A Trek Through Time … A Great Wall Hiking Adventure
The sheer scale of the crumbling 14th Century walkway on which I stood, overlooking the rugged valleys below in the distance, made me contemplate what must have motivated the First Ming Dynasty Hongwu Emperor to build it. He had risen as high as this wall, in just as short a time; from penniless monk to emperor of China in 15 years. He had been the humble son of a peasant farmer who had to give many of his siblings away, simply because they had little or nothing to eat, and yet, by the end of his somewhat controversial, yet influential rule, this section of The Great Wall, on which I was having a Hiking Adventure today, had been built.
For me, the history of a space on this planet is just as important as visiting and taking in the stunning beauty and adventure of it all. Each carefully crafted stone, each jagged rock, each grain of sand has its own story to tell and it is seeking your ear, beckoning you to listen to its yarn, weaved meticulously through the echoes of time. Even the etymology of the word history draws me in. Derived from the Latin Historia, “narrative of past events, account, tale, story,” or the Greek Historia “a learning or knowing by inquiry; an account of one’s inquiries, history, record, narrative.”* these definitions give history their truest meaning for me.
Standing in a land whose civilised history stretched for at least the last 3500 years, today’s Great Wall Hiking Adventure was the perfect setting for my thoughts on how important it was to know your own history.
As we stood on the cusp of a precipitously steep descent, I pondered again the story of Zhu Yuanzhang, the man he was, before he was emperor, as I faced the frightening prospect of tumbling to the bottom, head first, down the serrated path of this section of The Great Wall that he had built. Yet somehow, with the agility of a mountain cat, but the grace of someone prone to sliding down steep embankments on their bottom, and with the expert lead of our fearless and unperturbed guide Cheney (not his real name), I made it safely down.
It was here that the cliche rang out in my mind and I questioned whether it was true… knowing where you had come from to know where you are going to. Today that cliche had a very practical bent to it, as our hiking adventure had literally started in the small village of Xizhazi and we had to know this to make it to our end destination of Mutianyu. This was all courtesy of our generous hosts, Great Wall Hiking, an adventure company who organizes some of the most well run and enjoyable traditional, adventure and luxury hiking tours of The Great Wall, in and around the Beijing area.
While there are literally hundreds of tours that can take you to this wonder of the ancient world, the aspect that had drawn us immediately to Great Wall Hiking was their unique Wild Great Wall Tour and the story it told. This hike would catapult us to the ancient, unrestored section of Jiankou, taking us on an untamed ride across the steep ascents and descents that ruled The Wall before depositing us to the heart of the tourist hub that is Mutianyu. It was to be a magical melding of old and new, of ancient and modern, complete with the otherworldly spirit of The Great Wall and its hidden stories.
We were picked up early in the morning, not too early though (8am), right out the front of our accommodation in a well appointed air-conditioned minivan, where our host and guide for the day Cheney, was smiling ready to greet us. Our two and half hour journey to the village seemed to fly by in a blur as we were both entertained and educated by Cheney’s stories on some of the interesting and historical facts on how China as a country had come to be formed, as well as how it functioned today as a modern country.
Nevertheless, as we started our hike from Xizhazi village, rapidly ascending the winding valley hiking tracks up to The Wall, with Cheney leading us, I reflected again on the question of where I had come from and thought of it, as most writers do, in the language of a story.
As we hiked upwards, the open dirt road obscured underneath a canopy of crooked trees, I thought about those who had walked their path before us, those who were the trailblazers of our family and how their voices were still calling to us, guiding us even to this very day. Modern economics had driven my Great, Great, Grandfather to leave his ancestral home of Hungary. Having to initially leave his family and everything he knew behind, he left to create new possibilities across the sea in the new country: America. Here he forged a path that defied the repetitive structure of life that had once been his only legacy back in Hungary.
While economics may have been the instigating factor for his journey, it was indeed his family who were the catalysts for the drastic change in course that affected our entire kin, when they consciously chose not to join him across the sea. This act of refusal could arguably be the key factor as to how our family found itself split three ways, on three separate courses – in America, Hungary, and Australia. While my Great Great Grandfather found his way in the wide world, regaining love in the process, I cannot help but feel his steps along this Earth and the choices he made, were directly responsible for my family forging its very own legacy.
What I have discovered along this journey is that these unseen links fashioned in story, have the most profound and wondrous way of unfurling, as here I was, right now walking my way up to The Great Wall of China. It also made me wonder just how much the building of this wall had etched its way into the psyche and destiny of the Chinese people and how it affects them to this very day.
A falcon dipped through the sky, so close that I could see the ripples on its wings as it navigated the air. I remembered that this land had once been a silent sanctuary for wildlife before the carts had rolled in with slabs of stone for molding, before the backbreaking work had even begun, and before a single human foot had tread this part of the Earth. When this section of The Great Wall had been built and soldiers brought in to guard it, they had to create agriculture amidst these wild mountains. The untamed valleys became villages, predators turned prey and soldiers became farmers in order to survive.
It was at that very moment that I saw it staring back at me, as we ascended the final bending corner of the track’s steep ascent. The chills that raced up my spine took my breath away as my eyes lay to rest on The Great Wall of China.
We rose with it, ascending the final few inclines until the trees parted and all that was over us was the open blue sky. The green hills stretched as far as the eye could see, dotted with the outline of tiny stone hamlets. Cheney announced that this would be the highest point that we would reach along the walk and so we stood, our feet on the crumbling edges of oblivion, taking in the world from the height of the heavens.
We climbed up the sturdy wooden ladder into the mouth of the cobblestone rubble. Standing inside the ancient shelter, Cheney informed us that this was once a beacon tower, one that would have been used hundreds of years ago to light a flame as a warning against an enemy and alert others of its presence. In the back of my mind, I felt something click and my thoughts raced to a tower just like this one along The Great Wall, a few hundred miles to the South, in the Shandong Province. It was another story of The Wall, part of China’s Legacy, set during the time of the legendary general Qi Jiguang, a national hero of the late Ming Dynasty, (1368 – 1644). The story flashed before my eyes. The wind swept through the crumbling windows of the tower, weaving a legend on its wings.
The Legend of The Wife Tower
A family of three members, old man Wang, his daughter Xuelan and a young man Wu Sanhu, lived in Shandong Province. Wu Sanhu was an orphan adopted by Wang. The family made its living by performing in the street. Proficient in Chinese martial arts, Wang taught his skills to both Xuelan and Wu Sanhu, who traveled with him all over the country.
As time went on, Xuelan and Wu Sanhu fell in love. Just before Mid-Autumn Day, a traditional Chinese festival of reunion (held on August 15 of the lunar calendar), news came from the boundary that Qi Jiguang had given orders to recruit new members. Enthusiastic about making contributions to his country, Wu Sanhu decided to join the army. When he told Xuelan, she secretly informed Wang of what he had said.
Regarding Wu Sanhu as his son, Wang did not want him to join the army and thought that marriage would make him stay with the family. On Mid-Autumn Day, he made a delicious meal. At the table, he said to Wu Sanhu, “People should get married while they are young.” Wang then told the two young people that they should marry at once. They accepted because they loved each other, and got married that same day.
Defying Wang’s expectation, the next day Wu Sanhu again insisted on joining the army. Xuelan and Wang could do nothing but say good-bye to him.
Once in the army, Wu Sanhu showed his martial arts talents and was sent to guard the beacon tower of Dongjiakou. He did his duty zealously and patrolled day and night.
Xuelan and Wang missed Wu Sanhu very much. One day, Wang became deathly ill. He told Xuelan to take care of herself and to go to look for her husband. Saying this, Wang passed away. Xuelan choked back tears and buried her father. She then set out to look for Wu Sanhu.
After experiencing a long journey and many difficulties, she reached Dongjiakou and finally found Wu Sanhu.
It was night; the couple had much to share. While they were talking, enemies secretly entered Dongjiakou. Wu Sanhu discovered them and then, to warn the army with a beacon fire, he rushed with kindling to the tower. Unfortunately, it was raining heavily. Struggling to set a fire in the beacon tower, Wu Sanhu was found by his enemies who killed him with arrows.
When Xuelan came to the beacon tower, the sight of her fallen husband stunned her. Suppressing her sorrow and anger, she took the kindling and ignited the fire using her dry underclothes. Seeing her flames, the army advanced rapidly to Dongjiakou to hem in the enemy.
One of the enemies slipped away, trying to escape. Suddenly he heard a sneer in front of him. In the dim light, he made out a young woman, spear in hand. That was Xuelan. The enemy was frightened, but on second thought believed a weak woman could not harm him. So he picked up his spear and thrust it at Xuelan. She stood calmly, and then lashed out with all her martial arts skills, defeating the enemy in minutes.
According to law, she deserved a prize for stopping the enemies’ sneak attack. Xuelan refused. Instead, she begged The Emperor to let her stay at the boundary to continue her husband’s work.
From then on, Xuelan guarded the beacon tower day and night. In her honour, the local people named it the “Wife Tower” of The Great Wall. **
We continued down the tower, out onto the wild pass that lay between us and Mutianyu. The outcrops of jagged rocks resembled that of a natural obstacle course and we enjoyed the next few hours in a thrilling rotation of ascents and descents. Jiankou is, after all, the steepest section of The Great Wall around Beijing. We hiked onwards through dense vegetation, up and through numerous watchtowers where we caught a glimpse of what this world would have looked like some 650 years ago. The brickwork was elaborate, with crenellations and finely curved eaves on some watchtower roofs. Cheney made sure to point out the decorative gables with animal statues, and tablets bearing ancient calligraphy above a few select entrances.
Fruit and chestnut orchards stretched out on both sides of us and we stopped frequently to admire the views and to keep our hydration levels up, greedily indulging in the cold water that our tour had provided. When the sun reached its peak, beaming down onto us from above, Cheney opened his backpack to reveal a secret stash of chocolate bars to keep our blood sugars from dropping. It was here that our conversation returned to our origins and so it was also here that we asked Cheney, if it wasn’t too personal, how he had chosen his name.
Cheney remained silent for a little while contemplating the question, though his smile showed that he was not offended. “I wanted to have a unique name amidst all my tour guide friends. There are so many of them called Robert, Tim, John, and Peter, just to make things easier for the tourists. I wanted to pick something that visitors could still pronounce but was distinctive in its own way. That’s how I chose Cheney.”
Our smile reflected in Cheney’s own as we steadied ourselves for the steepest incline we had so far encountered. The walkway was almost vertical, stretching at least 200 meters downwards before it evened out. I felt a wave of apprehension wash over me. Taking a deep breath, I reached forward and grabbed the stone wall to my right. Then we began the slippery descent.
As we reached the bottom, I felt the nerves in my fingers subside and I looked up at the mountain we had just descended. Cheney smiled and pointed to a view I would not soon forget: the restored Great Wall. We had arrived.
The contrast between Jiankou and Mutianyu was shocking in its starkness. It was evident even at the very border of the two divergent worlds. The walkways of Jiankou were serrated, irregular and uneven. Looking out over Mutianyu I couldn’t see a single brick out of place. There had been no evidence of litter walking through Jiankou and yet at the very tip of Mutianyu, the garbage can next to us was filled to almost overflowing with empty soft drink cans. Behind us, the path where we had come from, was peacefully empty. Ahead, it was teeming with people.
To the far left I made out the cranking wires of the Mutianyu Gondola, carting tourists up daily by the thousands. So many different lives graced the stone steps of this section of The Great Wall every day. So many different stories. We began to walk onwards.
Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a white flash of silk. Turning around we saw not one, but two brides climbing the steep steps upwards, surrounded by what seemed to be an ethereal glow. It was only when they were a little closer that I realised the “ethereal glow” was in fact, the flash of their photographers, no doubt trying to capture the perfect picture for their wedding album. When they reached the final landing, we watched as the brides parted ways, one opting to go east while the other turned west, both hurrying along with their grooms in tow.
Another bout of viscous wind encased us. My ears filled with the sound of the breeze raging, weaving a story once again.
The Two Brides: An Ancient Chinese Tale of Benevolence
It was the Jiajing era of the Ming Dynasty, in the southern coastal city of Huangyan. One autumn afternoon, a luxuriously decorated marriage litter, containing a wealthy bride of a good family, was carried out the western gate. As the happy procession headed north, rain began to fall; luckily, a roadside pavilion in the hills offered shelter from the elements.
A second, far shabbier litter, was hastily set down beside the first. The shelter was big enough for only the two litters, so the attendants sought refuge elsewhere. The two young women sat side by side in their bridal seats under the pavilion.
The bride in the luxuriously decorated litter heard the other girl crying and asked.
“Dear sister, it is our good day, why do you weep?”
The other bride answered, “My sister, how could you imagine my misery! Father is in debt for my marriage, and word has it that my husband-to-be is also poor. What life am I to live?”
The wealthy bride could not think of a better way to help the poor woman, but realized that she had two bride’s purses forming a portion of her dowry. Without too much thought, she passed one of the red purses to the other woman, who thanked her in pleasant surprise. Then the rain stopped, and they parted.
The wealthy bride, Wang Lanzhen, was an only daughter; her groom was the respected scholar Zheng Mudi. Before them was a happy life.
But one day after two months of the marriage, Japanese pirates descended upon Lanzhen’s hometown of Huangyan. Her entire family was slaughtered in the raid. The community, fearing more incursions, elected her husband commander of 300 volunteer troops to offer resistance. Mudi sold his property to prepare for the coming battle and received promises of reimbursement from local elites.
Mudi led the militia to victory, killing hundreds of pirates at Niutou Gorge. The area was henceforth known as Pirate Grave Pond.
But when Mudi returned home to his wife, he found his family in debt and the promises of repayment forgotten by the community. He and Lanzhen were further hounded by village leaders, who accused him of seizing military power under the guise of fighting piracy. Learning of his coming arrest, the disenfranchised couple and their daughter fled during the night, going their separate ways in search of refuge.
Lanzhen wandered south with their daughter and found work as a servant. Her employer, Xu Jingsheng, ran a wine shop together with his wife, Gu Jinhua.
For three years, Lanzhen worked there. Finally, she traveled back home in search of her fugitive husband, but without success. Before leaving, she gathered some of her old belongings stored by old friends, among which was the remaining dowry purse.
Returning to her employer’s home and upon discovering the red purse, Lanzhen wept and grieved when she recalled the happiness of her wedding day, unaware of the blessings that had taken root with her spontaneous act of charity.
As life would have it, Gu Jinhua was the poor bride who had taken shelter next to Lanzhen years ago under the pavilion, and whom she had given one of her red, silver-filled purses. Jinhua’s groom then used this gift to pay off their family’s debts and go into the wine business. Their hard work and diligence had paid off, yet they never forgot their unknown benefactor. Jinhua thus kept the red purse enshrined in a place of honor, awaiting the return of its original owner.
At that moment, Jinhua entered Lanzhen’s quarters to find her in tears and clutching what seemed to be the purse she had received that rainy day under the pavilion.
“Why are you holding that purse?” Jinhua asked.
“It is mine,” Lanzhen said. Jinhua hurried to the shrine and found that her own purse, identical to the other, was indeed there.
“You are my dear sister!” Jinhua exclaimed, and the following exchange revealed the lost story of the two brides.
Jinhua and her husband wanted to split their wealth with Lanzhen, but she refused.
“It was by your own diligence that you earned your present fortune,” Lanzhen said. “Even if I had kept the purse, I would have squandered its riches.”
The couple admired Lanzhen’s generosity and continued to take good care of her. They also arranged for their children to be married.
Lanzhen’s good fortune did not end there. Mere days passed before her long-lost husband came knocking. It turned out that after his escape, he had entered service with a powerful general and was promoted to a high rank for his ability.
Reunited, Lanzhen and her husband set off for home. On the road back, they came across the pavilion, where Lanzhen paid her respects by hanging an inscription at the site.***
The wedding parties disappeared into the distance just as my stomach gave a large rumble. It was only at this moment that I realized it had been five hours since we had commenced our walk. It was a bittersweet notion knowing that we were coming to the very end of our Great Wall Hiking Adventure. As we walked down the impressive stone staircases, we began to chat with the travelers that had slowly appeared around us as we made our way back into civilization. The stories encircled us. The story of the young man who had climbed up the 4000+ step stairway after his friends said he wouldn’t be able to make it. The story of the young Australian couple who were also traveling around the world and had just come from a three-week exploit through Tibet and the story of the German family coming together for a vacation. One by one they disappeared as they boarded at the gondola entrance. Waving goodbye we began our own descent, opting for one last round of staircases with Cheney.
It wasn’t long before we arrived at an inviting local restaurant for a satiating late lunch. For us Vegetarians, it hasn’t been the easiest navigating the food scene in China due to the fact that almost everything contains meat or fish, but we had absolutely no trouble satisfying our hunger here. Plates of Sautéed Vegetables, Rich Sticky Sweet Eggplant, Broccoli with Garlic and Stewed Boc-Choy accompanied by Steamed White Rice, Noodles, and Flatbreads. When we sat back in our seats an hour later, we were all immaculately content.
As we bid goodbye to the highly curated and meticulous Disneyland-like restored section of The Great Wall at Mutianyu, I reflected on the Ming Hongwu Emperor’s history once more. At the beginning of his story, he had led the life of a wandering beggar and personally experienced and saw the hardships of the common people. Perhaps this is what enabled him to rise so far, so fast. Perhaps he knew within him that no matter how high he climbed, no matter how many palaces he owned or subjects he commanded or riches he had in his coffers, if it was all taken away, he could survive. He had learned to read and write with monks in a humble monastery and had lived through famine, war, plague and peasant revolts and through all of it, he had survived. Perhaps, deep inside, he held no fear at becoming that simple nomad once again, at becoming the wandering soul once more, because through everything, it was always the essence of who he truly was.
Then again, this is merely a story, just like all the others. And yet somehow… that is everything.
In a world, increasingly morphing, where thousands of trees are cut down every day and cultures die out by the hundreds, the most important legacy we can pass onto future generations are our stories. Moments that will meld into memories, journals that tell of journeys and personal narratives that will remain long after all our history books crumble to dust.
Everyone has a story worth telling. From the most powerful emperor to the simple nomad. This holds the essence of mine. Now go out there and tell yours.