Living in the Shadow of the Great Wall

There's nothing less than awesome about the Great Wall. Its size, its scale, its sheer magnificent impressiveness. I love the way the wall ribbons over the crest of the hills, anchored at intervals by stout square signal towers, and winds into the distance. You could walk along it forever and never tire of the view. 

The last time I saw the wall was at the end of a long winter, the trees bare and the ground still dry and barren. Not a leaf of green broke through the pale wintery landscape, but here and there fragile white peach blossoms were beginning to show, and as we walked through the orchards it began to snow softly. It was quite magical.

Last weekend I visited for the second time, just as a heatwave gripped Beijing. The temperature soared to forty degrees and Beijing's sidewalks shimmered with radiating heat as tourists, red-faced and sweating, stood fanning themselves with the free hotel pamphlets given out by fast-moving hotel touts. Men with boxes of icypoles roved through the crowds at Tianamen Square, calling their wares "Iced treats! One kuai! One kuai! One kuai!" Moving even short distances led to rivers of sweat and mountains of bad temper. I couldn't wait to get out of the city and up into the hills, and the Wall.

Driving from Beijing north to the village of Mutianyu the most noticeable difference was the blanket of green. Full birch trees lined the road and by tiny rivers stands of weeping willow drooped green to the ground. Fruit orchards spread in every direction, the road punctuated by umbrella-covered stalls selling gold peaches, ruby plums, garnet cherries and plump orange apricots laid out in appealing baskets and wooden boxes. I'd entered a brilliant cornucopia of fertile verdant farmland.

Then the Wall. It rises above the village of Mutianyu, now one of the most popular sites from which to visit the wall, and a short walk brings you to the chairlifts lifting you effortlessly and conveniently up onto the wall itself. In the height of summer the hillsides are covered in a thick foliage which creeps right up to the wall itself, obscuring parts of it from view.

I love that Great Wall. The broad, hot stone path along the top. The cool, dark sanctuary of the heavy-stoned signal towers. That feeling of living history. The human sacrfice endured to build it. All that it symbolises, both good and bad. I culd walk along it for days, sleep on it under the stars, and marvel at it endlessly.

But the oppressive and intense heat and the crowds finally overcame my desire to hang out on top of the Wall all afternoon, so we came down to stay overnight in the neighbouring village of Bei Gou. 

Bei Gou sits below Signal Tower Number Eighteen on the Mutianyu stretch of the Wall. At that point the green hills give way to sheer-sided rocky mountains with the Wall gripping improbably to the highest jagged edge of the ridge. On the north side of the signal tower the steep treeless slope broadens out just below the tree line into the green valley housing Bei Gou.

The hills above the village are covered with stands of chestnut trees bursting with bunches of pale yellow pipecleaner flowers on the tips of their branches. The village's homes number less than fifty, built with local stone and red brick, and roofed in traditional curved black terracotta tiles. The low, simple houses face south to catch the winter sun and are fronted by fertile vegetable gardens full of corn and beans, shaded by peach and apricot trees.

That night I fell asleep to the sound of crickets, and dogs barking in the next valley, and the sweet warm smell of the end of a hot day. Early next morning I took a walk through the village. I wondered what it must be like to live always under the shadow of that iconic wall, to see it high on the hill each day, and to be just far enough away from the main tourist drag to have to continue farming for a living. It must be like living in the shadows in more ways than one.

At the top of the village a big old gnarled walnut tree, bursting with green leaf and already laden with the smooth round green pods in which the walnuts are growing, shades the path. I stopped to talk to a farmer resting under its branches who told me many of the young people have left the village for work elsewhere, and only old people and very small children remain. This seems true as I wander further through the village - there is a school without children, and only a few elderly people sitting near the lone store playing cards and chatting. I ask the farmer if he ever makes the climb up to the signal tower. "What? No, it's too far, more than an hour's hard uphill walk, and what for?"

I walk from the walnut tree down to the store, a delightfully ramshackle affair with a curtain for a door and a haphazard system of stock display. Packets of crackers spill from boxes on the floor and bottles of shampoo line up next to the soy sauce and vinegar. When I ask for water the owner, a woman in her sixties, tells me to take a bottle out of the chest freezer near the door. Anticipating a long cold drink I open the lid to find the freezer hasn't been turned on and the water is the same temperature as the jars of blackbean paste it sits amongst. Warm.

Outside, several card games are being intensely fought and those who aren't playing are watching and commenting on every move. They're all pretty lively for a bunch of elderly farmers, but I suddenly realize that other than my own children I'm the youngest person in the village by a long way. Where are all the young people, and the children? 

I hope they're all at work, or perhaps at school in a bigger town nearby. Perhaps. Or perhaps the farmer was right and Bei Gou, like so many villages in rural China, has been bled of its young folk, seeking fortune in the cities. Still, those remaining seem to be having a terrific time gossiping and playing.

I stopped to chat to this lovely eighty year old, who was just sending a text message to a friend. Perhaps to invite her down to the store for a game of cards?

Not wanting to be overly nostalgic about the tough life that farming offers, there are some encouraging signs that Bei Gou's prospects are on the rise. The Schoolhouse at Mutianyu has restored several homes for holiday rentals, and has expanded their Brickyard Inn at the entrance to the village. The village roads look recently tarred, and there is fresh construction happening here and there. So perhaps the shadow of the Great Wall will eventually shorten, and the young people will return.

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