I’ve walked the high road. I’ve survived the low road. But the rubble road? I’ve never heard of it (… Actually, I’ve just made it up for this post).
These two simple words encapsulate our experience of the Great Wall. That magnificent piece of age-old engineering. That wonder of the world. That simple idea of ‘a wall’ taken to extremes. That ‘bricks and mortar’ construction that is visible from space.
The Great Wall.
Many have walked it. Two presidents have even strode upon its back, but relatively few venture to a section known as ‘Jiankou’ (The arrow nook).
This section of the wall, that continues to guard the small hamlet of Xizhazi within the folds of its valley, has not seen hammer, fresh mortar, or human labour, since its construction.
It has been abandoned to the ravages of time. And it shows.
It’s crumbling. It’s decaying. It’s perishing with each breath of air and drop of rain. A bit more of the wall is lost unto the wilds.
It is here we started our adventure.
Adrenaline pumping before our alarm could even peep. We were ready for our nighttime clamber.
Fleece. Waterproof. Scarf. The pre-dawn morning was cold with the vestiges of the night air. We shivered as we started our torchlit walk away from the scant civilisation we found ourselves in.
A dog barked. It echoed through the valley.
We walked on. The road became a path. The path became steep. We walked on. We warmed up… A lot!
And then from the fleeing shadows of terrified trees we came upon it. A wall. Out of the forest, out of the very mountain itself. The wall loomed.
We had to devise a strategy of how to even get onto its back. We discussed. Our plan aligned we clambered – tooth and nail – onto the wall. Well, what was left of it.
A step, loose stone skidded away and down into the darkness. A scuff of the shoes, caught on a branch. This wall was wrecked. No longer the pristine majesty that guarded kingdoms past. No longer watched over by exalted servants armed with torch and sword along its backs.
Now we were on the wall, it would be easy? No.
The wall that was, was no longer.
We sweated. We gulped. We heaved.
Up and down, riding and falling with the rhythm of the mountain we carried on through the first rays of light. As we reached one of the highest peaks around the sun finally grazed the mountain before us. We watched (… And devoured breakfast).
Here we sat, on top of the world. At the age old border between China and Mongolia. Just us. No one else. This wall was ours. This moment was ours.
It was tranquil. It was intoxicating. It was unadulterated nature. It was, quite simply, breathtaking.
We strode on.
Rubble and rock continually intermingled with trees and bushes. Where once was a road – a highway for soldiers – a wild garden now bloomed, complete – every now and again – with the pomp befitting an Emperor’s Palace…
… But more often just a paved – and long forgotten – forest path.
As the walk stretched on we realised we were walking a battlefield. Not one fought with soldiers, but the battle between man-made and nature. And nature wins. Every time.
The best of man cannot defeat the onslaught of nature. The paths continued to break way beside us. The trees reclaimed the land, the mortar cast asunder; the stones lay prostrated in the grass aside the branches that inflicted the mortal wounds.
And all around blue skies were split by soaring mountains. Autumnal colours began their bloom across the landscape. Birds sang. And time marched on. It still marches on.
And as the wall rounded into another valley it started a meandering fall into the valley below. It flattened out.
In the blink of an eye, Jiankou had been traversed and we stood in a different section of the unending wall – Mutianyu. Restored to its ancient splendour.
Bedecked with tourists: Blustering Brits. Sweating Swedes. And huffing-and-puffing Americans. Friendly greetings through strained smiles, pained with the effort of the climb. This is what greeted us at the end of our adventure.
One turned to me. An American.
He smiled past his tour guide. He winced. He sweated. He took a big drink of the fresh air…
“Another early starter, hey?” (It was now about 10am)…