Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Sunrise over the Great Wall

The alarm on my iPhone finally rang at 5:30 am as set. Not that I was awaken by it. In fact, I have slept much the entire night. By the time, I finished shooting some night photography of the wall, it was already almost 3 am. The temperature by then was freezing and my fingers have already gone numb. The wind had picked up significantly and howling. Although we were camping inside the watch tower, our tents were still shaking quite a fair bit, blown by the wind that did not seemed to stop. Coupled with the fact that the ground was hard and my over sensitivity to every single noise that went on outside my tent through the night, each conjuring images of some ancient souls, going about their normal lives, keeping vigil on the watch tower centuries ago, it was rather hard to fall asleep.

As I crawled out from my tent, I could see through the broken openings of the watch tower that the sun was already preparing to make her grand entrance. There were traces of dull red and orange tinge on the horizon beyond the layers of grey and blueish mountains.

I popped a stick of chewing gum into my mouth, picked up my camera and tripod and took a walk on my wall. I checked the compass application on my iPhone to confirm the direction of which the sun was going to make her entrance, took note of it and proceeded to scan the horizon to savor and absorb the feel, the smell and the atmosphere of a fresh new morning on the Great Wall of China. I have always wondered what it would be like to wake up on the Great Wall and here, I was, standing on the wall itself, alone, serene, quiet and tranquil, with my eyes feasting upon the magnificent landscape before me.

As the sun prepares her grand entrance, the skies on the horizon appeared in a dull tinge of red, orange and turquoise, over the layers and layers of grey and blueish colored mountains.

I could still see the full moon on one side of the skies, slowly but surely making her graceful retreat, while on the complete opposite direction, the tinge of red, orange and yellow over the horizon has grown brighter and brighter as minutes ticked by.

On the opposite side of the skies, I could still see the bright full moon, slowly making her retreat.

Suddenly, I remembered that I had to wake up Yuki, my hiking partner for the sunrise. I ran back to the watch tower and called her. Apparently, she did not have much sleep either which was of no surprise.

Together, we walked up to the nearest and highest watch tower and scouted for the best position to wait for the grand entry of the sun.

Getting ready for the sun to rise beyond the horizon, behind the watch tower some distance away.

Have anyone told you that waiting for the sun to rise beyond the horizon can be quite agonizing yet exhilarating and exciting at times. You just sit there, eyes peeled towards the horizon, waiting in anticipation and time slows down. Every minute seems like eternity and colors on the horizon does not seemed to change much except a littler, yes, just a little brighter.

But when she arrives, the moment is nothing short of spectacular. Suddenly, after apparently almost hours of anticipating, the horizon seems to brighten quite significantly. And then, her rays of light appeared beyond the hills and behind the silhouette of the wall and the watch tower in the distance. 

Suddenly, the skies lightened up and the intensity grew. The SUN was making her grand entrance.

Such was the feel that morning. My heart rate increased just as intense as my excitement. The skies lightened up. Time seemed to flip on to the reverse at this juncture. Minutes which seemed like hours moments ago, now seemed like seconds because, at every tick of the second hand of the clock, the skies made a dramatic change in colour, hue, brightness, contrast and intensity.

The sun finally emerged from behind the hills and the watch tower and the Great Wall.

Shooting right into the SUN.....

My finger was busy clicking away, checking the picture taken on the LCD screen and the histogram, making slight adjustments to the camera settings and clicked again. Just as fast she arrives, suddenly, there I was, looking at the now, bright and fresh new morning of another great day. I could just think of one word, (not that I have a powerful grip of the rich English vocabulary) - BREATHTAKING!

I glanced at my watch and it was closed to 7 am. I packed up my tripod, took a few more shots around the watch tower and began making my way back to our camp site. By the time, we got there, to my relief, someone from the tour agency had already hiked up earlier while we were away, and help to pack up our tents and carried them down.

Yuki, my hiking partner, grabbing a few last shots before making our way down from our camp site....

Taking my own shadow ...

We quickly packed up and made our long hike down the way we came from the previous night. The scene was definitely a complete contrast of what we saw the night before, where everything was covered in darkness. I could see the path down, the waist high scrubs we had to push through last night and the next hill, we had to climb before reaching our transport, already there waiting for us. Although, both of us had not had much sleep the night before, our spirits were high and refreshed as we made our hike down.

As we negotiated our way down, only then did we realized how high up and how far we have come the night before. As I have mentioned in our previous post, it was a blessing in disguise that we did not really see or know where we were climbing and hence, we just went on and on. If we have known how high up the camping site was, given the fact that we were already so tired after the 5 hours hike we had earlier and with the volume of camping gear we have to carry ourselves, I must admit that it would have been a much tougher quest.

By 8:30 am, we were already making our way for our breakfast and getting ready for our next hike for the day, the wild and crumbled walls at a section known as the CROUCHING TIGER.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Overnight on the Great Wall

Our car drove into a small path and the only light I could see was the headlight of our vehicle. After about 10 minutes, the car stopped and our guide told us that we have arrived near the place (somewhere in Gubeikou) where we were to set up camp for the night. We got out, put on our winter jacket as the temperature was freezing. We were given our tent for the night, a sleeping mat and our sleeping bags. To be honest, I was not really expecting that we have to carry our tents and sleeping bags ourselves and was actually expecting those to be set up , ready for us when we finished our 5 hours hike in the afternoon, especially with the price we were paying. Maybe I was expecting too much and maybe the website selling this adventure tour was not clear enough. Anyway, this is after all, an adventure tour. We gamely took up our gear which were quite a handful besides our own backpack with our cameras. My hiking partner, was actually carrying 7 cans of 500ml beer plus a bottle of single malt whisky, ready to party for the night on the wall.

I was hoping for more stars but the light from the bright full moon made it almost impossible. Set at 20 seconds exposure and taken with a self timer. There was a faint orange light in a distance, which I presumed came from a village nearby.

As we left the path of which we came, darkness surrounded us. As my eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness around us, I could see that we were hiking through some secondary forests, heading uphill. The moon was full that night and the entire landscape was eerie to say the least. We took out our torch lights to shine the path in front of us as the path became steeper, narrower and more treacherous. After our 5 hours hike in the afternoon, where almost every part of our body was already aching, every step became slightly more difficult than the last, especially with us carrying so much more gear over our shoulders. The temperature was freezing cold and the air we breath in, chilly. As we huff and puff up the hill, we really could not see where we were going except keeping our eyes fixed on our guide in front lest we loose sight of him. Soon, the trees gave way and we find ourselves hiking uphill among waist high bushes. Suddenly, at a distance, there she was, the silhouette of our destination, the watch tower of the Great Wall where we were to set camp. We have been hiking for over 20 minutes now and the watch tower does not really look that far, or so it seemed. 

"Another 30 minutes at least, at the speed you guys are walking." Andy, our tour guide replied when he was asked how much further. Every part of my leg and thigh hurts as I take another step.

"My 'piku' (backside) is killing me!" my half Japanese hiking partner puffed as she pushed herself up another small rock, and our laughter broke the eerie silence of the night.

Looking back, the darkness of the night did us a big favor and hid the sight of the steep and long climb from us. Because we could not see where we were really going, we just kept on going and going and going. 

Glad that we finally made it the camp site, here we were, with our empty beer cans and a bottle of single malt whisky.

After closed to an hour hike, we were finally there, on the watch tower where we were to set camp. It was close to 11pm by the time we got there. We quickly set up our tents and our sleeping bags and settled in. Out came our beers and our whisky, and as we sat around our tents, we had a little celebration of sorts, proud that we had to an extend `conquer' a small section of the wild side of the Great Wall of China.

The temperature had drop even further by midnight to almost zero degrees by now and my fingers were numb from the chilly air. We quickly finished our remaining beer and prepared ourselves for some night photography. Walking along the wall in the bright full moon was both eerie and exhilarating. I could see the distant watch towers and the crumbled wall slowly vanishes into the darkness. Beyond the hill where we set camp, I could see the silhouette of layers and layers of grey mountain and valleys. Some distance away, I could see some faint lights of a village. 

The watch tower where we set camp for the night. Taken at around 2:30 in the morning when the air was chilly and the temperature freezing.

The skies were clear but the moon was full and bright, and that is bad news for far as star gazing and photography is concerned. There were hardly any stars to be seen and all my initial hopes to capture some amazing pictures of a star filled sky with the great wall in the foreground, disappeared. If only we timed our hike 3 nights later, it would have been a perfect night.

However, I was not prepare to go back empty handed. I wanted to try my hands on a new technique known as light painting, which was why I brought along my torch in the first place. I set up up tripod along the wall, set the camera to her full manual mode, adjusted the necessary aperture, a 20 seconds exposure at low ISO (to hopefully reduce as much noise as I could), set on the self timer and there I was, painting the wall and the distant watch tower with the light from my torch.

Light painting in photography involves using a light to `paint' an object while the camera is set on long exposure mode in night photography. Here, I have used the light from my torchlight to `paint' the watch towers and the path, with the camera set on a 20 second exposure.

By 2 in the morning, everyone has already turned in and there I was, alone, standing on the wall, looking out over the valleys and dark mountains as far as my eyes could see. There was not a sound to be heard. Just dead silence and your mind tend to play tricks on you in such a situation. Every 20 seconds I took for another picture seemed longer. As the faint light of my torch glided over the watch tower, making sure that I covered every inch, I was dreading that the light would fall on `something' that was not part of the wall structure. Every time I bent down to check on my camera settings, I was imagining `someone' else from centuries ago, peeping over my shoulders, wondering what on earth was I doing in the wee hours of the morning. Coupled with the chilly near freezing air, I could feel goose bumps beneath my thick winter jacket.

The watch tower where we set camp, captured with the bright moon directly overhead, bad news for star gazing and stars photography. As the light from my torchlight glided over the tower, I was apprehensive of what else I would ended up 'painting'.......eerie..

Soon, contended that I have had all the shots that I could possibly take for the night, not to mention an accelerated heart beat, a result of my imagination which by this time was as wild as the wall herself, I decided to wrap up for the night, crawled into my tent, carefully zipping it up to prevent the wind, which has picked up quite significantly by this time and curled myself up in my sleeping bag.

Inside the watch tower where we set camp.

I did not catch much sleep that night, mainly due to the freezing temperatures, the howling wind in the night and the supposedly imaginary noises and shadows outside my tent. When my alarm finally went off at 5:30 a.m. I was only too glad that soon, the sun will be up.

Yet, this is one night that I will remember for a long time to come, and very likely, forever. This is something that I have dreamed about when I first heard that camping overnight on the Great Wall was possible and here I was, experiencing it first hand, an experience that not many would ever have the opportunity I had.