Susan Skelly takes to the hills – and an almost deserted section of the Great Wall of China – in a motorcycle sidecar
The view atop the Great Wall of China is almost biblical. It’s a vast showcase of nature at full-throttle, accessorised with dancing butterflies, glossy black crows, flies as big as locusts, designer centipedes and scuttling lizards with coats like desert dot-paintings.
The wall itself, snaking like an embroidered frill along the mountaintops, is awesome, a monument to the strategies and human endeavour that kept out marauding Mongolians for centuries. The acoustics: blissful silence punctuated by rustling leaves and the alto buzz of insects.
We’re 70 kilometres north of Beijing, a city of many layers. Daunting at first with its imposing Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, wide traffic-choked streets and air thick with smog, the Chinese capital does a slow striptease to reveal a labyrinthine underground of fashion and food malls, ancient hutongs, the vibrant 798 Art Zone, cool nightlife and even a burgeoning craft beer culture.
But the authentic Beijing experience can be as much about getting out of the city as navigating within it.
One of the most unique exit strategies is in the sidecar of a Chang Jiang 750, a Chinese copy of the Russian M72, which itself is a Cold War-era clone of a 1930s BMW R71.
Feel the wind in your hair and occasionally an exfoliating spray of gravel in your face as this roaring, farting khaki beast of a bike weaves through Beijing’s morning traffic, looking for an escape route that will lead north through villages, poplar-lined backroads and green countryside to the Great Wall of China.
It’s one of a fleet of about 20 owned by Gael Thoreau, who arrived from France 19 years ago to do an internship with a garment manufacturer. He became passionate about his adopted city and was keen to share the love. He established Beijing Sideways in 2007 and does one- and two-day trips to the Great Wall and beyond as well as bespoke rides that take in hutongs, the iconic sights, nightlife, art and architecture.
My Chang Jiang’s “pilot” is Chris Limbrunner, a German journalist who has lived in Beijing for several years.
After 30 minutes in the sidecar, breathing in the heady scent of leather and petrol, you accept you probably won’t die and start looking beyond the oncoming traffic.
Street level is full of unexpected tableaux – median strips planted with hardy red and yellow roses, and the street theatre of families riding pillion, office girls freshening make-up in their scooter mirrors, and drivers of shiny new expensive cars turning bluff into an art form.
First stop is the village of Xingshouzhen, about 40 kilometres out of town, for fresh baguettes from a Vietnamese bakery and bananas from a roadside stall. And next thing you know, the city has been swapped for a countryside full of chestnut trees where villagers and farmers are busy collecting and bundling firewood, selling honey, and oxygenating water for their fish farms.
Our destination, an hour or so later, is Zhuangdaokou Village, in the Huairou District. Its claim to fame are dragon and phoenix pines that are more than 12 metres tall and 300 years old.
We will be spending the next couple of hours walking the stone and brick Zhuangdaokou section of the Great Wall (built of varying materials in many sections during many dynasties).
The only humans we spot the whole day are three hikers descending a daunting incline from the opposite direction – on their bottoms. Nowhere on this section of the wall are the throngs, stalls, cable cars, bragging rights T-shirts or certificates of achievement – nor the guard rails.
It’s steep and it’s tough-going for anyone not really fit. The steps are uneven, there’s gravel underfoot in places, and steep sections of pavers where there’s nothing to hold onto.
Some parts are restored, others not, and you need to be careful. Every time you think you’re as high as you can go, you look up and there’s another infinity of steps. Chris urges, “Stop as often as you like. Believe me, it’ll be worth it.”
And it is. Even if knees, thighs and lungs beg to differ. At a crumbling, long-abandoned soldiers’ station is the most sensational view of the Xishuiyu Reservoir sparkling in the valley below and mile upon mile of marching wall.
A picnic awaits. A rocky ledge is set by Chris with cheese, ham, tomatoes, lettuce, hummus, poached chicken and dill pesto, and wine if you want it. After that, it’s the downhill step class which wakes up a whole new set of muscles. By now, though, it’s an exercise in smug.