“Just keep coming – there’s steps ahead of you.”
We groped our way to the seeming dead-end and found a set of impossibly narrow steps crafted from a row of bricks laid end to end, but again the steps ended six feet higher.
“There’s no way up, the steps end,” we insisted.
“No, they turn at a 90 degree angle.” And indeed they did, albeit with a large gouge in the step where we would have to make the turn, requiring us to hold our flashlights in our mouths in order to pull ourselves up with both hands. Once on top, I had only one thought; I knew there would be a bucket available if I had to pee in the middle of the night, but we’d been told that if we needed to “do number two” we’d have to “commune with nature” and I was pretty sure there was no way in hell I was going back down that last stairway in the middle of the night. I hoped for the best and snuggled into my sleeping bag, straining to see a few of the brighter stars through an overcast sky.
I was just about to succumb to sleep when a low, deep rumble brought me back to consciousness. Uh oh. My stomach churned and rumbled again. I shouldn’t have eaten all that cabbage. Panic set in. Was I going to have diarrhea? What to do? Dare I use the bucket? Could I deny it had been me in the morning? I could try to get back down the stairs in the pitch black, but then I’d have to go partway down the wall to find a patch of land where I could do my business, and what if I couldn’t find my way back? Breathe, I told myself. Just breathe and relax your abdominal muscles. Concentrate on relaxing. Poof! Just like that the rumbling stopped and I was soon fast asleep, not to wake until dawn, when Loretta and I sneaked away to do our business while everyone else was still snoring.
Morning brought no change in the weather, so the sunrise was mostly obscured, but overcast skies meant the hike along the top of the wall was much more enjoyable, at least for Len and I. Having been told there were stairways ahead with no sidewalls, Loretta walked partway and waited while Len and I explored several more watchtowers before retracing our steps. Two hours later we had made our final descent to Jinshanling and climbed back into our van. As we drove away we looked back one last time at the Great Wall, now receding into the distance. Still, it seemed an incomprehensible feat of engineering, but it was even more unbelievable that we had actually walked its ramparts and slept aside one of its watchtowers.
TheChinaGuide.com graciously offered me a media discount for their Sleep on the Great Wall of China Tour, however the receipt and acceptance of complimentary items/services received will never influence the content, topics, or posts in this blog. In this case, I have high praise for the company. Absolutely everything was perfect, right down to the English speaking guide and their fabulous customer service, which included customizing the route of the tour for us to avoid those high staircases without enclosing walls.