Thursday, November 6, 2014

40 for 40

The plan was hatched on a car ride home with Krista on the weekend of my 40th birthday. Joining a few wonderful folks in a downtown restaurant, we raised a toast or two to the years quickly sliding by. Tom, a local driver, met us around the corner for the return drive into the 'burbs. As it turns out, we shared this milestone year. What to do...

Tom put out the idea of hiking 40 towers on the Great Wall for 40 years.

Towers pop-up at regular intervals on the Wall. Some appear quite elaborate in their design while others are fairly simple. A wide range of condition also exists for these towers. Some are nicely restored, others have metal bandaids on them in the hope to keep the walls from toppling while others show only the footprint and a few crumbles.

Yes! This was my initial reaction to Tom's suggestion. The next part was trying to schedule a time where we were both free. Coaching, school and little girls make for a busy fall  but we finally managed to schedule a day. As the day approached, the air quality numbers began rising and I was concerned of having to cancel the trip. Fortunately, Tom picked a section of the Wall a few hours from Beijing and the air was better (not great, but doable...)

We began at a small village near the Gubeikou Great Wall section. The early morning hours brought a relative calm to the village but many were already at work on the multitude of construction projects taking place. This village wants tourists!

Corn was recently harvested from the fields and was seen in various forms - on the cob, kernels lining the road - throughout the village. Many of the fields were charred remains as the farmers must have fired the remaining husks after harvest.

The path to the Wall always seems to start with stairs leading up. We were treated by a constant display of fall colors on the climb to the top and passed a few other groups of people. Fortunately, either the air or the more remote nature of the section kept the crowds down and the path felt relatively empty.

Arriving at our first tower, we pulled out the whiteboard that would mark our progress. Tower number 1 of our count was a small, crumbling tower. This section of the Wall is definitely less maintained than others on the tourist trail. I enjoyed the narrow paths and more rustic feel. Tom nicely selected a portion of the Wall that began less developed and ended with a restored section.

 Once on the Wall, we began following the path that winds forever forward. The mountainous region seemed alive with the fall colors as the Wall continued past our sight lines.

A little after our count hit 13, a mandatory detour was placed in front of us. Apparently, an army base is in the area and a large section of the Wall provides a boundary for the base. We followed a small path that led down into the forest below. Along the way, we passed an old country home off to the side of the trail.

The path continued through the forest and burnt corn fields for what seemed like an eternity. Occasionally, views of the Wall would peak out in the distance. How many towers were being skipped? A shuttle was set-up and the driver waited further down the Wall. Would we actually pass 40 towers or was the detour gobbling up prime towers?

Finally, the Wall appeared around the corner and the trail headed for a low section. Excited to get back on, we hustled down the trail only to find the path swerve away. What? 50 meters or so remained between us and the Wall but the path wanted us to again head away from it. Depressions in the grass looked like others had left the official trail to rejoin the Wall so our combined 80 years of sense decided to follow the bushwack. Reaching the Wall, we found a wee little barrier...

But...the stairs are right behind and if we just get past this one section all is great. Tom went over the fencing while I climbed along the edge of the Wall. That's when we saw the large sign indicating something along the lines of "Hey Stupid - the razor and barbed wire was there for a reason. You're still in the army base. Get out!"

Climbing backwards is always more interesting than the initial climb and while I went back my original way, Tom decided to scout for a different way back over the Wall. I finally see him holding a stick as he dangles of the edge of the Wall. A solo hiker had decided to follow us and was quite upset to be in this predicament with us. The stick snapped and he quickly found the ground, which seemed quite a bit further down than in this image as there is a depression.

"I'm OK," floated towards me. Learning another lesson - stay away from Army bases - we were again on our way down the path away from the Wall.

We logged Tower 15 as a backdrop to the cornfields.

Eventually, the path began climbing upwards towards the Wall and we could see the razor wire "plug" from the distance. Our detour was ending.

The off-limits section of the Great Wall stretches into the distance
We were now on the restored Jinshanling section of the Wall. Wide corridors replaced the dirt paths and the towers seemed a bit more polished up.

Some of the towers contained decorative components that caught the eye when passing.

Towers began appearing at a rapid frequency. I wonder how many people actively worked on the Wall when it was fully manned.

As a defensive structure, it is quite impressive. There is a lot of variation in the construction of sections. Guard towers are not all the same. Some have more than one level and a person must use narrow stairways to climb to the next level in order to continue along the wall. Stairs are not always constructed evenly. Is this a craftsmanship issue or defense mechanism? The unevenness kept me often looking at my feet.

Tower 40 loomed up ahead. We had already passed the trail leading to our driver but had continued along to reach the extra towers. A final climb for 40...

All in all, 40 for 40 was a great way to get out and see a bit more of the Great Wall. The Gubeikou-Jinshanling section was a nice combination of trail time and restored wall. A big thanks goes out to Tom for cooking up the wonderful idea and being an adventurous hiking partner.

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