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April 05, 2007

More Stories About the Great Wall

My alarm clocks in Water's Head village

Day 28: Chinese roosters, like roosters everywhere, crow to announce the arrival of day.  It is the best kind of alarm, and in Water's Head village, a crescendo of mules and goats figure into the mix, a brazen and undeniable call to action.

We got up, washed our hands, and rolled our sleeping bags. The toilet was situated in a shed out back, and was nothing more than a hole in the ground to squat over. It worked just fine, so long as you could tolerate the thigh-burn.

Breakfast noodles

For breakfast, Mother Han made a batter out of corn and wheat flour and steamed it in the iron wok, sprinkling dried Chinese dates on top, which are something like prunes and have two small pits. We ate the pancake [view], which was moist and rich, but not too heavy, along with a bowl of noodles, and then a bowl of millet porridge. Grandfather Han offered us a glass of sorghum liquor. We declined, so he drank one on his own.

Over breakfast, Grandfather Han told us old stories. He has  seen war. When the Japanese attempted to occupy the area in World War II, it all went pretty much as it did in the 16th century. The Japanese drove up through the South Tang Valley, and the Chinese dug in behind their wall. They fired at the invading army--this time with more sophisticated firearms--and repelled them. Few things, it would seem, are built as well as China's Great Wall.

As we were clearing up, David made a discovery. According to Grandfather Han, the second valley over still went by the same name today as it did back on Oct. 10, 1555. So that's where we headed. We followed the wall north, where it was four feet wide and grown over with grass. It was like walking on a raised carpeted highway. The wind was strong, but the wall protected us. We would get blasted in the face every time we walked past a crenellation, through which the Chinese fired arrows at the Mongols. We saw the remains of old cannon mounts and mounds of loose rocks that had been piled, readied to hurl at the heads of Mongol horsemen, but which had sat untouched all these centuries.

A crenellation in the Great Wall

The true appeal of hiking, I have always believed, isn't the act of walking or the scenery observed, but something that is a product of the two: merry discourse. It's a funny term, one I first found in the Diary  of Samuel Pepys, where he used it to describe a walk through the streets of London. If you ask me, it's the reason people hike. Even if you hike alone, you do so because of the merry discourse that plays out in your head.

And so David Spindler and I walked over the Great Wall of China, marveling at still-standing guard towers, envisioning ancient battles, and talking the whole time. We talked about China then and now, we talked about life in Beijing versus life in Boston, where David grew up, and we talked about something I'd been trying to wrap my head around for the past two days: the Mongol raiders. What, exactly, was their problem?

Basically, it came down to this: Ming-era China was both populous and prosperous and had good soil. The Mongols, on the other hand, were nomads, living on near-desert landscapes, following the herds on which they subsisted. Just over the mountains were the Chinese, with their penned-in livestock, their permanent structures and their small treasures, which must have seemed like an open invitation. So the Chinese built a wall.

Sometime in the mid-afternoon, we turned off the wall and headed down into a valley. For half an hour, we fought through dense, thorny scrub, then got onto a path and walked two-abreast, enjoying easy downhill strides and basking in the post-hike glow, when the mind and the world seem to come into perfect focus. The valley opened up into a plain of grass and wild apricot trees. Every so often, pheasants would fly off out of a nearby bush.

These boots were made for scrambling around the Great Wall

At this point, the Great Wall looks like a raised grassy highway

This seems like a good place to write my blog post

Back in the village, we found Mother Han. She was at the local store, which she runs, where a man was buying onions and celery. In a few days, the village would be celebrating the grave sweeping festival, in which the living place wads of fake money on the graves of the dead, so they can buy themselves things in the afterlife.

When it cam to real money, however, Mother Han refused payment, which David told me is something of a Chinese ritual. He pressed the money into her hand, but she wouldn't take it, and finally he left it sitting there on the counter. Back at the house, our driver was waiting, sitting inside with Grandfather Han. The two were talking and smoking and seem to have struck up an instant friendship. I thought there would still be time to sit, take off our boots and tell stories, but it was time to go back to Beijing. All too abruptly, we said our goodbyes and took our things out to the car. I said thank you--xie xie-- to Grandfather Han and shook his hand.

Mother Han followed us out to the car. She stood there, her hands politely folded, as we loaded things in. Every minute or so, I turned around and said thank you again. Each time, she said the same phrase back to me. We smiled, nodded our heads in understanding--even though there was very little understanding--and smiled again.

Posted at N 40 11.249   E 115 45.830


What a great experience to be able to do what you did. The best experiences traveling are off the beaten path and being able to interact with the locals. I am jealous.

Wow, great post today.

nice job, mark. what a unique experience. very cool.

You are one lucky guy. Maybe when Greta is older you can take her and Laura on the same trip to retrace your steps.

Mark, I've spent the past two days catching up with all your previous posts. I once spent a year driving a truck and blogging about it, and was always amazed when someone told me they'd spent a day or two catching up, so I hope you can enjoy similar amazement now.

A couple of comments: First, I put this on an earlier post but it's important enough to repeat in case you missed it: You are traveling east-to-west, so, unlike Phileas Fogg, you will lose a day. You only have 79 days, total, to return to New York.

Second: You're a heck of a photographer, but please link to larger versions of your pictures! Several of them would have made terrific wallpaper, and then I could have enjoyed your journey all day. The little pictures get fuzzy when stretched out full screen.

Your writing is awesome and I am enjoying it intensely. Thanks for doing it, and thanks to Conde Nast for making it possible. You guys rock!

Mark: Thanks for allowing me to travel the world with you. I anxiously wait to see where each day will take us. Great hearing about your lovely family too. GG enjoys reading your blog.

Yet another great post, and I second the comment about posting your full pictures. The shot you took of the sunset in the pacific was my wallpaper for a week - but it was waaaaay stretched and pixelated.

Keep up the great work, and good luck!

What an adventure! The countryside looks amazing...Greta's great grandfather always wanted to go to China but never did. Enjoy!

I immediately recognized 'merry discourse' for what I have experienced on many mountain hikes. Thanks for putting a name to it! I wonder how often we miss out on such conversations by living in such an electronic and motorized world. Thanks for another classic post.

Great blog, and glad you got a chance to hook up with Great Wall Guru David Spindler. The only disappointment is that you didn't post any photos of David! (was this something he requested?) In any case, I have some of David's photos on my website:

As usual a very fun and enjoyable post. It must be very interesting to try new flavors and dishes not available to the typical traveler who doesn't stray too far off the typical venues. You do a good job of combining history with your travel. The reading is much more enjoyable this way. Thanks for the info about the sleeping bag. If you can post more details about your gear, that'd be great as I am very curious to know how you're coping on such a long trip. Keep up the good work.

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