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Chasing The Wind With Blackthorn

Blackthorn AvatarA few years ago I was in Beijing, seeing China with some friends. We had a business card for a company that gave tours of the Great Wall, given to us by other friends who had recently been to Beijing. They highly recommended this tour, but made the comment that it was “a bit odd,” and said nothing more.

On arriving in Beijing we called the phone number on the business card and arranged to be picked up the following morning. The man on the phone spoke excellent English, but he warned us that his “brother,” who would be taking us to the Great Wall, spoke no English. We were staying in a hostel that was off the beaten track, so the man on the phone gave us directions to a corner they used as a pickup point. We would be picked up by his brother driving a white van.

The next morning four of us waited on that corner and eventually a white van stopped. It had no markings on it to show it was in any way related to a tour company, but the driver waved us in. I asked him if this was a Great Wall tour. He nodded and again waved us in. I didn’t have much confidence that he understood my question, but we got in and hoped for the best. It concerned me that our guide didn’t ask us for money. That made me wonder if this was even a tour at all, or if he had picked us up by mistake, thinking we were a different group who had hired a van for something else that day.

Blackthorn - Great Wall Of ChinaAfter driving for 45 minutes we were still in Beijing, a huge city with a population of fifteen million. Everything in China is huge: their cities, their shopping centers, their streets…everything. Eventually we stopped at a hotel and four Dutch tourists got in, all in their mid twenties. They said they were on a Great Wall tour, too, so I felt a little better about things. We finally headed north out of town.

After driving for an hour and a half, we stopped at a two story building, about the size of an average Wal*Mart stacked on top of another Wal*Mart. The bottom floor sold groceries while the top floor was divided into two sections, one for furniture, the other for clothing. The driver motioned for us to follow him, then he led us all the way through the huge store to the back where there were toilets. Before leaving we bought food to take with us for the rest of the day.

Outlaw Tour of the Great Wall of China - XLeaving there, we headed directly up into the mountains. Fifteen minutes after leaving the mega-store we began seeing glimpses of the Great Wall on the ridges of the mountains ahead of us. Half an hour later we turned down a dirt road that we followed for several miles, past cultivated fields where we saw a farmer plowing with an ox and a rough wooden plow. I tried several times to get a picture of him at work, but the van was bouncing too badly over the rutted dirt road.

Finally the road came to an end and we got out to stretch our legs, not knowing what to expect. It was a cool day, about 65 degrees F, and the sun was shining brightly. We could see glimpses of the Great Wall high above us.

Outlaw Tour of the Great Wall of China - BThe dirt road had come to an end and there was a sign with a misspelled message telling us the Wall was “closeo” for reconstruction.... 

Our guide was dressed in slacks and a nice dress shirt, more like an executive than a guide for adventure travel. As it turned out, that didn’t slow him down at all. He waved for us to follow him, then headed up a trail toward the top of the mountain. Two of my travel partners were young working cowboys from Colorado. They and the Dutch tourists took off up the trail after the guide. My other travel companion was a British woman in her sixties. I was worried that she wouldn’t be able to make the climb, so I hung back with her in case she got into trouble. We soon fell way behind the others. I would hike ahead of her, then wait for her to catch up, then take off again when I could see that she was all right. During one of those stops I had a good view of the Wall:

Outlaw Tour of the Great Wall of China - D


Outlaw Tour of the Great Wall of China - EBy the time we got to the top, the others were already up on the Wall. Oddly, there were no steps to get us from the ground up onto the Wall, five feet above us. There was a small, uneven platform of rocks that got us halfway up, and the guide was standing above on a ledge offering his hand to help us. With his assistance we climbed up onto the ledge and traversed to the left thirty feet, then we had a clear shot up onto the Wall itself: [Pictured Right]

Finally we were atop of the famous Great Wall of China! I usually carry an Irish whistle with me in my backpack as I travel, and I couldn’t resist the chance to say I played a tune on the Great Wall. I got one of the Colorado cowboys to take my picture:


Outlaw Tour of the Great Wall of China - FThe Great Wall is actually a network of many walls built between the seventh century B.C. and the sixteenth century A.D. Over the centuries the walls were connected, ending up being one long wall, more than 4,000 miles in length. The Wall was built using slave labor, and as the slaves died due to the hard work and terrible conditions, their bodies were thrown into the Wall as filler. It has been referred to as the “longest cemetery in the world.”

Outlaw Tour of the Great Wall of China - GThe immediate section where we were was far different from the pictures I had seen all my life. For one thing, it was very run down and shrubbery had grown over many parts of it. In addition, although most of it was in navigable shape, some of it had simply collapsed, making it impassable. Seeing this, I realized that all the other pictures I had seen of the Great Wall were of sections that had been repaired and rebuilt for tourists. What we were seeing here was the Wall as it had originally been built, warts and all, and had eroded over time. Being a student of history, I would have picked this section to visit over the reconditioned section even if there had been a choice. I like to see historical sites in their natural state.

Outlaw Tour of the Great Wall of China - IOutlaw Tour of the Great Wall of China - J

Outlaw Tour of the Great Wall of China - HTo our left the Wall extended within view for several miles, as can be seen behind me in the whistle picture. It rose much higher than the level where we stood, and we could see other people far away in the distance atop the furthest guard tower. The Wall was in much better condition in that direction, so several of us began heading that way, taking pictures as we went. Before we got very far our guide spoke his only word of the day, “No!” Startled, we looked back and he was shaking his head and motioning us to come back and go the right instead. It was useless asking him why, since he couldn’t explain in English, so we went back and began exploring in the other direction.

Before going very far we came to a point where the Wall had totally collapsed and shrubbery had overgrown it, making it impassable.

Outlaw Tour of the Great Wall of China - H Letterbox

On the far side of the collapse was a high tower making it impossible for us to see what was beyond it, but it looked promising.

Outlaw Tour of the Great Wall of China - M

A trail took off through the brush to the left, so after some scrambling and climbing we got beyond the broken down part and up into what had once been a guard tower.

Outlaw Tour of the Great Wall of China - N

Outlaw Tour of the Great Wall of China - PThere was a lot of overgrown brush around the tower, but still there was quite a view from there. The room where the guards must have lived was in surprisingly good shape. The guards had had a wonderful viewpoint from several windows. [Pictured Above]

From there we had a very nice view of the Wall for several miles. For grandeur it was the equal of what we would have seen if we had been allowed to explore in the first direction we had tried, so we hadn’t lost anything by coming this way instead.

Outlaw Tour of the Great Wall of China - K

Outlaw Tour of the Great Wall of China - O

The Wall appeared to be in good shape for the next few miles, although I didn’t go that far. It extended along the ridge top as far as the eye could see, going up and down, following the spine of the ridge. I could see why artists sometimes liken it to a dragon’s back.

After taking a couple of hours to explore, I drifted back to where our guide and the rest of the travelers sat waiting for us.

Outlaw Tour of the Great Wall of China - Q

When we had all returned to the starting point, he motioned for us to go back across the ledge we had traversed to get up onto the Wall. He helped each of us down from the ledge onto the platform of stacked rocks, and after we were all down, he jumped down himself. Then he turned back and took all the rocks of the platform apart, throwing them down the hill in different directions. It was only then that I realized our tour had been illegal, and that our guide was destroying any evidence that we had been there. I finally understood why he didn’t want us hiking up to where other tourists were, so we couldn’t compare notes with them. And now I understood why his van had no markings, and that the sign saying the Wall was “closeo,” was very accurate. This man was operating outside of the Chinese economic structure, running an outlaw tour company. After taking us back to the pickup point in Beijing, he brought out a calculator and punched in the number 500 and showed it to us. We each paid him 500 Yuan, or approximately $75, which we all felt was quite a bargain for the day’s adventure.

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