Putting together our final episode of Wall Angels was a fun but sad experience. Fun, because we got to relive those times, and sad because we know there won’t be any more Wall Angels for us for a while.
If we thought Shanxi and Shaanxi were difficult to walk through, with their endless canyons and windy, snowy weather, well, that was nothing compared to Hebei and Beijing. Both were incredibly difficult. Steep, mountainous country, vertical wall, cliffs, thorns and impenetrable bushes. Our daily kilometre limit dropped from 30kms to 10kms, sometimes down to 5kms, and our finish date moved further and further away. We didn’t have the time to sit around and meet people, we had to keep moving and we had to at least try to reach our daily goal.
Inevitably we met fewer people. That’s not to say that our personal encounters dropped, because on the contrary, with farmers out in the field with the coming of spring, we spoke to a lot more people as the days went on. But it is to say that we didn’t have the time to form as many relationships as we had previously. We had to make a decision to keep moving. If we didn’t, we might never have reached the end.
The Gold Miners
One of our most common questions is what do we do about food and water. How do we get it, how much do we have to carry. Well, to answer those questions we can give you the example of our first set of Wall Angels for Hebei province.
We were walking in a particularly remote area of the province, canyons and hills slowing us down to an incredibly slow pace and the winds of April battering us about. So diversions to get water for the night weren’t really a fun thing to do, especially when they added on a few kilometres of walking to what was already a long day. But when the source of water appears before you … well, you take it, graciously of course.
The Gold Miners were living in a shack just down the hill from the Great Wall. About 10 of them slept on hard single beds in the one room, canvas covering the roof, doors and windows and sheltering them from the wind and cold. They lived there for months at a time with nothing much but a book each, a few large drums of water for washing and drinking, and a small kitchen that could make rice and noodles. Obviously the water came from elsewhere, probably driven up in a truck from a town down in the valley.
We needed at least six litres of water to take with us, which they gave without hesitation. They gave us some tea to drink and to warm us up, then invited us to stay for food. We declined, needing to keep moving before the winds picked up again, which they did as soon as we stepped out the door. The older man watched us go, staying outside in the wind to wave goodbye to us as we walked up the hill and out of view.
The Great Wall Society, Yan Dao Jun and Dong Yaohui
The China Great Wall Society is the leading Chinese organisation working on Great Wall conservation. We got in contact with the Society last year before we set off on our endless journey and were fortunate enough to meet the Secretary-General Dong Yaohui and the society’s editor, Yan Daojun.
Mr Dong leading us to the sea
Mr Yan outside Laolongtou
Mr Dong, a leading expert on the wall and one often sought out by the media for comment, was one of the first men to walk the entire length of the Great Wall. He has published numerous books and articles on the wall and works tirelessly for its preservation. But despite his incredibly busy schedule, he has still managed to make time for us on two very important occasions – our send-off in Jiayuguan, and our finish in Shanhaiguan.
Neither of these would have been as large occasions as they were if it weren’t for the amazing organisational skills of Mr Yan Daojun, who, with three days’ notice, arranged a trip to Shanhaiguan and for local media and government officials to be waiting for us at the end. His contacts are endless, his enthusiasm and energy boundless, and the help and support that he has given us were invaluable for our trip.
Mr Li Hong and family
We have often included drivers in our list of Wall Angels before. That’s because, when we have to base ourselves in a town when faced with obstacles like a broken foot and the like, drivers become invaluable in transporting us to and from the wall. But Mr Li wasn’t just a driver, he was also a friend, an organiser and, on terribly short notice, a great photographer.
We met Mr Li in the town of Qinhuangdao. The heat had forced us to base ourselves there because it just wasn’t possible for us to carry our fully laden backpacks up and over the Hebei mountains in addition to the eight or so litres of water that we would each need every day. With heat in the high 30s, humidity a lot higher, and ne’er a flat spot of walking in sight, one litre of water would be sweated out in about 10 minutes.
So we found Mr Li and commenced what was to become an invaluable working relationship and an even more special friendship. Not sure if he was really ready for the 6:30am starts and the 8pm finishes, but he never complained. And we’re not sure if he was ready for the exploration we had to do, the drives through small villages looking for the wall and the negotiating with the locals that was involved, but he took it all in his stride.
Mr Li, Sabrina and Mrs Huang
When Emma’s parents arrived Mr Li took on the role of tour guide, taking care of them while we were sweating our way up the mountains and calling us on our mobile phone when he needed someone to translate at the restaurant (“Do your parents want rice or noodles?”). When the day finally came to reach the end, he brought his wife, Mrs Huang, and daughter, Sabrina, along who were both wonderful in helping to set up the stage for the finishing function. And at Laolongtou, when we were speechifying and raising our arms in the air and generally running around out of control, Mr Li took control of our cameras and made sure we had good photos of the occasion – he took most of the photos in our final post, above.
Like all good connected Chinese men, he has a QQ number (internet video phone), and pretty soon so will we. That means we’ll be able to stay in contact over the internet and send each other photos. Who knows, maybe Sabrina will even visit us in Sydney. In a very short time, he became a good and trusted friend, and he will be sorely missed.