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Climbing the Great Wall in something like a hurricane.


This piece, like all 1998 travelogues was written about a month after I visited and having not been back since, I can only assume that the place is probably a bit more touristy than it was then, but I still hear favorable reports about it. I think the biggest change in Great Wall visiting is that more places are available to tourists now, so Simatai doesn't necessarily qualify as such a wild Wall experiences. Still, Badaling it isn't. From a practical standpoint, my understanding is that transportation to and from Simatai has not changed much. This trip, still very early in my China-travel career, remains one of my most memorable China experiences with the weather having a lot to do with it, and despite the horrendous storm, it's an experience I wouldn't trade for anything.

April 23, 1998

Most people see the Great Wall at Badaling. About 70 kilometers northwest of the city it's the most popular and accessible destination. The wall is fully restored with guardrails, souvenir stands, restaurants, cable cars, viewing telescopes, and more souvenirs. I was not going to Badaling. The next choice is Mutianyu about 90 kilometers north of the city. It too, is well developed like Badaling but apparently not quite to the same extreme. I was not going to Mutianyu, either. The next choice is Simatai. Simatai is about 130 kilometers northeast of Beijing. Only a small section of wall has been restored. The rest is rubble. There is a section with a seventy-degree incline, described as dangerous under any weather condition. There are no guardrails and on several sections of trail there's a straight drop-off of several hundred meters. Only a few restaurants and souvenir stands line the parking lot. There is a recently constructed cable car that goes halfway up the wall, but they don't always use it. Simatai is where I was going. I was not going to see the wall at some place where somebody follows me around trying to sell me a stuffed panda on a stick.

At the time I had roughly three choices as to how to go to Simatai. I could try to get on an organized tour, which only goes if they have enough people and the weather forecast is favorable. The weather forecast for the next day was cold, rain, and heavy winds. No tour. The second option is to take the bus. A bus to Simatai leaves Dongzhimen bus station in northeast Beijing at seven a.m. and supposedly returns through Simatai at three p.m. I'd have had to be up by five a.m. to make the bus, and I didn't exactly trust the bus system to be there in the afternoon to bring me back to Beijing. The final option is to hire a taxi for the day. Apparently this is, or at least in 1998, was, despite the distance, a fairly common option. I had read that 400 yuan (about $50 US) would be the going rate.

When I exited Tiantan Park in Beijing, planning to get to Simatai the following day, there was the expected mass of cabs. "Taxi!" they all shout at me. "Why not?" I think. There are different levels of taxis ranging from the one yuan per kilometer microbus to two yuan per kilometer for a nice comfortable sedan, plus they charge off waiting time. Doing the math of one yuan per kilometer and factoring in the four hours or so the guy was going to sit at Simatai waiting while I climbed on some old rocks, 400 yuan is a reasonable price. But still, if I was going for 400 yuan it was likely to be in a microbus.

I saw one in the parking lot, walked up to him and asked if he spoke any English. No such luck, but another driver did. He beckoned me to his car trying to get me in it. It was the expensive two yuan per kilometer variety. "No, no, no want taxi now," I protested. "I need to ask him question. Your car too expensive. Tomorrow, I want to go to Simatai." My question generated some excitement, but it seemed very clear to me that I was not proposing anything unusual, only profitable. It was also apparent, that yes, the cheapest option would be with the microbus driver and not one of the cars. After some discussion between the two drivers the English speaking one responded:
"He do it for six hundred."
"Three hundred," I counter.
"Five hundred," he says without looking at the guy who was going to be the actual driver.
"Three-hundred fifty," I respond.
He looks at the driver, "He go four hundred fifty."
"Four hundred," I answer.
He tries again, "I think four hundred fifty."
"Four hundred," I repeat. This time I look off towards the street acting like I'm ready to leave.
They talk back and forth briefly, then he answers, "Okay, he go Simatai four hundred yuan."

The driver then gave me a free ride back to my hotel and was clearly excited at the prospect of a run to Simatai. We agreed he would meet me at my hotel the following morning at eight a.m. He was about my age and came across as a likeable guy, but other than saying "okay" every thirty seconds, he spoke no English, meaning conversation would have to be through phrasebook.

My driver dutifully showed up right at eight o'clock, the morning of April 23. It was cold, about 55 Yankee degrees, windy, and absolutely pouring rain. That morning I had eaten a rare and unintentional breakfast. Most days I only drink coffee in the morning. As my hotel did not charge extra for room service, which was just as well, the restaurant prices were exorbitant enough, I attempted to have coffee brought up to my room. This was not easy, the person on the other end of the phone did not speak English. It took about five minutes on the phone to place what I thought was an order for coffee to be delivered to my room. Now I must say the young woman on the other end of the phone was very kind and patient and on several occasions both of us were laughing over this whole silly affair. Fifteen minutes later there's a knock on my door and there, the same young woman is standing with a complete "American Breakfast" of eggs, ham, bread, and coffee. It was all I could do to keep from laughing. I didn't even think twice about arguing over the mistake, I gladly accepted and paid for the breakfast as if it was what I wanted all along. Tasted pretty good, too.

Beijing traffic is about what you'd expect in any developed city of ten million people, toss in the pouring rain and you can imagine it took us awhile to get out of the city. Though my hotel was more or less centrally located, we needed to get around to the northeast side of town. We eventually reached the highway and started for the countryside which I could see none of. The rain was coming down in torrents and the passenger side windshield wiper didn't work. This was of no consequence to my driver who deftly weaved his microbus in and out of traffic balanced precariously on tiny tires in a tiny van whose center of gravity was probably the roof. Weaving his van in and out of traffic caused additional concern as his was about the slowest moving motorized vehicle on the road. I decided never to look behind me when he went to pass a pedicab, cart, or other rare form of vehicle moving slower than us. Hearing the truck horns was scary enough.

I planned ahead. I brought a map. We needed it. Apparently it was this driver's first trip to Simatai. We got a bit lost once when we took a wrong turn off a traffic circle and wound up in the middle of Huairou, a medium-sized town about sixty kilometers from Beijing. My driver had to ask three different people for directions as each person told him something entirely different. On the return my driver nearly made the same wrong turn at the same traffic circle but I caught him in time.

It's a cliche, but we westerners always find cause to complain about the driving skills of Asians. On this trip, we saw two accidents, one of which involved a small bus and a police car. I felt real sorry for the bus driver as I had read that bus drivers can be imprisoned for causing an accident. After about two hours of driving things turned very rural. It was still pouring rain so I only saw what was along the roadside: small houses, little villages, farms. It was very bucolic. The road was rather hilly so I assumed we were probably surrounded by mountains. Drivers in China don't think about important things like whether you can see over the hill when you pass someone. One time we came over a hill only to be face to face with a ten-wheel truck. We barely avoided being flattened and still nearly ended up in a ditch. My driver took to cursing and swearing and shaking his fist. I learned a new Chinese word 'shenjingbing' (crazy). But it was all the more ironic that my driver got so emotional over it, on the return trip he nearly ran another vehicle off the road by doing the same thing. My driver didn't curse and swear that time.

Within about ten kilometers of the entrance to the Great Wall the sky cleared a little bit. The rain settled into a slight drizzle and the cloud ceiling raised to about three thousand feet revealing mountains. Most of the peaks were still in the clouds as elevations generally ranged from 2000 up to about 5000 feet. In a few spots I could see the wall meandering its way along the ridge.

We arrived to a nearly deserted parking lot. There was another taxi from Beijing and about two cars. My driver was going to stay in the van and sleep. I got out and was hit with a cold blast of wind. If it was 55 Yankee degrees in Beijing it was probably 45 to 50 up here. Although the rain had let up it was still very windy. I could see the clouds being pushed very rapidly across the mountaintops above.

Next to the parking lot was a line of restaurants and souvenir shops. All the proprietors were standing at their entrances beckoning me to come in. One woman came running up to me, "over there sir, you buy ticket over there." So I walked 'over there', which was at the far end of the souvenir shops and restaurants. I thought this rather ingenious as you pretty much had to walk past them all to get from the ticket booth back to the entrance. I got to the ticket booth but no one was there to sell me a ticket. "Whatever," I said to myself and returned to the gate at the other end. I was getting cold already. I had on a t-shirt and a thin rain jacket. I came to China with a sweater. The sweater could have proven very useful now, except for the minor fact that it was back in my Beijing hotel room keeping my socks and underwear warm. At the end of the line of shops one very astute vendor called out to me, "Sir, very cold on mountain, you buy sweatshirt, okay?" I didn't want to buy a sweatshirt, but I was cold. I looked up at the mountain, dark clouds were racing across the peaks. If it's 45 to 50 degrees here, it's what? 40 up there? Wind, rain. What am I, stupid?
"Okay, I'll look."

I was met with a generous assortment of sweatshirts with such innovative sayings as 'I climbed the Great Wall'.
"How much?"
"Nice sweatshirt, 180 yuan."
That's $22.50 US. Ouch. Though a negotiable price it was still a really high starting point. Given the weather that day, and my obvious lack of preparedness, I wasn't going to get a particular good deal. But hypothermia or not, I was not going to pay 180 yuan for a sweatshirt that said 'I climbed the Great Wall'.
"Have anything else?"

She produced a large thick sweatshirt that had the Great Wall and a bunch of Chinese characters on it. I have no idea what it said, probably something like 'I climbed the Great Wall and paid 180 yuan for this sweatshirt so please sell me more things, I'm stupid, I'll buy anything. I bought this sweatshirt, didn't I?' I got her down to 120 yuan ($15 US) which was still entirely too much for a sweatshirt I really didn't want, but as it turned out, it probably saved me from getting very sick.

I walked up to the gate and having no ticket I just walked right through. Bad idea. Two security officers came running and quickly detained me, followed by an instant crowd of four other local people. Using my phrasebook, and a little help from one spectator who spoke a little English - like a hundred words, I tried explaining to the officers I had no ticket because there was nobody to sell me a ticket. One of the officers said, through my new de facto translator, that "it was too late, come back tomorrow."

"Too late? It was eleven f#$king o'clock in the morning!!" I conveyed to them in slightly more polite terms that this was not an acceptable excuse. I just came 130 kilometers from Beijing and you are either going to let me in for free or locate your ticket seller, and locate him or her now. I was not going to have some lazy civil servant tell me that eleven o'clock in the morning was 'too late' and I should come back earlier on another day. Fortunately a third officer showed up, listened to all of this and did indeed agree that I was being fed a bunch of nonsense. The ticket seller had only gone to eat her lunch. She was promptly located, dragged from her meal and forced to come down and sell me the proper ticket.

Once released and free to climb the wall, I attracted an entourage of three local women of about 35 to 40 years old. I assumed they acted as unofficial 'guides' and if I let them tag along I'd probably have to give them each five yuan or something at the end. The trail follows a river for maybe a kilometer before coming to the bottom of the wall. The wall extends up the mountain on both sides of the river. I climbed up on the right side. There are sixteen different towers along the wall. I could only see about nine of them before the wall disappeared into the clouds. The steepest, most treacherous inclines are at the very top.

About halfway down the path it started to rain, a light drizzle that within two minutes turned into a monsoon. I sprinted to the shelter of the bottom tower and set to rearrange my belongings. I secured my daypack under my raincoat, tied the hood around my head and wondered how in the world I'd ever manage photographs. The women were very helpful as I reorganized myself so I decided I would let them tag along and I'd pay them something at the end for their efforts if they didn't turn out to make a nuisance of themselves. They were actually quite helpful and made it much more possible to take photographs in this Mongolian Monsoon. This was not a casual rainstorm, this was a deluge. It seemed like one of those yellow wind things that scream into Beijing every spring but in this case with rain instead of dust.

The bottom section of the wall has been restored so it looks much like what is often shown in pictures. After the second or third tower the restoration stops. Some sections could be walked upon, others required walking along adjacent footpaths, and one section had to be avoided entirely. We walked away from the wall, and then zig-zagged back up a number of switchbacks until rejoining the wall.

Climbing the lower section, I encountered the only other tourist there that day. A solo American, a male about my age, was on his way down with two local women following him. We laughed at our respective states of lunacy that put us on the wall under these weather conditions. I was not to see another human being on the wall that day. There was no improvement in the weather as we climbed higher, if anything it got worse. With every few hundred feet the air felt just a little colder and the rain stung just a little harder. I guessed the winds were holding steady in the 25 to 30 mph range, with gusts exceeding 40 mph. There were several times I had to stop and grab a rock to maintain balance. I was also getting very wet, as the winds coming across the mountain were so strong umbrellas were rendered useless.

But despite this horrendous weather there was something very beautiful about the whole atmosphere. The cloud ceiling hadn't lowered any further so through it all I could see some mountains. The view of the wall climbing up and disappearing into the clouds was truly beautiful in its own way, especially with the clouds racing across the peaks, allowing the higher towers to alternately appear and disappear from view. A video camera would have been nice for this. Around the sixth or seventh tower the trail broke away from the wall to follow along the south side of the mountain providing a temporary respite from the driving wind and rain. For fifteen minutes there was no wind and the rain was but a slight drizzle. But soon the trail rejoined the wall and no sooner did I step upon the wall when BAMMM!!!! I was practically knocked over by the wind and rain.

By the tenth tower we were deep in the clouds with visibility reduced to at best ten meters, sometimes only one. At this point the condition of the wall had deteriorated again so that the climb was as much over rocks and mud then actual wall. At the twelfth tower things got serious. At every tower my guides and I would duck in for a few minutes of cover before climbing on to the next. At number twelve they started to wave their hands at me. Collectively they maybe spoke one hundred words of English so most communication involved my guessing what they said through my phrasebook. Their hand waving was at first lost on me, but then I figured it out. There were sections of trail that dropped-off several hundred meters. There were times I would be walking along the trail only to look down, usually to my right and see a near vertical drop that disappeared into the mist below. Up ahead was a section of wall having a seventy-degree incline, or so I had heard, I certainly couldn't see anything.

I got out my phrase book and pointed to the Mandarin word for 'dangerous', followed by the word for 'very'. All three rigorously nodded their heads. "Yes, yes, yes!" I heeded their advice deciding to abandon the climb at the twelfth tower. I couldn't see anything anyway. The walk back down was no better, except for the brief reprieve when the trail cuts along the south side of the mountain.

Safely back at the bottom I discovered the ladies true motivation: a book! They wanted me to buy a book! One woman produced from underneath her jacket, a nice big picture book about the Great Wall, mine for the everyday, special foreigner price of 150 yuan. What astonished me most is she climbed all the way up and down that wall in a driving rainstorm with that book tucked away in her coat, and it was, well, mostly dry. Like the sweatshirt, I didn't want the book. But I couldn't stiff them either. I know, I know, they didn't have to follow me up, I know, I know, it was their decision to follow me, but still, I was going to give them something. I eventually settled on giving them 20 yuan each ($2.50 US) and I let them keep the book. I probably could have gotten the book from them for about the same price if I really haggled hard but I wasn't that interested. "Should have taken the book," said a fellow traveler later in Xi'an when I told him the story.

Wall climbing companions. Still unbeknownst to me, the one in the middle in red had a large Great Wall picture book stuffed under her jacket.

I got back to the parking lot, my driver was fast asleep and I was hungry so I ducked into one of the small restaurants for lunch. They too, tried to sell me the same book, but for only 40 yuan!!! After eating I awoke my driver and we departed. It was almost three o'clock now. I looked around for the bus. What bus? Isn't there supposed to be a public bus at three o'clock to Beijing? Not to say it wouldn't come by but I felt real secure at that point knowing I had private transportation, even if it did cost me fifty dollars. 

While I was eating the rain stopped and the sky began to clear. Whatever front was coming through, was through. This would explain why the past few hours were the worst weather of all, it was the back edge of a major front. It took us two and a half hours to return to Beijing. Though the wind never let up and it remained quite chilly, by the time we reached Beijing the sky was completely blue. No haze, no clouds, nothing but bright blue sky.

Most of the ride back was relatively clear. The scenery was beautiful. To the north the view of the mountains lasted almost all the way back to the city. But the first thirty kilometers or so was a spectacular conglomeration of villages, farms, and jagged peaks of assorted elevations. It was much nicer to look at then the ever present ten-wheeled trucks that were poised to flatten us at every turn and every hill. I also appreciated the dry road as several times going to the wall my driver had me finding religion in a hurry as the van skidded around the turns inches from the guardrailless shoulder. Once back in Beijing my driver talked me into letting him take me to the airport the following day. We agreed on 100 yuan, a reasonable enough price. I was flying to Xi'an the following afternoon. I told him to pick me up at twelve o'clock. "Okay!"


Beijing / Chengdu / Dali-Xiaguan / Deqin / Guangzhou / Guilin / Haba-Baishuitai / Hailuogou-Moxi / Hong Kong / Huashan / Kangding-Luding / Kunming / Lijiang / Shanghai / Simatai / Songpan / Suzhou / Tengchong-Baoshan / Tiger Leaping Gorge / Xi'an / Yangshuo / Zhangjiajie-Wulingyuan / Zhongdian

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All text and photographs 1998 - 2006 Gordon Sharpless. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder is prohibited.