Friday, November 27, 2009

Hiking the Great Wall: part 2

I failed to write about the locals in in part 1. I would say that there were about 15 locals who made the entire walk with us. They knew the wall and would help us up and down the steps along the way. The down side as we learned was that as soon as we stopped for a break they would pull off their backpacks and try to sell us stuff. T-shirts, sweatshirts, chopsticks, postcard books, Great Wall fact books ect. It got old fast. I blame my Irish guilt for my purchace of the “I climbed the Great Wall” t-shirt. Ok, now on to day two…

Not everyone made it to the wall the second day and some didn’t make it back. About half of the group decided to go to Beijing and the tour company was great enough not only to allow one of the buses to go to the city but also to arrange a one day city tour. I was among the troopers who managed to hike day two, after all that is what I planned to do and I’m not much one for spontaneity.

As we finished day one our guide told that day two was easier and less stairs. The itinerary even said, “We will enjoy a smooth, easy hike” so we had high hopes. My hopes were shattered pretty quickly. We had a 5-6 hour, 7 mile hike in front of us and from the start I was thinking to myself ‘it’s a good thing half the group passed on day two’. We began where we finished the day before; Jinshanling and hiked to Gubeikou Great Wall.

The famous Gubrikou Great Wall occupies a strategically important location which is difficult to access, and its constructuion rates highly as an architectural achievement. There are 14 beacon towers, 143 watchtowers, 16 strategic pass, three citadels and many other military constructions. Many of them are famous cultural relics, such as the Big Flower Beacon Tower of the Northern Qi Dynasty, Fairy Tower, General Tower, and the dominant Wangjing Tower.

I’ll be honest, I was too cold to stop and read the information located at the occasional towers and I was hiking too fast for the guide so if he shared any info along the way I didn’t hear him. But it was still a cool experience. The day was more difficult for different reasons at different times.

It was a cloudy day so it was a good bit colder all day. It was also windy so that make things worse both as far as of walking safely and being cold. We had two young kids on our trip, Chase who is 11 and Gabe who is 7, maybe 8. There dad works on the ship in the filed office and in the real world their parents have their own outdoor adventure travel company. These kids are troopers and Chase led the group the entire way. He was running up and down these steps that the rest of us held onto for dear life.

There were times that we were almost scaling the Great Wall as we walked along the side with less than a foot of pathway to walk on. For a good portion of the day we were actually hiking next to the Great Wall through cornfields and over frozen streams. Day two for many of us was about conquering the wall, not the fun hike that it was the day before. After lunch I put on my ipod, turned up the music and just kept moving forward. As I write this I feel like I am making sound horrible but it really wasn’t – it was a challenging day but I am grateful for the experience. I look forward to telling stories when I am an old man that start: “when I was 28 and hiking through the snow on the Great Wall…”

Our tour guide had initially told us that he wanted to keep the group somewhat close together which makes sense. However on day two with Chase leading the way the group was pretty spread out. For the first portion of the day our second guide was in the front and the main guide was in the back. As we hit the trail after lunch I assumed the assistant guide was once again in front. Well I was mistaken.

I was in the middle of the pack and was by myself for a fair amount of the hike. As the front group began to move away from the wall I got a bit nervous but guessed the guide knew where to take us. I was concerned about the spread of people behind me because as I lost view of them I didn’t think they would know where to leave the Wall and take the path down into the valley. I made my way down the poorly market path and through the old military area where I found the front portion of the group being heckled by a number of the locals with whom I lost my patience with when I realized our real guide was not at the front of the group. Being the only staff member there I quickly pulled out my itinerary, encouraged the students to stretch a bit and keep walking around to stay warm as the paper work said we pass through a small town before rejoining the wall and finishing the hike. I had no idea how much longer we had to go and frankly I got a bit nervous. I turned on my cell phone only to see that I had no service.

I stayed with the group for about 10 minutes and tried not to show my concern too much. After a bit I told the group not to go anywhere as I hiked about 5 minutes back towards the military base and into the valley a bit further where I after about 15 minutes I saw the group come over the ridge and to hike down into the valley. Finally reconnected I was happy to learn that the remainder of our hike was all of 5 minutes to the bus.

Now, if you read carefully you will remember that I said not everyone made it back. It is with a heavy heart that I share this news. My dear friend and travel companion Gumby was lost on the Great Wall. (I’ll wait for you to wipe the tears) My only guess is that he fell out of my pocket at some point. While it was my plan to make my final post a collection of Gumby around the world he didn’t quite make it all the way. Close but no cigar as my dad might say.

For what its worth it was a far better situation to have lost Gumby than my camera, phone or wallet but I was still disappointed when I realized I lost him. I had hoped that someone behind me would find him and know he was mine but no such luck. So unfortunately and prematurely my next blog post will be the best of Gumby around the world photos. Until then, cheers and thanks for reading and following me along on my journey.

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