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Clinging to a Cliff Under the Great Wall

After the debacle of the Chinese camping ground that really wasn’t, we had three major problems:

1. No water left and nowhere to fill up

2. Nearly two weeks’ worth of dirty washing – for four people, that’s a lot of unclean clothes

3. The area surrounding the campsite included a magnificent stretch of the Great Wall (known as Huangyaguan – yellow cliff mountain pass), a river, some caves, and extraordinary beauty. We weren’t ready to leave and had planned on staying several days.

I can’t say just how helpful Mr Googlemaps has been on this trip, and that’s how we found the Dongshan (East Mountain) Hotel, perched high up on a precipitously steep hillside underneath the Great Wall itself.

The winding switchback road all the way to the top proved a huge effort for the van, but apparently practically none for the punchy little two-stroke engines of the trayback tricycles laden with peaches overtaking us on the steeper sections. Peach and apricot trees heavy with fruit seemed to be the only thing holding the mountain together, terraced in climbing rows.
The Dongshan Hotel, the van, and yes, our washing
The Hotel is located through the entrance gates to this section of the Great Wall, so if you haven’t already purchased a ticket you’ll need to buy one in order to stay there.

Calling the Dongshan a hotel may have stretched the truth slightly – the hotel reception, in a temporary tin shed in the car park, apparently also serves as the local police station. Inside, two policemen sitting on a vinyl sofa and smoking heavily, are interrogating a skinny male suspect about a robbery of something yellow. A car? A handbag? A pair of sneakers? Through the thick local dialect it’s about all I can make out. Still, he doesn’t look that worried, leaning back languidly on the opposite sofa and tapping the ash from his cigarette into a plastic ashtray. It’s all very Columbo, circa 1974.

The check in procedure involves a lot of carbon paper and forms in triplicate (“Make sure you use the correct form for foreign guests!” barks one of the police officers to the receptionist, before he goes straight back into questioning) and then we were shown to our rooms.

The long low building of the hotel is guarded by a pair of terracotta warriors with swords, just to ward off…something or other. The eaves are painted with scenes of the mountains and the wall, in local traditional style and through the flycreen curtained front door are eight rooms in all, identically furnished with three closely spaced single beds, a  television, a kettle, and a tiled bathroom with cold running water and a tank you can plug in to heat water. If you touch the edge of the tank by mistake it gives you a small electric shock, and this initially worried me quite a deal, but as long as you touch only the outlet hose of the tank you’re fine. And we all really, really wanted hot showers.
The real treat of the Dongshan is the location, and the ability to walk along the wall at any time during your stay – dawn, dusk or midnight if the moon is full and the mood takes you.

Huangyaguan is a stunningly beautiful section of the Great Wall with a history of more than 1400 years – the wall unscrolls down mountain cliffs on both sides of a deep river chasm, meeting in the middle over a bridge like ‘two dragons drinking from a stream’. It’s unforgettable in scale and magnificence and I hope you can get there to see it someday. 






The newly restored section of the wall meets the ‘old wall’ made from the local gold-coloured granite high up on the western wall.

Huangyaguan (Yellow Cliff Mountain Pass) Great Wall
Northern Tianjin Province
The Wall is accessible in two sections, the popular and easy to get to Western Wall where tour buses arrive from Beijing or Tianjin (both around three hours), and the less accessible but equally stunning Eastern Wall which you can get to via minivan, horseback or three-wheel tricycle, all available in the Western Wall carpark.
Adults 65 yuan
Children 35 yuan
Children under 1.2m free
Parking 10 yuan
Dongshan Hotel

Co-ordinates Lat 40.245314°  Long 117.454871°
All rooms are triples with their own bathroom but rates depend on the number of occupants. Meals not included.
Singles 100yuan/night
Doubles 200yuan/night
Triples 300yuan/night
Discounts available.
There is no food available at the top of the mountain but the Dongshan is happy to open their restaurant – overlooking a lotus pond – for guests. Dinner for four people including a variety of local dishes and soup around 100 yuan in total.

Living in the Shadow of the Great Wall

There’s nothing less than awesome about the Great Wall. Its size, its scale, its sheer magnificent impressiveness. I love the way the wall ribbons over the crest of the hills, anchored at intervals by stout square signal towers, and winds into the distance. You could walk along it forever and never tire of the view. 
The last time I saw the wall was at the end of a long winter, the trees bare and the ground still dry and barren. Not a leaf of green broke through the pale wintery landscape, but here and there fragile white peach blossoms were beginning to show, and as we walked through the orchards it began to snow softly. It was quite magical.
Last weekend I visited for the second time, just as a heatwave gripped Beijing. The temperature soared to forty degrees and Beijing’s sidewalks shimmered with radiating heat as tourists, red-faced and sweating, stood fanning themselves with the free hotel pamphlets given out by fast-moving hotel touts. Men with boxes of icypoles roved through the crowds at Tianamen Square, calling their wares “Iced treats! One kuai! One kuai! One kuai!” Moving even short distances led to rivers of sweat and mountains of bad temper. I couldn’t wait to get out of the city and up into the hills, and the Wall.
Driving from Beijing north to the village of Mutianyu the most noticeable difference was the blanket of green. Full birch trees lined the road and by tiny rivers stands of weeping willow drooped green to the ground. Fruit orchards spread in every direction, the road punctuated by umbrella-covered stalls selling gold peaches, ruby plums, garnet cherries and plump orange apricots laid out in appealing baskets and wooden boxes. I’d entered a brilliant cornucopia of fertile verdant farmland.
Then the Wall. It rises above the village of Mutianyu, now one of the most popular sites from which to visit the wall, and a short walk brings you to the chairlifts lifting you effortlessly and conveniently up onto the wall itself. In the height of summer the hillsides are covered in a thick foliage which creeps right up to the wall itself, obscuring parts of it from view.
I love that Great Wall. The broad, hot stone path along the top. The cool, dark sanctuary of the heavy-stoned signal towers. That feeling of living history. The human sacrfice endured to build it. All that it symbolises, both good and bad. I culd walk along it for days, sleep on it under the stars, and marvel at it endlessly.
But the oppressive and intense heat and the crowds finally overcame my desire to hang out on top of the Wall all afternoon, so we came down to stay overnight in the neighbouring village of Bei Gou. 
Bei Gou sits below Signal Tower Number Eighteen on the Mutianyu stretch of the Wall. At that point the green hills give way to sheer-sided rocky mountains with the Wall gripping improbably to the highest jagged edge of the ridge. On the north side of the signal tower the steep treeless slope broadens out just below the tree line into the green valley housing Bei Gou.
The hills above the village are covered with stands of chestnut trees bursting with bunches of pale yellow pipecleaner flowers on the tips of their branches. The village’s homes number less than fifty, built with local stone and red brick, and roofed in traditional curved black terracotta tiles. The low, simple houses face south to catch the winter sun and are fronted by fertile vegetable gardens full of corn and beans, shaded by peach and apricot trees.
That night I fell asleep to the sound of crickets, and dogs barking in the next valley, and the sweet warm smell of the end of a hot day. Early next morning I took a walk through the village. I wondered what it must be like to live always under the shadow of that iconic wall, to see it high on the hill each day, and to be just far enough away from the main tourist drag to have to continue farming for a living. It must be like living in the shadows in more ways than one.
At the top of the village a big old gnarled walnut tree, bursting with green leaf and already laden with the smooth round green pods in which the walnuts are growing, shades the path. I stopped to talk to a farmer resting under its branches who told me many of the young people have left the village for work elsewhere, and only old people and very small children remain. This seems true as I wander further through the village – there is a school without children, and only a few elderly people sitting near the lone store playing cards and chatting. I ask the farmer if he ever makes the climb up to the signal tower. “What? No, it’s too far, more than an hour’s hard uphill walk, and what for?”

I walk from the walnut tree down to the store, a delightfully ramshackle affair with a curtain for a door and a haphazard system of stock display. Packets of crackers spill from boxes on the floor and bottles of shampoo line up next to the soy sauce and vinegar. When I ask for water the owner, a woman in her sixties, tells me to take a bottle out of the chest freezer near the door. Anticipating a long cold drink I open the lid to find the freezer hasn’t been turned on and the water is the same temperature as the jars of blackbean paste it sits amongst. Warm.
Outside, several card games are being intensely fought and those who aren’t playing are watching and commenting on every move. They’re all pretty lively for a bunch of elderly farmers, but I suddenly realize that other than my own children I’m the youngest person in the village by a long way. Where are all the young people, and the children? 
I hope they’re all at work, or perhaps at school in a bigger town nearby. Perhaps. Or perhaps the farmer was right and Bei Gou, like so many villages in rural China, has been bled of its young folk, seeking fortune in the cities. Still, those remaining seem to be having a terrific time gossiping and playing.

I stopped to chat to this lovely eighty year old, who was just sending a text message to a friend. Perhaps to invite her down to the store for a game of cards?
Not wanting to be overly nostalgic about the tough life that farming offers, there are some encouraging signs that Bei Gou’s prospects are on the rise. The Schoolhouse at Mutianyu has restored several homes for holiday rentals, and has expanded their Brickyard Inn at the entrance to the village. The village roads look recently tarred, and there is fresh construction happening here and there. So perhaps the shadow of the Great Wall will eventually shorten, and the young people will return.

Peach Blossom Snow

If it should snow in springtime in China, particularly after the fruit trees have begun blossoming, it is known as a ‘peach blossom snow’. It’s not very common, but so far this Spring there have already been a few occurrences in China’s north.
We had taken an afternoon walk through the Mutianyu orchards and chestnut groves to the neighbouring village of Yingbeigou, using Eloise Walter and Emily Spear’s descriptive and lovely “Walking Guide to Mutianyu” (they have it for sale at The Schoolhouse). I wish all walking guides were more like this one – it fits perfectly in a pocket, it’s well written and has just enough detail to keep the walk interesting without feeling like you’re on a guided tour. 
On the way home, winding back through the chestnuts, it began to rain, cold and hard, and the wind picked up its pace. Looking up. we could see a cloud descending rapidly over the mountaintops. We ran! But before we could find cover the rain became soft flurries of peach blossom snow. It didn’t settle for long but it looked so beautiful! 

The Schoolhouse at Mutianyu

We stayed in Mutianyu at a wonderful village house, number 101, run by The Schoolhouse  at Mutianyu. 
The Schoolhouse is like a poster child for sustainable eco-tourism – they have helped turn the village into a destination in its own right with a restaurant, lodgings, a glass-blowing studio, community projects, and a series of traditional village houses which have been carefully restored to protect the original footprint, but now have energy-saving bonuses like double-glazing and under-floor heating.

Outside, village life goes on as usual amidst groves of gnarled chestnut trees and orchards of peach and apricot. Little pathways wind up and down over the hillsides and between the stone houses. Firewood is collected, gardens are tended and children take the bus to school. Higher up the hillsides still, the Great Wall watches silently and protectively over the village, as it has always done.

Great Outfit for the Great Wall

Chinese women sometimes have a knack for wearing the most incredibly impractical outfits.  Every time I have been on top of a mountain in China, there is always someone in skyscraper heels, wobbling over uneven paths and being steadied by the hand of a boyfriend, girlfriend or husband in more sensible shoes. The outfit usually also involves at least one piece of completely weather-inappropriate attire – think sable-trimmed coat in summer, or sparkly miniskirt in winter. Why be practical when you can be outrageous?
(To be completely fair, I have my own wardrobe full of impractical outfits, and shoes – how I love them. But I never wear them to climb a mountain.)

The Great Wall at Mutianyu

Wow. The Great Wall of China may not be visible from space (that’s a myth, apparently) but it is still bloody amazing. We arrived in Beijing last night to miserable rain and dark grey skies. After leaving Shanghai in the throes of spring and arriving north in the depths of winter, I was ill-disposed towards the city. We headed instead to the little village of Mutianyu, for two nights by the foot of the Great Wall, arriving just on dusk to lovely old houses and steep winding streets, but unable to make out  the wall through the heavy rain.
This morning, though, we woke to glorious sunshine and clear blue skies, with that unmistakeable silhouette of the wall visible far above us.

The climb from the village passes through about a thousand roadside stalls selling cold water, cold beer, pyjamas, souvenirs and walking sticks. Should you need a lace parasol, they have those too. Further up the hill stretch rows of ladies calling out to offer you a taste of their dried fruits and candied walnuts. 
Just before the Best Great Wall Cable Car entrance a ming dynasty guard in fully authentic plastic helmet was playing Chinese chess (xiang qi) with a worried guy in a suit. 

I opted against the cable car, even though it was the Best, and the chair lift (no such impressive title for it), and walked up instead, a steep but not impossible climb. The view from the top is all the more impressive when you have had to puff and pant your way uphill on foot. And what a view – rugged mountain ranges stretch away both north and south of the wall. The steep brown hillside is dotted with the white puffs of the first peach blossoms of spring, a delicate contrast to the solidness of the wall itself stretching like a great stone ribbon unfurled to the horizon. Walking along the top, through the gatehouses and up and down the stone pathways, I am struck by the wall’s absolute magnificence. Don’t ever pass up a chance to see it. Ever.

I’m trialling a new larger size photo format. Let me know if you have problems downloading them.