He who has not climbed the Great Wall is not a true man
– Mao Zedong
That may be all well and good, Mao auld chum, but y’all ever camped on the Great Wall? Naw? ‘Fuck up then. What’s more: that kind of gendered hyper-masculinity doesn’t fly anymore. Double ‘fuck up. (Now I’m safely off Chinese soil, I feel it’s safe to tell former dictators to ‘fuck up.)
This is, I guess, the story of how three unlikely lads fae wild northern countries braved, scaled, blazed and conquered that most iconic of worldly wonders – the Great Wall of China.
Before I left bonnie Caledonia, in fact, before I’d even really started planning this ridiculous voyage, there were a few things I knew I had to do. A small travelling bucket list, if you will. Up at the top of this list were things like: get heavily into Afghani opium, assassinate Donald Trump, get sentenced to hard labour somewhere in East Asia, etc. etc. But above all of these was this:
Camp overnight on the Great Wall.
Chrissakes, I essentially brought a sleeping bag with me entirely for this purpose.
Problem is, it’s one thing dreaming of doing something, and another making that a reality. When it really came down to it, camping alone on an unrenovated and remote section of the Wall just seemed too risky, and planning it too much hassle. Ideally then, I would have to find some likeminded accomplices; a bold adventurer or two with a similar bucket list; the Dean Moriarty to my Sal Paradise; the NC to my JK – holy, holy, holy.
As it so happens, I found two of ’em. Enter the lads:
If yous cast yer minds back to my last China blogpost, you might just remember Dill & Luke – the two Canadian boys I got stupid drunk on baijo and píjiǔ with back in Yangshuo. I told you they’d surface again in a future post, didn’t I?
Back in Yangshuo, Luke and I – after an impressively long introductory conversation that traversed the minefields of history, morality, sexuality, gender, race, culture, and getting into sports fights – came to the realisation that we’d both wanted to hike and camp on the Wall, but both hadn’t quite been sure on it. Luke was travelling with Dill, who was also dead keen. It then transpired that we were all of us gonna end up arriving in Beijing around, if not exactly at the same time.
Our stars had aligned. Their puzzle pieces fit my puzzle. I was the key that opened their lock. And other such faintly erotic and vomit-inducing cliches. What I mean to say is, it’d have been idiotic not to seize this chance to realise a long-held dream of ours.
A few weeks after Yangshuo, we actually arrived within an hour of each other in Beijing! The lads joined myself and another friend, Kate (also Canadian, also a cool mu’fucka) at Leo’s Hostel – our home, nightclub, cinema, meeting spot, and occassional restaurant for the next week.
Skip forward a day or two, and we’ve landed ourselves – through no shortage of frustration and stress – a tent and some sleeping bags, rented for just a fiver each. Kitted out with our new camping gear, we dump almost all the rest of our shit out of our big backpacks, and pack as lightly as we can for what we’re hoping will be no longer than a two day-one night kinda hike (Dill had to be back for his flight on the 22nd, so we were cutting it a little fine). We stock up on facewipes, toilet paper, warm clothes, torches and laser-pens, almost fully-charged phones, and stupid (awesome) Commie-themed hats.
The food and water, we (I) decide, can wait till we get to our starting point – Huanghuacheng – a wee village at the foot of a famously half-submerged part of the Wall, sure to have it’s fair share of village shops, right? Right?!
The morning of the start of our adventure is brisk but bright, blue skies over Beijing a welcome (and I’m assured quite rare) sight. We make our way out to Huanghuacheng, first by the hottest, clammiest bus known to man, and secondly by taxi – the driver of which was conveniently placed right at the spot where the locals told us to/made us get off. But whatever, the guy at the hostel had told us taxi was the quickest way, and the driver charged us a fare (getit?) price.
As we make our way along the winding roads, cutting their way through the mountains, we start to get our first glimpses of the Great Wall. And it looks every bit as impressive as we could ever have hoped for. I can’t speak for the other lads, but at this point I could feel myself getting antsy. I just wanted to be up there, walking it, touching it, seeing it unfold across miles and miles of mountaintops.
We arrive at Huanghuacheng and, fuck, there are shit all shops in sight. It’s less of a wee village and more of a, how you say, well, one hotel, two restaurants, and a handful of street stalls selling small bags of almonds, ritz crackers, a few water bottles and sparklers (of course). There’s nowhere to stock up on actual food food in sight. We make do with what we can, buying one poor woman out of house and home – taking near every bottle of water she had, and filling the rest of our (by this point bloody heavy) bags with munchies to be devoured once we’d found our camping spot.
Then came the hunt for actually substantial food, given we’d need at least three, if not four or five meals for the gruelling trek ahead of us. What this boiled down to was me having to use my limited (though, if I may, greatly improved) Mandarin to try and communicate to the sole Huanghuachengian hotelier that we wanted a butt-load of egg-fried rice to be packed into containers so we could carry it in our bags. Somehow I managed, and though we – for whatever reason – could only manage to acquire two butt-loads of rice each, we decided this would have to do, and so started off on the first of countless, countless ascents on the fricking Great Wall of China.
I took this picture after maybe only fifteen or twenty minutes of hiking. We’d scrambled our way – past the 5 yuan, ohhh big spenders, toll fee – onto the eastern section of the Huanghua Wall, and made it up maybe just 50 metres. Still already I could feel the Beijing-and-1.1mg-nicotine-Chinese-cigarette-polluted-rawness of my throat tearing itself apart. I was guzzling water at an alarming rate, and my hips and back were already beginning to ache. Not a great sign when your plans are to hike 20km (as the crow flies, which is definitely not how the wall flies) from Huanghuacheng to Mutianyu. Nor is it a great sign when the first section of the wall looks like this:
Nevertheless, I have in the Canadians solidarity – in the form of Luke, also knackered, also with a set of gnarly smoker’s lungs – and inspiration and drive – in the form of forest fire fighter Dill, whose seasonal job is essentially hiking and doing hard labour every single day. We make then a good team, and so we press on.
The further we go, the less and less well-kept the wall becomes. The first thing to disappear are the steps and smooth stone walkways. Then the ramparts go, leaving nothing but air and the steadiness of our increasingly-weary feet between us and a sheer drop down the mountainside. Though sketchy, this is the Wall we wanted to hike. Not the new-age renovations at spots like Badaling, but the remnants of the real Ming dynasty wall, completed some 500 years ago. It’s tough, but the views, as ever, make it worthwhile.
However, we were not so lucky as to have even this crumbling fossil remain at least passable for very long. As we neared our first major summit, some couple hundred floors up, we were confronted with this…
Not exactly a sight to inspire a great deal of hope, wouldn’t you agree? Bare in mind, at this point I’m destroyed; sweating like a joke I won’t make here, hacking up great chunks of lung, legs wobbly, face and neck itchy from the burning sun, and having now to ration my water. Still, we’d come this far. Unperturbed by the collapsed Wall, we found a deer trail working off and up to the left, skirting the wall and climbing uneasily back up the mountain to a point where, we hoped, we could rejoin the Wall.
There are no pictures for this part of the hike, not one of us dared take a hand away from the roots, grasses and dirt we’d sunk our nails into to take our phones from our pockets. I won’t lie, (stop reading Mum), this was 100% the sketchiest, dodgiest, most dangerous scramble I think I’ve ever done. The lads – more seasoned hikers – have I think traversed worse; but for me this was hella scary. At times ascending at a 30-40 degree angle, our heavy bags doing their best to topple us, with zero solid ground to plant our feet or fingers into, we crawled slowly up the trail, eventually and with great difficulty emerging at the mountain-top, the Wall looming once again up in front of us. Just to rub salt in the wound, in order to get back onto the Wall, we had to climb loosely stacked bricks by a steep drop, our bodies pressed against all of the Wall’s ten or twelve feet, before stretching up and over the ramparts with one final massive exertion.
For what was to come later, camping atop the Great Wall, I’m glad we did what we did. But fuck ever doing a climb like that again.
From here, essentially at the summit, the hike eased out a little and we walked – by and large – without too many ups and downs, in search of a decent spot to pitch our tent. As if a divine reward for all our work in getting up the mountain, we found a spot absolutely perfectly suited to cater for our needs.
The wall thickened and flattened out just enough for us to squeeze our tent on. A little further along an outcrop of rock provided wind cover (though our luck with the weather was holding up and it was still fairly warm), whilst leaving enough room for us to build a fire. Furthermore, overgrown as it was, the area we camped at was full of twigs, grasses, and trees which we gathered in a pile as fuel. Once we’d gorged ourselves on the first of our rice meals, put up the tent and built our fire ready for lighting, we sat down with our legs dangling off the side, just in time to watch the sun as it set over a rippling horizon of breathtaking peaks. The rich reds and purples of dusk casting shadows in such a way that we saw the landscape as layers upon layers of blue-grey paper collage. The texture of this distant sprawling world seemed almost within reach.
Somehow we had managed to collect just enough firewood to keep the fire going, and keep us warm, right up until we all decided it was time for bed. And so that night we sat like primal kings, at the uppermost point of the Great Wall of China, exchanging stories, laughing our asses off, proud of the heat we had created and controlled churning mystical figures before our eyes, and being goofy teenagers with an industrial grade laser.
So back in Huanghuacheng, Luke had tried getting his hands on some Chinese fireworks to take up the mountain with us. Having asked around though, it seemed no one was willing to sell him anything but sparklers. Not a great loss, we were about to leave the *village* when out from his house runs this guys clutching a big bundle of dynamite-looking tubes. “Very dangerous! Very dangerous!” he tells us, though is happy to sell us the whole lot for 50 yuan (50p per firework). After a brief explanation of which way to point them and how far back to stand, he leaves us with a parting: “Very dangerous! Be careful!”
He wisni wrang.
These things set off with an ear-splitting bang, scattering the mud and rocks about them every which way. They launched themselves some 50ft in the air, and then exploded. Unlike traditional fireworks, there was no light-display to speak of. Rather, each explosion left a cloud of smoke and ember and a rumble which made its way through the mountains for miles about, the echo lasting up to twenty seconds each time. On more than one occassion (we lit every single one of those badboys over the course of the evening) I did think about the possibility of avalanche; but that only happens in Winter, right? Plus we were above everything else so’s all cool.
Post fireworks, lasers, munchies and chat, I lay flat on my back, feet warming by the dying fire, staring up at the (relatively impressive given our proximity to Beijing’s light pollution) cosmos. To be there in that moment, falling asleep by a fire atop an historic construction whose building was began in 200BC, two friends by my side, and not a worry on my mind: no words I could put down here could ever do that feeling justice. I did write a poem though, then and there in my mildly (severely) intoxicated state, which is probably the closest I can come.
under the ether
atop the Great Wall
of China; friendly
fires to warm my feet.
Luna Marina punctuates
a white sun. I sit up
and daylight floods
the mountain sides.
Squeezed into our 3 (small Chinese) man tent, layered with all the clothes we’d brought, sleep came easy (to me at least; sorry for the snoring Dill).
I woke first, in the hour before sunrise as the brightening sky filtered through the tent walls. Took my morning poop off the side of the Great Wall of China (how many of y’all can say that? soz Ming dynasty), ate my last egg-fried rice meal, and woke the other lads in time to watch the sun crawl lazily over the mountains. We reassessed our water sitch – about 6 bottles left between us – packed our bags, and then took an early morning rest. I lay down in the sun and listened to The Front Bottoms on my iPod, as they remind me most of my bro, and I was missing my family – though not in a sad, cry cry cry (johnny cash), upset kinda way; but in a I’m here (of all places) and they’re there, and I wish they could experience this with me kinda way. It was really nice. I wrote some more poetry, we goofed around a lil more, and then set off back on our way.
Audible medicine, or
sun high on my face
listening to the song of
my brother and last summer –
curing me of distance.
I may be dozing upon
the Great Wall, but
whether it’s the weightlessness of air
clearing my thoughts, or something
higher, I have rarely
been closer to my family.
We’d decided that morning that we’d abandon all hopes of making it as far as the Mutianyu section. Having came only 3km or so in the five hours hiking yesterday; another 17km that day didn’t seem very likely. Instead, we found a road about 2km away, and at the bottom of the mountain, which we could make for. The road would lead us 8km later to a small town, from where we hoped we could organise transport back to Beijing.
The hike that morning was so much easier than the day before that even with all our aches and pains and heavy bags, I felt quite light and refreshed. The air was crisp and clear, it was early Spring. After a deceptively slippery and dusty winding trek down off the Wall and to the bottom of the mountain (parts so secluded from sun that great icy patches of snow still lay in the nooks and crannies, untouched), we emerged from the wilderness and found ourselves in a weird half-constructed military cemetery in the ass-end of nowhere, about 70km from Beijing.
As Luke astutely observed: could you imagine three random, sweaty, stanky, tired Chinese kids coming down from the hills and mountains of the Scottish borders into a graveyard occupied by construction workers; the only English they’re able to utter being: Edinburgh? Edinburgh?
We must have looked fucking mental.
From here though it was an easy, if relentlessly unending and hot 8km walk to a small town somewhere near Huairou (the town we needed to get to to get the 916 back to Beijing). I still have no idea what the town was actually called.
We stumbled in to this no-named town like we were cowboys in a Western. You could almost see the tumbleweed russle across the abandoned streets. As we went, heads, then bodies, then whole people emerged from their houses and shops to stare bewildered at these three foreign kids who were, for some reason, in their neighbourhood. We found a dinky wee restaurant, it’s Chinglish sign an oasis in the desert, and went to town on omlettes and dumplings and, of course, Tsingtao beer. I then spraffed some poorly translated Chinese until the lady in the restaurant understood we wanted to take a bus to Huairou, and sent us on our way.
Two hot and very, very cheap busses later and we were limping back into the hostel. We arrived in the common room like gladiators, or soldiers returned from war; like Norgay post-Everest, or Amundsen post-South Pole.
I’ll admit that on perhaps an hourly basis afterwards I’d casually drop, in the presence of other company, the ‘Luke/Dill, mind that time we camped on the Great Wall of China?’ line. It felt really good.
The story, of course, does not quite finish here. For China is a country of polar opposites: rich and poor, tasty and gag-worthy, beautiful and ghastly, very old and very new. As such, no final sunset over China would be quite complete spent only in the old. If we wanted a proper send off, we’d have to experience the new. And what better way to do this than to get absolutely fucking melted… for free.
We, the victorious explorers, got together with a group of our fave kids at the hostel – Kate, Charlotte, Jed, and Richard – for some beers, some baijo (because Luke’s an asshole and will make you take a shot for any reason he sees fit), and a good auld game of Chairman Mao. Soon enough our group of 7 had turned into 9, then 11, and finally 13. We were joined by the Swedes – Mikey and Jasmine – the Nederlanders – Tara and David – and two stragglers who, whilst I shared a taxi to the club and I’m pretty sure back with them, I can’t remember their names. It was the biggest, craziest, most confusing and drunken game of Mao I’ve played since learning the game.
I hope yous are proud, Douwe and Sean.
Once we were suitably plastered, we took taxis out to Club Circle – a Korean K-Pop club – where Richard knew one of the promoters. As Quentin had assured me when I met him in Chengdu, you don’t pay to club in Beijing if you’re white. Maybe he was making a generalisation, but certainly for us, the rule applied tenfold. (Literally. We drank literally 10 bottles of liquor between the 13 of us, in the first hour. I know so because Richard’s promoter friend told a still very, very rough group of us this a few days later). The club was mental, of course. It is China after all. K-Pop bands (one called LOL) took to the stage every half hour-to-hour or so. In between their performances, the 13 of us became the sole occupiers of the dancefloor/DJ platform/stage/pole dancing pole. (I was very guilty of the latter, and I think I may have kicked someone walking by, because my flailing foot connected with something fleshy right before the bouncers kicked us off).
Some time and few remaining memories later and there was talk of heading to a second club (I blame Tara and David). Though it soon became very apparent (Kate you know what I mean) that this was not gonna happen. We were all way too fucked, plus having hiked two days in a row (Mind that time we camped on the Great Wall of China, lads? Sweet, eh?), 4am was late enough for me.
Somehow we all got home in one piece… minus a passport, a camera, a purse, and a phone (Kate you know what I’m talking ’bout). And boy oh boy did we pay over the next couple days for the alcohol consumed that night. But as far as ways to finish off your China experience go, I could have done a lot worse than to spend my last couple nights in such incredible places, with such fucking fantastic people.
I’m now writing this from the calm and comfort of a rad wee hostel on the mad cool streets of Seoul, South Korea. Distance from Beijing makes the memories I’ve retold here all the sweeter. I sincerely miss a great deal all the people I spent time with over my last few days in China, and I wish them all well in everything they do from now until the world collapses in on itself because Trump gets elected and World War III is sparked by an ignorant and irrational response to extremism.
But seriously. Kate and Dill: come find me in Canada. Luke: I’ll catch you in South America, get your cute butt down there in the Summer. Jed: please don’t steal any posters when you’re in North Korea. Charlotte: sorry you had to watch me eat peanut butter & jam out the jar like that; stay cool. Mikey and Jasmine: I loved hanging with yous for our personal tour of the Forbidden City; hit me up if y’all ever in Glasgow. Tara and David: yous can drink and party like the Scots, and I love it; enjoy the rest of your travels!
With all my love to my new comrades, and, as ever, the slimey blood, bone and gunk of my heart-parts go out to yous lovely faces back home.
China, I’ll see you when I see you.