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In the Land of Confucian -- Foreigners in China

Man and the Great Wall Series by Scott Urban

Week 4 (September 19, 1997) -- Midnight, 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.


Continuing from last week:

Naturally my arrival in the small village raised eyebrows. I got off the bike to introduce myself and my purpose. Most people agreed I ought to go to Badaling, which is a circus-style stretch of mostly reconstructed Great Wall. The place Nixon went. I politely insisted on my original plan. Skeptical, they looked at my map and saw the bit of Wall I was referring to. "Yeah," an old man told me. "There is a bit of Great Wall up there. Three li ahead."

A li is half a kilometer. "I'll go with you," the old man suggested. Since I am still fanatically and irrationally obsessed with achieving my goal this weekend -- and there is a finite amount of time to achieve it in -- I could only respond to his offer with a silent, "Oh hell! I don't have time for that!"

The man pointed the way, and I proceeded on the trail through the village. The main road was no more, but there was still an earthen track that my Giant "Track" bicycle could cope with. This trail would go to a speck on the map called Gou Ping Something, which, I was told, is home to a grand total of one family.

Halfway there I came into head-on contact with a small tractor coming from that direction, driven by an old man, with a kid in the trailer behind. I explained to him what in God's name I was doing. Smiling, he said, "Wrong! You're wrong! There's no Great Wall up here. You have to go to Badaling." From the directness of his words and the tone, I suspected he was trying to shoo me away from his home and his neck of the woods. I knew I was no threat, and just politely contradicted him and said I'd give the Wall a shot, anyhow. Map says it's here.

"Oh, yeah," his son spoke up with innocent candor rising from every pore of his body. "There is some Great Wall up there. That really old bit high on the mountain." His father stopped to consider for a minute, then nodded his head with a smile. "There's Wall up there," he said. "Just keep to this road, and continue on until you get to it." All smiles, we parted ways.

The road came around to the front of his settlement, and there it stopped. I knew the rest of the expedition would be on foot, and I'd hope to be leaving the bike at this place. I called out to the house: "Hello."

Out came the man's 14-year-old daughter, who I assumed would be too afraid to talk to me. I was wrong about that. She came right out, and I told her what I was up to. She explained I could take one of two roads to get to the Wall -- the one by their house, or another just on the other side of the ranch. She said there's yet another family living a ways up in that direction, which sounded incredible to me.

I set about dismounting the backpack from the rear rack of the bike and collecting items from other pouches mounted on the Track, all the while chatting with the girl to put her at ease. Conversation puts people at ease, and helps them see me as a normal human, not an alien or intruder.

She picked up a dead squirrel from the fence and petted it as she spoke with me.

"One last thing," I told her before setting off, with a heavy pack on my back. I pointed at the shifters, knowing from experience what can happen in these situations. "I don't care if anyone rides the bike -- you're welcome to -- but it's best not to touch these. They break easily, and if they break, I'm in bad shape. Sound okay?"

She nodded and smiled.

"Thanks for letting me stash this here. I expect I'll be back by around 8 tomorrow morning." I set off into the forest.

It's in the transition from wheel to foot that these expeditions take on the flavor of something more like an adventure. Between what the map says and what the locals can tell you, the expedition is a roll of the dice: there's no trail, no sign, no book to explain which ridge to turn left at. People simply don't bother marching up to remote sections of Great Wall, even if they live in the local vicinity. "That's craggy old Wall, anyway," seems to be the conventional wisdom. "The stuff worth seeing is over at Badaling." I guess it's all relative.

Very much to my displeasure, the "path" the 14-year-old pointed out evaporated quickly into thick forest, strewn with tangled vines, berry bushes, trees and their saplings, sharp-edged olive trees; a veritable wall of foliage. Hesitating, I went into it a few metros; a few steps. A few more steps; a few more metros. At each interval I recalculated. "Is this right? Do I want to do this? Forward? Or back? She mentioned two trails... Should I try the other one? Or is that just wasting my time? It's already 2:30."

The farther I went, the less I could rationalize going back to try the other path. Time was certainly of the essence. Yet it was still early enough in the day to rationalize going forward despite the foliage and the incredibly slow, painful progress I was making through it.

I continued, reminding myself over and over that there was a fair amount of daylight left, that I'd gotten lucky the previous week in similar circumstances, and that in the worst case scenario, I had the tent and could make camp anywhere I found myself at nightfall. I was also confident in finding my way back, making a topographical note of the spire at the southwestern corner of the ravine I'd have to return to to collect my bike. And if that failed, I could find assurance in the fact that I was in China. No matter which way down the mountain I went, I'd run into people pretty fast, and they could help me get back on Track, so to speak. This bushwhacking was miserable. Easily the worst I've experienced.

Sawing another chunk from the log of determination.

I developed a feeling for which way to part branches, how and when to step on them, how and when to use and swing a stick, which foliage is likely to be rotten or brittle and hence easy to bash to pieces before plodding through, which is green and resilient and will strike back at you, which foliage is better left alone altogether, and so on.

One of the obstacles to defeat if I was to succeed was mental: the image of spiders. I'd noticed the week before how incredibly huge the spiders were that spun webs between openings in such foliage -- the kind of openings that you link together to constitute a way through the matter. These guys sit right in the middle of that chasm, and I'm bound to run right into them in this process.

I hate spiders as much as the next person does. The thought of rubbing elbows with legions of them didn't make me smile. Toward the beginning, I'd catch sight of some gray piece of matter on my shoulder and freak out, swiping my shoulder a dozen times. Calming down a bit, I'd discovered that it was always a leaf I was about to frantically swipe from my body. I put the thought out of my mind and continued.

The foliage-whacking was awful, and slow-going. "Okay," I thought. "This is terrible. I've got to find a break for myself." I decided that instead of continuing forward -- east -- I'd cross the ravine and head up to a saddle to the south. From there, maybe I could actually see some Wall. If not, there'd be a chance of finding a trail. Trails follow ridges.

Eventually, I got to the saddle. No Wall in sight, no trails. "You may have to suffice with chalking this up as a scouting mission," I warned myself. One should be prepared to fall short of reaching the immediate objective, and put the best spin on that failure.

I went down into the next ravine, further south, keeping in mind the spire and where that move would put me in relation to it. The bottom of the ravine offered a thickly covered floor of leaves and the ability to walk. Before doing a 90-degree turn east, up the ravine, I remembered one trick Will had done on our way up to the Wall the week before: leave a marker for yourself. I etched a big X into the ground with my foot; this would be a critical junction to send me back toward the ravine where Track was waiting.

Then I set off east again. Along the way I noticed another kind of critical junction and made another X and an arrow in the right direction. Now the task was to just go up this ravine. The map says the highest peak in this vicinity is 1500 metros. I felt like the slope never ended. Every time I turned around I found the vista breathtaking, and I found that I was really gaining some altitude.

The higher I went the more stones I noticed. There seemed to be an unusually large number of them. I wanted to declare success and take it as a sure sign of Great Wall, as it had been under similar circumstances the previous week. But there was no way of knowing for sure. The suspense grew as I rose closer to the top: would there be Wall? Or would it be only a scouting mission?

Going up the steep slope involved a fresh round of hand-to-leaf combat. It was just 4 or 4:30 in the afternoon, so I didn't care that the going was so tough. But what would the top offer me? And when would I reach it?

Along the way I came across a small indentation in the slope that would make for about the only candidate for a horizontal place to sleep. I made a mental note of it and kept going. Then I saw blue sky ahead, but only dense bushes to the top. So I plowed through them, emerging on a wind-blown, clear face of the mountain, on a ridge only slightly shy of the summit.

What a relief! Now I could see the whole back side of this range -- no more mystery. Unfortunately, no Wall, either. Oh well, I said, it's a scouting mission. Can't win every time. Now I could afford to sit down and take a breath, and remove the stones and dirt that filled my boots.

I put the boots back on and headed for the top.... which revealed a wide swath of long-disintegrated Great Wall. The suspense was over; this episode concluded. "Goodnight, folks. You've been a great audience. Drive safely," I said out loud. Yes! This week's episode had ended in victory. All was not in vein. And I could relax. Autumn Snow amid Forgotten Wall

I posed for a self-timed picture on the Wall at the top, capturing not only the Wall's rubble but the patches of snow all over it. The Wall came in along a ridge from the north, and turned to the east, which I could see. There didn't seem to be anything that would make for a good home in that direction, so I followed the Wall to the north a bit.

Along the way I stared in awe at the sight of a hawk hanging steadily in the mountain air just above me, waiting for its prey to emerge. This whole side of the mountain was covered in patches of snow, making it an undesirable host for the night. I decided the horizontal indentation I'd come across just below the summit would be the best choice, and maybe even a little sheltered from the wind. I went back to find it, which was not easy. The slope was so densely forested. (To be continued.)

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