Sunday, December 01, 2013

China: Great Wall at Jiankou

I started this day in a state of anticipation and excitement. I was hoping to do a hike on the Great Wall but was not sure I would have the time while I was in Beijing. I did a search for companies who did tours and finally settled on +Beijing Hikers about a month ago and finally decided on the Jiankou route. It was listed in their information description as a level 3 with some steep sections and people who were not comfortable with heights might not enjoy it. After reading the description several times, I felt comfortable with selecting that route.
I took the subway to the pick-up point at the Starbucks at the Metropark Lido Hotel. It was a small group of 7 hikers and two guides. We boarded the bus and spent a comfortable 2 hours getting to the small town of  Xizhazi where our guides paid the entrance fee, picked up a local guide who they hire as a way of supporting the community and off we went. I had worn my down coat, and I had a balaclava as well as very warm gloves.  
Map of the Jiankou hike

Before starting, I looked up and saw where we were headed. It didn't look as steep as parts of Kilimanjaro which we climbed six weeks ago but no sooner did we start out, than I realized these guides were not like our guide Godfrey on Kili and their motto was definitely not "pole, pole" (slow, slow). Everyone in the group was quite a bit younger than me with the oldest estimated at about mid-forties. A husband and wife team even had a baby strapped in a carrying frame on first the husband's back, then the wife's. I honestly don't know how they completed the hike but they were faster than I was for almost the entire time.

One of the destinations
By the time I was 10 minutes into the hike, I shed my balaclava and heavy gloves and put on a light weight toque and light gloves. Another 5 minutes and a few more people passing me, and I shed the toque. Less than 3 minutes and off came the down coat. My backpack was starting to get heavy and I had not even gone 20 minutes. The rest of the group looked like they were in a Survivor race because they looked like they were practically sprinting up the mountain. I took my time because I wanted to enjoy the view, take some pictures and settle into a pace that would make me have a memorable rather than a regretful experience. Besides, although I felt fit and prepared, this hike was harder than the description on the Beijing Hikers website.  

Path going up the mountain
I stopped quite often along the way to take pictures and was glad in a way that it was Fall and the trees had already shed their leaves because it made for easy viewing. Taking pictures slowed me down but it also gave me a chance to catch my breath. The guide said it would take about 20 minutes to get to the top of the wall but it took more like an hour.  
A traditional cave/shelter
Jiankou path
Great wall
Every once in a while, I would stop and look up only to see that I still had a long way to go. I felt like I had walked a lot but it was a combination of a steep incline, a backpack that seemed heavier with each step and a group who were hiking as if they were late arriving at some distant destination.
Great wall

View down below
Finally I arrived at the top of the wall to find that the rest of the group were already relaxed and having a snack. As you can see from the picture below, even the couple with the 2 year old arrived before I did. She must easily have weighed 30 pounds and her mother was carry her up the mountain as if she was a feather; made me feel downright unfit but I made it that far so I felt re-assured that I was doing fine.
Hiking group

Then the climb started getting hard! I thought we'd make it to the top of the wall and we'd simply walk along a nice smooth surface for another 7 or 8 kms until we reached the end. Oh my, did I underestimate what was ahead of me! As you can see from the picture below, this part of the wall is not restored so it is definitely not a touristy run up a few hundred steps. There was barely a foot path in some places and it was rough and dangerous in several places. I was glad to have taken my own hiking boots and trekking poles otherwise I don't know how I would have completed the hike. At one point when I was standing on something that looked like a ledge rather than a wall, I considered going back but knowing what I left behind, it would have been as difficult to turn back than to go forward. 

Path on top of the wall
Crumpled section of the Great wall

Crumpled Great Wall
Thomas (my semi-private guide) was great. He stayed with me the whole time and held my trekking poles each time I stopped to take a picture or 10. The scenery was spectacular to say the least. The entire wall is more than 20,000 km but the part we were on was built during the Ming Dynasty. I remember seeing some pictures of the wall taken from space by astronauts; it's that stunning.
Wanting some adventure, I chose to hike an un-restored part rather than doing what many sensible tourists would do, but it was worth the effort. The pictures speak for themselves.
View of mountain from top of the Great Wall
View of Great Wall
Great Wall
View from top of Great Wall

Rough section of the Jiankou Wall
Great Wall
 At several sections, the wall was so steep that even with my trekking poles, I had to lean back about 45 degrees just to be able to go down. It was an odd feeling that if I did not stand as if I was falling back, I'd fall head first into many rough stone walls with boulders for a path. Some sections were even too steep for me to walk down and some were slippery with smooth boulders so I literally had to slide down on my butt to get to the bottom. Other sections were in such a crumbled state, that navigating it was ankle twisting to say the least.
View from top of Great Wall
Great Wall
Then we ended up in a section covered with deep layer of dried leaves which made it impossible to tell what was beneath and where I should make my next step so I didn't pitch head first into an abyss. Thomas was again great. He was fearless about the leaves, at one point, jumping into a heap and doing some leaf skiing (my phrase). We chatted for almost the entire time and he filled me in on some of the history of the wall. We even chatted about China and how it was changing for young people. I asked about the newly changed rules around China's one child policy and he gave me his perspective as a young person and how he thought that might affect him. He is not married and does not have a family but it was interesting to hear his views.  
Thomas (who became my personal guide because I was the slowest of the group)
As soon as we emerged from the leaves, the ground finally levelled out after almost 3 1/2 hours and within another half kilometre, we arrived back where we started. I don't know if I felt relieved after my challenging hike or I wanted more but it was over. We piled into the bus and headed off to a little town nearby to have a traditional Chinese village lunch. It was very delicious but not new as I had had most of the dishes in Shenyang already.
Village where we had a traditional lunch

Village where we had a traditional lunch

Village where we had a traditional lunch
Village where we had a traditional lunch (stacks of corn)
Village where we had a traditional lunch
I can now say that I hiked on one of the most famous places on the planet and it was an experience I will never forget. If you ever get a chance to go to Beijing, you have to go to the Great Wall and if you are brave and adventurous, try the Jiankou hike. Be prepared for the un-restored state (that would be a generous description). If you don't like heights or are prone to vertigo, you may not like the precipice that is hundreds of metres below that beckon you to jump as you are standing on a ledge the width of a footstep. You have to be more than moderately fit and if you have never used trekking poles, this is not the time to learn. If you don't have good hiking boots, don't go. PERIOD. It is too dangerous to do without proper footwear. You'll be asking to die. If you are prepared, it'll be an experience of a lifetime.

China: Summer Palace, Beijing

Yesterday was a visit to the Summer Palace but it was not too summery in November. And today was a trip to the Great Wall.
First, the summer palace. I left the hutong early and got directions to the subway which is extremely easy to use and very efficient. I managed to navigate my way to the summer palace with ease. It's located in the North West part of Beijing which has a series of ring roads in the city that deliniate various parts of the city. The summer palace was a bit cool and I speculated as to how pretty it would look in the summer but it was quite nice, nevertheless. Enjoy the pictures including the last few which show a slightly different part of the hutongs - where local Chinese people actually live.