I don’t think Huanghua is expecting us. The first indication is the surprised looks on the faces of the donkeys by the side of the road as we drive into town, taking care not to wake the dogs sleeping in the street. This is quite a contrast to Mutianyu – there’s no cable car or toboggan, no hawkers, no McDonalds, KFC or Subway. In fact, there seem to be only two shops open, and one of them is open against its will after a table has smashed open the front window. It doesn’t seem surprising that everything else inside is undisturbed. There are no tourists at all, and the few locals that we see seem to be taking a break – from what isn’t exactly clear.
As we drive slowly along the uneven streets past stacks of bricks and unexplained piles of dirt, there’s a feeling that someone will burst out, yelling “Surprise!!”, but it never happens. We’re now convinced that the driver has taken us to the wrong village, and is desperately looking for someone to put together a Wall, while someone else distracts us with tales about their bricks.
Sure enough, at the end of the street is a large glass-fronted building that if the door opened, and if the lights were on, could be an operating tourist facility. The three of us peer inside looking for signs of life – nothing. Our driver makes a call, a door inside opens, and a slightly sleepy official slides open a window. I suspect that today’s peak hour has just arrived. It seems slightly pointless to be asking for two tickets to visit the Wall, because there don’t seem to be any other options. We are pointed towards the turnstile, and predictably it too is taking a break. Despite the efforts of the Official and our driver, it isn’t budging. By this time K and I have already walked around the turnstile, but we don’t want to head off towards the Wall just yet. It doesn’t seem polite. Suddenly our new friends are all smiles, and we are gestured to return and try the turnstile again. It works, and we head off to the Wall. The Official and our driver leave in different directions, and I assume both will be asleep in a few minutes.
Evidently Huanghua has seen busier days. In the Yuan Dynasty, there were numerous thriving villages in the area, and in the Ming Dynasty it became an important military station known as BenZhenGuan Pass. General Cai Kai was given responsibility for this section of Wall, and construction began in 1575 .
The Wall here is sometimes called Jintang, meaning “solid and firm”. Apparently the Emperor wasn’t too impressed with the money that General CaiKai was spending, so he had him beheaded. When a trusted aide later reported to the Emperor that the Wall had been built with the highest quality, the Emperor had a tomb built for the General, and had the characters Jin and Tang carved below the Wall.
My first impression is that he should have carved the characters for “exceptionally” and “cold”. I have a few layers with me, and I need all of them. The weather here is a lot chillier than Mutianyu earlier that morning, but it is March, and shivering a bit is the price you pay to get the Wall to yourselves. Even though it’s a bit cold, it’s still the Great Wall, and it seems unbelievable to be completely alone here.
There’s a loop walk around JinTang lake. It’s almost completely iced up, but the empty tourist cruising boats stuck by the jetty give you the impression of how idyllic this lake would be in summer. We start our loop by crossing a dam, and we’re immediately confronted with a rickety wooden swing bridge. If we’re going to get anywhere, we need to pass this thing, and K isn’t impressed how long it takes me to get a photo of her mid-swing. Above us the Ming ramparts and beacon towers climb almost vertically. It’s no wonder it took General Cai so long to finish.
As we make our way around the lake, the scenery becomes more and more rugged. Huanghua means “yellow flower”, but at this time of year there are no flowers to be seen. There are no birds to be heard either, and the only wildlife we see are a few lizards. Except for the chattering of our teeth, we’re in complete silence. The signs warning that we shouldn’t swim are not really necessary. I can’t help myself and throw a few rocks at the ice, trying to see how strong it is. Nothing even makes a dent – it’s solid.
We stop at the end of the lake and see a local with a mountain of sticks stacked behind him on his bike. The chances of him getting very far without a huge spillage do not look great, and even his colleagues seem to be expecting the worst. Amazingly, he rides off without incident. We’ve seen similar loads in recent days – clearly China is a place where people do not like making two trips, where one will do.
At the far end of the lake the Wall plunges below the surface of the water, which soon turns to ice. We’re joined by our first squirrel, who doesn’t seem used to company. I notice small paw marks in the masonry of the wall. These are either from a squirrel who left these frozen shores long ago, or else someone has been doing some recent handiwork. The Wall isn’t in a great state here. Apparently it was more impressive before they used the stone to help build the dam.
As our loop comes to a conclusion, we get the same view again of the Wall soaring skywards at a stunning angle. We’ve had two vastly different experiences at the Wall today. In Mutianyu we had every tourist facility we could need. Along with that came polite but regular requests to buy water, figurines and other souvenirs. But here, in the only shop open I have no luck at all finding a Huanghua t-shirt, and they don’t seem to care either. I give up, step over the dogs on the footpath, and rejoin K. She suggests that waking the driver is my job, and soon we are bumping our way out of Huanghua. I’m glad we’ve made it to both sections. It would be great to see more, but it’s been a successful day that we’ve both been looking forward to for a long time.