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In the Land of Confucian -- Foreigners in China

Man and the Great Wall Series by Scott Urban

Week 1 (August 29, 1997) -- The Eagle's Nest, Part 1

"He who has not been to the Great Wall, is not a great man." --Chinese Proverb

Introduction: Scott Urban went to China in 1994 to work at the China Daily newspaper in Beijing, where he stayed until 1997. While in China, Scott contracted a severe form of bicycling mania, which manifested itself in his 6,000-kilometer bicycle journey to Xinjiang in 1995 with friend Brice Minnigh. Scott and his bike

In the Fall of 1996, Scott Urban and another friend William Lindesay spent every weekend possible cycling to the Great Wall of China to find lost sections of the Wall, with nothing more than curiosity, bicycles, and a map of the greater Beijing area. The trips involved comparatively big distances and tough conditions, but the payoffs were rich: in store could be anything from a swath of rubble to a grand section of Ming Dynasty ramparts with intact towers and inscribed tablets. This fall we invite you to join the ride and see the China that's not usually seen.

Scott currently resides in Denver, Colorado, USA, and is involved in a number of China-related projects. He can be reached at rrurban@ aol.com.


I met Will as planned at the Asian Games flyover at 5:30 am, and we headed down the Chanping Expressway out of town. Last time we traveled down this long stretch of road -- over a year ago -- we called it the hao lu ("good road") because there were huge exterior lanes dedicated, it seemed, to bicycles.

I thought at the time that was too good to last. It was. Now this road is a true expressway in the Western sense of the word, complete with toll stations and flyovers. Long sections of the road are 20 feet off the ground. The former "hao lu" is now the access road, chock-a-block with exhaust-belching vehicles.

But at the far end of the expressway we turn off and head for the valley of the Ming Tombs, beautiful and lush with fall color this weekend. Among the changes we find since last time: locals selling golf balls at a huge discount from the club prices. No fewer than 15 guys crowded the roadside, swinging bags of golf balls and yelling "Five yuan! A real bargain!"

We followed the route along the Spirit Way -- a collection of Ming animal statues lining the road to an emperor's tomb -- and arrived at the first tomb, Chang Ling. There, we went right, down an initially very stony road which goes to a place called Black Mountain. We continued on in the direction of Huairou County, where the UN Conference on Women's NGO forum was held in 1995, at a safe 60 kilometers from the official delegates back at the Asian Games Village in Beijing.

We were now in the Yanshan Mountains north of Beijing, and Will and I made a few more stops than usual to consume carbohydrates (read: chocolate croissants) like they were water. The road was absolutely beautiful, very nicely paved, and, surprisingly, almost free of traffic! The road is also dotted with quaint villages with very traditional roofs.

A small creek sews the villages together and nourishes something we don't see a lot of in the city: trees and birds. The road amounted to a very long climb and then a full-scale mountain pass which took over an hour to ascend.

Will asked me about the final day of the Beijing-Kashgar ride I took with a friend, Brice, in 1995. I tried to describe to him what it felt like rolling into Kashgar. He imagined it was the most wonderful moment of our lives. I couldn't speak for Brice (though I'm pretty sure he's of like mind), but I could assure him that for me, it wasn't at all like that. Arriving in Kashgar was more like, "It's about time." It was like putting the final nail into the lid of a box that should have been sealed up weeks and thousands of kilometers earlier, since Brice and I had already stared-down an encounter with death high in the Altun Mountains and knew the rest would be a slow, uncomfortable grind to the finish.

But that's another story.

As Will and I started up the pass we came upon two old comrades resting next to the road, helmets on their heads and aluminum bikes at their sides. "We're in the back... the rest are up ahead," they told us.

Ah, I wondered. Are we going to meet some cyclists up here?

Will and I took bets on how long it would take us to reach the top, Will placing it at a ridiculously optimistic 30 minutes, me at something twice that. On the last swing upwards, we caught sight of a crowd at the top waving their arms and shouting. As we got closer, they realized we were not the old guys and put their hands down for a second... then started cheered again nevertheless!

We reached them and put the bikes down to chat. They were indeed a group of 15 avid Chinese cyclists, one of whom cycled from Qinghai Province to Lhasa, Tibet two years ago and across Inner Mongolia last year. They were so friendly and our camaraderie seemed instant.

They asked how much cycling we do, and it wasn't long before Will told them something about our experience. "I'll tell you," he said while pointing to me. "Last year he rode a bike from Beijing to Kashgar in Xinjiang."

The woman who'd done the Tibet and Mongolia rides asked if I cycled to Kashgar with some group she'd read about, "through Urumqi and then across the north of Xinjiang like that," which is a paved road.

Nope, I said. I did it with one other young turk, and we went the southern way, on the southern flank of the desert, and on our own.

She plied me with logistical questions about our southern route -- sleeping out, carrying food, water... "It can be done," I told her.

We gathered for a group photo.

Next it was a downhill stretch into Sihai -- 10 or 15 kilometers shy of our target of Wall north of a tourist section called Mutianyu.

In Sihai we ate a big lunch and loaded up with supplies. The proprietor of the store was a woman in her late 30s who thought we were the strangest things she'd ever seen. She was very kind, actually, but just stood next to us and stared. Just kept looking at us. Her 15-year-old daughter spoke some English, and we were impressed. We're in a small mountain village, after all. The young girl said English is her favorite subject at school, and the only one she pays attention to.

After a big meal, we got started on the final attack, which entailed an uphill bit on paved road for several kilometers until the turnoff -- as shown on the map -- up a dirt road to the east.

Faithful to our map, we climbed into the mountain valley in low gear, at a slow but steady pace.

Passing through a small village, I hopped off to inquire on our whereabouts, and indulge in some "talking about the sky," what people here call chatting or visiting, something I love to do.

I'm fascinated with the way farmers live: how they spend their holidays and what they do when there's no crop to look after. A very nice 30-something guy out harvesting his corn told us we were on the right track for the Great Wall, just keep going forward.

"It's a Sunday and you're still out working?" I goaded him.

"I've got work to do."

"How about Mid-Autumn Festival? Was it very festive?"

Not so festive, he responded. Just sit around home with the family. Not like Spring Festival -- the granddaddy of Chinese holidays (also called Chinese New Year).

"Did you eat mooncakes?"

Yes.

"Did you make them yourselves?"

No, bought 'em.

"I'll stop interfering with your work," I said.

"No problem," he answered.

Will was waiting on the road, a bit anxious but ready to comment, "I'm glad you're making peace with the locals."

We continued up and passed a few ghost towns higher in the mountains, and finally a big truck and a few people working in a shed or something.

Fifteen minutes after passing them, a young guy from the group caught up to us to shoo us off the road.

"Where are you going?!" he demanded.

"Great Wall," we said.

"Well, you have to cross this valley and go from that side over there. This road doesn't go anywhere. It's our work road." He then showed us where to go, and suggested that we could leave our bikes with him. We went across the small ravine, but stashed the bikes in the bushes, as is our tradition.

We put our big packs on and were now on foot. We had a trail, and following it up an unknown mountain to an uncertain outcome was exhilarating, just as it was the week before over in Hebei Province on our last Wall expedition.

The whole thing seemed like some kind of PBS TV series, maybe called "Looking for the Great Wall." It seemed to have the requisite elements of surprise, danger and excitement.

Next week: Eagle's Nest, Part 2