beijing 3: the great wall of sticky rice

At 7 AM on Saturday, Justin and I are met by Wang Ping, our guide to a remote and wild section of the Great Wall known as Jiankou, about 200 kilometers and 3 hours from our hotel. Ping has brought a friend, an attractive young woman of an uncertain name. After asking her to pronounce her name twice and then spell it for me, I give up, blame the road noise, and write down “Angie???”

As we drive outward through the expansive Beijing suburbs, signs exhort us to “Don’t follow too clowsely.” Scattered chimneys from countless small factories attest to the ongoing lack of pollution controls, and belch thick clouds of off-white smoke that spreads out into a solid stripe lying low over the fields, a horizontal band of milky haze below the treetops.

The air has a smoky wood smell.

The major highways look just like the ones in California, though perhaps with fewer potholes. Similar signage, tollbooths, road construction. The main roads show evidence of a large labor pool: the medians are well groomed, manicured and planted with bright flowers.

Ping speaks English well, having learned from an American teacher, a 24 year old named Christine. He describes her thusly: “Christine is same as you are, with very big nose.”

“Oh,” I reply with a laugh. “You mean she was very beautiful!”

Getting to the Jiankou section of the Great Wall entails taking a series of ever smaller roads past rivers and countryside villages. Ping points out the resorts, which appear to be constantly under construction. Apparently this is a popular region to escape to on hot summer weekends.

As the roads narrow, we pass groups of people digging up the discolored but otherwise perfect bricks that line the road, replacing them with whiter versions of the same bricks. I suppose this is the Chinese equivalent of the Works Progress Administration back in the 1930’s in the U.S.: keep the people employed.

We wind through the mountains past corn-growing farming communities. Occasionally we are charged small tolls to pass through these villages, women and children moving makeshift barriers to let us through after being given the requisite small bills. Apart from corn, this forms a large part of the village income, and so is tolerated by the local authorities despite the signs we now see proclaiming “This section of the Great Wall is not open to the public.”

Apparently, the payment of the toll makes us private, not public. Ping explains that the signs were put there after the villages got sued by the family members of people who died. Hiking the wall. Where we’re going.

“Ah,” I say. “Perhaps you should have mentioned that earlier.”

“Don’t worry,” replies Ping. I wait for more words of reassurance, but he seems to have reached the end of that particular thought.

We reach a small village in the mountains at the literal end of the road, where Ping’s van is argued over by an insistent woman and a creaky old man, each of whom wants our business at their respective parking areas, e.g. flat bits of dirt not otherwise occupied by cut corn stalks. The woman is quicker and louder, and the old man loses out.

At 3600 feet, Jiankou is one of the most picturesque sections of the Great Wall, rising and falling hundreds of feet in successive sharp peaks. Just getting to the wall is a hellacious climb up a steep trail from our small village, and I’m thankful for the loan of a walking stick from Ping. It takes the four of us about 45 minutes to climb the switchback trail. When we reach the Wall from the northern side of what used to be Mongolia, we can see the village back down in the valley, a thousand feet below.

The Jiankou section of the Great Wall is not restored like other better known and well-supported tourist sections. This is the real wall, a majestic and crumbling 600 years of history, crawling its way up and down over sharp and close set peaks like a line of paint laid over crumpled tinfoil. Each peak along the long-vanished border has its guard tower, no matter how steep the approach.

The base of the wall remains solid, even where trees have taken route. Some portions of the wall are broad and heavily forested. Other spots are thin and bare, straddling knife-edge ridges in the mountains where you can stretch from side to side and take long looks down to the left and right.

In most places, the side walls preventing an accidental fall remain intact, the hard white joints between the stones still displaying the incredible staying power of the sticky rice used in the mortar. Rice does not grow in these mountains, and would have been carried from the south of China upriver by barge, then by cart, then by hand. Some of that rice ended up in the stomachs of the builders, and some ended up ground into powder and mixed with water, lime or egg white. The builders and their meals are long gone, but the once glutinous rice remains centuries later, fossilized and still incredibly strong.

In the frequent spots where the wall climbs sharply and clings to the sides of mountain peaks you can see gravity and time slowly winning out, turning stone steps into dense piles of rubble that we must climb. Some of the sections are nearly vertical, requiring us to heave ourselves upward from stone to stone or climb the outside edge of the wall and push ourselves up on the twisted roots of trees.

As my shoulder bag flops around in an attempt to send me spinning downward I am reminded that a “man purse” filled with water bottles is not the most stable thing to carry. Had I known in advance I’d be doing this climb, I would have brought a small backpack. And some hiking boots. Hey, at least I remembered a hat. Ping tells me I look like Indiana Jones.

He also suggests I take off my clothes and hike the Great Wall naked, saying the resulting movie would get a lot of attention.

“You mean the kind of attention where I get arrested, thrown into a Chinese prison and never get seen again?”

“Oh no, it would be no problem. You would be famous.”

“Hmm. I think you’re confused in your English. There’s a difference between famous and infamous. Angelina Jolie is famous. Me being arrested for hiking naked at the Great Wall—that would be infamous.”

I am, however, quite tempted to drop trou’ and hike a section in the all-together. I wonder how Ping, who has only met me a few hours ago, could possibly know me so well. I swear upon my future grave, which I’m thinking could be any moment now, that he brought this up entirely on his own.

In the end, discretion and my fear of the authorities wins out, and I tell Ping that if it weren’t for the presence of a coworker, particularly one with a fancy camera, I would have gone for it.

“You would be very famous on YouTube,” he insists.

“You’re confusing me with my brother,” I say. “A lot of people get us mixed up. He’s a YouTube star. I just get naked on mountaintops. But not, I think, today.” Luckily for all concerned, we drop the topic, I keep the trousers, and we all hike onward.

For the next six hours we play the part of Ming dynasty guards and march up and down the steep mountain passes to stop, panting, at each ruined guard tower. On the tallest of these peaks, the aptly named “The Eagle Flies Upward” (which it would need to do in order to avoid smashing into the vertical cliff face), I find cell phone reception from the distant village far below, and call my wife!

I tell M where I am so she can look it up on the Internet, totally forgetting until after I hang up that she will find, right before she tries to go to bed, that Jiankou is described as dangerous, hazardous, risky, wild, and crumbly. All true, which makes it a wonderful place to visit. But perhaps not the best place to surprise a loved one on the other side of the world.

“Okay, I’ll call you later if I survive the day. Sleep well, sweetheart, and pleasant dreams!”

Although there were plenty of other hikers, we didn’t see another Western face the entire day. Jiankou is a place for intrepid travelers only, and I was thankful that we had a good guide. Wang Ping can be contacted at his website,

where he confusingly refers to himself as Mr. Dereck, the name given to him by his expatriate English teacher Christine, she of the brown hair and the beautifully large nose that looks just like mine.


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