Appointment with the Taxi (day 2)
So yesterday I booked a taxi to the “Water Wall”, leaving the driver a 100 yuans deposit. After some negotiation and discussion I had to trust she would be there. A taxi is a luxury I negotiated 550 yuans which is a lot compared to the price of a subway ticket (2 yuans). We agreed on a pick-up at 6am. There is about 80km to go.
Early morning I woke-up the hostel lobby staff to check-out (and get my 50 yuans deposit back). I hastily go to the meeting point (where I found the taxi yesterday, not far from the hostel). The taxi driver arrives in advance, around 5:45am, perfect! We confirm the price again and that it is only a one way trip. Everything is going fine this morning.
You better know where you are going
In general in China you should know what you want and it is better knowing where you’re going. This taxi is no exception to the rule. I am glad I printed the map of North Beijing up to my final destination. It will be my driver’s road map. Yet, she stops two times to ask for directions, better than getting lost.
Almost there, I want to take a secondary road to reach the Great Wall. Thanks to my off-line map in my mobile phone, I tell her which road to take: a small concrete road. She is not convinced, she talks to some people near the road that tell her it is not good. She keeps going on the main road and warns me that it was a dead end road. Really, a dead end road that stops at the Great Wall !
The Great Wall, It exists !
As luck would have it, the foot of this Great Wall is not touristy at all, there is no ticket office, no guard and a lake with a waterfall. I’m glad I didn’t miss that… I can see the Great Wall, it does exist !
I’m keen to get started and without even checking the map, I cross the lake and climb on the path along the wall. This is me at the foot of the 5 to 6m restored edifice! Yes, it is a wall and it works…
I step back a little to the very first tower and find a tiny hole below a window (the window is covered with barbwire). I make a test with my feet first, I can pass. I push my bag through then the poles and finally I go through. Once inside, I am still not on the wall. The stairs have been demolished and the trapdoor is locked.
Going around the tower and climbing two meters, it is possible to access the top of the tower. Thats it I am on the Wall! Its very impressive! On one side there is the lake and on the other side a big staircase at 45 degrees.
Let’s go! I see the Great Wall, large, preserved; indeed even with the large cumulative altitude differences this run should not be one of the most difficult.
Running on the Great Wall is like being in a postcard or picture book. Unfortunately the misty weather does not help for photos, (it was not only pollution in Beijing then). The Chinese crows in the silence make the scene complete. This section of the wall is far from the tourists and the hikers. Complete silence, until, coming from a nearby tower, I hear people shouting “allo” (hello pronounced by the Chinese). A groupe of tourists that just arrived on the wall by the path I should have taken… but then I would have missed the first towers and steep stairs.
While passing the group I hear “something quai le”, they wish me a good journey :). A few steps further and I change into shorts and a tank top. The weather is not that hot but the climbing makes the leggings and long sleeves too heavy.
I eat up the first few kilometers, it’s mostly down hill. Looking horizontally you don’t feel like you’re going very fast on this endless wall that pushes in from crest to crest in the mist.
While passing a col, the third one already, I see a road at the foot of the wall: it must be the original one I wanted to take. In the end, I am pleased I did not take it, I would have missed the most beautiful part of this section of the Great Wall.
In front of me now the condition of the wall is begining to deteriorate but there are still some solid steep stairs, very steep. Some stairs are not called “Skystairs” only because they are not on a section open to tourists :). Step 5cm deep, 30cm high or more. At some point the stairs are so steep that it has fallen off the rock that was supporting it. This means some rock-climbing with few meters of empty space. And I keep running.
The Great Wall is hardcore trail running
The further I go, the more the Great Wall has crumbled. It switches from an advertisement for a French car to a trail of fallen rocks. Progression is harder but it looks like a trail
Until the Great Wall enters the forest, or the forest enters the Great Wall, who can say. Now, I’m very far from the initial plan! No speed, no more easy paths, in fact no path at all.
Sometimes I am moving in a mass of fallen stones. Most of the time I make my way on a narrow side wall. Bushes and trees, 3 meters high have infiltrated the wall. I am glad I trained on the narrow wall along the sea side, so that I can keep focused on my run beside the emptiness.
Add to that up-hill and down-hill sections on a slippy surface and some rock-climbing. Usually less than 3 or 4m to climb but usually to pass a rock or a split with a large drop off to the side, sometimes more than 100m cliff behind few bushes. Even running as much as possible the average speed is very slow.
If Indiana Jones was a trail runner…
Now we have what makes most of the remaining run, a lost path in the forest barely visible. Only the odd outcrop of rock is visible and the vegetation dominates. You need to make guesses, feel the path invisible to the beginner, search behind low branches and high bushes. It slows down my progress: first the vegetation is a real obstacle and second you need to go slow enough to distinguish the path from two bushes slightly apart. It is really exhausting physically and mentally.
Amongst the other traps are, sections where you need to leave the wall to go around impassable parts. Some bypasses lead to dead ends. That is how I find myself at one point, going strait up the slope like a wild pig completely off track trying to get back on the wall.
After four hours running I reach a tower where two hikers have stopped for a lunch break. They are the only two people I cross over the entire trip on the wall. They tell me they will go back and few other sentences in Chinese I can understand “xiu qi y hoa” (have a rest) and surprised “i ge ren” (are you alone ?).
Feeling lost while being on the correct path
I take this opportunity to swallow a handful of nuts and I get back quickly on the path, running and … guessing. It is like feeling lost while being on the correct path. The situation is not pleasant to me while it would be totally unbearable to most.
Up-hills and down-hills, I keep going for few more hours. Until the disillusion of the day: I am hopping for a wall that gets better coming closer to a road and I find myself with nothing! 300m of emptiness, I am facing a cliff, in front of me the wall is stopping sharp, bellow, the road. On the map, the wall touches the road, with a 150m height error. I have been digging for weeks, the best altitude maps I could find were smoothed by 200m with 150m errors on some summits!
Looking for a way out
Well, it is now 3pm, the option I have is to go back for 500m (that means a lot of altitude difference) to take one of the paths that go down in the previous valley and reach a road somewhere lower. I use all the gear I have, map, GPS… The path is supposed to be in front of me but there is no path. I start to climb down hoping to find a trace of the path below but it’s only a lot of wasted energy and no path.
So, I decide to go looking for another route more to the west, the same direction I came from. And I find one, the grass there has been trampled, the branches are broken, I look at my off-line map and my GPS position; spot on the path! In theory, 600m down there I should find the road. I throw myself into the steep slop, might be 45° steep, you need to grab the trees to avoid sliding down. Half way down, I am facing a drop at least 4 meters high, maybe more. I can’t check it without my bag, if I go down I will not be able to get back up! Further down it looks like another very steep slope, I can only see clouds. I don’t want to risk an injury or test my distress beacon, I decide, disillusioned again to turn back.
The way back up is very difficult, slippery. Back on the Great Wall, I have one hour of day light left with no alternative path before 4 hours. I decide to get to the nearest tower to shelter from the bad weather and spend the night. A twelve hour night, in the wild, it is long. I find a place rather flat in the tower’s rubble. In the end it is probably as beautiful and comfortable as a Chinese bed :).
A night on the Great Wall
I force myself to eat, I drink, I put on all my clothes. I remove all the hard and sharp objects from my bag, that will make a good pillow. It’s 7pm, good night. At 8pm the cold wakes me up. My top is very hot but my leggings and the light shoes are close to the limit. I try to fall asleep. Unfortunately the cold feeling is surmountable but persistent. I don’t want to burn all the energy I have left tonight and not being able to run tomorrow to get back; I get the safety blanket out. I fall asleep some time later. At 1am the cold wakes me again. A light wind is blowing and the drafty tower lets it in. I huddle behind some bricks take some energy drink ; my teeth are chattering until I warm up in my new position, I fall asleep. Well the 6 hours time difference, after only one day, not yet assimilated, is not helping. Around 4am (10pm in France) at last I really fall asleep.
The return run (day 3)
At 6am I wake up with the daylight. I don’t waste time. Two fruit jellies, a handful of nuts and I start running on the return path.
Despite the night in the wild, I progress faster than on the outward journey. I am avoiding all the useless bypasses, I recognize the dangerous zones. However, a mountain race is won only back at the base camp. Following a well marked track I will remember it. I keep going following this track, I know the vegetation is thick in this area, I run like a wild pig and I finally find myself deep in the vegetation, off course. I try to go back but can’t immediately find where I come from, 2 or 3m high bushes around me, I am 150m away from the wall but I cannot access it from this side of the crest. Only my tenacity is taking me out of this situation with no other way out. The track I was following lead to a view-point. :-/
I keep going back until I find a new alternative trail that goes down to the valley. It’s perfect. The trail start matches exactly the GPS route I wanted to take, the best compromise to avoid doubling back and climbing down further on the wall. I load the trace in the GPS according to the map and I follow the trail. Very quickly the trail and the trace separate, which confirm that the maps are not reliable at all in this remote area. The trail shown on the map must have been recovered by the vegetation. This one is rather easy to follow, I stay on it. Things are going well, I begin to encounter the first signs of civilisation.
Still need to get back to Beijing!
A field near the trace makes me go round for a while. I cross the first countryman, chestnut growers, some are surprised and laughing others are too busy. I finally make my way to a small village. Reaching the main road, I see my man. He his standing next to the road, dressed with city clothes. This man must be waiting for a bus, although there is nothing like a bus stop around. I have luck on my side. This man is going to Beijing!
I quickly realize that without him, even knowing Chinese, there is no way I could reach the city. I need to take three different buses with quick connections on lost car parks or crossing speedway interchanges! My savior goes down stops before me.
When I reach the bus terminal, I need to find the metro station. I meet strangers that speak Chinese and find some people to follow. Once again it is a urban maze before reaching the subway. The way back has cost 37 times less than the outward journey… In the subway, in the middle of clean citizens I look like I have just completed an assault course.
At the hostel, I shower, do my laundry, and drink a lot of water. I eat a bowl of proteins and chips before going for a Beijing duck and other excellent local specialties.
Unfortunately no time to rest, I take the train tonight to Daton, I have one hour of sleep left.