Beijing to Huanghuacheng:
36 hours on the great wall
Without coming off pretentious and awful (too late), I often struggle to answer the timeless, midly cliche question of “What was the best thing you’ve done on all your travels?” I don’t have an answer. That’s the honest reply I could give, but that won’t do, would it? That being said, a go to memory lingers in my cerebral vault that nags to be remembered, and begs to be told. “Smoking hash, playing with fireworks and watching the sunset over the Great Wall of China while camping.” It’s an extremely summarized version of a 36 hour adventure that would plaster the seal onto making China one of the most memorable and mystical places I’ve gotten stamped into my passport.
We frantically awoke to the ringing of all three of our alarms blaring, cutting deep into our hungover heads. 7 am, shit, we’re already late. In a hurry we got dressed in our hiking gear and threw our packs over our backs, making our way out into the smoggy, chaotic streets of Beijing. After a half hour of walking and surfing the underground metro I sat back comfortably on the tiny bus and gulped down a terrible Mcdonalds breakfast. The view out the window over the next 2 hours transformed from grayscale clutter of city life into the rolling hills where little specks of the Wall began to make itself visible, like a snake slithering through long grass, occasionally poking its head out.
After transferring to a taxi and an additional 20 minutes we placed our bags on the gravel road with the Wall towering over the tiny town of Huanghuacheng. Supposedly the government has been trying to gain control of the Wall, but pockets of towns still maintain the rights. This in turn means the main tourist spots for the wall are all crammed with people shepherded in by government sponsored tours (google image 'Great Wall of China' and you'll be discouraged by photos of hundreds if not thousands of tourists crawling on every available inch of the wall to get a stupid selfie.)
There were a few dire necessities we needed to add to our bags, stuffed only with the tent and sleeping bags we had rented for the night from Sanfo in Beijing. Firstly, food. For this we got a sweet lady to make us 6 portions of egg fried rice (dàn châofàn) and purchased some nuts and chocolate from the street vendors. Additionally, walking sticks (which if you caught me in Canada I would vehemently deny using) came in the form of whittled sticks salvaged from the local forests, and sold for the reasonable pice of 1 USD from a man with no teeth but a full smile. Lastly, to my friends scrutiny, I managed to navigate the vendors till I found one man who had fireworks for sale. "One minute, one minute!!!" he said excitedly and vanished down the street. A few minutes later he reappeared, this time with a bushel full of highly explosive, questionable fireworks that looked slightly too similar to sticks of dynamite. Regardless, I bought the whole lot of 12 off him for cheap and thanked him, too which he replied "very very dangerous! very very loud! have much fun!!!" Alright then...
With that we paid our 2 RMB fee to get onto the trail which immediately climbed vertically up the side of the mountain. The beginning of the hike consists of climbing a few ladders and walking along a well kept and heavily restored. A handful of tourists loitered around taking photos, but had time to smile and give us a friendly 'ni hao'. After going up the mountain, the trail leads sharply back down into the valley, then immediately back up again. The only difference is this time there is no tourists, and the wall is heavily in ruins. Broken stones litter the path and navigating your feet around them begins to be difficult.
After an hour of sweating and panting up the mountain Dylan pointed out something with a laugh. "Well shit, theres no wall left!", he said, and I looked up from my feet to see an entire section of the wall had fallen off the cliff, leaving an exposed gap. Fortunately a narrow trail winds around the side, and with a bit of climbing we made it up.
The trail continued to present hilariously dangerous obstacles which made for some good fun. If you're on the trail and look directly up to the highest peak of the mountain, just a hair passed there is where we finally sat down and mowed down our now cold egg fried rice and set up the tent.
Day turned to dusk and the disappearing sun flooded a spectrum of the varying hues of blue, yellow, red, and orange across the valley for us to enjoy. With the tent set up and supplies laid out, we brought out the pipe I got in India and smoked with earned joy the hash we bought in Shanghai. I sent up fireworks into the colorful sky and the boom echoed far enough that I'm positive the man who sold me them in Huanhuacheng looked up and smiled (perhaps hoping I hadn't blown myself up). After the sun had set, we lit a fire with salvaged wood from the path, and fell asleep with the view of the embers floating into the sky, joining the stars as speckled lights in the dark sky.
Morning came quickly and I warmed my cold toes by the remnants of the nights fire. With the tent packed up, our food and trashed stashed back in the bags and the site restored, we made our way back down the mountain, this time much more sore and much more hungry then when we left. Needless to say after making our return back to Beijing I found myself back in the same Mcdonalds as when we had left.