We are shaped by our travels, bent by the visceral reactions, exotic sensations, and serendipitous occurrences that can never be adequately captured in written or pictorial form. You really had to be there, which is never an easy feat, because a journey often takes us far outside the world where everything we know resides. There is a freedom in solo travel, but also a joy in hitting the road with old friends in new lands, where relationships deepen through powerful shared experiences. So I welcomed the opportunity to explore a bit of China with Mike, visiting from DC on his first tour through Asia and ready to get it in.
We met in Beijing, home to our mutual friend Brett, and after a couple days roaming the town set our sights on the Great Wall. No trip to the capital city is complete without a visit to this popular attraction, which, despite the ubiquitousness of its image and the fact that it is just that—a wall—, is truly awe-inspiring to behold in person. Impossibly long, snaking from one end of the horizon to the other, this anointed Wonder of the Medieval World has commanded a reverence throughout the centuries from barbarians and tourists alike.
To spend a night on the Wall is to properly experience it, as I had first done in 2003, but the government complicated things a few years ago by outlawing camping on certain sections, making such an endeavor tricky but not necessarily impossible. After researching several options and gathering supplies, we decided to start our trip with an organized hiking group, which provided us with a guide to consult and transportation to Gubeikou, a historically strategic (and less touristed) section located a couple hours outside the city. Mike and I remained with the group for the first few hours of the hike, then split off when they turned around to head back to the starting point. Our guide, a British guy about my age who works full-time leading tours on the Wall, sketched a rudimentary map of the path ahead and sent us on our way. We would figure out how to return to Beijing when the time came.
A military base runs adjacent to a portion of Gubeikou, requiring us to descend the Wall at one point and take a several-kilometer detour through Hemp Village, a narrow valley lined with strips of farmland and overgrown vegetation, but nary a hemp plant (or human, for that matter). The single-person path twists past an abandoned farmhouse, runs alongside fields of corn, and eventually cuts through the backyard of a local farmer. The guide had mentioned that the farmer occassionally requests a nominal payment in exchange for an easement through his property, but he was nowhere in sight.
At the edge of the farm, a steep switchback trail led us out of the valley and onto the ridgeline, where we reascended the Wall and found shelter in a guard tower moments before a severe thunderstorm and hail—unusual for this region—rained down from above. The tower was occupied by the first person we had seen in hours, a local woman charging approximately 10 USD to cross over into the renovated Jinshanling section, one of the off-limits areas for camping. We paid the gatekeeper, engaged in small talk, then sat around scheming our next move as the downpour continued. It so happened that this woman was perched in an ideal tower for camping: built in the 1300s (historic chic); restored in the 1600s, meaning no gaping holes in the walls and roof; and situated at the far end of Jinshanling, where only the most vigilant security personnel would venture during the cold, damp night. Rather than fess up to our intentions, we decided to wait it out and see what happened, a strategy that ultimately proved successful when she grabbed her belongings at around 5 PM and left without saying a word.
Mike and I set up camp and assumed duties at the guard tower for the evening, keeping a watchful eye for marauding invaders as the rain clouds drifted away and a bluish-gray dusk settled into the mountains. We sank into our surroundings, the only souls for miles, sharing breath with this indomitable temple that lords over the earth with stoic indifference to all the life and death that have visited its steps.
Spend a night on the Wall and its silence speaks, telling a story that resonates with the deepest part of you, that which is everything and nothing but something worth being, if only for this beautiful moment. A truth in a series of truths revealed, a step deeper into the universe.