365 days on the road: camping on the Great Wall of China & a spontaneous lesson from a sage-like shutterbug

This section of the Great Wall is not open to the public, the sign read, but Wu Jwing and I ignored it anyway. 

The first sign on the Jiankou Great Wall Hike. As if it could stop us!

Quickly, he motioned for me to follow him to the trailhead. With a 40-liter backpack on his shoulders and a plastic bag on each hand, the skinny Chinese man strayed from the asphalt and led the way uphill. 

On top of the mountain, the Zhangbeilou Watchtower waits for us with the rare promise of a peaceful slumber on one of the world’s seven wonders.

Our targeted camping spot. The Zhangbeilou Watchtower is known to be the most well-structured watchtower in the perilous Jiankou section.

As we made our ascent, Wu Jwing told me that the hike would only take at least an hour and a half, but the minute he looked back and saw me struggling with the 10-kilogram load inside my 65-liter Deuter backpack with a broken belt strap, he knew the estimate was a shot in the dark. Putting on foot in front of the other, I trudged forward while attempting to tie together the ruined straps so that my spine and my shoulders wouldn’t have to deal with all the weight. Up front, Wu Jwing moved through the trees with confidence, taking note of the red ribbons hanging on their eerie, willowy fingers. 

“Stop?” Wu Jwing asked, holding up his hand. 

“Yeah, I could use a break,” I huffed. I set down my bags on the trail, feeling immensely grateful for the absence of straps digging into my shoulders. Wu Jwing took a cold swig from his water bottle as I settled on a rock. 

Around us were trees whose golden crowns have shriveled and fallen on the earth’s tender skin, creating a crisp copper sheath for her bare body. In a few weeks, she would be wearing white, and the trees would once again wear new crowns adorned with glistening diamonds that melted under the slightest kiss of the sun. Above us, the sky was a pale grey slate that offered very little warmth against the wind’s fierce caresses; all around us, silence except for the ragged breaths that escaped our lips. 

“Ready?” Wu Jwing asked in Mandarin. I nodded. He packed his water bottle and picked up the pace, barely giving me time to hoist my backpack on my shoulders. It didn’t take long before we stumbled upon another sign that read the age-old trekking rule: Take nothing but photographs. Leave nothing but footprints. In an attempt to stand out, it added another line, which said, Keep the Wall Wild and Wonderful. 

Another sign… but this time welcoming trekkers. I’m already so confused!

So much for being closed to the public. 

Wu Jwing and I continued our climb. The sky began to shift to a darker shade of grey as the seconds dwindled, and the wind’s grasp on us tightened as we trod higher. We understood that we needed to move faster, lest we wanted to be stuck in the trail come nightfall. I tried my best to be quick, but with my lungs and legs on fire, I stopped every five minutes to let out loud exhales that could frighten any lingering forest spirit or a ghost of a soldier that died defending the Wall. 

While I sounded like a wheezing grandfather with the worst case of tuberculosis, I watched Wu Jwing swerve effortlessly through the trees and pump his way through an incline. He stopped climbing and set his bags down. Hands on his hips, he looked at me from above the trail as I clung on to the bare branches for my ascent. 

Damn, girl, you gotta work on your cardio. 

When I reached Wu Jwing, he asked if I needed another break. With grand hand gestures, I told him to go ahead and leave me if I was taking too long. I told him that the trail was easy to follow, given the red ribbons that marked the way and assured him that I would reach the watchtower before the sky turns tar black.

Letting out an exasperated cry, I grovelled  and pushed myself to climb without stopping. I had no idea how long I went on this way, but the moment I looked up, I came face-to-face with a hulking structure of brick, stone and compacted earth. 

First glimpse of the tower

The watchtower was torn apart by the ages and the wars it has witnessed, yet it stood proudly and resiliently, awaiting the next bloodshed. The top half of the ruins was left as it was all those centuries ago—just as I saw them in history books and occasional search engine results—while the bottom half was built with dolomite. Its roof was missing a couple of bricks here and there as if a giant decided to pluck them out from his home in the heavens. 

I closed my eyes and ran my fingers along the rough surface of the bulwark, trying to feel the rich history that pulsed underneath. I tried to picture the battles it endured, the invaders it warded off, the bodies it gruesomely claimed, and the modern-day travelers and locals it welcomed when they dared to make the hike. 

I pressed myself along the wall, carefully avoiding the brambles as I walked on the narrow path to an opening that would allow me to climb on this breathtaking piece of history. Pulling myself up over crumbled bricks and stones and dusting my hands on my trekking trousers,  I finally stood on the unrestored section of the Great Wall. Broken pieces of stone were strewn on the ground, and shrubs lined its deteriorating parapets. From the corner of my eye, I could see the fortress stretch further, mapping mountain crests with the curves of her protracted body. 

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I walked to the watchtower and climbed its mouldering steps. Inside, Wu Jwing was already pitching his tent, a headlamp strapped on his forehead. He gave me a solemn wave and a relieved smile. I put down my packs and began setting up camp. 

Within minutes, we were both settled. Outside, the sky had turned pitch black and moonless. Wu Jwing took out a tiny lamp, and the watchtower hummed with a faint orange glow. He brought out a portable stove and a propane tank and began cooking instant ramen with cabbages. I, on the other hand, brought out some sweet bread and a can of beer. Wu Jwing looked at me in disbelief before laughing as if to say, THIS was why that backpack was so goddamn heavy. 

Wu Jwing cooking his humble meal for the evening.

I fished my phone out of my pocket to check if there was any chance of connecting to civilization. I only had two bars on my cell, but miraculously, I was able to get a 3G connection. Squatting next to a busy Wu Jwing, I switched to my Google Translate app and began to type the question I’ve been dying to ask him ever since my drivers picked him up from the side of the road: What are you doing up here on the Wall?

He took out his own phone and started keying in a response. The watchtower was eerily silent save for the sound of water boiling in his stainless steel pot and the melodic clickety-clack of his keypad. Taking a fork to stir his dinner with one hand and presenting me his answer with the other, I found out that the man I was camping with was a photographer and that he wanted to show me his work right after dinner. 

I stood across Wu Jwing in the watchtower, leaning my elbows against the window as I sipped my beer and snacked on peanuts. We ate our meals in silence until a friend of his called him on video and asked for a brief tour of the historic structure. I even dropped by to say hello. When all had been said and done, Wu Jwing pulled me aside just as I grabbed my second can of beer. 

Fingers moving fast, he led me to his WeChat profile, which was dotted with photos of the Great Wall—against a backdrop of a fiery sunset, snaking through vibrant autumn foliage, buried underneath folds of fresh snow, embracing perilous cliff sides, descending treacherous slopes. Beaming, he handed me his device so that I could scroll through his profile and take a look at the rest of his portfolio.

The photographer had dedicated his days to capturing one of the largest construction endeavors ever known to man, taking a special interest in parts of the fortress that have already succumbed to the stealthy, slender fingers of nature. His gallery was an amalgamation of collapsing watchtowers, of brick and stone jutting out deep green moats, of blazing sundowns framed by crenels and distorted watch holes, of well-maintained ancient staircases that welcomed people from all walks of life. His commitment to his craft has led his shutter-happy finger to the dunes of Inner Mongolia, to the arid lands of Gansu and to the edge of China itself, where the Wall meets the sea. Sometimes, it would lead him to the very same view from our watchtower window—four miradors on mountaintops rising above jagged ridges and forest trees.  

When I asked if anybody was paying him to do this, Wu Jwing simply replied that climbing up the Wall was his passion and pastime. He had no family of his own, but his friends showered him with immense support, constantly liking his images on WeChat and planting positive words on the comment section of each photo. This string of letters blossomed and grew into a garden for the photographer, which he watered with an increased commitment to his craft and a pure bliss that had been forgotten by many who have lost their way in the tumultuous sea of dreams. 

The Wall had ingrained itself in Wu Jwing’s existence that the middle-aged man could no longer picture a life without visiting one of man’s greatest architectural feats. When I asked why, the photographer simply replied that he was smitten by the rich history of the Wall—the tales it has held for centuries, the lives it claimed upon its construction, the secrets wedged between its many nooks and crannies. 

“Weather forecast said that tomorrow will be the first snowfall on the Great Wall,” Wu Jwing wrote on Baidu. A familiar spark ignited in his eyes—the same flames that were alight on the irises of Adams, Gursky and Kenna—and as I stared back at them, I could picture snow falling delicately over the long stretch of tarnished brick and stone. 

Tomorrow. Mei li, (Beautiful),”  he added.

“Mei li,” I agreed.

The following day, I woke up before Wu Jwing. Outside, fog still sat atop the Great Wall, looking over the forest below.

My campsite
Crumbling stairs outside the watchtower
The watchtower’s interior

Taking my remaining bread rolls and yoghurt, I made my way up to Zhangbeilou’s rooftop to sit alongside it and hopefully watch the sun open her eyelids to the faintest birdsong. From where I sat, the dry forest and the village nested on the valley below seemed to morph with the clouds thanks to the magic of the mist. The softest hints of rose began to bloom on the sky as it lightened, and I dangled my legs on the edge of the watchtower, relishing the realization that I had already been on the road for a strong, solid year. 

No cooking breakfast

It didn’t take long for Wu Jwing to join me. Still wearing the same blue jacket but now sporting a pair of sunglasses, the photographer surveyed the landscape with a camera dangling from his shoulder. 

It was encased in a black forged skeleton, lens jutting out a charcoal cylinder and several buttons sticking out from its surface. It sighed a soft mechanical whirring sound as Wu Jwing turned it on to begin taking test shots. On its rear was a tiny screen that glowed with a grid and some words written in PinYin. I offered Wu Jwing my breakfast, but he politely declined, telling me that he needed his settings to be ready once the snow falls. 

The sun came in shy today, only revealing her face when the clouds momentarily parted ways for her to flash her sly smirk. Wu Jwing checked his watch every now and then, looking up at the sky for any slight change in the weather.  

“Wu Jwing,” I called before writing on my translator, “You know you could make a living off these photos, right? You could sell them to postcard companies or to stock images online. You could even be famous on Chinese social media if you work on a good strategy.” 

The photographer looked out to the landscape before us. The fog lazily rolled out of the barbed mountaintops and the cottage-dotted valley below. I was wondering what was taking him so long to respond. Maybe he was picturing his images printed on postcards in bookstores and souvenir shops. Maybe he was considering putting up an Instagram account to jumpstart his online fame. Maybe he was finally grasping the possibility of making a name for himself in the local photography scene.  

Finally, he pulled out his phone and keyed in a reply. 

“I don’t want to,” he said. “Once I do it for profit, the passion is gone.” 

Looking up from the phone’s tiny glowing screen, I saw a smiling and shrugging Wu Jwing. I smiled back at him, watching his fingers gently brush over the controls of his beloved camera.  

“I do it because I’m happy to do it,” he added.

Around us, the breeze blew fierce kisses as the sky gave way to light powdery snow. The first snowfall of the year has arrived, and I spread my arms to gladly welcome the winds of winter, spinning around the rooftop in silly circles as Wu Jwing got to work. 

He perched himself on the edge of the structure, finger repeatedly clicking his camera’s shutter button. Wu Jwing’s face was a mask of concentration: knitted brows and lips drawn in a straight thin line. Surprisingly, his shoulders revealed no tension and his legs moved gracefully as he switched from one stance to another. The camera seemed to appear as an extension of his arm as his eyes wandered through each shot’s frame. The aperture opened and closed, capturing seconds in a standstill. 

When the photographer was satisfied, he didn’t hesitate to show me his photos. Captured on the camera screen were the four barbicans caught in the middle of falling snow, mountains soaring all around them. He had close-up shots of each tower, which was decorated with brooding trees whose leaves have been ravaged by the changing of the seasons. He had wide shots of the miradors and the remaining stretch of the wall which rested next to the sleepy hamlet we had both come from yesterday. 

Xie xie (Thank you.),” I said, not only for sharing his work but also for the unexpected nugget of wisdom. I gave him a thumbs-up and returned his camera. 

Thank you, Wu Jwing for reminding me that pursuing passion and chasing happiness comes first. Thank you for reminding me that neither money nor fame should be the primary fuel that motivates us to pursue our goals. Lastly, thank you for teaching me to do what I love regardless of where it takes me.

The blanched sky looked down on us, raining down small sylph-like snowflakes that weren’t even strong enough to suffocate the stripped trees of the serene forest below. Wu Jwing and I stared at the four watchtowers, pulverized diamond dust billowing all around them. 

“Mei li,” I said. 

Wu Jwing smiled—a smile I had not seen painted on the faces I have come across in years. It was a work of art that radiated amidst glair-white silence and grate-grey horizons, a masterpiece that deserves to be hung in the most prestigious galleries. 

Head held high, Wu Jwing replied, “Mei li.”

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