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Monday, 20 August 2007

Learning Chinese While Hiking the Great Wall

Written by Elizabeth Yeoman
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chinaYears ago, there was a regular announcement in the New York Times classified section. "Learn five languages a year while striding for exercise, “it announced. That idea fascinated me; on the one hand, it seemed the ultimate in over-achievement; on the other, the thought of seeing the world by walking (though maybe not striding) and engaging with it in its own idiom(s) was just so appealing. I disagree with American travel writer, Bill Bryson, who says that not being able to speak the language is actually "the glory of foreign travel" and that it's better not to know what people are talking about because it gives you a sense of childish wonder as your whole life becomes "a series of interesting guesses". It's an engaging perspective and I do love his books, though I get my sense of childish wonder from trying to speak the language wherever I am. Living in China has certainly been my biggest linguistic challenge thus far, but I survived.

Photo by Sheila Yeoman













In China, I’d walk endlessly around Shanghai, where I was writing a book about language learning with a Chinese co-author. Since I wanted to practice my Chinese, I usually walked in parts of the city where few westerners venture, and nearly every walk offered a small adventure. One day I got in trouble with a police woman who wanted to know what I thought I was doing going around without an interpreter. She was trying to scold me about some infraction I must have committed but I couldn't understand what it was. Another time, I went to the corner store for toilet paper and a sales clerk came up to me and said something I couldn't understand – They were on sale? Some other kind was better? Two for the price of one? So, in bad Chinese, I said, “Wo Xiang mai,” which means, “I want to buy.” This must have sounded idiotic, but at that point, those were the only words I could put together that seemed relevant to the situation. The clerk eventually gave up trying, but came back with a kind smile and basket for my groceries. It was then that I realized I should not leave my front door without a dictionary and a phrase book.

chinaTo construct opportunities to practice Chinese, I bought one or two things in each shop, instead of all at the same time. I learned by trial and error and every foray out of my small apartment was a new language lesson. A market stall owner asked me if I wanted a “jin” of chestnuts. I had no idea what a jin was but I said yes, and it seemed to be about a pound, so after that I knew how much to ask for.

Photo by Sheila Yeoman
While my sister was visiting, we saw two men melting sugar and grilling peanuts in enormous woks over open fires, then smashing the resulting mass with perfectly synchronized strokes of huge mallets, their back-and-forth motion like the moving figures in old Swiss clocks. My sister clambered onto a table to take pictures. A crowd gathered, mesmerized, holding out their money as the sticky mass metamorphosed into a shiny, melted light cross between fudge and pastry. It was obvious there wouldn't be enough for everyone and, although I was in front, the vendors handed it to everyone around me, despite the efforts of one man in the crowd who kept calling out (and I understood!), “the foreigner wants some!” But in the end they relented and gave us the last of it and we scuttled off with our prize.

shanghaiAfter three months of being a flâneur (or perhaps a flâneuse) in Shanghai, my part of the book was done and it was time for some more serious hiking. My husband was coming to spend the last few weeks in China with me and we wanted to see more of this enormous and diverse country, preferably on foot. But it isn't easy for foreigners to know where to go.



By chance I heard about Beijing Hikers, a hiking group mainly for foreigners living in Beijing. They organize group hikes each week to little known trails in the Beijing area and will also put you in touch with a guide if you prefer to hike on your own. Their walks are coded on a scale of 1- 5 with 1 meaning "very easy with not much climbing, normally takes one hour" and 5 described as taking 4-5 hours and "physically challenging, suitable for experienced hikers". The hikes cost 200 RMB per adult, 150 RMB per child and include round trip transportation (they charter a bus to get to the trails), snacks and beverages, and any park entrance fees. They are currently offering a hike/swim/eat day outing involving five silver pagodas, a panoramic mountain peak view, a swim and a trout barbecue as well as various other hikes, all described at the website. The website also provides some witty and wonderful description of its hikes and, though the group caters mainly to expats, the sensibility of the descriptions is very Chinese. For example:

The valley is wide and open, offering great views. The only sound is the singing and twitching of different birds, including a woodpecker. On the way up we met a hunter with a rifle in hand and the feet of a hairy rabbit in his backpack. I mourned the rabbit and felt for him when my ankle was caught by a loop of thin wire. A little red weasel quickly ran into the rocks when he saw us. He might hang around a bit longer if he knew that we wouldn't harm him.

And some helpful and engaging Chinese history as well:

Ci Xi (the last empress) was quite a character! When she was young she was a beauty but she became a bit of an old bag when she got older. Anyway, she kept the emperor enthralled and happy so she must have had her ways. Legend has it that she had a bit of a fling with a laowai when she was young. He taught her how to give a big sloppy kiss. When she tried this on the emperor he thought it was awful (because they did not do it in those days), but when she tried again he liked it. By giving him lots of surprises she became his favorite concubine. When the old sod died she became the Empress Dowager.

Besides the laowai, she had another dally with a young man. She left him because she wanted to be a concubine. He was so broken hearted; that he had his bits chopped off and followed her into the Forbidden City to become her favorite eunuch. Now this eunuch was very good at his job, which was to keep the Ci Xi happy! But he grew ashamed of this, found faith, and became a very holy man.

Who could resist? I emailed Beijing Hikers and they emailed back, "we have a wild wall hike is recommend". They cautioned that the only guide available for the dates we wanted spoke no English. Perfect! So we set off to hike the Great Wall -- or at least a small unreconstructed fragment of it -- with Mr. Mao, a farmer who had lived all his life in the shadow of the wall.

chinaThe Great Wall is one of those places to see before you die. Though perhaps “place” is not the right word – cultural phenomena, historic site, icon – it is many things. Mao Ze Dong said, “In order to be a hero you must first climb the Great Wall. ”Richard Nixon fatuously declared that it took a great people to build a great wall. My mother in a letter the week before had written, “Have you seen the Great Wall yet? I think I’ve heard that it is one of the few things on earth you can see from space. I suppose it was all built by slave labor…” The wall was in fact the product of immense cruelty, cemented with the sweat and blood of its builders. Built to keep out Mongolian invaders, it didn’t work. Genghis Khan just bribed the guards to get past the gates.


These days much of it has crumbled or is inaccessible to all but the truly heroic or those who live nearby. A few spots, most notably Badaling, have been rebuilt very recently to provide access for tourists. Just think: tour buses, entrance fees, “I climbed the Great Wall” t-shirts and hordes of people. But there are still places solid enough to walk on, yet crumbled enough to be atmospheric, with relatively easy access, yet remote enough to avoid the hordes of people.

Following the complicated instructions written in English and Chinese by Huijie Sun of Beijing Hikers, we took the 916 bus from Dong Zhi Men station in Beijing to Huai Rou County. We were the only westerners on the bus and the ticket seller came back three times to check whether or not we really knew where we were going. We didn’t really, but Huijie seemed to think it was simple enough: take the bus to Huai Rou, get off at Mi Yi Zhong Xin (we thought this is some kind of meeting area though we weren't sure) and hire a car to the outskirts of Guan Di where Mr. Mao would be waiting for us at the T-junction by the sign board. I didn’t know how to say T-junction in Chinese and it wasn't in my dictionary so I hoped anxiously that we’d recognize it when we saw it.


The weather was dank and unpromising and we were both thinking maybe we should have just taken an organized tour to Badaling instead of trying to do this on our own. But we both have a phobia of being herded so there we were. Off to hike "the wild wall". In fact, this part of the Great Wall is so little known that my friend Liming, an avid hiker who lived in Beijing for several years, assured us that the Great Wall didn't go through Huai Rou county.

After an hour or so on the bus, the ticket seller told us dubiously that this stop was as good as any so we climbed out in the middle of nowhere and, to our surprise, were immediately greeted by a large cheerful man with a shaved head and chubby cheeks that made him look like a superannuated cabbage patch doll. As if he’d been expecting us, he announced, “Taxi! Great Wall!” So far so good. We set off with him further into the increasingly dramatic mountains of Huai Rou towards Guan Di. “Badaling’s no good”, he said, “it’s all new, not old at all.” A friend from Jilin, further north, had told us sadly a few days earlier that he went to Badaling to see the wall but there were so many people he couldn’t really see it. This was not a problem in Guan Di in January.

Our taxi driver quickly ran out of waiyu (literally "foreigner talk") and communicated with simple Chinese and dramatizations, informing us that the firecrackers we heard were for a wedding by loudly humming the opening bars of “Here comes the Bride”.

As we entered the village we drove past a wiry sun burnt man standing by the side of the road. I asked the driver to go back and check if he might be our guide and sure enough, he was Mr. Mao. He climbed into the car and the sun simultaneously burst through the clouds and illuminated the snow on the hills. We drove onwards to the center of the tiny riverside village where the driver stopped and told us he would wait until we came back. “But we’ll be four or five hours at least!” That was OK, he assured us. He’d nap. 100 RMB for the day.

mr. mao and me
Photo by David Openshaw












Despite our early morning anxieties at Dong Zhi Men, it turned out to be surprisingly easy to get to, much cheaper than an organized tour from Beijing, and hauntingly beautiful (especially after spending a few months in a utilitarian apartment block in Shanghai). Mr. Mao was a perfect guide. He was gentle and patient; he adapted his pace to ours; he had lived next to this piece of the wall all his life, and as only someone who has spent their childhood in a place can, he knew every inch of that section intimately and he loved it. The walk was perfect linguistically too, at least from my perspective: The only English word Mr. Mao admitted to knowing was “goat” in response to my question about what animal had produced the droppings we saw along the way.

From the village, the wall stretched as far as the eye could see in both directions, snaking its way up to peaks, along ridges, and down the other side, interspersed with towers every few hundred meters. We went into each tower as we came to it, climbing the rough stone stairs and gazing out the windows at blue and purple hills glistening with a sprinkling of snow, and the wall itself. At the eighth, and highest, tower we ate our lunch, leftover bitter melon omelet from our Thai restaurant supper the night before, sandwiched in flat bread bought from a Ugyar street stand, and small locally grown nuts, a cross between hazelnuts and almonds, breathing in the cleanest air we had yet breathed in China and imagining the sentries who had lived there from the Qin dynasty onwards eating the same nuts and gazing out at the same view, for it is virtually unchanged.


After the walk, we were greeted by our cheerful driver. We drove Mr. Mao home and were invited to meet his wife, a broadly smiling outgoing foil for his quiet gentleness. We sat for a while as the sun streamed in, eating more nuts and admiring their flourishing geraniums. Then it was back to the bus stop and Beijing, feeling that we had indeed seen one of those things you have to see before you die.

For more information about hiking in the Beijing area:

© Elizabeth Yeoman


Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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