My visit to Beijing was nearly over.
I'd ridden a bike to Tiananmen Square, where elaborate kites flew under the stern watch of Chairman Mao. I'd demanded a refund from a Chinese cabdriver. I'd even taken a bite of a bean curd dish that looked like a brownie but smelled like a cow patty. I'll bet cow patties taste better.Big cities can be fun, but I can take only so much of them. I hadn't seen the countryside, and I hadn't seen the Great Wall.
My original plan was to spend part of an afternoon at Mutanyu or Badaling, two of the three restored portions of the wall. Badaling is 35 miles north of Beijing. Mutanyu is about 45 miles away.
Badaling was refurbished in 1957. It's the most polished, with its smooth brick walks, stairs and guardrails. Nearby are restaurants, souvenir shops and an IMAX-like theater. Badaling is so crowded, it has added a cable car to speed tourist flow. Mutanyu is not quite as bad. Neither seemed to offer the wall experience I wanted.
Judy Johnson, my host in Bei-jing, suggested that I join some of her friends on a 25-mile hike on the wall from Gubeikou to Simatai, another restored section about 55 miles northeast of the city. Then she told me her horror story. Judy doesn't scare easily, but when she went on a daylong hike on one of the rough stretches, the Great Wall's unrestored slippery grades and crumbling rock put fear into her. Alan, her unofficial wall guide, saved her from falling, she said.
A 25-MILE HIKE: Two days before I was to board a plane back home, five of Judy's friends and I paid a total of $48 to hire a small bus to Gubeikou, our starting point on the wall. Alan, who is from Britain, once worked at "China Daily" as a copy editor, or foreign expert, as they're called. Meng Fen, his wife, is of Mongolian ancestry. They had hiked the wall several times and decided that walking from east to west - from a rough section to the restored point at Simatai - was the best route. Meng Fen's friend Yang Yang and Yang Xiao, her hus-band, are Chinese. Judy's next-door neighbor Simon, an Australian, completed our group.
We rode the bus for about two hours, snacking on hot street food and snoozing. When we arrived at Gubeikou, all six of us ducked into what looked like the only restaurant in town and ate hearty plates of salted, roasted peanuts, noodles in broth, stir-fried green beans and chicken. We paid a total of $7. As I successfully picked up peanuts with chopsticks, Meng Fen complimented me on my skill. I was glad to be handy with them because I don't recall seeing any silverware at restaurants during my trip.
To get to the wall, we walked above terraced farmlands and through groves of walnut trees. Meng Fen shouted greetings to the few people we saw working the land. Soon, the sloping hills gave way to eroding stone that protruded like varicose veins from the mountain ridge.
Accustomed to postcard views of the Great Wall photographed at its most spruced-up sections, I asked when we would reach it. In fact, we were there.
On some parts of our 25-mile hike, the wall was about as wide as a grocery-store aisle. Other times, it was broad enough for a car. Most sections were narrow and overgrown with weeds and bushes. The Great Wall is really two walls with soil or rock between them. Most of the unrestored sections are in some state of ruin made even worse by locals who pirate stones for their own building projects.
The wall was our hiking path for most of the trip. At one point, it narrowed and rose a few hundred feet to a dizzying height above a meadow. Everyone but the athletic, compact Yang Xiao left the wall and climbed back on only after it had widened again.
The early May weather was almost perfect for hiking, with a temperature in the mid-70s and overcast skies. A breeze cooled my sweaty neck. The fresh air and the silence were a welcome contrast to the haze and traffic of Beijing.
The Great Wall is the largest defensive barrier ever built. It stretches about 1,500 miles from Shanhaiguan Pass on the east coast of China to Jiayuguan Pass in the Gobi Desert. Many travel books say it's the only man-made object visible from space.
Some 2,000 years ago, Emperor Qin Shihuang unified China at a time when it had many kingdoms, each with its own wall. The emperor hoped, unsuccessfully, that the combined walls would keep out nomads from the north. It did serve as a raised highway for transporting people and equipment. Now it is China's biggest tourist attraction.
A few rural folk also walk the wall, offering tourists water, beer and souvenir books. The hope of finding someone selling an ice-cold drink motivated me as the relentless hills gradually sapped the strength from my legs.
After the first few miles, many of which were vertical, I understood the wall's true, cruel nature. As we hauled our full loads up 50-, 60- and 70-degree grades, I groaned. But all those squats and walking lunges at the gym finally paid off. Countless hills rose before us, but I was determined not to give up. I just enjoyed whining a little.
The scenery was continuously breathtaking. Distant mountain ranges seemed to change from green to blue-gray to pale gray. Up close, the wall was daunting. As we pressed on, I occasionally looked back, hardly believing we were scaling the spine of this man-made dragon.
As the sun set, we approached a restored area of the wall. After six hours of hiking, we looked for a guard tower where we could camp and sleep. We had seen several on our hike, some small and roofless, others larger with individual chambers. Hundreds of years ago, sentries manned the towers, setting wolf dung on fire to send smoke signals, transmitting word of invaders to the capital.
I was ready to rest anywhere. Even an open-air tower that smelled as if it was home to a family of mountain goats looked inviting. But we walked until we arrived at a restored 2-story tower in the Jinshanling section of the wall, about a four-hour hike east of Simatai. We had seen no beverage peddlers, so Simon went to a nearby village to buy beer and water.
As we settled in, we realized that we had stopped near a tiny souvenir shop alongside the wall. In what looked like a large tool shed, a kind man sold cookies, picture books, warm sodas, water and the slide film I'd had such a hard time finding at a decent price in Beijing. I had to barter to get a roll for $4 at a booth in the Forbidden City, but now I bought a roll for $3.
As the man prepared to go home, he offered us his bench and the last of his hot water. The Chinese drink loads of tea and eat lots of dehydrated noodles, so many of them carry hot water to work in huge tanks that look like a cross between a fire extinguisher and a small bomb. This precious gift meant we could eat our own bowls of dehydrated noodles immediately.
Then we discovered why Yang Yang's pack was so heavy. She and Yang Xiao were loaded down with all sorts of food - tomatoes, cucumbers, fruit, dried bean curd - and were eager to share. I divvied up my dark chocolate candy bar and my flask of apple brandy. Yang Xiao got the first sip for retrieving my extra T-shirt, which had fallen over the wall.
I didn't pack hiking boots, so I had worn heavy-soled rafting sandals. They did a good job of gripping the sandy slopes and rocky grades. Still, the hike had hurt my feet. I'd worn holes in my socks, but at least there were no blisters or blood. I wiped my feet with moist towelettes, massaged them with peppermint lotion and promised to treat them better if they'd get me through one more day.
As darkness descended on the mountains, we rested and drank the beers Simon had bought. Meng Fen and Yang Yang analyzed our personalities, using Chinese astrology. Then the conversation turned to my impressions of China.
Meng Fen asked if I felt weird around people speaking Chinese. I didn't. The language is pure music, even if its intricate system of tones makes conversation sound a little like a record played backward. There are lots of foreigners in Beijing, so most people I encountered understood some English. Even when I flew to Qingdao, east-coast home of the famous Chinese beer, I happened across several people who spoke fluent English, including one businessman from Hong Kong who helped me order lunch. But travelers in rural areas probably need someone in their group who has a firm command of the native dialects.
The evening was chilly, so I was thankful to have a sweater. We stretched our tired muscles and curled up in our sleeping bags. I'd hoped to wake before dawn and watch the sun rise, but we slept well into the morning. The wall was almost as brutal to sleep on as it was to climb.
THE PERILOUS PASSAGE: "Mancou!" Simon said as we set out that morning on steep declines dusted with slippery pebbles. Pronounced "MANT-zoh," it sounds a lot like "gung-ho" but means "take it easy." "Dui," I said, heeding his advice.
A day too late, the peddlers found us. They had no beer, and I already had plenty of water. One woman tried to sell me a hardbound book of pictures. She suggested the book as a souvenir, but I only saw unnecessary weight. "Bu ke xie," we said, politely declining, but she followed us for a few hundred yards. "Bu yao!" Simon called. "Don't want any." She finally gave up when we approached someone else's marketing territory.
The next salesperson carried only a few small books. He wasn't as insistent, so when it became clear we weren't buying, he joined our group, squatting with us during our many rest breaks to smoke one of the strongest legal cigarettes I've ever smelled.
"Cigarettes are good for you," he said in Chinese. Maybe he's right, because he passed me on a 45-degree grade without breathing hard.
The salesman told us his name is Chang Fu Hua. He pointed toward farmland on one side of the wall. He told us the land has been sold to an American company to build a "holiday village." The villagers have moved and the road is built, he said. A big hotel, shops, restaurants and maybe a cable car to the wall were in the works. We sighed, and I snapped a picture.
As we approached another tower, the wall narrowed to 2 feet. The drop had to be 50 feet. It was so precarious that the trail veered off the side of the wall and rejoined at a lower, wider spot.
I paused at the narrow expanse. Chang took one look at me and pointed toward the lower path. Pride wouldn't allow me to take the safer route. My heart beat hard. I took my first slow steps toward the tower. Then, up from behind, came the cigarette-smoking salesman, making me more nervous by gently touching my elbows when notches in the wall narrowed the path to about 8 inches. Knees shaking and pumped full of adrenaline, I made it to the tower.
Eventually, we asked Chang to carry Yang Yang's backpack. When he finally departed, we gave him the equivalent of $1.20 for his trouble.
The muffled chatter of tourists grew louder and the wall became cleaner, wider and sturdier as we approached Simatai. We avoided a guy at a gate who tried to make us pay about $2 for admission.
In all, we'd traversed about 1.6 percent of the Great Wall. After two days of being immersed in China's beauty, I was sad to leave. I'd left sweat and skin from my left knee on the Great Wall, but in return the wall gave me a sense of accomplishment. That's my kind of closure.
If you hike the Great Wall
You don't need friends in Beijing to hike the Great Wall.
Travel services based in the United States can book tours customized to include a hike led by a bilingual guide, said Gerry Kerr, a spokesman for the Florida-based Pacific Delight Tours.
A weeklong tour of Beijing, including a two-day hike, would cost about $1,200 between March and mid-November, and a little less during inclement periods between November and February. That includes round-trip air fare, hotel, breakfast each day, a few dinners and sightseeing in Beijing.
The wall hike would be tailored to suit the individual, Kerr said.
The rest of the China trip would include sightseeing at the Forbidden City, the Ming Tombs and the Temple of Heaven. For more information, contact Pacific Delight Tours at 1-800-221-7179.
Or you can scare up a tour on your own.
Although the more developed parts of the Great Wall at Badaling and Mutanyu have regular bus service, few go to Simatai, about three hours from Beijing. The bus to Simatai departs Dongzhimen bus station once a day at 7 a.m. and returns about 3 p.m. The cost is about $2.40.
To get to the wall on your own, try the Jinghua Hotel. A favorite of backpackers, it offers a tour for about $8.30. The booking office number is 011-86-10-6-7222211.
Great Wall tours leave from Tiananmen Square regularly, but be careful. They tend to ask exorbitant prices of foreigners.
For more on the wall, pick up a copy of William Lindesay's "Alone on the Great Wall," Fulcrum Publishing, 1991.