First to the Top


Di and Emma Nicholas

If we ever manage to make it to Shanhaiguan, Emma will become the first Australian to have walked the length of the wall, at least as far as we know. She will not, however, be the first Australian, or even the first Australian Nicholas, to have climbed to the watchtower above the famous pass at Juyongguan.

That honour has already been claimed.

On March 26, 2007, Di Nicholas summited at the first watchtower a few short steps before her daughter, Emma. It all began in fun (doesn’t it always?), a good-natured mother-daughter challenge on a beautiful spring morning a few days after Di and her friend Helen Fitter arrived in Beijing for a quick visit. But things quickly became competitive, as these things will, and light-hearted laughter turned to grim-faced determination as the two Australian women ascended Juyongguan’s impossibly steep steps, side by side until the last, when Emma could no longer keep pace.


The view from the top

Happily, after a little pout Emma was persuaded to take her defeat in good grace, and by the time we’d reached the bottom and had a few ice creams to cool off, the mother-daughter tie was as strong as ever.



The Big Thaw


A mountain stream flowing freely after three-plus months locked in ice

From December through February, we were the happy beneficiaries of one of the warmest winters in northern China’s history. We didn’t record a temperature below -20° Celsius all winter long (okay, that may sound cold to Australian ears, but for the people who live here it’s just a slightly nippy evening). By mid-February it wasn’t uncommon for the temperature to rise above 10° on sunny days. A few desert shrubs showed early blossoms, the buds on the trees were close to bursting, and on the warmest days we hiked in mid-weight woolen sweaters with no jacket at all. We really thought spring was here (see Spring Sprungeth).

But we were getting ahead of ourselves.

In the first week of March, a cold snap hit northern China. Our overnight lows dropped back into the -15° range. Daytime highs were 0° or lower, with wind chills around -10 to -13°. And as you can see, it snowed – according to some reports, the biggest March snowstorm in more than 50 years.


A beacon tower on the Shanxi-Inner Mongolia border east of the Yellow River

After having endured three months of winter already, we weren’t entirely happy with this development. We thought we might get leaves opening and some trailside greenery by mid-March, about two weeks earlier than normal. We were fantasizing about taking our boots off at breaks, and sitting outside the tent in the evenings to drink a cup of tea like we did in summer. We’d even sent for our spring gear to arrive around March 10, rather than toward the end of the month as we’d originally planned. None of that worked out, obviously, but once the snowstorm cleared, we did get in some of the prettiest winter hiking of the trip.


Emma with her ski goggles on for the first time in weeks


Shanxi mountain high


The snow may delay clearing the fields and spring plowing by two weeks

The cold snap finally broke around the middle of the month, and we were treated to sunny skies and comparatively warm (5-12°) temperatures for the following week. The only downside was the melt – when it comes to the change from winter to spring along the wall, the cure seems almost worse than the disease.


Brendan plodding along the wall

While it’s not necessarily that much fun to trudge through ankle to knee deep snow, the fluffy stuff is a lot nicer than its slicker sibling: ice. When the snow was cold and dry, our boots were also cold . . . and dry. Walking through the melting snow meant that our boots got soaked through and through every afternoon, and then at night, when the temperature dropped to -5 to -10°, they froze into shapes that weren’t exactly what the podiatrist ordered.


Emma’s left boot at 7 am – she couldn’t get either boot on unless we put a bottle of freshly boiled water under the tongue to soften the leather

The footing got a bit tricky too. Paths that we normally wouldn’t break a sweat on in dry weather turned to icy chutes when snow that had partially melted in the afternoon sun froze overnight.


It may not look like much, but a wrong step on a path like this can send you airborne

And when the white stuff finally melted away, it was replaced by gloppy, heavy, messy mud. At least taking a spill was more fun than it was on the ice.


Not bad form for a beginner at mud skiing . . .


. . . but he’s not quite ready for the black double-diamonds

Q&As No. 4

Wow! No sooner had we posted Q&As No. 3 than we got a new set of great questions, enough for a whole new Q&As post. We’ll get to them in a few weeks – they raise some interesting issues we really haven’t covered – but we do need to catch up on our regular posts.

Meanwhile, here’s Q&As No. 4. Keep the questions coming!

Do we see many birds and what are they?

Before we answer this question directly, it’s important to understand that northern China is an ecological disaster. As you can see from our photos, there is rarely any forest cover, and often no ground cover at all.

This is not a natural phenomenon. Although the area of China traversed by the wall is and always has been semi-arid to arid, in ancient times there were open deciduous woodlands across northern Shaanxi and Shanxi, extensive forests on the Helan Shan in Ningxia, and there would have been riparian forests all along the Hexi Corridor.

That is all gone and likely has been for a long time. Over the course of 2500 kilometres covered by foot, we have never seen a natural woodland, and we have probably only seen a handful of trees along rivers that were not planted by humans. Virtually every other tree we have seen was directly placed into the ground by human hands.

As a result, there is practically no wildlife along the Great Wall. To the two of us, having grown up in countries with comparatively rich native fauna, it is shocking. We have seen only three native mammal species on our trip to date – jackrabbits, a few ground squirrels, and amazingly, some antelope. And we only saw the antelope on three occasions. It’s a red-letter day when we see a ground squirrel.

We’ve seen only a handful of native reptiles and amphibians.

We have, however, seen quite a few birds, and bird life is the one gratifying exception to what is otherwise a pretty disheartening natural landscape.


Cock of the walk

Naturally, most of the birds we see are those that have adapted to survive in an intensively cultivated and grazed landscape. We see lots of domestic chickens of course, but also their wild relatives – quail, chukars and pheasants. These ground birds are extremely common and they are beautiful; however, they are also a bit shy and it’s tough to get a good photo of one. We spent a good bit of time stalking chukars to get the photo below, and we’ve been trying for weeks to get a shot of a ring-necked pheasant. We probably flush 10-20 a day, but we almost always have our packs on and never have our cameras out at the critical moment.


A chukar

These birds, and most of the birds we see generally, are familiar to me (Brendan) from my childhood in northeast Kansas. Though northeast Kansas is a lot wetter than the areas we’ve crossed, it’s at the same latitude (39-40° N) and the temperature’s roughly similar, albeit less extreme. The birds we see are almost certainly different species from those I grew up with, i.e. they are Asian species, but the general types are the same. (In the case of ring-necked pheasants, even the species is the same – they were imported to Kansas from China as gamebirds.)

The other ground bird we see, and which we’ve written about before, is the “wall owl” (see The Tengger Desert).

In addition to ground-dwelling fowl, we’ve also seen quite a few waterbirds. Most of the small irrigation dams we see are earthen, and they leak, creating small wetlands downstream that provide some slight mitigation for the extensive wetlands destroyed on riparian floodplains in irrigation country. In these wetlands we’ve seen stilts, avocets, sandpipers, killdeer and other common waterbirds. Less commonly, we see migratory waterfowl on the larger waterbodies.


A stilt below a dam in the Hexi Corridor


Two geese on the Yellow River in early March

About the only forest birds we see are woodpeckers, which seem to have adapted very well to using the poplars lining many roads in irrigation country. There is a large red-crested species similar to crested woodpeckers from the southeast U.S., and a lovely greenish flicker-type bird unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Like the pheasants, these birds are all too quick for us to photograph.

Songbirds, dependent as they are on natural woodlands, are much less common. We do see a few, none of which I recognise, on higher mountains where the shrub cover appears more natural.

Do you ever get lonely?

China’s a tough place to be alone – and by that we don’t mean that it’s difficult emotionally. It’s hard, bordering on impossible, to get any time to ourselves. Countless times every day people shout greetings, run up to us to practice their English, crowd around and pepper us with questions, try to sell us things, try to buy our things, and offer us rides, tea, dinners and stays in their homes.

Loneliness is something that doesn’t come up a lot.


Sometimes you just need to get away from it all – Emma near a beacon tower

That’s not to say we don’t ever miss being with people we know and with whom we share a common history (as well as a common language). We can’t wait to get back to Sydney to see our friends, families, and dog; and we can’t wait to settle back into our house, surrounded by our stuff, and feel at home.

Do you ever get scared?

Feeling scared comes in the shape of two things: dogs and heights.

Heights have always been a problem for me (Emma), but through the radical exposure therapy that is walking the wall, the fear is slowly getting under control.

Dogs are another matter because we don’t have any control over them. We haven’t written about them before but they are a huge concern, probably our most serious on a daily basis. In northern Shaanxi (two a’s) and northwestern Shanxi (one a), many families keep dogs chained outside to act as guards for their sheep or produce. These dogs are large, mostly ill-treated and mean; and they go crazy when they see us. Chained or unchained, they are enough of a concern that we often go completely around a village if we can in order to avoid them, whether we need to get water or not. Our advice to anyone considering a similar trip in this part of China is to carry a walking stick – it’s not a pretty fact of life, but Chinese dogs are very familiar with the meaning of a raised club and they behave accordingly.


Oh, and we’re occasionally ambushed by hostile archers

Would it be possible to ride along the wall on a horse?

Funnily enough, just at the time we were asked this question we were were considering buying a donkey – to the point of pricing them (about 2000 RMB -$330 Australian – in central Shaanxi) and picking out a name (“Wallace”). The reason we were looking was because Brendan’s foot was recovering slowly, but he eventually came right so we dropped the idea.

But while we were thinking about it, we found ourselves looking at the terrain in a new light, asking questions like, “Would this be too steep for a donkey?” “Is there anything around for a donkey to eat?” “What would we do with the donkey if we stayed in a town for a night or two?”

Horses are not donkeys, of course, and over the terrain we walk they are somewhat less versatile – they’re not as good on very steep slopes, they can’t browse on desert thorn-bushes and they need more water. Nevertheless, most of the things we thought about probably apply to horses to some extent.


Walking the wall . . . now wouldn’t that be the life?

We ended up thinking that a donkey or horse could work out well, provided you were willing to accept a few things. First of all, you’d need to be flexible in your route. There are quite a few slopes and canyons along the wall that aren’t practical for donkeys, and less so for horses. At times you’d need to make detours around canyons that are many kilometres long, or where the brush is too thick you might need to travel along the roads below the mountains.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, you’d depend heavily on villagers for food, water and boarding for the horse. Having some workable Chinese, and particularly a strong vocabulary related to caring for a horse or donkey, would make life a lot easier. You’d also need to budget some time almost every day not only to care for your animal, but also to conduct the transactions necessary to care for your animal. And business does not move quickly in rural China.

Finally, it’s not easy to hide a donkey or horse. Every night we try to camp out of sight of people, and we are rarely more than a kilometre or three from a village. We stay out of sight by using small land features to conceal ourselves – zipping around a small hill or into a gully. This would be a lot harder with a horse or donkey.

But where there’s a will there’s a way, and we have no doubt that anyone who is determined to travel along the Great Wall by horse and is willing to research the issues, plan carefully and approach the journey flexibly could have a fantastic trip along the wall.

When did we last speak English to someone other than ourselves?

No matter where we’ve been, the last time we’ve spoken English with someone is generally the last time we’ve spoken with a person younger than 25.

With the exception of some areas of central and northern Shaanxi, most Chinese students and young adults recently out of school in this part of China have some English – usually just simple greetings like hello, goodbye, pleased to meet you and so on, but we often meet kids with basic conversational English at about the same level as our Chinese. It’s not uncommon for kids to have much better English than that.

It’s impossible to overstate how important learning English is to young Chinese people. Having good English skills is seen as a ticket to a good job, and kids study long, hard hours to acquire them. They also go well out of their way to have as much contact as they can with English speakers like us.

On the other hand, if you change the question a bit – so that it is “When did we last speak English to another native English speaker face to face?” – the answer is a lot different. We haven’t met a native English speaker in our entire time in rural China. This part of China isn’t really on the Lonely Planet suggested itinerary.

Loess Canyons of Shaanxi


The wall is visible along the ridge in the upper portion of the photo

Some of you who have been following us since last summer may remember our post Rough Country, which was about loess, the fine-grained, fertile soil that’s also highly erodible and hell on hikers. Well, we might have thought that the edge of the loess plateau in east-central Gansu was rough country at the time we hiked it, but when we think back on those little bumps and ditches now, all we can do is wish we had it so good.


I’ve a feeling we’re not in Gansu anymore

From the town of Anbian, in western Shaanxi, the wall dips south from the Ordos region and heads straight into the heart of the loess plateau. In general terms the area’s not that much different from the hill-and-canyon country we hiked through in early August, but the scale certainly is. The hills we hiked in Gansu were tiny compared to the mountains south of Anbian, which rise to 1750 metres and higher, while the Shaanxi’s canyons plunge far deeper than Gansu’s, to below 1400 metres.

None of this would be so bad – it’s only 300 metres up the peak and 300 metres back down to the valley – except you have to do it about four or five times a day, going both ways. When you can find anything like a usable path, that is. We’re not exactly daredevil types, and where there are cliffs so steep that goats fear to tread, you’re not going to find us pushing forward. When the going gets tough, we detour around the cliff, so the loess canyons added quite a few kilometres to our journey.


Up and down . . .


and up . . .


and down

The larger scale did make for some lovely agricultural valleys though, and they must be very pretty in spring and summer. And the fertility of these valleys meant that the villages of cave dwellings, unlike those in Gansu, were still inhabited.


This home, complete with TV aerial, is actually built into the side of the wall

Shaanxi is well known for its cave dwellings, and millions of people in Shaanxi (an estimated 40 million in China on the whole) live in homes built into the earth. However, the term cave dwelling, while accurate, doesn’t really convey what these homes are like. Most have brick facades with elaborate latticework around the windows. They are cool in summer, warm and light in winter (they always face south), and reasonably spacious inside.


Outside the home of Mr Liu and his son

A single-family home might have three rooms, each measuring about 7 by 4 metres with an arched ceiling about 3 metres high. Typically, the main entrance opens to a common living space, with a couch or two facing a coffee table and a large cabinet holding photographs and family mementos. To one side of the common room, connected by a short hallway, is a bedroom. To the other side is a kitchen/bedroom oriented around a brick stove that is fueled by corn cobs, dried corn stalks, or more rarely, coal. Toward the back of this room, large urns holding water and grains are lined along the wall. In the front, under the window, there is a kang, a large (2 x 3 metre) brick platform bed that is heated by the stove exhaust, which is routed under the kang before going up the chimney. Cats love kangs.


The kitchen area of a cave dwelling


A family replenishing their water urns from the canyon stream

Loess is not an unmixed blessing, however. While it may be fertile and a great building material, it also erodes easily – by wind, by water, and under the hooves of millions of sheep and goats (not to mention human feet) over the years. Together with poor land management, these forces have meant that the loess plateau erodes like nowhere else on earth, and causes myriad environmental problems – massive sediment loads in the Yellow River, resulting in raised riverbeds and catastrophic flooding along the lower river; gullying and loss of arable land in the uplands, and windblown dust that can diminish visibility to virtually nothing as far away as Beijing.

The national government and international aid agencies have responded with dozens of soil conservation and ecological restoration programs. China’s Loess Plateau Watershed Rehabilitation Project was funded by the World Bank from 1994 to 2002 to slow soil erosion over approximately 1.5 million acres of land within the Yellow River basin via terracing, forestation and restricting grazing. Further north, China’s own Great Green Wall project will create a 9 million hectare, 3500 kilometre band of forest across the northern provinces designed to halt desertification, slow soil erosion and prevent the spring dust storms that currently plague northern China.


A Green Great Wall project north of Yulin


The Green Great Wall logo

Though it is too early to know whether these programs will actually slow erosion significantly, they have successfully restored ground cover to millions of degraded hectares. As we travel through Green Great Wall project areas, it’s apparent that bird life is more extensive and diverse than in the surrounding rangeland, even though the project areas resemble tree farms far more than functioning forests. However, it also appears that occasionally reforestation may have been carried out a bit too enthusiastically. In some places, trees have been planted right up to the base of the actual Great Wall, and even within the walls surrounding beacon towers. It seems likely that as these trees mature, their root systems will encroach upon and damage the wall itself.


A beacon tower crowded by pines

Q&As No. 3

It’s been a while since the last Q&As. We’ve been monitoring your questions, intending to get around to answering them, but we’ve felt that there haven’t been enough questions to justify a post.

Guess we should have paid closer attention. When we went back and counted, we had 13 questions total (after consolidating similar questions). That’s enough for three posts, but we’ll do it in two long ones (second installment to come in a few days).

Once again, thanks for all the questions and comments. We don’t have time to reply to all the comments we receive, so the Q&As is a great opportunity for us to talk directly with you, and we really enjoy doing them.

Are we back to camping yet?

Oh yeah. Camping, lugging around 22-kg backpacks, boiling snow to drink, wearing the same unwashed clothes for a week, eating instant noodles … yes, we’re back to camping.

During the rehab phase of our trip, we based ourselves in towns and day-hiked along the wall because Brendan’s foot wasn’t able to cope with carrying the weight. We started camping the last week of December and camped out for Christmas. But Brendan’s foot didn’t respond especially well right off the bat, and we camped about half the time in January and day-hiked whenever the logistics of transport to and from the wall were reasonably simple.

Since the beginning of February we’ve been moving forward, camping during the week and staying in towns for our regular days off. Over the last two weeks we’ve finally begun to average about 25 kilometres a day, our summer norm.

You said that camping near the wall in China was safer than camping in most parts of Australia. In what ways is it safer?

We don’t know if it is actually safer, but it feels like it is, at least in rural areas, as opposed to natural areas where you don’t need to worry about the number one danger to campers – other people.

As far as we understand, crimes against foreign tourists are met with harsh penalties in China. Also, it just wouldn’t be that easy to get away with stealing most of our stuff in the small villages we travel through, and we assume the villagers know it – if someone started sporting Macpac fleece around town the authorities would probably figure out who the culprit was soon enough.

On top of that, we don’t camp around people. We make an effort to finish our days well out of sight of any villages or towns. If we find ourselves too close to a large town we can’t easily avoid, we’ll probably try to stay in a guesthouse. We don’t like people knowing where we are camping, for both safety and personal reasons – personal, because if people knew where we were camping, we’d probably never get any sleep.


This campsite above the Yellow River is less than a kilometre from a village in the valley below, but there is no way we can be seen

It’s been interesting observing life in rural China and the roles the family members have. Gangs of bored youths don’t seem to exist in the villages, which might account for our feeling of safety. For the kids, life seems to swing between school or helping out on the family farm. Rarely have we seen graffiti on the wall or other signs of pointless vandalism.

As for the security of our possessions, the most serious threat comes from the shepherds who try out our walking sticks – they never want to give them back. To cameras they don’t bat an eye, but those walking sticks are like gold out here.

How’s Brendan’s foot?

Brendan’s foot seems to have recovered completely from the stress fracture that occurred in August. We’ve had a frustrating couple of months waiting for it to come back to full strength, with many days spent wondering if we should be back here at all. We took off more days than we ever anticipated and we went through more boots (looking for the perfect fit) than we could probably afford, but our patience and perseverence seems to have paid off.


Back on his feet (sort of)

Now that the foot is back to full strength, we only take one day off in a walking week, which means other things are feeling the stress, like Emma’s shoulders, back, wrist, knees, feet … but no one’s asked about those, have they?

How do we update our blog? Are there many internet cafes?

We update our blog and access the internet using our Dell laptop and a Motorola CDMA phone. The China Unicom plan that we bought in Beijing gives us wireless internet access all over China for our specified period of time (which we’ve naturally had to extend). We have only ever been out of internet range a handful of times on the entire trip, which is pretty impressive given our remote location.

We carry two batteries for the laptop, giving us a total battery life of six hours in theory. We rarely get the full use of these batteries, however, as photo editing, internet usage and cold weather chews through the batteries pretty quickly.

Many towns do have internet cafes (called wang ba), though fortunately we don’t need to spend the time seeking them out on our days off because they are usually smoke-filled places where teenage boys go to play teenage boy games.

Are we meeting the same number of people in winter as we did in summer?

No, not really. In summer, there were people working in the fields that we walked through and hanging outside of the local village shop, so an encounter with one person usually grew to an encounter with a dozen or so. Now, many village shops or noodle houses are closed over winter and the only people working outside are the shepherds.


Well, shepherds and the occasional overburdened three-wheeler

One exception to this was the New Year’s holiday period which ran for 40 days. Schoolchildren were at home during the day and many young people who had moved to the city were back visiting their parents. This meant there were more curious young people around who often invited us in for some tea or water. We don’t really blame those people who peered out of their curtains at us and refused to open the door; not many people would open their door to a pair of balaclava-clad, goggle-wearing, stick-holding foreigners (we soon learned to take off the balaclavas and goggles).

What fuel do we use for our stove?

Our stove is a Brunton Optimus Nova Multi-fuel Expedition Stove, and it is a miraculous piece of equipment. I (Brendan) have been through more stoves in the last 20 years than I care to count, and I have never had a liquid-fuel stove that remotely compares. I still marvel at the thing every day. I just can’t stop.


Our stove in action, heating up mulled wine on Christmas Eve

As anyone who has used liquid-fuel stoves knows, they tend to clog. A lot. Most liquid-fuel stoves sold in Western countries burn white gas, which burns hot and is squeaky clean compared to fuels that are availabe in developing countries like diesel, petrol or kerosene. And still they clog.

In six months of continuous use, in temperatures from 40° Celsius to -20°, our stove has never clogged seriously. It rarely requires cleaning. And this is using regular old petrol, a filthy, inefficient fuel for camping-stove purposes.

Not that Walking the Wall endorses any particular brand of equipment or anything.

Did we visit the twin pagodas near the Western Xia Tombs in Ningxia?

Yes we did. The twin pagodas are in a place called Baisikou (Baisi Pass) about 50 kilometres northwest of Yinchuan, the capital of Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. The 13- and 14-storey high Buddhist pagodas stand 100 metres apart at the base of the Helan Shan mountain range. A third pagoda, the Square Pagoda, was built in 1075 during the Western Xia Dynasty but destroyed by vandals in 1990. When cleaning up the ruins in August 1991, archaeologists found little clay pagodas and Buddhist scripture books in both Chinese and Xixia language. According to the interpretive signs at the site, the Xixia Buddhist books are believed to be one of the earliest examples of fixed-type printed matter (i.e., typeset material) in the world.


The twin pagodas with the Helan Shan in the background


The east pagoda