A few days ago, we arrived back in Beijing to enjoy more sights in and around the city before we fly home. A few things were on our tentative list to do including visiting the Great Wall for a second time. Of the 600km of constructed wall, there are many different sections that can withstand the footsteps of tourists (some sections stronger and in better condition than others). About three weeks ago we joined a massive tour group, which in turn joined an onslaught of other tour groups, and were herded off to the Mutianyu section. This time around, we were looking for different experience; one with fewer people so that we were able to see the Wall in all its glory rather than intermittent views of bricks and stone between camera-toting tourists, vendors selling plastic stuff and ice cream, screaming children and people gasping for air as they climbed the steep stairs to each watchtower.
At our hostel, we learned of a tour to a quieter, lesser known section of the Great Wall called the “Secret Wall”. Just the name alone was intriguing, but fhe promise of few, if any, other tourists had us hooked. Upon further investigation, we discovered that there was an overnight option for the tour. All we needed was to find two other like-minded indivduals and the tents set up ON the wall would be our accommodations for a night! We posted a plea in the hostel, with our fingers crossed that a pair of tourists would join us, but a day passed without any interest. The evening however told a different story: a woman with a contact at another hostel called to inquire if there was any interest there, and there was indeed a couple wishing to go for the same night as us but needed two more people to make it happen! We booked the trip immediately.
The next day, the van picked us up and we were on our way back to the Great Wall with two sisters, also from Toronto but currently living in Hong Kong. Given the fact that China was preparing for their Labor Day holiday on May 1st, there were lots of tourists and the city and lots of traffic on the road. Our driver was in quite the rush, weaving in and out through the cars on the road, avoiding the potholes and, at times, running a red light or two.
As we approached our destinaton, it started to rain and touts approached our moving vehicle trying to sell us rain ponchos. The weather forecast had called for rain that morning but then clearing skies by the afternoon. That was certainly not our reality. We arrived at the Wall with it cloudy and drizzling with no sign of clearing. We had an initial hike (seemed like a never-ending climbe to the watchtower where our tent would be pitched), had dinner and retired to our tent shortly after the hidden sun set below the horizon.
The wind picked up and loudly rustled the tent’s flimsy walls, but somehow we remained well sheltered and warm. We fell asleep just past 8pm with the hope that the howling wind would blow away the clouds, and we would awaken early the next morning to a clear sky.
Waking up by the alarm of our internal clock at 3:19am, we dressed and prepared for what we knew would be a gruelling climb up the stone steps. Our goal was at least watchtower #3, where the section of recently rebuilt all ends, and the time-ruined Secret Wall begins. The darkness at that time of morning was thick, and our loaned flashlight simply lit a path a few meters in front of us. We couldn’t see stars, but we refused to believe that the sky was completely clouded over.
We’ve all heard the saying that every journey begins with a single step. That phrase definitely helped us get started, but our mantra on the way up to that third watchtower was most certainly “one step at a time” as we tackled the steep incline. We took each step in a quarter note of 4/4 time and rested for the remaining time of the bar.
Slowly but surely, we made it and even before the scheduled sunrise at 5:19am! We took well-deserved rest at that watchtower #3, listening to the array of bird calls singing all around us as the sky began to brighten. What made the morning better was our knowledge that we, along with our two fellow group members, were the ONLY people on the Great Wall!
As the sun approached from below the horizon in the east, there was enough light see that among us, in the mountains flanking the wall, was nothing but fog. The sky was cloudy and a slight disappoint set in with the realization that there would be no colorful sunrise for us. The fog, however, did bring us a different experience that will remain memorable for the rest of our lives: a thick, white cloud rolling in from the north like an ocean wave splashing up the mountain sides and slowly drenching the wall section below. A motionless picture wouldn’t do the action justice, so we simply sat, as bundled up as possible in the cold wind, and enjoyed the powerful view.
Our hike back down was beautiful, and thankfully easier as we no longer had to battle gravity nor darkness. The simple acts of brushing our teeth, going to the bathroom and sleeping on the hard stone surface were all catapulted to “awesome” status as we were able to do it “on the wall”.