The Jinshanling section of the Great Wall

Like most children with fertile imaginations, I spent most of grade school daydreaming. One such topic that occupied precious daydreaming time was mythic, mysterious, distant and larger than life itself – The Great Wall of China. Often the subject of wondrous things, the Wall stretched wide over the pages of the National Geographic magazines, picture books and maps. Mr. Evens, my grade five teacher illuminated the Wall and elevated it to an even greater height when he pulled down the retracted map of the world. With his finger he traced the length of this ancient structure and told us it was as wide as our classroom and that horses could gallop abreast along its length and not touch each other.

That did it!

The sun sets over the Great Wall as it has for centuries

35 years later I ran my mind back over those years as a kid – and felt the childish excitement as my guide and driver took me to the Wall for my first visit. It was pure magic. The Wall reached to the sky as I stood at it’s base and craned my neck up. The brickwork was still very well preserved, the mortar, a little chinked here and there, still was solid and looked as though it would stay for another thousand years. Amazing.

I have visited Mutianyu, Badaling, Simitai  and Jinshangling, all popular places to access the Wall. All these are quite close to Beijing and get many local visitors as well as battalions of tour buses each day. During those first few visits, I soaked in the wonder of it all and didn’t mind the crush of people around me – I hardly noticed them. I was 10 years old again, picturing Mr. Evens classroom and sizing p the width of the Wall. I doubt he’d ever been to the Wall when he was describing it to us, but he sure could take us there in his imagination. This is the feeling of wonder everyone has when they first stand and look left and right, forward and backward along the stone wall.

My guide from Beijing, Judy

During a later trip back to China, I made it a point to experience the Wall a little more intimately! I wanted to spend a night sleeping on the Wall. Turns out you can! After doing a lot of searching and reading I found Peter Danford’s company in Beijing. He and his wife run The China Guide, a small tour company in Beijing that will set you up with about anything you like. (AND… as an added bonus, they won’t drag you through a gift shop after your trip to take advantage of extra commissions! This is huge!). If they don’t have it on their list of guided trips, they’ll make it happen for you. So it was that I was taken to the Wall with a driver and Judy, their guide. We drove this time a much greater distance from Beijing, past the busy spots to a section of the Wall called Jinshanling.

My local Jinshanling guide

Arriving at Jinshanling was a little underwhelming – It was basically a parking lot with a few shops and open air toilets, and curiously, a vibrantly painted swing set that looked ridiculously out of place! Stretching our legs, we got out of the car and the man who would be our local guide for the sleep-over. A quiet man with a sweet smile, he gestured to some bushes that revealed a small footpath that wound its way up and through some scrub. After an easy 15 minute gentle climb, the shrubbery opened up to a scene out of nothing you’d ever seen before! It was the Great Wall, bathed in warm, late-day sun, valleys and mountains ridges stacked one-by-one to the infinite horizon.

I had a good hour of shooting along the Wall with Judy trotting along, keeping up with me. Everywhere I looked, I wanted to remember the scenes forever. The colours, the silhouettes, the smells and the majesty of where I was, was simply overwhelming. And to think, there was not one other person there except the few of us. When it was almost dark, we retraced our way down the path and returned to the parking lot. One of the shops was also converted into a place for dinner.

I found I was not the only westerner having dinner under the souvenir t-shirts, framed photographs of the Great Wall hanging in plastic and the gazillion guide books. A young couple from Ohio were there with me and had their own local guide. Apparently this is the spot for dinner, as a great number of locals drifted in, all well-known to each other judging by their smiles and laughter – even the children came out to enjoy the evening and flirt with the foreigners!

It was a perfect meal with great food, and lots of it! The couple from Ohio were teachers spending the year teaching in Singapore and were here at Jinshanling on a holiday. Their piece of the Wall for the night was three guard towers to the west of mine. And like them, I had my tour guide and local guide sleeping nearby where I was to sleep.

My guides asleep in their tent and sleeping bag inside the guard tower

The trip back up the path was getting familiar now, this time illuminated by flashlights as it was pitch black, save for a few bright light bulbs hanging on wires outside the shops. here is absolutely nothing around here, so there is absolute, and complete darns. Its a strange feeling to be somewhere so dark. In our busy lives there is always light coming from somewhere – not here.

My guard tower has a small stone enclosure at the top where sleeping bags, mattresses and other supplies are kept – in numbers that suggest small armies of tourists frequent the Wall on mass sleep-overs. Tonight it will just be me, under the stars. My two guides will be in their sleeping bags, inside tents, squeezed into a narrow space under me, in the lower tower.

As I lay in my sleeping bag, I had an unobstructed view of the entire universe above, dusted with the pin pricks of billions of stars.

I’m used to sleeping outside – I have spent my life camping, and a lot of it in wilderness areas. I woke once, at 3 a.m. and the facilities were close at hand – a blue plastic pail! It’s at times like these, I’m glad to be a guy! While I was up, I stood, elbows on the side of the Wall, chin in hands and just stared off into the distance, letting my eyes become accustomed to the darkness. After a while I began to see forms in the distance. Ridges of hills. And beyond them, the faintest glow of a distant city or town, it’s light barely noticeable. I wanted to capture this view, but photographing a landscape at night was going to be a focusing challenge! I set up my tripod, mounted my camera and with my flashlight, manually set my focus to infinity then backed it off a touch. My aperture was wide open for maximum depth of field and my ISO was set all the way down to 50 to try for as clean an image as possibly. This was the result:

Night time on the Wall, with light from a distant town

Morning came early as I sleep lightly, not wanting to miss the shooting opportunities that time of day present. After checking out a few locations the night before, I knew where I wanted to shoot. I packed the gear I needed and headed to a high point several towers away – close to the teachers from Ohio. You might thing the Wall is a nicely smooth walk with a few steps. You’d be quite right in a way, but in for a surprise when you get here! The stones are pretty flat, but the steps are not at all what we have in our homes. Some steps are only a few centimeters high, while other ones are half a metro and sometimes as steep as a ladder. Was this a defensive design meant to slow down invaders? It would work! The Chinese are known to be brilliant builders and inventors long before anyone else, so I must think the erratic steps are designed this way purposely.

At the highest part of the Wall in this location, I was able to climb over the side, aided by a small ladder and get out on the ridge of a hill that overlooked the Wall heading out in many directions. The view was stunning and as the sun climbed up to the horizon, the shadows got more and more interesting. The sky went from a dusty mauve, to a dark pink, to a rose and then began to become blue. The air was perfectly clear, not a hint of humidity or dust, giving me a crystal clear view to the far horizon.

Some of the other photographers who climbed up through the night to catch the sunrise on the Wall

I heard my name called and saw the Ohio couple coming to stand with me. The three of us just stood, staring and not uttering a word. It would have been perfectly quiet, however, long before sunrise, a group of Chinese were climbing up the hills with their own flashlights and camera bags! So to my left, there were seven other photographers, standing with their tripods and flasks of tea chatting about the view. One big happy buck all focused on capturing this moment forever!



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