E found the website (www.wildwall.com) and the adventure offered intriguing potential…off the beaten track, away from the Chinese tourist groups that follow a guide with a microphone and colored flag held high in the air to designate location. After two short emails to William, arrangements were easily made and in the lobby of our Beijing guesthouse I met with the driver (No English) who carried a placard for “Mr. Bob.” After smiles and incomprehensible introductions his black auto carried us through a three-hour adventure negotiating Beijing traffic…bikes, pedestrians, tractors, donkey carts all navigate the same lanes, avenues, freeways where the basic rule is ” Bigger Has The Right of Way.” As throughout Asia, good brakes, good horn and good luck prevails.
My understanding was that we were to pick up another couple but as we finally exited Beijing for the countryside I began to make an alternative plan if perhaps this was an abduction…the imagination can wonder…
We finally entered mountain terrain and the pavement ended. After another 20 minutes we arrived at a small village surrounded by hills We parked and I carried backpack uphill to a courtyard surrounding a small idyllic farmhouse. There was evidence of other foreigners. William casually came out of the farmhouse and introduced himself. An Aussie couple, attired in the hippest of trek fashion had already arrived and they and I completed our trekking group. Subsequently I appreciated their humor, enthusiasm and good cheer and we shared good times and laughs.
After being shown my room, the first of many superb meals was served. Lily was William’s Chinese helper and sous chef…fresh trout in a spicy (picante) sauce. After the meal Schnapps was offered (an acquired taste I guess) and I learned that William was in his late forties, formerly from Liverpool England, but has lived in China for the past 15 years. He has a Chinese spouse and two sons. He is a former long distance runner, who because of his fascination with the Great Wall as a child, later decided to run it’s length. After an initial abortive try he was subsequently able to run most of the wall in the early 1990′s and it has since become his passion. He has authored several books, spear-headed environmental efforts and has become the local expert/personality/guru of all things Great Wall. On our hikes, whenever we were passed by local Chinese hikers he would be recognized and asked to pose for pictures. His affect was such that he always obliged with a smile and some Mandarin conversation.
For the next two days we arose at 5 a.m. and took off in darkness for a 4-6 hour trek that included a significant climb up to the Great Wall and then excursions for varying lengths of time on top of the wall. We were able to stand on the wall and observe the sunrise. Along the way there would be frequent stops for short antidotes or explanations of various aspects of the wall–its history, construction, functions etc.
The Wall was initially started in about 400 BC and continued until the Ming Dynasty (approximately 1600 AD). It was built in sections to protect the Han Chinese from the Northern nomads (Mongolian and Manchu). Initial construction was at points of obvious invasion routes…river valleys…and through the years the Wall was extended up the sides of the valleys and across mountain ranges. It is not one continuous structure but various branches meander and double back. Initial construction was simple but later architectural efforts became more sophisticated.
In c. 220 B.C., under Qin Shi Huang, sections of earlier fortifications were joined together to form a united defence system against invasions from the north. Construction continued up to the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), when the Great Wall became the world’s largest military structure. Its historic and strategic importance is matched only by its architectural significance and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The areas we traversed were constructed of large carved stones, kilned bricks and morter which contained rice. As well as security, the Wall was used for storage, shelter and as a highway. It varied in width from two yards to 10 yards. In the area we were in, there has been no restoration and time and erosion have caused crumbling in many parts with an overgrowth of vegetation both on the sides and on top. It would seem that any minor earthquake could produce serious additional damage. William said his ecologic efforts have produced minimal results to date and he has been happy just to see that his efforts have caused fewer Chinese to litter. Ideally it would seem that stabilization against future damage without restoration would be the way to proceed. But the Wall is so long (estimates vary from 7000 to 10,000 kilometers) that total protection is impossible.
On descent: as frequently happens on hikes there is time for thought, reflection and subsequent contentment…and coming off the Great Wall of China in brisk warm autumn days a few magical to mystical moments. On one occasion while walking solo I heard leaves rustling in the trees –only a few colored leaves remained on each tree. Looking up the leaves would twirl on one tree then sequentially on another– like a self-conducted symphony—only in China. When I asked William whether his operation had reached a size sufficient for an assistant he replied, “I think I will see you again.”