The entry gate at Jinshanling.
I know that many have walked the Great Wall of China and the experience has stimulated various insightful chronicles of the trek. As well, I know that the actions of the hawkers have often been described as a negative influence. I don't know if my hike was any different from most except that for me, for some strange reason, the focus became not only the Wall itself but also the stories of two women of incredible spirit and charm.
Preferring to travel at low tourist time and to do an actual hike, my Wall trek occurred in early January. I had decided I would do the 4 hour (32 tower) walk from the Jinshanling section to the Simitai area, a distance of about 10 kilometres.
Having arranged a car and driver to take me there, I left Beijing at about 8:30am and arrived at Jinshanling at around 10:45. As I hoped the entry area was deserted except for the attendant and a lone female hawker who convinced me to buy a postcard map and a book .
My porky cheerleaders headed in the opposite direction.
As I started out, snow covered parts of the ground and though I was prepared for the cold with a toque and gloves, these soon became unnecessary. Cautiously skating my way on ice up the initial slope, I passed by a deserted and empty tourist building and I then noticed a number of structures which I later learned comprised the village of Jinshanling, population 130. Continuing along I paced myself against a small group of snorting pigs out for their morning forage.
Perhaps their snorts were actual chuckles of laughter about another crazy tourist going to walk the Wall. These pink, chubby creatures sure presented me with an odd and unexpected cheering section for the begin of my hike. Then I came upon a small, empty ticket booth where I presume someone checked tickets during the peak summer season. Standing near the booth was a small group of ladies and one or two men. I gave a friendly "Ni Hao" as I walked by. However, before I knew it, I was being paced along by one of the ladies asking if I wanted to buy a book. Explaining that I had already purchased one, I continued upward with my shadow in tow. At that point I remembered reading about these ladies trying to sell things at that Great Wall and felt a bit annoyed. I really wanted to shake this woman but she continued with me quite undaunted by my initial negative responses.
View of the Great Wall at Jinshanling.
But even though I tried to ignore her, she was at least helpful in getting me on the right path as we climbed uphill to the real starting point for the Great Wall trek. This in itself was a decent climb and I was thankful for the amount of walking I had done in Beijing during the two previous days which I convinced myself had help me get into shape..
View of the Great Wall at Jinshanling.
Once we reached the actual Wall, I took a closer look at Jo who was wearing a typical grey Chinese winter coat. Over her left shoulder was slung a striped cloth bag containing the books, wooden carvings, a scroll photo of the Wall in a nice box and some t-shirts. But nowhere was there any sign of food or water. In turn, my pack was filled with a 1.5 litre bottle of Evian, a small container of "Pringles" type chips, a package of digestive-type vanilla cookies, a large orange, 2 apples and close to 10 apricots.
I also had my Vibram soled walking boots whereas Jo had only black leather boot shoes like I had seen many wearing in downtown Beijing. Eventually, I started taking a liking to Jo mainly because she plodded along with little difficulty and she also spoke pretty good English. As it turned out, she was 35 years old with 2 boys (11 and 5) and an unemployed husband. She was also originally of Mongolian descent and with her long black hair tied in a ponytail, she certainly seemed to reflect that ancestry. This in itself I found a bit ironic that now a Mongolian descendent was walking the Wall everyday....a wall originally designed to keep the Mongol hoards out of China.
A steep section on the way to Simatai.
What also continued to amaze and confound me was that whenever I asked how far she was going, Jo would always reply "to Simitai" and then would explain she would then turn around and go back home to Jinshanling.
This I found unbelievable and in further reflection now I wonder if that was the gimmick these ladies used to get people to buy things. If so, I think she had me hooked. As we continued walking and climbing the Wall (thank goodness for my earlier "training") we also came across others that Jo knew going in the opposite direction. They would chat briefly, I assume about the lack of tourists and chances of making much money. At this point I realized that Jo was with me for the long haul but rather than buying anything (I was travelling heavy enough as it was) I asked if she would be my guide and offered to pay her a sum for this service. I had no idea if my offer was at all reasonable but Jo just smiled and said "OK".
Jo headed up the steep section.
By this time we were around tower 10 and I had already worked up a pretty good sweat so pulled out my bottle of water, had a swig and then offered Jo some.
Her predictable response was a polite rejection and a smile. She had been sucking some wind as well so how she went without taking any water boggled me. Eventually we can upon another villager, a young girl who Jo told me was 15 years old. This was not obvious to me at first because the shorter statured, round-faced Ping always had a black scarf wrapped around her nose....for the cold she explained. Jo and I initially passed Ping and her tourist "companion" but eventually this young girl caught up and joined us. Perhaps Jo had let Ping know that I was an easier mark....who knows.
Builders "signatures" on bricks making up the Great Wall.
Ping's story was equally interesting to me. She was indeed 15 years old and walked the Wall on weekends during her days off from school trying to make money. She loved school and with a big smile that followed the oval line of her face, she explained that she was hoping to become a doctor one day.
Like Jo's oldest son, her school was about 10 kilometres from her home and she would usually bike there in the summer and walk or "whatever" in the winter because the ice on the roads made biking too dangerous.
Modern "signature" on the Great wall.
It wasn't long before they announced we were at tower 16....halfway and time for lunch. I was grateful for a chance to rest as my legs were now much more obvious to my consciousness. So I sat down and pulled out my goodies and offered some to the ladies who both politely refused with big smiles. So, much to my muscular protestations, I struggled to my feet and handed both of them some apricots, cookies and chips which they finally graciously accepted and ate. After a bit of basking in the sun, I carried on with my two cheerful shadows in tow.
By now the Wall was more noticeably in worse shape and it was now that the two ladies were most helpful in assisting me to navigate and avoid the non-accessible or dangerous towers.
They also pointed out something around tower 20 that I never would have observed had I been on my own. The ancient "signatures" of soldiers in the individual bricks were unmistakable but really only if you had been forewarned of their presence.
A crumbling tower.
And at times as the three of us plodded along in silence, it was as if we were each caught up in our own little worlds and thoughts..... with their worlds I'm sure being far different from mine. Yet despite the vast gulf between us in language, culture and financial resources, we were definitely connected by the long wall which we were walking along. A connection continually reinforced by the sharing of warm, friendly and sincere smiles. We even shared a laugh when I suggested to Ping that she was trying to earn money to buy makeup to impress her boyfriend.
Not surprisingly, she informed me that she didn't really like boys but that the money was for her mother. Needless to say, I was not surprised. However, what later shocked me was when Ping explained to me that her mother needed to pay for Ping to go to school. "What?" I asked incredulously as I tried to reconcile this statement with my understanding that in a communist system, everyone would have been entitled to a free education. But this was indeed not the case as Jo explained it cost about 3000 yuan a year to send her eldest to school. My immediate thought was "that is a hell of a lot of trips walking the Wall!".
Along the top of the wall, closer to Simatai.
Eventually we approached tower 24 at which point Jo explained to me that she and Ping would then start taking a short-cut back home. I was happy to hear they would not be going all the way to Simitai but at the same time a little sad to lose their company.
At this point, I tried to find out how much profit they made from selling books and other items. It turned out that for each book they sold, they made 50 yuan or about $5. So on a good day of walking the wall back and forth they might sell two books and possibly make $10. Needless to say I gave them each more than their usual take without buying anything although Jo did insist I take a t-shirt. Then it was a few pictures taken with each of them and as I headed on to tower 25, I saw them below headed back to Jinshanling. As we gave our last farewell waves and I watched the two disappear behind a hill, I knew my Great Wall journey was over.
Ping at the entrance to a tower.
The physical and spiritual components of my Great Wall hike will always remain firmly etched in my mind but the human aspect brought to me through the connection, albeit brief, I had with Jo and Ping will always remain in my heart.
I know others feel that the presence of these ladies takes away from the true Great Wall experience but I will argue that there has always been a past human presence tied to this incredible structure as will there always be a future one. I realize that these people are doing what it takes to survive and when this focuses in part on the education of their children, I am more than happy to contribute in some small way. For me and these particular ladies, my walk was a true educational experience that introduced me to a side of the Chinese people I had not expected.
Ping and I before her and Jo head back to Jinsanling.