Legends of the wall

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 January, 2012, 12:00am


You would think that finding the Great Wall of China would be easy. I had seen it on the pages of our Chinese road atlas for some time, marked clearly by a jagged symbol. However, on my iPhone's Google Maps, even when I zoomed in, the wall was indistinguishable from a dusty road. I suppose this dispels the myth that you can see the Great Wall from space.

It is also a myth that there is one wall. Rather there is a network of walls, built and rebuilt by various dynasties (especially the Ming) throughout the centuries. My expedition partner Leon McCarron and I plan to follow it for 200 kilometres west to the banks of the Yellow River, as part of our 5,000 kilometre walk home from Mongolia that began in November.

We knew that it was on the border between the provinces of Inner Mongolia and Shaanxi. This was apt, as the walls had been built primarily to keep out the steppe peoples who regularly raided the Middle Kingdom throughout the past three millennia.

As we walked closer to this provincial boundary, we started to ask the locals we bumped into if they knew where the wall was. It was a lost cause (even at about 20 kilometres away from the wall), everyone told us that as there wasn't one in the area we would have to go to Beijing, more than 300 kilometres away, where the famous, rebuilt stone sections of the wall are.

A couple of days later, having stayed overnight in the town of Fengzhen, which was just five kilometres from the provincial boundary, we set off at dawn. As we were leaving our budget hotel a young man stopped to watch us. I said hello and asked him about the wall. 'Beijing,' he said.

We pressed on and came to a 50-metre-long road tunnel underneath the railway, where we met an old man with a toothy smile. I asked if Chang Cheng (Putonghua for Great Wall, literally translated to 'long town') was near. When I showed him the Great Wall symbol drawn on my hand, his face lit up with recognition. In his northern accent, he said to me what sounded like, 'Ah, Chur Chur', but then pointed in the opposite direction to where the map indicated.

As we were walking through the tunnel, a car screeched to a halt beside us, blocking the traffic. A smartly dressed man in his 20s asked us in English, 'Can I help you?' We asked about the wall and he pointed in the direction we were going. We felt relieved.

From then on, every few minutes we would ask someone else about the wall and many pointed us in the same direction. We were getting close. After crossing a railway line and passing a power station on the outskirts of town, we turned a corner and there before us stood the wall. A hole had been cut in it for the road, and a simple Chinese gate frame indicated the provincial boundary. On either side of the frame was a three-metre-high mound of earth, covered partly in grass. We climbed onto it, and saw the wall spreading in both directions.

To the north, in Inner Mongolia, was a field of coal processing - piles of coal and a scattering of men and women manning the little grubby conveyer belt machines and picking through the piles by hand. All the black earth and machinery reminded me of the fortress Isengard in Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. On the south side, in Shaanxi, were some rolling fields rising into the mountains in the distance, and a dead straight road for us to walk along to get there.

Ironically, after all that effort to find the wall, we took a 50 kilometre detour to Datong, a city in northern Shaanxi, for a Christmas break. Now, rested and recharged, we're on the road again. I hope the wall isn't as elusive this time around.

Rob Lilwall's previous expedition, Cycling Home From Siberia, became the subject of an acclaimed motivational talk, a book, and a National Geographic television series. Every week in Health Post, he will write about the progress of his new expedition, Walking Home From Mongolia, which is in support of the children's charity Viva. www.walkinghomefrommongolia.com