Saturday, October 20, 2007

Simatai Sunrise

I've just realized that I never wrote anything about my trip to the Great Wall, so I figure I ought to do that now before I forget.

We left for the Great Wall on a Saturday morning. The section we went to was part of the Badaling wall (near Simatai), so it was about a 2.5 hour bus ride from school. It was raining when we started out, but as we went along the sun came out, the mists lifted, and it became absolutely beautiful.

We hiked along the wall for about (I don't remember, but I'm thinking/researching the number, I'm going to guess 6)) kilometers (about 3 hours) until we got to the town of Gubeikou. The walk itself was visually stunning, but a lot more exhausting than I would have expected. Clearly the walls were not built with transportation, or even people running back and forth between watchtowers in mind. At times it was incredibly steep, and the stairs could get quite daunting. Since a good part of the wall we were walking on was unpreserved, there would often be just crumbled rubble to scramble over, and once or twice we had to physically scale walls in order to climb through the windows of towers (there were footpaths around these towers, but we're too hardcore/into being nijnas to bother with those). We met a bunch of interesting people along the way, mostly tourists from both China and elsewhere, although the wall was not too crowded. It was littered with people who were willing to sell you anything from t-shirts to bookmarks to beer along the way. After we crossed the drawbridge into the town we walked through the village to the home of one of Ai Laoshi's friends where we ate dinner. The main source of income for these people is clearly corn: we walked through acres of cornfields, and each house had a huge stack of husked corn out front (I think the harvest has just finished, so there was literally tons at each home). This corn buisness was also reflected in the meals we had - there was always delicious cornbread available.

After dinner we hung out at the house until 9, because it's illegal to camp out on the wall, so you have to sneak up under the cover of darkness. It was absolutely freezing. Thank goodness for hot water and penguin mentality, or we never would have survived. Finally someone had the good sense to build a fire, and the penguin huddling moved into a circle. Singing happened. Our hosts went out and got fireworks, and we had a show. It was lovely! They set off the fireworks about 5 feet from where we were standing (just on the other side of the corn pile from the fire huddle), so it probably wasn't incredibly safe, but it was beautiful. There were the little wimpy poppers (which hardly sounded wimpy from that close distance) and also a few big blossoming ones .

At 9 we had to divide into two groups. One group would hike up and sleep on the wall for the night. The other half would sleep in host families houses in the village and then wake up at 4 for a sunrise hike up Simatai, the highest tower in the great wall. As much as I was tempted to actually sleep on the wall, I opted for this second choice, as it sounded like a once in a lifetime opportunity, and I had heard so much about how the Simatai sunrise is a lifechanging experience.

Myself and 4 other girls went down the road to our hosts house. They set us up in a room with a giant heated bed that we all shared. The beds have a furnace underneath them, so the freezing temperatures were absolutely no longer an issue. In fact, I woke up several times extremely hot. All of the houses in the village had pretty much the same style and layout: an L shape around a courtyardish area. The middle of the L was a living room/kitchen, and then there was a bedroom on either side. Most people ate outside in the courtyard that was formed by the building and the corn pile. Here's a picture of a typical house in the village:

Waking up at 4 was difficult. It was cold, early, and pitch black. We began our hike up the wall. It was incredibly trecherous. We had no light, and were feeling our way along a footpath littered with rocks and such. On one side was a steeply climbing slope covered in brambles and thick trees, on the other side an abyss into dark nothingness. Tripping was common. Our guide looked like he was 60-70 years old, and he bounded the whole way up, not even stopping for breath despite the extreme steepness. As we got to the harder parts of the hike, luckily, it started to get a bit lighter. This was absolutely important, as at some points we were quite literally crawling up the slope. So much for switchbacks - the rule of this illegal-to-climb mountain is to grab the tree above you and drag yourself through the mud up to the next tree, because it's a bit too steep to walk. Making it to the top was so worth it though - it was one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen. I ended up finishing the hike on my own, the group I was with was climbing too slow. As I started to clear the treeline, the view was incredible. I had to stop every once in a while to catch my breath, and to capture the sight of the valley below on camera. At the top we all grabbed spots on the rocks next to the watchtower to settle in and watch the sunrise. The hight and sheer drop to all sides of this tower is extreme. You would think there would be no need for a tower - or wall - there because it's practically unclimbable on the Chinese side without a rappel line. The Chinese though this too - until 8 crazy Mongolians managed to make the climb, kill a bunch of Chinese, take their cows, and get away with it. I couldn't help thinking of those guys on my way up, unassisted like I was by a path and a guide.

Anyways, the sunrise was gorgeous. You could actually see the sun moving up and over the mountains. I took a video, but it hardly does it justice. I understand now why so many people have found that place, and that moment, so inspirational.

And there were so many mountains! American mountain ranges can hardly compare to Chinese ones. I think it's because the Chinese ranges are bigger, more rugged, and, for lack of a better word, spinier. I'm really upset that not many of my pictures came out well. Because of the low light, I needed a really high exposure, but I had no tripod and my hands are not steady.

After the sunrise a handful of us hiked over to the neighboring peak in the direction of the tiger's back ridge for a view back at the watchtower. This peak was a bit lower, but provided an even more amazing view. I really cant even describe it.

The hike back down was just as extreme as going up. We had to use the trees again, literally choosing a tree, falling on it, and then repeating the process all the way down. Our guide was behind those of us in the front on the way down, but eveytime we got to an intersection we would just wait a few minutes for his dog (who made the hike up and has the amusing name of PeePee) to come find us and show us the way. PeePee is the Lassie of China.

Around 8 we settled back into our house's courtyard again for breakfast. Corn zhou, corn bread, boiled eggs. It was delicious. I'm a huge fan of corn zhou, especially with a bit of sugar.

To get down to where our bus was able to drive to, we had to either hike down a trail on the other (China) side of the wall, or take a zip line over a ravine and then a boat to the bus. Clearly I opted for the latter. The zip line was amazing amounts of fun and totally worth the 30 kuai. There really is nothing like zooming over a ravine under the great wall tied to nothing but a rusty wire.

In sum, the Great Wall was gorgeous, and if you get the opportunity to make it out to Simatai, you should absolutely not turn it down. Also, if anyone would like to make it back to the wall to camp out, let me know (because it's still on my to do list).


1 comment:

  1. Gorgeous pictures. I miss the Great Wall so much. I've always wanted to camp there. I'm so glad you're going on all these amazing adventures. Je suis jaloux.