Along the length of the Great Wall is a stone inscribed with words from China’s former leader Mao Zedong: “He who does not reach the Great Wall is not a true man”.
After conquering one of the more difficult sections of the incredible engineering feat that is the Great Wall, sipping a well earned cold Tsing Tao, my travelling companions joked that elevation to “true men” comes at the cost of extremely sore calf muscles.
Sore muscles notwithstanding, the Jinshanling section of the wall, three hours drive from Beijing, was the highlight of a three week visit to China for myself and my three closest friends who climbed, suffered and laughed their way up, along and down many walls in China before reaching the Great Wall.
Tackling a remote less well-known section of the wall, as we did, is not for the faint-hearted. It’s hard climbing on rough, uneven steps – but the rewards are huge: the views across Inner Mongolia and exploring a part of China’s history. Another surprise on this section of the Wall was the luxury, in this most populous of countries, of having the Wall almost to ourselves – albeit accompanied by Mongolian ‘helpers’ who attached themselves to us at the beginning of our walk, offering to take photos, give helping hands and provide a running historical commentary in return for us buying some souvenirs from them.
It was originally constructed to protect Chinese empires from the 'barbarians' of the north and even though it failed in this purpose, it's still without a doubt one of the country's most remarkable achievements, and an iconic destination.
The Great Wall was a highlight of three weeks exploring some of the cultural highlights of the Delta region of China, from Shanghai to Beijing. I call it a journey of walls, as many of the ancient cities are surrounded by defensive walls which offer their own delights for a traveller.
In Xi’an, our group hired bicycles and cycled our way around the 14 kilometre wall that encircles the old city, watching the sun set on the famous Muslim quarter as we cycled. The path was some 25 metres wide, atop a sloping stone construction at least 15 metres high, which was reached via stairs through a parade ground which would once have resounded to the sound of solders preparing to defend their city.
In Ping Yoa, a smaller but stunningly lovely centuries old city, the wall is smaller but none the less imposing on everyday life. Every morning, local farmers from outside the city gather to sell fresh foods to the tiny eating houses inside. The markets disappear like a morning mist as the sun rises; light which reveals damaged sections of the wall, where it has been looted of its component bricks (which could be seen propping up sections of houses in the vicinity). The authorities are slowly reclaiming the wall, and bits have been rebuilt, but it will be touch and go for this piece of history.
Within the walls of Ping Yao and Xi’an, the crumbling facades of the walls of the houses themselves tell a story of the history of the towns and the people who have lived there for generations. Walking through the narrow streets, sections of house walls are falling away, revealing the clay and straw render that covers the handmade bricks. Atop the houses, clay tiles sprout weeds and small plants; the streets seem to be returning to the soil from which they were built.
But within these homes and shops, life bustles. People go about their everyday lives as they have for centuries and food is central. Everywhere along the narrow street food of all descriptions is sold from tiny shops and barrows: little sour apples covered in toffee; noodles and vegetables; bean curd curry; fresh fruits and the ubiquitous Moon Cakes (baked to celebrate the Chinese Festival of the Moon).
Leaving Ping Yao and Xi’an behind we travelled northward to another town of walls – the water town of Xitang, two hours drive from Shanghai, where the walls are aren’t defensive – they are the foundation of a town build on water.
These days Xitang is more famous its covered corridors and the beautiful laneways, bridges and whitewashed houses, some of which can be traced back to the Ming and Qing dynasties. Our accommodation was in a boarding house on the canal; the bedroom window looked down to a narrow ledge on which a comfortable chair beckoned the visitor to rest awhile and watch the passing water-borne traffic. Sticking our head out the window enabled us to catch a glimpse of a tea shop next door, where delicate tea is served on slatted trays according to century-old ritual.
All the houses along the canals are festooned with red Chinese lanterns that, come night time, blaze with light that reflects off the many bridges along the water way.
Xitang is one of several water towns in china, many of which were founded more than 2,500 years ago, as families settled along the tributaries of the great Mekong Delta and turned to fishing. These days the local industry is based around tourism; each house has shops at the bottom facing onto the laneways selling everything from silk fabric to hand pulled ginger toffee.
Restaurants abound, and one night my companions and I found our way into a tiny restaurant bar atop a canal house occupied by locals and Chinese tourists. The menu was in Chinese, so feeling brave, we pointed to six dishes and crossed our fingers. Afterwards we asked our Chinese guide what we had ordered and eaten and found to his vast amusement that we had managed to avoid some of the more interesting offerings such as snails and snake.
My companions and I travelled from Shanghai to Beijing on a ten day Intrepid Basix tour with our guide, Alan (the English translation of his name) who managed to get our group of 11 onto and off trains, public buses and many, many walls.
I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!