That time I slept on the Great Wall of China


This is an extract from my book 'Overland', which is about a journey I made from Australia to Switzerland without flying. It describes an ill-fated trip I made to a remote section of the Great Wall while I was waiting for my Mongolian visa to be approved in Beijing.

This story takes place not long after a confrontation with a shirtless Pakistani man in Guangzhou and also references the book's introduction ('and that is where you found me'). You can download the book on Amazon and elsewhere if you want to read about those stories and many more.

I set about preparing to travel to the Great Wall. When I say preparing, I bought a single packet of Oreos and a jar of honey from a supermarket, thinking I’d be able pick up bread or cereal from a town closer to the Wall, then went to sleep.

I woke to another chilly morning, ate some steaming dumplings and caught a bus towards a town called Huairou. There I was aiming to catch a rural bus, number 916, to get to a wild, semi-ruined stretch of the Wall.

Before the bus arrived in Huairou a man got on board. He saw me and motioned.

“Get off, here now.”

I looked around at the other passengers, who were all Chinese.

“I’m going to Huairou,” I said. We were parked outside of an industrial estate.

“Yes, this is it, you must get off.”

I did as instructed. The bus doors closed with a clumsy clunk.

The man and five others immediately swarmed around. “Wall? Wall? Sixty dollar!”

“You’ve got to be kidding,” I swore. I stormed off, swearing at both them and my infallible gullibility.

I had no idea where I was. The road dipped under a bridge ahead of me and industrial estates lay on both sides, all anonymous warehouses and expansive stretches of concrete reflecting a glaring sun.

For lack of a better idea I walked into one of these estates, past stacks of wooden pallets and waiting forklifts, to try and find someone who might help. I passed a red car parked between two warehouses and did a double-take. There was a guy sitting and smoking in the driver’s seat.

I knocked on his window and he looked up with a startled expression - as you would, I suppose, if you were a Chinese man enjoying a quiet smoke in a rural industrial estate somewhere north of Beijing and some sweaty white guy with a big red beard suddenly banged on your car window.

He rolled the window down cautiously.

“Bus 916?” I asked. He shook his head.

“Bus 916?” I mimed a steering wheel with my hands. He obviously didn’t speak any English but it seemed futile to not make any noise at all.

He shook his head again.

I sighed and looked around. A stack of shipping containers sat at the far end of the yard in front of a spiked metal fence. The sun baked down, glaring bright off the concrete. I squinted, rubbed my eyes and looked back at the man. He was holding a pen and a yellow post-it note towards me.

I thanked him and promptly drew a terrible representation of a bus. He stared at it for a time and chuckled. I chuckled too. He turned to face me again and pointed back to the main road, indicating that I should turn right.

I thanked him and walked off, wiping my forehead. I passed under the bridge and came to a large roundabout that was planted with flowers. Then, miraculously, a bus with ‘916’ in big letters on the front drove past me.

“Hallelujah,” I muttered and plodded off in pursuit.

The 916 took me on a circuitous route through increasingly small villages and up steep hillsides covered in dense green forest. The other passengers disembarked one by one until I was left alone with a local couple and the bus driver.

The road narrowed and eventually ended in a small hamlet. The bus came to a juddering stop and we stepped out onto a dirt road, blinking in the bright sunshine. The Wall was visible, running along a high ridge to the south and continuing around the top of the valley before disappearing. The bus driver lit a cigarette while the couple walked up the road. There was nobody else there, except one old man who stared at me for a time before ambling slowly off. A donkey was tethered to a nearby house.

I needed to buy some water and food but the only store I could find was dark and locked. There was also a building that almost looked like a small hotel. I walked through the front door and into a white courtyard surrounded by doors. There was a large pallet of water bottles wrapped in plastic just nearby.

“Hello?” I called. There was no response. A small ginger cat skittered from one corner to another, where it sat and watched me warily.

“Hello?” I called again.

One of the doors opened and a bleary-eyed woman walked out. She rubbed her eyes and looked at me wordlessly.

“Ni hao,” I said, smiling. I pointed at the water bottles. “Two?” I held up two fingers.

She nodded and took the money I offered.

“Food?” I asked.

She shook her head.

“Food anywhere?” I asked, pointing out the door.

She shook her head again, so I thanked her and stepped back outside. The driver sent up one last blue puff of smoke up towards a cloudless sky then started his engine and drove off. The donkey stood and watched me.

I gave up on finding any more food and set off on a dirt track heading towards the Wall, armed with two litres of water, ten Oreos and about 150 millilitres of honey in a small glass jar.

The path took me through a quiet forest for half an hour, through shaded wooden hallways and up steep riverbanks woven with knobbled tree roots, before it climbed suddenly upwards to a partially collapsed section of the Wall. I climbed to the top, turned left and started walking.

The walk towards the wall.

New friends of mine.

The Great Wall of China is another mind-blowing sight. It’s one thing to read about it, like you are now, and another to see a line of rock five metres thick and ten metres high snaking along a steep, craggy mountain range from one horizon to the other. I could picture the Emperor standing down in the hamlet and saying, “I want a wall built on that mountain!” and all the peasants looking at each other thinking “oh for Pete’s sake.”

The Wall turned out to be more of a climb than a walk. This section was unrestored, left crumbling by the centuries and at many points overgrown with trees. It ran straight up and down the steep contours of the narrow, knife-like ridgeline, taking no shortcuts to avoid the steepest routes. I often found myself climbing vertically up rock faces, my pack pulling backwards at my shoulders and willing me to fall backwards.

The hills were steep teeth of rock, jagged shards that fell away occasionally to reveal sheer cliffs dropping down to the valley floor below. Watchtowers lay every few hundred metres on the peaks of the ridge – dark, forbidding forts with bricked up archways and black crevices.

In the mid-afternoon the Wall dipped into a saddle between two peaks and disappeared. I assumed it had been buried under the encroaching forest. A dirt path led into the trees for a short distance before it disappeared into dark square hole in the ground.

Steep going.

I dropped my pack into the hole, jumped after it and found myself in a dimly lit stone passageway. A large cat skittered out of an unseen corner and I jumped backwards with a curse, then lifted my pack again and trudged on.

As the sun started to drop I climbed up the steep flank of a hill and found a watchtower on the crest. The entrance to the watchtower was over two metres high, so a makeshift wooden ladder was propped up against the stone wall underneath. It was the only way up and was guarded by a middle-aged Chinese woman in a yellow jacket, exactly like a storybook troll guarding a bridge. She had a pudgy face, a nose that looked well-picked and a hanging gut. She watched me approach silently.

I went to use the ladder and she stuck out a hand.

“Five yuan.”

I looked at her. “What?”

“Five yuan,” she repeated, gesturing at the ladder. She then pointed at a small bag of beer cans. “Twenty yuan.”

“I don’t have five yuan.” I dug out my remaining two yuan from my pocket. “This is all I’ve got.”

She shook her head. “Five yuan.”

Frustration took over. “Do you find it difficult to be a troll, or is it something that comes naturally?” I asked. She didn’t speak English.

I showed her my empty pockets but Chinese Shrek refused to budge. I laughed aloud at how stupid this was. Here we both were, alone on a mountain and hours from anywhere with darkness setting in and she was going to charge me five yuan to use a wooden ladder.

There was no way I could go back and climb down some of those cliff faces in the dark. There was nothing for it but to push through. I moved to the ladder but she jabbered something and sat on the first rung, blocking the way.

I threw my pack up through the doorway, then grabbed the ledge to climb up the hard way. She made no move to stop me. After pulling myself up a little bit I decided this whole thing was a bloody joke and swung myself onto the ladder behind her. She stood and yelled, but it was too late.

I found a watchtower further on, the highest I could see and decided to use it as a shelter for the night. I climbed to the top to see the view. Forested valleys ran away south with small villages running along their floors. One of these, I’d soon discover, was our little village of Pearl Springs. To the north lay nothing but sharp hills carpeted in green. The air was still smoggy, the horizon shrouded by a blue haze.

The tower I’d chosen was still largely intact, although a wall or two had fallen in. It had an ominous, dark feel and murmured with a voice of its own in the constant gusts of wind. I looked back over all the kilometres of Wall stretching away in both directions. Who was the Emperor so afraid of?

My stomach began rumbling. I drank the honey straight out of the jar and then spent a while with my mouth open around the rim and my head tilted back trying to get every last drop like a malnourished bear. I then spent some time reflecting on the quality of my decision-making, then moved onto the main meal - eight Oreos, rationed to one every ten minutes to make it seem like a real feast. I ate the last two Oreos fifteen minutes later for dessert.

I left the watchtower once darkness fell and nestled in against the battlements on the Wall to sleep. For all the mood and beauty of the place, however, it was not particularly practical. All the air moving up the side of the mountain rushed over the Wall in a constant roar of cold wind. It was like sleeping in an Arctic wind tunnel.

After a fitful few hours trying to sleep with my back pressed against the battlements, I moved back into the watchtower in complete darkness. The only sheltered spot inside was on the rubble of a collapsed wall. I contorted myself into position and closed my eyes, trying to ignore the stones pressing into my ribs and the moans and shrieks echoing in the solid darkness. And that is where you found me, shivering in the aching cold.

I woke early the next morning to more wind, drizzling rain and a temperature of about five degrees Celsius. I may as well have been naked for all the warmth my thin raincoat provided. I shivered uncontrollably, packed my bag with numb, stubby fingers and found myself, in a circular sort of way, longing to touch the warm torso of a Pakistani man.

I started off walking to warm myself up. The wall was treacherous in the rain. I took this opportunity to test the impact resistance of the stone a few times with my buttcheeks: I’m pleased to report that even after all these years, it’s really very solid.

Eventually I arrived at a restored section of wall and an impassable watchtower. A path led down a crumbled section and onto a forest track that followed the Wall for a time before striking off downhill.

After another hour I finally found my way down the other side of the mountain and passed through several orchards to arrive in the quiet, peaceful village of Pearl Springs. I was getting understandably strange looks from the few villagers up and about.

“Huairou?” I asked a concerned-looking woman pushing a pram along the road.

She recoiled at the sight of me and hurriedly gestured towards a road through an orchard.

I thanked her and followed the small country lane through well-kept groves of walnut trees and small hamlets until I finally arrived at a major tourist area with chairlifts ferrying people up to the Wall. I bought a Snickers bar and some pot noodles from a food stall, which was all I could afford and sat at the ticket area clutching the steaming cup. People glanced twice at me as they walked past. There was honey in my beard, my pack was soaking wet, I was in nothing but shorts and a raincoat on a cold, wet day and my shoes were stained red with blood.

I walked back to a bus stop on the main road. A small, beat-up car soon pulled over. An elderly man sat in the driver’s seat.

“Huairou?” I asked when he rolled down the window. He nodded and beckoned to get in. He drove me back to the bus stop. I returned to Beijing and feasted on hot, steamy dumplings until I could eat no more.

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