Several days into our hiking tour along sections of the Great Wall of China, our leader, Tony Pau, offered his group one of those now-or-never optional extras. We had already hiked for a couple of strenuous morning hours up to and along the top of a section with grand mountainous vistas, marching layer upon layer to a distant horizon.
Would you like to keep hiking along the Simatai Wall for a couple more hours,” he gestured towards a skyline of ridge and wall with the undulating spine of a dragon’s back, “or would you prefer to go down into a valley to explore a traditional farming community instead?
On such a crystal clear blue-sky day, it was tempting to stick to the wall hike, but two of us were equally keen to sample a bit of country culture not to be found in the teeming cities where we would stay each night on most of our route. We bid goodbye to the more dedicated hikers and agreed to meet for a late lunch to swap stories.
Looking over the side of the 25-foot high wall, the hardly visible breakaway path looked alarmingly steep and rubbly. Was this a good idea after all? However, we soon picked our way down the slope with the help of freshly purchased walking sticks and several attentive Chinese teenagers who earn a small income by assisting vacationers throughout this rather rough section of the Great Wall. Though English was not a strong point among them, their mantra as they expertly braced our steps against slips and twisted ankles was “Be careful!” delivered in perfect English.
Once on the flat, now far below the forbidding gray stone wall which guards the valley, we bid goodbye to our young guardians and walked along the edge of a dry river bed, fragrant with autumn leaves and recently harvested cornstalks, enjoying the momentary solitude. Tony briefed us as we went, pointing out evidence of a prolonged drought and telling us that the younger adults had mostly moved away to support themselves in careers other than subsistence farming.
Local teenagers help visitors down a rough track with cries of “be careful!”.
After 15 minutes on the trail, we came to the edge of a well-spaced settlement of stone and tile homes, each with a large vegetable garden and several storage structures to shelter both animals and harvests. A gander with his harem turned our arrival into a territorial challenge, slipping quickly into attack mode, honking fiercely and spreading his wings wide. The females ignored both us and the gander completely. With the volume this warrior achieved, the entire village must have known that strangers were in town!
Tony made straight for the garden gate of his old friends, Mr and Mrs Cai (pronounced Chai), now both in their 70s. With no way of phoning ahead and footpaths the only way in or out of the village, just showing up once or twice a year is entirely acceptable.
Grains and vegetables are stored for the winter.
Our guide, Tony Pau, renews acquaintance with Mr and Mrs Cai.
We stood quietly by as Mrs Cai and Tony delighted in the moment of their reunion, simultaneously chattering their extended greetings while joining both hands and jumping up and down in a merry little dance, which discarded all the reserve usually characteristic of Chinese people. We were soon scooped up by Mrs Cai, and proudly shown the three small rooms of her neat-as-a-pin mini-house. She then insisted that we tour the vegetable garden where we must personally select our choice of fresh vegetables for a welcome stir fry.
Ushered back inside, we were treated to heaping bowls of dried sunflower seeds, small wild dates and Chinese lantern fruit from the larder while we watched Mrs Cai wash and chop vegetables, fire up the kitchen’s brick stove, and whisk together a delicious dish laced with cooking oil, soy sauce, spicy red peppers and various herbs. The built-in metal wok where this culinary magic was accomplished measured an impressive two and a half feet across and 18 inches deep.
Having somehow heard the news of our arrival less than half an hour before (could it be the gander?), a very frail village elder with but a few teeth remaining, crossed the Cai threshold with great dignity and an air of official authority. Right behind was Mr Cai returned from one of his fields. More enthusiastic greetings followed, with formal introductions and the addition of Chinese beer all round.
Mr Cai, a stocky, robust man in his seventies, with a neatly shaved head, smooth features and expressive bright eyes, beamed at his visitors and made a speech of welcome to his home. A translation was hardly required!
With some using their chopsticks more expertly than others, we all enjoyed our stir fry from a large common bowl before Tony indicated to our hosts that it was regretfully time for us to go. As we protested in vain, Mrs Cai would not be deterred from stuffing large quantities of lantern fruit and wild dates into several bags for our journey over the remaining hills to rendezvous with our fellow hikers.
A million dollar view of the Great Wall from the family corncrib.
Misty-eyed and smiling at the same time, Mrs Cai stood at the garden gate waving faithfully until we were out of sight. We headed up the valley with spectacular views of the Simatai Great Wall guarding this small island of tranquility in the Chinese countryside. I could not help but wonder how I would react to strangers arriving at my garden gate. Indeed, the Cai family hospitality would be hard to top in any land.
This village visit was part of a tour which no longer exists. See the “Follow Up Facts” box of article 1 for other walking tour options.
The Simatai Great Wall guards our country village.
Alison Gardner is a travel journalist, magazine editor, guidebook author, and consultant. She specializes in researching alternative vacations throughout the world, suitable for people over 50 and for women travelers of all ages. She is also the publisher and editor of Travel with a Challenge Web magazine.