Great Wall Gaffe
Reflecting upon my experience, I may have been less prepared to climb the Great Wall of China than I’d been for any hike ever: I had no jacket in the event of rain or chills, no map or GPS to show where I was or where I intended to go, no phone to request assistance if I needed it and absolutely zero ability to communicate with the local Chinese. I didn’t even know how to correctly pronounce my destination, so whenever I shouted “Mutiniyo,” as opposed to “Mutianyu,” while pointing along the Wall stretching off to the (assumed) east, I was met only with Chinese stares of bewilderment. But on the bright side, I had a single cucumber and a tomato kindly given to me by my driver, so I would at least be free from hunger.
‘I waiting for you, Mutianyu’
Rather than starting and ending a walk atop the Wall at the same location, I was determined to hike between more distant sections. These portions are what Lonely Planet would call “less touristy” — basically, I wanted to hike by myself along an elegantly crumbling portion of the Wall. After doing some research, I decided to take on the stretch between Jiankou, which wasn’t serviced by public transport, and Mutianyu, the most highly recommended of the unmaintained sections.
I’d arranged a drop-off and pick-up with my hotel, but at 7 a.m. on the morning of the hike, while being slightly hungover, it had become obvious that my plans may not go as I’d hoped: The driver, concerned that I was going to get lost, was pushing to instead just drop me off at Jiankou, wait for me as I went for a hike there and then drive me to Mutianyu to do a second trek. I was visibly disappointed with this suggestion, but I didn’t have the language skills to persuade the driver otherwise. The only information I had about the route was an English-language website description saved on my phone, so I left the hotel resigned to the fact that the adventure I’d hoped for wasn’t going happen. At least I could sleep off my hangover on the way there.
When I awoke, it was clear we were off the beaten path: There were no highways, no buses, not much traffic and no traffic lights. It was also obvious the driver had never taken anyone here before, as he stopped to get directions from nearly every farmer and pedestrian we happened to pass. We eventually reached a small parking lot at the head of a valley for an extended conversation with an elderly female parking attendant. After much pointing and gesticulating, the driver typed something into his iPhone and handed it to me. The next thing I heard was Siri’s Auto-Tune voice: “I waiting for you, Mutianyu.” I wondered if my plan might work out after all.
A precarious route
After a jubilant thumbs-up response to Siri’s declaration, we were off to the trailhead, if you could even call it that. It was more like a barren, puddle-ridden dirt lot where, at the far end, in a lone car seat that had been stripped from a vehicle, sat an old man. My driver conversed with the old chap and then pointed to a trail leading up into the woods, shouting, “Mutianyu, five!” I counted off five hours on my watch to confirm he expected me to take five hours to reach my destination, where he would hopefully be waiting for me. The sun rising to our left indicated the direction I needed to go in, but I still thought it would be a good idea to confirm with my driver: I mimed walking uphill, reaching the Wall, turning each to the right and to the left and asking, “Mutianyu?” This somehow seemed to work: My driver understood my question and confirmed I should turn left.
After a short hike up through the forest, I reached the base of the Wall, ready to climb up it and turn left, but then encountered the first of the numerous tradesmen I’d never anticipated meeting along the hike: ladder keepers. To scale the Wall I needed to ascend a handmade ladder constructed of small tree limbs bound together by lengths of wire, crude but essential contraption that was guarded by an elderly, brutish-looking man. He demanded a payment of 5 yuan to clamber up, and once I satisfied his demand and scaled the short assemblage of limbs, my true hike upon the Great Wall of China finally began.
I wound through verdant green mountainsides and plunged down rocky, bare ridges, gawked at deteriorating and perilous sections of crumbling wall and passed many stoic, wrinkle-faced ladder keepers as I snaked through the rugged terrain. Then, several hours later, I reached Mutianyu and rode a toboggan sled down to the parking lot where my driver was waiting. A perfectly imperfect day.
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