There’s only so much "I’ll use you for all I can," attitude a hard-working, honest chap like myself can take, and upon hearing the three day ‘Labour Day’ national holiday was possibly being overlooked by my immediate superior, I decided it was finally time to fight back. A fight back that was surprisingly over before it started, my secret weapon, my contract, landing the winning punch with impressive ease.
With the three day national holiday confirmed, the need to secure train tickets to and from my proposed holiday destination became an issue of utmost importance. Like all national holidays in China, it’s the only chance most inhabitants get to travel, often leaving public transportation unable to cope with the demand. My wife and I were lucky enough to get seats for the twelve hour journey to our chosen destination; Beijing, even with trying my hardest to buy tickets for April 31st, a day that has never existed. The ticket seller in the train station thought this was of such comical value, she decided to broadcast my error over the station’s tannoy system to the fifty deep queuing customers, who all giggled at my public show of incompetence.
China is such a vast country that a three day holiday doesn’t give you a lot of time to venture far from home. Luckily, with Beijing only an overnight train ride away, there’s plenty of sightseeing opportunities nearby. With my Great Wall of China Marathon less than two weeks away, it seemed only logical to spend the Labour Day holiday hiking along a Beijing section of the Great Wall to gain a psychological advantage of what was to come.
There’s no less than five sections of the Great Wall offered as day trips to the hordes of tourists visiting Beijing, a municipality the size of Belgium. I’d previously visited one of these sections when I first arrived in China seven months ago, and the restored Mutianyu section had left me wanting a more authentic Great Wall experience than the spoon-fed, crowded trip that I encountered.
After researching Great Wall destinations around Beijing, I soon found a far more appealing sounding section, not normally offered to tourists. The imposing ‘wild wall’ of Jiankou offered everything I could ever dream of from a Great Wall experience: a section of the Great Wall in its original, unrestored state with views argued by many travel writers to be amongst the best of the wall’s entire 6,000km length. The dangerous and sometimes perilous condition Jiankou Great Wall now finds itself in didn’t put my wife and I off from finding a private guide who was willing to take us to this rarely visited ‘attraction.’
Boarding the train to Beijing, I felt sympathetic for those passengers who had only managed to purchase standing tickets for the twelve hour journey. While the happiest of travellers relaxed on their beds, my wife and I had hard seats designed for dwarves. The aisles of the carriages were crammed with standing passengers, one of which had found a comfortable position resting his crotch on my shoulder.
As per usual, we were the only foreigners on the entire train. Normally this only leads to a barrage of open-mouthed, gormless stares for the duration of the journey. I don‘t know if it was the ‘holiday spirit,’ but on this journey, the locals were far more inquisitive and forthcoming. The last thing I was expecting though were the flashes and clicks from cameras and phones as I drifted towards slumber. After opening my eyes to find the camera phone of the embarrassed girl sitting opposite me, only inches from my face, I realised that trying to obtain any sleep under these circumstances would be a fruitless exercise deemed for failure.
Instead I allowed the fatigued, middle-aged man resting his balls on my shoulder to practice his English on me for the next few hours. With trousers pulled up to his armpits producing a male version of the ‘camel-toe’, shoes that only a clown would feel confident wearing, and patchy stubble that even a spotty faced adolescent would be embarrassed to sport, I was immensely surprised by his command of the English language. So was the rest of my carriage, who looked on in a hushed, bemused silence.
After living in small-city China for seven months, it’s amazing how giddy and excited entering a city as Westernised and developed as Beijing makes you. With a full day to enjoy Beijing‘s delights before leaving for Jiankou Great Wall, my wife and I made good use of the time by eating my way through as much Western food as what was humanely possible. After enjoying Mexican, Thai (staying clear of the aptly named Sautéed Morning Glory dish), two large McDonald meals and one too many Hoegardens, we retired to our hostel room and fell in to a self-induced food coma. Pretty pathetic considering it was yet to reach late afternoon.
Maybe it was the two Big Mac’s or maybe it was the ‘happy hour’ jugs of Hoegarden, but I awoke the following morning at the crack of dawn to meet our guide feeling the worse for wear. To add insult to injury, our guide struck up a barrage of "I want to visit Mars," and "aren’t dinosaurs amazing," conversations for the duration of the two hour car journey to the slopes of Jiankou Great Wall.
The in-car conversations may have been edging on the dull side, but the emerging views as we left urban Beijing were in complete contrast. Rising mountains appeared, their rugged sides covered in a dazzling array of pinks as wild peach trees burst into bloom. As we alighted in a village consisting of no more than six decaying, ramshackle farmsteads, a newly erected government sign indicated the Great Wall was "Not Open to the Pubic." Spelling mistakes look much worse in large print!
While the government may have officially banned climbing the Great Wall here, the local villagers had other ideas. Showing off their entrepreneurial skills, they charge visitors a fee to walk across their farmland to reach the Great Wall and also open their homesteads as makeshift guesthouses. They had also started adding safety measures to the more dangerous parts of the wall. That was until one walker was killed after getting struck by lightning. After their family sued the villagers for the death, as apposed to the guiltier-looking Mother Nature, they took away these safety measures.
Without these safety measures, what’s left is a part of the wall where you spend just as much time abseiling on a remarkably thin piece of rope and rock climbing up eighty percent gradient cliffs, as you do walking. I knew the fifteen mile, two day hike was going to be a strenuous affair, but I wasn’t quite expecting so many death defying ascents and descents over the mountainous Great Wall course. It took fourteen hours over the two days to traverse the fifteen miles of overgrown, crumbling wall. Our cautious speed was kept even lower by our guide, who pointed out at regular intervals where other hikers had fallen and perished. Luckily the stupendous views and unadulterated beauty of the wall kept the thoughts of danger and injury to a minimum.
Considering the remote location of Jiankou Great Wall, and the Labour Day public holiday, we rarely encountered other tourists over the two days. The tourists we did see were Beijing day-trippers, dressed more for a Saturday night clubbing experience than a long hike under the uneven, cracked surfaces of the Great Wall. It was probably these high-heeled teenagers that kept the number of deaths and injuries from this section of the wall at daunting levels.
It’s amazing how quickly vacations fly by, and within thirty minutes of returning back to Benxi on an overnight train, my body aching from the exertions of the previous two days, I was teaching a class of eighty overly-excited school children. Back to reality with a thud!