Marathon runners use the phrase “hitting the wall” to describe a feeling that usually sets in about three-quarters of the way through the race, where your legs get heavy, your breathing becomes laboured, and you feel an overwhelming desire to just give up.
Applying the three-quarters rule to our marathon Great Wall trip, we’ve been hitting the wall for about 1000 kilometres now!
Must break through the wall, must break through the wall
Walking is a lower impact activity than running, though, and in truth we’ve been holding up fine physically and well enough mentally. But our trip did change dramatically at the three-quarters mark, and in ways not dissimilar to “hitting the wall.” Basically, the hiking became much, much, much, much (how much?) much more difficult.
From Jiayuguan through western Hebei, walking the wall is probably about as easy a trip as you could expect for any route that crosses deserts and mountain ranges; has no trail, marked or unmarked; and is poorly mapped. The landscape is open, the footing is good more often than not, and as long as you can see the wall – and you usually can – it’s tough to get too lost. From the western border of Beijing municipality to Shanhaiguan, however, the Great Wall is a different animal.
The first difficulty is simply finding the wall. In Beijing municipality (a territory of 17,000 square kilometres that includes large rural areas as well as the city of Beijing), the wall runs along a range of mountain that form a horseshoe shape enclosing the city and its hinterlands, but it does not run anything like continuously. Where there are gaps, or passes, in the mountains, the wall can be impressive and elaborate; but once it ascends from these low points, it often stops abruptly at a cliff or disappears among a maze of sawtooth ridges. For us hikers that means that we get to spend a few hours puffing and grunting and sweating our way up a hill – only to find out that there’s a cliff or a peak that makes it impossible to go any further.
The wall disappearing up a peak
Emma picking her way through a gap back to the wall
The small box in the middle of the photo is a watchtower – we didn’t quite make it to that one
The wall becomes more continuous in eastern Hebei as it makes its final push toward the sea, but the going doesn’t get any easier. Parts of the wall are so overgrown that it’s difficult to make any progress at all, while on some parts the only practical path is a narrow strip of stone or brick at the edge of the wall.
Sometimes the vegetation next to the wall is even worse than what grows on it
But back on the wall, the only bit you can walk on is usually next to a 5-metre drop
Where the wall is free of vegetation, the footing can be so bad that we’re both reduced to tears, or at least extended fits of swearing. If it’s not steep it’s rocky, if it’s not rocky part of the wall has fallen away, if the wall’s not falling apart . . . it’s steep!
Am I there yet?
The wall can be this rocky for miles on end
Working around a section that’s collapsed
And most of the time, going down is far worse than going up
But we can’t complain too much. If there weren’t any hard bits, how could we ever get cool pictures of Emma looking like a real mountaineer?