An old man sat on a three-legged stool atop a metal platform, perched like a cantilevered birds-nest hundreds of feet above the Simatai Reservoir. A toothless smile greeted us next to a hand painted sign that read 40¥ with Chinese characters above. My wife, Janet, thumbed through her guide book while I approached the cabled contraption on which he sat.
“It’s a zip line,” Janet said, pointing to the one inch cable that fell at a forty-five degree angle for what appeared to be miles across the sparkling blue water. A string of frayed gray straps hung like day-old laundry-limp and tired.
I inched towards the edge, “We must be five hundred feet up.”
“Nine hundred,” she responded cheerfully.
The old man stretched the webbing apart to show they were sewn together to form a makeshift climbers saddle. “It says it takes about a minute to reach the bottom,” Janet read.
“Or thirty-seconds if you go straight down,” I mumbled.” The man pushed the straps towards me.
Nine hours earlier, we’d eaten breakfast at our Beijing hotel, only two blocks from the Forbidden City, where we met a shuttle bus. Our driver jerked through a haze of congestion to make several stops and pick up more passengers. An hour later, past stop-and-go traffic and road construction, we reached open green meadows. Four hours later we arrived at Jinshanling, the beginning of our Great Wall trek.
The Wall is a string of segments spreading over 12,000 miles1 (the exact length is arguable). There are three main sections near Beijing. The Badaling location is most accessible, only 30km away. If you’ve seen pictures of The Great Wall in perfect condition, it’s likely they’re from this location. The other two sections, Mutianyu and Simatai, are more remote, about 70km from the city, and only accessible by charter bus. These sections are actually connected and can be trekked, which was exactly what we wanted.
Disappointed at the long ride, our enthusiasm was rekindled on our arrival. Thirty or so people piled off the bus. Younger hikers threw on their packs and, some in sandals, ran up the trail. We hung back to tighten shoes and make final adjustments.
From the parking area we tramped single file for several hundred feet to one-hundred ancient stone steps. At the top, slightly winded and breaking sweat, we took our first walk on The Great Wall. We stood for a moment, silent. I glanced at Janet and Charlotte, my hiking companions. Smiles creased their faces. Hopping with excitement, we began our trek.
The Wall ranges in height from about thirty to eighty feet, and averages fifteen feet wide. Where the Wall has been reconstructed it is pristine, like new. Fortunately, most of it is original. Large segments retain their shape and construction interrupted by lengths of broken and crumbling stone. In the distance it appeared to be a snake crawling across the undulating hills, as far as we could see.
With our first steps we acquired a band of hawkers. A few spoke words of English, but most stretched out arms to offer crinkled plastic bottles filled with brownish water, used maps, wood flutes or T-shirts with a mild chemical odor. As our pace settled, six women tagged along to present their wares and share the story of the wall. “Old, very old,” they said through crooked, yellow toothed smiles. “Mongolian,” they pointed to each other.
In less than a mile the restoration ended and we walked on original pavers from six hundred to two thousand years old. At spots the crumbling wall narrowed to shoulder width. Watch towers waited our arrival every two hundred feet or so. Our hiking boots slid on loose gravel and, at times, the steps, or what remains of steps, were so vertical they required we crawl on our hands and toes. Centuries old dust billowed with each step filling our noses and coating our tongues with a dry chalky substance.
Somewhere, probably at the steep inclines, we lost our entourage of hawkers and found ourselves hiking for miles alone. Occasionally we’d pass above workers at the base of the Wall, shoveling stones into baskets strapped to the backs of donkeys, reminiscent of their ancestors.
Throughout the six mile hike we encountered stretches of wall that appeared impossible to build in a countryside so rugged and remote. Even today it would be difficult. Watch towers ranged from small square outposts to two story fortresses with elegant arched passages and windows. We stopped often to take photographs, snack and meditate on the beauty. Time passed quickly and five hours later we reached the final climb.
Sweat dripped off our noses as we crept down a narrow stairway to a suspension bridge that spanned a deep rivered crevasse. We waited until another groups boots thumped single file across the wood planks to our end.
Not that we didn’t trust a bridge held together by wire cable, but a suspension bridge is like a high wire act-push down on one point and another bounces up. With each asynchronous step, we rose and fell. By the center, we held the wire side cables in a death grip.
Legs fatigued and shaky, we drug ourselves up a final series of eighty degree steep steps to reach the highest point on the Great Wall and our destination, the guard house at Simatai. At the top each of us instinctively raised our arms, Rocky style, in celebration and gazed at the dragon’s back we’d spent the day traversing.
A short descent down the guardhouse steps and we were off the Wall. To our right, the sheer cliff and ahead, a steep one mile trail that led down to our waiting water-taxi. The old man sat on his three legged stool on a metal platform hundreds of feet above the Simatai Reservoir. I approached the rusty confabulation of pulleys and cables.
“It’s a zip line,” Janet said cheerfully, “nine hundred feet down.”
The old man stretched the webbing apart to show the makeshift climbers saddle. “It says it takes about a minute to reach the bottom,” Janet read.
“Or thirty seconds if you go straight down,” I mumbled.” The man pushed the straps towards me, but before I moved, Charlotte jumped the line and grabbed the stirrup, “This is exciting,” she yelled as she lifted each foot through the openings and adjusted the strapping to form a seat. She handed the toothless operator a few bills and as he stuffed them in his pants pocket, he simultaneously clipped the saddle to a pulley mounted on the cable and shoved. She slid off the platform with a scream that disappeared into her descent. In an instant her bright youthful face went from close-up to wide-angle as she slid towards the microscopic platform at the bottom.
Amidst Charlotte’s screams, the gentleman pushed another saddle towards me. I hesitated, then climbed in. As I threaded my hiking boot through the webbing, he jerked, attached me to a pulley and I instantly became the bullet descending at the speed light. I heard a distant scream, Charlotte I thought, until I realized it was me.
A short ferry ride and we boarded another bus for our four hour return to Beijing. A thirteen hour day filled to the limit with sights, sounds and experiences of a lifetime. We’d walked in the footsteps of the ancients and tested the gods of the zip-line and survived. Now – time for an ice cold beer.