Monday, May 3, 2010

The Great Wall Adventure Part 2

Sleeping on a kang is a trying experience for the uninitiated. It's basically a rock hard flat surface on which a bedding is put on top as the mattress. Then each person has their own pillow, not the fluffy, feathery kind, but filled with beans, and a quilt to keep warm.

It was only in the middle of the night did I realize that I should use an extra quilt as another mattress layer and use yet another quilt (there were many in this room) as a softer pillow option. Sleeping on your side on a kang is virtually impossible too so you have to sleep on your back.

And then on top of that, knowing you have to wake up at 4am makes it even harder to fall asleep. We could only sleep very lightly, hearing the sounds of the farm around us, including an early wake-up call from a rooster at 3am.

At 4am on the dot, we got a rap on the window from Liu senior. We quickly got dressed, went to the outhouse for a pee, and then with two flashlights, headed out in the darkness to the highest watchtower on the Great Wall in the area called 望京 (wang 4 jing4 lou 2), or tower with the view of Beijing, because on a clear day you can see the capital very clearly.

However, in the dark I could see there were clouds in the sky covering the moon which made a clear view of the sunrise questionable. But we headed up anyway.

Liu senior led the way, hands behind his back, one hand holding a flashlight to show us the way. He offered to take my two bottles of water, putting them in his coat pockets. "If you need a drink of water, just tell me," he said.

We first crossed the other farmhouses in the area, their dogs barking at us; we ignored them and continued. I asked Liu senior about the paved road we walked on, and he said it was constructed a year ago thanks to the local government.

But then we broke away from the path and started walking up past terraced plots, then we started hitting a dirt trail covered with rough pebbles that got steeper. Once I thought we would get relief from the incline, Liu senior would change direction and continue up the steep path. "Are you tired?" he asked. I politely replied I was OK and drank some water.

The sky started to get a bit lighter and I worried we wouldn't get up there in time. "How much longer?" I asked. He replied 20 minutes more and pointed up to the brick building towering over us. However, we were now approaching the steepest part of the hike and I started to fatigue, the only one of the three to breathe heavily from the cardio workout. I also began feeling dizzy, and then remembered that we hadn't eaten anything and yet here we had been hiking for over an hour.

Our climb got steeper, now having to use the nearby trees as support, as rocks loosened from the ground and at times made it hard for me to get my footing. By now dawn was coming and we didn't need the flashlights, but I was getting more and more tired and unused to the almost literal climbing we had to do towards the end. My friend had to help me up in the last stretch.

Once we were standing at the top, it was an amazing sight. Far out in the distance was the farmhouse we had come from, and it felt like we were practically on top of the world with no one else around except the three of us. Liu senior warned us to be careful as we wandered around the watchtower (it is closed inside), as it is practically on a cliff. He crouched down at the base of the tower and lit his morning cigarette.

From our view, we could see the wall stretching over the hills like a giant fin on a dragon's back. Imagine being one of those peasants recruited to build the wall, hauling up those giant stone bricks and mortar, or the soldiers who had to hike up there to their stations to be on the lookout for invaders.

The wall here is the real thing, unlike the part fixed up at Badaling or even Mutianyu; here the bricks are rough. Though it looks like some fresh mortar from a few years ago was applied to the brick tower to ensure they stayed in place, it pretty much looks like the original.

"The sun is coming out!" Liu senior exclaimed at around 5:30am, and we watched in the east as the sun struggled to shine through the thick layer of cloud. Nonetheless, it created a dramatic picture of perspective, with the layers of mountains getting progressively lighter in distance like a watercolour.

It was also wonderful seeing the wall during the spring, with cherry and peach blossoms in bloom.

After taking a number of pictures, and soaking in the amazing view, before 6am we made our way back down the same way we went up.

This time we had to keep our balance going down especially the steep part, and definitely relying on the trees as support. At times it meant sitting down and then extending our legs to reach the next part of the ground, or making calculated slides down the dirt path. Liu senior led the way. How he made is way without the need to balance was bewildering. He even carried our empty water bottles for us, while we used whatever was nearby to hold onto for support.

I continued taking pictures around us, and when we got towards the bottom of the hill I looked back at the watchtower, amazed that we had just climbed up so high.

Soon we reached the plots of land and the farmhouses, the chickens and roosters stirring, farmers carrying giant batches of dead cornstalks and dumping them in a pile, a mule waking up, and dogs barking.

When we made it back to the farmhouse, Liu senior's wife was already cooking breakfast for us at 7am. As I ate a meal of tofu sheets with cucumber, stir-fried cabbage with pork fat, peanuts and potato julienne stir-fried with dried chilis and rice, I couldn't help constantly looking up at the watchtower we had gone up to and marveling at the feat we had accomplished.

I really had climbed the Great Wall and was a bona fide Chinese.

2 comments:

ChopSuey said...

What an amazing adventure! Have slept on a kang in Inner Mongolia and thought it sucked. That said, you get used to it over time and eventually you have a stronger back. Or so I was told. Great photos of the sunrise. Looks like it was well worth the hike.

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