I’m struggling to breathe. I pause for breath, and as a cover, squint a bit and imagine the hoards from Mongolia bearing down. “Come at me! King of the North” I imagine myself bellowing at the approaching army. “You will never conquer this Kingdom!”
We are climbing an un-restored section of the Great Wall near the Chenjiapu valley. The bricks are loose, crumbling and many parts have been almost entirely overtaken by the thick shrubbery. It’s been a wet summer and everything is green, lush and beautiful – snakes hiss in the thick undergrowth as we trudge past.
“How on earth did ancient Chinese operate up here?” I gasp. “Donkeys” someone answers. Do they mean they traveled on donkeys? Or did donkeys transport goods up and down the wall? I realise I know very little about donkeys. I think about inquiring further but can’t spare the breath.
My fellow climbers seem to be doing a little better. There is Charlotte and Dan, the super-fit English couple who run marathons for fun. Angie, from Anhui province but who now lives in Beijing where she divides her time between the gym and protein heavy meals to prepare her for her next weights session. Danish Pernille, who often talks to me about her kettle bell training (I am yet to figure out what kettle bell training actually is, but it always seems rude to interrupt) and my boyfriend Daniel, an ex-athlete, who has jogged ahead with super fit Malaysian Lee and Capoeira obsessed Indonesian Jimmy and his glamorous Dutch girlfriend Gea, who has barely broken a sweat. Claire, a Chinese friend, and her husband, are wearing stylish hiking gear and look so composed they could be on a Sunday stroll. I’m feeling slightly heartened Spanish Ava looks a little tired.
I’m bravely bringing up the rear, doing last minute checks for ancient hordes of marauding Mongolians and injured donkeys.
We are staying in a nearby guesthouse, called Great Wall Fresh; it is the home of the Chen family. A few years ago a group of foreigners stumbled across it and set up and English language website for bookings. Mr Chen and his family speak no English but thanks to the website, his guesthouse has become something of a weekend favourite for Beijing expatriates. The night we are staying a guy from the US and his Spanish girlfriend also arrive – they come once a month over summer, enjoying the fresh air and Mrs Chen’s excellent home cooking.
The guesthouse itself is basic but clean. The beds are kang bed-stoves, able to be heated in winter its summer, so we just douse ourselves in mosquito repellant and enjoy the soft breeze floating through the windows.
When we return from the hike, dirty, sore, exhilarated, there are cold beers waiting for us in the fridge and hot showers to get cleaned up before dinner. We pull out the water guns we brought from Beijing and cool each other off. Daniel emerges fresh from the shower and we chase him to the driveway where he shelters from the water assault behind a car. Mrs Chen cackles with laughter.
We chat to Mrs Chen while patting the family cat. “She only speaks German,” she tells us, same with the dog in a kennel in the backyard. As a naughty puppy the family despaired what to do with him, until a German guest chatted to the canine in his native tongue, he immediately calmed down. We send the Europeans to practice their Deutsch on the dog.
For dinner the family wheel a table to the backyard under the branches of an enormous tree. The food is better than anything you will eat in Beijing’s top restaurants. Fresh and mainly vegetarian, the produce has been picked that day from the Chen family garden where they grow their vegetables pesticide free. As the sun goes down Mr Chen lights a campfire. We gather around the flames and Dutch Gea pulls out the guitar she brought from Beijing. English Charlotte and Dan pull out a bottle of Pimms, Australian me pulls out red wine and chocolate. We sing campfire classics in English – Country Road, Wonderwall, Sweet Home Alabama. Angie does a song in Mandarin, Lee sings something in Cantonese. I call it a night before the dog launches into Das Lieben bringt Grosse Freud.
In the morning we are served more delicious food – steaming oily bread, boiled eggs and steamed vegetables before piling on the bus for a sleepy but happy drive back to Beijing. It was as close to a perfect weekend as I think you could get.