Above and beyond the wall

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 31 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 31 January, 2012, 12:00am


For the last week or so of our 5,000-kilometre Walking Home From Mongolia adventure, my expedition partner Leon McCarron and I have been following the Great Wall of China westwards along the ridges and valleys of northern Shanxi. Unlike the postcard perfect stone sections of the Wall near Beijing, here it consists of a one to three metre ridge of crumbly yellow earth, covered in grass and dotted with regular watchtowers (five-metre columns of yellow earth).

But while the wall may not be as well endowed here, it has still been a magical experience to walk along it. The watchtower silhouettes mark out a path to the far horizon.

It has also been an incredibly exhausting leg of the journey, as the wall does not simply follow one ridgeline, but dances from ridge to ridge, plunging into the valleys and gullies in between.

With all the scrambling up and down, and zigzagging along paths, we estimate we were walking about three kilometres for every two kilometres' progress.

This rugged country is sparsely populated and we have had to keep our eyes peeled for cave villages where the local shepherds and farmers live. These villages consist of homes and stables literally dug out of the hillside, with the roofs covered in grass and mud. People in these parts have lived in such dwellings for thousands of years, and in fact there are still over 30 million cave-living people in China.

The villages are usually built on the sun-facing southern slopes of hills, and as we are walking from the north, it's possible not even to see them until literally walking over the top of them. We often stop to fill up our vacuum flasks with hot water, and the inhabitants, although slightly taken aback by our sudden arrival, are generous and friendly. Mainly older people and their grandchildren remain - due to the mass migration of young people to the cities.

We have been invited to stay the night with them several times. Their houses are always the same layout - two bedrooms on either side of the hallway. In the bedrooms, there is a kang (a bed platform which fits about four people, heated by a coal fire underneath it), a stove and a television.

Other nights, we have camped out; and one night we slept inside an abandoned cave house, which was considerably warmer than sleeping under the stars. As we walked, we sometimes came across watchtowers encased in stone. Some even had stairways still functioning.

While defence was of course a primary function (or intention) of the Great Wall, historians are undecided about its effectiveness. It was also undoubtedly an incredible supply line across the breadth of the empire, and a way of demarcating its boundaries.

Even after its original functions became obsolete, in more recent times it has become the servant of various ideologies. American writer Peter Hessler, in his book Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory, points out the shifting meanings and interpretations of the wall: Sun Yat-sen said it was a great engineering feat; Mao said it was a forerunner of national defence; author Lu Xun in the 1920s said it hemmed China in; Japanese invaders in the 1930s took their photos beside it to bolster their territorial claims; while the daily government newspaper China Today says it is a symbol of multiethnic unity.

For me, walking along the wall last week made me think of the organisational power of the past empires of China. It is incredible.

We follow the wall to the mighty Huang He (Yellow River), which the wall crosses on its long march into the western deserts. We are not following it though; we're heading south and downstream along the river, in the direction of home. But there are still another 3,500 kilometres to go.

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