New Vistas

The Not-So-Great Wall

Issue 138

In the year 2002, my penchant for off-the-beaten-path travel was deeply satisfied with my visit to, of all places, China’s Great Wall – but only because I chose to explore a section in Huanghua, the most remote and unrestored portion available to visitors. Instead of tens of thousands of tourists, I counted six… Nice.

Two and a half hours north of Beijing by bus, this part of the incredible 13,000 mile long structure traverses a beautiful and lush countryside. Thankfully, the cool mountain air and wisps of fog gave blessed respite from the oppressive humidity I encountered while touring the capitol.

Although I had been prepared for years by familiar images and depictions of the wall, my first glimpse of this most celebrated edifice made me want to jump up and shout: “OhMyGodThereItIs!” And I did, only with a bit more restraint since there were locals on the bus. When visiting a culture different than my own…decorum first has always proven to be a good practice.

Since this neglected area had not yet been touched by China’s competent and cheesy tourist industry, only makeshift signs directed us to the path that would allow us to get up onto the wall. Surprisingly, at this important historical site, there were only a handful of travelers, no cable cars, no vendors of cheap souvenirs – for me, paradise.

I followed the first sign across a rope bridge spanning a beautiful river only to be confronted by a woman asking for 2 yuan per person to cross “her property,” which she made clear was “hers” using unmistakable gestures. Obviously a scam, but the two other travelers I had met on the bus ride paid her. I did not and pressed on despite this gatekeeper’s protestations.

Further along, an affable and mobile soft drink vendor directed us to the path that would set our feet on the ancient, crumbling stones of this remarkable, undulating ribbon of rock. Designed to prevent invasion from the north, construction of this part of the wall began in 1404 and took 188 years to complete – which seems to me like a bit of an over-reaction and a long time to hold a grudge with your northern neighbors. I saw only a tiny part of this wall and it’s the scale that is difficult to fully to fathom, even when seeing it disappear into the distance. I’ve heard for years that it is one of the few structures on earth that can be seen from space – but that can’t be true anymore since nowadays, what I’m eating for dinner can be seen by satellites peering through my skylights.

The wall runs along mountain ridge lines for 13,000 miles!

The wall runs along mountain ridge lines for 13,000 miles!

 

The narrow path led us to a young gentleman squatting quietly under an umbrella. You guessed it, 2 yuan a piece. Again, it wasn’t the 30 cents, it was the principle. With a smile, I ignored the request and moved ahead. So shocked was he that he ran past me, turned to face me and put his palm on my chest. I looked down at it with curiosity as the rest of our party went past his outpost. I gently but firmly took his hand away and proceeded, only to witness my first act of aggression in rural China: this man, newly positioned in a fighting Kung Fu stance, was determined.

He wasn’t, however, prepared to deal with my laughter. I couldn’t help it; it was funny! I moved forward again, knowing somehow that he wouldn’t lose face to a foreigner over 2 yuan, and gestured that he should walk with me up the path to the wall. He relented, exasperated and indignant. In minutes, I caught up to my party in time to deal with a mother-daughter 2 -yuan team equally shocked by our nonpayment, as well as the fact that, unbelievably, a local man was with us. Seems I had made an adversary into a reluctant friend.

The most creative of the toll collectors was set up on the Wall itself. He had put a small 2 yuan sign on a ladder he was “controlling” that led up to a tower we apparently needed to cross. I smiled my way up the ladder like a long lost uncle, shaking hands and happy to see him and his crew, one of whom stood strategically next to a small hatchet embedded in another wooden ladder. They were hawking postcards and dubious bottled water along with their extortion operation, which made them seem almost legitimate. Curiously, there was a police officer hanging out with them, so I immediately deferred all their monetary requests to him, being as he was an official of the government of the people, and passed along on my way. How much commission he was getting from the pirates was not established.

The final episode of attempted robbery on our two-hour loop was priceless. The last traversable section of wall was so steep (about a 50-60 degree pitch) that one false step on the crumbling ancient rubble would likely send a body smashing down to an unpleasant end. No wonder tourists avoided this place!

Very steep and loose stones...not a good combo!

Very steep and loose stones…not a good combo!

As I was surveying the scene and resting after the agonizing climb, I saw, at the very end point of our hike, just before it crumbled into oblivion, a woman, sitting, waving…naked. Well, not completely naked…she was topless, and looked about 60 years old. I took a zoomed-in photo of her from far enough away that it felt relatively safe to do so. Sorry the resolution isn’t great, but it’s probably for the best.

We had to avoid her, not knowing what this unabashed person was capable of. I motioned to my one remaining climbing partner to follow me on a ridiculously steep side path that would take us off the Wall and circumvent this nutcase. We held on to branches and shrubs to avoid cascading to our end, and heard a commotion above. Naked Lady was frantically waving the now-universal sign of 2 yuan from her post, screaming at the top of her capacity. We ignored and continued. However, this babe was part Billy goat…and fast!  There I was cheating death, careening down the equivalent of a double diamond ski slope strewn with rocks – laughing almost to tears – while this kook was flying after us, breasts flapping wildly, and to their credit, every few steps finding their rhythm, synchronizing and describing perfect circles on her chest. Even with my soccer-savvy feet in sturdy trail running shoes I just barely escaped. What a fun adventure-footwear commercial this scene would have made.

When this semi-nude psycho gave up the chase and we were on the path back to a world of clothed, reasonably sane people, we heard her wrath emptied on the next unfortunate hikers. If I ever had thoughts of being chased by naked women, I don’t believe this scenario ever came to mind. What she would have done had she caught up with us I dare not think.

“Toll collector” on the wall.

“Toll collector” on the wall.

 

Alón Sagee is the Founder, Chairman and Chief Troublemaker of the San Francisco Audiophile Society. He has travelled to over 30 countries so far. If you like these stories, please leave a comment. All photos by Alón Sagee.

Copyright © 2021 by Alón Sagee. All rights reserved.

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