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Monday, 20 August 2007

Learning Chinese While Hiking the Great Wall - Page 3

Written by Elizabeth Yeoman
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Years 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.

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


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Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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