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In the Land of Confucian -- Foreigners in China

Man and the Great Wall Series by Scott Urban

Week 2 (September 5, 1997) -- The Eagle's Nest, Part 2

"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.


Last week's episode documented the unqualified success of an initially tough and doubtful Wall expedition. What would viewers be treated to this week?

Our trail petered out, as seems inevitable in these situations. It was getting late, and for the first time, Will and I both secretly believed this weekend expedition would have to be chalked up to "scouting," i.e., for the first time, it seemed there would be no Wall to sleep on that weekend.

We certainly couldn't see any as we went up the steep hillside, and we only hoped the summit would offer us a view of what Wall there was in the vicinity.

The mountain was thickly forested, and the whole way up we foliage-bashed and slipped on loose earth and rotting leaves. Toward what seemed to be a promising prospect for the top of the mountain, we noticed an unusual amount of rocks under foot. There was no form or order to them, and they were beneath the foliage, and so very natural-looking. Yet, their number seemed unusually large.

Light appeared ahead -- the top. An end to the forest, a clearing, and sky.

Scott holding a Ming Dynasty mortar brick among the rubble We stepped out of the thick woods onto a giant swath of rubble, a big elongated pile of rocks on the top of this ridge. If we needed any more proof that it was Great Wall we were standing on, it came in the form of the Ming brick Will held in his hand. Though covered in moss and weathered to the exact tone of the rocks and stones around it, one swift hurl against the rubble exposed its true composition: mortar.

"Just hold this thing," Will said. "It's so light! That's a Ming brick." It was amazing to find amid all this debris of rock a few perfectly square mortar bricks. We snapped a picture of the scene, elated with our luck of finding the Great Wall of China when we least expected it. (Picture: Scott holding a Ming Dynasty mortar brick among the rubble.)

The next step was to see what the Wall had in store further along -- ideally, something with more form, more photogenic, and something we could call home for the night. There wasn't much light left in the day. (Picture below: Will photographing the Great Wall.)Will photographing the Great Wall

Rising along the ridgeline we came upon a watchtower, in pretty bad shape. This Wall has been exposed to a lot of weather. Finally, we got a view of the rest of the Wall up here: bigger watchtowers ahead and some sturdy-looking segments of Wall, the first of which offered up a nice, flat, grassy few square feet for sleeping.

Everything seemed in order, except for the ring of dark clouds that approached from the northern horizon, from which direction the wind was currently blowing.

"Dammit!" I hollered. "This is supposed to be Autumn. Autumn in Beijing is clear -- clear, clear, clear!" But I felt lucky, and maybe Will did, too. At this altitude, I surmised, weather passes quickly. These clouds blow in and out like it's nobody's business. Let's just hang tight.

But what about the equipment? We'd already laid down our pads and unfurled our sleeping bags. Opting to play it safe, we put the bags in the backpacks (which are PLA models lined with rubber), and use our pads as umbrellas --- albeit skinny umbrellas that require each of us to sit with our legs drawn up to our chests and our heads on our knees -- not exactly comfortable on the back, bum and neck.

It's dark now, so there's no way off this mountain. The rocks were treacherous enough dry and in the light of day. No way could we negotiate our way down them in the dark and wet.

Waiting for an end to the rain, we passed the time telling stories and just talking. About fatherhood. ("Everybody said kids were like a prison, that would take your life away," Will said. "It's not like that. I just look at them like people that have their own special needs. Jimmy's just a person, and requires more attention than an adult. We were all like that at one time.")

About the day it snowed on Brice and I in the Altun Mountains. ("I saw the snow covering the ground and freaked out," I recounted the story to Will. "I told Brice, 'I'm from Colorado. I know what winter in the high country is about -- and we're not prepared for it! We're not prepared for this!'") About qi pao. ("Thinking of this will keep you warm!" Will joked.)

Then Will made a matter-of-fact observation: "No matter what the rain does, we're stuck up here for 12 hours." He was right about that -- there would be no dawn for almost 12 hours. It's autumn.

Initially, there were brief let-ups in the rain which allowed us to stand up and stretch our backs and relieve our bums. But one glance at the sky and its lack of stars told us we couldn't let our guard down. One of the let-ups seemed long, so we rolled the dice and put the pads down, unfurled the bags and got in, just praying for a break.

Back in the bag we lay atop the Great Wall, staring at the stars. The rolling clouds looked beautiful in the brief moonlight. Wisps of clouds. Heaven was spread out before me. We'd worked hard to reach it.

Then, "t... t... t...." The light sound was so innocuous and peaceful you felt you surely could ignore it. But it was rain -- light rain, true -- but just a warm-up before another serving of the real stuff. Only reluctantly did I swing into action, shaking Will. "Get up, man. We've got to get out of these bags, get them in the packs, and get under the pads."

We did just that, suffering another long spell perched on the side of this summit awkwardly holding our pads above us.

Later, visibility fell to nearly zero, and we found ourselves in the middle of a cloud, which felt good. It felt good on the lungs, especially. I haven't breathed air like that since my last visit to Oregon.

The stint in the cloud was also accompanied by a long absence of rain. We surmised that being in a cloud meant we were above the rain, and hence we could roll the dice and return to the sleeping bags. It wasn't hard to convince us, considering it was midnight and we were two very tired cyclists/would-be adventurers. So, out came the bags and in we went.

Twenty minutes later we were back on the rock.

"I'm getting tired of this drill!" I said. It was truly exasperating.

By 2 am, the wind kicked up and started pelting us from the side, blowing cold mountain air across us, not to mention some precipitation. We recalled a collapsed section of the Wall very near us that we could hide in. We got the flashlight out and hunkered down in a depressed bit of Wall, which was our barracks for the duration, safer from the wind but still fully exposed to the rain.

"No breaks!" I said over and over in a mocking, exasperated tone. "No breaks for us. No damn breaks. This just keeps up. We don't get a break!"

It was bad. Breaking a long period of silence, Will sighed, lifting his head just slightly toward the sky. "Come on, mate. Give us a break."

"Are you talking to God, Will?"

"I guess, if that's who's listening. I'll plead with anyone right now." Will pushed the illuminator on his watch. "We're two-thirds through this thing. Four more hours to go."

Next, he asked the question: How much would you pay to get out of this? For all the times in China when a few extra dollars separates you from the masses, lifts you out of the frustrations and inconveniences they suffer every day, I was for all the world a regular schmo, deprived of the usual escape hatch.

With daylight we were soaking wet but ready to get down from the place -- which we dubbed Eagle's Nest in honor of its altitude and exposure -- and reach our bikes, which had been thoroughly washed of their lubricants.

We got back to Sihai on our mud-caked bikes and dropped in on the family of three and their small store/eatery. They were so kind. With one look at us, the woman announced she'd bring out a big pot of "hong tang" -- a boiled molasses beverage which was delicious. We ordered some food, and the daughter brought out an oven for us to warm ourselves by.

"Let me roast your shoes for a while," the women said. We demurred.

After that kind of heartfelt, kind treatment, I told them I'd be sending a package of English study materials to their daughter -- books and tapes.

So, that was it. We put the calories in our stomachs and set off for Beijing. Each pass made us warm, and each downhill was a frozen burden.

To perk up spirits, I proposed we finish the weekend with a few/20 donuts and coffee at the Dunkin Donuts shop 5 minutes from home.

Will did nothing but talk about donuts and ask for E.T.A.-Dunkin Donuts estimates for the last 40 kilometers of the day.

"We'll be there in under 30 minutes, Homer," I reassured him.

I arrived home, took a shower, and sat down. I nodded to sleep but got control of myself. I wanted to stay awake until nighttime.

It's been two days since we got back from that ride, and today I put the English materials in the mail to Sihai.

I got a call from Will. "Well, I've been checking my materials, and I'm pretty sure that pile of rubble was Northern Qi Dynasty, dating from 550 AD. The Ming probably used their mortar bricks to reform that Qi wall. But those light mortar bricks never could have been enough to hold such a mass of rubble together." Hence, the state we found it in.

In fact, that Wall was probably from the Tang Dynasty, Will later surmised. I told him that sounded damned exciting. It meant I'd been on Qin, Qi and Ming Wall. Not bad at all.

I hung up the phone and headed out for the Army surplus store. If rain were to grace an upcoming episode of our Wall adventures, a tent would consign it to a minor role.

Previous article: Eagle's Nest, Part 1

Next week: Midnight