Beijing Diary - Part 5
By Bill Moore
We turned up a gravel road that led deep into a secluded valley in the heart of the mountains north of Beijing. On our left was a boulder-strewn stream with a trickle of water in it. On our right, the mountain rose sharply at least 500 meters, its rocky flanks shrouded in green forest and mists of cloud. In the road ahead of us was a clump of Chinese river birch and a powder blue metal sign that read in English and Chinese, "Take Only Photographs, Leave Only Footprints."
Zhao Shan, my host, said the sign was erected to remind visitors to this quiet place that they were entering a sanctuary of sorts, one that the energetic, American-educated Zhao hoped to someday turn into a unique ecological retreat for Chinese and Westerners, alike.
Like most of China, this valley has been occupied for thousands of years. It is currently home to some 144 families who eke out a meager living as subsistence farmers. Here and there in this 16 square kilometer bowl surrounded by dragon's teeth-like ridges are small communes and individual farm homes make of brick, many taken over the centuries from the Great Wall which surrounds the valley on three sides like a well-worn crown. This is part of the reason, the government of the Peoples Republic of China agreed to lease the care of this valley to Zhao and his partners for the next 70 years in an effort to find a capitalist way to preserve what is one of China's greatest legacies.
We passed a local farmer riding a cart pulled by a sturdy mule and then stopped to get out of the car and survey the surrounding vista. Over the decades and perhaps the centuries, the local people had found ways to utilize virtually every open piece of level ground in the valley. They had build durable stone terraces and even channeled the meandering stream, all in an effort to provide as much agricultural land as possible. Surprisingly, what was growing in the fields wasn't rice or wheat, but ripening American sweet corn, hectares and hectares of it, now parchment dry in the early autumn air. Some of it would be sold for human consumption in local markets, even on street corners in the heart of Beijing, but most of it would be used as fodder for the farmers' hogs and chickens.
Abruptly, we pulled off the road and drove up a gravel driveway onto a small plateau and parked the car just outside of what appeared to be a local commune made up of maybe twenty-four stonewalled, tile-roofed buildings. These were arranged in groups of three and aligned in four rows with a wide slate stone walkway between them. There were few windows on the backside of the structures. Instead, nearly all of the windows had been placed on what turned out to be the south facing side of the complex. This decades-old compound was designed to also be a passive solar-heated community.
Zhao explained that this small commune complex was the nucleus of what he hoped to someday turn into an ecological retreat or resort. He had arranged to have the families that had once occupied the commune reimbursed and relocated, and had spent the last two years restoring and upgrading the facility to Western standards. He had also paid careful attention to maintaining the original look of the compound, adding to its aesthetic appeal with abundant plantings of flowers, shrubs and a huge vegetable garden, all maintained by a caretaker and two young women college graduates with degrees in forestry and ecology who are cataloging the floral of the valley.
While Zhao chatted with the caretaker, Eddie Lai and I ascended a small knoll overlooking the compound. From here I got a bird's eye view of the "Eagle" in the distance, as well as better look at the commune complex. The "Eagle" is a section of the Great Wall which resembles the head and outstretched wings of its namesake.
After about fifteen minutes, we got back into the car and drove further up into the valley, eventually stopping adjacent to an isolated farm house situated on a rise above the road. Between us and it was a verdant vegetable garden. While I recognized the cabbage and sweet corn, many of the other vegetables were new to me.
While I took photos, enthralled by this rare opportunity to be in a place few Western tourists have ever visited, Zhao and his two companions talked among themselves trying to decide where best to commence our hike up to the Great Wall, which was, of course, the purpose of the trip. As a light drizzle began to fall, we climbed in the car, turned around and drove back down the road a short distance. Here we crossed a sturdy bridge and drove up a narrow dirt track carved into the side of the hill. Below us a mule brayed in the stand of dry corn.
The track ended in a cobblestone farm yard that consisted of two residential structures, a corn crib, and a number of farm out-buildings including an tottering old brick barn. A sleek brown mule munched contentedly at the end of its halter. Several pairs of curious eyes stared out of windows at us, appeared to recognize us, and disappear back inside.
It had stopped raining, so we grabbed our bottles of water, slipped on our jackets and started up a well-worn dirt path that wound up and behind the farm. It was on thousands of paths like this that Chinese peasant laborers and soldiers had trudged for the last two thousand years, building, maintaining, guarding, and continually stealing parts of the Great Wall.
Ostensibly, the Great Wall was built to protect China from invaders, but initially, it was built in individual sections to protect Chinese from other Chinese. This accounts for why parts of the wall actually appear to be facing the wrong direction, such as at the Badaling Pass northwest of Beijing. Here the defenses of the wall appear to protect the defenders from attack from Beijing, not from Mongolia.
It was sometime at the beginning of the Qin dynasty two thousand years ago that the emperor or more likely, one of his advisers had the grand notion that all of the individual sections of the wall should be connected into one long defensive barrier. Thus began one of the most costly, bloody military boondoggles of human history.
As we slowly worked our way up a quiet wooded side ravine overgrown in hazelnut and Chinese chestnut, Eddie Lai commented that the Chinese have a saying that for every brick in the wall, there is soul. I would come to appreciate its meaning as the path forked. From this point on it would be a hard, steep climb up a slippery mud trail, with only the infrequent stone stair to ease the way.
Here and there I caught glimpse of the hoof prints of some peasant's mule or donkey which had come up the trail sometime recently to harvest nuts, local slate or ancient bricks from the wall.
It would take over an hour for us to make the grueling ascent to the top of the sawtooth ridge along which the Great Wall ran. High above us we could hear the boisterous laughter and shouting of a small group of Chinese tourists who had paid a local guide to escort them up to the Wall. Zhao explained that while he didn't encourage tourists to come to this part of the Wall, he didn't discourage it either. Along the way, we passed a second sign reminding us to "Take only photographs, leave only footprints."
Just below the top of the ridge, we sat down for a moment to rest and enjoy the incredible view. From here I could see the entire valley stretched out before me. Far below was a distant village, surrounded by green fields. Along the ring of mountains, I could easily trace the serpentine necklace of stone walls and brick watchtowers that runs for some 22 kilometers around the perimeter of the valley.
Zhao, who is a trim, almost-gaunt 47-years of age, said he'd hiked the entire length of the Wall around the valley multiple times. He made it a practice to come up here almost every weekend to relax, hike and clear his lungs of Beijing's foul air. The air was indeed fragrant with the smell of pine and wild flowers.
The last few hundred feet of the climb was the toughest, a nearly vertical ascent that required holding on to small saplings to edge our way to the top. Here and there along the steep forest floor were crumbling chunks to stone and broken pieces of brick, the discarded debris of the Great Wall. Above us the laughter was loud and joyous, though I had no idea what was being said.
Suddenly, I found myself at the stone base of the watchtower Zhao had pointed out to me from the road now far away and far below. I shouted out loud in Chinese, "Bu Dao Chang Cheng Fei Hao Han!" I had for the second time in my life, made the ascent to the Great Wall. Not the easy, tourist way at Badaling, but the way the ancient Chinese builders and defenders of the wall had done for hundreds of generations.
As I climbed up a makeshift stairway of bricks into the crumbling interior of the watchtower, I again marveled at the labor and skill that had gone into constructing this massive edifice in such a nearly inaccessible place, along the thin spin of a razor-sharp ridge. Having just made the climb with nothing but a bottle of water and a small digital camera, I couldn't imagine having to lug heavy fire-baked bricks up to this tower. Each brick probably weights sixty to eighty pounds apiece, and it literally took millions of bricks to build the Wall.
And then there are the massive stones that make up the foundation of the Wall and its numerous towers and store rooms, most spaced only a few hundred meters apart. These stones must weight many tons and I simply can't see how they moved them into position along a ridge that is only a few meters wide, at best in most places. Zhao explained that the stones where quarried in place from the top of the ridge, but still, to have moved and placed these stones must have been man-killing work, and probably was.
I followed Zhao and Eddie up to the top of the tower, where half a dozen Chinese tourists were taking photographs of one another and enjoying the moment. Their guide squatted stoically on one corner of the tower smoking a cigarette, a small geologist's pick axe protruding from his belt. Suspiciously, I wondered what the axe was for.
It is hard to describe in words what I felt standing there gazing out over the ancient land of China, the only Westerner of the group. Photos hardly do the moment justice, words barely convey the emotion. It was a mystical moment as mountain mists drifted across the lush green ridges and the weathered wall snaking out in front and behind me. Only the chatter of the tourists and the waft of their cigarette smoke disturbed the sheer serenity of the moment, but it also added a certain authenticity, as well. I really was in China, atop the Great Wall, surveying an ancient land that stretched 30 miles into the distance all around me.
Between photographs, I commented to Zhao Shan that he must be the luckiest man in China. He smiled his delight. And at that moment, I was certainly the second luckiest.
After spending ten minutes on the tower, we began our descent, this time working our way along a short section of the Wall, down to a lower tower. From there we'd make our way back down a second path. Zhao paused for a moment to show me some of the mortar that held the bricks together. He pointed out the careful ridge left in the mortar that archaeologists have told him is a sign that this section of the Wall was last restored during the Ming Dynasty sometime in the thirteenth or fourteenth century. The gleaming white mortar, made of milo paste and lime, looked nearly new.
Before reaching the lower tower we had to negotiate a very dangerous section of the Wall where the original stairs had been washed out. A makeshift steel ladder had been crudely welded into place to help climbers, but it didn't cover all of the climb down. We had to slowly work our way down by hand clinging to bits of roots and outcroppings of stone. I suggested to Zhao that if he succeeds in opening his eco retreat, he should probably get visitors to sign liability wavers. They certainly shouldn't be permitted to climb and hike the Wall without a qualified guide equipped for emergencies. This is not a "tourist-friendly" stretch of the Wall, especially for over-weight, out-of-shape Westerners. But it is one of the most authentic, unspoiled sections of the Wall anywhere in China. Zhao told me that up until Mao's disastrous "Great Leap Forward", you could still find ancient bronze canon on this segment of the Wall.
In fact, people still find interesting artifacts on the Wall. We found the fragments of a tile end cap that once was part of the roof of the top guard tower. It bore a lion's head instead of the traditional dragon one sees in the Forbidden City. Zhao has also found other interesting items which he is collecting for a museum he hopes to include in the eco resort he plans to build.
After reaching the lower tower, I was sorely tempted to keep going, the next tower and the one after it beckoning me on, but it started to rain steadily and it was beginning to get dark. So we slowly, carefully made our way back down what was quickly becoming a treacherously slick slope. I fell twice on the way down, but with no more damage than a bruised bottom and hurt pride.
It was nearly dusk when we walked back into the farm yard and found the farmer's wife tending an outdoor wood stove in which she was cooking the family rice in a large iron cauldron. Zhao and his associates chatted amicably with the farmer, his wife reluctantly allowing me to take her photo. An elderly man with a long white bread, and wearing one of those dark blue suits made popular by Mao, eyed us suspiciously from inside his doorway.
After a few minutes, we said our good-byes and drove back down the dirt road. I was exhausted and wet, but thrilled at having participated in one of the great adventures of my life. As we drove back out of the valley I promised myself that if I have every have the chance to return to China, I want to spend a week at Zhao's retreat and hike as much of the Wall surrounding the valley as I am able. Like the fabled sirens of Greek myth, I think the Wall will forever call me though I live on the other side of the world from it. Maybe it's the souls of all those countless generations of peasants and soldiers that haunt me, or maybe its just the magic of the Great Wall of China.
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