A rainbow above Xiakou
On a six-month walking trip, there are days when it all comes together – everyone you meet is friendly and helpful, the path is clear and your footing good, and you know that when you look back in the future that day will seem bathed in golden sunlight. On other days the stormclouds gather, every “Ni hao” you shout out is met with stony silence, and you wonder how you’ll do this for another four months.
And there are days like Xiakou – a little bit of both. We began the day by being outrageously overcharged for our cab ride back to the wall from Brendan’s kidney stone misadventure. Somehow, we stupidly forgot a simple rule that every tourist to China (except us) has down by the third day: never, ever, EVER hop in an unmetered taxi without negotiating a price first.
The fun continued with a tedious trudge through clumpy abandoned fields and a pointless two-hour, five-kilometre detour to refill our water bags that could have been avoided if we’d continued on the wall another 45 minutes. By the time we reached Xiakou’s city wall, nary a smile crossed Emma’s sunburnt face.
The entrance to Xiakou
Xiakou was a small but important fort, communications station and grain storage depot on the old Silk Road. The contemporary village directly abuts the wall’s south side, and is bounded on the west by the simple gate pictured above, and on the east by a more elaborate gate.
Xiakou’s eastern gate, built in 1574
The town doesn’t seem such an important place now. Vehicle access is over a dirt road and the buildings are mostly single-storey adobe brick. There are a few empty plots of overgrown vegetation and the two or three people we did see stayed well away from us. But the eastern gate is far and away the best example of a small-village fortification we’ve seen – structurally sound and with what look like original murals on the interior and an unrestored sign above the entrance.
Read right to left, the sign says “Wei zhen qiankun” (roughly, mightiest garrison in heaven and earth)
Though we got to Xiakou at about 6 pm, accommodation in town wasn’t going to be an option. So we walked through the gate and towards the wall, reaching the first serious hills of the trip. We climbed a few hundred feet and made camp in a small meadow as a beautiful sunset broke through the dull grey. At the same time, a few drops of rain in the distance gave us our first rainbow. This is what it’s like to walk the wall – one hour of beautiful light can make eight hours of painful walking seem worth it.
Sunlit wall fragment
Looking down on Xiakou in morning light, with the wall stretching across the plain