A Night In The Woods

The Great Chinese Wall Adventure – Part I

I dedicate this post to Jiesu and send her all my love!

What about hiking the Jiankou section of the Wall?” I asked Jiesu from the top of my hostel bunk-bed.

It was Friday afternoon and it was my last week-end in China. I had spent the past two weeks with my close friend Jiesu whom I had not seen in years. Seeing her again had been great. Spending all my time with her, getting to know her family, her home province had been great. Truly great. She helped me understand the Chinese culture better, she tried to teach me some Chinese. She is a great friend. But still, it was my last week-end in China. My last days in the far East before flying back to Europe. I knew it was time for a break, I knew I owed it to my friends and family, to myself and to every one I was meeting on the Road, to take a break from travelling. But still, I was in need of adventure, one last fix before flying back. China had happened to fast! I had felt rushed the whole time. Everything had been more or less planned since the day I arrived, which is not the travel style I am used to or looking for. Sure, in search of a sense of freedom, I had hitchhiked a bit. But although definitely an interesting experience, it had been so slow that I had been forced to stop and hopped on a night train after three days.

So, “What about hiking the Jiankou section of the Wall?” I asked Jiesu from the top of my hostel bed. Jiankou is a section of the Great Wall that is not opened to the public. I had heard about it on my very first day, in Shangai, from a British couple who had ventured into doing the hike. It was supposed to be stunningly beautiful and quite dangerous. The fact that it is not opened to the tourist masses definitely made it appealing. I started researching more about it online. “Oh, I know! Better yet!!” I added excitedly after a few minutes. “What about hiking to the Jiankou section, sleeping on the Wall for a night then hiking back to the restored section on the next day?!”

Jiesu is not properly speaking the definition of an adventurer, but I was very pleased to see her get excited about the project as well. She was trusting me, she was curious and became rapidly as enthusiastic as me about the whole project, even after I had warned her: “It’s not gonna be comfortable, you know, we’re not particularly well equipped for something like this last minute. It might get a bit cold up there, we might not sleep at all. Are you still up for it?” Fortunately, she was.

So, we had a plan: on Saturday morning, leave the hostel, go to our new host’s, then get to the start of the hike to the Jiankou section with a bus and a black taxi, hike to the Wall, see the most wonderful sunset, sleep a bit if we could, watch the most incredible sunrise -better yet than any National Geographic picture you could dream of- hike back to the touristy section and take a bus back to Beijing on Sunday evening. That plan of ours was a perfect one. Jiesu and I would have some unforgettable exotic memories to add to our repertoire and I would have my fix of adventure. After that, I would be able to go back to Boring Europe and be at peace for at least of few months.

I can gladly say, all went almost according to plan. But only almost.

I had repeatedly asked our host-to-be if he wanted to join us in our adventure, but he had declined every time. How could someone not want to be part of such an adventure? Well, his loss. On that very same Friday evening, we got ready. We bought water and food and I took out of my big backpack everything that the two of us would potentially need: all the warm clothes I was thankfully still dragging around despite the Chinese summer, a blanket I had bought in Kasol after giving Aashish my bulky sleeping-bag, my rain jacket, my warm liner and my emergency blanket. It would have to do.

On Saturday morning, almost as early as planned, we left the hostel with everything and set off for our new host’s. However, we got there much later than we had been meaning to, partly because of the terrible directions he gave us, partly because of my not double-checking the info I had. We finally got to the right place and met Jason, a very sweet young man from the US living in a fantastic flat. We chatted, I explained our plan once again and asked just in case “Are you sure you don’t want to come with us?”. “Well…” I could see he was tempted now. “I have been here for a few months now and I haven’t seen the Wall yet… What the heck, sure, I’ll come!” That was great news, the more the merrier, but since he had just changed his mind, he had nothing ready. He packed, we shopped again for some food and water for him, and we finally set off for the bus station with a several hours delay.

The bus and black taxi part went seamless -we even bargained the fare of the latter hard and well. But when we got to the beginning of the hike to the Wall, it was 5 p.m, which meant we had only 2 hours of daylight left. Just enough to find the Wall before night came. I knew it was very late and slightly (very?) unreasonable to start now but I was confident that with the indications I had printed from the internet, I could get us up there in time.

The locals we met on the way naturally advised against our hiking up. They also said that they can see the Wall within 45 minutes of hiking, whenever they take this path. That comforted me. We would surely be slower than them, but still, 2 hours was plenty! We hiked, then climbed – well, hiked with all four at least. The rain had stopped, thankfully, but had also left a thick fog covering everything around. We were soon enough drenched in sweat and in water dripping down from the bushes constantly brushing against us.


At the beginning of the hike


When it started to resemble climbing


Drenched but happy

We were going steady, not one complaint was heard, we were exhaling excitement, concentration and effort. We didn’t talk much, we didn’t take many pictures – no time, if we wanted to make it to the Wall before night came.


Jason and Jiesu going steady

My indications said “Keep going uphill and you should be fine. But if you don’t see the Wall after one hour and a half though, you’re probably wrong”. So we kept going up. We didn’t take much notice of the barbed wire that started appearing after a bit. After all, we were going a closed part of the Wall, and there had been a sign forbidding the path at the very beginning, so why not barbed wires? We didn’t take notice of the really dangerous climb that was definitely not mentioned in my indications. We just kept going up. There was also a never-ending and sad trail of litter by our side, mainly plastic bottles. We thought that this was also a hint that other people, many other people, had been there before; we had to be on the right tracks.

At some point however, we started to doubt. We could feel that the top of the ridge we were on was quite close, but still no trace of a Wall. We had climbed up so high we didn’t have a choice by then, so we went to the top anyway, feeling certain that the Wall was hiding up there (although it was geographically very unlikely), waiting for us. After another tricky climb, we got to the top and were indeed greeted by the Wall… on the ridge opposite to ours! We could now see the Wall in the distance, the watchtowers, we could hear other adventurers shouting from the Wall, we could see the lights of their torches – the sun had already set.


The Ridge On Which We Were Not (but on which the Wall was)


Great Wall Watch Towers in the Distance at Dusk

The view was impressive, but we had no time to linger. It was getting darker by the minute. We acknowledged that the sleeping-on-the-Wall part of the plan was definitely not going to be happening and started getting down. The slope at the top of the ridge was indeed so steep that spending the night there would be impossible. But you know what? Climbing down is a lot harder than climbing up! Jiesu was scared. Jason wasn’t very confident. Luckily, as it turned out that day, I am pretty good at climbing with feet and hands. I went up and down a few times to stuck our three backpacks against a tree so that they wouldn’t roll down, then went up again to help out Jiesu. After that, once back on the muddy ground, we kept going down until it was too dark to see. I was literally sliding in the mud on my behind, using the trees to stop me. Jason and Jiesu were a lot slower but staying each on their two feet. As soon as it became too dangerous to take any more step, we set camp for the night. It was just anywhere, in the middle of the slope. There was no plane surface for another few hundreds meters, we knew it, so it would had to do.


Let’s sleep on those rocks! They look so comfortable!

We had a sort of dinner -for me it was Chinese canned porridge, you should try it!- then tried to get comfortable. It was getting a bit cold, so I happily went to grab my rain jacket – it wasn’t there. I had strapped it to the side of my backpack and it must have fallen out during our ascension. So I wrapped myself in the light Himalayan blanket instead.


Jason having dinner not-on-the-wall and not feeling disappointed


My Himalayan blanket and I – none of us feeling disappointed


Jiesu feeling zen, not…

We made plans for the next day: go down a bit, see if we could find the right path, if not and if it wasn’t too late when we get to the village, take a black taxi to the semi-wild part of the Wall – it sounded like a good back-up plan, I had no intention of giving up on the Wall anyway, since this was my last chance. At some point, someone said “Aren’t there bears in those mountains?”. We got scared for a minute, but the stillness of the forest was so intense, it felt like no big animals could possibly be living in the area. Someone pointed out that there are probably very few bears that could conquer the very tricky and dangerous climb that still lay below us. That much for bears. We tried to sleep.

Jason, obviously, was some sort of trained wood-sleeper. He huddled in his jacket and was soon slightly snoring. Jiesu and I were not. I was definitely not. But I have to admit, the emergency blanket we had deployed was quite impressively efficient! Too bad we only had one for the two of us. A very gentle breeze kept moving over the blanket in a soft whisper. Nothing too aggressive, but in the intense stillness, the crispy sound was enough to keep one awake. That, and the rough “comfort” of our branches-and-rocks mattresses. We were disappointed, but we were sound and safe, it was not raining, we were not too cold and there was no bear in sight. And at least, whichever way it was to end, we already had a story: the story of how the three of us spent a Night in the Woods somewhere at the feet of the Great Wall of China.

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