A test of mettle on the wild wall

Photo of Bethany Hiatt

BETHANY HIATT faces down her fear of heights, with her daughter, on a rugged ancient way

I am suspended, literally, between a rock and a hard place. Behind me is a steep climb that took some willpower to achieve. In front is a sheer rock face that needs all my upper body strength to clamber over, but my limbs have turned to jelly.

“Let’s go hiking on the wild wall,” my daughter Elise had suggested when we realised we would have a chance to see the Great Wall of China during a trip to Beijing. “It’ll be much more fun than the crowded touristy sections.”

And she is right — the wild wall, so called because it has fallen into disrepair and is hard to get to — is a spectacular sight as it undulates across the mountains. I was worried I might not be fit enough for the uphill climb. But I’m finding that grappling with my fear of heights is far more of a challenge.

Our trek with China Hiking from the wild Jiankou section of the wall to the partly restored Mutianyu section starts in Beijing, where we first meet our guides for the day. During the two-and-a-half-hour drive to the mountains, lead guide John He, who has just returned from filming a trek through the Gobi desert for the Discovery channel, and guide-in-training, university student Mike Zhang, tell us about some of the history of the Great Wall which stretches for thousands of kilometres across China.

We arrive at a humble farmhouse where the owner is waiting to serve us an authentic array of freshly cooked communal dishes, including pork and celery, sauteed red onions and capsicum, tofu and Szechuan pepper sauce, alongside steaming bowls of rice.

Fortified for our 10km hike and armed with walking sticks, we set off at a steady pace, trudging up a steep path towards the glimpses of the wall we can see in the distance. John pauses for plenty of rest stops to take photos and have a sip of water.

It takes nearly an hour of climbing to get above the tree line. It is a sunny spring day and I’m enjoying the views across the valleys and the rustling of the last of the winter leaves still clinging to trees. Then, without warning, we step up off the forest path and on to an exposed, stony roadway with low brick walls either side — we have reached the Great Wall.

With the wide arc of blue sky above us and the mountains stretching away on either side it feels as though we are on the roof of the world. And that is when the first moment of panic hits. I sink to the ground, unable to look down. The terror, as most phobias are, is completely irrational. I am quite safe, in no danger of falling, and the ground beneath me is solid.

Elise, who can also be hit with a fear of heights at the unlikeliest of moments, such as crossing a pedestrian overpass above a busy road, is cheerfully unaffected and sets off with the guides to explore a nearby tower.

It’s eerily quiet, just me and the wind plucking at my hair, as I sit there contemplating the white rocky surface which once felt the tramp of the emperor’s soldiers. I realise we have only just started our hike and I had better find a way to overcome this fear.

After a few minutes I get up and plod steadily towards the crumbling tower, keeping my eyes on the ground in front and not looking at the drop on either side. With a sense of relief I stumble inside the ruin, which still has arched windows looking out over empty valleys. I can do this.

As we head off, following the wall as it marches across the landscape, I clamp down on the fear by casting sidelong glances at the drop either side, gathering strength from the wall itself which has stood for so many hundreds of years. I feel more secure in the sections where the side walls are higher. At regular intervals we pass arched nooks, designed for archers to shoot down on to marauders while preventing them from shooting back.

The rocky path we are following is rough and overgrown. All around us are wild peach and apricot trees just on the cusp of blooming.

John tells us it will be only a few more days before the entire hillside bursts into blossom and I try to imagine what that would be like, wishing I could see it then. All is going well until we reach a switchback section known as the Ox Horn. The wall continues on, up a steep incline, to a broken tower at the crest, before plunging down again. John gives me the option of taking a shortcut to skip that part. Blithely I decide to give it a go, thinking I can always turn back.

That’s how I find myself perched at the top of the Ox Horn, no way to go forward and fearing to go back. “I really don’t think I can do this,” I hear myself say. But with a few words of encouragement from my daughter (‘just think what a great story it will make!’ she says) and a helping hand from John, I heave my leaden limbs over the stone lip. I find a sheltered place to sit while Elise takes photos, before it’s time to pick our way down.

Setting off on the steep descent on the other side, John warns us to keep hold of the wall or a tree branch at all times, because the rocks are so slippery. I can’t imagine what it would be like if it was a wet day. I don’t really need the reminder and cling to the trusty wall, the rough bricks scraping my fingers, as my foot seeks out the next crevice. Tossing pride to the incessant wind, I decide it will be much easier just to shuffle down on my backside. Apparently I’m not the only one who has chosen to descend that way.

After making it past that obstacle, we pause for some Chinese snacks.

As I shake beef-flavoured sunflower seeds from their little packet into my hand, I turn and look back at the steep slope we have just slithered down and wonder what possessed me to tackle the Ox Horn.

But I’m glad I did.

As we draw nearer to Mutianyu, the rough path gives way to smooth stone pavers. We pause to snap our last pictures of the awe-inspiring views of the wall snaking its way across the mountains in the late afternoon sunshine.

And, as we traipse down the stone path at Mutianyu, which is warmer and more sheltered than Jiankou, I get my wish to see the wild fruit trees in full bloom, surrounding us with their scent.

Fact File

China Hiking specialises in taking small groups on wild wall treks. The hike from Jiankou to Mutianyu costs about $130 each.

We paid extra to have the guides to ourselves. chinahiking.cn


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